"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)
This is the second "must" in the third chapter of John. If man must be born again in order to see and enter the kingdom of God (v. 7), the Son of Man must be lifted up so that man—who is dead in trespasses and sin, and destitute of eternal life—may receive such life and not perish.
The incident in the wilderness, with Moses lifting up the brazen serpent, foreshadows the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. In Numbers 21:4-9 we see that 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 provided a remedy. He told Moses to make a serpent of brass and put it upon a pole. Whenever an Israelite was bitten, if he would look at the brazen serpent, he would live. The condition in the camp of Israel is a picture of the ravages of sin and the wages of sin, which is death (Romans 6:23). Because of the fatal poison of sin, man is spiritually dead.
The use of this incident to illustrate the wonderful truth of redemption manifests the heavenly wisdom of our Lord. It also confirms the typical teaching of Old Testament events, that "All these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition" (1 Corinthians 10:11).
The brazen serpent lifted up on a pole is the type of Christ in His sacrificial work on the cross. That serpent was the very image of what was destroying the Israelites, but the brazen serpent had no poisonous fangs. There was no poison in it, and though it bore the likeness of the serpent, it was in fact the source of life. 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 for sin, He put away sin and became the source of our salvation. Looking up to the brazen serpent, the Israelite saw that the very thing which had put death and ruin upon them was triumphed over and completely conquered. And so as 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.
As the Israelites looked to the brazen serpent, they experienced God's power over that which brought death: "When he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived" (Numbers 21:9). When we turn our eyes to the cross of Calvary, we behold the power of God in salvation. We see ourselves redeemed from the guilt and power of sin; death is ended and life is given—eternal life. Notice that the death-stricken Israelite was not saved by a natural process of improvement or by a gradual restoration, but rather by a sudden supernatural manifestation of divine power. How blessedly and fully all this foreshadows and illustrates the Gospel of our salvation! Christ died for the ungodly, and believing on Him means salvation from eternal judgment and the gift of eternal life.
What does it take 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 is the way of salvation: "Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 45:22).
"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved. He that believeth on Him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." (John 3:16-18).
—Adapted from The Gospel of John: An Exposition by Arno C. Gaebelein
There is life in a look at the crucified One;
There is life at this moment for thee!
Then look, sinner, look unto Him and be saved:
Unto Him who was nailed to the tree.
—Amelia M. Hull