Look Upon This Snake and Live

By Chris Yoder

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.

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Kaa, the Rock Python, is one of my favorite characters in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Kaa is an ancient and enormous snake. He’s 30 feet long and 100 years old, with “beautifully mottled brown and yellow” skin. Kaa climbs trees as well as the monkeys who live in terror of him, and he moves along the ground as quickly as Bagheera the panther. Kaa fights like a living battering ram, and he has a killer hug. As Kipling puts it, “when he had once lapped his huge coils round anybody there was no more to be said.”

Kaa, of course, is just one example of the many snakes that populate the human imagination. The serpent is one of the most powerful cross-cultural symbols; serpents writhe through mythologies the world over. Sometimes they symbolize fertility and rebirth because they shed their skins. And sometimes they signify healing. For example, Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, carries a rod with a single snake wound round it that has come to symbolize the medical arts. Even today the Rod of Asclepius is the most common symbol for emergency services and hospitals. Sometimes serpents are guardians, from the giant naga that is said to have shielded the Buddha from a storm, to the rattlesnake of Revolutionary America, with its warning, “Don’t tread on me.” And, of course, snakes are often the source of fear. Emily Dickinson wrote that she had never met a snake

Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

Snakes also slither across the pages of Scripture. In the beginning, the serpent deceives our first parents in the Garden. In the end, a great dragon is thrown down from heaven, “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev. 12:9). In between, there’s nothing good about snakes: they’re signs of evil and deception. The psalmist compares liars to snakes, and a proverb says that wine can bite like a snake. And it’s not meant as a compliment. There’s nothing good about snakes in Scripture.

And then there’s the serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus refers to that story, the story of the bronze serpent found in Numbers. Do you remember it? Moses has led the people of Israel out of Egypt, and they are wandering in the wilderness on their way to the promised land.

The Israelites become impatient and begin to complain against God. They say they had it better as slaves in Egypt than they do now, hungry and thirsty in the desert. So God sends fiery, poisonous serpents among the people, which bite them, and they begin to die. Moses intercedes for them.

And the Lord says to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses makes a bronze serpent and lifts it up on a pole, and anyone bit by the fiery serpents could look at the bronze serpent and live (cf. Num. 21:4-9).

In John’s Gospel, Jesus applies this story to himself. He says, “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.” The story about a serpent becomes a story about the Savior. And we see that the story about the Israelites is also a story about us and our salvation.

You know the story. It’s a story that moves from life to death to new life. It goes something like this: We are all—you and I—snakebitten. Bit by sin, mortally wounded. Poisoned by pride, pierced by envy, chewed by gluttony, licked by lust, stung by anger, gnawed by greed, nibbled by despair. We turn away from God, turn to ourselves, turn back to Egypt, turn to where we get what we want but end up enslaved by our desires. Snakebitten, we turn from life to death. Slithering like snakes toward nothingness, slithering and sliding down and down into less and less, imagining it to be more and more.

Do you know the classical sculpture of the man and his two sons attacked by snakes? The sculpture of Laocoön and His Sons? It depicts a story in Greco-Roman mythology in which the gods condemn a Trojan priest and his two sons to be attacked by sea serpents. The sculpture shows the three encircled by serpents, frozen in a desperate struggle to escape. One son pushes pathetically at the coils of a serpent encircling his foot, the other vainly clutches the head of a serpent that has sunk its fangs into his side, and the father’s whole body is contorted by struggle and suffering. For them there is no more to be said. It’s a terrifying depiction of human agony, an icon of the human condition.

It could be an image of the Israelites bit by the fiery serpents, of you and me bit by sin, were it not for the deliverance of God. You see, Laocoön and his sons are doomed, but not the Israelites, and not us. Because the brazen serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, and the Son is lifted up for our salvation. We are snakebitten, but we need not die, because the Lord Jesus was lifted up for our salvation.

The bronze serpent is a sign of Jesus; the Son is like the serpent. The serpent was lifted up on a pole; the Son was lifted up on the cross—and lifted up from the dead, lifted up to the Father — lifted up in his crucifixion, his resurrection, his ascension. On the cross, all the serpents’ venom was drained on him; in rising again, he destroyed death; in ascending, he became the source of life for all who believe in him.

