I'd like for you to think with me for a moment. Many times in the scriptures, our Lord is compared to different things . . . He is the Vine, the good Shepherd, the Lion of Judah, and many more. Did you know that in this passage He is comparing Himself to a snake? Whoaaaah. No, I haven't lost my mind. (Grin) Let's dig in!
You'll remember that Nicodemus is a Jewish leader that came to Jesus in the dark of night. Jesus told him that he must experience a new birth - a spiritual re-birth, in order to enter the kingdom of God. And He tells him that the Spirit is going to be the One who enables him to do this . . . free as the wind, He comes and goes, and He is our helper in order to have the faith we need.
Nicodemus still doesn't "get" it.
What happens to you, when people don't understand you? If you try and try to explain something to someone, and they still look at you with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, how do you react? What would you have said to Nicodemus?
Would you have been frustrated? Irritated? Would you have said, "Oh, forget it!" and given up?
Oy. I'm talking to myself here, since I have done those things.
But our Lord patiently keeps trying. In fact, He does what we should do when this happens: He shifts gears.
He shifts gears. Look at the verses before verse thirteen. He is talking to Nicodemus like a teacher, or like someone who wants to witness about the new birth -- like you and I should do. He is explaining from that perspective. You can see, in verse thirteen He begins talking about Himself, as the Son of Man, Who came from heaven to do something that makes the new birth possible.
Before verse thirteen, Jesus made three really important points about the new birth -- it's spiritual (not physical), it comes from the work of the Spirit, and it is difficult both to understand and to be explained, without the Spirit's assistance.
In verse thirteen, though, He talks about why He is the one Who can offer the heavenly explanation for this re-birth.
No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.He often referred to Himself as the Son of Man, and He is saying to Nicodemus (and to us) "the reason that I can give you a heavenly explanation is that I came down from heaven. I was in heaven with the Father, and I will tell you why I am here."
There are more obstacles to our entering the kingdom of God than our need to be born again. Nicodemus needed to understand that, just as we do. Something has to happen to remove the wrath of God regarding our sin -- He is holy, and we are sinful. (Check out John 3:36, and we'll see the problem.) He cannot release the power of the Spirit to cause us to be born again, until something happens to take away His seeing our sin. And that is what the Son of Man came to do.
Now, here is where we start to talk about the snakes -- I bet you wondered when I would get back to them, right? Jesus picks a story from the scriptures to explain what He came to do. It was a story that Nicodemus, as a learned and ritualistic Jew, would be very familiar with; it may shock us though, that He chose it to describe His ministry and work.
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. (John 3:14-15)
A snake? Really?
Here is the story, to refresh our memories:
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 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.” 9 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. (Numbers 21:4-9)
We know that many prophesies pointed to the coming of Christ, and to His death and resurrection, and to His making us His children. But it does seem shocking to compare Him to that snake.
But Jesus is the Son of Man Who is lifted up on the cross, in just the way that the snake was lifted up. Let's look at just one example of His identifying Himself in this way:
‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.’(John 9:35-37)