John 3:14-21 Jesus the Serpent

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.


  1. What is the Old Testament context for John 3:16?
  2. What is added to our understanding by not taking it out of context?
  3. What is the result of looking to Jesus on the cross?
  4. How might John 3:16 be taught better to young Christians?
  5. How can we focus more on the life we receive because Jesus is lifted up?

About Plymothian

I teach at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. My interests include education, biblical studies, and spiritual formation. I have been married to Kelli since 1998 and we have two children, Daryl and Amelia. For recreation I like to run, play soccer, play board games, read and travel.
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22 Responses to John 3:14-21 Jesus the Serpent

  1. 3. and 5.
    When we look to the cross and put Jesus at the center, we realize that Christian discipleship/living is not about us compiling this elaborate Christian story of ourselves. Life is not about our story, it’s about having the privilege of being a part of His. When I look to Jesus on the cross, I am compelled to know Him better. He KNEW the will of God because He knew HIM. As Paul says in 2 Timothy 1:11, he KNOWS Him whom he serves. Can I say that? Can I say with absolute confidence that I KNOW the who I am serving?” I can focus more on the life that He wants me to live when I realize that me being sanctified is not a passive operation, but an active duty. It is not about me living he way I want to live with Him working with me on the is about signing your life away and KNOWING God.

  2. Kathleen says:

    1. John 3:16 has its context in Numbers 21.
    2. In Numbers it was a choice for the people to look on the serpent and be healed. This parallels our choice to look to Jesus and be healed/forgiven from our sin.
    3. When we look to Christ on the cross, our sins are forgiven before God. Christ’s blood covers us.
    4. I think it would benefit children to understand the context behind John 3:16. Children must understand the consequences of sin and the severity of it. They also must understand that they only way to be saved is to look upon Christ.
    5. I think we can focus on the life we receive by simply looking at the world around us. We should be incredibly thankful that we can find our assurance in Christ.

  3. Mary says:

    1. The Israelites were complaining and rebelling, as usual, in the wilderness, and God sent venomous snakes to bite/kill them. But he also provided a way for them to live. Moses lifted up a bronze snake on a pole and the people who looked upon the snake and believed were healed and lived (Num. 21:4-9).
    2. Several things can be paralleled here: Sin and rebellion from God is what caused this predicament, God in his holiness provided a punishment and God in his mercy and love also provided the way of salvation, it was by faith and not works that they lived, not everyone was saved.
    3. According to this verse, eternal life, but more than that, a relationship with the Living God who loves us and sacrificed his Son for us.
    4. I like how the Israelites belief in that the snake would save them was followed by the action of actually looking at the snake. I think too often we separate the idea of faith from action, which is where some people get the idea that they can assent to the facts of the Bible without actually doing anything about it and have salvation. Our actions prove what we believe.
    5. We should definitely be more thankful, and certainly not boastful, because it is not anything that WE did but what HE did that we may have new life.

  4. Chelsea says:

    Just as with the Israelites, we can enter Salvation by turning from ourselves and looking to Jesus. In Him is life. Salvation is someone, not something. For a young Christian to understand that their Salvation is JESUS, not a “thing”, will be vital to their growth and love, as well as their security and identity.

  5. Sara Cavitt says:

    1) The Israelites were punished for their sin and disobedience, but after crying out to God to save them, God sends another serpent to save them from the other serpents. God showed His loving mercy on the sinful people by saving them.
    2) Sin deserves a just punishment, but Jesus sacrifices His life on the cross, forgives us and gives us new life in Him.
    3) Looking to Jesus on the cross brings salvation from our sinful, dark world. He brings us light, a purpose for life and hope of being with Him in eternity.
    4) It’s important to remember that Jesus Christ saves and rescues us from our sinful ways and from the darkness in this world. Through His sacrifice, He gives us a purpose and hope for living!
    5) In all of our struggles and hardships, we can give our burdens to Him. Also, we can focus on others instead of ourselves, because Jesus was an example of sacrificing His life for us.

  6. Janice Lee says:

    1. The Old Testament context for John 3:16 is in Numbers 21:4-9 when God told Moses to put a bronze serpent on a pole for the Israelites to look to and live.
    2. We, like the Israelites, are saved only by God’s grace. God made the way for us to be forgiven from our sin. Jesus offered Himself on the cross as the atonement for our sin. We need only to look to Him, recognizing Him as our only Savior, to be saved.
    3. The result of looking to Jesus is eternal life, freedom from sin and a restored relationship with God.
    4. John 3:16 might be better taught to young Christians by explaining the Old Testament context to emphasize the dire consequences of sin and our need for Jesus as Savior.
    5. We can focus more on the life we receive because Jesus was lifted up by continually remembering that He saved us from death, freed us to live in relationship with Him, and the hope of spending eternity in communion with Him.

