“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
What does it mean to believe? Is it a simple process of mentally agreeing to a set of doctrinal statements, does it involve training ourselves to think and act differently? Is “belief” something more – or something wholly different?
Our passage this morning starts out with Jesus making reference to a frankly troubling passage in the Book of Numbers: the Children of Israel, making their journey to the Promised Land, are complaining that there isn't anything to eat or drink, and what there is to eat – manna – is terrible. God responds to the complaints by sending a plague of poisonous snakes.
And even though one of the things the Jewish people were never ever supposed to do was to make graven images, when the people repent and ask Moses to ask God to save them, what does God tell Moses to do?
Yep. A graven image. Of a snake, on a pole. God doesn't take the snakes away, but when someone is bitten, all they have to do is look at the snake on the pole, and they won't die.
By the way, many years later, one of the Kings of Israel, Hezekiah, destroyed the bronze snake that Moses made, because people had started worshiping it – which was why God had said not to make graven images in the first place. But I digress, sort of.
Jesus is referring to this incident in the life of the Jewish people to draw a parallel between the lifting of the snake on the pole as a means of saving the people from death, and his own lifting up on the cross as a means of salvation to the world. We know this because the very next sentence Jesus utters in today's passage is possibly the most well-known Bible passage in the universe: John 3:16. “For God so loved the world – a better translation might be “God loved the world in this way:” – that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Now, I would argue first that we do a disservice by quoting John 3:16 by itself. It is an incomplete thought, made whole by the next verse: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
And it's my inclination to stop there, honestly. As uncomfortable as I am with the idea of God sending poisonous snakes because a bunch of people are tired of eating manna for every meal – manna sausage for breakfast, manna sandwiches for lunch, manna pot roast for dinner, bamanna bread for dessert... I see 'way too much condemnation in popular Christianity today as it is, so all the talk about nonbelievers being condemned in the next verses feels like overkill. It frankly sounds a little like God sent Jesus as a reason to condemn people... turn or burn, agree with my set of doctrinal statements (because that's what the word “believe” has come to mean) or go to Hell...
And I don't think it's that simple. I don't think God can be distilled down to a choice between a benevolent Grandparent or a heavenly vending machine or an angry, vengeful deity with his hand poised over the “smite” button.
And I do not think we are using the word “believe” in the right way. Yes, “believe” does mean “to have confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something, although without absolute proof that one is right in doing so,” that is technically correct... but I do not think it is theologically correct.
As I understand it, the Greek word group pistos tends to be shaded less as “belief” and more as “faithfulness” and “trust” – because in doing so, it denotes more of a relationship than a state of thinking – so why, when we see its verb form, pisteuo, should we satisfied with the word “believe?” Is faith in the risen Christ, the One who was lifted up for us, a simple matter of intellectual assent? Is Christianity a mental exercise, is it just a way of thinking?
What does it mean to “believe?” It means to trust.
And while we're on the subject of Greek... I am not a Greek scholar, but more than one scholar and commentator that I have read this week brings up a very important point about krino and krisis, the words translated “condemn” and “condemned,” respectively. Both Gil Bailie and Mark Davis, for example, make a very compelling argument for krino and krisis to be translated rather as “judge” and “judgment,” respectively.
And make no mistake, this is not a matter of rewriting Scripture, but of making a choice in translating Scripture – it's a question of, if I may quote Paul from the epistle to Timothy, “rightly dividing the Word of Truth.”
The word “krino” doesn't, in and of itself, have a negative connotation. It's more ambiguous, like our English word “judge.” We can judge things in positive and negative ways, but the word “condemn” just means “condemn.”
So here's the way the verses might read: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have the life of God's new age. For God loved the world in this way: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish but may have the life of God's new age. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who trust in him are not judged; but those who do not trust are judged already, because they have not trusted in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
Do you see the difference? To say God condemns isn't wrong, necessarily. God condemns a lot of things – idolatry and injustice, for example. But is God in the business of condemnation? Is there a divine game of whack-a-mole going on, with you and I playing the moles?
