We are currently looking at the third chapter of the Fourth Gospel, which begins with a conversation between Yeshua and Nicodemus. The conversation can be read in a few minutes, but probably lasted for hours into the night as Nicodemus and Yeshua talked.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. There are some historical indications that he was one of the three wealthiest people in Jerusalem, which means that he has reached high levels of influence. As a member of the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court, he was a very elevated Jew. He is at the top of the religious system of Judaism. The Pharisees present themselves as knowing everything about the Law and Sacred Scripture. But had Nicodemus known what the Scriptures meant by what they said then Yeshua's teaching about the necessity of a birth "from above" and being "born of water and the Spirit" would have made sense to him. These should have brought to his mind what the Tanakh taught about the pouring out of the Spirit of God in the last days. Isaiah prophesied that Israel will not be restored to Yahweh until the spirit is poured out from above:
Until the Spirit is poured out upon us from on high, And the wilderness becomes a fertile field, And the fertile field is considered as a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness And righteousness will abide in the fertile field. Isaiah 32:15-16 NASB
I'm sure that Nicodemus knew this text, but I don't think he knew what it meant. Nicodemus felt that because he was a Jew he would enter the Kingdom of God. Therefore Yeshua's statement that he had to be born "from above" confused Nicodemus. So Yeshua reworded it in a way that Nicodemus should have grasped, Yeshua said, "You must be born of water and the Spirit." Being "born of water and the Spirit," is just a different way of saying, "born from above" in verse 3. The Greek text of verse 5 indicates that the preposition "of" governs both "water" and "Spirit." This means that Yeshua was clarifying the birth from above or regeneration by using two terms that both describe the new birth. He was not saying that two separate things have to be present for regeneration to happen.
Yeshua tells Nicodemus that no longer is being in Covenant with God a question of being born in the physical line of Abraham, but of being born "from above" through the action of the Holy Spirit:
"That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. John 3:6 NASB
The only reality that flesh can produce is flesh. The spiritual "Kingdom of God" can only be entered by that which is "spirit."
"The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." John 3:8 NASB
This coming of the Holy Spirit is not something that can be explained by man, and yet it happens. The wind cannot be seen, but its sound can be heard; the Spirit cannot be seen, but the Spirit's voice is heard in the hearts for those who have been regenerated by the Spirit's gift of new birth.
So the new birth and the new life that comes with it is the work of the Holy Spirit. We don't cause the Spirit to bring about the new birth any more than we make the wind blow. To this teaching of Yeshua Nicodemus responds:
Nicodemus said to Him, "How can these things be?" John 3:9 NASB
If you examine this text you will see that each of Yeshua's statements is longer than the previous statement while each successive remark by Nicodemus gets shorter. The great Pharisee has met the greatest teacher. Nicodemus is dumb founded by Yeshua's teaching; he can't grasp how these things can be. He can't grasp it because he is operating only in the flesh; he cannot understand spiritual things. He sees entering the Kingdom as natural not supernatural. Nicodemus had for years taught others the conditions of entrance to the Kingdom of God, conditions cast in terms of being born a Jew and living in obedience to God's commands.
Yeshua answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? John 3:10 NASB
Yeshua's answer shows that Nicodemus' question implied that he did not believe what Yeshua had said. How could a renowned teacher of the Tanakh not know what Yeshua is talking about? This verse makes it clear that Yeshua's teaching on the new birth was built on the teaching of the Tanakh.
The definite article "the" is used here, Yeshua calls Nicodemus "the teacher of Israel." This can mean that he was the preeminent teacher of the word of God in Israel. Being a Pharisee and very skilled in the things of the Old Covenant Law he may have well been the leading teacher of the word of God among the Pharisees. Or it could simply mean that he was a distinguished teacher. Either way this man knew the Tanakh.
He would have known passages like Isaiah 44:3-5 and Ezekiel 36:
"Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. "Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:25-26 NASB
Here the water and spirit that Yeshua talked about "born of water and the Spirit," come together, to signify cleansing from impurity, and the transformation of the heart.