  7. Karas says:

    Numbers 21 is the OT context for John 3:16. By not taking it out of context, we can appreciate how Jesus provided salvation to those who look to and believe in Him. Looking to Jesus on the cross results in our spiritual healing. John 3:16 is better taught by integrating this context and pointing out what Jesus really offers. We can focus more on the life we receive in Jesus by meditating on what He has done, and by asking the Holy Spirit to help us focus on Him.

  8. Jenna says:

    1. John 3:16 is in the context of a reference to Numbers 21, where Moses creates a bronze snake to save the Israelites from a plague.
    2. John 3:16 is still completely true when taken out of its context, but looking at it as it compares to Numbers 21 heightens the meaning – Jesus doesn’t just offer us life, like the snake, but He offers us eternal life in a personal relationship with the Father, one that involves no condemnation!
    3. We receive eternal life and no condemnation!
    4. In the context of Numbers 21, you could spend more time talking about how God sending His Son was a crazy act of grace. Just as the Israelites deserved to be punished for their own disobedience and God didn’t need to provide a way to be saved from the snakes, all of mankind deserves to die for our sins and God wasn’t obligated by anything at all to send Jesus to us – He chose to because of His love for us!
    5. God has not promised us a perfect life as believers, but because Jesus was lifted up on the cross and later rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, we do not have to walk around defeated – Jesus has conquered death and works as our advocate in heaven!

  9. tim pruiett says:

    1. The Old Testament story of how Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the desert for when god cursed the people to get bitten by snakes and those that looked upon the snake would live. 2.We see that Jesus is just like that bronze serpent and He too can save us not just from physical death but, more importantly a spiritual death. 5. Because we have life we can now live it to the fullest by serving God and honoring Him without our lives by whole-heartedly dedicating ourself to the His cause

  10. Lacy says:

    1. The Old Testament context for this passage is the story of the bronze serpent in Numbers 21.
    2. We are pointed to Jesus as a gift from God to save us from our own sin and the death that is a result of it, if we look to him.
    3. The result of looking to Jesus on the cross is salvation from the sin that is killing us.
    4. John 3:16 might be taught better to young Christians by comparing it with Numbers 21 and discussing the above mentioned parallel.
    5. We can focus more on the life we receive by continually looking to Jesus, realizing that fixing our eyes on him is necessary both for salvation and for sanctification.

  11. Dylan says:

    The idea of Jesus the serpent is fascinating to me. I usually associate the animal with the devil, but Numbers 21 as well as when Moses’ staff is turned into a serpent by God in Exodus remind me otherwise. To me, the image points to the power and beauty of Jesus. It seems the best attributes of anything in life point back to God. I’m thankful for this scripture that redirects our attention to the cross and with resurrection in mind, a life in eternity that is the promise of complete redemption.

    • Plymothian says:

      I was thinking the same way, but the serpent was thought of as very intelligent too. In some of the surrounding cultures the connection with evil was not the same as in later Jewish culture.

  12. Jessica Lewis says:

    1. The snake in the wilderness in numbers 21 is the OT context for John 3:16
    2. If I do not look to Jesus and allow him to save me from my sin and darkness, I will die and be separated from God forever
    3. I am saved and am justified before God the Father
    4. Young Christians need to understand scripture in its context. John 3:16 is showing us a broad picture and story of salvation from the OT to NT. The Israelites in Numbers with the snake make a beautiful picture of what it means to look to God and his provision for life. In the NT God sends his Son to be our salvation. Jesus himself is our salvation. WE must look to him in order to be saved! We can share this beautiful story with young Christians.
    5. As we continue to look to Jesus every day, we receive life. He is our life! His love changes us. It sanctifies us and makes us new every day, every hour. We need Him. Without Him, we are dead and constantly falling back into sin and darkness.

  13. Dominic Shortridge says:

    1. Moses and the exiled Jews who are in the wilderness.
    What is added to our understanding by not taking it out of context?
    2. We are able to understand that God has proven faithful by providing a means of redemption for his people, first with the serpent in the wilderness and even more so with Christ.
    What is the result of looking to Jesus on the cross?
    3. Those who look unto Jesus are cleansed entirely.
    How might John 3:16 be taught better to young Christians?
    4. For young Christians it would be imperative to communicate that Christ is the sole means of salvation and redemption.
    5. We can live knowing that our salvation is secure in Christ, and that he is the glorified son of God, the true image of our worship unlike the serpent.

