Why is Jesus compared to a snake in the book of John?

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John 3:14-15 says, “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.”

When trying to understand the Bible it is important to read the stories in context. Context simply means you should know what happens before and after the story and what is happening during that time in history to the people who are writing the story and the people who the story is being written to.

Or, as Rob Green from biblicalcounselingcoalition.org says “’Scripture interprets Scripture.’ That means that reading the Bible helps you read the Bible. The Bible is such an interconnected story that reading one part will make you think of another part. When you see how the parts fit, the story becomes even more amazing.” 

This verse is specifically talking about a time Moses lifted up a snake in the wilderness, so to understand what it is comparing Jesus to, you will have to read that story.

Numbers 21:4-9 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

When I first heard this story I remember thinking, can’t people just look at the snake and see if it works? What’s the big deal? Why is it hard to look at a snake?

But, the reality is that there were about six hundred thousand men in the Israelite camp plus women and children. So, if we guess that there was at least one women and child for every man, that puts us at 1 million 8 hundred thousand people!

To give you an idea of how big of a space that many people would take up, the cities of Scottsbluff and Gering combined only have a total of 45,330 people. So, the Israelite camp would have taken up around 40 times more space than Scottsbluff and Gering does, combined.

Phoenix, Arizona has about 1 million 600 hundred people and it takes up about 517.6 square miles.

While these numbers aren’t exact we can know that the Israelite camp was HUGE and that’s without combining all the space their cattle would have needed as well.  

So, if you were bitten by a snake, chances are you had to travel pretty far in order to be able to look at the snake which Moses had lifted up on a pole.

Now, if you’ve ever been taught about what to do when bitten by a venomous snake, you know that you aren’t supposed to move very much because you want to keep your blood pressure slow until you can get cured. And back in Moses’ day, most of those people probably traveled primarily by walking, even if they had a horse to ride, anyone who has ridden a horse can tell you that takes energy and muscle strength also.

What I’m trying to point out is that when an Israelite got bitten by a venomous snake, they had a choice. They could do what the world says is best medically and move as little as possible while one of their doctors did their best to save them, or they could take off running on foot or on a horse to try to get to the snake Moses lifted up. It would definitely take a strong faith in God and a belief that God always keeps his promises in order for a person to take off running after getting bitten by a venomous snake.

Now, just a quick reminder that John 3:14-15 says, “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.”

Just like how the Israelites had a choice to do what the world told them to do or to have faith in God and do what God told them to do; people have a choice to try to get to Heaven the way the world tells them, by being a good enough person, or they can trust that God keeps his promises and know that everyone who believes Jesus paid for their sins on the cross will go to Heaven to be with God.

Okay, so we can see that the snake is just being used as an example of what it means to have faith in something to save you. Israelites who had been poisoned had to have faith that God would keep His promise to heal them if they looked at the snake Moses had lifted up. And we have to have faith that God will keep His promise that we will have eternal life if we believe that Jesus is the cure for the consequences of our sins.

Now, what does this mean for us today?

Is it okay for us to get medical help if we are bitten by a venomous snake? Yes you should go to the emergency room if you get bitten by a venomous snake.

The situation where looking at Moses’ snake on a staff to be healed, was only meant for the Israelites in that camp at that time, it does not apply to us now. All this story does for us now is to remind us that God always keeps His promises and that it is by faith that we receive forgiveness for our sins and get to go to Heaven.

After all, if you read the context around John 3:14-15 you get John 3:16-18 next, and all together they say the following:

John 3:14-18 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. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

Just like Moses and the Israelites in the desert we can know for sure that if God says something will happen, it will happen, no matter what. Because God is not a liar and He always keeps His promises

(Amanda Hovseth/Blanco is an announcer for KCMI Radio. You can hear her live on Mondays and Wednesdays from 1:30-6pm and on Saturday mornings from 8:30 to 9:35)