Last time I published an excerpt from The Better Covenant, by Ron Bailey. A few of my own thoughts now.
The famous John 3:16 quote must be read in context, as Ron Bailey emphasizes. Christ has just drawn attention to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, adding that “even so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whosever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:14,15).
That is the context of John 3:16. “For God so loved the world…” That is, it is thus, in this manner (referring back to the previous two verses), that God loved the world. Just as He gave the people in the wilderness the serpent on the pole, “He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
The people in the wilderness bitten by the fiery serpents were dying, and they knew it. Looking upon the brazen serpent on the pole was a matter of life and death. It wasn’t optional; there was no other remedy.
How desperately we need the kind of Gospel that in its going forth causes men to know the sting of death is at work in them. They have been bitten by a Serpent; the sting of his venom—sin—is coursing through their system. Eve, deceived by the Serpent, bit into the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; Adam subsequently bit into it as well—an act of deliberate disobedience—and ever since, all born in Adam have been “bitten” by the Serpent; they are infected with his own nature; the poison of sin and disobedience courses through our systems. We are dying; others we love are dying.
But there is a remedy.
The same Gospel that reveals the desperate state of all men also reveals there is a remedy—and no other remedy—looking upon, believing on, the Crucified One. To look upon the serpent on the pole is the antidote for the poisonous sting. We may not comprehend why this works any more than the people back there in the wilderness understood why looking at the brazen serpent on the pole suddenly caused the poison in their systems to stop its deadly working. But it is God’s directive; to believe is enough. In due course He will give the understanding—that when the Lord Jesus Christ was lifted up on the cross of Calvary He judged, condemned, the Serpent, and bore in Himself the judgment of the man bitten by that Serpent, and thus became his salvation. Those bitten ought to have died; He died instead.
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness even so must the Son of man be lifted up…” It’s hard for us to comprehend, and we don’t try to press beyond the boundaries of reverence and holiness. Christ likens Himself lifted up, crucified, to the serpent of brass on the pole. We find that likeness revolting; it doesn’t seem right; it’s horrible imagery—our beautiful Lord Jesus Christ being likened to a serpent. But it just shows you how far the love of God was prepared to go to save the creature He had ordained for His own image and likeness—and who had become contaminated with the serpent’s nature. If it’s imagery that we find repugnant, should we feel any less revulsion for sin?
In fact Paul tells us the Lord Jesus Christ became sin for us, He who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21).
Rotherham in his Emphasized Bible points out that in Hebrew the words for sin offering (he prefers sin bearer) and sin are the same (chattath); the words for guilt offering and guilt are also the same (asham)—“the victim being called by the name of the offence which it bears and for which it dies.” Here is the scenario. Someone brings his sin offering to the priest and puts his hands on the head of that offering, thus identifying himself with the sin offering, and transferring his sin to the sin bearer. The priest then leads it away to be slaughtered and sacrificed to God. “The ancient usage was intensely dramatic,” says Rotherham. “It led the offerer, as he viewed his substitute, to exclaim, ‘There goes—there dies—my sin.’”
Just as the Hebrew text uses chattah for both sin and sin offering, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) uses hamartias for both. The apostle Paul was very familiar with the Septuagint as well as the Hebrew text, so it is not surprising to see the same usage in his writings, which were originally in Greek. For, we read in Romans that God sent His Son “in the likeness of sinful (hamartias) flesh, and for sin (hamartias, that is, for a sin offering), condemned sin (hamartias) in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). Jesus Christ fulfilled that old-covenant type, becoming the sin offering who became our sin… and died. We too may well say—that is, we who look on Him—“There goes—there dies—my sin. Good-bye forever.”
This is the significance of believing in Him—on looking upon the serpent on the pole. This is what believing implies. Believing is not just mental assent to certain points of doctrine; it is looking upon Him and seeing Him, once for all, as the one and only remedy for a Serpent’s bite that means we are dying, are perishing.
Now, think of that ancient scenario in the wilderness as Ron Bailey described the Harold Copping print in his old Bible. The poisonous snakes are making their way through the camp of Israel biting everyone in their path. Some are dying; some are already dead. Everybody is in panic mode; all they can think about is the deadly snakes. They are not just listening to a nice sermon about accepting Jesus; they know they are dead if they don’t get help. How we need this kind of evangelism, this kind of preaching—the sharp sword of the Spirit that pierces all defence and confronts people with their true state! They have been bitten by a Serpent and they are dying!
But there must come a moment when we are no longer crying out because of the serpents that have bitten us. There is no profit in continually pointing to this person or that—my father’s temperament or my great-grandfather’s addiction, or something my co-worker said the other day or the sin that dwelleth in me… or whatever. That gets me nowhere. And further, there is no use continually dwelling on the poison that’s at work in my system as a result of the bite. Forever labouring under sin and guilt is futile. We must look away from all that! God has provided a remedy! And it works!
We must look to the Serpent upon the pole.
And we must lead others to look to the Serpent upon the pole. We must take them to Calvary where their sin (offering) died.
There’s often an emphasis on our need to see Jesus. It’s important; it’s true—we need so deeply to see Him. But what about our need to see Him as that Serpent lifted up on the pole? The gospel the Galatian churches received was so graphic that they saw Christ crucified before their very eyes (Gal. 3:1). Only the Holy Spirit can present this kind of gospel. Only ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit can reveal before the eyes of sinners the Saviour lifted up on the pole.
Only ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit can open blind eyes to see that He who died for their sins also rose from the dead that we might live.
I recall George Warnock telling a story of a woman blind in one eye who suddenly one day saw the Lord on the cross, and He was blind in one eye. Instantly she was healed. How we need to see Him… as our sin—your sin, my sin—judged and sentenced and condemned… and dead. What, do you suppose, would be the fruit of such seeing?
Spurgeon as a young man saw this lifted-up One. He was on his way to church when suddenly a rainstorm came up. He rushed into a little church nearby for shelter. The service was in progress, and Spurgeon sat down at the back to listen. The minister was preaching from Isaiah, “Look unto Me and be saved all ye ends of the earth, for I am God and none else” (Isa. 45:22). Suddenly the preacher looked steadfastly at the young man who had just come in and said to him (and it was a living word), “Young man, look… and live.” Spurgeon would tell the story often, and say, “I looked, and I lived.”
How deeply we need this kind of Gospel—the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth. Not the wishy-washy Gospel so common in our day, a gospel in word only, and often contaminated with gimmicks with no power to save. But the Gospel that, because it is infused with the power of the grace of Christ… men see Him lifted up on their behalf!