“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:14, 15
The account of Israel’s rebellion against God to which this passage refers is recorded in Numbers 21:4-9. God had graciously and miraculously delivered Israel from bondage and slavery in Egypt. Israel had seen the staff of God raised over the Red Sea and the waters parted for them. The waters then returned to drown the Egyptian army.
As they were tested on the way they became upset at having to depend on God for water and food. “There is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread” they said (Numbers 21:5). Their complaint was a slur on the nature and character of God. They were in effect saying that He would not keep His word. We should not be surprised that God responded by sending fiery serpents to bite them. Instead of trusting and obeying God they had acted in unbelief and accused Him of bringing them into the wilderness to kill them.
In mercy God responded to their confession and repentance, not by removing the serpents but by asking for an act of faith in His word; the very thing they had spurned. At God’s command Moses placed a brass serpent on the end of the staff of God and raised it up. If anyone would take God at His word and look at the raised serpent he would live.
Jesus’ reference to this event makes it clear that the event was a foreshadow of His own death on the cross and the life that would bring to all who looked to Him in faith. The Gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing just as looking at a brass serpent on a pole to be saved from snake bite would have appeared. It was not the looking that saved from the poison but an act of God in response to them believing what He said
Jesus says that anyone poisoned by sin that looks to Him on the cross for salvation from sin’s curse will be saved and live. Again, it is not the act of looking that saves but and act of God in response to that person acting in faith in His word.
Jesus had just said, “You must be born again” (John 3:3, 7) and being born again is an act of God not of man (cf. John 1:12, 13).
On this resurrection Sunday we reflect and rejoice that we have eternal life because God acted in response to our faith in Jesus Christ just as He said He would. He can do this justly because Jesus Christ died for our sin. No wonder the writer of Hebrews called it “so great a salvation” (Hebrews 2:3).