Year B 4th Sunday Lent: John 3,14-21

03:14 as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up
03:15 so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
03:16 For this is how God loved the world:
he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
03:17 For God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world,
but so that through him the world might be saved.
03:18 No one who believes in him will be judged;
but whoever does not believe is judged already,
because that person does not believe in the Name of God's only Son.
03:19 And the judgement is this:
though the light has come into the world
people have preferred darkness to the light because their deeds were evil.
03:20 And indeed, everybody who does wrong hates the light and avoids it,
to prevent his actions from being shown up;
03:21 but whoever does the truth comes out into the light,
so that what he is doing may plainly appear as done in God.


This text is part of Jesus’ talk with Nicodemus. The preceding story of the Cleansing of the Temple ended with the words (John 02,24-25), ‘When Jesus was in Jerusalem at the Passover, at the feast, many came to faith in his name, seeing his signs that he was doing. Jesus,  however, did not entrust himself to them, because he knew everybody, and he had no need for anyone to bear witness to him about humans - for he knew what was in human beings’ (transl. Nic. King). Then John continues, ‘So, there was a human being...’ Follows the story with Nicodemus as an example of Jesus’ knowing about what was in human beings.


First Jesus speaks about himself as ‘the son of man’ (vs.14). That refers to the vision of Daniel (7:13-14), where the kingship will be given to a ‘son of man’. Some lines later he calls himself ‘son of God’ (vss.16-17). This ‘son’ will be lifted up: Jesus speaks about his crucifixion and at the same time, beyond the crucifixion, the picture of his ascension unto heaven appears. The crucifixion is the visible outside of the event, the ascension the invisible inside of the same event!

But that Jesus compares himself with the snake in the desert is enigmatic. In the book of Numbers (21:8) we read that people rebelled against Moses and against God. They were punished by snakes which bit them in their heels. Moses was told to erect a bronze snake upon a stake. Only the sinners who looked up unto that snake on the stake were saved. The point of comparison is ‘looking up’. Every person commits sins, has the bite of a snake. Only the persons who are aware of it and are looking for forgiveness will find it in Jesus lifted up on the cross, the sign of God’s love for the human beings being sinners. ‘For this is how God loved the world: He gave his only Son... Believing in that Son means ‘eternal life’. In 17:2 Jesus will explain what he means by ‘eternal life’, ‘This is eternal life, that they should know you, Father, as the only true God.’ Knowing that God is love and forgiveness is eternal life. That does not start after my death but at the moment that I can believe..., that I have the courage to believe that God is unconditional love. God is not judging the world and certainly not condemning it, but He wants to save it, because He is love. And love cannot do anything but loving and forgiving faults and desiring the best.

And who don’t believe in love condemn themselves to a life without love...

Picture Meditation

I found an illustrative picture of this text in a stained glass window from the 19th century in St Paul’s church in Canterbury.

In the window below: Moses, erecting a stake with a bronze snake and people around him who are looking up unto the snake, full of reverence. There is even a mother with a little child. As far as I can see there is no reference to the rebellion against Moses and against God, which was the occasion of this event; no penance.

In the top window: Jesus crucified, and his mother Mary, John and Mary Magdalene looking up unto him. Even on the cross Jesus makes the gesture of blessing with his right hand. He seems to look down upon the three persons below him with tenderness. He stretches his arms over them as a symbol of protection.

According to me, the three pictured persons at the foot of the cross are not the most suitable symbols of sinners: persons who are aware of their sins and who are looking for understanding and forgiveness.

Wouldn’t it have been more likely to picture the crucified good thief besides Jesus who looks up to Jesus and receives forgiveness and eternal life? And as a contrast, the other one who doesn’t look up to Jesus, as we see it for example in a 18th century wall painting in the cathedral of Limburg an der Lahn, Germany.

Looking at the pictures I ask myself if I could have been standing at the foot of the cross and looking up...

by Fr Dries van den Akker SJ