Maybe you memorized it when you were eight. Maybe it was painted on a decorative plate at grandma's house. Maybe you heard it a Keith Urban concert. Maybe you swoon when you hear it because of Tim Tebow's come-hither smile. But if you have any exposure to Christianity, you're probably familiar with John 3:16.
In the standard evangelical canon-within-canon, John 3:16 represents nothing short of the Gospel (emphasis on the definite article). In modern, minimalist, individualist incarnations of Christian theology, John 3:16 is the gateway drug to heavenly bliss.
It is curious then that many Christians have no idea what to do with the immediate context of this verse:
John 3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “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....So what is this business about the serpent in the wilderness? And how does said serpent relate to the Son of Man? Well, just as a refresher:
Numbers 21:6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.As you can see this passage creates space for more questions (to put it mildly). So sometimes the Lord sends poisonous serpents? Or should this be translated "fiery seraphim" [הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים] of angelic import? Sometimes zoomorphic images cast in bronze are salvation from sin and not the cause of sin? And has anyone ever had a worse middle-management job description than Moses?
Back to John's Gospel, what is to be gained by comparing Moses' bronze image to Jesus?
John 3:14 is a fascinating window into a much overlooked biblical topic: serpentine imagery. Once you start exploring the forms and functions of serpents in the Bible, it becomes clear that the image isn't nearly as negative as you might expect.
For a wonderfully comprehensive treatment of this topic, see Charlesworth's The Good and Evil Serpent. It is not for the timid. I once used it for an advanced exegesis class and it really functions well at that level (i.e. it's not going to challenge J. K. Rowling for sales). One of the payoffs is the realization that Christian, theological emphasis on Genesis 3 has negatively colored our understanding of serpents in the Bible. Indeed even a cursory reading of John 3 should suggest that our traditional readings of serpents in the Bible have been insufficient.