“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)

John 3:16 is one of the most cited scriptures in the bible. We see it on banners and signs at sporting events, the attempt of some person or group to preach the gospel. I wonder how effective it has been? I wonder if the majority of those who see it know what it signifies, let alone what it means or try to find out the meaning. We cherish that verse as the essence of the gospel, as the quintessential expression of God’s love in Christ. It is vital that all who dwell in this violent and chaotic world know that loves and values each one of us. But it needs to be read in context. That context emphasizes the other side of the coin: God’s judgement.

Jesus made this statement about salvation following his reference to the serpent in the wilderness. In that incident, people were dying because they had rejected God. But God provided healing in the form of a bronze serpent. Therefore the very thing that caused death became a symbol of life that was efficacious only for those who had faith in God’s command through Moses to look and be healed.

The bronze serpent lifted up is a “type” for Christ. He was lifted up on the cross and became sin for us. What was deadly brought life. All who look to His cross in faith as the only source of salvation are saved from eternal death. Those who refuse to look at the cross because they insist they know better or think that looking at a man crucified in despicable shame is foolish or unscientific and cannot possibly make a difference to them will suffer eternal death, eternal separation from God. Better to look by faith and live than despise the cross and lose out on the love of God.