THE ILLUSTRATION OF THE SERPENT ON THE POLE
The conversation with Nicodemus is still underway and the Lord Jesus has much more to say. In verses 8-13 of chapter 3, Jesus used the illustration of the wind in order to help explain the mystery of being born from above. We can’t see the wind itself but we can see its effects and its results, and they can be very powerful. Jesus was reminding Nicodemus of Ezekiel’s prophesies, and the way the Spirit of God was going to work in the lives of His people to change their hearts and fill them with His Spirit. It was going to be a miraculous event with powerful and amazing results. As I mentioned in my last message, there was a price to be paid in order for this to happen. In the next part of their conversation, the Lord Jesus uses a familiar illustration in order to communicate to Nicodemus the means by which one can be born again.
I..THE OLD TESTAMENT EVENT (verse 14a)
Jesus now says to Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness”. This was a very familiar event and Nicodemus knew it very well. Jesus is referring to the book of Numbers, chapter 21, and verses 4-9. Verses 4 and 5 give us the background leading up to the event: “Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom, and the people became impatient because of the journey. And the people spoke against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.’ “
Complain, complain! That’s all these people have done since they crossed the Red Sea! Now they are blaming God and Moses for the food, the water, and the delays. Their needs have been taken care of, but it seems like there is always something to complain about and someone to blame when the focus of their attention is on themselves. The Hebrew people are sinning against God by their attitude and actions. God has been patient with their complaints but now it has gotten out of hand. It was time for Him to do something about it, and God deals with them in a very unusual way.
Numbers 21:6 describes the punishment that God metes out to the people for their sin. “And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people so that many people of Israel died.” There are a number of poisonous snakes in that area, and I think it will be helpful to know which variety of snakes is doing the biting. You’ll understand when I’m through. Of all the snakes, researchers believe that there is one particular variety that best fits the criteria and sequence of events that are given in verses 6-9. G.S. Cansdale, in his article in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible entitled SERPENT (FIERY SERPENT), (Vol. 5. pp.356-358), describes the various serpents which live in the wilderness area mentioned in Numbers 21 and cited again in John 3:14, seeking to determine which of them were the “fiery serpents”. He, and others mentioned in his article, believe that the most-probable candidate is the “carpet or saw-scaled viper”. It proliferates (has many babies), so much so that many nearby countries have put a bounty on them. It is the only viper in that area that can move quickly over sand and rock.
It’s venom is hemolytic. affecting the blood by breaking the small blood-vessels, and the victim eventually bleeds to death within about four days. The victims often start feeling better after two or three days and assume that all is well, when in actuality they are very close to death. The effects of this venom are irreversible (except by a miracle from God). The slow-acting venom gave Moses time to cast the bronze serpent and tell everyone what they needed to do to be saved from certain death before it happened. As you can see from the description, these snakes could well be the ones used by God to punish His people.
Numbers 21:9 says, “And Moses made the bronze serpent and set it on the standard (as God commanded him), and it came about that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.” It was a time of decision. Moses had made the bronze serpent, and put it on a standard ( a pole with another pole attached horizontally near the top) for the purpose of holding a banner. In this particular case it was holding the bonze serpent, and it was raised high enough so that everyone could easily see it. Each person had to decide whether or not he was going to look at the serpent on the standard when bitten. His life depended on it; it was his only hope. But, knowing the pride and stubbornness of the people of Israel, there were probably some who thought, “That’s ridiculous! How is looking at that snake going to make any difference? I’m feeling better now anyway. I can take care of myself!” That decision cost those people their lives.
II. THE NEW TESTAMENT ILLUSTRATION (verse 14b)
Now the Lord Jesus compares that illustration to Himself and His mission on earth when He says: “even so must the Son of Man be lifted up”. So the snake on the pole represents Jesus, not Satan. It was made of bronze, which was often used in the Old Testament to represent judgment. The pole or standard on which the bronze serpent was affixed represented the cross of Calvary.
The Lord Jesus was telling Nicodemus that, as the serpent in the wilderness provided physical healing from the deadly poison of the snakes, in a similar way He was going to provide spiritual healing and new life to the souls of people who believe in Him. Jesus said that He would be “lifted up”. The Greek word translated “lifted up” (hypsos) means “to exalt”. How could Jesus be exalted while He is hanging naked, bleeding, and humiliated on the cross? What glory was there in that horrible situation? His enemies and His executioners didn’t realize it, but by lifting Him up on the cross to die before their eyes, they were fulfilling prophesies and enabling the Lord Jesus to fulfill the Father’s purpose. Jesus had laid aside His glory to come to this earth and die and pay the price for the sins of the world. Only then could His resurrection and ascension back to heaven be fulfilled. As Philippians 2:8-9 says, “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on the name which is above every name”. Being raised up on that cross was the first step of His exaltation, “that He might draw all men to Himself” (John 12:33).
