John 3:16 is probably the most well-recognized verse in the Bible. This is thanks in large part to America’s sports culture (beginning with Rollen Stewart’s signs in the 1970’s), but it shouldn’t be all that surprising, either. The short verse – spoken by Jesus during his interaction with Nicodemus – is a powerfully concise summary of the Christian message.
For 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, NIV)
I currently meet with a group of fellow medical students for a weekly Bible study. During a recent meeting, one of the guys directed our attention to the verses immediately preceding John 3:16.
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. (John 3:14-15, NIV)
Okay, so the Son of Man (a.k.a. Jesus) has to be “lifted up”. But what’s this business about Moses and a “snake in the wilderness”? This is where things start to get interesting. It turns out that Jesus is alluding to a story from Numbers 21.
[The Israelites] traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (Numbers 21:4-9, NIV)
So Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he has to be “lifted up”, just like the snake was lifted up. Seems a bit foreshadowing, doesn’t it?
It’s really kind of amazing how closely the account from Numbers 21 parallels the over-arching narrative of the Gospels. Just like each of us, the Israelites were rebellious and discontented. The wages of their sin was death (in the form of the venomous snakes), yet God ultimately offered a chance for healing and forgiveness.
Even at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus is saying that he’s going to be lifted up like the bronze serpent. As a future physician myself, I can’t help but think of this reference when I see the universal symbol of medicine: