Question: "Why did Jesus say that the Son of Man must be lifted up (John 3:14)?"

Answer: In John 3:14–15 Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” This is the first of three references in the book of John to Jesus being “lifted up” (see also John 8:28 and 12:32). Together, these verses speak of two ways Jesus would be “lifted up”: 1) on the cross at His crucifixion and 2) in His glorious exaltation as the One seated above all things.

When Jesus said the Son of Man must be lifted up “just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness,” He was referring to Numbers 21:4–9. In that passage, the Israelites were wandering through the desert and “grew impatient on the way” (verse 4). They became frustrated at their circumstances and complained against God and Moses. As a judgment for their rebellion and lack of faith, the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the Israelites, and many people died. During this ordeal, the God’s people repented of their rebellion and pleaded with Moses to ask God to take the snakes away. Moses prayed for the people, and the Lord responded to him, saying, “Make a snake, and put it on a pole. Anyone who is bitten can look at it and live” (Numbers 21:8, GW). Moses obeyed the Lord’s instruction and mounted a bronze snake on a pole. Many of the Israelites then looked upon it and were saved from the snakebite as a result.

It’s important to note here that there was nothing magical or idolatrous about what God told Moses to do. Neither the snake nor the pole had any healing power in and of itself. Rather, it was God’s power that saved and healed the Israelites. By looking at the snake on the pole, the Israelites acknowledged their sin, repented of their rebellion, and turned to God in faith to save and heal them.

In a similar way, Jesus was lifted up on a “pole“ (i.e., the cross), and all who look to Him in repentance and faith will be saved. Jesus removes the sting of death and preserves us from the “snakebite“ of Satan, that old serpent (see Revelation 12:9). The first and primary meaning that Jesus had in mind when He said that the Son of Man must be lifted up was that He would be literally lifted up from the ground at His crucifixion.

However, secondarily, Jesus was also speaking of being lifted up in His resurrection, ascension, and exaltation. Jesus was “lifted up” from the grave when God raised Him from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:3–4). Jesus was “lifted up” from the earth and returned to heaven after His resurrection (Acts 1:9–14). And now Jesus is “lifted up” over every angel, authority, and power (1 Peter 3:22–23). He sits at the right hand of God the Father, above all creation (Ephesians 1:20–23).

So, Jesus’ reference to the Son of Man being lifted up in John 3:14 was a foreshadowing of both His crucifixion and exaltation.