“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15 NIV).
These verses from John 3 record the well-known story of the conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish ruling council. This story contains what are probably two of the most recognizable verses in the New Testament: John 3:7 – “You must be born again” and John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son….”
Although the illustrious verses 7 and 16 usually draw most of the expository attention in the Nicodemus story, the more obscure verses 14 and 15 are actually the focus of this discussion. In these verses Jesus refers to an event in Numbers 21 in the Old Testament and uses it as a lead-in to His dramatic pronouncement in John 3:16.
When I was in seminary, one semester I signed up for a course entitled “The Old Testament in the New Testament” (or was it “The New Testament in the Old Testament”). At the time I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the course content nor eager to hear from the professor that taught it. I needed the course to fill a vacancy in my schedule and it was the only one available. Yet, it turned out that what I learned from that course greatly influenced my approach to understanding and interpreting the Bible. And, the professor became one of my favorites and I signed up for several other courses under him!
A couple of premises from that course are applicable to this discussion. First, the theology of the New Testament is entrenched in the theology of the Old Testament. Second, the interpretation of Old Testament theology, symbols or events is more trustworthy or reliable when it is noted by a New Testament writer or through the spoken words of Jesus.
In Numbers 21:4-9 the Israelites became disenchanted with the route they were taking during their wilderness wandering. They rebelled against Moses and God so God sent a plague of venomous snakes against them. When many began to die from snake bites, the Israelites repented and asked Moses to ask God to stop the plague. God told Moses to make a bronze snake and mount it on a pole and when any of the Israelites who were bitten by a snake looked at the bronze snake on the pole they would live.
In verses 14 and 15 Jesus draws a theological equivalency between the symbolic meaning of the bronze snake on the pole that Moses crafted in Numbers 21 and the cross on which He would be crucified.
Recently, I watched an inspirational film in which the opening scene was Moses working at a forge hammering out and shaping a strip of metal. When he finished forging the metal, he draped it over a wooden pole that was constructed in the form of a cross. As Moses stood the pole upright it became clear that the metal was shaped in the form of a semi-coiled snake. Then, in a stunning and quite moving scene the pole was raised for the Israelites to view and from a distance the bronze snake on a pole was quite similar in appearance to a man hanging on a cross.
Jesus said in John 3:14 that is exactly what the bronze snake on the pole symbolizes and foretells–the Son of God crucified on a cross.
But, Jesus isn’t necessarily referring to the visual resemblance between the Old Testament bronze snake on a pole and the New Testament Jesus hanging on a cross. Rather, it’s the equivalency between the faith of the Old Testament Israelites that gazed upon the bronze snake on the pole and the New Testament believers that look to the cross.
When the Israelites looked at the bronze snake, they lived: “When anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived “(Numbers 21:9, NIV). When New Testament believers look to the cross, they live: “That everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:15, NIV).
All it takes is one look, one quick look in faith at the cross of Jesus and you can live–eternally!
Because…. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” (Galatians 3:13, NIV)