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Lesson 16: How Jesus is Like a Snake (John 3:14-15; Numbers 21:4-9)

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June 16, 2013

If I were to compare the Prophet Mohammed to a snake, Muslims who heard of it would be out to kill me for blasphemy. It would be an insult to their revered Prophet. The same would be true if I said it of any religious leader. And so it sounds like blasphemy to say that Jesus is like a snake—except for the fact that Jesus Himself drew that comparison!

At the end of Jesus’ interview with Nicodemus (most scholars think that Jesus’ words to Nicodemus end at 3:15 and 3:16-21 are John’s words), Jesus answers Nicodemus’ question (3:9), “How can these things be?” Or, “How can these things happen?” Nicodemus doesn’t understand how the new birth can happen or how it can gain a person entrance into God’s eternal kingdom. So Jesus tells Nicodemus (3:14-15), “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.”

Jesus is saying that the Spirit of God cannot just brush away sin when He grants the new birth. For sin to be dealt with, God’s justice must be satisfied. The Son of Man must be lifted up to satisfy God’s wrath on behalf of sinners who believe in Him.

The background for these verses is Numbers 21:4-9. Edom had denied Israel permission to cross its land on their way to Canaan (Num. 20:14-21). God told Moses not to fight against Edom (Deut. 2:4-5). So, Moses turned the people southeast (the Promised Land was northwest) to make a long, difficult journey around the land of Edom.

At this point, the Israelites grew impatient. They had just seen a victory over some Canaanites (Num. 21:1-3). Why couldn’t they march through Edom and kill any Edomites that opposed them? So as they turned southeast, they grumbled against God and Moses (Num. 21:5), “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 miserable food.” As a result of their grumbling and despising God’s gracious provision of manna and His taking care of them in the wilderness all these years, the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people as judgment, so that many died. I understand the “fiery” serpents to be snakes whose bite burned like fire before you died.

This time the people acknowledged their sin, came to Moses and asked him to pray for a remedy. People were dying. They needed relief. God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. Everyone in Israel that had been bitten would live if they would look to the serpent.

You have to admit, that’s a strange story! After all, one of God’s Ten Commandments was that His people should not make any graven images. Didn’t Moses remember how Aaron had fashioned the golden calf and the awful judgment that came from that terrible episode? These people knew the story of the detested snake in the garden that had tempted Eve and was at the root of all evil. But now God commands Moses to make an image of a snake and put it on a pole. Some must have thought, “Did God really command Moses to make a bronze snake? Had Moses lost it? What was he thinking? Of all the dumb ideas, this one takes the cake!”

But Jesus took that strange story and applied it to Himself, telling Nicodemus …

Just as those who looked in faith to the serpent in the wilderness were healed, so those who look in faith to the lifted up Son of Man will have eternal life.

As we think about how Jesus was like this snake in the wilderness, we can learn five things about why we need the new birth and how Jesus provides it for us.

1. Because of sin, all people are under the curse of death.

The people in the wilderness were dying because of their sin. They did not deserve to live, because they had rebelled terribly against God and His goodness toward them. They had a track record of 40 years of grumbling in spite of God’s gracious faithfulness. He had delivered them from Pharaoh’s army. He had provided water and protection in that barren desert. He had given them food every morning with the manna. But in spite of God’s abundant goodness, they grumbled at Him about their circumstances. And so He sent these deadly snakes among them as a judgment because of their sin.

Have you ever grumbled against God about your circumstances? Maybe right now you aren’t happy about some difficult things in your life. Perhaps you’re facing overwhelming financial problems. Maybe you’re battling a health problem. Perhaps you’re lonely and praying for a mate, but there aren’t any prospects on the horizon. Or, you may be complaining about the mate that you have! Perhaps there are issues with your children or parents that grate on you every day. The list could go on and on.