III. THE PROPER RESPONSE AND THE RESULT (verse 15)
Is the Lord Jesus Christ being exalted in your life? He can’t be truly exalted in your life if He isn’t present in your life. Pastor and author Warren Wiersbe shares an insight and then gives a remarkable, true illustration of Christ’s exaltation in a person through His death on the cross. “The whole world has been bitten by sin, and ‘the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). God sent His Son to die, not only for Israel, but for a whole world. How is a person born from above? How is he saved from eternal perishing? By believing on Jesus Christ; by looking to Him in faith.”
On January 6, 1850, a snowstorm almost crippled the city of Colchester, England; and a teenage boy was unable to get to the church he usually attended. So he made his way to a nearby Primitive Methodist chapel, where an ill-prepared layman was substituting for the absent preacher. His text was Isaiah 45:22 – “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” For many months this teenager had been miserable, and under deep conviction; but though he had been reared in a church (both his father and grandfather were preachers), he did not have the assurance of salvation.
The unprepared substitute minister did not have much to say so he kept repeating the text. “A man need not go to college in order to look,” he shouted. “Anyone can look — a child can look!” About this time, he saw the visitor sitting to one side, and pointing to him and said, “Young man, you look very miserable. Young man, look to Jesus Christ!” The young man did look by faith, and that was how the great preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon was converted. (Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, pp. 296-297)
The people on the hill of Golgotha that day couldn’t help but see Jesus because He was lifted up above them on a cross (Matthew 27:33ff). For three hours He hung there in the sight of all, suffering and dying. We know that at least one person looked to Jesus in faith that day – a thief on a cross dying next to Him. That thief said, “. . . we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong . . . Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And Jesus said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:40-43).
In this thief’s eyes, Jesus was exalted there on that cross. He recognized that Jesus was a king, and he asked to be a member of His kingdom. Jesus told him that he now had something wonderful to look forward to. He also had Someone wonderful to exalt and enjoy forever in the kingdom of heaven.
IV. THE MOTIVE AND PURPOSE OF GOD (verses 16-18)
John 3:16 is one of the most well-known, and one of the most beloved verses in all the Bible. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” By saying those words, Jesus is stretching Nicodemus’ present understanding of the scope of God’s love way beyond it’s limits. “God loves the world, not just His ‘chosen people’?” “What did those sinners and idolators do to deserve that?” The world didn’t deserve God’s love anymore than he did. God’s love was a gift, and it came wrapped up in the Person of His “only begotten Son”. the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the only hope, the only antidote, the only alternative for sinful mankind. Otherwise we are all perishing. II Thessalonians 1:9 gives a good description of the word “perishing”: “And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” It doesn’t get any worse than that!
Years ago, two young parents were faced with a life-or-death decision: either allow the doctor to give their baby an experimental drug or their baby would be dead by morning because of a 109 degree temperature caused by a sudden ailment. Of course they gave that permission or I wouldn’t be here today to tell you about it! When we look at the very best of human love, we can gain a bit of a glimpse of God’s love. The following is one example of the very best of human love:
In his book, Written In Blood, Robert Coleman tells the story of a little boy whose sister needed a blood transfusion. The doctor explained that she had the same disease that the boy had recovered from two years earlier. Her only hope for recovery was a transfusion from someone who had previously conquered the disease. Since the two children had the same rare blood type, the boy was the ideal donor.
“Would you give your blood to Mary?”, the doctor asked. Johnny hesitated. His lower lip started to tremble. Then he smiled and said, “Sure, for my sister.” Soon the two children were wheeled into the hospital room–Mary, pale and thin; Johnny, robust and healthy. Neither spoke, but when their eyes met, Johnny grinned. As the nurse inserted the needle into his arm, Johnny’s smile faded. He watched the blood flow through the tube. With the ordeal almost over, his voice, slightly shaky, broke the silence. “Doctor, when do I die?”
Only then did the doctor realize why Johnny had hesitated, why his lip had trembled when he agreed to donate his blood. He thought that giving his blood to his sister meant giving up his own life. In that brief moment, he’d made his great decision. Johnny, fortunately, didn’t have to die to save his sister. Each of us, however, has a condition more serious than Mary’s, and it required Jesus to give not just His blood but His life. (Thomas Lindberg)
Below is a brief description of the greatness of this verse: John 3:16
“God”–The greatest Lover.
“So loved”–The greatest degree.
“The world”–The greatest company.
“That He gave”–The greatest act.
“His only begotten Son”–The greatest Gift.
“That whosoever”–The greatest opportunity.
“Believeth”–The greatest simplicity.
“In Him”–The greatest attraction.
