It was the third time Jesus urged Nicodemus to believe the truth:
Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
– John 3:11-12 (ESV)
In the past, God had sent prophets who spoke of temporal issues: sin and its earthly consequences; obedience and the resultant material blessings (Deuteronomy 28, Jeremiah 6:12,7:3-7). Through the Holy Spirit, many prophets foresaw what would happen and spoke their message. But even though there was a multitude of these witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15), the Jewish leaders didn’t believe them.
If they didn’t believe the Old Testament prophets who spoke of things that came to pass for all on earth to see, how would they believe the One who truly came from God and witnessed heavenly things no man saw?
And no one has gone up into heaven, save he who came down out of heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven.
– John 3:13 (ESV)
Nathaneal’s ears perked up. Jesus’ words echoed in his mind: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”. The disciples knew Jesus spoke of Himself. But Nicodemus wasn’t so sure.
“Jesus I see right in front of me. Who is this ‘Son of man’ he speaks of?”
And yet the disciples were also confused. How can their Master be both here and in heaven at the same time? Jesus didn’t explain.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus must the Son of man be lifted up, that every one who believes on him may not perish, but have life eternal.
– John 3:14-15 (ESV)
They all remembered the story…
Before their fathers had reached the Promised Land, they had to go around the land of Edom. Life in the wilderness was tough – like a 40-year long camping trip in the desert. The people weren’t happy and they let God and Moses know it.
“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.”
– Numbers 21:5 (ESV)
God said He was bringing them out of Egypt to save them, but they called Him a liar. For their lack of faith, God sent poisonous snakes that bit the people. When many of them died, a quick change of mind occurred:
“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.”
– Numbers 21:7 (ESV)
In response to their plea, God gave them salvation in the form of their curse: a brass snake mounted high on a pole for anyone to see who would. Those who repented of their unbelief would look in simple, unquestioning faith at the snake and live. But for those who didn’t look, the snake would remain a curse to them: they would die in their sin.
And now, living in the land of promise, some of the descendants of those who looked at the snake in faith were listening to Jesus.
In this second reference to His death, Jesus said He was going to be like the brass snake. He was going to be lifted up for all to see. Those who believe would not die but have eternal life. To those who refuse to believe, He would be a curse.
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
– John 3:18 (ESV)