It’s proper to bring these things to the Lord in prayer and even, like the psalmist, to complain to the Lord in prayer—as long as you’re careful to acknowledge His goodness, give Him thanks, and submit to His sovereign hand. But if in your complaint, you rebel against Him and take charge of things yourself, at that point your complaining becomes sin.

But whether it’s grumbling against God or having other gods before Him or failing to love others or pride or lust or greed or selfishness, we’ve all sinned against God more times than we can count. As Paul argues (Rom. 3:10), “There is none righteous, not even one.” And (Rom. 6:23), “The wages of sin is death.”

As the story of Nicodemus illustrates, even good, religiously zealous people are under the curse of sin and death. Nicodemus thought that his Pharisaic righteousness would get him into the kingdom of God. But Jesus shocked him by saying (3:3), “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Why did a good, religious man like Nicodemus need the new birth? Weren’t his good works enough to get him into the kingdom? No, he was a sinner. He needed a Savior. He needed the new birth. His good deeds were no cure for the snake bite of sin.

This story brings out a great contrast between religion and Christianity. Religion either ignores human sin and says that God is so loving that He just overlooks our sin; or, it says that we can pay for our sins through good works or penance. But biblical Christianity recognizes that God cannot overlook sin or He would not be holy and just. And, we cannot pay for our own sins, because our good deeds are filthy rags in God’s sight. Our good deeds cannot erase the penalty for our sins, which is the second death.

2. God graciously provided the remedy for the curse.

The snake-bitten people could not do anything to save themselves. They were dropping like flies. God had to provide a way for them to be healed or they all would die. When they confessed their sin and asked Moses to intercede for them, God provided this strange remedy: Make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, and whoever looks at it will live. Even so, we’re all under the condemnation of eternal death because of our sin. No human remedy can help. God graciously provided the way of salvation for us. He sent His own Son to be like that snake, lifted up in the wilderness.

Note several things about this remedy of the snake and how it compares to the cross of Jesus Christ. First, it’s a supernatural remedy. It came from God. Moses didn’t say, “Give me a few days to think about this.” After consulting with the smartest leaders in Israel, he announced, “We’ve got it, people! I just made this bronze snake that’s up on that pole. Whoever looks at it will live!” Everyone would have thought that he was nuts!

Even so, Paul wrote (1 Cor. 1:18), “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The cross is God’s remedy. It didn’t come from the world’s most brilliant philosophers or religious geniuses. It came from God, who devised His plan of salvation before the foundation of the world.

Also, the snake on the pole was a sufficient remedy. Moses didn’t say, “Look at the snake, go home and take two aspirin, and you’ll feel better in the morning!” He didn’t say, “Look at the snake, rub some of this special oil that I’ll sell you on your wound, and you’ll be cured. We’re offering a special discount if you buy it today!” He didn’t say, “Bring your own offerings to the pole and offer them up to the snake.” There was nothing to add to it. God would heal you if you didn’t do anything except to look at that bronze snake.

In the same way, the cross of Christ is sufficient for the salvation of the worst of sinners. You don’t have to add anything to it. You don’t have to give money to the church. You don’t need to do penance to help pay for your sins. You don’t have to join the church. You don’t need to add your good works to what Christ has done. Jesus paid it all! There’s nothing for you to do, except to look unto Him in faith and He will save you.

The snake was also a sure remedy. Everyone who looked was cured on the spot. No one who looked died. It was a perfect, sure-fire cure for everyone who looked.

Even so, Jesus saves every sinner who believes in Him. As He says (John 3:15), “Whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” There aren’t any cases too difficult for God! Maybe you’re a notorious sinner. So was Paul! So was Matthew, the tax-collector! So was the woman at the well! So was the Gerasene demoniac! So was the thief on the cross! The Bible is filled with terrible sinners who looked to Jesus and were saved. If you will believe in Jesus, the remedy is 100-percent effective. He says (John 6:37b), “The one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.”

