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Epiphany Fifth Sunday

Season of Epiphany

Fifth Sunday: John 3:14–21
YOU ARE TO BE BORN AGAIN IN WATER AND SPIRIT

INTRODUCTION

God manifested his love to humanity by sending his son Jesus to our poor conditions in the darkness of sin. Jesus, the light shined in this gloom. He redeems those who accept him. Those who reject him remain in the darkness by selecting their own condemnation. The fiery snakes bit Israelites in the desert. God saved those who looked with faith in Him at the bronze serpent on a pole that Moses lifted. The enemies lifted Jesus the Redeemer on a cross followed by his resurrection, so humanity can look at him with faith and attain salvation. Let us shine in the world with a truthful life after the model of Jesus who came as the light of the world.

BIBLE TEXT

(John 3:14) As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, (15) so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (16) Yes, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (17) God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world; but that, through him the world might be saved (18) Whoever believes in him will not be condemned. He who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (19) This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. (20) For whoever does wrong hates the light and does not come to the light for fear that his deeds will be shown as evil. (21) But whoever lives according to the truth comes into the light so that it can be clearly seen that his works have been done in God.

INTERPRETATION

Background

This gospel passage is the second part of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin. He was sure that Jesus was from God because he said to Jesus, “no one can perform miraculous signs like you do unless God is with him.” (John 3: 2). He chose nighttime to discuss with Jesus to avoid public notice. The darkness of the night was also symbolic of his spiritual darkness. He was seeking light from the creator of light. 

The Bible reports two instances when Nicodemus supported Jesus. He questioned the Sanhedrin on the unjust trial of Jesus: “Does our law condemn a person without first hearing him and knowing the facts?” (John 7: 50-51). Nicodemus supplied spices to embalm Jesus’ body and assisted Joseph of Arimathea for the burial (John 19:39–42).

(14) As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.

As Moses lifted up
This refers to Numbers 21:9 where Moses mounted a serpent upon a pole. The Greek word for “lifted” means “highly exalted.” John gives importance to the exaltation of Jesus. Jesus predicted that his enemies would exalt him on the cross for our healing. God the Father glorified him through his resurrection, ascension, and assigning seat at His right side. God healed the snake-bitten sinners of the Old Testament from death by looking at the bronze serpent as a mark of their faith in God’s word. So also, God would save from the bite of the devil (serpent), those who believe in the Son of God lifted on the cross.

The serpent in the desert
The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years since they left Egypt. Their sins against God caused the lengthy delay to enter Canaan. Many had died in the desert. They had no hope of immediate entry to the promised land because the king of Edom denied passage through his land. Though they were close to the promised land, Moses led the people in the opposite direction to travel around the land of Edom. That made the people upset.

The Israelites complained against Moses and God for lack of food and water in the desert. Later they criticized Moses on the distaste of the miraculous food they had been receiving daily by God’s grace. In response, God punished them by sending fiery serpents. The Bible qualifies the snakes “fiery” because the snake bites caused high fever and inflammation leading to death. Some others interpret that these snakes had the color of fire. The people requested Moses to intercede to God for them to take away the serpents. Instead of eliminating the serpents, God asked Moses to make an image of the fiery serpent made of bronze and raise it on a pole so the people could see it from all parts of the camp. Moses asked the snake bitten people to look at the bronze snake so they could save their lives from death.

God, who had forbidden making any image, ordered to create the image of a fiery serpent on a pole as a foreshadow of the crucified Jesus. Looking at the bronze serpent did not mean to worship it. Serpent is a symbol of the original sin the first parents committed. By looking at the image, they had to remember their sins and seek God’s mercy. It was not the bronze serpent that saved them, but God who asked to look at it. Later, people worshipped the bronze serpent and burnt incense to it during the time of King Hezekiah. So, the king destroyed it to regain proper worship of the Lord (2 Kings 18:4).

Instead of the pole and the bronze serpent of the Old Testament, now we have the cross and Jesus’ body on the cross to look at with faith and repentance, to save our lives from eternal death. Though Moses raised the bronze serpent on a pole, that alone could not save the lives of the people. The snake bitten people had to look at it with repentance and seek God’s mercy. Likewise, the death of Jesus on the cross is the symbol of our salvation. We need to look at the cross with faith and repentance for our salvation.

The cross of Jesus was also the way to Jesus’ glory. Our sufferings for Christ and his church will lead us also to partake in Jesus’ glory. The bronze serpent on the pole was instrumental for freeing the people from poison. So also, Jesus raised on the cross freed us from spiritual poison or sin.

(15) … so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Everyone who believes
God offers his love and Son’s redemption to all. Its outcome is limited to those who believe in him.

Believes
Belief is an ongoing trust and should continue throughout our lives.

