We have observed that the Law of Moses by its omissions and by its very provisions made it evident that it was unable to give life. It pointed out sin and magnified it; “by the Law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20; 7:7,13). It showed the way to something “better”. At the inauguration of the Tabernacle and the consecration of the priesthood Aaron’s two elder sons lay dead upon the floor of the Tabernacle and the provisions of the Law had to be put aside and a new priest found to overcome the tragedy of death. It was all very instructive about the insufficiency of the Law and its priesthood.

Another incident in the life of Moses again illustrated the deficiency of the Law. The passage is in Numbers chapter 21, where, in the harsh conditions of the coast of the Red Sea, the soul of the people was much discouraged and they spoke against God and against Moses and despised the provisions God had given them in the wilderness. This general sin was met by immediate consequences, for Yahweh sent “fiery serpents” among the people, many of whom died (v6). The sting of death is sin! (1 Cor 15:56).

In this tragic dilemma the people acknowledged their sin and asked Moses, whom they had so recently berated, to pray unto the Lord for them (v7). The answer came back, “Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that everyone that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live” (v8). Moses responded to this and the record emphasises the success of this remedy for sin. “Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Num 21:9). Without any reference to the Tabernacle, or the Law and its sacrifices, a solution for sin and death was miraculously provided.

Jesus’ use in John 3:14

Perhaps to our amazement, the Lord Jesus drew upon this incident in his discourse with Nicodemus. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14). It is highly probable that if the Lord had not chosen this figure as typical of his work of salvation then we would never have dared to make the analogy. The serpent represented sin, right from the days of the original sin of Adam and Eve; “he” was sentenced to destruction by the seed of the woman (Gen 3:1–6, 15). Thereafter the serpent is representative of and related to sin (Psa 58:4, 140:3, Matt 3:7). Yet the Lord was adamant about the analogy, “…. even so must the Son of man be lifted up”.

The expression, “lifted up”, in the mouth of the Lord, had reference to his impending crucifixion. “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die” (John 12:32–33). So the strength of Jesus’ analogy cannot be avoided even though we surely feel surprised by the comparison. Some like to say that the comparison is only that the elevation of the serpent on the pole was similar to the elevation of a crucified person; in both cases the demonstration is before the public eye. Whilst this is an important aspect of the comparison it hardly answers the intention of the Lord in suddenly bringing forward this unique incident from the wilderness wanderings.

Nicodemus’ mind

Why then did Jesus employ this allegory in his discourse with this ruler of the Jews? Nicodemus came to Jesus confused, yes, but not yet convinced. The miracles of Jesus were undeniable, so he must be from God (John 3:2, cp 2:23,24). He acknowledged this, so why did he come “by night”? He was part of the Sanhedrin, the principal Jewish council, and they were bitterly opposed to the Lord; so doubtless he was not wanting his visit to Jesus to be known by his confreres. He was an acknowledged teacher, a “master in Israel” (John 3:10). So he was in good standing in the Jewish hierarchy and heavily committed to all their zeal for the tradition of the elders; in chapter 7 he is a principal member of the council’s debate concerning Jesus of Galilee (John 7:46–52). He came to Jesus as a teacher to a teacher, as a Rabbi to a Rabbi! Twice he answered back to the Lord, “How can these things be?” (3:4,9). He cannot deny that God was working with this Jesus of Nazareth, but why is he not working in with all the recognised religious hierarchy and teachers of the Jews? Why is he running his own separate campaign among the ordinary and humble folk and not in co-operative harmony with the acknowledged eldership?

Besides, they were all children of Abraham, inheritors of the covenants of the fathers, keeping the Law, circumcised in early life and on the sure road to the Kingdom and glory. They grew up thinking this way, every Jewish boy did, especially the members of the ruling and teaching class (Matt 3:7–10; Acts 22:3; Phil 3:1–5). Jesus’ opening words put the axe to this tree! “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”! There can be no reliance upon one’s human credentials, never mind how high their status. When Nicodemus staggers at this challenging teaching, Jesus repeats it with greater emphasis! “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (3:5). The apostle Paul’s description of the Jewish confidence, which he knew only so well, is no doubt a perfect fit for Nicodemus. “Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, And knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law; And art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness. An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law” (Rom 2:17–20).

Jesus’ teaching goes back to basic principles. When we approach our God we must acknowledge our need, recognise our weakness and respond with repentance and renewal of heart. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh,” he lays down! (John 3:6). He will soon declare, “the flesh profiteth nothing”! (6:63). One cannot come to the Father reliant upon human inheritance. “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (3:6). To come to God there must be a denial of the natural will and a new mind begotten of the Word. “It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing” (John 6:63 again).