He would have also known Ezekiel 37, where the prophet has the vision of the dry bones taking on flesh and coming to life when God's Spirit breathes upon them. Yahweh says:
"I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken and done it," declares the LORD.'" Ezekiel 37:14 NASB
With the Spirit comes life, spiritual life. But maybe even more astounding is the passage in Proverbs that seems to be the foundation for the ideas in Yeshua's dialogue with Nicodemus:
Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son's name? Surely you know! Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Proverbs 30:4-5 ESV
Did you catch the similarities? "Who has ascended to heaven and come down?" [John 3:13] "Who has gathered the wind in his fists?" [John 3:5, 8] "Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?" [John 3:5] "Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son's name?" [John 3:15-16] "Surely you know! Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him" [John 3:15-16].
So how does Nicodemus, "the teacher" of Israel not get what the Scriptures were saying? How does he not get this? He doesn't get it because he needs a new heart:
"Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26 NASB
Nicodemus is just flesh, he's a natural man and cannot understand spiritual things:
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. 1 Corinthians 2:14 NASB
Until man receives the new birth he is blind to spiritual things.
But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; 2 Corinthians 3:14-15 NASB
Until Yahweh gives a new heart, until a man is "born from above" he is dead to spiritual things even if he is a prominent teacher in Israel.
"Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. John 3:11 NASB
A significant shift takes place in this verse. Nicodemus disappears from the scene. The Greek text shows that the "you" words after verse 10 are plural instead of singular as before verse 10. The dialogue shifts to a monologue and the "I" of verse 11 shifts to a "we" and then to a third person discussion of Yeshua.
This is the third time in conversation with Nicodemus Yeshua used the double "amen." It indicates that what follows will be of great theological importance.
Who is the "we" in this text? Some say that Yeshua is referring to the Godhead. I guess that's possible, but it seems more likely that the "we" refers to John the Baptizer and Yeshua, both of whom have testified to what they have seen. We know that the Pharisees did not accept John's testimony because they refused to be baptized by him:
But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God's purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John. Luke 7:30 NASB
So the "we" seems to be Yeshua and John the baptizer. Who is the "you"? The "you" is Nicodemus and his fellow Pharisees. "You" is plural, "you do not accept our testimony." You could translate like this, "Nicodemus, I tell you individually, we speak what we know, we testify to what we have seen; but you and those who are represented by you, Israel, you do not receive our testimony."
"If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? John 3:12 NASB
Notice the two "if's" here. The first one is a first class conditional sentence, which is assumed to be true from the author's perspective or for his literary purposes. The second one is a third class conditional sentence which meant potential action.
Yeshua used two earthly illustrations, birth and the wind, to explain basic spiritual truth about receiving new life from God. Just as you had nothing to do with your physical birth, you have nothing to do with your spiritual birth. Just as the wind is sovereign and blows where it will, so is the Spirit sovereign in the new birth. These are earthly things. If Nicodemus couldn't understand these simple illustrations, how would he ever be able to understand if Yeshua explained the Trinity or His incarnation or His substitutionary death for sinner
Yeshua says, in effect, that entrance into the Kingdom depends absolutely on new birth; if Nicodemus stumbles over this elementary point of entry, then what is the use of going on to explain more of the details of life in the Kingdom?
"No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. John 3:13 NASB
Preterists often use this verse to prove that no one has gone into heaven prior to AD 70. But if you look at this verse in context, you can see that is not what it is saying. This verse is talking about the knowledge of God, and Yeshua is saying that it is not obtained by any man's going up from earth to heaven to receive it—"No one has ascended into heaven"—but He whose essential and eternal nature is heaven, has, by taking human flesh, descended as the Son of man to disclose the Father.
The implication is that no one has both ascended to heaven to receive divine revelation and descended to earth to give an account of that revelation in the same way that Yeshua has as the incarnate Word of God. The background of Yeshua's saying is found in:
"For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. "It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?' Deuteronomy 30:11-12 NASB
The context is talking about going up to heaven to receive divine knowledge and bringing it back down. No one needs to do this, Yahweh has revealed Himself through His prophets and through His Son.
