For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
It’s a passage familiar to many. John 3:16 is one of the most recognizable passages of Scripture in the entire world. Most people, even nonbelievers, can recite it word for word. As often quoted, touted, and well known as this passage is, many times, it is brushed away as merely a token saying; its context wholly ignored or misunderstood. This verse is densely packed with theology and ripe for exploration. Never can we become too familiar with any passage of Scripture, especially ones that speak so candidly to us and to our time.
Our Present Pandemic
COVID-19—the coronavirus—has rattled the very foundation of humanity to its core. Communities and nations across the globe are in an unexpected, unimaginable, and unparalleled situation in which we lack preparedness and control. We are increasingly dependent upon one another, unable to trudge through this pandemic health crisis alone. Yet, we must socially distance ourselves from one another. It is communal suffering dealt with in isolation.
The world has come to a grinding halt. With it, commerce, sports, education, cultural events, political duty, and religious life have all been deeply affected by the worldwide outbreak of the coronavirus. I write this from my shared desk in the graduate school of the university I attend. Absent are the sounds of students traveling to and from classes. The usual hum of college life has vanished, leaving empty classrooms and dormitories in its wake.
Yet the birds still chirp, and the rain still falls. The sun breaks through the branches of the live oak trees, and the tulips on campus begin to bloom. Life has not withdrawn. It persists even in adversity. Preventing further spreading of the coronavirus is at the pinnacle of humanity’s collective list of priorities. In this time of uncertainty and perceived hopelessness, we should take solace in one of the most significant promises of Scripture: Jesus Christ as our hope.
Our Certain Hope
John 3:16 is a passage filled with present and future hope. Jesus’s death, resurrection, and future reign are the hope of every believing Christian. His promise is greater than a global pandemic. It is a promise illustrating our present reality of already and not yet. It is the hope we need when times are uncertain, and the hope we often forget or lay aside when times are more “sure.”
Merely by reading and rereading this passage of Scripture, we understand that Jesus’s words are within the midst of a more extended conversation. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 is a response to something Jesus has said previously, marked by his use of “for.” In His exchange regarding rebirth and new life with the curious Pharisee, Nicodemus, Jesus returns to a peculiar Old Testament passage. When Jesus references Scripture, He does so for a reason.
John 3:14-15 reads: “And 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.” Why is it that Jesus refers to a passage about Moses and a serpent? To better understand Jesus’s reference, we must return to the pandemical context of Numbers 21.
During the time and leadership of Moses, the Israelites were marked by their frequent impatience and non-reliance upon God and His goodness. In fact, the Israelites continued to complain about the lack of food and water throughout their journey in the wilderness with Moses (Exod 15:22–17:7; Num 11; 14; 20:1–13; 21:4-5). We can understand the context of Numbers 21 immediately as one familiar to Moses. The people God rescued out of captivity and slavery at the hands of the Egyptians were complaining about God’s provision for them. Not only did the Israelites grumble, but they blamed Moses and God for their present circumstance in the wilderness (21:5). The very Provider of manna and quail (11:18-20) became the target of their disdain and grumbling.
In righteous anger, God scattered “fiery serpents” among the people (21:6). From the Hebrew use of the verb, saraph, these serpents were renowned for their painful, burning, and venomous bite. Not only did these serpents bite, but their poisonous bite led to death for many of those in Israel (21:6). The pandemic presence of venomous serpents was the direct result of the unbelief, lack of faith, and grumbling exhibited by the people of Israel. Israel was amid a national pandemic that continually claimed the lives of many of their own.
Our World We Live In
It is important to note that, although the case here is God’s response to a sinful nation, not all pandemics, illnesses, or catastrophes are direct results of singular persons’ or nations’ sins. James says as much in his discourse on suffering and faithful prayer (Jam 5). In large part, these past and present realities are due to the fallen world in which we dwell (Rom 5:12)—an imperfect world longing for the restoration and recreation our King promises (Rev 21:1-5). Bad things happen because we live in a world that is not as it is supposed to be. We long for something better and greater because we were created for something better and greater.
