“Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 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? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:9-16)
Faith, or believing, is something we “do,” but it is not an act or effort that merits a reward. It is something we can do only when the Holy Spirit regenerates our hearts or souls. This work of the Holy Spirit is absolutely necessary for us to understand what really is the nature of saving faith.
Faith is not some ability that sinners engineer independently of God. On the contrary, Jesus said in John 3:3 that being regenerated (born again) by God was absolutely necessary in order to believe the gospel. Therefore, our faith in Christ is not only unmeritorious by its very nature and definition, but also by its very origin.
However, fallen human beings do not want to believe they are unfit for heaven, let alone unable to do anything about their lost and fallen condition. Dr. R. C. Sproul writes, “A person must be changed by God; the disposition of his heart, which by nature does not want to do God’s bidding, must be altered by God the Holy Spirit.”
Nicodemas is a prime example of the need for regeneration. For even though he was a religious leader in Israel, he failed to humanly grasp the significance of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus was not just another Old Testament prophet who had died and gone to heaven and now returned to earth. Rather, Jesus is the One, True God who descended from heaven.
Jesus, in referring to Himself, then instructs Nicodemas that as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, so too would the Son of Man be lifted up. Dr. John MacArthur explains, “This is a veiled prediction of Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus referred to the story from Numbers 21:5–9 where the Israelite people who looked at the serpent lifted up by Moses were healed. The point of this illustration or analogy is in the “lifted up.” Just as Moses lifted up the snake on the pole so that all who looked upon it might live physically, those who look to Christ, who was “lifted up” on the cross, will live spiritually and eternally.”
There is an interesting side note of this reference by Jesus to the Bronze Serpent of Numbers 21. While the bronze figurine was indeed approved by God, it was not meant to be used beyond what God had instructed. In other words, it was not to be used as an object of worship.
However, this is exactly what the Israelite’s eventually did, as revealed in 2 Kings 18. It was King Hezekiah who, according to 18:4, “removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).”
Dr. R. C. Sproul explains, “Originally preserved to commemorate God’s mercy to the Israelites when they were in the wilderness, (Numbers 21:6-9), this bronze serpent eventually became in itself an object of worship, hence an idol. This is why Hezekiah destroyed it.”
Pastor Timothy Clothier writes, “We’re not given any more details regarding the Bronze Serpent. We don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to keep around. We don’t know if every year the nation would again look upon the serpent and remember what God did in saving them. We don’t even know whether God told them to keep the Bronze Serpent as a reminder. What we do know, however, is that the nation of Israel quickly moved from true, faith based, worship of God Almighty to the ritual, or traditional, worship of a graven image. ”
Pastor Clothier continues, “Am I suggesting that traditions in the church and our homes are idols and examples of us breaking the 2nd commandment? Not necessarily. What I am suggesting is that traditions can become the object of worship and we can, sometimes very easily, lose the point of why a tradition exists. It is entirely possible to greatly enjoy the tradition and completely set aside or forget the truths that the tradition represents.”
Therefore, we must also never use the cross, or a depiction of the same, as an object of our worship. God and God alone is deserving of our adoration and praise. The purpose of such an illustration concerning Jesus is foretold by Jesus Himself when He says, “whoever believes in him (Jesus) may have eternal life.” The Bronze Serpent, much like the cross, serves as a type or illustration to point us to Christ and His substitutionary atonement. Nothing else.
Once again, we must not divorce what we are reading in vs. 9-15 from vs. 1-8. The ability to believe the gospel is because of the new birth. Unless regeneration occurs in the soul of the unbeliever, they will never come to faith in Christ.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (I Corinthians 2:14). Or, to again quote Jesus from John 6:63, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”
The inevitable push back by many believers to this doctrine of monergistic regeneration ironically is John 3:16. We will examine the reasons why next time.
Have you thanked God for sovereignly bringing you to new life in Jesus Christ by the person and work of the Holy Spirit? If not, do so today.
Soli deo Gloria!