“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.” – John 3:14-15
Human beings love feeling independent and self-sufficient. It gives us a sense of power, control, and accomplishment. Faith in Jesus, on the other hand, calls us to recognize and embrace our complete dependence upon him. We are not, and cannot ever be, sufficient on our own. Instead of looking inward, we are to look up at Christ’s cross, the only path to eternal life and salvation from our sins.
Prior to Jesus’ death, crucifixion was considered a curse: “for a hanged man is cursed by God” (Deuteronomy 21:3). The idea that the Messiah would be subjected to such an indignity was absurd to the Jews of Jesus’ day. Of course, people also thought Noah was insane when he built the ark… until the rains came. Even our belief that Jesus’ death 2000 years ago washes away all past, present and future sins for those who repent can seem a bit farfetched. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Though God’s logic frequently eludes humanity, he always keeps his word. Jesus reminded Nicodemus of that fact by recalling the serpent on the pole.
After the Exodus from Egypt, the children of Israel wandered through the wilderness. Despite their blessed freedom from slavery, they were not always happy campers. In fact, they complained almost incessantly: the terrain was tough, the manna was dry, water was not always available when they wanted it. Instead of delighting in their adventure, they were frustrated with the Lord and Moses. Why had God brought them out of Egypt to suffer and die in the wilderness?
In Numbers 21, God was fed up with their complaining and unleashed fiery serpents among them. Many of the Israelites were struck and killed by the snakes, and the people once again cried out to Moses to intercede on their behalf. God told Moses to craft a serpent from bronze, place it on a pole, and then lift up that pole in the presence of the people. Those who had been bitten and poisoned would be healed by looking at the bronze serpent.
Once again, God’s plan seems a little unorthodox. Why wouldn’t he just create an ointment from the local plants or have Moses say a special prayer? Why have the people look to a bronze snake for healing? Because it was such an absurd notion that it required a leap of faith. They could either believe in God and trust his word or they could “be rational” and die. They had a choice.
Jesus references that story to point to himself and what he will do on the cross. Nicodemus, the nation of Israel, and every living person is dying of sin. There is one remedy, and it is found in the person of Jesus Christ. Just as the bronze serpent was lifted up on a pole, so the Son of Man would be lifted up on a cross. God’s orchestration of our salvation might not make sense to the human mind, but it is still his way, and it is the only way.
Nicodemus leaves this conversation with Jesus scratching his head. The teacher has been taught and tested. Thus far, his extensive learning has failed him. However, Jesus has planted seeds in Nicodemus that may very well come to fruition as he continues to listen and learn from the God teacher. To receive the gift of salvation, Nicodemus will have to surrender all his works and look to the work of Christ. That will not be easy for a powerful, self-sufficient, high achieving leader of Israel. Nor is it easy for us.
Look up at the bronze serpent and be healed. Look up at the cross of Jesus Christ and be healed. Notice the common theme. Look up, not inward, and find the Lord’s provision. Like Nicodemus, we are powerless to save ourselves. Salvation comes from recognizing our sin, acknowledging that we are insufficient, and accepting the grace of God. Then and only then can we receive new birth and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Reflect & Respond:
God’s ways are not our ways. How do you feel about looking away from yourself and looking up to him? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
The Crucified Life small group Christian study is designed to reflect upon the Seven Last Words of Christ from the cross and what they mean for us today. Walk the road of Calvary with Jesus in order to grow closer to Him. The Crucified Life small group study examines human suffering as it is mirrored in Christ’s suffering on the cross and what His seven last words say to a hurting world. Find out incredible insights into these words as Jesus teaches us, even in death, how we can use our suffering and triumph over it for His glory. Begin your Crucified Life today.
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