Because Jesus has seen heavenly things and has come to speak of them to us, we have good warrant to believe Him. Not only that, but we must believe Him, for He brings us the very message of heaven itself (John 3:9–13). Today’s passage expands on this point, giving us the central element of this heavenly message that makes the difference between eternal life and eternal death.
Our Lord refers to the story of Israel’s judgment in the wilderness as recorded in Numbers 21:4–9 to set up His message. In this episode, the Israelites again were complaining to God about their conditions even though He had graciously saved them from slavery in Egypt. To punish them for their grumbling, God sent a plague of fiery serpents. When the people began dying from the venomous snakes, they called out for relief, and the Lord had Moses craft a bronze serpent and hoist it on a pole. The Israelites who had been bitten by the snakes were healed if they looked upon the bronze serpent, but those who would not follow the command to look on the bronze serpent died.
Jesus says that in a similar way, He will be lifted up and that those who look upon Him in faith will live. But how is Jesus lifted up? The Greek verb translated in John 3:14 as “lifted up” appears in John’s gospel also in 8:28; 12:32; and 12:34. In each of these instances, the reference is to Jesus’ being lifted up on the cross, so when Jesus speaks of His being lifted up, He is speaking of His crucifixion, of His atoning death on the cross of Calvary. It is also notable that the same Greek verb can refer to the exaltation of a person, and in John’s gospel, the crucifixion is tied closely to our Savior’s exaltation. For Jesus to be lifted up is for Him to die for sin, but that death cannot be separated from the resurrection and exaltation that validate God’s acceptance of Jesus’ death as atonement and grant Him the authority to save all who come to Him in faith. Jesus’ message is very simple: He has come to earth to die and be raised, and all who believe on Him will receive eternal life. As Augustine of Hippo comments in a sermon on today’s passage, “Just as they who looked on that serpent perished not by the serpent’s bites, so they who look in faith on Christ’s death are healed from the bites of sins.”
In summary, then, we must be born again to have eternal life. But not only that, we must also believe in Jesus. And we know that all who are born again will not fail to trust in Christ (John 6:44).