The Answer for Unbelief
“No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” (3:13–17)
Only someone who has been to heaven can truly know what it is like. Yet human beings, short of death, do not have the ability to visit heaven since they are confined to time and space. Thus Jesus said that no one has ascended into heaven (cf. Prov. 30:4) because it is humanly impossible to do so. John declared in the prologue to his gospel, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (1:18). “Not that anyone has seen the Father,” Jesus agreed, “except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father” (6:46). It may be noted that Lazarus was to return from the dead (11:23–24), and after the crucifixion of our Lord, the graves were opened and some saints returned (Matt. 27:52–53). These rare exceptions prove the rule. The other unique event was the visit of the apostle Paul to “the third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2).
The only one possessing true knowledge of heavenly reality is He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. God “in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:2). He is “the bread of God … which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world” (John 6:33; cf. 6:51). “I have come down from heaven,” He declared in John 6:38, “not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” In John 6:62 He asked, “What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before?” In John 8:42 Jesus said to His accusers, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me.” John prefaced his account of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet with the statement that Jesus “had come forth from God and was going back to God” (John 13:3). Later that same evening in the Upper Room Jesus told the disciples, “I came forth from the Father and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father” (John 16:28). In His High Priestly Prayer Jesus prayed, “Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was” (John 17:5). To the Corinthians Paul wrote, “The first man [Adam] is from the earth, earthy; [but] the second man [Jesus] is from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:47).
Beginning in verse 14, Jesus appealed to an Old Testament illustration to make His point, further emphasizing that there was no excuse for Nicodemus, an expert in the Scriptures, to be ignorant of the way of salvation. As a type of His sacrificial death on the cross, the Lord referred to an incident recorded in Numbers 21:5–9:
The people spoke against God and 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 miserable food.” The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.
The event took place during Israel’s forty years of wilderness wandering before entering the Promised Land. As a judgment upon the people’s incessant complaining, the Lord sent venomous snakes to infest their camp. In desperation, the Israelites begged Moses to intercede on their behalf. And Moses’ prayerful petition was answered with a display of divine grace, as God showed mercy to His rebellious people. He instructed Moses to make a bronze replica of a snake and raise it above the camp on a pole. Those who were bitten would be healed if they but looked at it, thereby acknowledging their guilt and expressing faith in God’s forgiveness and healing power.
The point of Jesus’ analogy was that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up (crucified; cf. 8:28; 12:32, 34). The term must emphasizes that Christ’s death was a necessary part of God’s plan of salvation (cf. Matt. 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; 17:25; 24:7, 26; Acts 2:23; 4:27–28; 17:3). He had to die as a substitute for sinners, because “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), and “without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). Therefore God, “being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us” (Eph. 2:4), “sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9–10). The stricken Israelites were cured by obediently looking apart from any works or righteousness of their own in hope and dependence on God’s word at the elevated bronze serpent. In the same way whoever looks in faith alone to the crucified Christ will be cured from sin’s deadly bite and will in Him have eternal life.
This is the first of fifteen references in John’s gospel to the important term eternal life. In its essence, eternal life is the believer’s participation in the blessed, everlasting life of Christ (cf. 1:4) through his or her union with Him (Rom. 5:21; 6:4, 11, 23; 1 Cor. 15:22; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:3–4; 2 Tim. 1:1, 10; Jude 21). Jesus defined eternal life in His High Priestly Prayer to the Father: “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). It is the life of the age to come (Eph. 2:6–7), and believers will most fully experience it in the perfect, unending glory and joy of heaven (Rom. 8:19–23, 29; 1 Cor. 15:49; Phil. 3:20–21; 1 John 3:2).
Verse 16 is undoubtedly the most familiar and beloved verse in all of Scripture. Yet its very familiarity can cause the profound truth it contains to be overlooked. God’s motive for giving “His indescribable gift” of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 9:15) was that He loved the evil, sinful world of fallen humanity. As noted earlier in this chapter, all humanity is utterly sinful, completely lost, and unable to save itself by any ceremony or effort. Thus, there was nothing in man that attracted God’s love. Rather He loved because He sovereignly determined to do so. The plan of salvation flowed from “the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind” (Titus 3:4). “God demonstrates His own love toward us,” wrote Paul to the Christians in Rome, “in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). John wrote in his first epistle, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.… We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:10, 19). Such love is so vast, wonderful, and incomprehensible that John, shunning all adjectives, could only write that God so loved the world that He gave His own Beloved Son (cf. 1 John 3:1). World is a nonspecific term for humanity in a general sense. The statement in verse 17, “that the world might be saved through Him,” proves that it does not mean everyone who has ever lived, since all will not be saved. Verse 16 clearly cannot be teaching universal salvation, since the context promises that unbelievers will perish in eternal judgment (vv. 16–18). Our Lord is saying that for all in the world there is only one Savior (1 John 2:2), but only those who are regenerated by the Spirit and who believe in His gospel will receive salvation and eternal life through Him. (For a more extensive discussion of this point, see my book The God Who Loves [Nashville: Word, 2001], especially pp. 99ff.)
Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:19 used the term world in a similar way: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not in the sense of universal salvation, but in the sense that the world has no other reconciler. That not all will believe and be reconciled is clear from the pleading in verse 20: “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (For a further discussion of those verses, see 2 Corinthians, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 2003]).
There are no words in human language that can adequately express the magnitude of God’s saving gift to the world. Even the apostle Paul refused to try, declaring that gift to be “indescribable” (2 Cor. 9:15). The Father gave His only begotten (unique; one of a kind; cf. the discussion of 1:14 in chapter 3 of this volume) Son—the One of whom He declared, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matt. 3:17; cf. 12:18; 17:5; 2 Peter 1:17); the One whom He “loves … and has given all things into His hand” (John 3:35; cf. 5:20; 15:9; 17:23, 26); the One whom He “highly exalted … and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:9); the One with whom He had enjoyed intimate fellowship from all eternity (John 1:1)—to die as a sacrifice on behalf of sinful men. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf,” wrote Paul, “so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). In his majestic prophecy of the Suffering Servant Isaiah declared,
He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him. (Isa. 53:5–6)
By “sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, [God] condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). To the Galatians Paul wrote, “when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). Just as the supreme proof of Abraham’s love for God was his willingness to sacrifice his son (cf. Gen. 22:12, 16–18), so also, but on a far grander scale, the Father’s offering of His only begotten Son was the supreme manifestation of His saving love for sinners.
God’s gracious gift of salvation is freely and only available (Rom. 5:15–16; 6:23; 1 John 5:11; cf. Isa. 55:1) to whoever believes in Christ (Luke 8:12; John 1:12; 3:36; 5:24; 6:40, 47; 8:24; 11:25–26; 12:46; 20:31; Acts 2:44; 4:4; 5:14; 9:42; 10:43; 13:39, 48; 16:31; 18:8; Rom. 3:21–22; 4:3–5; 10:4, 9–10; Gal. 2:16; 3:22; Phil. 1:29; 1 John 3:23; 5:1, 13). The free offer of the gospel is broad enough to encompass the vilest sinner (1 Tim. 1:15), yet narrow enough to exclude all who reject Christ (John 3:18). But to those who come to Him on His terms Jesus gave the marvelous promise, “The one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37).
The guarantee given to those who possess eternal life is that they will never perish. Genuine salvation can never be lost; true believers will be divinely preserved and will faithfully persevere (Matt. 10:22; 24:13; Luke 8:15; 1 Cor. 1:8; Heb. 3:6, 14; 10:39) because they are kept by God’s power (John 5:24; 6:37–40; 10:27–29; Rom. 5:9; 8:29–39; 1 Cor. 1:4–9; Eph. 4:30; Heb. 7:25; 1 Peter 1:4–5; Jude 24).
To perish is to receive God’s final and eternal judgment. It is true that God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world; Jesus Himself declared in John 12:47, “I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.” In Luke 19:10 He said, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost,” and Jesus made a similar statement in Luke 5:31–32: “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” God will judge those who reject His Son (cf. the discussion of v. 18 below); that judgment, however, was not the mission of the Son in His first coming, but the consequence of sinners rejecting Him (John 1:10–12; 5:24, 40).
Jesus’ statement in verse 17 also repudiated the popular belief that when Messiah came, he would judge the heathen and the Gentiles—but not the Jews. The prophet Amos had already warned against that foolish misinterpretation of the Day of the Lord:
Alas, you who are longing for the day of the Lord,
For what purpose will the day of the Lord be to you?
It will be darkness and not light;
As when a man flees from a lion
And a bear meets him,
Or goes home, leans his hand against the wall
And a snake bites him.
Will not the day of the Lord be darkness instead of light,
Even gloom with no brightness in it? (Amos 5:18–20)
The point of Jesus’ coming was not to redeem Israel and condemn the Gentiles, but that the world might be saved through Him. God’s gracious offer of salvation extended beyond Israel to all mankind. Once again, Nicodemus (and by extension the Jewish nation he represented) should have known that, for in the Abrahamic covenant God declared, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3; cf. 18:18; 22:18; Acts 3:25). Gentile salvation was always God’s purpose (Isa. 42:6–8; 55:1).
