4th Sunday of Lent
"Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life." (Jn. 3:14-21)
As a catechist, I am amazed at the number of people who rarely read the Old Testament. My response is that the Old Testament is the foundation for building our knowledge of the New Testament. With a fuller and precise understanding of the Old Testament, one can appreciate the New Testament. The Church teaches that "The principal purpose to which the plan of the old covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming of Christ, the redeemer of all and of the messianic kingdom..." (Dei Verbum VI Article 15). Later in that same section, the Church reminds us that "God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New." (Dei Verbum VI Article 16).
Therefore, knowing why Moses lifted a serpent in the desert is imperative to understand John's gospel. In the book of Numbers (21:4-9), the writer narrates that the Israelites grumbled to God concerning their living conditions. The Israelites disregarded their previous life under Pharaoh's government. They whined about the water and food, desiring to return to Egypt. After God listened to the complaints from his chosen people, the scriptures said, "the LORD sent among the people seraph serpents, which bits the people so that many of the Israelites died" (Num. 21:6). With the death toll rising, the Israelites turned to Moses and repented for their actions. Moses then prayed, and God responded with this command, "Make a seraph and mount it on a pole, and everyone who has been bitten will look at it and recover" (Num. 21:9). This story prefigures Christ on the cross. One sure lesson we can garner from this story is that we must believe that similar to God healing the Israelites, Jesus heals us. If sin has bitten us, separating us from God, we can come to the cross where Jesus is lifted high and seek forgiveness.
Another lesson gained in our gospel by John is the idea of physical healing. We believe that Jesus can heal us, similar to the Israelites in the Old Testament. However, physical healing is temporary. Our earthly dwelling will soon decay, even if we are healed ten times from cancer, COVID-19, or some other affliction. In the book of Numbers, the text does not mention eternal life. In John's gospel, John wants us to contemplate eternal life, like David, when professing that he will "dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (Ps. 23:6).
Juxtaposing the Israelite's narrative in the book of Numbers with John's gospel, we can grasp a fuller understanding of why Moses lifted the pole with a serpent and why Jesus said, "he must be lifted up." Jesus is our supreme sacrifice for our sins. Furthermore, John said, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life" (Jn 3:16). For this reason, when I visit my Church this Sunday, I will look up and see Jesus lifted high. I will pray for everlasting life to see his glory.
Authored: Evangelist Michael P. Howard, MACS