Look to the Son of Man who was lifted up

Please read Numbers 21: 4-9 and John 3: 14-21, and then pray; Almighty God, as Holy Week approaches, teach and instil in me the eternal significance of the lifting up of your Son upon the cross, and of his supreme exaltation through His glorious resurrection and ascension. Amen!

 Every time I find myself reading the book of Numbers in the OT, I am reminded of the teenage Christian boy who point blank refused to read it. When asked why by his Minister, the boy replied: “It’s because I hate Maths and I am no good when it comes to Numbers!” Well, the boy need not have worried because Numbers is not concerned with Mathematics, but with important censuses and wilderness wanderings. I too failed miserably at Maths. I found the subject a bit of a dry and barren wilderness and my mind constantly wandered during lessons.

There is of course a natural and obvious link between the book of Numbers and the season of Lent. The connection comes through the number 40. The rebellious Israelites spent 40 years engaged in wilderness wanderings under the leadership of Moses. Jesus spent 40 days and nights in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. But whereas the Israelites were plagued by fear and failure, Jesus was marked out by his courage and victory. There is another connection between the book of Numbers and the life and death of Jesus, and it is to this connection we now turn our attention. It is Jesus himself who makes the connection between a major incident recorded in Numbers and the main purpose of his life and mission – which is – the lifting up of the Son of Man.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15)

 Our thinking must start in Numbers, but it will go on to focus primarily on the lifting up of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:15-16) When we consider the Israelite’s wanderings in the wilderness, we see that they were regularly guilty of taking two steps backwards after taking one step forward. Their progress was slow to say the least. In the incident we are considering today – they took at least three steps backwards. We are informed about the frustration and the impatience of the people. They had a particular issue about what God had placed on the menu – and we are told that they spoke against the leadership of Moses and the overall leadership of God. (5) When the writer uses that phrase “spoke against,” there is contained within it a deep-seated anger combined and wrapped up in a strong disrespectful tone. This comes through especially when they declare their contempt for the food provided by God’s hand. And we detest this miserable food! Detest is a very strong word and to detest God’s gracious provision was a grave transgression. The Israelites, or at least these very vocal ones, crossed a red line! They spat in the face of God’s goodness, in the same way in which mocking soldiers would spit in the face of Jesus before crucifying him.

Our words reveal what is really contained within our hearts – what our hearts are genuinely filled with. Our words reveal the true state of our character. Our words, and how we express them, are a great indicator of the true nature of our entire personal comport. What dwells within us? What controls our hearts? Light or darkness? Jesus taught that “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” (Matthew 12: 34-35) These vocal Israelites revealed their contempt for Moses and even for God. They reached a new all-time low!

God responded – and responded with strong discipline. He punished the wickedness which poured out of these polluted hearts. The text states plainly that “the Lord sent snakes” to do their worse amongst the people, and consequently many were bitten and died. God is always patient with rebellious fools, but at some point, God may step in and put an abrupt halt to bare-faced wickedness and monstrous ingratitude. The Lord does so on this occasion. God will not allow this rebellion to go any further and these cancerous attitudes to spread wider. It is important to remember that God has every right to discipline his own children. People complain when God steps in to judge evil because they claim that this not nice – as if God is meant to be “nice.” The same people complain when God does not step in to judge evil. Why isn’t God doing something about this? God must not care! But God disciplines those he loves and those whose behaviour is evil when He wants to. He is God – not us! God has exercised discipline and judgement on some notable occasions in the past. (Hebrews 12: 5-11) Be sure of this – a day is coming when all evil, including all sinful speech will be judged righteously and justly by God, and who will be able to stand then? (Matthew 12: 36-37, Hebrews 4:13)

As well as noting the strong discipline of God, which should cause us all to walk carefully in the fear of the Lord, we should also note how quick God is to forgive, heal and restore once the people humble themselves and repent. (7-9) If bitten, obey God by looking up at the bronze snake which is attached to a long pole – and live!

It is worth taking a moment or two just to dwell on the importance of our language and how we choose to use our tongues. Even a cursory study of the bible reveals how important God deems our use of language and how the Lord hates and condemns all forms of lying, slander, gossip, backbiting, filthy, arrogant, and boastful speech, and of course blasphemy. Some of the severest condemnations in the bible are aimed at those whose speech is filled with lies and bitterness. Many parts of the bible could be referred to, including the book of Proverbs, but in the NT, the highly practical book of James speaks frankly about the correct and incorrect use of our tongues. (Read James 3: 1-12)

 Notice how James concludes his primary point in verse 8, by stating that the tongue is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Perhaps it was for this reason that God decided to send snakes to punish his people in the wilderness. Poison to discipline that which was poisonous – horrible words spoken against God and against Moses – and spreading like a gangrene among the whole people.

