And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:14,15 KJV)
The evangelist John Wesley once spoke of grumblers as ‘tearing the flesh from my bones.’ Christ’s words here were a reference back to Numbers chapter 21, in which the ever-grumbling Israelites – on their way to the Promised Land – came under the divine judgment of venomous snakes. Forgiveness and restoration were only provided by the Lord Himself, through the raising up by Moses of a copper serpent in the camp. Those who in faith fixed their gaze upon the serpent would be saved from death.
This seemingly obscure episode, taking up only four verses of the Scriptures, might have been forgotten across posterity, but for Jesus’ application of the event to the ‘lifting up’ of Himself in saving power when He was to die upon the Cross.
1. The Death principle is here. Remember that it was the Serpent, Satan, that introduced death into our human story. Jesus now draws the parallel between the death from serpent-bite that faced those Israelites of old and the eternal death that all humanity faces as a result of our common rebellion against God’s rule.
2. The Faith principle is here. The remedy for the people’s sin was the uplifted bronze snake. To fasten one’s gaze upon that snake was to be exercising obedient faith. Now Jesus equates the ‘seeing’ of the snake to believing in Himself. “Lifted up was He to die’ runs the old hymn. There on the Cross, the Lord was suspended between earth and heaven – there to be rejected by both. At that point – in the acceptance in Himself of our sins and their just penalty - He was the loneliest Person in the universe.
3. The Salvation principle. Just as life would be given to those who set their focused gaze upon the serpent of old, so today forgiveness and eternal life are freely given to ‘Whosoever’ will trust in Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
The famous seventeenth century Puritan leader Richard Baxter once commented, "I thank God for this word ‘Whosoever.’ If it read, “There is mercy for Richard Baxter,” I am so vile, so sinful, that I would have thought it must have meant some other Richard Baxter; but this word ‘Whosoever’ includes the worst of all the Baxters that ever lived!"