Today's Gospel reading (John 3: 13-17) contains a preparatory reminder for the feast of the Holy Cross, which will be celebrated this Tuesday, September 14. In one of the passages, Jesus tells us that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up. This is a referral to the Old Testament Book of Numbers, chapter 21, verse 9, where the Israelites, after they were released from bondage in Egypt, and wandering around in the desert wilderness, were overcome by venomous snakes. As a cure for the snakebites, God commanded Moses to fashion a brass serpent, to place it on a standard, or post, and whosoever was to gaze upon the serpent would immediately be healed. Here Christ is again using the Old Testament as a pedagogical, or teaching, tool, to show us that He is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant.
Christ is showing us that just as the faithful Israelites were healed through this symbol of death (i.e., the serpent), so are we saved through Christ who was hung upon the cross. But, while the cross was the symbol of death, like the serpent, it now becomes the symbol of life. In this instance, we are faced with another of those phenomenal paradoxes. (Other examples of these paradoxes would be 'God becomes man' or 'a virgin gives birth', etc.). Yet, as unfathomable as some of these things may be to us, the earthly existence of the Saviour was prefigured throughout the Old Testament. Christ becomes the new Adam; Jonah in the belly of the fish foreshadows Christ in the tomb after His crucifixion, as well as the brass serpent prefiguring the saving act of Christ's death on the cross. While the serpent, or snake, symbolized in the Old Testament sin and its deadly effect, the brass serpent symbolized the bearing away of the curse and judgement of sin; and the metal itself was figurative of the righteousness of God's judgement.
As Christians, we should never underestimate the importance of the Old Testament and its place within our lives, because, basically, without the Old Testament we would never be able to fully understand the message of the New Testament. Without the Old Testament, we would not understand what Christ was referring to in today's Gospel. Our Church Fathers have always emphasized the importance of the Old Testament and its message as being the inspired Word of God that points the way to our salvation. So if the message of the Old Testament is referred to, in short, as something that points the way, what then, in short, is the message of the New Testament?
Jesus sums it up entirely in the following passage from tonight's Gospel reading: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life." That is ultimately the message of the Gospel summed up in 25 words. God's love for us; God loving us so much that He sends His Son for us; our faith, or belief, in the Son; and our guaranteed eternal existence because of God's love, because Jesus has come, and because of our faith in Him. This small but important passage is the essence of our faith. If someone who had never in their life heard of Christianity, what we believe, what we practice, etc., this would be the primary passage which would illustrate everything about God, about us, and about our salvation.
Continuing on from this passage, Jesus states that: "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved." Now Jesus never condemned anyone whilst here on earth. He was very stern with many; He even condemned the practices of some of the Pharisees; but He never condemned anyone to eternal suffering - to a hell. In fact, God does not send people to hell.
Our whole understanding of what heaven and hell are, has been so distorted and abused by the teachings of the Western churches that it has even entered our Church and made us blind to the teachings of the Gospel and the teachings of the Church Fathers. Heaven is not 'up there', and hell is not 'down there'. You want to know what hell is? Hell is an absence of God, whether it is here on this earth or in the afterlife. You want to know who condemns us to hell? We condemn ourselves. To find yourself in hell is to turn your back on God, to reject God, to reject His mercy. There are people out there who are living in hell, on this earth, right now; and the sad thing is that they often don't realise it. They love to blame society, those around them, even the Church, but the answers to their problems are inside THEM! All they need to do is to discover God and His Kingdom within them, and then will they realise what they have been missing all this time. God cannot condemn us to an eternity of misery. It is just not in His nature. He can only love, but He cannot force you to love Him. If you choose to turn your back on God, to turn your back on His unconditional love, then you will create your own hell.
Our relationship with Our Father in Heaven is very similar to that of a married couple. For a relationship to really work, you need the co-operation of both parties, but, more importantly, you need mutual love for each other. It is similar between God and us, with the only difference being that He cannot do anything but love; and, yet, so often we turn our relationship into a one-sided affair - it is a case of too much me, me, me, and not enough of Him.
Brothers and sisters, we are in this marriage together for eternity. Let us not let it end in divorce, but let us make it work; and, better still, let us encourage and help those around us to maintain this relationship, this marriage with the Creator.
Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George, Brisbane QLD