How important it is for us, by the power and control of the Spirit, and through the grace of Christ, to keep our tongues in check. Everything we say matters in God’s eyes. God hears and notes every word which our tongues utter, and the way those words are expressed to others. This is why Jesus states the following in his teaching on the tongue;

But I tell you that men will have to give an account on the day of judgement for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words, you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12: 36-37)

How important today (Mothering Sunday) to be reminded that the way we speak to the children we know and come into regular contact with is extremely important. The way a mother or a father speaks to their little one who is a gift from God is of the utmost importance to their child’s wellbeing, confidence, and growth. The way children are verbally encouraged, taught, nurtured, praised, and corrected through carefully chosen words, and the way those words are expressed is very significant. Hopefully our words shared with children are always expressed with tenderness, concern, patient love and care. How often have some of the children of our nation been battered, bruised, wounded, and crushed because careless unthinking adults used words in a destructive manner?

I ask you all today, – mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, all adults, to speak with love and care to all children and young people. This is our Christian responsibility, duty and calling. We all have a wonderful opportunity to build up and encourage children. We should never tear down or humiliate a child or any other person with hostile words. Instead, we should always aspire to speak positively, truthfully, and lovingly, and with respect for all people including children.

May God grant us the grace to do this. And please pray that children are protected from the poison that is spewed out through social media in this evil, thoughtless and careless age. Such poison all falls under the righteous judgement of God. I thank God for my mother and father who spoke to me in the caring way that they did throughout their earthly lives. They were not perfect – but they were used of God to bring up their sons in the right way. Have you reason, as I have, to thank God today for your upbringing? Do we not urgently need to pray for all mothers and fathers and grandparents as they influence children through their words and examples? Can we use words wisely and sensitively in the community of our Church to build up and not to tear down? Can our conversations be full of God’s grace and seasoned with salt? (Colossians 4:6) Listen to the Psalmist and make this your prayer also;

Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips. (Psalm 141:3)

There was a time early in Jesus’s ministry when he felt led to directly refer to this story in Numbers in which Moses had made a bronze serpent and stuck in on a long pole according to a word of command from God, and in response to his prayer for the suffering Israelites. What the people were commanded to do if they were bitten by a venomous snake, Jesus encourages the world to do if it wishes to experience and know eternal life.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3: 15-16)

 God graciously gave the Israelites a means of healing – a means of recovery – a means of being saved from death through poison. If they were bitten by a deadly snake, all they had to do, was to look up at the bronze snake attached to the pole. Look at the snake – and they would live. They would not perish. This was God’s solemn promise and guarantee. Obey this word and you shall live!

Jesus, using the same idea, teaches that those who look up to the “lifted up” Son of Man (Himself) and believe that He died for them, will not die but live – infact they will live forever. This is, without doubt, the most central and fundamental teaching of the bible. Place all your personal trust (belief) in the Son of Man who died by being lifted-up on a cross, and you will experience eternal life. This eternal life begins right now on earth as you are “born again” and brought into the Kingdom of God. (John 3:3 & 5) This was Jesus’s message to Nicodemus who he was in conversation with. This is the life that never dies because as Jesus will later explain – He and He alone is the Resurrection and the Life. (John 11:25)

I must, as a preacher of this gospel, stress to all who are listening to (or reading) these words today – that placing your trust in Jesus is the way to experience eternal life. Have you done that? Secondly – it is so important to understand that this is the only way of salvation according to the teaching of the bible. When God provided the Israelites in the wilderness with a way to be healed and a way to be saved from the effects of the poison – we must note – that the Lord God only provided one way – one option. There were not several options. It was simply this way – look at the bronze snake and live. Likewise, with us now, God has provided only one means of salvation – one means of saving grace and entrance into eternal life. The way into God’s Kingdom is through placing your entire faith and trust in the One who was lifted-up for you and your sin. There is not another way or another option. Looking to the Son of Man who is also Son of God is essential – otherwise we perish in our sins. Jesus is God’s gift of salvation and the only mediator between us and God. (1 Timothy 2: 5-7)

Jesus later reveals in this gospel; “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Except through me. Unless we look to the Son of Man who was lifted-up – we will perish. This went on to be standard apostolic preaching. Peter preached to his pluralistic society using these words;

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

 I realise that this type of preaching and teaching is not politically correct – but the bible is not the slightest bit interested in political correctness – it is only interested in truth – and Jesus is the truth. (John 14:6) Why is Jesus the only means of salvation? What makes him fundamentally different and totally unique and essential for our salvation and our hope of eternal life? Well, we have some answers to that very question here in this crucial teaching in John 3.