The Serpent in the Wilderness
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
There are many things that separate true Christianity from the other religions of this world, but the most important is that Christianity is not a “works” religion. All the other religions or systems of religion known to us through history or through anthropology have at their base some system of good works by which the follower of the religion earns merit. Christianity insists, on the contrary, that we cannot earn anything, that all that could possibly be done has already been done for us by the Lord Jesus Christ and that salvation is therefore entered, not by doing anything but by receiving God’s gift. Even the Christian life grows out of that initial and complete accomplishment by the Lord Jesus.
This truth is taught many places in Scripture. Paul wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). To Titus he wrote, “He saved us not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5). It is not surprising, therefore, as we come to the end of Christ’s words to Nicodemus about the new birth, to find another clear and forceful statement of this principle. Nicodemus had not understood about the new birth. He had not even been willing to acknowledge its effects in the lives of God’s children. Christ had chided him for that. Nevertheless, Jesus apparently seemed unwilling to terminate the conversation without pointing in some fashion to the basis of the salvation he was to bring. He therefore spoke of his death and the necessity for belief in himself by saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (vv. 14–15).
This is the first instance in John’s Gospel in which Jesus picked up an incident or practice of the Old Testament as foreshadowing some aspect of his earthly work.
Serpents of Death
If we are to understand what Jesus was saying, we need to go back to the strange story in the Old Testament to which he was referring. The story is told in Numbers 21:4–9.
The people of Israel had been traveling in the desert under the leadership of Moses, and they had recently traveled from the neighborhood of Mount Hor near the Red Sea to the borders of Edom. This is the area of the Near East in which Petra is located; it is some of the most inhospitable territory on earth, as I found out during a visit to Edom in 1961. The Bible tells us that “the people became impatient on the way” (Num. 21:4). As a result of their difficulties the people began to murmur against God and Moses, as they had done many times before, claiming that they had been led into the wilderness to die there and complaining of God’s treatment of them. Because of these complaints God sent fiery serpents among them. These bit the people, and many of the people died. The people came to Moses asking him to intercede between them and the Lord. When Moses did this, God commanded him to make a serpent out of bronze and to erect it on a pole in the midst of the Israelite camp. The heart of the story lies in God’s promise that everyone who had been bitten by the fiery serpents needed only to look to the brazen serpent on the pole to be cured.
It goes almost without saying that in itself the remedy proposed by God and enacted faithfully by Moses was absurd. In our day especially, with our knowledge of illness and of the cures effected by the various drugs and antibiotics available to us, we are aware that there was not the least bit of therapeutic value in the bronze serpent. At the best it could have been a warning to avoid the serpents. In such a situation we only begin to understand the story when we see it as a way of pointing the people’s faith back to God. We only understand it fully when we see it as intended to prefigure the raising up of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, by which sacrifice we are saved from sin.
Not of Works
The force of the story lies not merely in the obvious parallel to Christ’s death, as I have stated it, but in the implied comparison between what God commanded the people to do and all other methods that might have been imagined by the people to have had some value.
Think what those methods might have been. First, the people might have imagined that they could have made some medicines to offset the poison. Donald Grey Barnhouse, in God’s Remedy, has written well on this passage. “The brewing of potions and the making of salves would have given them all something to do and would have satisfied every natural instinct of the heart to work on behalf of its own cure. [But] there was nothing of the kind mentioned. They were to cease from human remedies and turn to a divine remedy. The fact that they were not told to make a human remedy is indicative of the greater fact that there is no human remedy for sin. Men have been bitten by the serpent of sin. How are they going to be cured of its bite? There is nothing but death awaiting them as a result of their wound unless God Himself shall furnish a remedy. Men rush around in the fury of human religions seeking a palliative for sin. They perform all sorts of rites, chastising the flesh, humbling the spirit. They undertake fasts and pilgrimages. Like the man in Israel’s camp who refused to look at the brazen serpent, but spent his time brewing concoctions for ameliorating his own conditions, they are carried off to spiritual death through the poison that is in their being. The man who trusts in religion instead of looking to Christ will be eternally lost.”
