“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up. That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14,15).
The Two “Musts”
This is the second “must” in the third chapter of this Gospel. If man “must be born again” (v. 7) in order to see and enter the kingdom of God, the Son of Man must be lifted up so that man, dead in trespasses and sin, may receive eternal life and not perish. What our Lord means by “the Son of Man must be lifted up” is His impending crucifixion. The twelfth chapter makes this plain: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me. This He said, signifying what death He should die” (John 12:32,33).
The Old Testament Event
The incident in the wilderness, when Moses lifted up the serpent, is found in Numbers 21:4-9. God had sent fiery serpents into the camp of Israel as a judgment. The bite of these serpents was deadly. But when the people cried, “We have sinned,” God graciously provided the remedy. He told Moses to make a serpent of brass and set it upon a pole, with the assuring promise that every one who was bitten and looked upon the brazen serpent would live. Moses made the serpent, put it upon the pole, and whenever an Israelite was bitten, and he looked, he lived.
The New Testament Application
The use of this incident to illustrate the wonderful truth of redemption manifests the heavenly wisdom of our Lord. It also confirms that Old Testament events contain lessons for us today: “All these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition”
(1 Corinthians 10:11). The condition of the camp of Israel is a picture of the ravages of sin, and of the wages of sin, which is death (Romans 6:23). The brazen serpent lifted up on a pole is the type (or picture) of Christ in His sacrificial work on the cross.
Similar, But Different
The brazen serpent was the very image of what was destroying the Israelites, but it had no poisonous fangs. Though it bore the likeness of the deadly serpents, it was harmless. Thus the Son of God appeared in the form of man, in the likeness of sinful flesh (Romans 8:3), but He was without sin; He knew no sin. When He was lifted up on the cross, He was made sin for us and by the offering of Himself He put away sin (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 9:26).
Looking up at the brazen serpent, the Israelite saw the very thing which had brought death and ruin upon them triumphed over, and completely conquered. And so, when we look to Christ crucified, made a curse, bearing sin, we see sin judged, condemned, triumphed over, robbed of its power and stripped of its strength.
The Way To Salvation
Christ died for the ungodly, and believing on Him means salvation from eternal judgment and the gift of eternal life. What is it to believe? It is the same thing that the Israelites did when in simple faith they accepted God’s Word, believed it to be true, and then looked to the brazen serpent on the pole. This simple faith in God’s provision is the way to salvation: “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else” (Isaiah 45:22).
—Condensed from The Gospel of John by Arno C. Gaebelein.