The Expository Files.

Look Upon The Serpent

John 3:14-16

Jesus Offers Salvation

How many times have we heard that it is essential for us to "believe in Jesus" in order to be saved? Most recognize that it is impossible to stress the significance of the principle of "believe in Jesus" enough! Perhaps the most quoted verse in the Bible is one that makes clear the essential condition of believing in Jesus, John 3:16.

John 3:16 "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. (NASB)

What does "believes in Him" mean?

This passage clearly states that salvation is granted to "...whoever believes in Him." That leads to the question, what does "believes in Him" mean?

To many, believing in Jesus is a subjective response. It is mental acceptance of Jesus being the "Son of God." It may even go as far as perceiving the death of Jesus on the cross as being a substitute death to pay the price for one's personal sin and mentally acknowledging that they need such a substitute. To most, that is what is meant by "believe in Jesus."

Here is a question for serious thought. Is that what Jesus meant when he made the statement in John 3:16? I suggest that there are far greater ramifications than just "mental acceptance" expressed in the phrase, "believes in Him."

To demonstrate that more than "mental acceptance" is intended by Jesus, let's establish the context of the statement. It was made to Nicodemus in a discussion of the necessity of being born again. Jesus is somewhat critical of Nicodemus because he has failed to understand Jesus' explanation of the new birth. In verse 13, Jesus claims to have come to earth from heaven, so he thus speaks wisely and accurately of what he has firsthand knowledge. Jesus then declares that it is essential for him to die, even indicating the kind of death he must die.

An illustration

John 3: 14 "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life." (NASB)

Jesus makes a parallel for us to consider, and to do so accurately, we must go back to the account Jesus was referring to. That can be read in Numbers 21.

Numbers 21: 4 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. 5 And the people spoke against God and 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 miserable food." 6 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 So the people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us." And Moses interceded for the people. 8 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery [serpent,] and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live." 9 And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived. (NASB)

In verse 4, the people became impatient because of the journey.

In verse 5, the people sinned when they spoke against God and Moses.

In verse 6 the LORD sent fiery serpents among which bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.

In verse 7, the people acknowledged their sin and asked Moses to intercede for them.

In verse 8, the LORD gave Moses and the people instructions as to how to be delivered from the bite of the serpents.

In verse 9 we are told that Moses followed God's instructions, and when one who had been bitten looked upon the bronze serpent, he lived.

Sounds simple, right? But think about it. Where was the serpent placed? In the center of the camp. Now, let's stretch or imaginations for just a bit and remember the size of the camp. How many people were in the camp? Estimates, based upon the statement that there were 600,000 men, (Numbers 2:32 - 603,550) run as high as in excess of 2,000,000 people. Do you know of a city near where you live that has a population of 2,000,000 people? How far is it from the edge of town to the center of town? Five miles? More? I would imagine more than five miles. Now transfer that size estimate to the camp of the Israelites. How far would it have been from the sheep grazing area to the center of the camp? Surely it would have been a walk of some miles.

Put yourself there.

Now, we have set the stage. Visualize yourself as an Israelite on the edge of the camp tending your sheep. You are bitten by one of the fiery serpents. The pain is beginning. You believe in the God of the pillar of fire and cloud. the God of the plagues and the One who parted the sea. After all signs and wonders you have seen, you cannot doubt! Surely He will heal you by His grace and mercy. In your mind your rehearse the facts of the brazen serpent raised up to heal all who are bitten by the fiery serpents. You believe God and His healing through the brazen serpent which was raised up. You know that it was raised up to heal those bitten by the fiery serpents. You go back to your tent and lay down, intending to rest until you are healed, knowing that God has made provision for your healing.

But you don't get well. You continue to worsen and the pain becomes more intense. Why doesn't God heal you? You believe! The brazen serpent has been raised up to heal you. You pray diligently for healing. You cry aloud for healing. But it never comes. You continue to worsen. In just a few short hours, your life comes to an end. You die on the pallet in your tent. Your family asks, "Why?"

You believed, yet you died. Why?

The answer is simple. God said: "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live." You must go to the center of the camp and look upon the serpent. You died because you had been bitten by a fiery serpent and you were not healed because your faith did not produce the divinely prescribed response. You believed, but you did not appeal to God for healing in the manner God required.

Application to us today

The previous scenario is paralleling the Israelites situation to the theology of many today who say all you have to do to be saved is to believe in Jesus. Today's popular theology is the equivalent of  saying all you have to do is "give mental assent to the fact that there is the brazen serpent at the center of the camp and it can heal you" and you will be healed. Is that what God said? All will have to answer with a resounding, "No!" God said that one must "look" upon the serpent. It is not enough to "believe" in the healing power of the serpent. One must go to the center of the camp and "look upon" the serpent. For those who were healed, their faith was the driving force behind the divinely prescribed response of going to the center of the camp and looking upon the brazen serpent.

John 3: 16 "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. 17 "For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. 18 "He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 "And this is the judgment, that the light is come into
the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. 20 "For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 "But he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God." (NASB)

All men have been bitten by the fiery serpent of sin. To be healed each must go look upon the one God raised up on the cross to die for our healing. For our faith to be the kind of faith that brings us to spiritual healing, our belief must bring us to respond to "the Son of  Man" being "lifted up" in the divinely prescribed manner. Just as the Israelites had to go to the center of the camp, so we must do as God directs.

Looking upon the Son of Man who was lifted up

Consider the following as the beginning steps of the divinely prescribed response to the sacrifice of Jesus:

John 6:45 "It is written in the prophets, 'AND THEY SHALL ALL BE TAUGHT OF GOD.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me. (NASB)

Romans 10:17, So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. (NASB)

Hebrews 11:6, 6 And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. (NASB).

2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

Matthew 10:32-33, 32 "Everyone therefore who shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. 33 "But whoever shall deny Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven. (NASB).

Romans 6:1-7, 1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? 2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have
become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; 7 for he who has died is freed from sin. (NASB).

An appeal

You know that you have sinned. You know that God has provided a way for you to be healed. Don't go to your tent and wait for the healing.

Follow God's prescribed response to the Son of Man being raised up.

By Ney Rieber
From Expository Files 2.10; October 1995