John 3:14-21 (NRSVCE)
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Today’s reading contains that one verse in Scripture that almost everybody knows, John 3:16. But I want to look around that verse and focus on what’s happening in the wider passage, because there’s much to be found there. First we have the clear typological connection between the serpent that was raised up on a pole by Moses and Jesus. You’ll find this story at the beginning of Numbers 21, where we see that whenever anyone looked upon the snake, they were healed of their affliction (namely, poisonous snake bites). If Jesus is like this snake, then, he is not merely coming as some kind of liberator, as the disciples often mistake him to be, or as some moral guide. He is here to, quite literally, heal us. We have an affliction which will kill us (sin), and He promises that if we look upon Him, we will be healed and have eternal life.
Second, John spends a good deal of time in his Gospel contrasting “light” and “darkness.” Jesus is the Light of the World, and sin is darkness. The Light comes to illuminate that which dwells in darkness, to fill them with His light, but also to drive away the darkness. For darkness and light cannot coexist—where there is one, there is not the other. In this passage, John says “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” In other words, we flee from the Light. We flee from God because before God all of our sins are made known. We cannot hide our sin from God, and so instead we retreat further into the darkness, further into sin because we fear judgment.
I always think of what it’s like to turn on a lamp in the middle of the night, or to step outside when the skies are clear and the ground is covered in white snow. The brightness is jarring, it blinds you momentarily and for a second you retreat. You close your eyes or you cover them with your hands. But after a bit, you adjust and suddenly everything is much more clear. You can see the room in full detail, you can see the beauty that lives outside your home. Though you were tempted to simply retreat from the light you instead went toward it, and for that you were blessed with understanding and beauty.
The Light of the World is like that, only much more. He illuminates the dark spots of our souls, He exposes our sin for what it is and then drives that darkness out. It’s very easy to be scared. Admitting our faults and our wickedness is not easy. But how much better it is to dwell in the warm embrace of the Light than to cower in the shadows of sin!