“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” John 3:14-15 (NIV)
Jesus used an Old Testament story to help us understand what his death can mean for us. The Israelites in the desert were angry and frustrated. “They spoke against God and against Moses…” (Numbers 21:5). So the Lord sent venomous snakes among them and many died (21:6).
The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you” (21:7). Moses prayed for the people and God said to Moses “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live” (21:8).
Notice the parallel: Moses says, “Anyone can look at the snake and live.” Jesus says, “Everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15). In other words, looking at the snake on the pole is a picture of what it means to believe in Jesus Christ and his death for us on the cross.
The image on the pole must have been repulsive, and so is the gospel: “Eternal life comes through one man who died on a cross, bearing the curse of your sins. Look to Jesus Christ crucified as your only hope.” To millions of people that is utterly repulsive.
But Moses tells us “When anyone… looked at the bronze snake, he lived” (Num. 21:9). And Jesus says, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Imagine people writhing in pain, legs and arms swelling from the poison. Death is near. Someone says, “Moses has lifted up a pole with a bronze snake on it. People who look at the snake are recovering. Come with me and look at the snake.”
Would you have done that?