What Does it Take to be Saved?

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

From this great text we learn two principle things: The Son of Man must be lifted up, and whoever believes in Him will have eternal life. But what does it mean for the Son of Man to be "lifted up"? What does it mean to believe? And what exactly is it that we are supposed to believe in? These questions are crucial, for it seems apparent that unless we have at least a vague answer to them, we cannot be saved ourselves and cannot point the way of salvation to others.

In the tender wisdom of God, this passage not only raises these questions, but also answers them for us by way of an analogy from the Old Testament. Analogy is one of the most effective ways to teach hard and somewhat abstract concepts. For people won’t always understand what you mean if you simply define your terms—some things, like faith, are simply very hard to define. But it is very easy to understand what you mean in cases like this if you can point to an example or an instance of what you are talking about which is readily understandable. And this is what God has done for us here.

Verse 15 is a comparison between the lifting up the serpent by Moses in Numbers 21:8-9 and the lifting up of the Son of Man: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up." It is evident from the context of John’s gospel that the "lifting up" of the Son of Man refers to Jesus’ death on the cross. But by looking at the OT account of Moses lifting up the serpent to which John is comparing Jesus’ death, we gain a profound understanding of what it meant for Jesus’ to die and why He had to. So let’s take a look at this OT account.

In Numbers 21:4-5, the nation of Israel becomes impatient, once again, in the midst of their long wilderness journey and so speaks against God and Moses. As a result, God sends a punishment: "And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died" (v. 6). This led the people to acknowledge their sin and ask Moses to intercede with God that He might remove the serpents. Verses 7-9 then tell us: "And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live.’ And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about , that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived" (Numbers 21:6-9).

Notice, then, several things. First, the people had sinned greatly against God. Second, God consequently sent a punishment upon the people. Third, this punishment consisted in a plague of fiery and deadly serpents that would bite the people and kill them. Fourth, God made a way to save the people from this punishment. Fifth, this rescue from the serpents came by means of a serpent. With a tone of irony, God made it such that the punishment became the means to the deliverance.

This tells us something very significant about the death of Christ. It tells us that on the cross he became the very thing that we need to be saved from. Jesus delivered us from the curse that we are under by becoming the curse that we are under, just as Moses delivered the nation of Israel from the serpents by lifting up a bronze figure of their punishment—the serpents.

The answer to the first question, then, is that when Jesus was lifted up He was undergoing the punishment that we deserved for our sins. He is the means of salvation for us because He has become that which we need to be saved from. What a profound mystery of the plan of salvation these reveals! God turns the punishment into the cure!

But how do we benefit from the death of Christ? How is it made to avail for me? Our passage in John tells us that it is by believing: "…whoever believes may in Him have eternal life." But what does it mean to believe?

The analogy with the OT account of the serpents suggests that believing, which is what we must do to be saved from our punishment (death), is analogous to what Israel had to do to be rescued from its punishment (serpents). It seems to me that God is saying: "The account of the fiery serpents in Numbers is a parable of sin, punishment, and salvation. And so if you want to know what it means to believe, just read what Israel had to do to be saved from the serpents."

And what did Israel have to do to be delivered? The answer is gloriously simple: "And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived." The people in Israel were saved simply by looking to the bronze serpent. All they had to do was look at it!

Believing, then, is like looking. It is not just any kind of looking, of course. For the nation of Israel was in the middle of a plague of fiery serpents. They were afraid of loosing their lives. They didn’t just look up at serpent for any old reason. No, they were seeking deliverance from serpents. Their looking, then, was done in order to be rescued. And so it is with our faith. We believe in order to be rescued because we know that we are sinners deserving wrath and that if we are left to ourselves we will perish.

What is perhaps most significant here is that we all know that looking differs from doing good deeds. It is astounding, then, that John is telling us that salvation does not come as a result of good deeds that we do, such as loving our neighbor. Rather, salvation comes to us as a result of a mere look. If you want to be rescued from the serpent of death, don’t seek to be virtuous and a follower of God’s commands. Rather, look. And then be virtuous.

So far we have seen that Christ became our curse for us and that His works saves us through our believing. As the passage says, "the Son of Man [must] be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life." But what are we to believe? What is the object of our faith? This question is extremely important. If we cannot answer it, we will be among those that Spurgeon rebuked when he proclaimed: "I do not believe in that preaching which lies mainly in shouting, ‘Believe! Believe! Believe!’ In common justice you are bound to tell the poor people what they are to believe. There must be instruction, otherwise the exhortation to believe is manifestly ridiculous, and must in practice be abortive" (Lectures to My Students, 341).

We don’t want to be like these people that Spurgeon is talking about! And so we need to know what it is that we tell people to believe in. And the answer, of course, is evident both from our passage in John and from what we saw in the book of Numbers.

First, it is evident from our passage in John. When you read a statement that says, "even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life," the most natural answer to the question "whoever believes what?" is: "whoever believes that the Son of Man was lifted up." That is the most natural way to understand the passage.

Second, we already saw that the analogy with the episode of the fiery serpents suggests that what Israel had to do to be delivered from the serpents is analogous to what we must do to be saved from death. What did the people of Israel look to in order to be delivered? The bronze serpent. Since the bronze serpent was a type of Christ’s crucifixion, then what we must look at in order to be saved is Christ crucified.

And so we are to look to (believe in) Christ crucified. We do not merely look to Christ; we look to Christ crucified. We look to Him as the one who became our curse in order to deliver us from it. And we also look to Him as Christ risen. Though our text in John only mentions the death of Christ, it does not at all imply that we are to look merely at His death. For His death has no significance apart from the resurrection. Therefore, in looking to Christ crucified, we must also of necessity be looking at Christ risen. As Paul told us, "If you will confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved" (Romans 10:9).

And, finally, it almost goes without saying that nobody can look to Christ to be saved from the wrath to come if they don’t count Him all joy. For we are not simply saved from wrath by looking to Christ, but are ushered into fellowship with Him. He is our eternal life. Therefore, a looking to the cross implies a loving of the Christ on the cross. Saving faith cannot be exercised by a heart that finds no desire for Christ Himself.

To sum up: God has turned our punishment into our deliverance. We are subject to death and divine wrath for our sins. And we are rescued from death and divine wrath by looking to the one who Himself died and endured divine wrath when He was lifted up on the cross. All it takes to be saved is a look to Christ crucified and risen—a look that seeks from Him rescue from divine wrath and the blessing of fellowship with the Triune God forever.

Scripture quotations are generally from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.


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