The complex and rich world of scriptural imagery in ‘the book of signs’ (John 3; Lent 4B)

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). So begins the section of the book of signs, the Gospel according to John, that is offered in the lectionary this coming Sunday (John 3:14-21).

The allusion to Moses is clear, referencing the time when “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” (Num 21:9). The Numbers passage is included in this Sunday’s lectionary, as the reading from Hebrew Scripture (Num 21:4-9).

The brief allusion to the “fiery serpents” (or should that be the seraphim?) in John 3 forms part of an important motif running throughout the whole Gospel, in which Jesus is linked to scripture–often as “the fulfilment of scripture”. It’s a feature that is common to all four canonical Gospels. In the book of signs, this interpretive stance is hinted at as early as the Prologue, in the comparison drawn between Jesus and Moses: “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17).

It is stated explicitly in the claim put on the mouth of Philip, “we have found him of whom Moses and the prophets wrote” (1:45), and in the words attributed to Jesus, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (5:39).

There are fifteen clear quotations from Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel. There are eight explicit references to scripture in the early chapters (1:23; 2:17; 6:31; 6:45; 7:38; 7:42; 10:34; 12:13–15), while a “fulfilment formula” is used in later chapters, to introduce seven such scriptural quotations (12:38–40; 13:18; 15:25; 18:9; 19:24, 28, 36–37). There is also a passing note that Judas died after betraying Jesus “so that the scripture might be fulfilled” (17:12).

However, the total significance of the Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel is much greater than these sixteen occurrences, as the Gospel contains numerous allusions to specific scripture passages, such as references to Jacob’s ladder (1:51) and the sacrificial lamb (1:29, 36), as well as more generalised allusions to scripture. Chapter 6, a long chapter on the theme of “the living bread”, functions like an extended midrashic exploration of this important scriptural theme.

These allusions are much freer in their form and indicate that, for the author of this Gospel, the Hebrew Scriptures had become an integral part of his mind and heart, for he treats them with a freedom born from intimate familiarity.

In like fashion, a series of Jewish titles is embedded in the narrative as confessions by key characters of the significance of Jesus. In the extended preface of 1:19–51, Jesus is addressed as “Rabbi” (1:38, 49), “Messiah” (1:41), “King of Israel” (1:49), and “Son of God” (1:49). These claims about Jesus, drawn from Jewish traditions, are all made also within the Synoptic traditions.

The Johannine Jesus himself refers, in the allusive synoptic fashion, to the “Son of Man” (thirteen times, from 1:51 to 13:31), which we must presume to be a self–reference. That’s another clear Jewish term drawn from scripture (Dan 7:13; Ezek 2:1,3,6,8, 3:1,3,10, etc).

In later scenes, Jesus is also called “prophet” (4:19), “Messiah” (4:29; 11:27), and “Rabbouni” (my teacher, 20:16). The ultimate Christological confession of the Gospel is uttered by Thomas, when he moves beyond this viewpoint in the phrase, “my Lord and my God” (20:28), echoing the perception of the Jews, that Jesus was “making himself equal to God” (5:18). (Lord, of course, was one of the Jewish terms for addressing God.)

For the most part of this Gospel, Jesus is presented in terms drawn from within a Jewish context. Indeed, even the confession by Thomas (20:28) can be understood within a particular stream of Jewish tradition, for the hellenistic Jewish author Philo uses the terms “Lord” and “God” to designate the two major divine powers of creation (signified by “God”) and eschatological judgement (signified by “Lord”).

And there is much more to be said about the I Am sayings, unique to the book of signs, for each of them draws deeply from the language and imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures. But that’s another blog sometime.

So the allusion in John 3:14 offers a doorway into a complex and rich world of scriptural imagery, story, and language—the very world in which the author of this Gospel lived for many decades.

Thinking about this way of writing reminded me of one of my teachers during the years that I was undertaking doctoral studies at Yale University in the USA—Professor Hans Frei. I took a semester-long seminar with him on hermeneutics, wrote a long essay on how his work shaped the “New Yale Theology”, and had him as one of my assessment panel when I submitted my doctoral thesis proposal. He had an utterly incisive mind along with a gentle eirenic nature.

Prof. Frei used to say “we should not read the Bible in such a way as to make it make sense on our lives; we need to live our lives in the text of the Bible and that way we find its deepest truths”. Or something like that—it is 35 years since I took that seminar with him!!

Here are two of his quotable quotes about this, that I have found online:

“For many centuries before the modern age, most Christian theologians had read the Bible primarily as a kind of realistic narrative. It told the overarching story of the world, from creation to last judgment. Moreover, the particular coherence of this story made “figural” interpretation possible: some events in the biblical stories, as well as some nonbiblical events, prefigured or reflected the central biblical events. Indeed, Christians made sense of their own lives by locating their stories within the context of that larger story.” He argued, in his writings and in his teaching, that we needed to recover something of that way of reading the Bible—living in its world, rather than dragging it into our world.

Another rich quote is:

“A Christian theology that respects the meaning of the biblical narratives must begin simply by retelling those stories, without any systematic effort at apologetics, without any determined effort to begin with questions arising from our experience. The stories portray a person — a God who acts in the history of Israel and engages in self-revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. They help us learn about that person in the way that a great novelist describes a character or that a telling anecdote captures someone’s personality. They provide insights that we lose if we try to summarize the narrative in a nonnarrative form. No abstract account of God’s faithfulness adequately summarizes Exodus. The Gospels surpass any abstract account of God’s love.”

And he quotes Erich Auerbach, a literary critic whom Frei much admired, as he wrote of the Bible:

“Far from seeking . . . merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history. Christians who tell these stories, stories that are rich, enigmatic, sometimes puzzling and ambiguous, can find that their lives fit into the world they describe — indeed, that our stories suddenly seem to make more sense when seen in that context.”

(You can read more of Frei’s writing at

It seems to me that the ethos of the book of signs and the writings of Hans Frei, separated in time by two full millennia, nevertheless share this common feature, of immersing themselves into the ancient scripture so that it shapes the way they live in the world of their own time.


The earlier part of this blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)