Van Ens: Like cures like
Odd, to compare Jesus to a snake, isn’t it? “Christ, the snake” sounds toxic, weird, perhaps blasphemous. And, when we are acquainted with an obscure text from the Hebrew scriptures, biblical.
Most people show a natural fear of snakes. We get skittish picturing poisonous serpents crossing our paths. It’s soothing to picture Jesus as a shepherd, like a caring God protecting His sheep (Psalm 23:1). But Jesus compared to a snake — ugh!
The way we refer to snakes strikes sinister mental images. “A snake in the grass” is a figure of speech that recalls disgust, fear, and condemnation. This double-dealing crook cheats gullible victims. Loitering in shadows, this deceiver hoodwinks us, as does Satan, the “father of lies,” the Bible teaches.
In a brief six verses, scripture records how ancient Hebrews, after escaping from Egypt, felt trapped in the wilderness. When they griped about miserable travel conditions, God overran footpaths with snakes that bit them.
Then God suggested to Moses a handy remedy that acted like a vaccine to cure snake-bitten Israelites. Moses hoisted on a pole a bronze casting of a snake. When the people focused on this snake suspended in mid-air, they gained health instead of dying from snakebites (Numbers 21:1-6).
Like cures like. A bronze snake acts like an antibiotic for snakebites.
In a conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus appropriated this image of the elevated bronze snake that brought healing. Christ forecasted for the first time his impending crucifixion (John 3:14). Jesus mentions the suspended bronze serpent, predicting in his crucifixion that he, too, would “be lifted.” Just as Israelites were cured by looking up at the bronze serpent, so also will believers who “look up” to the crucified Christ glimpse the mystery of life after death.
Theologian Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., former President of Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, unpacks the symbolism of the raised bronzed snake, like Jesus lifted on a cross. Plantinga offers a simple yet profound formula for what the serpent imagery teaches: Like cures like. That is, the Hebrews dying from snakebites in the Wilderness look up at a bronze serpent and are cured.
Similarly, when Christians look to Christ hanging on the cross, they are exposed to a healing touch from sinful sore His suffering love dispenses. Such a curative remedy inspires Christian to replace hate with love and unfairness with justice.
Replay this sequence during our pandemic. Like cures like. COVID-19 strikes like a coiled serpent biting us. Vaccines work on the formula Plantinga observes in scriptural and medical spheres.
Our inoculations expose us to COVID-19, but on a smaller scale. Our immune system produces antibodies that protect us from the coronavirus’ worst effects. Vaccines contain either a miniscule amount of the toxic disease or essentially dead cells that act as a buffer against the disease. After our bodies acquire these minute toxins, they produce antibodies to protect us from death.
Like cures like. Snakebites were cured when Israelites focused on the raised bronze snake. Similarly, poisonous death does not stain life’s script when Christians focus on the cross where Jesus hung. By his grisly death, Christ writes a script of hope and life evermore.
The Puritan cleric Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), blessed with the brightest theological mind America has produced, was invited to become the third president of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. Smallpox ravaged the colonies. Edwards relied on scripture and science as complimentary ways God worked.
Shortly after his January 1758 arrival in Princeton, New Jersey, Edwards was inoculated. A secondary infection inflamed his throat. Edwards could not eat. He died six weeks into his college presidency on March 22, 1754, aged 54.
Many conservative Christians who rejected like cures like condemned Edwards for “killing himself” by having a minimal amount of the smallpox germ injected under his skin. Christians argued this remedy was not a cure but a death sentence, pricked under Edwards’ skin by Satan, not God.
Later in the 18th century, conservative Christians kept rejecting a new form of inoculation Thomas Jefferson received. An English country doctor Edward Jenner produced a less risky method of immunization. He cultivated pustules [abscesses] extracted from milkmaids infected with a cowpox virus, closely related to smallpox.
During the first summer of his presidency, Jefferson approved injecting with Jenner’s vaccine about 200 people at Monticello, including relatives, slaves, and neighbors.
Today, history repeats itself. Whereas 69 percent of Americans intend to be vaccinated, merely 54 percent of White evangelicals concur. One-third of Americans, mostly white males lacking a college education, decline to be vaccinated.
“When asked, ‘How concerned are you that you or someone in your family will become infected with the coronavirus?’ 32% percent of Republicans said they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned, compared to 89% of Democrats. When respondents were asked whether they planned to get a COVID-19 vaccine, 29% of Republicans said yes, compared with 88% of Democrats.
This illusion of invincibility rejects what science and scripture clearly reveal: Like cures like.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.