by Aaron

If I asked you what the most well-known verse in the bible is, what would you say? Today, in our culture, it may be “judge not,…” but I would say the most well-known (if not cited in its entirety) is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (ESV). The sad part is that we have pulled that verse out of its surrounding context in such a way that we miss the deep theological background of it.

In our Bibles, the translators have broken up certain areas of scripture by sections, to help readers see what is taking place in the text. There are some places where this is VERY helpful, and some places where it is not helpful…at all.  And one of those places is in John 3:16.

Most modern translations break John 3:16 into a separate section, as if it is a new thought, but it is not!

In John 3, Jesus is having a discussion with Nicodemus about being born again in order to help Nicodemus understand that citizenship in the Kingdom of God (salvation) is not based upon our first birth, where our nationality lies, but a new birth, which we can’t bring about for ourselves.  He’s trying to show that no one gets to “heaven” on their pedigree or their merits. He says in John 3:13 “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man,” meaning “No one can make it on their own.”

Jesus then goes on to show who DOES “make” it: 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. THIS THEN moves to verse 16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” These verses show God’s provision in saving us, which is Jesus, lifted up on the Cross. The PROMISE is that we will not be condemned but saved as we look at the PROVISION (Jesus). We do not need to look at Jesus in the same way the Israelites had to look at the bronze serpent, but understanding this Bronze Serpent helps us to understand what it means to look to Jesus.

On Sunday, May 2, 2021 I spoke on these verses and called the message Nehushtan, but never once used the word. Someone texted and asked why I called the message Nehushtan, and I couldn’t believe I forgot to even say it. Simply enough, Nehushtan means Bronze Serpent (the Great Brass); it is what the Israelites called the bronze serpent on the pole, and what Jesus referenced in John 3. In Numbers 21. The Israelites were detesting God’s daily provision for them: the miraculous food from heaven called Manna. As a result of their complaining God sends fiery serpents into Israel’s camp. God is not over-reacting; He is trying to teach the people that what is going on in their heart is now reflected in their bodies by the venom running through their veins.

These serpents bite people and they begin to die. When they recognize their sin, they ask Moses to pray for them:  God’s answer and provision is in Numbers 21:8-9 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.”

God uses this moment to teach them what their deeper condition is, the thing that is destroying them: the venom of sin. They have all been bitten by sin and as a result there is now a deep dissatisfaction with every aspect of their life. When they realize their condition, God provides a way for them to be saved, and it is simply by looking at this Nehushtan that Moses puts up on a pole…it is God’s provision. God is saying, “Here is a representation of your sin, and my remedy for it.  Whoever looks at MY provision will find deliverance from death, and healing from the venom”

In John 3, Jesus reminds us all that what God had Moses do with the serpent was a foreshadowing of what He would do to remove OUR venom of sin: He (Jesus) would be lifted up. Now, we must look to the Son who has been lifted up because there, on the cross, our own sin was placed and dealt with. We can’t be saved by our first birth or by any self-concocted remedies, any more than the Israelites could save themselves. But we can be saved, and our lives can be restored to relationship with our creator God because of Christ’s sacrifice in being lifted up. Nehushtan was/is a crazy story that shows what God does in order to save us all.

May we be a people who trust in God’s provision and may we never take Jesus for granted!