And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:…
Nicodemus's confession of faith was substantially that of many amongst us, only he went a bit further. Because he was honest he deserved, and because he was half blind he needed, Christ's instruction for the expanding of his creed. Complete Christianity, according to Christ, involves —
(1) A radical change comparable to birth. When Nicodemus staggers at this, our Lord(2) unveils what makes it possible — the Incarnation of the Son of Man who came down from heaven. But a Christianity that stops at the Incarnation is incomplete, so our Lord(3) speaks of the end of incarnation and ground of the possibility of being born again.
I. THE PROFOUND PARADOXICAL PARALLEL BETWEEN THE IMAGE OF THE POISONER AND THE LIVING HEALER. The correspondence between the lifting up of the serpent and the lifting up of Christ, the look of the half-dead Israelite and the look of faith, the healing in both cases, are clear; and with these it would be strange were there no correspondence between the two subjects. We admit that Jesus Christ has come in the likeness of the victims of the poison, "made in the likeness of sinful flesh," without sin; but in a very profound sense He stood also as representative of the cause of the evil. "God hath made Him to be sin for us," etc. And the brazen image in the likeness of the poisonous creature, and yet with no poison in it, reminds us that on Christ were heaped the evils that tempt humanity. And Paul, speaking of the consequences of Christ's death, says that "He spoiled principalities and powers, and made a show of them openly" — hanging them up there — "triumphing over them in it." Just as that brazen image was hung up as a proof that the venomous power of living serpents was overcome, so in the death of Christ sin is crucified and death done to death.
II. THE SHADOW OF THE CROSS.
1. The serpent was lifted for conspicuousness; and Nicodemus must have understood, although vaguely, that this Son of Man was to be presented not to a handful of people in an obscure corner, but to the whole world, as the Healer.
2. But Christ's prescient eye and foreboding heart travelled, onwards to the cross. This is proved from the two other occasions, when He used the same expression.
3. So from the beginning Christ's programme was death. He did not begin as most teachers, full of enthusiastic dreams, and then, as the illusions disappeared, face the facts of rejection and death.
4. Notice, too, the place in Christ's work which the cross assumed to Him. There have been many answering to Nicodemus's conception — teachers, examples, righteous men, reformers; but all these have worked by their lives: "this Man comes to work by His death. He came to heal, and you will not get the poison out of men by exhortations, philosophies, moralities, social reforms. Poison cannot be treated by surface applications, but by the cross.
5. The Divine necessity which Christ accepts — "must." This was often on His lips. Why?
(1) Because His whole life was one long act of obedience to the Divine Will.
(2) Because His whole life was one long act of compassion for His brethren.
III. THE LOOK OF FAITH. The dying Israelite had to look. Suppose he had looked unbelieving, carelessly, scoffingly, there would have been no healing. The look was required as the expression of(1) the consciousness of burning death;
(2) the confidence that it could be taken away because God had said so.
(3) The conviction of the hopelessness of cure in any other way.
IV. THE PROMISE OF HEALING.
1. In the one ease of the body, in the other case of the soul.
2. The gift of life — something bestowed, not evolved.
3. This eternal life is present, and by its power arrests the process of poisoning, and heals the whole nature.
4. It is available for the most desperate cases. Christianity knows nothing of hopeless men.
(A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: