Today’s Assignment is to read John 3. For more information on the Focus Bible reading plan, please check it out here.
Today’s reading includes some of the most famous and most loved scripture! We are talking, of course, about Jesus teaching the Pharisee, Nicodemus, about what it means to be “born again,” which includes a beautiful and succinct summation of the gospel, John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Translations differ on whether or not Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus or were added later by the gospel’s narrator (some translations have the quotation end at John 3:15, and some end at John 3:21).
But in either case – the statement of John 3:16 could be no more true, relevant, or life-changing to you if Jesus spoke them to you audibly in person right this second! “All scripture is God-breathed,” and these words are scripture. Praise God for his Word, which is living and active!
Another part of this passage has become especially precious to me lately. It is the two verses prior, in John 3:14-15:
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
Jesus is referring to a story that Nicodemus, who was a Bible expert, would have been familiar with. We can read about it Numbers 21:4-9.
When we pick up the story in, the people of Israel are close to taking possession of the Promised Land, and have been shown many signs and wonders of God’s power and faithfulness to them over their time in the wilderness. But despite all the evidence of God’s deliverance, they fall into their old, sinful habit of distrustful whining.
As a punishment for their complaining, God sends poisonous snakes into the camp. Many people are bitten and die. Finally, the people come to Moses in repentance, and ask him to ask God for salvation from the snakes, so Moses prays for the people.
God responds in Numbers 21:8-9:
The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
As I mentioned before, Nicodemus was most likely familiar with this story, but he probably would have been surprised that the Messiah would use this story to explain himself.
Indeed, it even feels counter intuitive and out of place to us! How is Jesus like a snake? Why did Jesus choose this (kind of weird, kind of obscure) story?
To that end, here are some observations I’ve been thinking about:
Just as Moses lifted the snake in the wilderness…The Son of Man must be lifted up.
Both the bronze snake and Jesus were physically lifted up — the bronze snake on a pole, and Jesus on a cross. But there’s more going on here.
The author of John uses the phrase “lifted up” three times in the gospel (John 8:28 and 12:32 are the other two references) and in each case it has a double meaning.
In one sense, Jesus will be “lifted up” when he is nailed to a cross and left to die – gravity tearing the flesh of his hands and feet from the nails.
The second sense, however, refers to his resurrection from the dead and glorification in heaven. While describing the suffering and glory of the “Servant”, the prophet says in Isaiah 52:13:
See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted
Just as Moses lifted the snake in the wilderness…An image of the curse breaks the curse.
In the Moses story, the life-saving object on the pole was the image of a snake – the curse itself. In the same way, when Jesus dies on the cross, he becomes the curse for us. Look at Galatians 3:13:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”
Just as Moses lifted the snake in the wilderness…Salvation is a gift of grace, not earned by works.
When God instructed Moses to lift up the bronze snake on a pole, his only requirement for salvation from the snake bite was “to look.” They didn’t have to recite a poem, or give money, or write an essay — they just had to look. It was something a child could do. It was something someone who was disabled to do. Frankly, it was probably the only thing a person dying from a snake bite could do.
We are dying too. Actually, we’re dead. But our death is more pervasive than from a snake bite — our death goes all the way to the core of our being. If salvation had to be earned, it would be too late for us. God has provided a way to be saved from this death, and it is a gift of grace. Ephesians 2:4 says:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved.
…and then in the familiar verses of 8 and 9:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.
Those healed by looking at the snake had nothing to brag about — everyone who looked would be healed. It didn’t matter who you were, or how good you did it, you just had to look.
In the same way, Jesus is teaching Nicodemus that if he desires to be born again; if he wants to be saved from the all-pervasive snake bite of sin, he has to stop thinking he can earn it. He just has to look:
…for whoever believes in him, shall not perish, but have eternal life.
Dear Heavenly Father,
You are holy and just. You created the heavens and earth, and you righteously rule all things.
We rebelled against you. We refused to trust you and believed the lies of a snake instead. We deserve the curse of sin.
But you loved the world so much that you sent your Son to be lifted up on a cross. Jesus, you became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God. Thank you, Father, for giving us your Son, Jesus. Thank you Jesus, for dying on the cross. Thank you for this amazing gift of grace!
Humble our hearts, Father, that we would lift up our eyes and look at the salvation you have provided. May we trust You and You alone for salvation and eternal life.
In Jesus’ Name,