Today's Gospel reading recounts a wonderful exchange between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus. It is in the context of these verses that we get perhaps the most famous passage in all of Scripture, John 3:16 ("for God so loved the world..."). As a child, I remember seeing someone in the crowd at an NFL game holding up a cardboard sign with only "John 3:16" on it. My father explained to me that it was a Bible verse. Holding the sign up was that person's way of evangelizing. It may have been effective for others at the game, but it certainly made an impression on me. I wondered what it really meant.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must be "born from above." The birth that comes from the lineage of our earthly parents, following all the way back to our first parents, is wonderful in so many ways. All part of God's providential ordering of the cosmos. It also comes with certain finitude. There is no escape from the fact that, if God had not decisively acted in a magnificently gracious way to us, we could not see the Kingdom of Heaven. Our earthly grave would be the end. Life would be just what the modern materialist and hedonist think it to be, a cosmic accident devoid of any transcendent purpose. But God says differently.
In the wilderness episode referenced in John 3:14, the Israelites had to look at what afflicted them. They had to see the result of being cast away from the paradisical presence of God into a world without that nearness, into a world fraught with mortal peril. They looked upon the serpent which reminded them of how man came to fall from grace. Looking at the serpent on the pole was a means of acknowledgment and repentance from sin.
It was in looking at the source of their finitude they found life. Thus, in looking at Christ lifted up - Christ on the Cross and then Christ ascended on high - we see the defeat of our finitude in the very Person and work of Christ. What should have been a shameful event became a glorious event. What should have been the end is actually the beginning.
To be born of the Spirit is to be born 'from above'. It is to be made into a new creation by the work of God. Only God could do this, for only He has the power to create. Just as the Israelites looked upon the bronze serpent held aloft by Moses so that they would survive the serpents, so we look upon the Jesus held for our eternal life. Looking upon Jesus, believing in Him, brings us into the spiritual rebirth from above by which we enter the Kingdom of God.