Lent 2 • John 3:1–17 • March 20, 2011
By Erik Herrmann
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified…”
It was because of the signs that Nicodemus came to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs (σημεῖα) that you do unless God is with him.” So far, John has recounted only the first sign at the wedding at Cana—the miracle of the water turned to wine—but the evangelist admits at the end (20:30–31) that he has left out much: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life his name.” So Nicodemus saw many signs, but the faith that leads to life remained elusive. Indeed, seeing is not the foundational category for the kingdom of God. The wind is unseen, and yet its breezes still refresh. So it is with the Spirit of God.
But if Nicodemus wants to talk of signs, then Jesus will direct him to a better one. He sends this “teacher of Israel” back to the Torah to consider the sign of the bronze serpent: “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” (πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων ἐν αὐτῷ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον). Here Jesus’s words echo Numbers 21:8, “Whoever bitten, seeing it, will live” (LXX: πᾶς ὁ δεδηγμένος ἰδὼν αὐτὸν ζήσεται), with the notable exchange of “seeing” for “believing.” The climax of the evangelist’s commentary on faith and sight (Thomas in 20:25f., but see also 1:18, 4:48, 5:37, 6:30, 6:36, 6:40, 8:56, 12:40, 14:9, 20:8) is foreshadowed here.
But most striking is the sign itself, and the point of comparison is unmistakable. In Numbers 21, Moses is instructed to put the serpent upon a “pole” or “standard” (נֵס) for the salvation of the people—in the same way the Son of Man will be lifted up. If Nicodemus desires a sign of God’s kingdom and salvation, then he will need to be confronted with the cross. The point is further strengthened by the fact that the Septuagint translates “standard” (נֵס) with σημεῖον—the same word employed by the evangelist for Jesus’ miraculous “signs.” The two words can mean both “standard” and “miracle,” and the double meaning is especially exploited here (later rabbinic commentary on Numbers could likewise play with the ambiguity of the Hebrew word: “And Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it up by a miracle. He cast it into the air and it stayed there.”1). Jesus crucified is the greatest σημεῖον of all—the miracle of the cross. It is the consummation of all the signs that Jesus performed, the greatest demonstration of God’s power and glory and kingdom. “There is no miracle in the passion narrative. This is not because the story of Jesus ceases to have the value of revelation; in fact, the death and resurrection are the supreme σημεῖον.”2
Nicodemus would eventually see this sign too. He would see Jesus lifted up on the cross, and he would gently bring him down and bury him. Whether such sight yielded to faith is not said. It is a grisly sign, a scandal and offense to the eyes. But to them that believe, it is the greatest sign and miracle of all. This Lent, may we see again this greatest of Jesus signs and believe, “that by believing we may have life in his name.”
1 H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah: Numbers, trans. Judah Slotki (London: The Soncino Press, 1939), 19.23, 772.
2 C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, (London: SPCK, 1955), 65.