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. (John 3:14-15, NIV)
In his discussion with Nicodemus, Jesus says that he himself must be lifted up, just as Moses lifted up the snake. Obviously, Jesus refers to his future crucifixion, as part of his returning to his heavenly father (cf. John 12:32-33). Just as the Israelites were saved by gazing at the bronze snake made by Moses, we can only receive eternal life by looking at the crucified Christ. In both cases salvation is linked to an act of faith. Gazing at a snake does not seem to be very promising, neither does fixing your eyes on somebody who is about to die on a cross. (Note that only criminals were executed by crucifixion.) Yet this is the only way to life.
Why did God order the Israelites to look at a bronze snake in order to be saved? Since the text (Numbers 21:8-9) does not provide any explanation, interpreters grope in the dark. It should be noted, however, that those who had to look at the bronze snake had already been bitten by one of the fiery snakes. By looking at the bronze snake they were constantly reminded of the frightful animals that had attacked them. They were not allowed to look away from the consequences of their sins.
Evidently, Jesus on the cross is not a snake. He does not bite. On the contrary, by dying on the cross he beats the old snake, which had menaced humankind from the beginning! Yet looking at Jesus dying on the cross is anything but a pleasant view. It is just as horrible as gazing at a snake. It is frightening, more specifically because it reminds me of the fact that his suffering should have been mine.
Shortly, we will celebrate Good Friday and Easter. What makes these feasts so special is that they do not give us a happy feeling by inducing us to look away from the reality of our lives. What we celebrate is God’s real solution to our real problems. By faith in Jesus Christ he gives eternal life to those who had deserved to die and who know it.
Gert Kwakkel Professor of Old Testament, Faculté Jean Calvin, Theologische Universiteit Kampen Member of the Executive Committee of the Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians