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.
And as Moses . . . .
That was language that Nicodemus could understand.
Until this moment he had asked in wonder, How can these things be? For though he was a ruler in Israel the darkness in his, soul was as heavy as the night round about him. He had come to Jesus to find out more about this new, strange Teacher from Galilee Who performed signs and wonders such as only God can perform. In spite of the hostility of the fellow Sanhedrists against Him, Nicodemus was inclined to consider Him a great prophet sent of God. And of this Jesus was such a prophet He could solve the problems that weighed so heavily on the soul of Nicodemus. during these past days. Personal problems they were. Problems that pertained to his own peace of mind, so sorely lacking because of the weight of sin and guilt upon his soul. Reluctant he had been to talk about these personal matters to anyone else. Hesitant he was even now to approach this Stranger with such vital matters.
And yet Jesus had consented to talk with him. Had spoken of the kingdom of heaven, which had been so much his personal concern. Had told him about a blindness that prevented him from even seeing that kingdom. And had said that he must be born again should he ever as much as even see the kingdom of heaven. And thus Nicodemus found himself asking questions, one upon another.
And greater mysteries began to unfold themselves. Jesus began to speak of His coming into the world. He was sent of God. Yes, He came from heaven. Even as He was at that moment in heaven. Again Nicodemus would like to raise the question: How can these things be? But this Teacher was already proceeding to the next step of instruction.
And as Moses . . .
Yes, these things had been written for our instruction. Well may Nicodemus listen.
And we also.
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness . . . .
As a child on his father’s knee Nicodemus had already listened with wide-eyed interest to this incident in Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness. How well he knew that it had been toward the end of those bitter thirty-eight years of wanderings. Israel had complained, because their soul had grown weary of the way. And the Lord had turned in anger against this disgruntled people. He had sent His visitation upon them, so that many perished. But He had also sent His wonderful deliverance to those who looked in faith upon the brazen serpent. Yes, he knew the history, just as well as we and our children do today.
It was a history of sin, of divine chastisement upon their sin, of sorrow and repentance, of deliverance through faith in the God of their salvation. Yes, a history of deliverance for the elect remnant that was saved by faith, even as the wicked perished in their sins.
How bitterly Israel had rebelled. They complained about everything that Moses had done, but also about all. God’s dealings with them, even His good gifts upon them: Had they known in advance that their deliverance from Egypt would end up in a thirty-eight years of wandering they would never have left that land of plenty. And what a monotonous diet that tasteless man had become? They could hardly swallow it any more. Besides, what prospect could they look forward to in the future? Before them lay the land of Canaan with its giants, its fortified cities and. hostile foes. Grumblings, rebellions ran like a contagious disease through the camp.
And He who knows the thoughts and impulses of the heart of man was angry. In righteous indignation He was jealous of His Name and honor. He is too holy of eyes to ignore sin. Therefore He sent fiery serpents into the camp. The ground teemed with them. Long, writhing creatures slithered into their tents and into their beds. Their fiery red color sent the chills down their spine. Their deadly sting already aroused the moans of the dying and the cries of those whose dear ones were being torn from them. And where should anyone turn when they all walked in the midst of death?
But then another wonder happened, fully as great as the wonder of the serpents. For there were those in Israel who were brought to repentance. They saw in these serpents the very embodiment of God’s curse against sin. In sorrow of heart they confessed to Moses: “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he may take away the serpents from us.”
But the Lord did something even more wonderful than taking the serpents away. He instructed Moses to place a brazen serpent, alike in appearance to these deadly serpents, on a pole far above the camp. And that day the Lord caused many to look in faith to that brazen serpent to find their deliverance from sin and death there. Looking in faith to that serpent they experienced that the power of the curse was broken. Yes, even though they were stung by the deadly serpents that infested the camp, they were healed and lived. Before them loomed with greater assurance than ever the hope of entering the promised land.
Saved through the serpent raised above the camp!
Even so must the Son of man be lifted up . . .
There is an obvious analogy, as amazing as it is obvious!
Let the thought penetrate into our souls a moment. Jesus compares Himself to that brazen serpent towering above the sandy wastes of the desert as it glistens in the sun.
