Look at Him!

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

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


It was a strange saying, harking back to a singular event in Israel’s past. It must have puzzled those who first heard it. Jesus said this: “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.” Jesus was speaking here, remember, about Himself. “The Son of man” was His most common self-description. What did it mean that He would be “lifted up”? The word means basically “to raise on high,” to “elevate.” And, as a natural outgrowth of that, lifting up came to mean “exaltation.” To be lifted up was to be supremely honored, raised to the highest status. Jesus knew that something like that would happen to Him. He was born to be King.

Remember when young Joseph had his visions of greatness among his brothers? He dreamed that he and his brothers were binding sheaves in the field, “and lo,” he says, “my sheaf arose and stood upright; and behold, your sheaves gathered round it, and bowed down to my sheaf” (Gen. 37:7). His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to have dominion over us?” (v. 8). Then Joseph had another dream, “Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me” (v. 9). All this was a God-given indication of Joseph’s high destiny. Others were to give him homage. Jesus is saying that something like that will happen to Him. He will be lifted up. He will be highly exalted.

But here in the Gospel according to John, the phrase “to be lifted up” has a second meaning, this one somber, even sinister. The ancient Roman world knew another kind of “lifting up.” It was a punishment reserved for runaway slaves, for traitors, for those guilty of the vilest crimes. To be lifted up meant to be stretched out on a wooden cross and raised above the earth. It was the most dreaded of all tortures: death by crucifixion. Jesus seems to mean that also about His destiny.

“But that can’t be true,” we say. “He must mean one or the other.” No, oddly, He seems to have both in mind. He will be exalted. He will be supremely honored. He will ascend to a throne. But the way to that glory will be the way of shame, agony and death, the way of the cross.

We don’t know exactly when Jesus came to this awareness, but by the early days of His ministry He had become convinced that He would die an early death. He spoke of it often. He would be rejected by the leaders of His own people. He would be mocked, abused and handed over to death. He even intimated that He would die on a Roman cross.

Think of how you would feel if you knew something like that was ahead for your life. Wouldn’t you be ready to listen to advice that would forestall or prevent something like this? Jesus, on the other hand, rejected all such counsel. Wouldn’t you want to stay away from the place where the tragedy was to happen? Jesus took the opposite tack. He seemed determined to go to Jerusalem. He seemed to believe that it was a life-goal toward which He had to advance.

That’s what He meant when He said, “The Son of man must be lifted up.” It wasn’t for Him a blind fate, an iron necessity. Jesus said that this must be because He knew it was the Father’s will. For, as He had repeatedly said, He had come down from heaven not to do His own will but the will of the One who had sent Him. He said must because there was no other way in which the Father’s purpose could be fulfilled. Jesus had to go through this for God’s loving design to be satisfied.


Jesus compared this coming experience of His to something that had happened during the wilderness wandering of God’s people Israel. Listen as I read about it. This is from Numbers, chapter 21, beginning at verse 4:

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient on the way. And the people 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.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live (Num. 21:4-9).

Here the people had shown themselves disloyal and rebellious. In spite of all that God had done in delivering, guiding and providing for them, they became impatient with Him. They complained against His ways and accused Him of evil motives. They despised what He had provided for their good. When a visitation of judgment came upon them, many were bitten by poisonous snakes. Some died and others became gravely ill. Some real heart searching and repentance followed. The people acknowledged their sin. They asked Moses to pray for them, that they would be spared. When Moses interceded for them, he was told by the Lord to do something quite remarkable. He was to fashion a snake out of bronze and set it on the top of a pole in the midst of the camp. God’s promise was that whenever any bitten person would look up at that bronze snake, his or her life would be spared. Sure enough, as the stricken people lifted their gaze toward that likeness of a snake, the poison was counteracted. They were well again. They survived a venom which had seemed almost certainly lethal. They lived to tell about it.

Jesus seems to say in these words about His lifting up that there are striking parallels between this experience of Israel’s and His own mission. People around Jesus in His time were also sinful, rebellious, estranged from God. They too stood under the judgment of God that brings death. All were mortally afflicted in this way. As Paul puts it, “The sting of death is sin.” But they were also loved, much loved by a God of mercy. They were also prayed for by a Mediator. And, in their case also, provision is made for them to be spared from death to enjoy a new life.

