There are more obstacles for Nicodemus in entering the kingdom than just his need to be born again. There is no point having new life if you’re imprisoned on death row. Something has to happen to remove the wrath of God. That’s what the Son of Man came to do.
Jesus picks an analogy that Nicodemus, a teacher of the law should be familiar with, but it is shocking that He would pick it to describe His own 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.”
Like a Snake?!
The event Jesus refers to is recorded in Numbers 21. Notice a few things:
1. The serpent on the pole is not preventative. It is for bitten people (verse 8). The poison is in them, and without divine intervention they will die.
2.The snakes in the camp are from the Lord. He sent them (verse 6). The wrath of God is on this people for the sin of ingratitude and murmuring and rebellion.
3. The means God chooses to rescue the people from his own curse is a picture of the curse itself.
4. All they have to do in order to be saved from God’s wrath is look at his provision hanging on a pole.
Jesus is the Son of Man who is lifted up on the cross the way the snake was lifted up. Jesus, in the place of the snake, is also the source of healing, the source of rescue from the poison of sin, and the wrath of God. And so, the Son of Man must be lifted up” – but by whom?
There is only one place where the lifters are identified in John’s Gospel. They are the Pharisees. John 8:28 says, “Jesus said to them, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he.’” Who is you? According to John 8:13, it’s the Pharisees. The Pharisees stand in the place of Moses. It is Israel, God’s own people who will commit the regicide.
Jesus in the place of the snake is portrayed as evil and a curse. This is what is so shocking. The snake is evil. The snakes were killing people. The snake on the pole is a picture of God’s curse on the people.
So it was with Jesus. In becoming like the snake, he was the embodiment of our sin, and the embodiment of our curse. And in becoming sin and curse for us, he took ours away.