Why does the writer of John refer to Jesus as a serpent in John chapter 3?

Jesus is compared to several different animals and objects within the Old and New Testaments. For example, John 1:29 “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”. Here Jesus is compared to a Lamb. This comparison makes sense because Jesus is seen by Christians as the sacrifice that saved them just as the Jewish people believed that their sacrifices pardoned their sins. There are several other comparisons that made sense to me as I read them. There was one in particular in John 3, however, that took me by surprise. John 3:14 states, And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:. This verse had me completely taken aback. My problem with this verse is obvious. How can Jesus be compared to a serpent? Is the serpent not a symbol of manipulation, evil, and often times Satan himself? The story of the fall of man in Genesis depicts Satan entering a serpent that tempts Eve and long story short, mankind is kicked out of paradise. Since I was told this story I always assumed that the symbol of the serpent was always one of negative connotation. So why was Jesus depicted as something associated with such negativity? After lots of research I found something I never expected: the serpent isn’t always a negative symbol. The serpent can be both positive and negative.

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There are a few examples from the Christian and Jewish perspectives that show the comparison of Jesus to a serpent that even keep the negative connotations that are associated with it. Genesis 3:14 says The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, Cursed are you more than all cattle, And more than every beast of the field; On your belly you will go”  Here we see that God cursed the serpent. Why is that significant to John 3:14? Well, according to Galatians 3:13  Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us—because it is written, Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed..  So one assumption as to why the writer of John compares Jesus to a serpent is because they were both cursed. Clearbibleanswers.org says it best by stating, “As the serpent was cursed for being a means of the devil to bring in sin into our world, Jesus was cursed, for our sakes, being the medium of God to pay the penalty for sin, and to take away sin from this world.” (Clearbibleanswers.org)From a strictly Christian/Jewish perspective I believe that these verses would lead one to the conclusion that John used this symbol to correlate between the Jewish belief in the serpent being cursed and Christ being cursed to undo the serpent’s damage in the world. The serpent, like the symbol of the dove is used to blend together the beliefs of the old testament with the new teachings of Christ and his apostles.
This blending of Jewish and Christian beliefs with the use of the serpent symbol as compared to Christ is also seen in reference to a story in the Old Testament book of Numbers. In numbers 21:8-9 we read, 8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So 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 Jewish people in Numbers were plagued with poisonous snakes that were sent to punish them for complaining about God and the conditions of life he had forced them to endure as they wondered the desert looking for the “promised land”. Moses saw his people dying from the bites and prayed to God for healing. When the people looked at the serpent on the pole they were healed. The Christians of the New Testament were dying in their sins(For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23) and believed that Christ could heal them from sin because as stated earlier he was believed to be the “lamb of God” (John1:29) This correlation is more clearly stated by Mcdonaldroad.org by saying,Desire of Ages by EG White, pp. 174-175 gives good insight: “As the image made in the likeness of the destroying serpents was lifted up for their healing, so One made in the likeness of sinful flesh (Romans 8:3) was to be their Redeemer.” It was made in the likeness of the snake. Jesus was made in the likeness of sin. Notice that Both saving agents hanging on wooden poles were made in the very likeness of that which represented sin..( Mcdonaldroad.org) This was a second blending of Old Testament teachings that help to blend the newly found Christian principles together. These two examples give a good argument for John using the serpent as a comparison to Christ. I think from this perspective it was the writer of John trying to prove to a people knowledgeable in the Old Testament that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah. This of course is the predominant reason for the writing of the gospels. All four writers were trying to persuade you to believe that Jesus was the Messiah.

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I could have stopped my research here and had a pretty convincing argument for the reason behind this comparison. However, it is not fair to the work not to consider other perspectives. As I have discussed before, the Jewish people were highly influenced by the cultures of the day as well as those they had encountered in the past. I then began to research other cultures and their beliefs associated with the serpent. For instance, according to mythencyclopedia.com the ancient Greeks associated the serpent with healing and eternity. Mythenyclopedia.com states the reason for this is because, “As snakes grow, many of them shed their skin at various times, revealing a shiny new skin underneath. For this reason snakes have become symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. The ancient Greeks considered snakes sacred to Asclepius, the god of medicine.” (mythencyclopedia.com.) Asclepius was a skilled physician who practised in Greece around 1200BC.(drblayney.com) According to legend, “At Apollo’s request, Asclepius was placed among the stars as Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer.”.(drblayney.com)  The Greek tradition saw the serpent as healing and immortality. A possible explanation for John using the simile of Christ to a serpent is that Christ was also depicted as not only a healer but according to the gospels he also rose from the dead making him immortal.. In all four of the gospels, the writers take the time to recount numerous stories that show Jesus as a healer. Many of the readers of the gospels were gentiles. John could have used this symbol to again help to blend two cultures together through the symbol of the serpent as a means of persuading the reader that Jesus was the Son of God.

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In conclusion, I believe, that John uses this simile of Jesus and the serpent to blend cultures together. These blends are sometimes of Jewish beliefs with Christian beliefs, Ancient Greek beliefs with Christian beliefs, and sometimes even a combination of the two. I do not believe that one can make a definite conclusion on which hypothesis is correct. I do believe, however, that we can say that the writer of John was trying to use the comparison of Jesus to a serpent to correlate old beliefs with new ones in hopes of proving to the reader that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah.

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