  14. Sarah Deurbrouck says:

    1. What is the Old Testament context for John 3:16?
    Jesus was speaking about the events that took place in Numbers 21.
    2. What is added to our understanding by not taking it out of context?
    You seen that Jesus was doing more than talking about himself, but showing how he fulfills OT types perfectly. He is the Messiah.
    3. What is the result of looking to Jesus on the cross?
    You are saved from the coming wrath of God and are cleansed from the disease of sin.
    4. How might John 3:16 be taught better to young Christians?
    If it was taught in the context of the John 3 passage, Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus and also with the story in Numbers 21.
    5. How can we focus more on the life we receive because Jesus is lifted up?
    We can be assured as Romans tells us, that we too will be lifted up, raised to reign with Christ. We are assured victory!

  15. Nick says:

    The context for this passage from the OT is found in Numbers 21 with the snake in the wilderness. We need to look to God to save us from our own sin, because only by His grace can we be saved. When I look to God on the cross I am saved through faith in Him and my sins are covered. I think it’s always beneficial to know the context behind a passage when teaching it. Through everything that goes on in our lives and everything that may be afflicting us, we can look to Him and know that our sins are covered and He will always be there, we just have to look to Him and have faith in Him.

  16. nataliaria says:

    The verses surrounding John 3:16 are based on the Numbers 21 account of the bronze snake that Moses created, and upon which the Israelites could look to save themselves from a plague that had been wrecking havoc upon the nation. I believe that this context emphasizes to the reader Jesus’ status as ultimate savior, as well as draws a parallel between the way the Israelites were dying, and how each one of us is, without Jesus, moving swiftly towards eternal death.

    Those who look to Jesus on the cross, and whose lives and hearts are changed through rebirth in the Holy Spirit, are not condemned, but are saved.

    I believe John 3:16 might better be taught by allowing the verse to remain in the context mentioned above. This allows those learning the verse to understand the true importance of Jesus being lifted up, and the hopelessness of the death from which we are saved, through His death. As believers, we can bring our own hearts back to the life we have received through Jesus by meditating on the difference between our lives before and after turning to Jesus, and making new life in Christ and recurring theme in our prayers, conversations, and thoughts.

  17. Amy McCashen says:

    1. It is found in Numbers 21.
    2. The bronze serpent that was put up in the wilderness and the parallelism from it to John 3:16 is lost when you read it without the context of Numbers 21. This connection adds to our understanding that just like the Israelites could look to the serpent and be healed, so can we now look to Jesus for salvation.
    3. The results of looking to Jesus on the cross is forgiveness and salvation and life.
    4. John 3:16 could be taught better to children by connecting this passage to Numbers 21 and explaining to them how Jesus is now to us like the serpent was the Israelites.
    5. We can focus on this more by remembering the death Jesus died for us and what it really meant for mankind. We tend to focus on what we talk and think about. I think we should talk and think more about Jesus all is done for us.

  18. Rachel says:

    The Old Testament context for John 3:16 is Numbers 21, the account of a bronze serpent being lifted up for the physical salvation of all who would look to it. Jesus’ being lifted up on the cross is a strong parallel to this passage. Instead of physical healing, Jesus offers spiritual healing and life in Him when we look to him. It would be helpful to include this context when we teach John 3:16 to young Christians. Life is found by looking to Christ alone! When we look to Christ for life each day, he provides the spiritual healing we so desperately need.

  19. Beth Coale says:

    1. The serpent raised up that saved the people from the punishment they brought on themselves
    2. There was a need for the people to look up to the serpent to be saved
    3. Life, salvation
    4. Of course, in context. in the greater picture of the redemption story, along with learning how needy we are, for example, the Israelite people were in the wilderness as a result of their own distrust of God and snakes were sent as a result of their own complaining
    5. we are free to live, free from the bondage and pain we tend to put ourselves in

  20. Austin Brose says:

    The “Whosever” draws a stark contrast between Numbers and John 3:16, whoever looks to Christ/The Serpent will be saved. Through this, our understanding is more deeply engraven in our hearts by taking into account that we have a sickness, and all we have to do is look to our answer, Christ, for life. By looking to Him we gain the perspective that He has shed his blood to cleanse us and save us. John 3:16 can be taught better to young Christians by telling them that the answer that Christ provides is right in front of them, and WHOEVER looks to Him will be saved. We can focus more on this new life because we understand that we are no longer sick, but alive in Christ.

  21. Rebekah Thompson (Bekah) says:

    1) the bronze snake in numbers that saved people from the punishment that they brought upon themselves.
    2) Sin that is committed by sinners has every right to condemn the sinners to hell, but God is merciful, loving, and forgiving enough to bless us with a way out by sending a substitute to take our place.
    3) It saves us of our sins, he restores us gives us new life
    4) I think in this very way. To explain to them that they are no good at all they are dirty disgusting sinners who have every right to be thrown into hell for eternity….and yet God died for you…who continue to sin, and take things for granted so that you do not have to and live in heaven with him
    5) taking what we learn into action. Really thinking about how much God loves us, and how he thought we were worth dying for and live it out today, now!

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