And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life [Jn. 3:14-15].
For Friends, the historic event of the cross is only a part of the fulfillment of God’s plan; the actual atonement takes place within the human heart. Though the cross shows a fulfillment of the prophets and the Law, Friends claim that the fulfillment of the prophets’ words and actions is the experiential knowledge of Christ risen within, that the inward event is the resurrection to eternal life. In the opening quotation, Jesus refers to three consecutive dispensations, and in this essay I want to show the sequential and progressive relationship among them.
To help envision the incremental process leading to completion, we can imagine a jointed spyglass with three parts or tubes that collapse together. As the parts extend one-by-one, greater vision is gained. For the first part, Jesus draws from Israel’s history: Moses’s lifting up the brass serpent in the wilderness. Jesus then ties this event to the cross on Calvary: the lifting up of the Son of man. The final segment is inward and spiritual, rather than outward and historical. Whoever believes in this lifted up (resurrected) Son of man has eternal life and does not perish. Later in the Gospel of John, eternal life is defined as “know(ing) the only true God” (Jn. 17:3). Jesus’s end goal is to have others enter a particular awareness or “knowing,” an inward state.
Prefiguring the Cross
First, we’ll examine the event from Israel’s history. We turn to the people of Israel led by the prophet Moses through the wilderness:
And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died (Num. 21: 4-6).
Because the journey was hard, the Hebrews came to regret their reliance upon God who had brought them out of Egypt for what seemed to them no other reason than to die. They spoke against their Creator and thus alienated themselves from the source of life. The serpents bite; the people die. Seeing the consequences and confessing their error, they reaffirm their dependence and seek to re-establish their connection to God through their prophet. They ask for life, that the death-bringing serpents be taken away:
Therefore the people came to Moses and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us (Num. 21:7).
The serpents are left to plague them, though God does give an antidote to the poison, and they overcome death:
And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass that everyone that is bitten, when he looketh upon it shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived (Num. 21:8-9).
This story is rich with information about the relationship between God and humanity; no wonder it sprang to Jesus’s mind! God would have the people in relationship with Him, even providing for their restoration after they have separated themselves from Him. The Hebrews recognize their error—their sin; they petition for help and then obey God’s command. The relationship is restored, and God can work with them once again. The event itself is mysterious. The restoration to life occurs when the people obey the command to look at the raised brass serpent. To cast their gaze, to behold the serpent of brass, is to overcome death. The people’s attention is refocused away from their mortal plight and toward that which God has provided. We can see some foreshadowing of what is to come—the Son of man lifted up.
The Cross on Calvary
Quaker understanding of the cross differs from that of other Christian ideas. However, in the year before the great opening that revealed Christ alive, present, and speaking to his condition, George Fox described the significance of the crucifixion in this way:
At that time the sins of all mankind were upon him, and their iniquities and transgressions with which he was wounded, which he was to bear, and to be an offering for them as he was man, but died not as he was God; and so, in that he died for all men, and tasted death for every man, he was an offering for the sins of the whole world (Journal, 5).
John Curtis, a New Foundation Fellowship worker, noted in his study guide to Fox’s Journal that this description is very like the “well-expressed view which is held by many types of Christians.” With his opening in 1647, Fox’s understanding changed, leading him to differ from other Christians in holding that the essential sacrifice and atonement must occur within each human heart, a sacrifice prefigured on Calvary. Fox writes:
In the flesh without them [in history], he [Christ] is their example or figure, [while] “Christ in his people is the substance of all figures, types, and shadows, fulfilling them in them, and setting them free from them (Works, 3:592-3).
Jesus’s submission in Gethsemane (“nevertheless not as I will, but as thou [wilt],” [Mt. 26:39]) must be our own, if the actual reconciliation or atonement is to follow.
It is separation from God that is the problem to be overcome and to which all solutions allude: the brass serpent, the cross on Calvary, and the inward submission to God. And each situation calls for a re-direction of intention. In the wilderness, the people are to cast their gaze upward toward the raised ensign of the brass serpent. People are likewise to cast their gaze to the historic cross, and further, to recognize that the Son of man has taken on their situation, has assumed humanity’s spiritual state. In both of these situations, there has been a shift in people’s awareness: In the first, people simply behold the uplifted ensign; while in the second, they not only behold the uplifted one but become beholden to the one who has acted on their behalf. Greater ties result, reaching into the inner man—to his sense of gratitude and obligation for the sacrifice that has been offered on his behalf.
The Cross, the Power of God
Friends have recognized that more than gratitude and obligation are required of humankind; it is eternal life to which we are called—that we may know the only true God (Jn. 17:3). This is the final and end purpose of the plan of which the first two developments have been described. How different is the account of the inward atonement from that of Fox’s earlier explanation of the outward cross on Calvary! And yet, in his description, Fox returns to the outward event as the corporeal model of his experience:
None know the atonement of Christ but by the light within…Mark! He saith, the light is that which gives the knowledge, and the light within doth not set up another atonement: but they that deny the light within set up another atonement than Christ. We should be made free from the law of sin and death while we are upon the earth. And here the blood of Jesus is witnessed, and the atonement, and the Father and the son; and this is all seen with the light within (Works, 3:121).
The seventeenth-century Puritans objected to this claim. The Quakers call the light within Christ the redeemer, and thereby, the Puritans said, the Quakers had set up an idol, which denied the things that God had already done for humanity. Quakers countered this attack with the assertion that they did not deny the person of Christ but vouched for the re-enacting of his historic work within the heart. Says Isaac Penington:
That charge of thine on us, that we deny the person of Christ, and make him nothing but a light or notion, a principle in the heart of man, is very unjust and untrue; for we own that appearance of him in his body of flesh, his sufferings and death, and his sitting at the Father’s right hand in glory: but then we affirm, that there is no true knowledge of him, or union with him, but in the seed or principle of his life in the heart, and that therein he appears, subdues sin, and reigns over it, in those that understand and submit to the teaching and government of his Spirit (Quaker Spirituality, 144).
But what if the inward experience does not occur? What if there is no comprehension of the cross as an inward condition, no owning it as a just paradigm for our limited and alienated state? Instead, what if the cross on Calvary is revered with a false confidence, which claims to stand in good stead in the here-and-now and in the hereafter? If the cross is viewed as a culminating historic event by which we are somehow mysteriously reconciled to God, it does become an idol.
If we return for a moment to the brass serpent and locate its whereabouts sometime later, well after it has served its intended purpose, we find it under the censure of the prophet Hezekiah. He saw that the brass serpent had become an idol for the Hebrew people, and so he destroyed it:
He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made, for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it (2 Kings 18:4).
On the other hand, what if the cross is set aside as irrelevant and given no place within present-day Liberal Quaker faith and practice? Dismissing this reference point of the cross (and thereby denying the reality of the sin and alienation that it is meant to overcome) do we not humor ourselves into claiming that our best efforts and intentions are already divinely inspired? Remember the error–the profound human error–made by the Hebrews in the desert: we usurp God’s wisdom and authority and replace them with our own lesser capacities. Says Rufus Jones:
If any supposes that Friends have inclined to be “humanists” and to assume that man is so inherently good that he can lift himself by his own belt into a life of consummate truth and beauty, he has not yet caught the deeper note of Quaker faith (Quaker Spirituality, 278).
The “deeper note” to which Jones refers is the cross,“the power of God,” as Fox reminds us. By the power of God, which is known only through the inward cross, can we carry forward the hope and obligation enjoined upon us.