“When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he.” (John 8:28)
Just as in the Synoptic Gospels, so in the Gospel of John Jesus three times solemnly prophesies his passion (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). But the passion predictions in John are unique in that Jesus speaks of his crucifixion as a “lifting up,” alluding to the biblical story of the bronze serpent lifted up on a pole (Num 21:4-9; cf. John 3:14). Of all the images to use to reveal the meaning of his paschal mystery, why would Jesus choose this strange and disturbing one? The readings for Mass today, Num 21:4-9 and John 8:21-30, invite us to reflect on this question.
The story in Numbers 21 is rich and suggestive.
They set out from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea in order to circumvent the land of Edom, and the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread and no water, and we are tired of this wretched bread!” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents against the people, and they bit the people so that many of the Israelites died. So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord to remove the serpents from us.” And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a serpent and set it on a pole. And anyone who has been bitten who looks upon it will live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone and he looked upon the bronze serpent, he lived.
The narrative presents us, first of all, with the figure of Moses, the model intercessor for God’s people. As Israel’s divinely-appointed leader, Moses routinely bears the brunt of the people’s complaints against God. Yet he perseveres as a passionate intercessor who repeatedly wins pardon for the very people who had insulted and rebelled against him (Exod 15:24-25; 17:3-4; 32:11; Num 11:2). His humility and self-effacement emerges most clearly in those incidents where the people’s hostility is directed against himself—when Moses is blamed for the Egyptian taskmasters’ cruelty (Ex 5:15-23), when Aaron and Miriam grumble against him (Num 12:1-15), when the unruly mob attempts to depose and stone him (Num 14:1-23), and when he is accused of causing the death of Korah and his followers (Num 16:41-50).
In fact, Numbers implies that it is precisely because he is the target of the people’s anger that Moses’ intercession is efficacious. As he himself endures the people’s rebellion along with the Lord, Moses displays the total lack of ambition and self-interest that alone has power to move God’s heart. Each time God threatens to destroy his people, it becomes clear that God does not truly desire to do so, but is only waiting for someone to plead their case (just as in the story of Abraham’s intercession in Gen 18:22-33). When God tells Moses, “now let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation” (Ex 32:10), he receives precisely the answer he was looking for: “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you led forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?… Turn from your fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against your people.” The story of the bronze serpent incident portrays Moses once again willing to plead for the people the moment they repent.
The story also portrays the profound connection between sin and its consequences. The mysterious fiery serpents (nechashim sepharim) who bite the rebellious Israelites recall the primordial deception by the serpent (nachash) in Gen 3:1-6. The people have succumbed to the perennial temptation that originated with the serpent in the Garden of Eden—the temptation to distrust and disobey God—and they thus experience the serpent’s own bitter toxin: death.
More surprisingly, the method of cure devised by God is also symbolically linked to the sin. That which heals is shaped like that which caused the wound. God did not remove the fiery serpents, as requested by the people. Instead he instructed that a bronze serpent be held aloft on a “pole” (the Hebrew word, nēs, actually means “ensign” or “standard”; cf. Isa 11:10, 12). The bronze serpent is a visible sign confronting the people with both their own rebellion and God’s gratuitous mercy. Thus the bronze image is able to stir up the repentant faith in God that is the necessary condition for the cure.
How, then, does the bronze serpent serve as a prefigurement of Christ, shedding light on his paschal mystery?
Jesus is the new Moses, who surpasses the leader of old in his role as suffering intercessor and advocate for his people. In fact, in comparison to Jesus it is now Moses who stands as accuser (John 5:45)! Moses is powerless to bestow the unconditional forgiveness and mercy that are needed in the face of the people’s transgression of the law (cf. John 1:17; 7:19). On the cross, Jesus brings to perfect fulfillment the role of the intercessor who stands solidarity with his people, accepting God’s just punishment. Jesus, in effect, says like Moses, “But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Exod 32:32). Whereas Moses only expressed his willingness to share his people’s fate, Jesus actually took upon himself the just penalty of death in place of the people (cf. John 11:51-52).
The bronze serpent is fulfilled in Christ who is himself “lifted up” like an ensign on the cross. The expression “lifted up” signifies both his physical crucifixion and his simultaneous glorification as the obedient Son of the Father. The link with the bronze serpent is even closer in that the Hebrew term for “lift up” (nasa) is often associated with a standard (nēs) in the prophetic literature. Isaiah links God’s lifting up of a standard with the gathering of his scattered people: “He will lift up a standard for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (Isa 11:12). This prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus’ crucifixion, the means by which God will gather all people to himself: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32; cf. 11:51). Despite its external appearance as an image of pain and punishment (like the bronze serpent), the cross is the supreme “sign” that reveals the Father’s merciful love. It is a sign of death that paradoxically brings healing and life.
The sign value of the cross leads to one other dimension hinted at in John’s bronze serpent typology, namely, the necessity of “seeing” the sign. In Numbers 21, it is not simply the bronze serpent itself that heals, but the act of looking upon it. God requires his people to cooperate—in however passive a manner—in his healing action. John accents this aspect of human cooperation by replacing “sees” with “believes” in 3:15. The notion of “seeing” Jesus is one of the central themes of the Gospel. To “see” Jesus is not merely physical but a contemplative gaze that penetrates into the mystery of who he is. It is thus closely associated with believing: “everyone who sees the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life” (John 6:40; cf. 19:35; 20:8).
This theme culminates at the crucifixion, where the Son’s divine glory is most hidden from sight and yet, paradoxically, most revealed to those who believe. John quotes Zech 12:10: “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (John 19:37), suggesting a graced moment of revelation by which the rejected One is suddenly recognized and accepted in faith as the Messiah who is vicariously suffering for the people’s sins. As the people in the desert were restored to life by looking upon that which God provided for their healing, so those who look upon the Son with the interior gaze of faith are given the fullness of life.
Just as the image of the people’s punishment, lifted up on a pole and gazed upon, became the source of their recovery, so Christ, bearing upon himself the very apex of human malice and rebellion against God, lifted up on the cross and gazed upon, becomes the source of limitless divine mercy and healing.