The brazen serpent was like the deadly serpents that brought death into the camp by the righteous judgment of God. Even as the messengers of death, the brazen serpent was a symbol of God’s curse. And Christ became like that serpent. He became a curse for us to redeem us from the curse, as Paul repeats in Galatians 3:13. He who knew no sin, was made sin for us (II Cor. 5:21). In holy wonder we look at the cross of Golgotha to say: He knew no sin. God made Him sin, even the embodiment of the curse, rejected of God and of men. Yes, God made Him sin for us. O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
And as the serpent was lifted up, even so must the Son of man be lifted up. All through His life here on earth He bore the burden of sin and guilt, walking steadfastly toward the cross that always loomed up before Him. That very cross was the symbol of God’s curse against sin. And upon that altar He laid His own body as the Lamb for sinners slain. He suffered all the torments of hell, forsaken of His God, until the full measure of the wrath of God had been borne away. Only then could He triumphantly reach out for deliverance with the cry: “It is finished.”
In Him alone is all our salvation. He is the only One who could be placed in our stead. The only One who could bear the burden of God’s wrath and bear it away. He is the only One who could merit life and salvation for others. He is God. He is Man. Son of man is His name. For He came as righteous man to deliver us from sin and bring us into the heavenly Canaan of eternal salvation.
And so for a moment I survey that wondrous cross . . .
And I begin to understand somewhat the “must.”
It is the “must” of which our Lord Himself spoke to us. For He said: “So must the Son of man be lifted up.”
He spoke of that “must” with a conviction that reveals the depth of the mystery that is implied. Without attempting to fathom the depths of that amazing fact, we accept it in awed wonder. We realize that this necessity was not imposed upon God as if circumstances should compel Him to do something contrary to His will. For He is sovereign in all His dealings with us. The necessity lay in His own divine Being. Because He is God. Because He would share His intimate covenant life with the creature. Because He has chosen us—wonder of wonders—to be His peculiar people that should show forth His praises forever. Yes, because He would bring many sons unto glory through the way of sin and grace, it became Him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through suffering (Heb. 2:10). But that does not exclude the fact that this death of God’s only begotten Son was very painful for Him. Who of us would not want to spare our son, especially our only son. Yet, God spared not His only begotten Son, but delivered Him up for us all (Rom. 8:32).
There was a divine necessity in God. But there was no less a necessity in the Son, even in Christ. We hear Him say when all is accomplished, “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into His glory?” It was that “must” that impelled Him all His life. Already at twelve years of age He assured His mother that He must be about His Father’s business. At the opportune time He himself impressed upon His disciples that He must be delivered into the hands of sinful men to be crucified and to arise on the third day. In perfect obedience He walked the way of the cross unwaveringly to the end, for He came to do the Father’s will.
Finally, there is also a “must” as far as we are concerned. A necessity that we shall never understand until we realize that we, too, walk in the midst of the death. A necessity that will never give us peace until we realize that our sins cry to heaven for punishment. Until we confess: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done evil in thy sight.” Until on our knees we acknowledge that there is no escape.
No escape except for the fact that the Son of man was lifted up.
Notice how patiently our Lord spells it all out for us.
He says: “That whosoever believeth . . .” He knows so very well that there were those among Israel who, like me, ridiculed with scorn that piece of brass that was supposed to have power to heal. Our Lord already anticipated the moment when all that passed along Golgotha would, even as I, shake their heads, reviling and mocking Him. And r they all perished in their sins.
But there are also those upon whom He bestows the gift of faith. He engrafts them into Himself by that bond of living faith, in order that they may be partakers of all His benefits. For their sakes He says it with such conviction . . .
“That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish.” He makes it so emphatic: Every one believing in Him should not perish. His blood is su5cient for all the sins of those who look in faith to Him. It is as simple as that: Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” Every one without exception that believes is saved.
For He adds: That one has everlasting life. Not merely, will possess everlasting life! Even that is wonderful beyond description. But he has it already now. He has life in the midst of death. Death has no sting. The grave has no victory!
And as that Word of God penetrates into our hearts we realize its power in us. In renewed wonder we cry out: “Lord, I do believe, help Thou my unbelief.”
And as the full reality dawns upon us we experience peace, peace with God.
For we know that it is His work. His work of love, even sovereign love.
For such a wretch as I.
And that forever.
Saved by grace.