14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgement: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
Jesus the Serpent
Taking John 3:16 in context thoroughly roots it in the story from Numbers 21. The people of Israel are justly struck down for their disobedience, but when they cry out to God a serpent is provided that will save them from an attack of deadly serpents. Hezekiah ends up smashing the bronze serpent because the people had begun to worship it as an idol. It was a powerful symbol of God’s grace and forgiveness to a people who were stubborn in their pursuit of evil.
Jesus is powerful in the same way, but his being lifted up is far more effective. When people look to Jesus and put their trust in him they are cleansed before God in their entirety. However, just like in Numbers an element of choice on behalf of the suffering is included. ‘Whosoever believes …’ parallels the whosoever would look up at the serpent in the Numbers story. God does not force the issue but allows choice to be a part of the process. It is insane not to take this free gift of cleansing but it is entirely possible to die from a snakebite in Numbers 21 and it is entirely possible to die with the disease of sin in John 3. In history there are multiple cases where God provides a road to light from darkness, but in Genesis through Revelation we see stories of people justifying their own walk in darkness. All these chances in history point to the one Saviour, Jesus Christ, who is the means of all God’s grace.
Today God allows us to survive Isis, Russian expansionism, Ebola, and other threats to mankind. However, the only reason we can draw another breath is that a chance has been purchased by Christ. We live in a time where Christ is raised up on the cross and the world knows of his crucifixion. Although many make excuses for looking elsewhere, those who look to him live in the knowledge that they will not perish but they will have eternal life.
We sometimes feel overwhelmed, sick or run down. We need someone to save us from the frailty of our bodies and the life-sapping poison of sin that pulses through our bodies. Thank you for sending Jesus, Father, that we may escape the darkness of our limitations. Let us embrace the light and the salvation that is ours in Jesus. Let us look to the cross and then to depend on it daily.
- What is the Old Testament context for John 3:16?
- What is added to our understanding by not taking it out of context?
- What is the result of looking to Jesus on the cross?
- How might John 3:16 be taught better to young Christians?
- How can we focus more on the life we receive because Jesus is lifted up?