Somehow the lifting up of Jesus on the cross, the death of the innocent for the guilty ones, will make possible a more profound kind of healing. Hope will be born for a people apparently doomed. And the God who arranged this deliverance will again send out His Word about how people are to respond. Jesus Himself will announce the good news; and thousands after Him will take up the same theme. “Take heart, friends! No matter how desperate your plight, God has done something marvelous to rescue you.”

I hope you realize that this is exactly what I’m saying to you today. All of us are like those Israelites. We have such short memories and so little faith. We’re all inclined to blame God, to complain about our lot, to go our own way. The mysterious power called sin has brought all of us under its rule. It threatens us with the death of separation from God. “But God, who is rich in mercy,” says Paul, “out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4-5). That’s the gospel. It means life out of death, because of what Jesus did when He was lifted up on a cross for us.


But there’s one more vital point here. It’s about how we avail ourselves of what God has done, how we respond, how we receive His marvelous gift.

Try to picture in your mind what went on in that wilderness camp many centuries ago. In every tent, out of every family, someone had been mortally stricken. The groans of the suffering and the wails of the bereaved ones went up everywhere. People were desperate about their afflicted loved ones. Then the Word spread like wildfire about the pole in the midst of the camp, crowned with that bronze snake. It was a sign, and more than a sign. It was a way of escape. All that poisoned sufferers needed to do was look up at that bronze serpent; the moment they looked, they would be healed. Every vestige of the deadly venom would be purged from their blood. They would not die, but live.

And what of Jesus raised up on a cross outside Jerusalem? Anyone, says the gospel, who believes in Him, who looks toward Him, will be saved from perishing and receive a new and endless life. All the death-dealing effects of sin will be done away.

In each case, the thing to be done is relatively simple. All that a stricken Israelite needed to do was look. If he or she was weak or feverish, each could still manage a glance, from anywhere in the encampment. The symbol of God’s saving power was plainly visible. Even the smallest child could look. Totally helpless ones could be brought by their friends and relatives to some point from which they too could gaze upward.

Is Jesus saying that faith in Him is that simple? I think so. He is the reality to which that ancient sign was pointing. He has been lifted up, lifted up to die on Good Friday, lifted up and exalted in resurrection on Easter morning, raised to the throne of the universe. He is now proclaimed, placarded, shown in the preaching of His followers. He is to be the focus of all our attention. If anyone will look toward this Jesus at the center of the universe, the center of history, crucified, risen and reigning, he or she will be saved, will find life everlasting.

The look was really an expression of trust, a response of confidence. The Israelites didn’t need to understand it all. They didn’t need to fathom how gazing at the bronze snake could help them. They were simply responding to God’s call and believing His pledge. They were casting themselves on His mercy and faithfulness when they looked.

In a similar way, you don’t need to understand everything about the mystery of Jesus as the Son of God in human life. You don’t need to penetrate the awesome wonder of how His death can atone for the sins of the whole world. You simply need to see in Him God’s gift to bring you forgiveness and abundant life. All that’s needed is that you believe the promise of God that your sins are forgiven for His sake and that you be born anew by His life-giving power.

You don’t even need good eyesight! No one had to get up close to the serpent to study all its markings. It didn’t matter if the watchers were near or far, whether their vision was perfect or flawed. Even if they were blind, they could turn toward the sign, lift their heads, and that would be enough. Looking was a sign of reliance upon the God who saves, and that was enough. It’s still enough. We preachers offer Christ to others. That’s our work. A preacher is a finger pointing, a voice proclaiming, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” There He is, Christ lifted up to die for us, our Savior. We sing, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus.” That’s what we keep on saying when we preach the gospel. That’s what we say to you.

Here is the good news, friends. As the song goes, “There’s life in a look at the Savior.” “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man [Jesus] be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Remember that what He did, He did for you. Oh, look at Him, friends. Look now, look trustingly, look and live!