CLAIM: John writes, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (Jn. 3:14-15). Why does Jesus claim that the story of the brazen (Num. 21:4-9) serpent prefigures his death on the Cross?
RESPONSE: This story prefigures Jesus for a number of reasons:
First, in both events, people are dying because of their sin. The Israelites sinned against God, and they were bitten by poisonous snakes. In the same way, all humans are dying of sin.
Second, the elevated object was the symbol of their judgment. The snake was what killed the people in Israel, and the Cross was what judged people in Jesus’ time. These were both symbols of judgment. This makes this story a fitting analogy. Moreover, a serpent was an unclean animal in the Hebrew Bible. In the same way, the crucifixion was a damning and unclean act. Jesus was already preparing the Jewish people (Nicodemus included) for the fact that their salvation would come through the means of an unclean symbol—like the serpent (in the OT) or crucifixion (in the NT).
Third, the people didn’t have to perform works to save themselves. In both cases, all the people had to do was look to the snake (or the Cross) to be healed.