The Remedy: Look, Lift Up, and Live

In today’s passage, Jesus refers to the book of Numbers involving a “serpent in the wilderness.” Merely reading John 3:16, and assuming to have comprehended the complete narrative is akin to browsing through webpages in a cursory fashion.

One way to start viewing the John passage in its larger context is to imagine a hyperlink in verse 14 that jumps you back to Numbers 21:4-9. We’re going to jump to that story for a moment. Still, unlike the usual internet reading practice, we will return to the text we started with, and thanks to Numbers, we’ll better understand what Jesus was getting at in John 3:16.

The text talks about a story from the Numbers book of the Bible where the Israelites, after their departure, are in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. They complain about their detour and express their dissatisfaction with their current situation. Their complaints are directed towards Moses and God.

Because of their ungratefulness, consequently, God sends venomous snakes among them, which bite them, ultimately leading to the death of many people.

The Israelites confessed their sins to Moses and asked him to intercede on their behalf with God. God tells Moses to mount a bronze serpent on a pole. Anyone bitten by a snake should gaze upon the bronze serpent on the pole and be healed and saved.

When Jesus spoke of the serpent in the wilderness, he was talking to a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who was interested in learning more about Jesus’ message and mission. Both Jesus and Nicodemus were Jewish and knew the Hebrew Scriptures well. Jesus used the story of the serpent in the wilderness as an example to help Nicodemus understand his mission. He said, “Just as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Nicodemus then realized that Jesus intended to be a savior.

At that point, Nicodemus probably doesn’t envision Jesus dying on a cross and being “lifted up” in that sense. But he’s at least beginning to realize what Jesus means. Jesus is saying that just as looking at the bronze serpent on a pole enabled those ancients who were dying due to their sin to live, so looking at Jesus with belief will enable those dying in sin today to live eternally.

All this deeper reading of the Bible also helps us to grasp what Jesus says after the John 3:16 statement. He says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.”

“For all who rely on the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.’” (Gal. 3:10)

The unbeliever has not believed. The great sin of unbelief is that it neglects, ignores, denies, abuses, and rejects God’s Son. The dignity of God’s Son is ignored (see John 1:1-2). The truth of God’s Son is not believed (see John 1:14). The goodness of God’s Son is not embraced (see John 1:14). The dearest thing to God’s heart is denied (see John 3:16)— love. The only begotten, the first Son of the dead is rejected (see John 3:16-19).

But Christ raises the excellent remedy for humanity’s sin. Therefore, unbelief – rejecting and refusing to believe him – is a tremendous, damning sin. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on them.” (John 3:36)

Now, recall that the live serpents were agents of judgment in the Numbers story. Yet here is where Jesus tells Nicodemus how his role differs from the serpent’s in the wilderness. He didn’t come to be like the biting serpents of judgment of death, subject to the law. Instead, he was not sent to condemn the world but to save.

The believer, on the other hand, those who have been given the grace of God, is not condemned. The remedy is in belief. Belief stays, prevents arrests, and stops judgment. The person who believes in Christ is acquitted as though they never sinned. They are released. They are not captivated again by guilt, fear, bondage, and shame. As we Lutherans love to say, “Thy are justified by faith, by the grace of God!”

The polarities found in these narratives are strange, that anyone in Israel who a snake had bitten could live if they merely looked at it. God’s Ten Commandments prohibited making graven images. However, Jesus later applied this story to himself, saying that those who look to the lifted-up Son of Man in faith will and shall have eternal life.

Now, the text suggests that humanity became a sinner by looking at the forbidden fruit and disobeying God’s command. In the same way, the lost sinner can be saved by looking at God’s Son. The Christian life begins by looking to God for salvation and continues by looking to Jesus for guidance. At the end of the Christian life, believers are still to be looking for Christ, as their citizenship is in heaven.

Throughout the Christian journey, looking to God’s Son in one thing required. But the good news is that God provided a remedy, a ram in the bush if you will, and is still providing remedies for the curse that plagued us. Just as the snake-bitten people aren’t able to save themselves and were dying rapidly. Therefore, God had to provide a way for them to be saved. When they confessed their sins and requested Moses to intercede, God provided a unique remedy: They had to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Whoever looked at the bronze snake would be healed and saved.

We can learn a few things from this story and how it relates to the cross of Jesus Christ. Firstly, it is a supernatural remedy that came directly from God. On this fourth Sunday in Lent, Moses did not hesitate to follow God’s instructions and make the bronze snake, even though it may have seemed ridiculous to others. Similarly, the cross of Christ is God’s remedy for our sins, and it is the power of God for those who believe, even if it may seem foolish to others.

Secondly, the cross of Christ is sufficient for the salvation of all sinners. We do not need to add anything to it, such as good works or penance, to pay for our sins. Jesus paid it all, and we can do nothing to earn our salvation except to put our faith in God and him.

Finally, the remedy of the snake was sure and effective. Everyone who looked at the bronze, snake was saved, and no one who looked died. Similarly, Jesus saves everyone who believes in him, and no sinner is too terrible for God to save. All we need to do is believe in Jesus, and his remedy is 100% effective.

In Numbers, some bitten people could have refused to look at the bronze serpent and died. Most of them followed the example of the countless references of biblical narratives. In Psalm 121:1-2, where the psalmist lifts up his eyes to the hills and declares that his help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth; where Paul exhorts us in Colossians to set our hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God; in the Gospel of Matthew 14:19-20, where Jesus looks up to heaven and gives thanks to God before multiplying the five loaves and two fish to feed the multitudes.

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would refuse to look upward in following God’s command. Likewise, we sin-bitten people can refuse to look at the Savior God provided and thus miss eternal life.

What does it mean for us to be lifted? This points us to the despised and forsaken nature of Jesus on the cross as well as his exaltation and glorification after his resurrection. Finally, the text indicates that the new birth happens when sinners look in faith to the crucified, risen Son of God, and this results in eternal life.

It is possible for cursed individuals to be healed by looking in faith to God’s remedy. God chose to leave the deadly snakes and provide a remedy instead of removing them.

I leave you with this. A young woman walked into a fabric shop, went to the counter and asked the owner for some noisy, rustling material. The owner found two such bolts of fabric but was rather puzzled at the young lady’s motives. Why would anyone want several yards of noisy material? Finally, the owner’s curiosity got the best of him and he asked the young lady why she particularly wanted noisy cloth.

She answered, “I am making a wedding gown and my fiancé is blind. When I walk down the aisle, I want him to know when I’ve arrived at the altar so he won’t be embarrassed.”

Like this woman, Jesus Christ, the ultimate bridegroom, entered this sin-sick world noisily and was executed publicly. Let us not forget the length that Christ, the ultimate bridegroom, is preparing to meet us in our sin. As bound by faith and iniquity, he comes to meet us as a reminder that the noise of salvation was not an easy task. Those who were once blind but now see because of faith/belief can hear his voice. It was because God so loved the world that he gave us God’s only begotten son as this song of faith affirms.

Lift Him up, Lift the precious Savior up, Lift Him up, Lift the Savior up, Still He speaks from eternity, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, Will draw all humanity unto Me.”

(I love this part.) All the world is hungry for the Living Bread, Lift the Savior up for them to see; Trust Him, and do not doubt the words that He said, “I’ll draw all men/women unto Me.” Oh, let’s Look Up. Oh, let’s Lift Up, and we shall live.