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“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16. One of the best known verses in the Bible. But not so many know the sentence that precedes it. “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” (John 3:14-15).
This short, somewhat obscure reference takes us back to an event in the life of God’s people, the Israelites, as they journeyed in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt. Understanding that story will help us better understand who Jesus is and what He has come to do for us.
So what happened? Throughout the 40 years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness God took care of them. He gave them bread from heaven to eat and water to drink. God had graciously provided for their every need, yet they became impatient. And the people spoke against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food” (Numbers 21:5).
The charge was untrue, of course. God made sure they had food and water. They were just discontent with what they had been given. They were ungrateful, forgetting that they had been rescued from slavery. God had provided for them every step of the way. But His provisions weren’t enough; they wanted something more.
To jar the people to their senses, the Lord sent fiery serpents among them. Those serpents bit the people, and many died. The people soon recognized that their sin had caused this disaster. They came to Moses and confessed and asked for relief, “We have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that He take away the serpents from us” (Numbers 21:7).
Moses once again acted as mediator between the people and the Lord. God had mercy on the people. He told Moses to make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole. He promised that anyone who looked toward it would live. So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he or she would look at the bronze serpent and live.
It’s a strange way to save somebody—set a serpent on a stick. Logically, that doesn’t even make sense. Looking at a bronze serpent on a pole cannot remove deadly venom coursing through your veins. It’s scientifically impossible. But if God says it can, it can. His Word has the power to bring about what He says. God spoke. He attached His promise to that bronze serpent and the Israelites looked to it in faith—believing that God would save them through the way He provided. Healing did not magically emanate from the coiled piece of metal but depended on faith in the power of God’s Word.
That brings us back to John 3:14-15: “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.”
Jesus came to this world because deadly venom courses through our veins, too. It’s called sin. Adam and Eve, our first parents, were “snake-bitten.” Like the Israelites in the wilderness, God graciously provided for their every need, yet they turned against Him in the desire for something more than what He had given them. The ancient serpent, Satan, tempted them and they gave in, bringing sin into their lives and into creation itself.
The venom of sin has passed from generation to generation. You and I have it. It’s why our hearts are fill with so much hatred, pride, selfishness, jealousy, greed, and lust. It’s why we journey through the wilderness of this life often craving something more than God has graciously provided. We have a sin problem. We’ve inherited it and we commit it. This venom is deadly and it’s killing us.
But God has mercy on us. Immediately, after Adam and Eve sinned, God promised a Savior who would crush the head of the serpent, undoing the deadly consequences of sin, while He Himself would be bitten. This Savior, Jesus, the Son of Man, was lifted up to death on the pole of the cross. Just as the Israelites were saved from the venom of the serpents when they looked in faith toward the bronze serpent, so believers of all ages can look to Christ in faith and be saved from the spiritual venom of sin.
It’s a strange way to save somebody, but it’s true! On the cross, Christ exchanged His perfect righteous and obedience for our sin and disobedience. He redeemed us, lost and condemned persons, purchased and won us from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with silver or gold, but with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, that we may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.
This is most certainly true!
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
That promise is for everyone! That promise is for you!