A very interesting and enlightening statement that Jesus said as we was talking to Nicodemus, is found in John 3:14. It is there that Jesus, describing His sacrifice, says that “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
This one phrase is often skimmed over and overlooked in favor of the much more popular verse of John 3:16. However verse 14 is actually extremely significant, and the key to receiving anything from God at all (including eternal life). It’s unfortunate that so many people have missed the incredible meaning of this verse and they key that it holds.
I too, missed this verse for many years – never really grasping the real meaning behind it and what Jesus was really saying. So today in this study we will be exploring this statement made by Jesus, and the real meaning behind it – and by seeing this, we will also discover the key to receiving salvation from Jesus, and everything along with Him.
So let’s begin today by examining verses 14 and 15, and right-away we will see something interesting:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
That whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
We see that eternal life itself is connected with Jesus being lifted up, and most people make the obvious connection that this lifting up is a reference to Jesus being crucified on the cross. Fair enough, it is referencing that – but that is where most people stop examining this verse and simply move on; but there is much more here that we will miss if we stop where most people stop. Because Jesus doesn’t simply say that He must be lifted up; He gives a very specific way in which He must be lifted up… As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. And this is actually a very important detail, that if not understand will leave a lot people weak and confused and vulnerable, wondering why they never seem to receive from God, and it’s because of this detail right here which Jesus mentions.
You see, however Moses lifted up in the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus must be lifted up the same way. Jesus must be lifted up in the same manner, with the same intentions and perspective. That’s what Jesus Himself is saying, and eternal life is connected to it.
So let’s take a look at how Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, from Numbers 21:7-9:
“Therefore 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. And Moses prayed for the people.
And the LORD said to Moses, Make you a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looks on it, shall live.
And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it on a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.”
Here we see that there were “fiery serpents”, poisonous snakes, that were biting the people and causing them to die. And although some translations say that God sent those serpents as a punishment (a detail which we explained in a previous study), rest assured that God did no such thing – in-fact He is the one who gives them salvation from these serpents. And verses 7 though 9 here give us the details we need.
Beginning with verse 7, it is interesting to see precisely what the reaction of the people were, and more specifically what they asked for.
We see that they asked for the LORD to take away the serpents from them – which on the surface seems like a reasonable request, but upon close examination, we realize that it wouldn’t solve the real problem. Think about it… even if God would take away the serpents at this point, the damage is already done, the people were bitten by the snakes, the poison was already inside of them coursing through their veins. The snakes aren’t even the threat anymore, the poison on the inside of them is!
And this is the first point of our study and also the first point of why Jesus said what He said to Nicodemus. We tend to look on the outside situation and circumstances – the visible problem – and naturally we want God to take it away. However we miss the fact that the real issue which is not visible, the real issue which is in-fact deadly, the curse which is on the inside, the poison still needs to be dealt with.
Sin brought death. Not merely physical death, but spiritual death. And there are many “sin hunters” in Christian communities that are telling people that they need to stop this, and they need to stop that… but even if you were to stamp out every single sinful behavior and action, it wouldn’t deal with the root of the problem – it wouldn’t deal with the spiritual aspect. Behavior modification is not the solution, beholding Jesus is the solution – and beholding Him in a very specific way, as we see here. Jesus was drawing Nicodemus’ attention (and ours) to this specific incident, in order to show him, and us, something about the way in which we are to behold Him. And it’s something that we have been missing, and it’s costing us very deeply.
Notice what God told Moses in verse 8… God didn’t take away the serpents, because again that doesn’t solve the problem. Rather He went straight to the solution. God told Moses to make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole. God then told Moses that whoever is bitten, when they look at the fiery serpent on the pole, they will live. And Moses went ahead and made the bronze serpent and set it on the pole as God had instructed.
Now this is very specific. God’s solution was not to take away the serpents as they had asked, nor did He tell them to perform cleansing rituals or to suck the poison out of themselves. These are all things that religion tries to tell us to do, such as to clean ourselves up, sacrifice and suffer for God, or otherwise do anything other than the simple solution which God gives us here.
Remember now, Jesus used this very reference when talking to Nicodemus. The way in which the Israelites were supposed to look at the bronze serpent on a pole is the same way people are supposed to look at Jesus – both Jesus and the bronze serpent are to be lifted up in the same manner.
So how was the serpent lifted up? Well, we know that it was made of brass, it was bronze. And in the scripture brass/bronze is always a picture of judgment – as in sin being judged.
And we see here that the fiery serpent, the thing that was troubling them, and that they wanted gone, has now been judged. God wanted the people to see this, to acknowledge this and to receive this.
And whoever looked on the bronze serpent on a pole, lived!
This also tells us something about God’s provision and generosity. Because there really is no such thing as God choosing to heal one person and choosing to reject someone else. His provision is for everyone, whoever looked, lived. It was that simple back then, and it’s still that simple today.
And this, my friend, is where people sadly tend to miss it.
In the same way that the bronze serpent was lifted up, so must Jesus be lifted up.
People fail to see Jesus with this perspective. But when He went to the cross, the scripture said that He was made sin. He had no sin of His own, He was absolutely perfect in every way… but He was made sin… Made sin with your sins and my sins. Look at 2nd Corinthians 5:21:
“For he has made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”
So when you look at Jesus on the cross, most people tend to see the sinless Christ being unfairly crucified, and they get all sad and introverted and they think of their sins… but I humbly submit a different way of seeing the cross: That we should see it exactly the way that Jesus said we should see it… the same way as the serpent in the wilderness which Moses lifted up: We should see our sin, our shame, our curse, being judged on that cross. And as we see all of our sin and our old identity die on that cross, we live.
My friend, with all sincerity I say to you that the cross of Christ is not a sad image for us, but a joyful one. Because our old identity of sin and death died on that cross, and we live in our new identity of the righteousness of God as a result of what Christ did that day. That’s exactly what the verse that we just read says.
So I encourage you today, look and live. Your sin has been judged, in the body of Jesus Christ, and you live today as a totally righteous person in Christ.