Jesus and Snakes? Tracing the Path to John 3:16

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Jesus and snakes John 3:16

By Melissa McLaughlin

John 3:16

I was mesmerized. My eyes were glued to a closely matched, nail-biting game of college football, when all of a sudden, there he was. The camera scanned the cheering crowd and then zoomed in on the young man, his face and chest painted pitch-black, contrasted starkly by the carefully painted bright-red lettering which blazed across his upper chest with the scripture: “John 3:16”. His exuberant joy for the football game drew attention to his living faith-based placard. Looking back, I can only imagine the time, energy and cost he incurred for such an advertisement. What would make him go to such lengths?

We all know the famous Bible verse John 3:16For 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. NIV

We love this verse! Who wouldn’t want to wear it? It brings comfort, joy and peace knowing that belief in Jesus is all there is to it. Jesus did it all! We are guaranteed a place in heaven by believing in Jesus and confessing His name. Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the sacrificial Lamb of God, the Risen One, the soon and coming King. This is the good news of the gospel! Our perfect, holy, righteous and just God loved us, a sinful and rebellious people. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) Yet, because of that fierce love, God Himself initiated the only way possible to reconcile us back to Himself, through the sacrifice of His own perfect, holy Son on the cross. Of course, we desire to live for Jesus in every way out of gratitude, but our efforts do not earn us entry into heaven. That is a grace-gift made available by Jesus only. What love! What amazing love!

What comes before John 3:16?

Given the profound and life altering magnitude of John 3:16, have you ever wondered, what leads up John 3:16? It’s a strange couple of verses that precede John 3:16. Very strange indeed. To gain a more complete understanding of the context surrounding this passage, let’s back up a bit. Chapter three in the book of John begins with a Pharisee named Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night in order to ask questions regarding matters of faith. In this section Jesus explains to Nicodemus that he must be born again to enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus is unclear of Jesus’ point, so Jesus goes on to explain that as human beings, we have already been born physically, but to be a part of God’s heavenly family we must be born of “water and of Spirit.” According to The Life Application Study Bible, the “water” is referencing either natural birth or baptism in water, like that performed by John the Baptist. However, being “born of the Spirit”, is something more, being born anew by the Holy Spirit of God.

What Does it Mean to be Born Again?

As explained by C.S. Lewis, a sculptor may carve a breathtakingly beautiful and lifelike statue of a young boy that he adores for its grandeur and detail. However, if this same sculptor then gives birth to his own son, born of his own flesh and blood, how much more intensely would he love his own child. One created and formed by the work of his hands, the other born of him, coming from himself, embodying a part of himself. One created by him, the other born of him.

So, too, our Divine Artist and Heavenly Sculptor God, does indeed love each living human being, for all were formed by His hand and created in His image. We are each a small part of His magnificent creation. Because of this, we know that each person is loved deeply by God. However, we are not part of His family, truly we remain only part of His creation, unless we are born again of His Spirit, of Himself. In John 4, Jesus tells us that God is Spirit. So, to be born of God is to be born of His Spirit.

John 3:14-15 – Moses, Snakes and Jesus

Still Nicodemus was confused. Jesus points out that Nicodemus is a teacher of the things of God and surely he should understand such things.

To bring home his point, Jesus refers to a most mysterious Old Testament passage. In John 3:14-15 Jesus says, 14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

What in the world? How is that statement going to help bring clarity to Nicodemus’ searching mind? Moses lifting up a snake? What does this have to do with eternal life?

Tracing this Old Testament reference back to the time following the Exodus from Egypt, we see that despite a long stretch of God exhibiting His faithfulness and power, delivering His people, the Israelites, from Egypt and sustaining them in the wilderness with miraculous and daily provisions, His people were once again complaining to the Lord with great self-centered arrogance and disdain.

The story picks up here in Numbers 21:6-9:
6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 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.
8 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.” 9 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.

This account in Numbers 21 sounds even stranger than when Jesus referenced it in John 3! However, with a deeper look, the reader can discover there are many interlacing connections between Numbers 21:8-9 and John 3:14-15. As is so often the case, the Old Testament stories foreshadow New Testament events with staggering accuracy. This story is no exception.

The Antidote

In Numbers 21, the Israelite people were bitten by venomous snakes. The toxic venom that was now inside their bodies was representative of our sin. The Israelities had no external balm or medicine to swallow to eradicate this fatal poison. Likewise, there is no way to cure our sin-poisoned hearts using our own external efforts or human resources. No amount of self-help books will ever remedy the sin that is spread through every fiber of our being. Try as we might to clean ourselves up, our sin is a deadly sickness residing deep within. Similar to the Israelites who, at God’s command, looked up in faith at a God-planned solution to their internal illness, so only by looking up, away from our own efforts and believing in Jesus can our own sin-poisoning be eliminated. Jesus Himself is our antidote.

This extraordinary Old Testament story would have been immediately recognized by Nicodemus. We see by the end of the book of John in chapter 19, when Nicodemus tends to Jesus’ dead body following the crucifixion, that he must have understood at last the truth of Jesus’ message.

There is much to meditate upon here. How many Old Testament events provide a glimpse of New Testament realities and truths? Though I have been fascinated for some time by this deep and mysterious connection between Numbers 21:8-9 and John 3:14-15, one question lingered long for me.

The Symbol of a Snake

Why would God use the symbol of a snake to represent Jesus? Of course we know that from the very beginning in Genesis 3 the enemy of our soul, Satan, takes the form of a snake. We go on to read in 2 Corinthians 5:21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. After further examination, it seems fitting that Jesus should indeed be represented as a snake, taking all of our sin upon Himself, becoming that very sin, so that in exchange we could become His righteousness.

