READ : John 3:14-15
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
John 3:14-15 rsv
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Someone must be “lifted up.”
What does it mean for Jesus, who calls Himself here the Son of man, to be “lifted up”? We learn from another passage in the Gospel according to John that this term stands for the death that He was about to die. The word here means literally to “raise from the earth,” and symbolically “to exalt or glorify.” Jesus knew that He was to die by being raised up from the earth on a cross. That was the most dreadful form of humiliation possible, to be exposed as a grim spectacle, to be condemned to an agonizing death reserved for the vilest of criminals. But Jesus knew that His death would be a victory too, that He would be exalted even in the midst of that anguish and shame.
Can you imagine what it must have meant for Jesus to carry on His ministry aware that this awaited Him? Many undergo tragedy and suffering in their lives, but most of us are mercifully spared from knowing about it in advance. Imagine what it would be like to realize that you were to be crucified while still a young person! Jesus lived with that shadow over Him, that ominous future out ahead. We don’t know exactly when it became clear to Him that this was the death He was to die, but we get hints of that awareness very early in His ministry. He knew, imagine it, that He was born to be rejected, anointed to be hated and crucified.
Notice that He says here – it’s in the third chapter of John, verse 14, that the Son of man must be lifted up. There was a kind of necessity to this. Jesus, out of obedience to His Father, embraced this terrible destiny. It was not one option among many for Him. Remember how He prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done”? Apparently it was not possible for this cup to be removed. There was no other way for God’s loving purpose to be accomplished. The Son of man must be lifted up. Jesus must endure crucifixion. Thank You, Lord, for setting Your face like a flint to go to Jerusalem when You knew full well what awaited You there!
THE SERPENT AND THE SAVIOR
As He develops this idea, our Lord uses an Old Testament illustration. It came from the time of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. They had been a rebellious people, prone to complain against the God who had delivered them so miraculously from Egyptian bondage. They became impatient; they spoke against God and against Moses. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food” (Num. 21:5). They doubted God’s love, refused to trust His providential care, despised the manna He sent for their food. They were ripe for judgment, and it soon came. The wandering people of God came into an area infested with poisonous snakes. Great numbers of the people were bitten fatally. At this calamity, the conscience of the people was awakened. They confessed their wrong and appealed to Moses to pray to the Lord for them. When Moses did, the Lord instructed him to construct a snake out of bronze and set it up on a pole in the midst of the camp. Every snake-bitten person was to look toward that bronze serpent raised on high. And everyone who did so was spared and cured.
What are the parallels here with the lifting up of Jesus on the cross? In each case we meet a situation of critical need and danger. The frightful scourge of snakes came as a sad result of a people’s obstinacy and ingratitude. They brought this upon themselves. Further, for people who were bitten, the mortality rate seems to have been 100%. So powerful was the venom that no victim could hope to survive. And there were no antidotes. The best medical wisdom available was completely at a loss. Humanly speaking, it was a hopeless situation. Whenever a serpent buried its fangs in one of the wilderness wanderers, that man or woman, boy or girl, was as good as dead.
Jesus sees a parallel in this to the situation of His hearers. They, too, have rebelled against the God of heaven, disobeyed His commands, forgotten His gifts. They, too, have been exposed to a deadly poison, what one of His apostles can call the “sting of death.” All are sinners, all therefore are under judgment, all facing the worst of deaths – separation from God.
In this case, too, no remedies are available. Who can make himself clean again from the defilement of sin? Who can extract the poison from his own heart? Who can give himself or herself life from the dead? To Jesus the human situation is grave indeed. All of us live with a mortal wound. None of us can hope to save ourselves, much less our fellows.
Here’s another parallel. In each case God made a surprising provision for the need of the people. Moses was instructed by God to fashion a snake of bronze. It was to be like the deadly reptiles, formed after their image, but this serpent would have no venom. It would pose no danger for the people. It would be, instead, for their healing.
In a similar way Jesus was called the Son of man. He was made like one of us. He took upon Himself the form of a servant and was made in the likeness of men. But He alone of humankind was without sin. Never did He disobey His Father, never did He forget the Father’s love, never did He give up caring for people. Always He did the things that pleased the Father, always He knew Himself called not to be served but to serve. He trusted in God; He went about doing good. None could rightly accuse Him of any evil.
