And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life (John 3:14-15).
Jesus has been saying many difficult things to Nicodemus. This time Nicodemus probably understood the referent, but the application? How can these things be?
If we are to understand Jesus’ application, we must first understand Jesus’ referent. Jesus speaks of Moses lifting up a serpent in the wilderness, and such is the situation in Numbers 21:4-9. As usual, the Israelites are not acting graciously toward God, and so God punishes them yet again, this time with serpents. Many begin to suffer and die and cry out to God. To deliver them from the serpents, God commands Moses to create a likeness of the serpents; the people must look up at the image of the serpent to be healed. Deliverance from death thus comes by God’s power to those who look upon the image of the serpent.
Jesus indicates in John 3:14 that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so also the “Son of Man” must be lifted up. What Nicodemus may not have understood at the time is made clear to us: as Moses lifted up the serpent, Jesus will be lifted up on the cross.
Jesus knows full well the fate that will befall Him; He begins to describe the fate awaiting Him in Jerusalem at the Passover to the disciples in Matthew 16:21, and as He institutes the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26:26-28, He describes the cup as the “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many unto remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). As the “Lamb of God” who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), Jesus teaches Nicodemus the sober truth about His own fate.
The parallel goes beyond the simple act of being “lifted up”. Not only is Jesus lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent, but just as the Israelites were delivered from the power of the bite of the serpents, so in Christ all can find deliverance from the power of sin and death. Jesus had no need to die for His own sin or for any infraction that He committed, for in Him there was no sin, neither was there any deceit in His mouth (cf. Isaiah 53:9, 1 Peter 2:20-22, Hebrews 4:15, 7:27). He was lifted up for our transgressions, so that we could have the remission of sin in His blood, and have restored association with God (Isaiah 53:5, Matthew 26:28, 1 John 1:1-7).
The parallels do not end there. As the Israelites had to look up at the serpent in order to receive healing, so believers in Christ must look upon Jesus on the cross as well. It was predicted in Zechariah 12:10 that the people would look upon the Messiah and mourn for Him. This prophecy is directly fulfilled by the Roman soldiers who pierce the side of Jesus with a spear to verify His death (John 19:37), yet we must also internalize the prophecy for ourselves. We ourselves have pierced God by our sin, for He went to the Cross on our behalf for our transgression (Isaiah 53:5, Romans 5:6-8). We must look upon Christ on the Cross, the One whom we have pierced, and we should mourn for our sin and its terrible consequences. If we look upon Him in obedient faith, we gain our deliverance. Just as the Israelites looked to the image of the serpent to be healed of their wounds, so we must look to Jesus on the cross if we desire to be healed of our iniquities.
Jesus is not only “lifted up” on the cross. If it were so, His death would be meaningless, and we would still be lost in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:12-18). On the third day, however, the first day of the week, Jesus was again “lifted up” in the resurrection (John 20:1-29)!
Jesus is no less aware of His coming resurrection as He was of His upcoming death on the cross (Matthew 16:21, 26:29). In John 2:13-22, as Jesus cleanses the Temple in Jerusalem, He says, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). While everyone thought He spoke of the Temple, Jesus’ disciples would later remember the event and understand how He spoke of the “Temple of His body” (John 2:21), and understood Him to be speaking of His resurrection. No doubt Nicodemus also, reflecting upon his dialogue with Jesus as recorded in John 3:1-21 after everything had taken place, would also recognize how Jesus spoke of His death and His resurrection in John 3:14.
Nevertheless, how does Jesus being lifted up in the resurrection have anything to do with Moses lifting up the serpent? The connection may not be immediately apparent, but we can understand it if we look at the events in Numbers 21:4-9 as the type of the reality seen in the resurrection. God plagues the sinful Israelites with serpents; to deliver them from death, God commands Moses to make an image of the serpent. In this event, looking upon the image of the thing that kills brings life.
The serpent also represents a much deeper level of mortality. The serpent beguiled Eve into eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:1-6), incurring sin and death for mankind. God did not leave man without promise: one would come to bruise the head of the serpent, Satan (Genesis 3:15, Revelation 12:9). Through sin, Satan has successfully bruised the heel of all men and women, and we all are under the sentence of sin and death because of it (Romans 3:5-23). Jesus was the One who was able to bruise Satan’s head by conquering both sin and death, dying on the cross for the remission of sin and being raised to life again on the third day (Romans 5:12-18, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22). Jesus gained the victory, and we are able to be victors in Him (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).
Moses’ lifting the serpent in the wilderness represents the type: the Israelites were bitten by snakes; by looking upon the image of a snake, they were healed, thus defeating the snakes. This points us to the resurrection of Jesus and our own victory: we have been bitten by sin, and by looking to Jesus who was lifted up in the resurrection, we have the victory over death, beginning in our baptism and ending in our resurrection on the final day (Romans 6:3-7, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58, 1 Peter 1:3-9). Let us look upon Jesus, pierced for our iniquities, and receive forgiveness of sin and the hope of the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry