The great majority of people who profess to be believers in Jesus are quite familiar with the message of John 3:16. But what about the two preceding verses? In them we read about a serpent and a Son:
(14) And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, (15) that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
These words come in a context in which the message is about salvation and condemnation. In four consecutive verses, we read about “eternal life” (3:15), “everlasting life” (3:16), “be saved” (3:17), and “not condemned” (3:18). How is all of this related to a serpent and a son? Let us focus on some aspects of the text quoted above, John 3:14,15.
Historical background – The reference to a serpent comes from Numbers 21:4-9, where we read about the Israelites in the wilderness returning to their old habit of murmuring against the Lord and Moses. In response to that, God sent fiery serpents that killed many Israelites. In the end, God provided a cure. How? Per Jehovah’s instruction, Moses made a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. Every serpent-bitten Israelite who looked on that bronze serpent was healed and did not die due to a serpent bite.
Identifying “the Son of Man” – The Son of Man must be lifted up (3:15). What is there in the context which can help us identify “the Son of Man?” In the verse prior to this, we read about “the Son of Man who is in heaven” (3:14). Then, in verse sixteen it is “His only begotten Son” and after that God sending “His Son” (3:17). So, when John wrote the book of John, the Son of Man was in heaven, and this Son of Man is God’s only begotten Son. It is pretty clear, is it not, that “the Son of Man” refers to the Christ? In case any doubt lingers, consider Matthew 16:13, where we read that Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” The term “Son of God” shows Jesus’ divine nature, while “Son of Man” points to His human nature while He lived on the earth.
Both serpent and Son were lifted up – Who lifted up the bronze serpent? Moses did (3:14). The same would happen to the Christ. In what way? Jesus certainly is exalted in God’s plan to redeem us from sin. It is the Father’s will that all men honor the Son as they honor the Father (John 5:23). It also is true that because of Jesus’ submission, the Father “highly exalted Him” and gave Him a name above all others (Philippians 2:9). But, the reference in John 3:15 to the Son of Man being lifted up points to Jesus’ crucifixion, when His body forcibly was nailed onto a cross, and then the cross was put in place, resulting in Jesus’ body hanging above the earth. Hear the language of Jesus that is recorded in John 12:32,33: “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself. This He said, signifying by what death He would die.”
Similarities between the serpent and the Son of Man – We have noted already that both were lifted up: the serpent on a pole and the Son on a cross. Second, the bronze serpent was needed because Israelites who had been bitten by serpents were dying “right and left.” In the same way, people are dying in sin, and sinners need a Savior so they will not perish spiritually (3:15). Third, the serpent made by Moses had no sin of its own (What material object does?!), just as the Son of Man was sinless (1 Peter 2:22). Neither the serpent nor the Son caused or contributed to the problems which the Israelites faced then and sinners face today. Human sin caused the need for the serpent then and a Savior now. Finally, in God’s plan, the serpent was the only remedy for snakebite among the Israelites on that occasion in the wilderness. In the same fashion, Jesus is the only Savior for man’s sin. There is no salvation through any other (Acts 4:12).
God’s granting of life – Because of their rebellion against the Lord, the murmuring, ungrateful people of Israel deserved to die. God, however, extended His mercy to them via the lifted- up serpent and allowed the serpent-bitten people to live. In the same way, for us the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). We deserve to be punished for our iniquities, but God grants us life. How? By extending His mercy and saving us through the lifted-up Son: “according to His mercy He saved us” (Titus 3:5).
What was required on the part of the Israelites if they wanted to be healed from the bite of a fiery serpent? They must look on the serpent which Moses lifted up on a pole. If they did not do such, they would die. What about people lost in sin today? Go back to the message of John 3:15: “whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Look to the exalted Christ and believe in Him – that is God’s cure for sin and the means of procuring eternal life. In this connection, do not miss the words of Jesus found in John 8:51: “. . . if anyone keeps my word, he shall never die.” It is plain that the faith which saves is one by which a person submits to the Lord’s will.
— Roger D. Campbell