In John 3, we find Jesus having a conversation with a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Jewish religious leader of the day. He was someone who knew God’s word well and could see that there was something special about Jesus. But he didn’t know enough to be able to see Jesus as the Messiah. This wasn’t because of some deficiency in Jesus. It was because there was a deficiency in Nicodemus’ understanding of who the Messiah was supposed to be and what he was supposed to do. And so Jesus’ gives an example he should understand.
Christ He points to a story from the Old Testament that shows what the Messiah was supposed to be for his people. He reminds him of what happened in Numbers 21.There, the people of Israel are wandering in the wilderness. They’re struggling to trust God to provide for them and protect them. And Moses says,
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 serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
And as Jesus is talking with Nicodemus, he says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” And although Nicodemus may not have ever read the passage that way before, Jesus says – what happened there pointed forward to him. Just as that serpent was lifted up on the pole, so he would be lifted up on a cross.
Tonight on this Good Friday as we think about the cross, we want to follow Jesus’ example and see it as a greater fulfillment of the redemption God brought to Israel in the wilderness.
1. Jesus is Lifted Up as the Source of our Salvation
Many people today like Jesus. You see him in cartoons and movies. You can go into certain stores or online and even find t-shirts that say ‘Jesus is my Homeboy.’ It’s the same kind of shirt you see on people like Madonna, Brad Pitt, and Pamela Anderson.
The reason people like this and so many others like Jesus, even think he is cool, is because they don’t really know him. They’ve never really read the New Testament. They’ve simply heard a couple of things he said, like ‘Love you neighbors” and think he was a very moral, loving teacher. They see him as a Ghandi-type, or in the same mold as Martin Luther King, Jr.
The problem is that the Bible never presents Jesus like this. In fact, Jesus himself doesn’t hold himself up as a great teacher. From this very text in John 3, we can see Jesus held himself up as the Messiah – as the Savior.
“as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
In Numbers 21, the serpent was held up as the source of the people’s salvation. Likewise, on the cross, Jesus was held up as the means of our salvation. Everything Jesus did and said was based on that one aim – to fulfill God’s will, offering himself up as the source of our salvation. Specifically, we can see that through the cross,
2. Jesus is Lifted Up as a Curse for God’s People
What should be shocking about this passage is that Jesus is compared to a snake. In the Bible, snakes and serpent are, if not always, almost always portrayed as cursed objects. That goes all the way back to the beginning when Satan used the guise of a serpent to deceive Adam and Eve and bring sin into the world.
In Numbers 21, it’s serpents that are sent by God among the people to kill them. The snakes came as a means of judgment on God’s people for their sin. Even in holding up the bronze serpent, Moses was holding up a reminder of God’s curse upon him. And Jesus says, ‘That’s me.’ “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” When he is lifted up on the cross, he is a reminder of the curse that stands on all of us because of our sinful rebellion against God.
But he is not just a reminder. By being lifted up like the bronze serpent, Christ became the very embodiment of our curse. In Gal 3:13, Paul says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” By becoming the embodiment of our curse for sin, Christ took upon himself our curse. He took our place and became the object of God’s wrath against sin. And yet the salvation from sin’s curse does not come to all, because –
3. Jesus is Lifted Up as the Object of Our Faith
Remember in Numbers 21, not all of Israel was saved from the judgment God sent through the serpents. Verse 8 says, “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.’ Those who had been bitten were required to look at the bronze serpent.
But was that it? Just look at the serpent and be healed? Implicit in their gazing at the serpent, was an act of faith in God. The serpent came because the people refused to believe in God’s goodness and his promises. Now, God is saying trust me and you will be spared. Believe the promise that all who look upon the serpent will be healed, and you will be healed.
And just as the serpent had bitten each and every Israelite, but only those that would look on the serpent lifted up on Moses staff would be cured, so everyone born is born as a sinner under God’s curse and must look to the Cross of Christ in faith to be saved from sin. Jesus said, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
We look to many things for our salvation today. We look to many religions and many things other than religion like education – if people just knew more things would be better. We look to politics – if we could just get the right leaders in office, things would be better. We look to science – if we can just do the right research and manipulate the right materials, things would be better. Many look to money – if I just had a little more money, things would be so much better.
But in looking to so many other things, we’ve failed to see the real problem. The real problem with the world is sin, and sin brings judgment from God. And though God offers salvation from the curse of sin, we must turn to look at Christ lifted up on the cross and believe. We must believe God when he promises that Christ and only Christ is the Savior of the world. We believe God when he says, ‘all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ And Jesus says that if we believe in him as the Savior. If we look to him as the Israelites looked to the bronze serpent, we will receive eternal life.
4. Jesus is Lifted Up to Provide Eternal Life
Jesus said, “The Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The Bible says the wages of sin is death. The natural consequence of living in a world corrupted by sin is that evil happens – moral evil and natural evil. People are murdered as well as die from cancer. People die from crime and natural disaster.
But worse than that, when we live and die in our sins, we also get what we deserve. If in this life, we rebel against God in our sins and try to run from him and his lordship over our lives, then God will give us what we want and deserve in death; and eternity of spiritual death, separated forever from God. No mercy, no grace, no love, no second chances. Only pain, misery, sorrow, and death; forever.
But Jesus says whoever in him will have eternal life. Eternal life means life with God. It means life apart from the curse of sin. It means life as God’s children, living in the fullness of his grace, mercy and love. It means life lived in the fullness of joy that comes from being in right relationship with God, forever. Eternal life is the opposite of everything is means to live in sin.
And Jesus says, we only need to look up to him at the cross and believe. Believe that he was judgment that we might go free. Believe that he died that we might live. Believe that he was cut off from God that we might be brought near to God. Believe that just as all those Israel who looked at the bronze serpent lived, so when we look to Christ, we will live.
Tonight, as we think of Christ dying on the cross this day almost two thousand years ago, remember his words to Nicodemus. Remember that he was lifted up like serpent in the wilderness. Remember that Jesus, in the place of the snake, was lifted up to be the source of our salvation, to be a curse for God’s people, in order to be the object of our faith, that we might receive eternal life.