This is a work of faith in which we are taught by the Spirit of God entering our hearts and minds and lifting us above our inherited traits. It is effected quietly and internally, a secret work of God just as the wind works its will, coming and going by the mind and purpose of God (3:8). It is not something of natural or national distinction.

All this was outide Nicodemus’ comfort zone. Earnest as he was he had never perceived these basic facts, and no-one in his company ever spoke doctrine like this Jesus of Nazareth. The Lord further rattles his confidence, “Art thou a master [teacher] of Israel, and knowest not these things?” (3:10). Jesus increases the contrast! What he was propounding to Nicodemus was a confirmed teaching of God, “heard” and “seen” of his Father (3:11). This was not a discussion between equal rabbis, for in fact the origins of Jesus were from heaven; he was of God and sent by God, though still Son of man (3:13).

A beautiful mind

That the Lord at this point in the discourse should have referred to the lifting up of the serpent of brass is truly amazing and helps us to comprehend his wonderful mind. Firstly, notice his all-encompassing love of Scripture; all Scripture was revered as Godinspired and profitable for doctrine! Secondly, it was from the writings of Moses himself, in whom Nicodemus took particular pride.

Jesus has only just mentioned that his origins were from God, and that in that sense he had “come down from heaven”, when he now likens himself to the serpent of brass lifted up by Moses! The two descriptions could hardly be in greater contrast! Why did he do this? Was it not to say to Nicodemus that the same principle he was driving home to him had its relevance also to Jesus? Though Son of God and sent by God, yet he was also Son of man and as such could not rely upon fleshly descent. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh!” All flesh is grass. What his Father had asked him to do was right. It must be done. “The Son of man must be lifted up” (3:14). There is a series of three “must” passages in the Gospels: “the Son of man must suffer many things” (Mark 8:31); “but first must he suffer many things” (Luke 17:25); and “the Son of man must suffer many things” (Luke 9:22). The gospel of Luke finishes with two similar passages: “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into his glory?”; and “Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead” (Luke 24:26,46,44). To his last breath he would justify his Father in the schedule He had determined for His Son. This is a beautiful mind!

We can but imagine how this teaching challenged the thinking of Nicodemus! He had no comprehension whatsoever that Messiah had to fulfil this awful role and therefore no appreciation that he, too, had to follow the Christ in this way. This is the essence of being born again of “water”, in baptism and of the Spirit in the regeneration of the mind (James 1:17,18; 1 Pet 1:22,23). So Jesus was asking Nicodemus to do no more than he was required to do himself! ‘But, Nicodemus, if it is right for me to go along this path then it is right for anyone.’

A brazen serpent

Those living serpents that bit the people were fiery to look upon; so, too, was the brazen serpent that Moses made and lifted up on the pole. The difference was that the brazen one was inert, it had no sting. To outward appearances it looked the same but it was harmless! It was made in the likeness of the serpent nature but was without the sting of death. In fact that was the factor that made it so potent to save. The echoes to Jesus are now in bold relief for us all, even as we wonder in great admiration that the Lord was willing to so portray himself. The likeness was there; he “also himself likewise took part of the same”, yet “he did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth” (Heb 2:14; 1 Pet 2:22). “He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21). Rightly balanced the analogy with the Lord’s work was there indeed.

There are several later passages in John’s gospel that teach the same essential truths and show the marvellous consistency of Jesus’ teaching:

  • “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:31–32)
  • “Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me” (John 14:30).
    “Whosoever believeth”

There was still more in the wilderness incident. How were the people saved from the deadly vipers’ sting? Caught in the curse of the powerful venom they were to look upon the brazen serpent (Num 21:8,9). Though naturally desirous to attend to the focus of the snake’s bite they were to forget that and look up to the brazen representation. Who was able to partake in this miraculous relief? “Everyone that is bitten”, “any man” that had been bitten, not just Israelites but the “mixed multitude” that was in their midst. The opportunity was universal, the sole requirement was to look to God’s provision, to believe what He had presented to them. Faith was the essential requirement of man.

So the Lord Jesus brings the analogy to a delightful crescendo: “For God so loved the world, that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

We can only imagine the impact of these sublime words upon Nicodemus. Every point was in contrast to what he had been taught from his youth. Salvation was not of man by a legal assessment of human merit, but by his faith in the love of God to forgive sins through His Son in whom he was to be reborn. And this to Jew and Gentile alike.

No doubt Nicodemus went away with great turnings of mind. So do we, too. The principles are well-known but the wonder remains… the wonder of a Son of God who was also Son of man; the wonder of a Son of God who could be touched with our infirmities and temptations; the wonder of a sinless Son of man, the wonder of his Father’s love for sinners, the wonder of His Son’s obedience unto death, the wonder of the “lifting up” of the Son of man.

“Whosoever believeth”! Indeed!