“The Gospel on a Pole” (John 3:14-21)
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” That, of course, is John 3:16, a verse you all know. Because it sums up the good news of Christ so succinctly, John 3:16 is often called “the gospel in a nutshell.” But today, instead of the nutshell, this morning we’re going to be looking at the verses right before it, what I call, “The Gospel on a Pole.”
The gospel on a pole? What’s that? Well, what I’m referring to is the story mentioned in verses 14 and 15, where Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” So the story is hanging on a pole. And in both the Old Testament and the New, what God lifts up on a pole means salvation for God’s people.
Jesus’ words take us back to the incident you heard about in the Old Testament Reading for today, from Numbers 21. Israel had come out of Egypt, and now they are wandering in the wilderness. As they were wont to do, the Israelites start grumbling against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” The Israelites are complaining, saying they would rather go back to the slavery they experienced in Egypt than to have to travel through the desert like this to get to the Promised Land. They were sick of the “meals ready to eat” that the Lord was providing for them. Every day it was manna on the menu. Manna waffles. Manna burgers. Bamanna bread. Same old, same old, every day. So they groused and grumbled and kvetched.
But this was manna sent from heaven. The Lord was providing for them, keeping them alive through the wilderness. They had to trust God to provide for them on a daily basis. They had to trust God to be faithful and to lead them eventually into the land he had promised. But the people of Israel did not fear, love, and trust in God above all things. And so they grumbled. They grumbled against Moses. But since Moses was simply God’s servant, doing what the Lord had told him to do, in effect they were grumbling against God.
Do we do this, my friends? Grumble against God on our way to the Promised Land? Complain about how hard we have it? Complain about God’s provision, or lack thereof, as we perceive it? Then we are no better than the Israelites, and our lack of trust in God is exposed.
This lack of trust in God and his goodness, the idea that God is somehow holding out on us, this is the essence of what sin is. It goes back a long way, even before the time of the Israelites in the wilderness. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, in the garden–they thought God was holding out on them. The serpent tempted them to doubt God, to doubt God’s word, to doubt his goodness. You know how that turned out. Adam and Eve fell into sin, and with sin came the curse of death. And the rest is history. We’ve all been doing the same thing ever since.
And Israel–the Lord had taken them to himself to be his own people. But they too failed to trust in God. They too fell into sin. And with sin came death. The Lord sent poisonous snakes among them. The snakes bit them, and they began to die. Notice the instrument of death here: snakes, serpents, just like the serpent in the garden that had first tempted man to sin. The Lord here is drawing the connection between sin and death, the sin of failing to trust in God and the consequence of death that follows as a result. And that is all you and I would have to look forward to, if that were all there was to the story. We too are sinners, grumblers against God, people who do not trust God as we ought. And the wages of sin is death.
But there is more to the story, thank God! And the story is hanging on a pole. Judgment and punishment and condemnation–as just and as well-deserved as that judgment is–that is not all there is. There is also God’s unmerited mercy and grace and love. And out of that great love, God provided a way of escape, a way of salvation. And he hung it on a pole. “Make a snake and put it up on a pole,” the Lord told Moses. “Everyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” This bronze snake, a symbol of the very sin that literally was killing them, became the means God provided for their healing. To look to that bronze serpent, lifted up on a pole, was to see and receive the salvation the Lord in his mercy had bestowed.
And that is the comparison Jesus makes in our text: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” What happened with that snake on a pole would be replayed in an even greater fashion. Jesus himself must be lifted up, as the means of an even greater salvation. And this story, too, is hanging on a pole.
The whole world–not just the children of Israel, but the whole world, including us–we were sick and dying, as we lay there grumbling against God, doubting his goodness, shaking our fist at God. That is the world’s natural state, our lost condition. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, as Ephesians says. But God, being rich in mercy and love, provided the way of escape, the way of salvation. Just as that bronze snake, the very sign of the sin and death that was killing the Israelites, became the very means of their healing, so in the same way Christ Jesus took the sin that was killing us–he literally embodied it–and thus became the means of our healing and salvation. Jesus literally embodied sin. Let me repeat that; it may sound shocking: Jesus literally embodied sin. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree,” St. Peter says in his epistle. St. Paul says it even more starkly in Corinthians: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus became sin for us. He literally took it all in. And Jesus did this by being “lifted up.”
Now one might think of Jesus being “lifted up” in terms of his being “lifted up” in glory–being exalted, being highly honored. But not here. When Jesus says of himself, “the Son of Man must be lifted up,” he is talking about his being lifted up on the cross–being lifted up in shame, being lifted up to die. In the strange paradox that is the gospel, Christ is glorified precisely by dying on a cross. Christ is lifted up–and consequently God’s grace and mercy and love are lifted up, glorified–by Jesus literally being lifted up, that is, being hoisted in the air, on the tree of the cross. The story is hanging on a pole.
Dear friends, look to that pole, look to the cross, for your healing! Here is your only hope, Christ hanging on that cross! God has provided for your salvation–indeed, the salvation of the whole world! Look to Jesus, your crucified Savior, in faith. This is what it is to believe. And this is no great work you are doing. This is no new demand, as though, well, you couldn’t keep the Ten Commandments, but now you’ve really got to meet this new requirement and make your decision for Jesus, and it’s all up to you. No. Faith is not some new demand. It’s simply receiving the gift that God gives.
Ephesians puts it like this: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” You see, even your faith is part of the gift. This whole “being saved by grace through faith” thing–the whole thing, the whole package, comes from God. Your believing is no great accomplishment on your part. It’s just receiving what God freely gives you. It’s like you learned in the Catechism: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel,” and so on. Friends, we were helpless and hopeless and dead, by nature children of wrath. But God in his mercy made us alive together with Christ. Faith, then, believing, is simply receiving. All the glory goes to God.
Yes, look in faith to that pole, look to the cross, where your Savior is lifted up! He is lifted up, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” This is more than a snakebite you’re being cured of. You’re being given eternal life! And “eternal” life is more than just this same current existence stretched out for a bazillion years. No, it’s not just more of the same–the same old sorrows and miseries that characterize life in this vale of tears. Eternal life is not just a matter of quantity; it’s a matter of quality. Eternal life is new life, life with God, life restored to how it ought to be, life with no more sorrows or misery or separation or sin or death. Eternal life is the new life found only in Christ, and it lasts forever. It is life that will characterize the age to come, when Christ returns in glory and leads his people home, at home in the promised land of the kingdom of heaven.
And yet it begins even now. We have this eternal life now, all you who are baptized into Christ and believe in his name. You have eternal life already now, and death will not stop it. Christ died the Big Death for you; that’s already taken place. And Jesus rose from the dead, rose from the grave never to die again, because death could not hold him. Brothers and sisters, you were joined to Christ in Holy Baptism. You have already died and arisen with Christ. So now you are already in “eternal life,” believe it or not. No, wait, just believe it! It’s true!
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” In its own way, this passage, John 3:14-15, expresses the good news of salvation just as well as John 3:16. It’s not the gospel in a nutshell, but it comes pretty close. It’s the gospel hanging on a pole. And here’s what it tells you: Jesus Christ was lifted up on the cross for you and for all the other snakebit sinners of the world. Look to him, look to Jesus in faith and be saved. Believe in his name and you have eternal life. Beloved, it is this “gospel on a pole” that will lift you up all the way to heaven!