He is saying, "No one has ascended into heaven and returned, so no one is qualified to speak of them but He who came down from heaven." Or, "No one from earth has ever gone up to heaven and come down again; the Son, who has come down from heaven, is the only one who has been up there." This does not mean that no one had gone to heaven. Now as a general rule believers didn't go to heaven until the resurrection in AD 70, but, Yahweh made a few exceptions.
Hall Harris says this about this text. Note however, the lexical similarities with 1:51:
And He said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." John 1:51 NASB
He says in both texts, "ascending," "descending," and "son of man." Here, though, the ascent and descent is accomplished by the Son Himself, not the angels as in 1:51. The point of the Jacob story (Gen 28), which seems to be the background for 1:51, is the freedom of communication and relationship between God and men (a major theme of the Gospel of John). This communication comes through the angels in Gen 28 (and John 1:51); but here (most appropriately) it comes directly through the Son.
Yeshua is saying, "I'm the only one who has come down from heaven. And the message that I bring is that you must be born from above, salvation is a work of God in which you do not participate."
Yeshua refers to Himself a number of times in that same phrase, "He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man."
"For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world." John 6:33 NASB
"For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. John 6:38 NASB
"I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh." John 6:51 NASB
Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. John 8:42 NASB
Over and over He says that He came down from heaven. What is the significance of Yeshua's statement that He has come down from heaven? He is revealing His divinity.
What's interesting is that in Jewish Intertestamental Lliterature and later rabbinic accounts Moses is portrayed as ascending to heaven to receive the Torah and descending to distribute it to men (e.g. Targum Psalms 68:19). But in contrast to these Jewish legends, the Son is the only one who has ever made the ascent and descent.
The point is the heavenly origin of the Son of Man. And the descent, at least here, seems to refer to the incarnation (cf. 1:14).
"Son of Man"—this is Yeshua's favorite self-designation, used over eighty times in the Fourth Gospel. This description comes from Daniel 7:
"I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. Daniel 7:13 NASB
What's interesting here is that this "Son of Man" possesses the same authority and receives the same worship as "the Most High." This equality between the Son of Man and the Ancient of Days, who is obviously Yahweh, is further indicated by the fact that in Ezekiel 1:25-28 a "figure like that of a man" is described in terms of radiant glory similar to Daniel's vision in Daniel 7:9-10. This glory that characterizes Daniel and Ezekiel's visions of God is that same glory that characterized Yeshua.
Leon Morris writes: "Yeshua adopted the term, firstly because it was a rare term and one without nationalistic associations. It would lead to no political complications… In the Fourth Gospel … the term is always associated with Christ's heavenly glory or with the salvation He came to bring." (pp172,173).
Let me say one more thing about this verse:
"No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. John 3:13 NASB
Now notice how the KJV puts it:
And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. John 3:13 KJV
Notice that the words, "which is in heaven" are not in the NASB. These words are absent from the two oldest manuscripts of John (P66 and P75), they occur in many others, sometimes with minor variations. In the critical edition which is usually the basis of one of the modern translations, the majority of the editors at this point, or the majority of the committee in translation, has determined that on the basis of the external testimony that this clause is probably not genuine. Probably reflecting some later Christological development and ascribed, inserted, for that reason.
Metzger writes, "It seems best to regard the additional words as an interpretative gloss that reflected later Christological developments at a time when dogmatics was more influential than sensitivity to chronology and historical development" (cf. Metzger, pp. 203-204).
So I think it is safe to say that the modern translations got it right.
"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; John 3:14 NASB
The background for this verse is Numbers 21:4-9. Edom had denied Israel permission to cross its land on their way to Canaan (Num. 20:14-21). Yahweh told Moses not to fight against Edom (Deut. 2:4-5). So, Moses turned the people southeast (the Promised Land was northwest) to make a long, difficult journey around the land of Edom.
