Lenten Bible Blog, 4th Sunday of Lent
(Num 21:4-9; Ps 107:1-3, 17-22; Eph 2:1-10; John 3:14-21)
After the Israelites left Egypt, but before they entered the land of Canaan, they lived in the wilderness. It was a time fraught with difficulty. Throughout the books of Exodus and Numbers, the complained bitterly about their harsh existence. These complaints begin as early as Exodus 14:10-12 and continue up through this lection, in which they criticize not only Moses but also God. After the deity punishes them, he tells Moses to make a sculpted snake and to lift it up on a pole so that the people could see it and live, a kind of sympathetic magic.
The verses in Psalm 107 are the sort of song that those in Num. 21 might have sung after they have been “saved from their distress.” The psalm makes clear that God intervened because the people “cried to the Lord in their trouble.” The aforementioned stories in Exodus and Numbers often begin with the people complaining to Moses, but only later in the stories do they offer a lament about their plight and ask God for help. The distinction is important. The Psalter is filled with laments—the most frequent kind of Psalm--but not with complaints.
The apostle Paul reflects on a living death, “following the course of the world,” and avows that Christians have been “made alive” through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Here, as was the case with the OT lections, God is one who provides life for those who have experienced death. God does this “out of the great love with which he loved us,” a motif that occurs in the Johannine text.
The lection in John refers explicitly to the scene in Numbers and views it as a foreshadowing of Jesus lifted up on a cross, one who can provide life to those who see and understand the importance of his death and resurrection. This reading from John also includes a verse (v. 16) that we sometimes see on placards at sporting events. Such usage presumes that it is a stand-alone text, and the fact that it is printed as a separate paragraph lends some credence to this approach. It’s most fundamental theological claim is this: God loved the world. Even the famous prologue to this gospel, does not make this claim. The lection uses several verbs to denote God’s concrete action: God gave his only son; God sent his son. And this verse offers the reason for such action: it is rooted in God’s providential love for all that has been created, including all people. The gospel writer uses the diction of ‘God giving’ on multiple occasions. It implies that God’s Son is a gift to the world. Not all gifts are accepted. John challenges his readers to accept or believe in this gift, which involves the granting of “eternal life.”
David Petersen is Franklin N. Parker Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Emory University. While at Emory, he was also Academic Dean at the Candler School of Theology, where he received the Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award.