The serpent lifted up


In verses 13 to 15 He says,

No one has ascended to heaven but he who came down from heaven.

and, in verse 14 he says,

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the son of man be lifted up that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.

John 3.14-15

At this point, when Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, the cross has not yet happened. So, He speaks to Nicodemus about something which is in the scriptures and, again, He’s appealing to Nicodemus because Nicodemus should know this, because he should certainly know the Torah, the 5 Books of Moses, and he should know about this incident which is in Numbers chapter 21 verses 4 to 9 concerning the bronze serpent which we’ll read now.

This is when the Israelites are trekking through the wilderness and they’re getting a bit tired of life in the wilderness, and they’re grumbling and moaning to God, and God sends judgment upon them in the serpents which bite them.

Let’s read it. Verse 4:

4 Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.” 6 So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.

Numbers 21.4-6

7 Therefore 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.

8 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

Numbers 21.7-9

Moses made a bronze serpent and put it on the pole and so it was that, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when they looked at the bronze serpent they lived.

There they are moaning about the ‘worthless bread’ and the conditions, and God actually gets a bit fed up of hearing their moaning and he sends the judgment in with these serpents that bite them. And the serpents that bite them begin to kill them.

So, they cry out to God and say, ‘We’ve sinned, help us Lord.’ And God tells Moses to make a representation of the serpent, a bronze serpent, and put it up on a pole and hold it up so that when the people look at the serpent, they’re going to be healed from the serpents’ bites.

What’s the significance of that? They look to the bronze serpent and the serpent represents the thing which has bitten them. They’re saved from the snake bites when they look to it.

Of course, the serpent in the scriptures has an association with Satan and with the one who tempted Eve right back at the very beginning. Serpents are always associated with something evil.

Therefore, you have something evil which comes upon them and then they look to this representation which is also of the serpent, and they’re healed.

What could that mean? What’s Jesus talking about? How is Jesus connecting this to Himself?

If you think about it, you may ask: ‘What happened when Jesus was on the cross?

Jesus on the cross became the sin offering through whom we can receive forgiveness.

It says in 2 Corinthians 5.21,

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

2 Corinthians 5.21

All of us are bitten by the snake, the serpent. Whoever we are, we have this association with sin. And each one of us has fallen short of the glory of God. None is righteous. No, not one.

Jesus came. He was totally righteous. He became sin on the cross. On the cross, God put the sin of the world upon Jesus so that all of the sins were put upon Jesus, and He became the sin offering.

As we look to Jesus, so our sin is forgiven, and we can look to Jesus who becomes now the representation of sin despite the fact that He’s the holy One in order that we can be forgiven and redeemed.

We look to Him at the cross and He is lifted up from the earth.

John chapter 12 verse 31 says,

31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. 32 And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” 33 This He said, signifying by what death He would die.

John 12.31-33

And Jesus was on the cross, He took the punishment for our sin, and He became sin that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

Therefore, Jesus is telling this story from Numbers to Nicodemus and points you to what was going to happen at the cross a couple of years down the line from when He is talking to him.

As you think about this, I felt the Lord put in my mind last night that Nicodemus was present at the cross. Nicodemus saw this happen. Nicodemus was not one of those who was consenting to the death of Jesus.

Tony Pearce

It says in John’s Gospel, in chapter 19 that, following the Crucifixion, Nicodemus with Joseph of Arimathea went to Pontius Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus to be taken and put in the in the grave.

John chapter 19 verse 31 says,

31 Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. 32 Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who was crucified with Him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. 34 But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. 35 And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe. 36 For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, “Not one of His bones shall be broken.” 37 And again another Scripture says, “They shall look on Him whom they pierced.”

John 19.31-37

38 After this, Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took the body of Jesus. 39 And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. 40 Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury. 41 Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 So there they laid Jesus, because of the Jews’ Preparation Day, for the tomb was nearby.

John 19.38-42

That little detail is very interesting. If Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had not taken the body of Jesus down and put Him in the new tomb, the body of Jesus would have been taken and just thrown into a pit outside Jerusalem.

It would have been just one of many corpses. What would that have done to the resurrection of Jesus?

It would have been very hard to verify, wouldn’t it?

One corpse among many would have just disappeared.

Tony Pearce

So, at the very point of the crucifixion of Jesus, two very significant people, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who were both members of the Sanhedrin, both believers in Jesus, went and asked to put His body in in a new tomb, give Him honour and respect in His burial. The honour and respect which He didn’t get in His death.

And because they put Him in that tomb, on the third day, the stone rolled away, and we had the glorious event of the resurrection of Jesus.

Nicodemus, with Joseph of Arimathea were going to play a part in the drama of Jesus’ resurrection and I wonder if as Nicodemus (I believe Nicodemus probably was there at the cross), seeing what had happened as he did, must have thought about Isaiah 53.3-6. And being a man who would know the scriptures, he thought of these words:

3 He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted.

5 But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.

6 All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53.3-6

Nicodemus thought about Isaiah, he thought about what he was seeing, and it all came together. And he remembered what Jesus had told him about being born again, about the staff being lifted up as the bronze serpent was lifted up, and he saw Jesus being lifted up.

Tony Pearce

Then, we have this very interesting little detail in Isaiah 53 verse 9. It says,

They made his grave with the wicked but with the rich at his death because he had done no violence nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Isaiah 53:9

It says that Jesus should have been thrown into the pit with all the other criminals, but He was taken down and put into this new tomb with the rich in his burial.

You have two men here, Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man and Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, a powerful religious man who honoured Jesus in this way.

And whether Nicodemus saw himself in this scripture I don’t know, perhaps he did. But in this amazing way, this scripture was now being fulfilled through Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, the rich people who put Jesus in that tomb.

Therefore, Nicodemus no doubt became a follower of Jesus. We don’t know anything more about him, there are only three mentions of Nicodemus in the Bible, this one in John 3, John 7, and the one John 19.

I guess he became a follower of Jesus in the early church but as I say, we don’t know any more about him. Yet he understood verse 16 that

God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

John 3.16

And the most well-known verse of the Bible summed it up.

Why did Jesus come to suffer, to die, to be the punishment for our sin. The expression of God’s love for each one of us?

That we know that God so loved the world, that He loves you, He loves me, He loves every person in the world, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, should not go to darkness, to hell, but have eternal life and go to heaven and be with Him forever.

If you believe in Jesus, that’s what your destiny is.

Hopefully everybody here does believe in Jesus, everybody listening on the internet hopefully believes in Jesus.

If not, now is the day of salvation! Now is the day to repent and believe the Gospel, to put your trust in Jesus and to receive eternal life through faith in Him.


  • Good morning Tony,
    Jesus did not become sin, He became a sin offering.(see NIV footnote).To suggest otherwise undermines the gospel message of the sinless, spotless, Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.(IS 53:6; 1 PET 3:18; JOHN 1 :1-5,12,14;1 JOHN 1:5; ROM 4:25-5:1).
    God bless you, A OShea.

    • Thanks Alex,
      Eric here replying on Tony’s behalf.
      How do you interpret 2 Corinthians 5:21? If I may ask.