At this point, the Israelites grew impatient. They had just seen a victory over some Canaanites (Num. 21:1-3). Why couldn't they march through Edom and kill any Edomites that opposed them? So as they turned southeast, they grumbled against God and Moses:
The people spoke against God and Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food." The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from 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 will 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 21:5-9 NASB
This is no doubt a strange story, but before we look at it, let me ask you this: Does the idea of making a bronze serpent seem to conflict with what Yahweh had told the children of Israel earlier?
"You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. Exodus 20:4 NASB
Doesn't making a bronze serpent violate this command? Not really, why were they not to make these likenesses? The issue was idiolatry. Look at the next verse:
"You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, Exodus 20:5 NASB
It wasn't wrong to make an image, it was wrong to worship it.
So the children of Israel acknowledged their sin, came to Moses and asked him to pray for a remedy. People were dying. They needed relief. God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. Everyone in Israel that had been bitten would live if they would look to the serpent. What is this serpent on the pole?
S.L. Johnson writes, "And the serpents suggest the activity of the serpent, Satan, in the Garden of Eden. In fact, the term 'brass' is nachosheth which is very closely related to nachash, the Hebrew word for serpent."
Steven Cole writes, "These people knew the story of the detested snake in the Garden that had tempted Eve and was at the root of all evil." Is this a reference to Satan? Did the children of Israel know the story of Genesis 3? How did they know it? Did they have a copy of Genesis that they carried around with them?
Let me share with you a very different idea about this text and Genesis 1-11. This view is from the "Naked Bible Podcast" with Michael S. Heiser. Let me tell you a little bit about Heiser. He is a Bible scholar with a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages and can do translation work in roughly a dozen ancient languages, among them Biblical Hebrew, Biblical Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Phoenician, Moabite, and Ugaritic cuneiform. I said that not to say that whatever he says is right, but to show you that he's no dummy. Heiser says:
"I think there's a very good chance that no Israelite, none of the Israelites, had even heard of the serpent story in the Garden of Eden when this event is happening in real time. You have an entire Bible. You cannot assume that an Israelite had the entire Bible, and frankly, you can't even assume that the Israelites living in Moses' day had any Bible at all.
"Jesus saying, 'Son of man is going to be lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness was lifted up.' He has no reference back. He's not talking about Satan. He's not talking about Genesis 3. He's talking about Numbers 21. None of those people were thinking about the Garden of Eden, either, because they didn't have the story.
"If you're sort of a person with a high view of Scripture, you basically got two options. One is that Moses wrote Genesis 3. You accept that out of the gate. That's your starting point. Moses wrote Genesis 3. Moses is the guy in the story of Numbers 21 and so, mentally, you assume without any actual data, that Moses, this is going to sound comical, that Moses had written Genesis 3 and that everybody there had read it.
"Moses couldn't write Genesis 1 to 11 by experience or by the traditions of his own people because this is all primeval history. We don't really have any actual evidence that the Israelites living the events of Numbers 21 would ever have heard the story of Adam and Eve before they're getting bitten by these fiery serpents to make some sort of association. An association we make because we read Genesis 3 before we hit Numbers 21 and these two things sort of glom onto each other in our heads.
"The second view other than Moses wrote Genesis 3 is, surprise, surprise, Moses didn't write Genesis 3. And I actually think this one makes more sense. This is actually my preference, and that is this view. I have expressed this view before on the podcast that Genesis 1 to 11 was written later than Moses' lifetime. I personally think Genesis 1 to 11 was written during exile in Babylon since (A) there are many specific textual philological, that's linguistic kind of stuff, philological connections, very specific connections, to Babylonian or Mesopotamian literature in general in these 11 chapters.
