By Dennis E. Johnson
In conversation with Nicodemus, a representative of the council of Judaism’s leaders (John 3:1; 7:50), Jesus suddenly turned the topic from Nicodemus’s need of birth from above, by God’s Spirit, to his own coming death as fitting the pattern of an incident in Israel’s past: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3:14–15).
The Serpent in the Wilderness
The incident, no doubt well known to Nicodemus as “the teacher of Israel,” is recorded in Numbers 21:4–9. When the Israelites complained (yet again!) about the Lord’s provision of food and water, God judged their toxic unbelief and discontent by sending poisonous serpents into their camp. Many Israelites died of snakebite, moving the survivors to repent and beg for rescue from the serpents’ venom. Perhaps surprisingly, the Lord commanded Moses to fashion the image of his holy judgment into a means of his salvation:
And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Num. 21:8–9)
In order to be saved from death, the people had to look at the symbol of the curse they deserved; and they had to believe God’s promise that by looking, they would live. In its Old Testament context, to seek life by looking in faith on the emblem of God’s judgment was to confront, honestly and humbly, the poisonous consequence of their rebellious discontent. This is not primitive magic, not primitive superstitious homeopathy in which fixation on venomous snakes cures venomous snakebites. Later in Israel’s history, in fact, when the bronze serpent cast by Moses was misused as an object of worship, the faithful King Hezekiah smashed it into pieces (2 Kings 18:4). So there remains something shocking about the Lord’s instruction to cast an image of the thing that was causing death and to summon sufferers to look at it in order to escape that death. In the frame of reference of the Israelites’ wilderness generation and their children, Moses’ readers, the bronze serpent posed a puzzling question: how could a cursed thing set people free from its curse?
Fulfilled in Christ
The answer to that dilemma would be seen centuries later, when the Son of Man was lifted up on a Roman cross in a form of execution that, as Jews had learned from the ancient Scriptures, emblemized God’s curse. To Nicodemus, Jesus simply pointed out the pattern that linked the bronze serpent in Moses’ day to his own upcoming “lifting up” on the cross (John 8:28; 12:32–33). The apostle Paul would write that in order to redeem us from the curse that the law pronounces on its violators, “Christ . . . [became] a curse for us,” even as Moses had written in Deuteronomy 21:23, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:10, 13). Between Moses and Paul in God’s unfolding revelation, Isaiah described a Suffering Servant who was so wounded and disfigured that others turned away from him, rejecting him as “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted,” although his grief was caused by their iniquities and his wounds brought them healing (Isa. 53:2–6).
In that nighttime conversation, Jesus pointed Nicodemus, one of Judaism’s premier biblical scholars, to a road sign planted centuries earlier in the Sinai desert and the fourth book of Moses, in the historical experience of God’s unruly but beloved people. The term type does not appear in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Yet the substance of typology—patterns woven into the fabric of Israel’s history, drawing hope forward toward God’s great rescue through the promised Rescuer—is expressed in Jesus’ simple analogy: “as Moses lifted up . . . , so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14).
About the Author
Dennis E. Johnson (ThM, Westminster Theological Seminary; PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California. He is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, author of The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption, and a contributor to numerous books and theological journals.
About the Book
In Walking with Jesus Through His Word, Dennis Johnson takes readers of the Bible on a journey of discovery through the Old and New Testaments, pointing out a network of trails in the text. These are recurring themes that link different parts of the Bible to Jesus the Christ, the fulfiller of God’s promises and redeemer of God’s people.