In him
Our faith in Jesus involves belief in what Jesus teaches and our trust in the person of Jesus. God expects our obedience to the Word of God and our imitation of Jesus.

Eternal life
The Greek term “eternal life” (zoē) refers to quality and quantity of life after death. In John zoē refers to resurrection, eschatological life, or the life of God Himself. Unlike Synoptic Gospels, John’s gospel emphasizes the “eternal life” as the goal of his gospel.

(16) Yes, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

God so loved
The Israelites did not understand God’s love for them. According to their understanding, God imposed laws upon them and punished the violators. They saw God as one demanding sacrifices and offerings. Though God offered many favors to Israel, they were afraid of God, and they did not appreciate God as their benevolent Father. Only through the incarnation, charitable deeds, teachings, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus that people came to understand and appreciate God’s love.

The world
Israelites had a misconception that God who made a covenant with them was theirs alone, and his redemption was not for others. However, John the Evangelist presents God who loves all humanity and the world that He created for the humans. It was to save all the world that God sent His Son.

Gave
The supreme gift of God to humanity is the incarnation of Jesus. Jesus’ gift to us is regaining the eternal bliss, lost to the first parents and their descendants. Through the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God showed His love in action.

Only Son
“Only begotten Son” means “unique or one of a kind.” Though all people are children of God, there is no child of God like Jesus.

(17) God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world; but that, through him the world might be saved.

To condemn the world
Jesus came into the world with the mission of salvation. The Greek word for “condemn” means both judgment and condemnation. God never condemns people. They take it for themselves by turning away from God like the prodigal son. Jesus came for our rescue, to which we need to cooperate for our salvation. Judas preferred wealth to Jesus. Choice was his and not God’s. People have the opportunity and freedom to come to the light of Jesus or to remain in the world’s darkness. We select our reward or condemnation like Eve did along with Adam.

(18) Whoever believes in him will not be condemned. He who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Faith in Jesus will deliver us from the condemnation that we have inherited by the fall of the first parents. Those who deny Jesus have selected their condemnation. A father always wants the redemption and not the child’s destruction. God does not send people to hell. They themselves choose it.

(19) This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.

This is the verdict.
Our acceptance or rejection of Jesus determines our salvation or condemnation. Based on our choice, the judgement will happen at the second coming of Christ (John 5:29).

The light came into the world.
God started creation with forming light on the first day (Genesis 1:3). He created the luminary bodies like the sun, moon, and stars only on the fourth day (Genesis 1:14-19). So, the original source of light in the world is God. That light came into the world again in Jesus who said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). The evil doers preferred darkness and rejected the divine light.

People preferred darkness to light.
Even during the public ministry of Jesus, many “elite” people who were the eyewitness of the glorious actions of Jesus rejected him. They found justifications for their position and accused Jesus of blasphemy.

(20) For whoever does wrong hates the light and does not come to the light for fear that his deeds will be shown as evil.

Adam and Eve wanted to hide from God soon after they committed the sin. Judas and the Temple soldiers approached Jesus in the darkness so they could avoid exposure to the crowd who gather around Jesus. Thief steals at night so he can conceal his action. Criminals hide after their crime.

(21) But whoever lives according to the truth comes into the light so that it can be clearly seen that his works have been done in God.

Whoever lives the truth
Jesus who said: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6) is the model for those who live the truth. We find the truth of the Kingdom of God through Jesus. In him we have a fresh life, and he leads us to the truth. When we live according to the truth Jesus manifested, we come to God’s light.

Comes to the light
In the sermon on the mount Jesus taught: “your light must shine before others, so that they may see the good you do and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16). St. Paul reminded Thessalonians: “Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, let us put on the breast-plate of faith and love, and let the hope of salvation be our helmet.” (I Thess. 5:8).

MESSAGE

1. The cross and crucifix (a cross with the corpse) are not just symbols of Christianity. Moses lifted the bronze serpent on a pole to which the Israelites looked with faith in God. That saved their lives from death. Similarly, we look at the crucifix to reflect on the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus with faith and repentance for our salvation. Imitating Jesus’s way to glory is our choice for eternal life.

2. A follower of Jesus exposes himself to the light of Christ. Our actions based on Christ’s teachings will have an impact in the community and in the church’s growth. The exemplary life of the early Christian community was the reason for the rapid growth of the church (Acts 2: 47).

3. Nicodemus who came at night to discuss and learn from Jesus later helped Jesus in his trial and burial. He was one of the three rich people in Jerusalem. However, he could find life’s meaning only in Jesus. Let us value Jesus and his ways than the resources of this world.

4. When the Israelites asked God to save their lives from the fiery snake bite, God did not take away the snakes but asked them to look at the bronze serpent that Moses raised on a pole. The snake that represents Satan is still in the world to destroy our spiritual life until the second coming of Christ. Our remedy from sin is to look at the crucified Jesus with faith and practice his teachings.