In the second place, the people who had been bitten by the serpents were not encouraged to follow any path of self-reformation. We might imagine them acknowledging to themselves that they had certainly gotten into a bad area of the country and had been exceptionally foolish in giving the serpents an opportunity to bite them. “Henceforth,” they might have said, “we shall be more careful. We shall see that this will never happen again.” Quite obviously, even if they had been able to do this there would still have been no cure. For the poison was in them, and those who had been bitten, died.
There is a verse in the Book of Ecclesiastes that tells us “God will call the past to account” (Eccl. 3:15). This means that even if you were to turn over a new leaf today and hereafter live in a way that was totally acceptable to God—which is, however, impossible—God would still be forced to require full payment for those violations of his law that you committed before your reformation.
You yourself think that way, you know. Suppose for a minute that you operate a small store. You have a customer who has not been paying his bill for some months and who comes to you saying, “Mr. So-and-So, I realize that I have been making a very grave mistake in the way I have been dealing with you. I have been buying on credit, and I have fallen quite head over heels in debt. I am reforming. Henceforth, I am going to pay cash for everything I buy.”
You are very glad to hear that, of course, and you say so. “I am very glad to hear that you are turning over a new leaf. When will you be able to make full payment on your old bill?”
“Oh, you don’t understand,” your customer answers. “I am going to pay cash from now on. Certainly you won’t hold that old unpaid account against me? I am turning over a new leaf.”
If that happened to you, no doubt you would reply and be correct in saying, “I am sorry, but I am unable to do business that way. If you pay your account, I shall be glad to continue doing business with you. But if you do not, there can be no sales. Business requires me to demand that which is past.” In the same way, God requires what is past. So no one will ever be cured from the effects of sin’s poison by any form of moral reformation.
In the third place, the people who were dying in the desert were not told to band together and fight the deadly serpents. Barnhouse again writes: “If the incident had been met after the fashion of our day, there would have been a rush to incorporate the Society for the Extermination of the Fiery Serpents, popularly known as SEFS; and there would have been badges for the coat lapel, cards for district workers, secretaries for organization branches, pledge cards, and mass rallies. There would have been a publication office and a weekly journal to tell of the progress of the work. There would have been photographs of heaps of serpents that had been killed by the faithful workers. The fact that the serpents had already infected their victims would have been played down, and the membership lists would have been pushed to the utmost.
“Let us accompany one of the zealous workers as he might take a pledge card into the tent of a stricken victim. The man had been bitten and the poison had already affected his limbs. He lies in feverish agony [for the phrase “fiery serpents” refers to the effects produced in the ones bitten, not in the color of the snakes], the glaze of death already coming to his eyes. The zealous member of the Society for the Extermination of Fiery Serpents tells him of all that has been done to combat the serpents, and urges the man to join—as a life member if possible (fee $10,000), a sustaining member (fee $1,000), contributing member (fee $25), or annual member (anything the organizer can get). The dying victim fumbles in his pocketbook for money and then takes a pen in hand. His fingers are held by the worker who helps him form his signature on the pledge and membership card, and the man signs in full—and dies.”
There are some who will think this fanciful and even a possible slander on worthwhile social work projects, but I am convinced that this is an accurate picture of much that passes for so-called humanitarian endeavors. I am not against works of social welfare. Today’s great social work programs sprang from Christian principles and in many cases were launched by committed believers. Nevertheless, the point of the parallel stands. Sin is not cured by social organization. By all means let us mop the fevered brow. Let us comfort the stricken patient. But let us also recognize that the cure of sin’s sting lies only in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the promises of God that accompany it.
Fourth, the people who had been bitten by the deadly serpents were not told to pray to the serpent on the pole. You must not misunderstand me here. Prayer is a good thing, but prayer is for believers only. Man cannot pray for his own salvation. Christ died for sinners. This salvation is to be believed. The Bible says, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (Rom. 10:9–10).
Finally, the people who had been bitten were not commanded to buy some relic of the serpent or possess some fragment of the pole upon which the serpent of bronze had been erected. The notion that salvation can come by relics is perhaps the most absurd and totally pagan idea ever associated with Christianity, and yet today there are millions who believe that they can come closer to heaven by adoring a piece of the cross or the bones of a saint. History should illuminate such folly. During the Middle Ages, those who traveled to the Holy Land were asked to bring back souvenirs of Christianity, just as a visitor to Europe or the Far East might be asked to bring back souvenirs today. The Arabs, who were good businessmen, quickly supplied the demand and did so well that it is said that the Middle Ages possessed enough particles of the true cross to build several cathedrals. Unfortunately the possession of such relics eventually gave way to worship and to the belief that a person could be saved by touching or possessing them.