Also, this snake was a simple remedy. As I said, it was sufficient so that there was nothing else needed. Its sufficiency made it extremely simple. You didn’t have to crawl on your hands and knees over broken glass to go and look at the snake. You didn’t need to learn a difficult mantra that you had to recite perfectly as you looked at the snake. You didn’t need to take special classes to learn how to fight the snakes. No, all you had to do was to look and live. And all you need to do is believe in Jesus as the One who paid the penalty for your sin and you will have eternal life.

Also, this snake was a self-effacing remedy. You couldn’t take any credit for your cure. You couldn’t boast that you had fasted for days or deprived yourself of anything or done any good works or brought any offerings to the snake. You just needed to realize that you couldn’t cure yourself. You were doomed if God didn’t intervene. That was humbling to your pride!

Ichabod Spencer, a 19th century Brooklyn pastor, was gifted in evangelism. In A Pastor’s Sketches ([Solid Ground Christian Books], 1:152), he tells how he was going down a line of about 70 people who wanted to talk with him about salvation. He came to one young man and asked him, “What is the state of your feelings on the subject of your salvation?” The man replied, “I feel that I have a very wicked heart.” Spencer perceived, though, that the young man had not gone deep enough in feeling convicted of his sin. So he replied, “It is a great deal more wicked than you think,” and went on to the next person.

A few days later the young man came to him to tell him that he had found peace with God through faith in Christ. But he said that at first he was very angry at Spencer for his remark. He thought that he had been cruel. He felt that he didn’t care whether he was ever saved or not. But he couldn’t get his comment out of his mind. He finally realized that even though he thought his conviction of sin was very deep, it actually was very slight. If Spencer had agreed with him, his burden of sin would have been lightened, but he wouldn’t have realized how terribly sinful he was. Spencer’s comment served to drive the arrow deeper so that he realized his desperate need for Christ alone to save him.

The cross of Christ is a humbling remedy for your sin. First, you have to admit that you’re a hopelessly lost sinner. That’s a huge stumbling block for “good” people like Nicodemus. “I’m not like these publicans and prostitutes, am I? Sure, I have my faults, but I’m not a bad sinner! I’m a basically good person!” It’s humbling to realize that you are far more sinful than you ever imagined! It’s humbling to admit that you can’t do anything to save yourself. Jesus did it all. All you have to do is trust in Him. His salvation is by grace (undeserved favor) through faith so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8-9).

Thus, because of sin, all are under the curse of death. God graciously provided the remedy for our curse.

3. The remedy must be lifted up.

John 3:14: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” John uses this phrase of Jesus three other times and each time it refers to the cross: John 8:28: “So Jesus said, ‘When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me.’” John 12:32: [Jesus said], “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” John 12:34, “The crowd then answered Him, ‘We have heard out of the Law that the Christ is to remain forever; and how can You say, “The Son of Man must be lifted up”? Who is this Son of Man?’” Must occurs in two of those verses. It points to the fact that the cross was absolutely necessary to atone for our sins. If there had been any other way, Jesus would have taken it, as He prayed in the garden (Matt. 26:39). But the only way to satisfy God’s perfect justice was for the sinless Son of Man to be lifted up on the cross as our substitute.

But in his typical fashion, John sees a double meaning in lifted up. It also means to exalt or lift up in majesty. Both Peter and Paul use it this way to refer to Jesus after His resurrection and ascension (Acts 2:33; 5:31; Phil. 2:9). And, Isaiah used it of Messiah (52:13) just before the well-known chapter 53, where he describes Messiah’s being despised and forsaken of men as He bore our sins on the cross. So just as the despised snake had to be lifted up in the wilderness, so Jesus would be despised and lifted up on the cross. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf” (2 Cor. 5:21). He became a curse for us when He was hanged on the tree (Gal. 3:13). But God didn’t leave Him there, but raised Him from the dead and exalted Him to His right hand in glory.

