In indigenous Presbyterian churches, I usually encounter a strong objection to the figure of the cross. They tend to reject the cross as a graven image that’s only used by Roman Catholics. This view is so deeply held that you’ll rarely see anything resembling a cross in or on their church buildings. Occasionally U.S. partners will present some form of a cross as a gift to their Guatemalan partners, resulting in some awkwardness and confusion. There have been times when I’ve raised this issue with indigenous church leaders, inviting them to consider the difference between idolatrous images and sacred symbols. For starters, I share a message about how the Bible’s most famous verse is linked to one of its strangest verses:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” —John 3:16
Most of us are so eager to focus on John 3:16 that we skip right over John 3:14-15: “And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so I, the Son of Man, must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in me will have eternal life.”
Though this allusion to Moses is often ignored, we can’t fully understand John 3:16 without it. The conjunction “for”—as in “For God so loved the world…”—binds the two phrases, making the meaning of the second part dependent on the first.
It was an obscure incident involving Moses. The Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for almost forty years, and as usual they were complaining. God, fed up with their negativism, sent deadly snakes to crawl around them and bite them. As the death toll mounted, the Israelites admitted their faithlessness. They got Moses to ask God to remove the snakes. God’s response was to have Moses make a bronze snake and hold it up on a staff. If the snake-bitten Israelites looked upon it, they were told, their wounds would be healed.
Someone might wonder how this decrepit tale found its way into scripture. Doesn’t it smack of superstitious cures and magic wands? Was there no quality control in the oral tradition? Why would God want Moses to lift up a graven image, after years of forbidding it? Why would God want people to stare at a symbol of temptation and falsehood? And what does any of this have to do with John 3:16?
Actually, John 3:14-15 is an excellent, if strange, precursor to John 3:16. In one, people face their sin, that the snakes are doing to them what they’ve been doing to God and one other. In the other, people hear about the way to our redemption and healing. In one we offer confession. In the other we find mercy. In one—the reality of evil. In the other—the power of grace. In one, we perish. In the other, we live eternally.
The aftermath of this episode was that the murmuring stopped, and the end of the wandering came drew near. Even after the Israelites settled into the Promised Land, they kept lifting up Moses’ bronze serpent. They looked at it in the Jerusalem temple for 500 years, revering it with incense until King Hezekiah declared that a meaningful symbol had become a harmful idol, and he smashed it to pieces.
Anyway, a more potent symbol would be on the way—the cross on which Jesus was lifted up. When we consider the cross, we face the reality of our sin. We confront our separation from God, the consequence of our weak faith, our own murmuring, bickering, and idolatry. We also find the way towards our healing, God’s Son, sent to us as the supreme expression of God’s love and salvation. That’s where John 3:16 fits in.
Sure, the cross is abused by some people—an empty novelty, a decoration piece, a good luck charm, or even a graven image. However, we needn’t follow the example of King Hezekiah and smash the cross to pieces. Unlike the bronze serpent, the cross is a symbol for the ages for all of God’s people. It stands irrevocably for the Christ who never loses his ability to smash sin to pieces and heal the world. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”