Nicodemus is introduced to readers in John 3:1. He was a ruler of the Jews who came to Jesus by night. Students are familiar that Jesus told this teacher of the Jews that he must be born again, which meant he was to be born of the water and the Spirit (Jn. 3:3, 5). Nicodemus’ astonishment and questions brought additional explanation and rebuke from Jesus (Jn. 3:10, 12). But following Jesus’ introduction of the necessity of the new birth and explanation of the nature of the one who is born anew, a lengthy section follows from Jn. 3:14-21. The question which might arise in the mind of some is, “Are these verses a continuation of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus or simply His additional teaching given at another time and another place, addressed to men in general?” There is no evident break in the context to suggest that Jesus had turned from instructing Nicodemus to address someone else and thus, while we are aware the discussion of the new birth was directed to Nicodemus, we should remember that very likely Jesus’ illustration of Moses’ raising a brazen on a pole in the wilderness and John’s inclusion of “the golden text of the Bible” (Jn. 3:16) also were part of Jesus’ instructions to Nicodemus.
Three times John records Jesus’ being “lifted up” — a reference to His crucifixion. Jn. 3:14-15 reads, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth may in him have life.” Jn. 8:28 says, “When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself, but as the Father taught me, I speak these things.” Finally, Jn. 12:32 declares, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”
In Jesus’ reference to Moses and the brazen serpent, Jesus called to mind an event which occurred during the wilderness wanderings. As the nation traveled, it is said, “The soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses saying, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, and there is no water; and our souls loatheth this light bread” (Num. 21:4-5). Because of their murmuring, God sent fiery serpents among them which bit the people and many of them died. They were weary and short of patience. They were not literally without food; they acknowledged this in their reference to the manna: “Our souls loatheth this light bread.” A footnote with further explanation of “light bread” (a reference to the manna) is “vile bread.” They had bread and water as provision, but were weary of and hated the bread.
The fiery serpents quickly brought a change in their attitude. They confessed to Moses that they had sinned against both God and him in their complaint, and they begged Moses to pray for God to remove the fiery serpents. God did not immediately remove the serpents but He provided a remedy for their bite. Moses was commanded to fashion a brazen serpent, attach it to a pole, and lift it up high in the camp. When anyone was bitten by a serpent, he could turn, look at that serpent, and be healed.
As the bite of the fiery serpent brought death, sin is present in the world and it also brings death (Isa. 59:1-2; Rom. 3:23). And, just as the bitten Israelite could be healed of the serpent’s bite by looking at the brazen serpent, so man can be healed of the bite of the old Serpent, the devil, by looking and believing on Him who can be seen by all.
Nothing demonstrates more clearly than this verse that salvation is not of works but grace (Eph. 2:8-9). How could just looking at a brazen serpent lifted up on a pole heal one from a deadly snake bite? Certainly that healing was by the grace of God. But did the bitten Israelite have to do anything to be healed? Furthermore, if he had not looked at that brazen serpent when he was bitten, would he have been healed? Think about this the next time you hear someone say, “You don’t have to do anything to be saved.”