As an initial matter, I just want to say that I love Nicodemus. I completely relate to his constantly asking ‘how can this be?’, his being grounded and trapped in the literal and completely misunderstanding the metaphorical. He strikes me as earnest and confused. Perhaps he also appeals to me because he does not leave the comfortable position of a Pharisee to become a disciple. Is he a coward? Perhaps. Is he simply uncertain of who Jesus is and what Nicodemus’s path is to be? Nicodemus is very real to me.
The serpent testimony is very interesting (3:14). I tend to blow by it, remembering the passage in Numbers 21:9 but not thinking more of it — snakes killing Israelites, God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent that will heal those who have been bitten so that they do not die. Easy, right — believe in the power of the serpent and be saved, believe in Jesus and be saved. Now I see deeper links. Nicodemus seems to be wondering why he is supposed to believe in Jesus, why does God complicate matters? Jesus points out that God did not simply take away the snakes of Numbers, but He did give Moses directions on how the people could save themselves. The Numbers passage is very interesting because it seems to implicate God in promoting idolatry. Very much like believing in Jesus.
Lets go a bit further back in the Numbers account. The Israelites were complaining as they wandered in the desert. They had recently learned that the older generation would not be going into Canaan because of their lack of faith that they would be able to oust the current occupants. These people had seen amazing works by God and Moses as empowered by God and yet they still feared. Their punishment was that they would not get to the Promised Land. God would continue to provide their basic needs, but they would not gain entrance to Canaan. It was reading the Pentatuch (the five books of Moses from Exodus through Deuteronomy) that I realized how amazing the Bible is. Not only did I read of the impatience of the Israelites, I felt it — gee, God, why don’t you just get these people what you promised them now? On the other side, I grew tired of the Israelites’ grumblings and could understand God’s outrage and sorrow. How tiresome it all is. How is this different from our lives? The trust and belief, the insecurity and fear, the punishment (which simply might be the effects we see in our lives because of our actions or inactions based on fear and insecurity), the offer of redemption, the acceptance of redemption, the continuation of this cycle.
Anyway, in Numbers, the Israelites again complain of their lot in life and complain about God and Moses — why have you done this to us, they ask. The Lord then sent fiery serpents among the people who bit them and many died. The Israelites realize their sin, ask Moses to intercede, which he does, and thus the direction that Moses make the bronze serpent. “[I]f a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” There is no requirement that the people believe in the serpent, merely that they obey the Lord’s command of what to do in certain circumstances.
Finally, this passage ends with a discourse on light and darkness — this was especially meaningful to me when I took the study. At the time, we were facing issues in my extended family regarding an estranged member. There was a lot of confusion and incomplete information and a lot of allusion but no real facts. This passage spoke to me because I knew there were lies because nothing was clear — this person was hiding out in the darkness. It inspired me to communicate with the other members of my family just to get out into the open that this confusion existed and that it was on purpose and to unify the family — not against the estranged member, but in understanding of what was going on. It did result in a unification and a refusal to be drawn into a drama that wasn’t entirely real.
I love the idea that in the light, there is nothing to fear. Jesus is that light and we are part of it when we choose to be. Isn’t it wonderful to have that choice?