Monday, July 4, 2011

The Bronze Serpent in the Gospel According to John

Jesus' Summary of His Teaching: Early in The Gospel According to John, in Chapter 3, Jesus Christ meets with a prominent Pharisee, Nicodemus, who recognizes from Jesus' miraculous signs that Jesus is a teacher from God. Jesus confirms that recognition and then summarizes the lesson that he is teaching:
  • People should be purified sufficiently so that they will be able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, where they will enjoy eternal life. 
  • One purification method is baptism by means of water. 
  • A second method is purification by means of spirit. 
  • The second method causes a re-birth of the person and is necessary to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
  • Purification by means of spirit acts like a breeze blowing from above onto the person. 
Jesus  describes the spirit-purification's breeze-like effect:
What is born of spirit is spirit. ... You must be born from above. The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit. (John 3:6-8)
Snake-Story: Elaborating further about purification by means of spirit, Jesus offers an ancient story from the time when Moses was leading the Hebrews from the Sinai Desert toward Canaan:
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man [Jesus Christ] be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15)
This ancient story was told in the book of Numbers, Chapter 21. The circumstances were that the Hebrews, after wandering in the Sinai Desert for 40 years, were leaving the desert and heading toward their promised new homeland, Canaan. On the desert's outskirts, the  Hebrews encountered and defeated a remotely-based Canaanite military force. Although this victory enabled the Hebrews to leave the Sinai Desert, the further route was desolate, and so the migrating Hebrew masses soon suffered from and complained about the poor availability and quality of food and water.

God was annoyed by these complaints, and so He sent the Hebrews a plague of poisonous snakes, which bit many Hebrews and so caused much suffering and death. The snake plague compelled the Hebrews to repent from their complaints, and therefore God instructed Moses to arrange a remedy. Moses made a snake statue out of bronze and then erected the statue high enough so that it could be seen distantly. Afterwards, any Hebrew who had been bitten by a snake would be healed immediately if he merely looked at the snake statue with the understanding that the mere sight would heal.

Parallels Between Snake-Story and Summary: Nicodemus, as a Pharisee who had studied the ancient scriptures, knew the snake-statue story well and therefore immediately appreciated several parallels between that story and Jesus' summary of his teachings.

* Just as Moses was guiding the Hebrews as they left the Sinai Desert and traveled toward their new homeland of Canaan, so likewise Jesus Christ was guiding people as they left the Earth and traveled toward the Kingdom of God in Heaven.

* Just as the migrating Hebrews found that the route toward Canaan seemed to be poorly supplied with food and water, so likewise the people who desired to travel to the Kingdom of God found that their route was poorly supplied with the abstract nourishments of understanding and assurance.

* Just as many Hebrews would not be able to continue their trip unless they were provided with some method of removing snake poisons from their bodies, so likewise the people who wanted to travel to the Kingdom of God needed to purify themselves in order to survive their trip.

* Just as the poisoned Hebrews were purified merely by looking through the air at a highly-erected meaningful statue, so likewise people who needed to be purified for their trip to the Kingdom of Heaven would be purified by a spirit that blows from above through the air onto the person.

Foreshadowings in Chapter 1: This story of Jesus summarizing his lesson, told in The Gospel According to John's third chapter, is foreshadowed in John's first two chapters.

Chapter 1 begins (1:1-18) with a poetic meditation about the mysterious effects of words and light. God used words to create life, and God used light to overcome darkness and to enable living beings to understand and survive. God used words to make his divine Son into a person-like being who is visible and understandable to people. Those people who see this divine Son and who understand the sight can become children of God.

This poetic meditation foreshadows Jesus Christ's mention of the story about the bronze snake. After Moses erected the bronze snake and used words to tell the snake's healing power, then the the highly-positioned snake's image passed downward through the air and impacted the eyes of the poisoned Hebrews, who then were purified from the poison and therefore were able to continue their trip toward Canaan.

Then follows, in Chapter 1's second part (1:19-34), another foreshadowing of Jesus' summary. This part tells about John the Baptist and ends with a remark that Jesus was purified when a spirit, like a dove, flew down from the sky and settled on Jesus.

Then follows, in Chapter 1's third part (1:35-51), another foreshadowing. This part tells about Jesus meeting with several men who became his first disciples. This part ends with Jesus predicting to his new disciples that they eventually will see the sky open and angels flying down and up between the sky and the "Son of Man".

Thus, Chapter 1's three parts inform the reader that there is a spirit phenonomen that affects people from the sky, through the air. Words and light from Heaven can cause life to be created on the Earth. John the Baptist saw a spirit descend from the sky and purify Jesus without the water of a normal baptism. Jesus predicted to his first disciples that they will see the sky open and will see angels flying down and up in interaction with human beings on Earth.

Foreshadowings in Chapter 2: John's Chapter 2 begins (2:1-12) with the story about Jesus attending a wedding where he turns water into wine. This story foreshadows the bronze-snake story because the wedding guests complain about the poor quantity and quality of nourishment, as the migrating Hebrews had complained.

Jesus resolved the wedding guests' complaints by changing into wine some water that normally was used for ceremonial washings. This story touches on the idea that purification by means of water is a method that is inferior to purification by means of spirit. Water stored for ceremonial washings was easily disposable when Jesus had to change some available liquid into wine for a wedding. After all, if a purification became necessary, then purification by means of spirit remained as a method that did not require water and that still was available and always was superior.

Chapter 2's second part (2:13-25) tells about Jesus went to the Jerusalem Temple, where he attacked the merchants who sold sacrificial animals and who changed money for such sales. This story touches on the idea that purification by means of sacrificing animals at a temple is inferior to purification by means of spirit.

Aftershadowings: After Jesus summarized his teachings to Niicodemus in the the first part of John's Chapter 3, the narrative continues to touch on Jesus' summary. Chapter 3's second part (3:22-36) describes a controversy between John the Baptists's disciples and Jesus' disciples about baptism by means of water. During the course of this controversy, John the Baptist uses a wedding analogy (3:29-30), which resonates with the previous story about the wedding at Cana.

John's Chapter 4, in its first part (4:1-42), tells about Jesus stopping at a well in Samaria to get some water during a trip during a trip from Judea to Galilee. This story resonates with the ancient story about migrating Hebrews suffering from a lack of water during their trip from the Sinai Desert to Canaan. Jesus tells a woman at the well about a special kind of water that prevents all future thirst. He tells her also that there is a special kind of worship by means of spirit that people should use when they worship God.

Chapter 4's second part (4:43-54) tells about Jesus healing a royal official's son. Jesus was in Cana, in Galilee, while the official's sick son was in Capernaum, about 16 miles away. Thus, Jesus applied a purification method that worked like a spirit moving through the air across a long distance to heal the son.

Summary: The Gospel According to John's first four chapters record that the origin of Christianity coincided with new teachings about methods of purification and worship that worked by means of spirit. The purification method worked through the air and did not require the direct application of a substance, such as water, onto person. In one case, the purification worked when the person merely looked at bronze snake. In another case, the purification method worked far beyond eyesight, when Jesus in Cana purified a boy in Capernaum.

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