How about another twist on the John 3 text? “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up that whoever believes in him should have eternal life.”
Prior to the Dark Ages (aka, Middle Ages, 6th – 12th centuries) serpents had a pretty good reputation in many societies. Historically, serpents and snakes represented fertility or a creative life force. They were symbols of rebirth and transformation because they shed their skin through sloughing. They were also symbols of immortality and healing.
One symbol in particular is the ouroboros, an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. It takes the shape of a circle, a symbol of eternity and continual renewal of life. The ouroboros often symbolizes self-reflexivity or cyclicality in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself. It can also represent the idea of primordial unity related to something existing in or persisting from the beginning with such force or qualities it cannot be extinguished.
Carl Jung said the ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself.
In some Abrahamic traditions, the serpent represents sexual desire. According to some interpretations of the Midrash, the serpent represents sexual passion. In Hinduism, Kundalini is a coiled serpent, the residual power of pure desire.(1)
It’s been confusing for me to understand why Jesus paralleled the lifting up of himself on the cross to the snake/serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness…until I learned of the positive image Jesus probably held of serpents. He would become the image of immortality for all.
Jesus is the Christian symbol for immortality, for healing, for rebirth, for regeneration, and the creative life force. He is our symbol for sloughing off the dead skin of the flesh (our earthly desires) in order to become a new person…born again, born from above.
Just as Moses lifted up the 10 Commandments as a guide for his people to turn from death to life, Jesus has been lifted up as a guide to help us move from death into a new and abundant life (eternal life – the quality of life God intends for each of us) in the world today. He symbolizes the law of love that is to be lifted up so that all who trust in him and his teachings can be healed and have eternal life today.
Serpents, like commandments, have lost their ability to keep people from perishing (if they ever had that ability). Yet, Jesus will always be looked to by those who recognize they are perishing. When they look to Christ (follow his example of love) they can begin the quality of life God intends for them to have in the world today – eternal life.
This is even better news than one might think. Just like serpents need to shed their skins many times in one lifetime, we too need to be reborn, renewed, regenerated as we get snake-bit by fleshly desires, ebbing and flowing toward and away from the example set by Jesus. With each cycle, we can grow in our trust that following His example will lead us back to life.