“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” John 3:9-15
There is a heartbreaking story about an Air Force pilot who, upon seeing a series of mountains approaching, pulled the plane up only to crash straight into the ground. The pilot had been flying upside down without knowing it. They had lost their perspective. Sometimes that happens to us as humans, especially spiritually. We feel we have a good handle on everything and then something happens that shows us we have it all flipped upside down. I wonder if that’s how Nicodemus felt as he talked with Jesus, and I wonder if he felt the same way at Easter when Jesus died and rose again.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he (Jesus) must be lifted up like ‘Moses lifted up the serpent’. He is referencing an old, old story from a book called Numbers. In the story, the Jewish people have gotten themselves into one of their regular messes. They have complained against God and are suffering. We are told God ‘sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died’ (Num. 21:6). After they cry out God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole and “when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived” (Num. 21:9). We don’t have space to unpack that fascinating story but Jesus tells Nicodemus that the events that will happen to him are similar. I wonder if they are similar in the way Nicodemus is expecting. The serpent is lifted up and in some ways glorified. The word could mean exalted. It isn’t a sacrifice at all. Jesus is lifted ‘up’ like a servant. He isn’t exalted, at least not in the way human beings would expect. The cross was designed to be humiliating. A death for the lowest of all. It is the upside down kingdom all over again! Jesus places himself lower than all.
The Father uses the incredible sacrifice of his Son for good. The worst news became the best news. The worst day became a precursor to the best day! In spite of the questions, Nicodemus is there with Jesus right at the end, even when it seems upside down (John 19:38-39). We are called to do the same. In what ways have you seen God use bad things for good? How has God surprised you with ‘beauty from ashes’? Is there a situation you are facing where you have to trust God knows upside down from right side up?
By Alex Walton