In John 3:9–15, Nicodemus, a “master of Israel,” receives a remedy for his troubled soul from the Master Physician. The Son of God gives this night-disciple an eye to behold the Messiah lifted up on the cross of suffering and death. To do this, Jesus brings in vital imagery of the bronze serpent from Numbers 21:7–9 to reframe Nicodemus’s knowledge of the Torah. In so doing, he makes us lift up our heads as well.
Jesus presents himself as the true Bronze Serpent who must be lifted up and looked on for us to truly live. What exactly did Nicodemus learn in these moments? And what can we learn from this intimate encounter with the Lord of life?
Beholding the Bronze Serpent
As we examine John 3:14–15, we must ask why Christ mentioned Moses. Why the allusion to Numbers 21:7–9? For Nicodemus, as for us, the law is given to convict him and drive him to the gospel. Here, for the first time in his life, the law of Moses is boarded shut as a possible way of salvation. Instead, Nicodemus discovers that he must receive grace to behold the bronze serpent lifted up. For the first time, Nicodemus loses “Martha’s busyness” and finds “Mary’s portion”—to sit at the feet of Jesus—in order to look and to live.
Since we later see Nicodemus caring for Christ’s deceased body as a disciple who had come into the light (John 19:39), his encounter with Jesus in John 3 must’ve been a saving encounter. Nicodemus beheld the provided remedy and by faith this old scholar arose satisfied, joyful, and content, with the peace that surpasses all understanding filling his soul.
Verse 15 says it clearly: the way is open for “whoever believes.” Yes, even for the chiefest sinner. All can be healed and given an eye to behold him. “Whoever” means there’s room for the heavy-laden, too. No matter who you are—a boy or a girl, a teenager, a parent, a senior—no heart is too hard for him to reach. None has sinned too much. In Christ, the gospel always declares: “Whoever you are, there’s still room for you!”
How to Look Believingly
What about the next word—“whoever believes”? “Believe” here means to look, trust, lean on, and surrender. Here our Lord equates believing and beholding. There are different degrees of beholding for the Christian. Nevertheless, all children of God have three things in common when they behold the Bronze Serpent.
First, all children of God see the same Christ by faith. The object of faith is never different. A man in prison will see the same sun through his cell window as a man standing in an open field. One is free and one is bound, but it’s the same sun. So some trembling believers may feel like they behold Christ from afar, as it were, while in prison in semi-darkness. They battle unbelief, seeing only glimpses through their own prison bars. Yet their expectation lies in the same saving vision of Christ.
Second, there is always life in a sight of Christ, just as those who looked to the bronze serpent were saved from death. Verse 15 says that those who look to Christ “will not perish.” By nature we’re subject to perishing. We hasten to eternal destruction. But not so if we get a sight of Christ by faith. Then, not only do we not perish, but we get “eternal life”—that is, life in Christ. As one hymn writer puts it,
He forgives all thy transgressions
Heals thy sicknesses and pains,
He redeems thee from destruction,
And his love thy life sustains.
Third, faith as looking highlights the fact that it’s Jesus who saves us through faith (Eph. 2:8), rather than faith saving us as a meritorious cause. Hence the Bible and our forefathers often compared faith to a hand that receives Christ, to an arm that leans on Christ, to a foot that walks to him, to a mouth that feasts on him. We’re called not to faith in our faith but to faith in Christ.
Why We Refuse to Look to Christ
What about you? Have you ever looked to Jesus? It’s so simple, and yet by nature we refuse this sight. Why?
First, the bitterness of sin isn’t yet real to you. You deny being truly bitten. And if there’s no feeling or sense of sin, what is there for Christ to do? Only the sick, not the healthy, need a physician. What Israelite would trouble his thoughts about a raised serpent if he had no pain from the sting of serpents? The same is true of us spiritually. A true looking to Christ is motivated by a mourning for sin, and a realization that our case is fatal.
Second, we’re busy trying other physicians. We’re looking for conditions within to merit salvation. We glance at the way of salvation by Christ alone, but then we still try to use our own prayers and repentance to serve as a partial remedy, forgetting that Christ insists on being our total righteousness before God.
Third, we can look more to our sores of sin than to Christ’s righteousness. No doubt many in the camp with Moses said to themselves, What good will it do to look to the bronze serpent? Surely there is no such simple cure for the deadliness of these bites! Spiritually, we’re often busier looking at the sores of our sin than looking outside of ourselves to God’s Bronze Serpent. If we do that, we undervalue the power of God and of Christ’s blood. Let’s not forget Luther’s famous saying: “One drop of Christ’s blood is sufficient to redeem a thousand worlds.”
Finally, the unconverted person claims that the medicine is foolish. Why wouldn’t the Lord simply prevent the disease in the first place? But we who’ve looked to Christ rest assured that the Lord has his own glorious reasons. His ways aren’t our ways. His thoughts are far higher than our thoughts. God will glorify his justice and magnify his grace. We may not understand him, but we must bow before him.
Look and Live
If you’re truly bitten, there is nowhere else to go. If you’re truly bitten by your sin, let Christ no longer be foolishness or a stumbling block to you, but let him be the power of God to salvation.
Look to Christ and live!