"And secondarily, (B) my other reason for thinking it was written during the exile is that there are very few specific Egyptian connections in Genesis 1 to 11, which you would sort of expect if it was composed in the immediate Mosaic era. Instead of Genesis 1 to 11 taking shots at the Mesopotamian gods and the Babylonian stories, you would expect it to be taking shots at the gods of Egypt because we just left Egypt. God picked on them and beat up on them and we had the Exodus, and here we are at Sinai, all that kind of thing. But you don't get that. You get a very distinct Mesopotamian flavor to Genesis 1 to 11. And so that's where the Israelites are in exile. They are in Babylon. And a lot of the material in Genesis 1 to 11 is specifically dissing Babylonian religion, Babylonian deities, all this sort of stuff.
"So that's why I think it makes more sense to have Genesis 1 to 11 written later than the Mosaic era by someone else in the believing community God chose to write that, chose to, in my view actually chose to append it to material that begins with the family history of Israel, Genesis 12 onward.
"Genesis 1, there are specific points of contact to Enuma Elish, the story of Marduk's elevation to supremacy. Marduk was the chief deity during the Babylonian era, 6th Century B.C.E. Lo and behold, that's the time of the exile. And when I say specific connections, there are places in Genesis where the Hebrew of Genesis mimes or mimics the syntax of Enuma Elish, specifically Genesis 1:1-3, by the way you have that happen. There's even grammatical congruence in the way the writer wrote. Where's the position of the verb? Where's the position of the conjunction? Where's the position of the noun? It mimes certain lines in Enuma Elish. And to a literate reader, someone who knew both texts, the reason for doing that would've been very evident and would've been very obvious as well that the writer of Genesis wants you to think of the Babylonian story because he's going to poke it in the eye. He's going to do it. He's going to turn it on its head and make a different theological point. You need the text of Enuma Elish to do that. So is Moses carrying one around in the desert? He couldn't in this case because it hadn't been written yet. Enuma Elish, the elevation of Marduk was written in the 6th century. This is centuries after Moses lived and died so it's a clear point of incongruence.
"Another example, Genesis 2 and 3, Garden of Eden story. You have the serpent story in the Garden. There are some clear similarities between that material and Gilgamesh. Another one called Adapa, a text called Adapa and the South Wind. Genesis 5, the list genealogies scholars have known for a couple centuries since the Sumerian King list was discovered that the list of Kings in the Sumerian King list pre-and post-flood, that there's a relationship between the list of names and the events in Genesis 5. There are just connections there. So for that to make any sense, the writer would have to be doing something deliberate with that text, with that Sumerian text.
"Genesis 6:1-4, we talked about this before in Unseen Realm and on the podcast, the story of the Apkallu drawn directly from Mesopotamian material. Genesis 6-9, the flood story, you have parallels in the Eridu Genesis, the epic of Gilgamesh, the Atrahasis epic, down even to the birds that get let go and they come back and the building of an Ark and the animals, the whole thing. It has differences. There are differences in the accounts, differences in the story and the way they're told but there's a lot of specific connections.
"Genesis 1-11 is littered with Mesopotamian elements and so I doubt that Moses was hauling a library of cuneiform tablets around with him in the desert. To me, the biggest argument is that Genesis 1-11, the collections that are there are polemic. And you would expect if Moses is writing it in an Egyptian context, their deliverance from Egypt, that he'd be dissing the Egyptian gods but that isn't what happens. That happens in Exodus 15, Exodus 12, this night I will have victory over the gods of Egypt. All that kind of stuff happens with the plagues but it doesn't happen in Genesis 1-11 is the point we're making."
So this may be a point of view that you have never heard before, but it has some strong arguments and is worth looking at. I said all that to say that the serpent in Numbers 21 has nothing to do with Genesis 3 and Satan, it's just a snake.
In our text in John 3:14 Yeshua is comparing Himself to the image of the bronze serpent God had Moses construct and raise up above the heads of the people on a standard. The story of the bronze serpent foreshadows the salvation which God will provide through the "Son of Man." God had graciously provided continuing physical life to the persistently sinning Israelites. It should not, therefore, have been hard for Nicodemus to believe that He would graciously provide new spiritual life for sinful humanity.
The bronze serpent in the wilderness, was the salvation (deliverance) of those who believed. By comparing Himself to that serpent, Yeshua was teaching that whoever trusted in Him and His death would receive "eternal life."
"Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up"—this is Yeshua's earliest recorded prediction of His death. It is an allusion to death by crucifixion (cf. 8:28; 12:32, 34). Wherever the Greek word hypsoo ("lifted up") occurs in the Fourth Gospel, and it only occurs in these four verses, it combines the ideas of crucifixion and exaltation.
Lazarus' pattern is to combine two aspects of Yeshua into one word. He uses "lifted up" to describe both the death of Yeshua on the cross and the resurrection and glorification of Yeshua. The word "lifted up" also means "exalted" and is used in the rest of the New Testament for Yeshua being exalted to the right hand of the Father after His resurrection. For Lazarus it is the whole scope of the crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation of Yeshua that focuses our attention on God the Father.
Moses lifted up the snake on a pole so that all who were afflicted in the camp might look and live. In the same way, the Son of Man must be lifted up. Even Isaiah brings together the themes of being lifted up and being glorified, and this in the context of the suffering servant (Is. 52:13-53:12, esp. 52:13 LXX).
Jewish tradition was clear that the healing of Israel did not happen because people looked at the bronze serpent. Rather, they understood that the act of lifting up the serpent lifted the attention of Israel above themselves and ultimately to God. It was their focus on God that healed them.
There is an interesting midrash on Num 21:9 ff in Wisdom of Solomon:
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 21:9 NASB
They were troubled for a little while as a warning, and had a symbol of salvation to remind them of the precept of your Law. 7 For he who turned to it was saved, not by what he saw, but by you, the Savior of all. Wisdom of Solomon 16:6-7
"And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself." John 12:32 NASB
The Jews who were bitten didn't have to do anything. There were no works. Nothing for which to atone. No restitution, nothing; just look and you have life. Nicodemus was being challenged to turn to Yeshua for new birth in much the same way as the ancient Israelites were commanded to turn to the bronze snake for new life.
This is the second time that Yeshua uses an illustration from the Tanakh. He spoke to Nathaniel who was evidently reading about Jacob and his vision of the ladder with the angels ascending and descending upon it. And now he turns to the incident that the children of Israel experienced in the wilderness journeys when in disobedience they complained and the Lord sent fiery serpents among them.
In the case of Jacob's vision as he interpreted it he said that he was the mediator between God and men, for instead of the ladder he substituted the Son of man with the angels of God ascending and descending upon him. So Yeshua interpreted the ladder as a reference to Him, a figure of connection between earth and heaven and the Son of Man is the mediator, the one mediator between God and men.
Now in this incident he turns from the mediator to the method of mediation. And the method of mediation is the cross of the Lord Yeshua because it is by virtue of the cross that we are able to have a new relationship established with the God of heaven.
Notice that there is no baptism in the illustration, it's not, "Look unto the serpent of brass and be washed and then your sins will be forgiven." It's not, "Look and work our hardest." It's not, "Look and live a sinless life." It's not, "Look and pray." It's not, "Look and repent." It's simply, "Look and to look to the divine remedy of the serpent of brass, brought healing." So looking to Christ in faith brings eternal healing.
so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. John 3:15 NASB
"Believes" here is present tense. We see this all through this Gospel-belief is present continuous tense. Those who trust Christ will continue to trust in Him.
This is the first reference to eternal life in this Gospel. "Eternal life" refers to one's "life" in the age to come, namely: in the Kingdom Age and forever after. The Jews divided time into the present age and the age to come, but the adjective [eternal] was used of life in the coming age, not that of the present age. The word "eternal" was used to describe the Messianic Age, the Age of the Spirit, the Kingdom of God. But since the Age to Come was thought of as never coming to an end, the adjective came to mean "everlasting," or "eternal." Eternal life will never cease.
In verses 14-15 Yeshua really answers Nicodemus' question of verse 9, "How can these things be?" A person's regeneration by the Holy Spirit (which enables that individual to enter the Kingdom) can come about only through the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of the Son of Man.