The focal point of Numbers 21 is not the sin that brought the fiery serpent pandemic to Israel, but the response of Israel in faith. We cannot miss or overemphasize the matter at stake here. Israel’s recognition of their sin and longing for redemption is marked by their belief that God can save them (Num 21:7). And save them He plans to do. Moses prayed on behalf of his people and, upon Moses’ intercession, God responded in a peculiar way.
God commanded Moses to make a fiery serpent of his own and to mount it on a pole amidst the panic and mortally wounded people of Israel (21:8). Anyone bitten by the fiery serpents should look upon the mounted serpent for healing (21:8). Moses, faithful to God’s command, constructs a bronze serpent and so that all who look upon it are healed and will live (21:9). From pandemic tragedy to restored life with God. This miracle of healing in the wilderness displayed God’s love and graciousness toward his people, but it also acts as an illustration of a later reality.
The purpose of this passage in Numbers is clear: the belief of the people of Israel is an illustration of the future belief John speaks of throughout the opening portions of his Gospel (John 1:7, 11, 50; 2:11, 22, 23; 3:12, 15, 16, 18, 36). Although the faiths of the two passages are certainly different in substance and result, this episode with the serpents in Numbers 21 illustrates centuries later what Jesus would do for all humanity. Jesus said the bronze serpent lifted up in the wilderness is like the Son of Man being lifted up (John 3:14). Looking at the serpent brought physical healing (Num 21:8-9), yet faith in the Son of Man brings eternal life (John 3:15).
It is important to note that the healing power of the serpent had nothing to do with the people’s ability to do anything—it was about belief joined by faith. This is a similar reality for us. Just as the people of Israel could do nothing to save their own lives, we are powerless to save ourselves from death. Only Christ can atone for our sins and provide for us a way to live eternally with Him. We should take comfort and rest in this hope.
Our Focal Point
Jesus points back to this episode with the serpents to say, “Look at me! I am the mounted serpent lifted up. I am here to save. I am the bringer and sustainer of hope!” Jesus provides the hope and healing we need. The serpent on the staff brought life to those bitten. But the healing Christ brings through his crucifixion and resurrection is not merely physical in nature. Jesus says that those who believe in Him will have eternal life (John 3:15). We must look to Him as our eternal hope, even in times of uncertainty and trial.
COVID-19 is a devastating disease that, up to this point, can only be treated rather than cured. Our daily news feeds are filled with death tolls, rising infection numbers, and little good news. Remembering the graciousness and goodness of Jesus Christ is what builds and encourages our faith in times like this. When we entrust ourselves in complete confidence to Jesus Christ, we place our faith and our hope in Him alone.
Hear me clearly. I am not suggesting COVID-19 is God’s angry response to our sinful action. Rather, my point and my sincere hope is that we see this as an opportunity to understand the confidence we have in looking to the One who completely redeems us. All of Scripture points to our Savior and proclaims His name.
Yet, we often let our circumstances dictate our relationships with others and with God. During times of uncertainty and fear, we must resist the temptation to become impatient or forsake our reliance and dependence upon God. He is the bringer and sustainer of hope. The promise of Jesus Christ in John 3:16 does not recuse us from the devastation of the coronavirus. Still, His promise can bring comfort to us—one that highlights our present and future hope amidst uncertainty.
Our Path Forward
Please do not confuse faith for prudence and good hygiene. Faith is belief in action. As we trust ourselves in God’s hands, we should also take measures to protect those around us that are most vulnerable to COVID-19. The CDC frequently updates its website regarding COVID-19 and other diseases, including recommendations for protecting yourself from infection. Review the recommendations often, and please take action in protecting our communities from the transmission of this disease. Our all-sufficient Father is still on His throne. May we share in the hope we have in Him.