It's interesting to note that, when the snakes came on the Hebrews in the wilderness, they didn't go to Moses talking about the evil that God had visited upon them, they said, “We have sinned...” Whoever sent the serpents, they understood them to be the product of their own actions, their own choice to complain. Theirs was the active role, not God's.
“Those who trust in him are not judged; but those who do not trust are judged already, because they have not trusted in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
Who or what we trust has consequences, doesn't it? If we trust in money, or power, or politicians, or drugs, or alcohol, or food, or fame, or security, what are we in fact placing our faith in? One more dollar, one more rich old man who might vote our way this time, one more buzz, one more bite, one more FaceBook like, one more lock on the door? Because in the end, when they close the lid and lower the casket, what are any of those things worth?
Putting our trust in the risen Christ saves us from the cesspool of self-absorption, rescues us from the idolatry of things, and releases us from the certainty that this life, this existence, this here-and-now is all that there is and ever will be. When we put our trust in Christ, we enter into relationship with the eternal.
Make no mistake about it: following Jesus is not a program for self-improvement; it's an invitation to a relationship; it is inclusion in a community. It's dislocation from a worldview that perpetuates injustice, death, and alienation, knitting us into a network of relationships that bring healing, reconciliation, and abundant life rooted in the eternal.
Think about how many things are set by our birth in this world: We are born in a geographical location that can accustom one person to unjust privilege and prevent another person from access to clean water, education, the chance to live to adulthood. One person is born to a family that instills a sense that he or she is loved, while another person's family leaves them with a sense that he or she is deeply inadequate. We are born with a skin color that will also condition our sense of who we are, what we deserve, whom we may love or fear. This world is set up in ways that try to lock us into patterns of relationship based on our birth -- patterns that separate us from one another and from God.
How might the world be different if those patterns were disrupted, if you and I could be sisters and brothers in healthy relationship? ... Let me put it this way:
What would our relationships look like if we shared one birth and were raised in one loving, supportive family? What would the economy look like if we took seriously the fact that we live and work in a world that is our common inheritance, instead of a set of disconnected chunks of land and resources to be conquered like a board game? What would the world look like if we saw every child as our own little sister or brother, if "family first" included them all as our own flesh and blood?
That's what it means to put our trust in Jesus. Jesus offers us freedom from relationships that ensnare, and the choice to relate to one another as beloved children of one loving God. It's a choice not just for a new name, it's a new world of new relationships, of new and abundant life.
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have eternal life.”
The serpent in the wilderness represented more than just a poisonous snake. The Hebrew people had become poisoned with doubt, with fear, they had become disgusted by the gift that God sent them every morning with the dew – manna. Looking at the serpent meant looking directly at the worst of themselves, it meant facing what they were and trusting enough to turn away from it.
God did not nail Jesus to the cross. We did. Think about it: it was the rage of the scribes and Pharisees against a man challenging the religious status quo, it was the greed of Judas, it was the fear that the chief priests and the Sanhedrin had of upsetting the Roman occupiers, it was the fear of the crowd that turned Pilate's resolve to capitulation, and it was the bloodlust of that crowd shrieking “Crucify him!” that killed Jesus.
When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, we see what happens when we put our trust in our pedigree, our won wealth, our own theological and doctrinal purity, like the scribes and Pharisees. We see what happens when we put our trust in cold hard cash, like Judas. We see what happens when we put our trust in political systems and corporate power structures, like the chief priests and the Sanhedrin. We see what happens when we bow to the whim of popular opinion, like Pilate. We see what happens when we give ourselves over to sensationalism and the thrill of immediate gratification, like the crowd.
This is the Good News: God's love is so complete, so irrevocable, so egregiously immense that it survived the worst that we could do to God's only begotten son! We look at the cross, and we see the worst in ourselves, the product of the idols and the temporal things we put our trust in, but we do not see our end in those things. Rather, in moving our trust from the temporary, the self-serving, the idolatrous, to the risen and living Christ, we find the light of God's eternal love, and the truth that indeed sets us free.
This is what it means to believe.