”Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15)
The episode with the bronze snake in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4–9) can be disturbing. God appears to use a snake idol to rescue his rebellious people from snakes. But then when we think we’ve left behind such embarrassing and puzzling stories in the Old Testament, Jesus himself retrieves it and uses it positively to conclude his sublime lesson on the new birth by pointing to the cross. Why does he do that?
1. THE SCENE
Interpreters differ as to where Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus ends. The red letters and quotation marks in the CSB continue through v. 21 (John 3). Against scholars who end Jesus’s words after v. 13, New Testament scholar D. A. Carson argues that reference to the Son of Man is so characteristic of Jesus that v. 14 must come from him, and the sentence structure and logic brings v. 15 with it. The term rendered “one and only Son” (monogenēs) in v. 16, however, is elsewhere never used by Jesus but only by the author of John’s Gospel (1:14, 18; 1 John 4:9). So John 3:14–15 was likely Jesus’s concluding statement to Nicodemus, which would surely have driven the Pharisee to go home and study Numbers 21:4–9.
The episode in Numbers takes place at the end of the forty years of wilderness wandering, after the exodus generation of Israel has died (except for Joshua, Caleb, and Moses). Having just experienced their first victory over the Canaanites in Numbers 21:1–3, Israel may have been disappointed that God has them head south into the desert of the Arabah rather than immediately north into the promised land. This may have added to their bad attitude in Numbers 21:4–9, which recounts Israel’s final incident of complaining and God’s response: his judgment and then provision of a solution through Moses.
God had met the first three incidents of grumbling by Israel’s first generation on the way to Sinai with positive lessons of his gracious provision (see Exodus 15–17). God then met three more incidents on the way to Canaan in Numbers 11–12 with mainly negative lessons of judgment (fire, plague, leprosy). These too failed to bring repentance, culminating in the Lord’s oath that they would never see his rest (Numbers 14:21–23; see Psalm 95:9–11).
2. THE SNAKES
Now, the second generation is following in the steps of their fathers. They are “impatient because of the journey” (Numbers 21:4) and curse God because of the “wretched food” he had provided (v. 5). Consequently, God sends snakes that are “poisonous,” literally “burning” or “fiery,” a word perhaps describing either the feeling of being bit or the inflamed wound they left. Before more deaths from snakebite, representatives beg Moses to plead for them before God. Rather than taking away the snakes, however, he leaves them but instructs Moses to create an antidote: “a snake image,” literally “a fiery thing” (NLT, “a replica of a poisonous snake”) mounted on a pole. Like a vaccine (except after the fact), a form of the cause of the affliction will be the source of its cure. Simply looking at the image after being bitten will keep one from dying (“he will live,” v. 8). Moses chooses to make the image from copper or bronze, probably because the Hebrew word for “snake,” nahash, resembles the word for “copper” or “bronze,” nehoshet. Also, the Timna copper mines were also in the Arabah desert. In the 1960s archaeologists even found a five-inch-long copper snake in a tent shrine at Timna dating between 1200 and 900 BC!
Snakes are mentioned about fifty times in the Bible, usually in a negative way representing evil, affirming the revulsion and fear they trigger in many people. In both the first occurrence in Gen 3:1 and the last one in Revelations 20:2, the serpent represents Satan. Did God choose to judge Israel with snakes in Numbers 21 because the people’s false accusation against God, that he had “led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness” (Numbers 21:5), echoed the devil’s first lie in the garden, “No! You will not die” (Genesis 3:4)? Perhaps.
3. THE SOVEREIGNTY
But more important is why God did not respond to the people’s repentance (“we have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you”) and plea by removing the snakes as they begged him to do. Ancient Jewish scholars proposed that God wanted to test their faith and obedience. The first century AD Wisdom of Solomon praises God because “the one who turned was not saved because of what was beheld, but because of you, the savior of all.” Perhaps the most striking thing about God’s solution was that, whereas bringing a sacrifice for sin always involved touching the animal, laying hands on it, here is deliverance by merely looking at a divine provision for their healing (possibly something whose red color represents a bloody sacrifice).
Perhaps the best explanation for the incident in Numbers 21 is that the sovereign God of loving mercy was providing the coming Messiah with an illustration of the effectiveness of his saving work.
4. THE SAVIOR
The principle of “look and live” would be familiar to Nicodemus from this passage. John the Baptist also called upon people to “look” at Jesus (1:36). Jesus invited the disciples to “come and see,” as did Philip (1:39, 46). Jesus promised they would “see heaven opened” (1:51). In 6:40 Jesus said, “Everyone who sees the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” In 14:19 Jesus told his disciples, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Because I live, you will live too.” In his account of Jesus’s crucifixion, John 19:37 quotes Zechariah 12:10: “They will look at the one they pierced.”
Also, where God tells Moses to “mount” (or “place”) the image on a pole, Jesus uses the verb “lift up.” He uses that verb again in John 12:32–33: “As for me, if I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.” Then John explains, “He said this to indicate what kind of death he was about to die.” That “lifting up” was also a picture of resurrection and exaltation. In drawing all people to himself, he would bring them up with him into eternal life, resurrection, and exaltation. In saying that the Son of Man “must” be lifted up, Jesus shows that the cross is absolutely essential to our gaining eternal life and that this was God’s sovereign plan from the beginning. The provision of eternal life for all who would believe was the reason for the cross, as v. 15 declares: “so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” The emphasis of John 3:14–15 is that we may receive this life by a simple look in faith at the Savior on the cross. Whoever looks will live.