John 3:14-21 Exploring the Passage

Below are some preliminary questions to assist in the study of this passage. For a comprehensive study of the passage, download the Study Guide (PDF download).

1. In verses 14-15 Jesus calls Nicodemus’ attention to an incident that occurred during the time of Israel’s wilderness journey, an incident recorded in Numbers 21:4-9 (printed below). Describe the situation the people encountered (Numbers 21:4), their response to that situation (Numbers 21:5), and the consequence of their response (Numbers 21:6).

Then they traveled from Mount Hor along the route towards the Red Sea, in order to go around the land of Edom. The people became very discouraged in spirit because of the route they were obligated to take. (5) The people spoke against God and against Moses, saying, Why have you brought us up out of Egypt in order to die in this wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food! (6) Then Jehovah sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. (7) The people came to Moses and said, We sinned when we spoke against Jehovah and against you. Pray that Jehovah would take the snakes away from us. (8) Jehovah said to Moses, Make a replica of a venomous snake and put it on a pole; when anyone who has been bitten looks at it, he shall live. (9) So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole. And it happened that, if anyone was bitten by a snake, when he looked at the bronze snake, he lived. (Numbers 21:4-9)

During the course of their journey to the Promised Land of Canaan, the people of Israel encounter the disappointment of having to circumvent the land of Edom, because the Edomites refused to grant them permission to pass through their territory and the Lord would not allow Israel to invade the land of Edom Numbers 21:4). In their discouragement, the people complain against the Lord, accusing Him of negligence and unfaithfulness (Numbers 21:5). Consequently, the Lord sent venomous snakes (perhaps vipers) among the people; they bit the people, many people died, and the rest were subject to the same peril (Numbers 21:6).

2. Describe the means of salvation the Lord provided for His people after they had confessed their sin. See Numbers 21:7-9 (printed above under question #1)

The Lord instructed Moses to make a bronze replica of the venomous snakes. Moses was then to set up this replica on a pole—it was to be prominently displayed for all to see, it was made available to all as the means of salvation. But it was only effective as a cure to those perishing Israelites who looked at it, trusting that the Lord would use it as the means by which to save them.

3. What does Jesus tell Nicodemus about that Old Testament incident recorded in Numbers 21:4-9? See John 3:14-15 (printed below)

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, in the same way must the Son of man be lifted up; (15) so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15)

Jesus tells Nicodemus—and us—that the salvation the Lord provided for Israel in the wilderness was a model of the great and eternal salvation from sin and from hell that He now offers to us in the Person of His Son, Jesus Christ, and His death on the cross as the only acceptable payment for our sins.

4. What does John 3:16 (printed below) tell us about the love of God?

…for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

It tells us that God loved “the world;” that is to say, the human race, mankind in our sinful condition as we resist and reject God’s rightful lordship over our lives, as we break His holy commandments. This is the Bible’s definition of “the world” (note Romans 5:8). God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son. Out of love for the world, God willingly gave His own Son, going so far as to send Him to the cross, going so far as to lay upon Him the awful sentence of condemnation, going so far as to make Him the atoning sacrifice for sin.

5. Why is it that the person who does not believe in Christ is condemned? See John 3:18 (printed below)

Whoever believes in him is not condemned; whoever does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. (John 3:18)

John 3:18 declares that the one who believes in Christ is not condemned, but the one who does not believe is condemned already. Why is this the case? It is the case because he has rejected the only means of salvation, the Savior sent by God in His love (cp. Acts 4:12). If you have rejected the holiness of God, you can come to Christ to receive forgiveness and new spiritual life. But if you reject the mercy and love of God as it is offered to you in Christ, then you have no hope but to face the final and inevitable judgment. Note: Scripture declares that those who have not heard of the Savior are under the just sentence of condemnation, not because they have rejected the Savior, but because they are sinners who reject the righteousness of God in favor of ungodliness (note Romans 1:18,25).