The Sacrifice of Christ

After multiple studies of the connections between Numbers 21 and John 3, I finally understood how much these verses were intricately interwoven. Consequently, I grew more profoundly impacted at the thought of Jesus, our Savior, sweet, perfect, holy Jesus, the One who knew no sin, our faultless sinless Savior…this same Jesus now laid down his absolute light to become the sickening blackness of our sin. I wept at the thought. It must have hurt Jesus to the core. Even more than the crown of thorns, even more than the 39 lashes, even more than the nails in His hands and feet, even more than the scornful mocking. To absorb the weight of such darkness of sin, my sin, your sin, the sin of all humanity. For one so pure to take in and feel the horror of such evil. Oh how it hurt. Our beautiful, precious, beloved Jesus, became a snake for us. Through His blood, sweat, tears and death He then reaches out and hands us His robe of righteousness to wear, so that all who believe in Him can meet the Father bearing His shining, clear, pure heart; standing before our Holy God as ones who are now cleansed, healed, redeemed and delivered. He became sin who knew no sin, so we could become His righteousness.

Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus!

Light for darkness. Life for death. Righteousness for sin. Glory for ashes. Jesus for us.

When I remember John 3:16, I now remember John 3:14-15, too. This helps me take in the fullness of joy, as well as the fullness of the sacrifice made. I adore Him all the more. I bow before Him all the more. I love Him all the more. I desire to be holy for Him all the more.

Yes, I still love John 3:16. But I invite you to join me in remembering John 3:14-15 as well, tracing the incredible, terrible, beautiful path to that most famous verse.

John 3:14-16 14 “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

16 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.

Elysburg 2013 003 (1)

*Stadium photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Additional Resources

The Son of Man Must Be Lifted Up Like the Serpent By John Piper

How Is Jesus Like a Snake? By Steven Cole

Making and Begetting from Book 4 of Mere Christianity By C.S. Lewis

What is Passover? How is Jesus the Passover Lamb? By Melissa McLaughlin

31 thoughts on “Jesus and Snakes? Tracing the Path to John 3:16”

  1. OH Melissa, thank you for opening my eyes further to see the trace of John 3:16. There is so much more I need to learn about the Old Testament. Trying to pace myself with Jesus. May He bless you today, sister.

    • Oh Michelle, thank you for kind word of encouragement! I went back and forth about that title. I know it may sound a little strange, but so did those verses until I was able to study, listen to teachings and understand better. Once I was able to grasp the deeper meaning ofJohn 3:14 and 15, then John 3:16 was more profound than ever before for me. I pray it is for others, as well. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment! Blessings!

  2. WOW! I have never heard a teaching on the before. This is SO good! The snake imagery and symbolism is powerful. I am going to have to meditate on this thought a bit. Very well done!

    • Praise God for His wonderful word and plan of redemption! It always captures my soul when the Old Testament and New Testament passages connect, reflect and echo like this one. As if God isn’t big or grand enough already, somehow it makes Him seem grander still. When I first heard a preacher teach this whole passage in John 3, I was amazed that I honestly had never even noticed John 3:14-15 before. It was something I sadly glossed over when reading the Bible. Once I heard it explained, I could never forget it. It is truly hard to take in the depths of what Jesus has done for us. But when we read John 3:14,15 and 16, we get a bigger picture. Forever grateful. Thank you for reading and commenting, Lisa!

  3. Such a beautiful and powerful AND interesting message, Melissa. I love how you fleshed out and researched the O.T. story to make sense of John 3. I like God referred to as Divine Artist and Heavenly Sculptor. Yes! And it made me weep too, to think of Jesus taking on our sin (poison) and how it must have hurt Him so deeply and to the core.

    I have a neat shirt I love to wear, It has John 3:16 in bold letters across the front, then blow that it reads, “True story.” 🙂

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and share your insights, Karen! God’s Word is so amazing! The more we dig in, the more there is to find. An unsearchable mine of treasures of His truth, love and grace. Your shirt is perfect. True story indeed. And the best story ever imagined! Bless you, Karen!

    • I agree, Jessie! Scripture correlations like this one remind me of light shine through another facet in a beautiful gem. Our pastor is always reminding us to let the Bible teach about the Bible, by looking up the scripture references and connections. This is an excellent example of his wisdom. Blessings to you as you read His Word!

  4. What a great illustration, Melissa, of Jesus, His sacrifice, and His love. To become sin on our behalf! I love how you wrapped this up with the image of Jesus becoming a snake, and how you mentioned we need to look away from our own selves and efforts. Truly there is much involved in John 3:16 that we might miss if we don’t read the whole chapter and the whole Bible.

    • Stephen, you nailed it! We miss out on the riches of God’s Word when we don’t read the whole chapter and the whole Bible. There are so many passages that illuminate others when we look up the corresponding references. Thank you for taking the time to read and share your feedback. May we be in awe again today of all that Jesus has done for us!

  5. Hello Melissa, thank you for that insight. I believe every word. For me, I love all of God’s beautiful creatures and I always had a problem with a snake representing satan. Now you show me that a snake represents our Savior! We can’t pin our sins on any animal. It’s us that sin! I know it’s me. Thank you Jesus!🙏

    • Hello Andrew, thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts here! The Bible is filled with amazing examples of how God loves us. By looking more carefully at John 3:14-15, we can see another way that He expressed that love. You are right, we are the ones that sinned and we can’t pin that on any animal. Incredibly Jesus traded His beautiful righteousness and purity for our sinfulness when He hung on the cross in our place. Yes, thank you, Jesus!

    • Thank you, Patrice, for taking the time to read and consider this Bible passage more carefully with me. Isn’t God’s Word amazing? And our precious Lord Jesus’ sacrifice for us incredible? Glory to God! May the Lord bless and keep you!


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