14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; 15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
Christ having instructed Nicodemus in the doctrine of regeneration in the former verses, here he instructs him in the death of the Messiah, and in the necessity of faith in his death. The Son of man must be lifted up; that is, upon the cross, and die; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish. Observe here, 1. An Old Testament type which our Savior refers to, and that is, the brazen serpent in the wilderness, the history of which is recorded, Numb. xxi. 7, 8. Obs. 2. The antitype, or the substance of what that type did shadow forth: the brazen serpent’s lifting up upon the pole, prefiguring Christ’s exaltation or lifting up upon the cross. So must the Son of man be lifted up. Learn hence, That the Lord Jesus Christ is of the same use and office to a sin-stung soul, which the brazen serpent was of old to a serpent-stung Israelite. Here observe, 1. Wherein the brazen serpent and Christ do agree. And, 2. wherein they differ. They agree thus: In the occasion of their institution; they were both appointed for cure and healing. Were they serpent-stung? we are sin-stung; devil-bitten. Was the sting of the fiery serpent inflaming? Was it spreading? Was it killing? So is sin, which is the venom and poison of the old serpent. They agree in this; that they both must be lifted up before cure could be obtained; the brazen serpent upon the pole, Christ upon the cross. They both must be looked unto before cure could be obtained; the looking up of the Israelites was as necessary unto healing, as the lifting up of the serpent. Faith is as necessary to salvation as the death of Christ. The one renders God reconcilable unto sinners, the other renders him actually reconciled. Again, did the brazen serpent heal all that looked upon it, and looked up unto it, though all had not eyes alike, some with a weak, others with a stronger eye? In like manner doth Christ justify and save all, that with a sincere faith, though weak, do rely upon him for salvation, Whosoever believeth in him shall not perish. Further, the brazen serpent was effectual for Israel’s cure alter many stingings; If after they were healed they were stung afresh, and did look up to it, they were healed by it. Thus the merit of Christ’s death is not only effectual for our cure and healing at our first conversion, but after involuntary relapses and backslidings, if by faith we have recourse to the blood of Christ, we shall find it efficacious for our further benefit and future healing. In a word, as the brazen serpent had the likeness of a serpent, the form, the figure, the name, the color of the serpent, but nothing of the venom and poison of the serpent in it; so Christ did take upon him our nature; but sin, the venom and poison of our nature, he had nothing to do with: though Christ loved souls with an invincible and insuperable love, yet he would not sin to save a soul. This was the similitude and resemblance between Christ and the brazen serpent. The disparity or dissimilitude follows: The brazen serpent had no power in itself, or of itself, to heal and cure; but Christ has a power inherent in himself, for the curing and healing of all that do believe in him. Again, The brazen serpent cured only one particular nation and people, Jews only; Christ is for the healing of all nations, and his salvation is to the end of the earth. Further, The brazen serpent cured only one particular disease; namely, the stinging of the fiery serpents: had a person been sick of the plague, or leprosy, he might have died, for all the brazen serpent: but Christ pardons all the iniquities, and heals all the diseases of his people, Psal. cii. 3. Yet again, Though the brazen serpent healed all that looked up unto it, yet it gave an eye to none to look up unto it; whereas Christ doth not only heal them that look up to him, but bestows the eye of faith upon them, to enable them to look unto him that they may be saved. In a word, the brazen serpent did not always retain its healing virtue, but in time lost it, and was itself destroyed, 2 Kings xviii. 4. But now the healing virtue and efficacy of Christ’s blood is eternal. All believers have and shall experience the healing power of our Redeemer’s death to the end of the world. Lastly, The Israelites that were cured by looking up to the brazen serpent, died afterwards; some distemper or other soon carried them to their graves: but the soul of the believer that is healed by Christ shall never die more; Whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.
16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Here observe, 1. The original source and fountain of man’s salvation; and that is, God’s free and undeserved, his great and wonderful love. God so loved the world; he doth not say how much, but leaves it to our most solemn raised thoughts; it is rather to be conceived than declared; and admired rather than conceived. God so loved the world: Hence note. That the original spring and first cause of our salvation is the free favour and mere love of God; a love worthy of God from whom it proceeds, even love “inexpressible and inconceivable. Observe, 2. The greatness of the gift by which God evidenced and demonstrated the greatness of his love to a lost world. He gave his only begotten Son: that is, he delivered him out of his own bosom and everlasting embraces. Now this will appear a stupendous expression of God’s love, if we consider that God gave him who was not only the greatest, but the dearest person to him in the world, even his own Son: that he gave him for sinners; that he gave him for a world of sinners; that he gave him up to become a man for sinners; that he gave him up to become a miserable man for sinners; that he gave him up to be a sacrifice for the sin of sinners. Observe, 3. The gracious end for which God gave this great gift of his love to lost sinners: That whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life. Where note, 1. The gentle and merciful condition upon which salvation depends: Whosoever believeth in Christ shall not perish. 2. The infinite goodness of God in proposing such a vast reward unto us, upon our performing of this condition; He shall have everlasting life. Learn hence. That faith is the way which God hath appointed, and the condition which God hath required, in order to our obtaining salvation by Jesus Christ. This faith consists in the assent of the understanding, that Jesus is the Savior of the world; in the consent of the will, to accept of Jesus freely and voluntarily, deliberately, advisedly, and resolvedly, for our Savior; in accepting the merit of his blood, and submitting to the authority of his laws; it being in vain to expect salvation by Christ, if we do not yield subjection to him; he that thus believes in Christ, that submits himself to his ruling power, as well as commits himself to his saving mercy, shall not perish, but have everlasting life.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. 18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God.
Observe here, That the salvation of sinners was the intentional end, and the condemnation of them only the accidental event, of Christ’s coming into the world. The design of Christ’s first coming into the world was to save it. The end of his second coming will be to judge the unbelieving part of it. Observe secondly, That unbelief is the formal cause of the sinner’s damnation; it is that sin which doth bind all other sins upon the sinner, and consigns him over to damnation; it is that sin which doth not only procure damnation, but no damnation like it; which is intimated in the next verse.
William Burkitt, Expository Notes With Practical Observations on the New Testament (Philadelphia: Published by Thomas Wardle, 1835), 2:450-452. [Some spelling modernized; Italics original; underlining mine.]