The Great Physician

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)

Moses and the bronze serpent

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?

Christ's crucifixion

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:

Look Familiar?


23 thoughts on “The Great Physician

  1. Thank you, Matt for your post. I predate the sports culture by more than two decades, and I loved John 3:16 even back then. It was the first verse I memorized, and will always be my favorite. About the preceding verses and Numbers, you didn’t exactly ask the question, but you hid it there between the lines where you intended us to find it: how can the Numbers account foreshadow John unless our God is truly eternal and omniscient? The answer to the question humbles some and disturbs others. Thank you for the spiritual encouragement.

  2. I was just speaking of The Great Physician to prayer team members today…This is an excellent article, and Matt…thank God for a man of faith being raised up to minister as a physician of faith! God bless your studies!

  3. I just happen to think that that bronze snake that Moses was to lift up was the image of what was causing sickness among the rebellious Israelites. So, Jesus became sin for us…He became Man, the 2nd Adam…He bore our sicknesses and sins upon Himself. He took our deserved wrath upon Himself. 🙂

  4. Like you, I appreciate the connection between the biblical and medical images. Blessings on your Bible study group.

  5. Pingback: Our Great Physician | Broken Believers

  6. Good post Matt. I’m not in the medical field; my wife is and I never really made the connection between the medical symbol and the serpent Moses put on a pole.

    Good luck on your studies.

  7. Great post! I sincerely believe that the Cross is the ultimate symbol of healing as well as the intended focal point for all of our theology and daily thinking. In the Cross we see the love of the Father, the perfection of the Son, the mystery of the Holy Spirit rending the veil…A most encouraging article!

  8. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”

    “God made him who had no sinv to be sinb for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”

    God revealed the great Mystery to us.

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