“Should not perish”–The greatest promise.
“But”–The greatest difference.
“Have”–the greatest certainty
“Everlasting life”–the greatest possession.
How great is our God! I hope that reading the words to John 3:16 from that perspective will give you a fresh realization and appreciation for what God did for us and why He did it. You may want to copy those words and place them in a place where you will see them often, as I am going to do.
Martin Luther referred to John 3:16 as “The Miniature Bible” because it contains the essence of the Gospel in “a nutshell”. During World War II, it was the custom for any household that had given a son in the service to place a star in the window in the middle of a white banner. A gold star, however, indicated that the son of the house had already given his life’s blood in support of his country’s cause. Sir Harry Lauder related a touching story in regard to this custom. He said that one night a man was walking down a certain avenue in New York City accompanied by his five-year-old son. The little fellow was greatly interested in the brightly lighted windows of the houses and wanted to know why some of the houses had a star in the window. The father explained that those houses had given a son to the war. The child would clap his hands as he saw another star in the window and would cry out, “Look, daddy, there’s another family who gave a son for his country! And look, there’s another! And another! And look, there’s one with two stars!”
At last they came to an empty lot, and a break in the row of houses. Through the gap could be seen the evening star shining brightly in the sky. The little lad caught his breath, “Oh, daddy”, he cried, “look! God must have given HIS Son for He has hung a star in the window of heaven!” (Our Daily Bread, 9/6/1960)
How true are that little boy’s words! As we look at the brightest star in the sky tonight, may we be reminded that the Lord Jesus Christ gave his life for our sins; and as we count the other stars in the heavens, may we be reminded of all the believers who are shining for Him, both on earth and in heaven. There are more than we can count. I hope you are one of them, shining brightly for Him today and every day (Matthew 5:16).
Jesus has just described to Nicodemus how He was going to die and the reasons for His death. In three short years, I believe that Nicodemus would be standing at a distance together with the other Pharisees and Leaders, watching Jesus die, and he would be realizing the fulfillment of Jesus’ words to Him. He could not help but think about the serpent on the pole and put the two events together.
Verses 17 and 18 are sometimes overlooked because of the greatness and popularity of John 3:16. But these two verses amplify the mystery and the eternal consequences of Christ’s death on the cross. Verse 17 begins with the words, “For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world.” This is a mystery to me because, logically and realistically, God should have sent His Son into this world to judge us and condemn all of us to hell. That’s what we all deserve because we’ve all sinned against a holy and perfect God. But God wasn’t acting logically; He was acting emotionally. Love is a powerful emotion and God’s love is perfect and unconditional. That’s why the rest of verse 17 says, “but that the world should be saved through Him”. Notice the word “should“. God has expressed His desire and provided the way. There is no reason why we shouldn’t repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, turning our lives over to His control. There are no “good reasons”. There are only excuses. If you haven’t done so, what is your excuse? You’re making the biggest mistake in your life, you’re passing up the greatest opportunity of your life, and you’re missing the greatest joy in life if you don’t respond to His great love. The Lord Jesus is not just saying these words to Nicodemus, but to each of us as well.
I personally believe that the Lord Jesus Christ was the greatest preacher and teacher who ever lived on this planet. There is much to learn by studying how He communicated with people. I’m sure that Nicodemus had never been in a conversation quite like this one before! Jesus had made some shocking statements to Nicodemus, given illustrations, asked questions, corrected misconceptions, and made comparisons. In verse 18 the Lord Jesus ends this illustration of the serpent on the pole with another principle of preaching and teaching: REPETITION. He says in verse 18, “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe in Him is judged already. because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Jesus is saying basically the same thing to Nicodemus, but this time His purpose is to establish blame or fault. The Lord Jesus did not come to this earth to judge, but to save and remove judgment by taking that judgment for sin upon Himself. Therefore those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are not judged because it has already been taken care of through His death on the cross. However, those who refuse to believe, those who reject God’s gift are “judged already” because they have made the call; they have made their choice in view of the consequences, and by so doing they are judging and condemning themselves at that moment. They have no one to blame but themselves. To not believe in His name is to not confess Him as Lord.
While Nicodemus is still reeling from the impact of Jesus’ words to him, the Lord Jesus gives one final illustration and exhortation: the contrast between light and darkness. We will study that illustration in the next message. I hope that the words of Jesus so far have given each of us some things to think about and put into practice in our own lives.
Welcome! This is a completed construction site. If you are new to this blog site, my purpose, as I study a passage of Scripture, is to place it on the site a section at a time as I complete it so that you can see the progress and study along with me if you would like to do so. I call it a work-in-progress. May God teach us all patience as we learn to accept the events in our lives, and diligence to make the most of our situations by His all-sufficient grace.