'No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.'
John 3:13-15 (NIV)
I live in a country (Australia) where one can find some of the most venomous snakes (and spiders) known to man. Even living in a suburban area like mine, there are occasional stories of snake sightings in local nature reserves or parklands. Needless to say, many in my country know about anti-venoms and how to get to hospital as quickly as possible after a snake bite. Which leads me to this passage: I have read this passage, and the accompanying reference passage in Numbers 21, many times without really stopping to think about the wonder of what the words truly mean. You see, the story Jesus refers to (found in Numbers 21:4-9) to make his main point, is one that goes against all modern thinking and medical knowledge.
In Numbers 21, the Israelites have again complained against God and then find themselves plagued by venomous snakes. When Moses is asked to intercede with God on their behalf, God tells Moses that he should put up a statue of a snake, and that anyone bitten by the snakes should look at the statue to live. How many Israelites do you think thought to themselves, "What? Look at a snake statue to be cured from a venomous snake bite? Is he crazy???" Yet Numbers records for us that those who were bitten and did look at the snake were saved, they lived. They were saved not because this was standard medical treatment for snake bites, but because God, in his grace, gave them this way to live. You could say that God was really making a point that He was the one who saved them; nothing they did helped them to live, except for looking to God in trust.
And so Jesus uses this story to make his point to Nicodemus in John chapter 3. Just as those who were bitten were saved by looking at the bronze snake that Moses raised up, so will we be saved and gain eternal life by looking to Jesus' death on the cross. Now if some Israelites thought that being saved from snake bite by looking at a statue was crazy, I know that there will be many who will think that Jesus' proclamation about eternal salvation is even crazier.
In our modern world of independence and "me", the idea that we need to trust in someone other than ourselves for salvation (that is, if they can get past the idea of the need for salvation) is an abhorrent and outdated one. But the Bible clearly states in many places that if we want to live, if we want to be saved from the poisonous bite of sin in our lives, we must trust in God's method of salvation. And God chose to save us through sending Jesus to take our punishment by dying on the cross and then showing his defeat of death by his resurrection. The idea may seem crazy, it may seem repugnant, or old-fashioned or weak, but if we want salvation from our sins and to enjoy eternity with God, looking to Jesus' death on the cross is the only way.