It is interesting to note that the same thing happened with the bronze serpent erected by Moses until God had Hezekiah step in to destroy it. Someone apparently preserved the serpent, and it remained in Israel for hundreds of years, gaining more and more worshipers. At last, when he became king, Hezekiah “broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)” (2 Kings 18:4). The last word, as Barnhouse observes, is a sneer; for it might be translated correctly as “merely a piece of brass.” Thus does God speak of the supposed virtues of the relics of a ritualistic religion: piece of bone … dirty linen … rusty metal … stinking candles.
Resting on Christ
By this time, of course, you will have understood that the only thing required of the dying Israelites was that they should have believed God’s word about the serpent and have looked to it as he commanded them. In the same way, we are to look to Christ’s cross. We have been bitten by sin, as they were bitten. We are dying of sin, as they were dying. God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin that we might believe on him and not perish.
What does it mean to believe? Many years ago now, when John G. Paton first went out as a pioneer missionary to the New Hebrides islands, he found that the natives among whom he began to work had no way of writing their language. He began to learn it and in time began to work on a translation of the Bible for them. Soon he discovered that they had no word for “faith.” This was serious, of course, for a person can hardly translate the Bible without it. One day he went on a hunt with one of the natives. They shot a large deer in the course of the hunt, and tying its legs together and supporting it on a pole, laboriously trekked back down the mountain path to Paton’s home near the seashore. As they reached the veranda both men threw the deer down, and the native immediately flopped into one of the deck chairs that stood on the porch, exclaiming, “My, it is good to stretch yourself out here and rest.” Paton immediately jumped to his feet and recorded the phrase. In his final translation of the New Testament this was the word used to convey the idea of trust, faith, and belief.
“Stretch yourself out on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever stretches himself out on him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of man must be lifted up, that everyone who stretches himself out on him may have eternal life” (John 3:14, 15). Have you done that? Will you do it? If you will do it, turning away from any faith in yourself, your own good works, religion, your efforts at self-reformation, your prayers and relics, looking to the cross of Christ on which God dealt with sin and on the basis of which he promises new life to the sinner, then God will heal you. This is the heart of Christianity. God has provided salvation for you in Jesus Christ. Say, “I believe that, Lord. I trust the work of Jesus Christ for my salvation.”
14 Verses 14–15 draw on the account in Numbers 21 in which Moses at God’s command places a bronze snake on a pole so that the Israelites who were dying from a plague of venomous snakes might look at the bronze snake and live (Nu 21:4–9). “Just as Moses lifted up the snake,” so also must the Son of Man “be lifted up.” The Greek verb hypsoō (GK 5738) is regularly used throughout the NT in the figurative sense “to exalt” (e.g., Mt 23:12), but in all five occurrences in John’s gospel it refers to the lifting up of Jesus on the cross (cf. 8:28; 12:32, 34). Paradoxically, the crucifixion of Jesus is portrayed by John as a vital part of his exaltation. Speaking of his coming death, Jesus on a later occasion said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him” (13:31). What the secular mind would judge a humiliating defeat was from God’s viewpoint a display of divine glory. In God’s redemptive plan it was necessary (“the Son of Man must be lifted up”) that Jesus die as a sacrificial offering for the sins of humanity. On the basis of this one act, believers are privileged to enter into the eternal glory of their heavenly Father. In the account in Numbers, a bronze snake provided physical healing; in the lifting up of the Son of Man, spiritual healing replaces eternal death. As Hendriksen, 1:138, notes, “The Antitype far transcends the type.”
15 Verse 15 states the purpose for which the Son of Man was lifted up—so that all who believe “may have eternal life.” Eternal life is more than endless existence; it is sharing in the life of the Eternal One. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus defines eternal life as knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent (17:3). The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament ([Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998], 185) observes that “eternal life is the life of the age to come which is gained by faith, cannot be destroyed, and is a present possession of the one who believes.” John uses the verb pisteuō (“to believe,” GK 4409) ninety-eight times in his gospel, but only here is it followed by the preposition en (“in”) rather than eis (“into”). This suggests that “in him” should follow “eternal life” rather than the verb “believes.” The frequency of the verb corresponds with John’s stated intention in writing his gospel—“that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). That eternal life is a present possession of the believer (clearly taught elsewhere in the gospel; cf. 3:36; 5:24) is strengthened by the use of the present active subjunctive echē (“may have,” GK 2400).
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (pp. 112–117). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 220–225). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Mounce, R. H. (2007). John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, p. 398). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.