John 3:14-15 – The Serpent in the Wilderness

Dear Friends,

Greetings in Christ!

When we left off last week, Jesus was in the middle of his discourse on the new birth. There is so much loaded into Jesus’ sermon that we need to break it up into smaller parts to unpack it. I suspect Nicodemus walked away wondering what Jesus was talking about, then later started to understand what He was saying as he meditated on Jesus’ words. Picking up in verse 14, Jesus continues to explain:

John 3:14-15
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:

In Numbers 21, the children of the Exodus spake against both God and his prophet, Moses. They complained about the manna they were given to eat and accused God of luring them into the wilderness only to kill them. In response, God sent fiery serpents among the people. The serpents bit the people and many of them died. I think this story shows how offensive murmuring and complaining is to God. (Jude 16 et al) I think the serpents illustrated how deadly our backbiting tongues can be. The Bible does not say In every thing complain: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. It says In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. Lt. Colonel Merlin Carothers wrote a very thought-provoking book on this subject called Power in Praise (Merlin R Carothers, 1972). The CliffsNotes version would be this: If you hate your situation, praise God for it and wait to see what happens.*

The plague achieved its intended effect; the people repented and went to Moses to say they were sorry. They confessed that they had sinned and asked Moses to pray for them. And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived. Now, keep in mind we are talking about a mobile camp consisting of 12 different tribes totaling upwards of 2 million people. Word went out that if people who were bitten by the fiery serpents would trek to where the brazen serpent was and look at it, they would be healed. These were the same people who had consistently doubted just about everything Moses told them and rebelled against everything he did. There were undoubtedly those who scoffed and said that looking at a brazen serpent on a pole could not save them. ‘Why should I walk all the way over to the camp of Levi? How can looking at a serpent on a pole heal me?’ So those who refused to go died. People say the same thing today. How can looking to Jesus save me? But it really is that easy. (Isa 45:22) Just like those who were bitten by the fiery serpents, we are all suffering from the lethal effects of a poison called sin. All they had to do to be healed was go and look at the serpent. All we have to do to be saved is look to Jesus. But people refuse to believe it. They grouse about how the way is too narrow, how it is not fair that other ways are not good enough, or that it is just too easy. It’s not fair that the next guy who is a bad person (not a good person like I am, they say) should get saved so easily. I wonder if that is what Nicodemus was thinking? We know he became a believer but we are not told what his initial reaction was to Jesus’ presentation of the gospel. People who charge that it is too easy are forgetting something, though. It was not easy for Jesus.

To allow other ways to be good enough would diminish and dismiss how Jesus suffered and died for us on Calvary. Only Jesus lived a perfect life. He did not deserve to be spit on. He did not deserve to have his beard plucked out. He did not deserve to be smitten with a reed, or buffeted with his captor’s hands after they blindfolded Him. He did not deserve to be mocked or crowned with thorns. He did not deserve to be struck thirty-nine times with the cat-o-nine-tails. He did not deserve to be forced to carry his own cross. He did not deserve to be nailed to the cross and to suffer for six hours while people continued to mock Him and cast accusations at Him. We deserved that. Did you ever wonder why Jesus did not defend Himself when He was tried before Pilate and Herod? It is because He was not the one on trial. We were. He was crucified for our sins and we have no defense. We are all guilty. He died in our place and paid the full price for our sins. All He asks in return is that we look to Him. Of course, included in that is repentance (a change of mind) and a commitment to take up my own cross and follow Him, but He gives us the free gift of salvation the moment we look to Him with a willing and believing heart.

Years later, they made an idol of the serpent and burnt incense to it. Hezekiah eventually broke the serpent to pieces and called it Nehushtan, or literally a chunk of brass. (2 Kings 18:4) The brazen serpent was intended to be an object lesson, not an idol. Brass is symbolic of judgment. The serpent is symbolic of sin. It was placed on a pole and lifted up. This all points to Jesus, who was nailed to a cross and lifted up. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. As He hung on the cross, God blotted out the sun as Jesus took on the sin of all the world. It was not the crucifixion that killed Him. He died of a broken heart: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. His heart was broken because it was the first time He had ever been separated from his Father. That is why He cried Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? God the Father, perfect in holiness, turned his back on his Son as He bore the sin of the world because He cannot have sin in his presence. Jesus could have called 12 legions of angels to his rescue if He wanted to, but then we would still be guilty, banned from heaven for all eternity. The blood that flowed from his face where they plucked out his beard, from his brow where they crowned Him with thorns — the blood that flowed from his back where they scourged Him and from his hands and feet where they nailed Him to the cross, the blood that flowed from his side where they pierced Him — that precious blood will wash away your sins if you will only receive Him. Jesus did the hard part. All He asks of us is that we believe it:
15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
John 3:14-15


Father, thank You for giving us your Son. I believe He died for me and rose again, just as your word says. I believe He is coming back, just as your word says. Lord Jesus, please come into my heart and set me free from the law of sin and death. Please write my name in your book of life. Please fill me with your Holy Spirit and direct my path. Please take control of my life. I look to You and trust in the precious blood You shed to take away my sin. I pray this in your holy and precious name. Amen.


* This week as I was reviewing some notes I made in my journal, I remembered reading Power in Praise. I realized that we need to thank God for our situation with the elections here in America and praise Him for it. The advice Chaplain Carothers gives is a hard pill to swallow, but it is biblically sound. If anyone had a right to complain about his situation, that would have been Jesus, but He said it must be so. Despite his suffering, He praised his Father for his situation. (Ps 22:22) Chaplain Carothers’ first book, From Prison to Praise, can be downloaded for free here

Persecution Update: According to a recent report from Open Doors, persecution increased dramatically in 2020. Ten Christians are killed each day now in Nigeria. According to Open Doors, one of the most troubling trends is the use of technology to target and persecute Christians. Yet, the increased persecution is causing revival and strengthening the church. My Christmas Eve post called for prayer. Please continue to pray for the church worldwide and political leaders as well. Paul prayed for and witnessed to Caesar Nero. We should follow his example. Incidentally, I think we can expect persecution to come to America soon. There are already pastors in California who are facing jail time and massive fines. The politics and the pandemic are not really what all the fuss is over. It’s about Jesus and Satan.