The Gospel today shows the interconnection of scripture, the need to repent and to be centred on God. It includes one of the most famous verses in the Gospels, John 3:16.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
The verse, however, is a commentary on the bronze serpent incident. The story is that of the Israelites in the wilderness in Numbers 21.
They were angry and asked Moses: “why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” God then sent a plague of snakes and many died of bites. The people repented and went to Moses confessing their error. Moses prayed and he is told by God: “Make a serpent and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looks upon it, shall live.” Moses made a serpent of brass and put it upon a pole and it came to pass that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.
Christ draws the parallel between the serpent on a pole and himself; He must be lifted up like the serpent in the desert. As looking upon the serpent - an image of the evil that was afflicting Israel - was the means to get healed so looking at Christ impaled by the same evil also brings healing.
Does Christ then become an image of evil? A verse from St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is shocking. “For He has made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5)
Christ is showing the death of evil on the cross. He is taking our lost nature and redeeming it.
St Gregory the Theologian said this about Christ and the Serpent:
“[The bronze snake was] not as a type of Him that suffered for us, but as a contrast; and it saved those that looked upon it, not because they believed it to live, but because it was killed, and killed with it the powers that were subject to it, being destroyed as it deserved. [Death is] overthrown by the Cross; slain by Him who is the Giver of life; [Christ] you are without breath, dead, without motion, even though you keep the form of a serpent lifted up on high on a pole.”
(St. Gregory the Theologian’s Second Paschal Oration, XXII)
Christ would also know of another passage. It should be read with the narrative in Numbers.
“For the one who turned toward it was saved,not by what was seen,but by you, the saviour of all. For you have dominion over life and death; you lead down to the gates of Hades and lead back.” (Wisdom 16)
It was not the seeing of the Serpent as such that saved the Israelites from snake bite. Rather I think that it was because they obeyed the will of God. Turning to the bronze serpent was to turn to God. This was their obedience, and the serpent being erected on the pole followed their repentance remember.
There are three points, therefore, to draw from today’s reading.
It shows the interconnection of both biblical covenants. Scripture is coherent and consistent, that is, with itself and with the Tradition of the Church. We need to read Scripture in the light of the Church’s Holy Tradition.
Secondly, we need to turn constantly to Christ. Ignoring the snake on the pole would be to die of snake bite. Ignoring Christ and Him crucified is to risk far worse.
Thirdly, our lives need infused with constant repentance. Christ has destroyed death and the power of evil; he dealt with it in His passion. We have to repent to allow this salvation to work within us. Of course the whole of salvation for each one of us is worked out in terms of what God did and does for us and through us.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.