Firstly, as emphasised here, and so many other places in this gospel, Jesus is the only One who has come from heaven. In v 13, Jesus states; No one has ever gone into heaven except the One who came from heaven – the Son of Man. Jesus left the glory of heaven to come and live among us and die for us. (Philippians 2: 6-9) As the Prologue to this gospel of John makes crystal clear; The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. Jesus is the eternal Son of God, revealed also as Son of Man, who came from the Father – from heaven itself. As the songwriter Graham Kendrick puts it; From heaven you came helpless babe – entered our world – your glory veiled. No one else has done this. Jesus is heavens only response and answer to the plight of the world. He is the heaven-sent answer!

Secondly, only Jesus has been revealed as the Messiah of God and as the promised Son of Man. You will notice in the NT that the messianic title “Son of Man” is freely ascribed to Jesus numerous times, and it is in fact Jesus’ favourite self-designation. Jesus refers to himself as Son of Man several times in John 3. He claimed to be the Son of Man – as described in the book of Daniel. (Daniel 7:13) In fact, his claim to be the Son of Man led him to be condemned and killed. Here are words from his sham trial.

Again, the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14: 61-62)

 Jesus spoke the truth. He is the Son of Man. He is right now sat at the right hand of the Mighty One, the Ancient of Days. And He will one day come a second time on the clouds of heaven.

Thirdly, only Jesus, the One without any personal sin, could be and was “lifted-up” that he might die on a cross for the sins of the world. Only Jesus has offered such a unique sinless atoning sacrifice and propitiatory offering for our sins, which satisfied the just and righteous wrath of God against all sin and evil, including the evil which has been spoken by every human tongue except his own. (Romans 3: 10-14) Only Jesus is the spotless Lamb of God. As John says in his first letter; “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only ours, but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2) Only Jesus could make this sacrifice. As the hymn writer put it; “There was no other good enough to pay the price for sin; he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”

 Fourthly, only Jesus was not only “lifted-up” on a cross for our sins, but only Jesus was then “lifted-up” through the resurrection and ascension to the highest possible place in heaven. You see, the “lifted-up” language of the NT is not only used of Jesus’ death for obvious reasons, it is also used to describe His unique and victorious “lifting up” through His resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven. (Philippians 2:9, Ephesians 1:19-21) Only Jesus has overcome death and been raised to highest place in heaven. This raising of Jesus as Lord signifies that the work of salvation is complete.

Finally, only Jesus, the One who was “lifted-up” can lift you or anyone else up from the deepest and darkest pit. The NT bulges with stories of how this Jesus lifted-up the blind, the crippled, the deaf, the dumb, the lepers, the outcasts, the no-hopers, the demon possessed. Only Christ stilled the storm fed the multitude, turned water into wine, raised the dead. Can you name one other individual who comes near to his saving greatness and uniqueness? Jesus can lift me and you up – so high, that we too can be seated with him in heavenly places. (Ephesians 2: 6) The Psalmist speaks truth when he writes;

He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. (Psalm 40:2) The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. (Psalm 145:14)

 How many souls has Jesus picked up and lifted to new heavenly heights of hope, joy, love, and eternal expectation? It is a numberless multitude which continues to grow daily around this world and across all continents. As we discovered a few weeks ago, He has the power to lift the weak so that they can soar on wings like an eagle. (Isaiah 40:31) Who else possesses the power, the will, the self-sacrificial love, and the grace to do this? Can you name another person, another “son of man,” who can save and heal like Jesus can? There is as Peter says, no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12) Jesus is the only Saviour and the only beloved Son of God. This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Here is the verdict of the Almighty Father! God has spoken! This is my Son! (Mark 1:11)

 John records what Jesus declared later in his life in his gospel and only days before He was lifted up on the cross. This is the Word of the Lord.

“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be, and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me: he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him. (John 8: 28-29)

Even as he spoke, many put their faith in him. (John 8:30) Have you put your faith in him? Is your faith in the Son of Man, in Jesus who was lifted-up?

Look to One who was lifted up on high, not on a pole, but on a cross – and you will live forever!


Revd Peter J Clarkson (10.3.24)