Jesus, Nicodemus, and the bronze serpent. Studying John 3:9-15

In John 3, Jesus is approached by a pharisee named Nicodemus who is intrigued about his ministry. Jesus controls the conversation and talks to Nicodemus of being born again and born of water and the Spirit. Nicodemus is perplexed by this. 

Verses 9-10, Nicodemus is still dumbfounded by what Jesus has said. 

9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?

 Nicodemus is the expert. He should understand what Jesus has said. He should pick up on the Old Testament references to water and the Spirit. It is a grace to the people of God that the Lord gives believers the Spirit. 

Jesus continues speaking in verse 11. 

11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 

Jesus has come to give a heavenly testimony. He has come to the world to reveal God. 

12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 

Jesus is the eternal God of creation who has been in heaven. He can therefore speak with authority on what is necessary for admittance into the Kingdom of Heaven. He has revealed to Nicodemus that he must be born again, born of the Spirit. Nicodemus doesn’t even understand that. So how will he understand the heavenly things of God? 

Sovereign Citizens 

There’s a small movement in America, perhaps some of you have heard of it: called Sovereign Citizens. Sovereign Citizens are a group of people who question the legitimacy of our government, don’t believe in paying taxes, and don’t believe that they’re accountable to our legal system. 

I was once watching an episode of Live PD and someone had gotten pulled over. From what I remember, she didn’t have any truly serious violations but had broken a couple of traffic laws and also did not have a valid driver’s license. 

She kept declaring that she was a sovereign citizen. 

Kept being difficult. 

Keeps talking about how she’s a sovereign citizen. 

Ends up getting arrested. 

My point with that illustration is that just because a person might say the law doesn’t apply to them doesn’t make it so. Because you still have to suffer the consequences for your actions and choices. 

When it comes to the faith, people want to invent their own gospel. People want to believe that they’re good enough, that they can get to God on their own. People want to live Godless lives apart from Christ and assume that they will have merit or an inherent worthiness of heavenly blessings. 

Just because we say “I’m a sovereign citizen” doesn’t make us sovereign. 

The Lord is sovereign. 

And Jesus speaks with heavenly authority in this passage. 

No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.

In John 3, we see the divine command to be born again, the divine authority by which Jesus can give that command. And in the last two verses of this section, we end with a picture of the gospel. So far, this passage hasn’t really talked about the role of Jesus. 

It is by the Spirit that we are born again but it is through the work of Christ that we are able to be born again. It is Jesus who has died so we can be redeemed. 

Remember that Jesus is talking to an expert of the Law and the Old Testament. Jesus is going to make a statement about himself based in an Old Testament event. 

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. 

Jesus is making a reference to the Book of Numbers, 21st chapter. 

In that chapter, the Israelites have been in their desert wanderings for 40 years. Most of the first generation has died off. Throughout their time in the wilderness, Israel has fallen into sin and grumbling. 

God has brought them to the edge of the land and they continue to complain. God has sustained them for a generation and they ask why they’ve been brought into the wilderness to die. They’ve been given food but call it loathsome. They’re saying that they hate what God has given them. 

And as a righteous and divine judgment, God brings a plague of poisonous snakes upon the people. Not just for that, but for a whole history of their rebellion and grumbling. 

The people turn to Moses and ask Moses to intercede on their behalf. 

Numbers 21:7: 

And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 

God will give Moses instructions on what he must do. 

8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. 

Jesus looks to this event in the Old Testament and he shows it as pointing to himself. 

As the bronze serpent was lifted upon the the pole, Jesus also will be lifted up. 

Five times in the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to being lifted up. It always refers to the crucifixion, where Jesus is literally lifted up on the cross. 

Again. Keep in mind that so far in this passage, Jesus talked of a need to be born again AND of the role of the Spirit in being born again. 

But he points to the source of eternal life being Jesus himself who is lifted up. 

Perhaps it seems like an odd connection that the Lord is making in comparing himself to the serpent of Numbers 21. 

Several reasons why that story is a good picture of the gospel:

The bronze serpent and the gospel

In a person being healed because of looking at the snake, it took what they were doing out of their hands.

It was entirely the work of God. 

So too we see this in the gospel. It is not based on us, or how good we are. We are totally helpless to heal ourselves from the disease of sin. It is looking to the cross, to looking at what Jesus has done, to trusting Jesus by faith that we can have salvation. 

Second. The serpent doesn’t make sense. Why a golden snake? The world is confounded by the gospel and the message of grace, the idea that we can be freely forgiven based on what someone else has done. 

1 Corinthians 1:18:

the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

The world is offended by the message of salvation by grace. 

We want to save ourselves. We want to see how we measure up and to feel good about how good we are. 

The gospel is that you cannot earn it. You look to what Jesus has done. 

Third. The Israelites were grumbling and complaining and blaspheming against God, and yet God saves them. 

Jesus came into a world where people condemned him, plotted against him, betrayed him, and killed him. 

While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

Fourth. Moses literally lifted up the bronze serpent on a pole. 

And Jesus was literally lifted up on the cross. 

Fifth. For the Israelites who were afflicted by the serpent’s bite, life was found by looking to the bronze serpent. For us today, eternal life is found by looking to Jesus. 

We’re infected with the venom of sin. And it’s a killer. There is nothing we can do on our own to take out that poison. The only antidote is found in looking to Jesus.

It is he who went to the cross for salvation. 

In referring to the Numbers passage, Jesus is telling Nicodemus the gospel. It is Christ who will be lifted up for sinners. 

And to have a heavenly hope, we must believe in what the Lord has done. We believe in Jesus and we are given the Holy Spirit to transform our lives from the inside out. 

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