MY FAMILY STARTED the first day of Chinese New Year at the Sunday service at Barker Road Methodist Church. The Rev Malcolm Tan used the theme of the “Year of the Snake” in a wonderful sermon which contrasted popular fears of the snake with the good news of Jesus who compares Himself to a snake in John 3:14-15. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
Jesus was clearly alluding to the story in Numbers 21:8-9 where we are told that “Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.”
The ancient story strikes modern readers as strange. How can just “looking” at a bronze snake save anyone from a snake’s venom? It sounds like an ancient superstitious ritual of magic.
From a cultural and historical point of view, one could argue that the use of the bronze serpent in Numbers 21 was based on the ancient theory or logic of sympathetic power: you use a snake to kill a snake; you use a thief to catch a thief (compare another intriguing story in 1 Samuel 6:4-5 where the outbreak of rats was countered by making a golden rat).
We modern people should not be so quick to dismiss this ancient logic as naive and stupid: a medical analogy might be that of inoculation where we inject (or infect) ourselves with a bit of a virus in order to induce an immunity that helps us ward off future attacks from the same virus.
More importantly, however, is the theological and spiritual point of view. The use of a bronze snake should be understood in terms of its symbolic power.
The snake represented death and suffering in Numbers 21. The bronze snake was thus a symbol or reminder of such death and suffering. By asking us to “look to” this negative symbol of death and suffering with eyes of positive faith and hope in God, we are being nurtured to view the negative reality of death and suffering with a positive faith in God to usher in a life of wholeness.
It is the same theological and spiritual idea with Jesus on the Cross. On the one hand, the picture of Jesus on the cross speaks of suffering and death. But by looking to Jesus on the Cross with eyes of faith and positive hope in God, we are taught to see in that horrible symbol of suffering the positive assurance that, by the marvellous grace of God, even suffering and death can bring about wholeness and new life.
By using the very symbols of suffering and death (snake and cross) as symbols for us to look at with the eyes of faith and hope, God saves us from the venom and sting of suffering and death.
May this Chinese year of the Snake find us looking with faith and hope to Jesus, lifted up like a bronze snake on a wooden cross, and may God’s eternal blessings enable us to rise above the temporal venom of life’s snake bites.
The Rev Dr Gordon Wong is the President of Trinity Annual Conference.