“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 here to a peculiar episode which took place during the time when Moses and the Israelites were traveling en route to the promised land. The people had grown impatient, and carelessly slandered both God and Moses, complaining that they’d been rescued out of Egypt in order to die in the wilderness. They complained of having no bread or water, disparaging the very manna which God was miraculously providing to them each morning in order to sustain them. So God sent poisonous snakes out amongst them, and the snakes bit the people, causing many of them to die:
Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 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. (Numbers 21:6-9)
“So the Son of Man must be lifted up…” – In this simile, Jesus compares himself not to Moses, but to the snake! Although Nicodemus may not have recognized it at the time, Jesus had just revealed to him a “heavenly thing” – indeed, this was the very reason for which Jesus had been sent into the world. That he, the Lamb of God, the one who knew no sin, would become sin for us. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Following this statement is probably one of the most well-known and oft-quoted portions of the entire Bible:
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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:16-18)
Some Bible translators believe that the above verses are part of Jesus’ response to Nicodemus, however given the abrupt change in style and terminology occurring in this portion of the text, we do not share that opinion. Rather, we believe that the gospel writer himself is pausing here within his narrative in order to expound upon the profound truth that Jesus had just revealed to Nicodemus.
Just like those people who had been bitten by snakes, we stand “condemned already” in our sin. But God, being rich in love and mercy, has sent his own Son in the form of sinful flesh as an offering for our sin. (Romans 8:3-4) If we will but lift our eyes up in faith and look upon the One who was sacrificed for us, we will live.