John 3:9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
Nicodemus is still wrestling with Jesus’ assertion that, to enter the kingdom of God, a person must be ‘born again’ / ‘born from above’. It is an imperative. Spiritual re-birth, which is God-initiated and therefore uncontrolled by humans, will bring understanding. To the unbelieving– no matter how educated and highly esteemed– this will remain a mystery.
The difficulty here is that Jesus is heavenly in origin, as John has asserted from the beginning of his gospel. His revelation from God is not received by the merely ‘earthly’ teachers of Israel. Verse 13 asserts that because Jesus has ‘descended’ from God in heaven, he brings new revelation about the kingdom of God. And he will go back into heaven, to rule this kingdom as the crucified and resurrected “Son of Man”.
In the background to this saying, Jesus expects that Nicodemus (Israel’s teacher) will recognise three or four significant Old Testament motifs. Psalm 68 refers to God’s mighty rule, through his anointed Saviour-Warrior. He brings victory for God’s people and ascends with captives and gifts (the spoils of victory) for God on high (Ps 68:18, see also Eph 4:8-10). This ascent into heaven (reminiscent of Jacob’s ladder in Gen 28:11-13, referred to in John 1:50-51) can never be the work of a mere human being– for who can ascend to God in heaven on their own merits? No, only the one who has originated from heaven, the Son of God, can ascend into heaven.
Further, the central figure of the Old Testament who is received by God in glory is one ‘like a Son of Man’ in Daniel 7:11-14. In the midst of opposition, he is presented before God Almighty, the Ancient of Days, and he is given all authority and power to rule forever. But, says Jesus, this Son of Man will only be elevated to heavenly glory by being ‘lifted up’ in the same way that the bronze serpent in the wilderness was ‘lifted up’ by Moses. In Numbers 21:9 Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole in the middle of Israel’s wilderness camp. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake– a curse for disobedience– if they looked at the bronze snake, they lived. Of course, the bronze snake had no magic power of itself. It was offered by God as an opportunity for faith. If the bitten person would trust God’s promise of healing represented by the snake, then they would be healed (see 2 Kings 18:4 for what happened next with the snake!).
In the same way that the bronze snake was ‘lifted up’, when Jesus the Son of Man is ‘lifted up’ on the cross, all who look to him in faith will receive the life of the kingdom Age.
I feel a bit of sympathy for Nicodemus, with Jesus expecting him to grasp so many Old Testament references all at once, and then apply them all to Jesus. It does seem, however, that Nicodemus’ faith was slowly transferred to Jesus Christ. For a time he was a secret believer, finally going public at the crucifixion. See John 19:38-40.
So when we gather up all these Old Testament motifs and references, what do they all mean? John will elaborate in the following verses, but for now, we need to see Jesus as God’s anointed Saviour-Warrior bringing in the kingdom of God– even in the face of opposition. Although this opposition will continue through to his death, nonetheless, through his death, he will ultimately return to heaven in glory to rule with all power and authority. And all who put their faith in him, trusting in God’s promise, will receive the kingdom life.
Dear Father, please grow my understanding and embrace of the absolute rule of Jesus, both now and forever. Let my trust in his salvation flourish, that I will be able to understand all that he reveals that is both heavenly and earthly. Amen.