In each case the provision came by the mercy of God. For the Israelites in the wilderness, the snakes were a divine visitation, a fearful descent of judgment. But God in His great kindness provided a remedy, a way of escape from the judgment He Himself had imposed.
Jesus Christ was God’s supreme gift of grace. For us who deserved only condemnation, God has provided a Savior. In Jesus, He Himself has borne the stroke due to us. He has taken upon Himself the penalty we deserve. It’s a provision of unimaginable kindness.
Again, in each case, it is by God’s power that healing comes. The developing message of the Old Testament lets us see that this bronze serpent later became a stumbling block to the people of Israel. Their error lay in assigning supernatural power to it. Instead of seeing it as an instrument of God’s power, they made it into a kind of idol. But no one has ever been healed by that lifeless bronze snake. That was simply the visible, tangible sign of God’s life-giving, liberating power.
Through Jesus, also, the saving power of God was made known. But here the parallel is transcended. He was no lifeless form, but a living Lord. In Him God was truly, marvelously present. People could safely trust in Him because in His person God had come to save them and set them free.
That brings us to the last resemblance between these two events. In each case, looking with faith to what God had provided brought healing and life. Try to picture the scene in the Israelite encampment. In every tent, in every family unit, someone had been mortally stricken. The groans of the suffering and the wails of the bereaved were everywhere. Then word came about the serpent of bronze in the midst of the camp, the semblance of a snake towering above them. All that the poisoned ones needed to do was look and they would be spared. Every vestige of the venom would be purged from their blood. They would be well again.
And what of Jesus lifted up on a cross to die? Anyone, says the Lord, who believes in Him, who looks toward Him, will be saved from perishing and receive a new and endless life. All the deadly effects of sin will be done away.
In each case, the thing to be done was relatively simple. All that a poisoned Israelite needed to do was look! If he or she was weak or feverish, each could still look. From anywhere in the encampment that symbol of God’s saving power was plainly visible. Even the smallest child could look and those totally helpless could be brought by their friends and relatives to some vantage point.
Is Jesus saying that faith in Him is that simple? I think He is. In a far more profound sense He has been lifted up, lifted up to die on the cross of Golgotha, lifted up and exalted in resurrection on Easter morning, exalted to the throne of the universe and made manifest in the preaching of His followers. If anyone will look toward Him, crucified, risen, reigning, offered to all in the gospel, he or she will be saved, will find life everlasting.
The look was a sign of hope, an expression of confidence. The Israelites didn’t need to understand it all, they didn’t need to see how just gazing at the bronze snake could help. They were simply believing God’s pledge that it would be so.
In a similar way, you don’t need to understand everything about the mystery of Jesus’ person, as the Son of God in human life. You don’t need to penetrate the wonder of how His death can atone for the sins of the whole world. You simply need to see in Him the gift of God to bring you forgiveness and abundant life. You simply need to believe the promise of God that all your sins are forgiven for His sake and you are accepted and born anew by His power.
You don’t even need to have perfect vision. No one had to get up close to the serpent to study all its markings. It didn’t matter if people were near or far, whether their vision was perfect or flawed. Even if they were blind they could face toward the sign and that would be enough. The looking was the sign of expecting, of trusting reliance on the God of salvation, and that was enough.
Charles Spurgeon, giant among 19th-century preachers, was converted in his teens through a preacher of very limited gifts and training. The man preached on this text from Isaiah: “Look unto me and be saved, all the ends of the earth.” The preacher applied it to Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. He kept exclaiming to his hearers over and over again, “Look! Look! Look!” Young Spurgeon looked and became a new man.
I pray God that may be true for everyone who hears this message today, true for you. If you have trusted Jesus Christ as your Savior, I pray that you will keep looking toward Him, relying upon Him all the days of your life. He is all your salvation. Concentrate on Him. And if you have never believed the gospel, never known the forgiveness of God and the joy of eternal life, let me say to you today, “Look!” Look at Jesus Christ offered to you in the gospel, placarded before you in the preaching of the Word. Look on Him and realize that He died for your sins, that He rose again that you might have life, that He holds out to you the offer of forgiveness and a new heart. Look to Him, trust in Him, expect all from Him and never doubt this. Looking, you will surely live!”