Nicodemus came to see Jesus under the cover of night. He was a leader of the Jews, so he couldn’t risk coming to see Jesus—their perceived enemy—during the day when other Jewish leaders might see him. Despite the railing of the other Jewish leaders, Nicodemus knew that Jesus was not the enemy of the Israelites because no one could do the things that Jesus did unless He was sent by God. However, Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus meant when He spoke of being born again, i.e., being born of water and the Spirit. To set him straight, Jesus went back to the first story of atonement (Numbers 21) and tells Nicodemus plainly, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”
After wandering around in the wilderness, the Israelites complained against God for delivering them from Egypt. So God sent fiery serpents to bite and kill them. Then the Israelites repented and ran to Moses for relief. Moses turned to God, and God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. If the Israelites were bit, they could look to the bronze serpent (“turn to God”) and live. It wasn’t the snake that saved them, but God. Turning to the serpent on the pole was “the way” God turned the Israelites away from their sin and toward him as their life. The very thing that killed them had now become life for them.
For us as Christians the movement is the same. Christ is the true Serpent, lifted high, drawing us to gaze upon him and live. Now we turn to God’s own Son on the cross, the Lamb of Calvary. We look to the cross—as bizarre a “symbol” for life as the bronze serpent on a pole the Israelites were told to look at to be saved —to “see” God where He has chosen to reveal Himself: through His Son hanging on the Tree for our sins (Gal 3.13; 2 Cor 5:21). No longer will Moses and the Law be perceived by man as the way to righteousness, “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3.6). Christ is our salvation and His gifts are the Holy Spirit, faith, love, hope, and eternal life. It is true, God sent His Son to save the world, not to condemn it. Strange as it seems, God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son on the cross, so that all who believe in Him would not perish but have eternal life (John 3.16).