Whoever looked at the serpent lived, whoever looks at the Son lives. “Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” The Son is lifted up “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15). Look, and you will live. Believe, and you will have eternal life.

This raises three questions: What does it mean to look? What does it mean to live? And what in the world does “eternal life” mean?

First, what does it mean to look? The rabbis understood looking at the bronze serpent to symbolize turning one’s heart to God. One rabbinic commentator asks rhetorically whether the bronze serpent was capable of either killing or bringing back to life. Of course not, he says. Instead, “whenever Israel looked upward and subjugated their wills to their heavenly Father, they would be healed.” Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist, understood looking at the serpent in a similar fashion. Those who looked at the bronze serpent, he says, “had committed themselves to him who sent his Son into the world to be crucified.” Looking is committing yourself, staking yourself, your life, on God.

In this sense, looking turns out to be a lot like believing. Belief is also about commitment. If you believe in something, you trust it, you’re willing to let it bear your weight. Believe in someone, and you will entrust yourself to them. John’s Gospel particularly emphasizes believing in Jesus. “Believe in God,” Jesus says, “believe also in me” (John 14:1). Believing in Jesus means actively accepting him and who he claims to be; it means giving your life to him; it means looking to him for your life, finding your life in him; ordering your whole life around him. Believe, and you will have eternal life. Look, and you will live.

But what does it mean to live? What is life?

Life is a gift. You and I each have our life as a gift. You did nothing to be born. You were given life. God is the giver of life. Only God has life in himself. We receive our life as a gift from God. As the hymn has it,

To all life Thou givest,
to both great and small.
In all life Thou livest,
the true Life of all.

Adam and Eve wanted to possess life for themselves; we want to be like God. So they ate the fruit, and we turn toward ourselves, we turn back to Egypt. We turn away from God, the source of life. Fiery serpents bite us, and we are dying. We need new life. We need to be born again. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

You need new life, rebirth, renewal, regeneration. “You must be born anew.” You must be born of the Spirit, you need to receive the life God gives. If you look at the Son, you will receive that life. Because Christ Jesus is lifted up in order to give life, to give the Holy Spirit, to pour out life like a flowing river (cf. Jn 7:38). If you believe in the Lord Jesus, you will be born anew, you will have eternal life.

Jesus says, “Everyone who sees the Son and believes in him will have eternal life” (John 6:40). This brings us to our third question: What is “eternal life”? Put simply, eternal life is God’s life. To have eternal life is just this: to know God, to share in the life of God. Because, as Thomas Aquinas puts it, when God gives eternal life, “he gives himself. For eternal life is nothing else than enjoying God.” Eternal life is nothing else than enjoying God. By giving eternal life, God gives himself. The Son came down and was lifted up that, by the gift of his Spirit, we might participate in the life the Son has with the Father and the Spirit. To have eternal life is, by God’s gift, to share in the life of the Trinity.

Look at the Son and you will be caught up into the eternal dance of love that is the Holy Trinity. Because, as Rowan Williams says, “to look at Jesus is not to enter into a simple one-to-one relation.” To look at Jesus is to be with the Son in his movement toward the Father, toward the self-giving love who eternally gives the Son, the self-giving love who offers himself to the Father, who breathes out the Spirit, the self-giving love who leads back to the Son. Love giving love, returning love, breathing love, showing love. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Eternal love, eternal light. Living light. Dancing, circling. Beauty. Joy. One in Three.

Words cannot meet the mystery. But if you look at the Son, you will be drawn into the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

The Son is lifted up to pour out his Spirit into our hearts, teaching us to pray, “Abba, Father,” to pray with the Son, like we do when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, to let his prayer become our prayer, “that he might dwell in us and we in him,” that we might “walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.”

The Son is lifted up to welcome us into his life of self-giving love, into the life of the Holy Trinity.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

The Rev. Christopher Yoder is rector of All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City.