By S. Daniel Smith
You’ve seen it before. Usually it’s a pole with a snake wrapped around it on the side of an ambulance screaming down the road to save someone’s life. For decades in America, the snake on the pole has meant that people are coming to help. It’s that rescue that John 3:10-15 talks about so plainly.
Nicodemus’s encounter with Jesus can serve as a comparison between our Savior and a modern ambulance. Jesus brought a rescue that includes the chance for all humanity to find spiritual healing for their souls. John 3:10-15 gives us several points to consider in this restoration event. It includes the continuity of Scripture, a superseded representative, and a spiritual solution.
The Continuity of Scripture
One of the first things the modern reader sees in this passage is what theologians call continuity of Scripture. In John 3:14, 15, Jesus referenced an Old Testament story from Israel’s trip through the wilderness. The historical event he brought to light is from Numbers 21:4-9, wherein Israel had been punished for one of its many rebellions. The story details the punishment God’s people received for grumbling against their merciful protector and his servant, Moses. Yet God’s anger always leads to restoration. To carry out his rescue, God commanded Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live” (Numbers 21:8).
By alluding to this event as he explained his purpose for coming, Jesus showed the continuity of God’s redemptive story. This is brought starkly to bear with the comment, “So the Son of Man must be lifted up” (John 3:14). Nicodemus would have heard Jesus being lifted up as the continuation of God’s story started in the Jewish Scriptures, or Old Testament. We share that understanding today through the extension of the New Testament.
This continuity is important. If Jesus had come and established a new religion instead of restoration through the promises of the Jewish Scriptures, then we wouldn’t have the Christianity we have today. Paul wouldn’t have been able to reference the Jewish Scriptures in his letters, Hebrews wouldn’t have made sense (if it existed at all), and the entire salvation story would have had no foundation from which to build upon. As Paul wrote, “The Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God” (Romans 3:2).
Christians since then have been able to know that God planned restoration with humanity from the beginning. He gave us clues throughout the Old Testament like the snake on the pole in Numbers 21. Continuity of Scripture assures us that God intended Jesus to be the Savior of the world.
A Superseded Representative
In just a few short verses in John 10, Jesus gave two distinct ideas to consider. He began with the idea that he is a better representative than Moses and ends with the spiritual solution to our sin problem.
First Jesus shows how he superseded Moses as Israel’s representative and guide. He did so by being the actual sacrifice instead of merely providing for the sacrifice, as Moses did in the wilderness. Nicodemus had a hard time understanding this, and we would be remiss if we weren’t sympathetic toward him. We have the benefit of time and scholarship. The continuity of Scripture only makes sense in context. Here’s what I mean: In talking about Jesus’ sacrifice in terms of the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus not only drew a parallel between himself and the great prophet Moses, but also how much more perfect he is as a representative.
The reason is simple: Jesus is a better representative because he is the sacrifice, whereas Moses merely displayed the sacrifice God told him to build. As we know, by and large, the Israel of Jesus’ time rejected this claim. However we rejoice with the believers of long ago who didn’t reject Jesus. “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
Secondly Jesus showed Nicodemus the way to God by equating himself with the healing serpent in the wilderness. Nicodemus would have understood that the serpent represented God’s mercy to his people. In essence, Jesus told Nicodemus he was the fulfillment of that conduit of mercy from God.
Nicodemus, along with most of the Jewish faithful, were longing for the Messiah. It is at this point, however, that we must be careful about implanting our Christian understanding on the Jewish concept of Messiah. The basic idea of a return to Davidic prestige began almost as soon as Solomon died, but king after king, as well as multiple invasions, passed without result. It wasn’t until much later in the time of Isaiah and Jeremiah that the Messiah became a hope for the far future.
Like our ambulances today, God was undeniably rushing to the rescue through Jesus, but first he had to show people that he was indeed the promised one. In the case of Nicodemus, Jesus did it by equating himself with the lifted snake in the wilderness.
A Spiritual Solution
In keeping with the reference to the Old Testament, Jesus showed us the very depth of our sin. Israel showed that they were incapable of truly accepting mercy and grace by grumbling against God. Fast forward to Nicodemus, an obviously devout Jew of the Pharisaical tradition, who essentially grumbled through Jesus’ explanation of salvation in John 3:3-9. Jesus pointed very specifically at the serpent, which was God’s restoration to Israel. It was a restoration that had to come about because Israel had stopped believing in God for their salvation. Nicodemus would have done well to accept, without the constant questioning, Christ’s projection of himself as God’s ambulance.
We are like that too. God has provided his salvation through Jesus Christ, which Jesus spent a good portion of John 3 explaining. Unfortunately we often think there must be more, or we long for the supposed freedoms of our previous life, and we grumble. God, through this story, reminds us that we had to be saved from deep-rooted sin. Only by looking at the Son of Man lifted up on the cross could we have a chance of restoration.
What we do with that information shows the kind of believer we’re trying to become. Those who accept it with humility show they understand the depth of Christ’s sacrifice. Those who believe that there must be more, or that they can provide something in addition to or in lieu of the sacrifice, show that they lack acknowledgement of God’s mercy.
Finally, seeing how Nicodemus encountered Jesus gives us insight into how we might experience someone responding to Jesus today. How many of us, when talking to a friend or colleague about Christ, have been asked question after question without our audience understanding the answers given?
Like Nicodemus, we each have a decision to make when it comes to accepting Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan. We can accept him as the ambulance that restores us to a right relationship with God, or we can struggle and wrangle our way into more and more explanations. Let us be quick to choose the former!
S. Daniel Smith is a career Navy officer, husband, father, and blogger living in Jacksonville, Florida (sdanielsmith.com).