“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 is a well-known verse. What isn’t so well-known is the sentence right before it: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
That short, seemingly obscure reference is a throwback to an event in the life of God’s people, the Israelites, as they journeyed in the wilderness after having been freed from slavery in Egypt. Understanding that story will enrich our understanding of who Jesus is and what He came to do for us.
So, what happened? Throughout the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness God took care of them. He gave them bread from heaven and water to drink. God graciously provided for their every need, yet they turned against Him in the desire for something more than what they had: “And the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food’” (Numbers 21:5). Oh, there was food and water. God made sure of that. This complaint exposed their selfish discontentment with what they had been given. They were ungrateful, forgetting that they had been rescued from slavery. These gracious provisions weren’t enough; they wanted something more.
God gave them something more: fiery serpents. These serpents bit the people and many died. It was because of these serpents that the Israelites realized that they had sinned against God. They asked Moses to pray for them, that God might take away the snakes. Moses did as the people asked and God had mercy on them. He commanded Moses to lift up a bronze serpent on a pole so that everyone who was bitten could look at it and live.
Scientifically speaking, that doesn’t even make sense. Looking at a bronze serpent on a pole cannot remove deadly venom coursing through your veins. But it can if God says it can. God spoke. He attached His promise to that bronze serpent and the Israelites looked to it in faith—believing that God would save them through the way He provided.
Let’s go back to John 3:14-15: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Jesus came to this world because deadly venom courses through our veins too. It’s called sin. Adam and Eve, our first parents, were “snake-bitten.” Like the Israelites in the wilderness, God graciously provided for their every need, yet they turned against Him in the desire for something more than what they had. The ancient serpent, Satan, tempted them and they gave in, bringing sin into their lives and into creation itself. The venom of sin has passed from generation to generation. You and I have it. Our kids have it. It’s why you’ll never have to teach your children how to be bad. It’s why our hearts are filled with so much hatred, violence, abuse, racism, pride, selfishness, jealousy, adultery—it’s why we journey through the wilderness of this life often craving something more than what God has graciously provided. We have a sin problem. We’ve inherited it and we commit it. This venom is deadly and it is killing us.
But God has mercy on us. Immediately after Adam and Eve sinned, God promised a Savior who would crush the head of the serpent, undoing the deadly consequences of sin, while He himself would be bitten.
This Savior, Jesus, the Son of God, was lifted up to death on the pole of the cross. When Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, he lifted up that which was killing the people. God, in effect, was declaring, “Look! That which is killing you is now hanging on a pole! I have put away the snake and its venom. I have put away your sin. Look to this serpent in faith and live!”
Jesus is our bronze serpent—He became that which was killing us! St. Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him (that is, Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Jesus was “snake-bitten” for us. He became our sin on the cross—the sin we’ve inherited, the sins we have committed, and the sins we will commit—all of it hung on the pole of the cross in the person of Jesus. Look! The sin that is killing you is hanging on the pole of the cross! God has put away your sin. Look to Jesus in faith and live!
Let’s read the words of John 3:16 one more time: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
God had mercy on Adam and Eve because He loved them. He had mercy on the Israelites because He loved them. Why does He have mercy on you? Because He loves you. One more time: Because He loves you. He loves us so much that, even though we’ve turned against Him, forgetting His goodness and craving more than He graciously provides, He sent His Son, Jesus, to become our sin and die our death to ensure that you will not perish, but have eternal life. That’s love right there. Anyone—anyone—who looks to Jesus in faith will not perish but have eternal life.
Jake serves as the pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Williston Park, NY. He received his Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 2011. His passions include exploring the depths of God's grace, playing guitar, good coffee, White Castle burgers, and old school video games. Jake and his lovely wife, Christina, have one adorable little son named Roman.