“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:13-16 ESV
What did it mean for the Israelites to look upon the serpent that was lifted up in the wilderness? What does it mean to believe in the Son of God? Jesus intentionally tied these two thoughts together even though most modern Bible translation place a new sub-header starting at verse 16. In fact, this entire dialogue stems from Nicodemus asking about how to be born again. (John 3: 1-4) Everything that follows down through verse 21 is Jesus’ response to that question and it is in this context in which Jesus makes the connection from the fiery bronze serpent on a staff being lifted up for the healing of the Israelites in Numbers 21 to the soon coming lifting up of the Son of Man for the salvation of those who would believe. This connection is known as an example of biblical typology - a foreshadowing Old Testament event used as a prophetic picture of something greater still to come. There are numerous examples of this throughout scripture but what makes this one especially poignant is that we would not have this particular connection without the direct attention drawn to it by Jesus, Himself. Clearly, Jesus wants us to see that Old Testament story as an example of what believing in Him means and, thereby, how we are “born again.”
In Numbers 21, the Israelites were doing what they often did during their 40 years in the desert, grumbling and complaining against Moses and God. It’s easy for us to criticize their foolish behavior; they had just witnessed the plagues of Egypt, they had been led by a pillar of smoke and a pillar of fire, the had physically walked through the parting of the Red Sea, witnessed the lighting on Mt. Sinai and heard the voice of God and countless other demonstrations of His power and authority and yet the still revert to complaining every time they don’t like the way things are going. Like I said, it’s easy to criticize them but how many times have you and I been the unworthy recipients of God’s favor and kindness only to return to fear and doubt when things don’t seem to make sense? The Israelites are prime examples of the human condition; they are not humanity at their worst, they are humanity at our most common and natural state. Don’t underestimate how many times Jesus refers to us, his followers, as sheep. As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool to his folly and, more often than we realize or care to admit, we are those fools.
So, the Israelites complain against God. Don’t let the mundane commonality of this sinful act lull your senses; this is a lazy man’s rebellion but rebellion nonetheless. All sin is an act of rebellion against God and we are traitors to the Kingdom of Heaven! This is why sin carries the death penalty. God’s just response to the sin of Israel was to send flaming serpents in their midst to bite them and cause them to die. Why serpents? Potentially as a callback to the fact that it was a serpent who introduced the thought of the first act of rebellion to humanity in the garden. Why were the serpents on fire? Probably to distinguish them as an act of God and not just any old snakes. (Think of the flaming swords guarding Eden, the burning bush that was not consumed, the tongues of fire at Pentecost.) The Israelites were receiving their wages for, once again, rebelling against God, so what did they do?
“And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.”
Numbers 21:7 ESV
So, what is repentance?
I know there are a good number of Christians who say that the only requirement for salvation is to believe in Jesus, as stated in John 3:16. I also know that there are many of committed followers of Christ who make the claim that we must repent and believe. (Mark 1:15, Acts 17:30) To repent is a dual action - it means to turn away from one thing while turning towards another. Christian repentance is to turn away from sin/rebellion and to turn towards Christ. So, is repentance necessary for salvation or is it just belief?
To believe is in Christ is more than just thinking that He existed. Remember, the connection that Jesus drew to the bronze serpent was to Himself being raised up on the cross as the perfect sacrificial atonement for our sins. That is what we believe about Him. But, that belief requires the understanding that I am a sinner and also that Jesus has paid the death penalty for my sin. This belief is a radical shift in theology or what we think about God. If sin is rebellion, then who is on the throne of our hearts and minds? Ourselves. If I believe that Jesus is who He claimed to be, then I know that I am wrong to sit in that throne and it is His rightful place of authority. When we are lost in sin, we do what seems right to us. We actually believe, to a certain degree, that we are right in doing whatever we want to do in that moment. We continue to do things our own way until the consequences of our actions begin to sprout and we are drowning in the wake of our sinful decisions.(Proverbs 14:12) To believe in Christ, it means that we see Him as our only means of salvation. We look upon Him to save us from death as the Israelites looked upon the brazen serpent, because He is our only hope. We cannot save ourselves, He can. We are wrong, He is right. This is what it means to believe.
Now, does this belief equate to immediate transformation into a sinless follower of Christ? No. For some, their salvation experience was a dramatic shift of every aspect of their lives like Zacchaeus and Paul, but even Paul described his internal conflict with sin as doing what he hates and not doing what he truly wants. Was Paul then an unbeliever or a backslidden Christian? No. Faith in Christ, or belief, is described as a seed which is planted and yields a hundredfold harvest. (Matthew 13:23) The process takes time and, often in the beginning, that process isn’t even visible to those around. Did the thief on the cross have any visible evidences of a transformed life. I would say, yes, but only if you know what you’re looking for.
“But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.””
Luke 23:40-42 ESV
He verbally expressed a fear of God, meaning He knew that God would judge them or that God was their true authority, not themselves. He also acknowledged that he was deserving of death and that Jesus was sinless. Then, he turned to Jesus and asked to be remembered by Him when He came into His kingdom. This isn’t a “remember me” like, “think about me sometimes after I’m gone.” This is an act of submission. He’s saying that Jesus will be the one rightfully judging him and is putting his hope, his faith, his belief in the only one who can save him from what he deserves. He didn’t have the opportunity to “go his way and sin no more,” like others in the gospel narrative, but the thief was surely repentant, believing and putting his trust in the only One who saves.