Thus Jesus prophesied of His death and resurrection at the outset of His ministry. He also answered Nicodemus’ question (3:9), “How can these things be?” Or, “How can these things happen?” The new birth happens when sinners look in faith to the crucified, risen Son of God. Just as the snake in the wilderness gave “new life” to those who were about to perish, so the lifting up of the Son of Man will give eternal life to those who are perishing.

4. The only thing that cursed people have to do to be healed is to look in faith to God’s remedy.

God could have removed the deadly snakes, but instead, He left the snakes, but provided a remedy: Just look to the snake that Moses put up on the pole and you will live. That seemed absurd. It didn’t require anything for them to do except to look in the faith that they would be healed. Even so (John 3:15), “whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” Verse 15 shows us that believing in Him is equivalent to looking at the lifted up snake in the wilderness. The best translation has “believes” without an object and “in Him” is connected with eternal life. But in verse 16 John clarifies that our faith is to be in Jesus, the Son of God.

A couple of months ago (“Who is Jesus?” April 7, 2013) I shared with you the story of Charles Spurgeon’s conversion. A Methodist layman preached on Isaiah 45:22, which in the King James Version reads, “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” He made the point that looking doesn’t take any effort or any special status. Anyone can look. He exhorted young Spurgeon directly to look to Jesus Christ. Spurgeon says that he looked and God saved him.

But we need to be clear that looking to Christ or having faith in Christ is not faith in an idol of Jesus as a good luck charm. In the wilderness, the Israelites had to believe in God’s promise that whoever looked to the serpent would be healed. In the same way, we need to believe God’s promise that whoever looks to Jesus and His death as the just payment for his sins will be forgiven and granted eternal life. But we need to be careful not to fall into idolatry by making a charm or magic token out of the cross.

About 700 years after this incident in the wilderness, King Hezekiah had to destroy this bronze serpent because it had become an object of idolatry to the Israelites (2 Kings 18:1-4). That took some courage on the king’s part! This snake had become a sacred object of worship, but he saw that it had degenerated into idolatry. At the risk of offending, but in the sincere desire to help you understand what faith in Jesus means, if you view a statue of Jesus on the cross as a good luck charm or a sacred object that you pray to, you are not believing in the risen and exalted Savior. You’re practicing idolatry. Destroy your idol and put your trust in the living Lord Jesus to save you.

5. The result of looking was life.

Whoever looked in faith at the snake lived. Whoever believes will in Jesus have eternal life. This is John’s first of ten references to eternal life (although he has already said in 1:4 that in Christ was life, which refers to eternal life). Eternal life is not only life forever, but abundant, joyous, life in the presence of God forever, without any sorrow or pain or death or sin (Rev. 21:4). In the words of Psalm 16:11, it is to enjoy pleasures forever from God’s right hand. As Jesus says (John 17:3), “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”


In his Exposition of the Gospel of John (on A. W. Pink wrote:

Man became a lost sinner by a look, for the first thing recorded of Eve in connection with the fall of our first parents is that “The woman saw that the tree was good for food” (Gen. 3:6). In like manner, the lost sinner is saved by a look. The Christian life begins by looking: “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else” (Isa. 45:22). The Christian life continues by looking: “Let us run with patience the race which is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of faith” (Heb. 12:2). And at the end of the Christian life we’re still to be looking for Christ: “For our conversation (citizenship) is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). From first to last, the one thing required is looking at God’s Son.

So the question is, “Have you looked to the crucified, risen, and exalted Lord Jesus to save you from the curse of sin?” Are you still looking to Him as you run the race of faith?

Application Questions

  1. Can a person come to saving faith if he (or she) doesn’t feel any deep conviction of sin? Can the conviction come after he believes?
  2. In light of Galatians (especially 1:6-9) can a person who believes that we must add our good works to faith for salvation be truly saved?
  3. Some argue that “lordship salvation” adds a requirement (submitting to Jesus as Lord) to faith, which is the only requirement for salvation. Are they right? Why/why not?
  4. Someone says to you, “I forgive those who wrong me. Why can’t God just forgive everyone?” How would you answer?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

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