14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Before we jump into verse 14-15 and it’s Old Testament reference, Numbers 21, let us take a moment to connect it to its immediate context (Click here to see previous post). D. A. Carson summarizes the connect between verse 13 and 14-15 nicely: “If in verse 13 the Son of Man is the revealer, the one who came down from heaven, here he is the sufferer and exalted one – but it transpires that it is precisely in the matrix of suffering and exaltation that God most clearly reveals Himself in the person of His Son.”
Nicodemus probably wouldn’t of had a suffering vision of the Messiah, but that is how Jesus is revealed. The “ascending and descending” in verse 13 is expounded upon and explained further in these verses by Jesus. Through being “lifted up” on the cross, Christ is revealed as the Savior of sinners. There, God is revealed to in Christ.
Consider the language of “ascending and descending” within the flow of the gospel of John thus far: The eternal Word descends to be made flesh and dwell among us, He ascends to the cross, He descends into death, and He ascends up from the grave and into heaven, sitting down at the right hand of God. All of this is seen and known in God’s Son being lifted up to suffer and die. It is true that in our own lives, suffering has a way of causing us to see life and death more clearly. Even more so, in viewing the suffering of Christ, we are brought to see life and death more clearly.
Notice that we are told in verse 14 that the Son of Man must be lifted up. This is something that had to happen. Christ could not ascend to the throne lest he was first lifted up upon the cross. Without suffering there is no glory. Furthermore, without His suffering there is no glory for us. If we do not have a lifted up and suffering Savior, we do not have forgiven sinners. Hebrews 9:22 tells us, “…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
Consider our text now in relation to the Old Testament reference it makes to Numbers 21:4-9:
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. 5 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.” 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 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. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”9 So Moses made a bronze[a] serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
Notice first that in the lifting up of the Son of Man, Jesus saves us from the wrath of God. This was the suffering which Christ undertook. As sharp as the nails may have been there was nothing that pierced the Son of Man which such pain as the judgment of God poured out upon Him for sinners. As agonizing as the lashes were, they did not vex His soul, as did the scorn of the Father, for sins. The serpents that bit the Israelites with deadly poison were sent by God, and it was God Himself who provided the remedy. So it was at the cross. Romans 5:9 tells us, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”
Note as well that Jesus saves us from the curse. This event recorded in Numbers 21 rings with echoes of Genesis 3. It brings us back to the garden where we have sinners, a serpent, curses, and provision from God Himself. Ever since Genesis 3 we have been bitten and afflicted by the poison of sin that eats away at our flesh. There is nothing but rotting death and decay in our bones. But Jesus is the great poison-remover and curse-reverser. When we are saved by Jesus, the sin that has eaten away at our flesh begins to be reversed. Instead of sin slowly ravaging our body, righteousness and sanctification begins to grow in us as we walk in the good works God prepared beforehand for us to do, as the gospel bears fruit and increases in us.
One of the things that I long wondered about these two passages is, why does Jesus liken himself to the bronze serpent of old? And why did God use a serpent for His salvation instrument in Numbers 21? Throughout Scripture, beginning in Genesis 3 we see Satan identified as the serpent. Well, here are my thoughts: the curse on the serpent in Genesis 3:15 was a blessing on the world. The serpent was cursed, and his cursing was our blessing. His defeat is our triumph. Why? Because Christ became a curse for us. He had to be cursed to reverse the curse. Christ became sin to defeat sin. It is something we would never dare to utter if Scripture did not say it so clearly. 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” And Galatians 3:13 tells us, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”
Adam sinned on a tree, Jesus became sin on a tree. Adam disobeyed at a tree, Jesus obeyed on a tree. I heard someone once say that the main story of the bible is “kill the dragon, save the girl.” Is that not every great story, essentially – every fairy tale? They all borrow that story arch from the gospel, for in His dying, Jesus delivered a fatal blow to the dragon’s head, and purchased His bride, the Church, with His very own blood.
Notice next how the Israelites were saved: by looking to the bronze serpent lifted up. “Whoever looked on the bronze serpent would live.” Jesus, in John 3:15 expounds further what it means to “look” by saying “whoever believes in him…” Looking is also a great illustrating of what it is to believe.
In Numbers 21, simply looking to the bronze serpent for healing probably seemed foolish to some. You would think for a snake bite you ought to do certain medical procedures to cut out the poison or concoct healing ointments to draw out the poison. Yet, it was just looking. So it is with our salvation. To some it seems like there is a lot more we ought to be doing, but it is just looking to Christ in faith.
To be sure, this is not just generic looking, but looking to Christ lifted up, looking to Christ suffering, looking to Christ dying, looking to Christ on the cross, looking to Christ breathing His last, looking to Christ saying “it is finished” – and looking to Him doing those things for you.
Notice, you must look to Christ; not Moses (the law), not another idol, not yourself, but to Christ only. You must also not look to your wounds (sins), but to Christ only. If the Israelites would’ve tended themselves to their own wounds it would not have healed them. Same with us, we must take them to Christ for Him to tend to them.
Martin Luther once said something along the lines of, “When I look at my sin, I think there is no way I can be saved. But when I look to the Lamb of God, I think there is no way I can be lost.”
Take heart in that it did not matter how many times one had been bitten, or how far the poison had advanced; if he would but look he would live. So with you, my friend. I cannot help but make the connection to the conversion of Charles Spurgeon under the preaching of Isaiah 45:22, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else.”
I would like to end this post with a lengthy quotation from A. W. Pink on this passage:
“Man became a lost sinner by a look, for the first thing recorded of Eve in connection with the fall of our first parents is that ‘The woman saw that the tree was good for food’ (Gen. 3:6). In like manner, the lost sinner is saved by a look. The Christian life begins by looking: ‘Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else’ (Isa. 45:22). The Christian life continues by looking: ‘let us run with patience the race which is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of faith’ (Heb. 12:2). And at the end of the Christian life we are still to be looking for Christ: ‘For our conversation (citizenship) is in heaven; form whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 3:20). From first to last, the one thing required is looking at God’s Son.
But perhaps right here the troubled and trembling sinner will voice his last difficulty – ‘Sir, I do not know that I am looking in the correct way.’ Dear friend, God does not ask you to look at your look, but at CHRIST. In that great crowd of bitten Israelites of old there were some with young eyes and some with old eyes that looked at the serpent; there were some with clear vision and some with dim vision; there were some who had a full view of the serpent by reason of their nearness to the uplifted type of Christ; and there were, most probably, others who could scarcely see it because of their great distance from the pole, but the Divine record is ‘It shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.’ And so it is today. The Lord Jesus says, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ He does not define the method or the manner of coming, an even if the poor sinner comes groping, stumbling, falling, yet if only he will ‘come’ there is a warm welcome for him. So it is in our text: it is ‘whosoever believeth’ – nothing is said about he strength or the intelligence of the belief, for it is not the character or degree of faith that saves, but Christ Himself. Faith is simply the eye of the soul that looks off unto the Lord Jesus. Do not rest, then, on your faith, but on the Saviour Himself.”
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