The Gospel of Suffering

“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.” (John 3:16)

Hi Fighter,

It’s the best-known verse in the Christian Scriptures. It’s been plastered across walls, printed on T-shirts and posters, and tattooed across backs and torsos. I even heard of a couple in Lahore who named their son “John 3:16”! This text is said to be a summary of the whole Christian message, but do we really know what it means?

These words were spoken by Jesus in the middle of a dialogue with Nicodemus – a religious academic. Their discussion had been focused on the mysterious movement of God’s Spirit, but then Jesus made a statement about the Son of Man being ‘lifted up’ in the same way that Moses ‘lifted up’ the snake in the wilderness, “that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:15). That’s what immediately precedes our favourite memory verse.

 “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. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-16)

John 3:16 needs to be understood alongside John 3:15. Jesus parallels the snake’s pole to His own cross, and belief in the snake with believing in Him, but what does this mean? In what sense did Moses’ community believe in the snake?

If you’re not familiar with the snake story, it’s found in the book of Numbers, chapter 21. The people grumbled against God and against Moses, and they were suddenly set upon by a horde of deadly serpents! The people then apologised, and God told Moses to “make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” (Numbers 21:8) Moses cast the snake in bronze, which sounds a lot like he was making a ‘graven image’. Even so, it worked.

Apart from both Jesus and the snake being ‘lifted up’ at some point, what the snake on the pole has to do with the Christ on the cross is not immediately obvious, except perhaps that both images are repulsive.

The snake was what had been bringing death to Moses’ people. Why would they want to look at another one? Likewise, the cross was what Jesus’ contemporaries most loathed. They hated the Roman Occupation, yet Rome kept them in line through fear – most especially, through the fear of crucifixion.

We have lost all sense of horror when it comes to the cross, but long before it was a symbol of faith, it was a symbol of Imperial control. The Romans used the cross in the same way Empower Palpatine used the Death Star. It was the Empire’s tool for wiping out dissent. As a form of execution, the cross was public, shameful and excruciating, as well as effective.

I often think of the 6,000 slaves who were crucified after the failed revolt of Spartacus, the gladiator, in the century before Christ. The bodies of those tortured men lined the via Appia for a distance of more than 100 miles! The message was clear to everyone who looked upon those crosses, and it wasn’t a message of hope.

What is Jesus telling us in John 3:16? In what sense can we look upon Him, lifted up on the cross, in the same way that Moses’ people looked upon the snake on the pole? To be honest, I’m not sure I understand all that is entailed in ‘believing’ in the one who is ‘lifted up’, but it seems to me to be as much a challenge as an invitation. It’s the challenge to embrace what Kierkegaard called, “The Gospel of Suffering”.

History suggests that Christ’s followers did take up this challenge when they adopted the cross as the symbol of their faith. It wasn’t their only option. The fish was initially a popular Christian symbol (based on the way the letters in the Greek word for fish formed an acronym for their profession of faith). There were other family-friendly icons circulating then too, but the cross won out. It seems that the early church embraced the Gospel of suffering, though it didn’t take long for that symbol to be domesticated and, ironically, turned into a jewel-encrusted icon of institutional power.

There is a mystery at the centre of the Christian faith that is encapsulated in John 3:16. It is the mystery of Christ’s suffering. This verse invites us to take a good look at the Son of Man who is lifted up and, from that vantage point, to embrace the even greater mystery – that the sufferings of Jesus are an act love for us all.

“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.”

Our Sunday Eucharist

We had another wonderful Sunday Eucharist last weekend, and this despite that fact that dear Tom Toby somehow failed to properly connect with us again!

We saw Tom’s face appear for a few moments, but then technical issues somehow took him from us. Even so, as one soldier fell from the line, another took his place. Joy rallied to the cause and joined us, and we enjoyed an excellent and enlightening panel discussion with plenty of solid input from the greater online community.

Thank you to everybody who participated, and special thanks to our friend from London, Rev. Dr Stephen Sizer, who gave us a pre-recorded reflection on Jesus’ clearing of the temple (in John 2).

About Father Dave Smith

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four

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