14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
JOHN 3:14 ESV
14 καὶ καθὼς Μωϋσῆς ὕψωσεν τὸν ὄφιν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, οὕτως ὑψωθῆναι δεῖ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου,
JOHN 3:14 SBLGNT
The connections between this verse and the preceding verses are two. First, Jesus moves from explaining the new birth in terms of the categories’ water’ and ‘spirit’ used by Ezekiel in Eze 37 to a narrative passage, the well-known account of the bronze snake in the desert in;
Num. 21:4–9: 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.
That bronze snake on a pole was the means God used to give new (physical) life to the children of Israel if they were bitten in the plague of snakes that had been sent in as a punishment for the persistent murmuring. By God’s provision, new life was graciously granted. Why then should it be thought so strange that by the gracious provision of this same God, there should be new spiritual life, indeed ‘eternal life’, in verse 15 – That whoever believes in him may have eternal life?
Second, the deepest point of connection between the bronze snake and Jesus was in the act of being ‘lifted up.’ Moses lifted the snake on a pole so that all afflicted in the camp might look and live. In the same way, the Son of Man must be lifted up. The Greek verb for ‘lifted up’ (hypsoō) in its four occurrences in this Gospel (cf. 8:28 – 28 So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that wI am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.; 12:32 -. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” and 34 -34 So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” always combines the notion of being physically lifted up on the cross with the notion of exaltation. This is a theological adaptation of the literal, ‘to lift up’ and the figurative, ‘to enhance’ meanings of the verb.
Even Isaiah brings together the themes of being lifted up and glorified in the context of the suffering servant, as found in
Isaiah 52:13–53:12 esp. 52:13 – 13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.
If Jesus is the ‘one who came from heaven,‘ in verse 13, how shall he return? The Synoptists think of the crucifixion and the exaltation as temporally discrete steps; John makes it clear that Jesus’ return to the glory he had with the Father before the world began, as written in
John17:5 – 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed., is accomplished by being ‘lifted up’ on the cross.
This exaltation draws people to him, as in
John 8:28 – 28 So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me., and
John12:32 – 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
If in verse 13, the Son of Man is the revealer, the one who came down from heaven, here he is the sufferer and the exalted one–but it transpires that it is precisely in the matrix of suffering and exaltation that God most clearly reveals himself in the person of his Son. The theological connection between resurrection and exaltation is not infrequent in the New Testament as wriiten in
Acts 2:32–33; 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. 33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.
Rom. 8:34; 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
Eph. 1:20; 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,
Col. 3:1; If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
1 Pet. 1:21- 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
John goes further and theologically ties together the crucifixion, the resurrection and the exaltation. Nicodemus, of course, could not have been expected to grasp both of these connections at the time. However, the first one should have been clear. Nicodemus was challenged to turn to Jesus for new birth in the same way the ancient Israelites were commanded to turn to the bronze snake for new life. Only when Nicodemus saw Jesus on the cross, or perhaps only in still later reflection on the cross, would it become clear that the ‘lifting up’/exaltation of Jesus took place on a brutal block of wood on a forsaken site outside Jerusalem.
In the Fourth Gospel, these themes–the divine revelation, exaltation and the obedient suffering of the Son–constantly congregate around the title ‘the Son of Man’. He must be lifted up: God’s determined purpose, as in
Mk. 8:31- 31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.,
Mark 10:45 – 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
By his being lifted up, Jesus the Son of Man will be returned to the glory he once shared with his Father, while those who turn to him, as the Israelites turned to the bronze snake, will experience new birth.
• D.A.Carson, “The Gospel According to John” (Eedrmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI)