v13) No man hath ascended up to heaven...
The Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of man (John 1:51). He refers to Himself by this title more than twice as often in the NT as He does the title, “Son of God.” Nicodemus asked, "How can these things be" (John 3:8)? Jesus speaks of Himself here in answer. Christ is the answer to every question, is He not?
Now, the order in which Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about ascending and descending may seem confusing at first. In v13, Jesus puts “ascended up to heaven” before “came down from heaven.” We may therefore think that His ascension occurred first, followed by His descent. But Eph. 4 makes it clear that Christ first descended: “Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph. 4:9-10). It is clear from Ephesians that Christ first descended to make atonement to God for His people. Having made atonement, He then ascended to heaven’s throne and gave gifts to His Church. Therefore, in John 3:13, our Lord is correcting the kind of thinking that Nicodemus must have held. Nicodemus would have had Moses in mind. God called Moses up to mount Sinai. There, He gave him His law on two tables of stone, written with the finger of God. God then sent Moses down from Sinai with that law to the people. In Moses’ case, we see a man ascending Sinai to God, then returning back down Sinai to men: ascending, then descending. Nicodemus must have thought that Jesus was taken up by God to heaven to receive power to heal and wisdom to teach, and then sent back down from heaven to men on earth. But what Jesus says here corrects all such thinking. When we read Christ’s words to Nicodemus as a correction, we see the reason for the order that He gave: “No man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.” Our Lord’s answer reveals several things here. First, that the Son of man did not begin to be when He was born. He is the eternal Son of God. Second, the Son of man is the one Mediator between God and men, who descended from heaven to earth and would ascend from earth to heaven upon accomplishing the purpose for which He was sent. Third, as Jesus stood talking with Nicodemus, He also was in heaven in Spirit: "even the Son of man which is in heaven" (John 3:13). Let us consider Christ as our Mediator.
Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Son of man. He is the one Mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5). Only One first descended from heaven to earth, and then ascended from earth to heaven. Now, a mediator is a go-between who brings two different parties together. A mediator ensures that the needs of both parties are met with a view to their mutual reconciliation and satisfaction. As Mediator, Christ met God’s requirements; He did God’s will. It was God's will that Christ take His elect, stand for them, fulfill all for them, and bring them to God (Heb. 10:6-9; Lk. 2:49; John 4:34; 5:36; 6:38-40; 17:1-24; 19:30; 1 Pet. 3:18). Our Mediator met the requirements God placed on Him. And, as Mediator, Christ met the needs of His people. He took away our sins and established our everlasting righteousness. He saved us from our sins and brought us to God. In meeting God’s requirement, He abundantly met our needs.
Christ is our Surety. As Surety, He answered God in repayment of every debt His people owed, and in fulfillment of every obligation God placed on them. He paid the uttermost farthing. As Surety, God laid the complete salvation of His people on Christ. Genesis 43 gives the account of Judah engaging with his father Jacob as surety for his brother Benjamin. In Genesis 44, Judah stands before Joseph the governor to answer charges brought against Benjamin. As Judah was surety to his father Jacob for his brother Benjamin before Joseph the judge, Christ is Surety to His Father for His people before God’s law and justice. As Judah drew near to plead for Benjamin, so Christ entered heaven with His own blood, "now to appear in the presence of God for us" (Heb. 9:24). As Judah offered himself to Joseph in the place of Benjamin to save Benjamin from condemnation and prison in Egypt, so Christ substituted Himself for His people under the curse of God to save us from the prison of our sin and the eternal condemnation our sin deserves from God. God, as Judge, looks to Christ and finds in Christ everything He demands from His people. As Surety, Christ made His people sure to God though justice demanded a curse for their many crimes.
v14) As Moses lifted up the serpent...
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14).
In Numbers 21, the people of Israel were discouraged in the way. They spoke against God and Moses. They accused God of bringing them out of Egypt into the wilderness to die. They complained about the bread from heaven that God gave to them every morning. Their complaining was the result of the grievous sin of unbelief. So “the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died” (Num. 21:6). Many died. There was no cure for those bitten. Everyone one who was bitten was certain to die. “Therefore, the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live” (Num. 21:7-8).
No doubt Nicodemus knew this story well. But he did not know what it meant. But the Lord Jesus unfolds to Him and to us that mystery here in John 3. As God told Moses to get fire to heat and his hammer to beat brass into a serpent, so God’s law required the heat of God's wrath to come upon Christ (Ps. 88:7; Rev. 1:15) and required His beating as a transgressor (Isa. 53:5,12).
Two things run throughout scripture, yet are not clear until the NT. When we learn of them, it startles and astounds us. The first is that Christ was made sin for His people. “He who knew no sin was made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). The second is that the eternal Son of God was born as a man and was made under God’s law (Gal. 4:4). Under that law, the Lord Jesus Christ was cursed by God for His people. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). Whoever hangs on a tree is cursed of God. Christ hung on the cross tree because He was cursed of God. Christ took the sins of His people and owned them as His. He who knew no sin was made sin. He became guilty for our sins and He knew the guilt of them in Himself (Ps. 40:12; 69:5). He felt the shame and anguish and plague of those sins in His own body and soul (Isa. 53:4-12). Death is the wage of sin. Christ received that wage in Himself as the payback for the sins of His people.
v15) whosoever believeth in him should not perish...
Our Lord preached Himself to Nicodemus, and preaches Himself now to us now in the Gospel of John 3:14-15. Nicodemus was troubled, perplexed and frustrated by what Jesus said: “How can these things be” (John 3:8)?! Jesus told Nicodemus that he could not see and had not entered the kingdom of heaven (v3,5). He said that unless he was born of the Spirit of God, he would never see it or enter it. Though our Lord told Nicodemus the truth, he had not received the testimony from heaven (v11). Then, in v14, our Lord puts Nicodemus in the same crowd as those sinners who were bitten by fiery serpents. In answer to Nicodemus’ question, “How can these things be?”, our Lord explains that He is the Mediator who came from heaven to earth and must be lifted up on the cross, bear the sin and curse for His people, and ascend up again to heaven. He told him that He Himself is the Son of man and the Son of God, the Lord of glory, God over all, the Christ of God. He would redeem His people from sin and the curse by bearing their sins and their curse as their Substitute in offering to God. Jesus told Nicodemus that as those bitten by serpents in the wilderness did not perish in looking on that brass serpent on the pole, even so, all who believe Christ will never perish but have eternal life.
Therefore, look to Christ as the One who was lifted up, made sin and cursed under God’s law for His people! All who look, live! All who were bitten by serpents were told to look at the one serpent on the pole. They were not to cover their wounds. They were not to put a tourniquet on their arms or legs to prevent the spread of poison. They were not to seek refuge from the serpents. There was only one thing they were to do. Look! In spite of your death plague, look! When all seems hopeless in yourself, look to Christ! There is only one thing sinners are to do. Look to Christ! Come to Him. Believe Him. “Him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37). “Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). “You will not come to me that you might have life” (John 5:39). “These things were written, that you might believe, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you might have life through His name” (John 20:31).
None of us live to God until we come to Christ. But all who come, already live and shall never die (John 11:26).