The pre-John 3:16 Verses

Posted on January 24, 2023


By David Ettinger

The Lead-In
A short time back I wrote a blog titled, “A Little Love for John 3:17, Please,” dealing with the often overlooked verses (I touched on verse 18 as well) following the world-famous John 3:16.

In this blog, I’d like to briefly examine the 2 verses preceding John 3:16.

John 3:14-15 reads:

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes will have eternal life in Him.

The Setting
The Lord Jesus was engaged in conversation with the Pharisee and “teacher of Israel” (v. 9) Nicodemus about entrance into the kingdom of God (v. 3) – that is, salvation.

Despite his great learnedness, Nicodemus had difficulty grasping the heavenly truths Jesus was sharing with him. To help make His point, and knowing that Nicodemus would have been familiar with his nation’s history, Jesus referred back to a memorable incident in Israel’s past.

The incident is recorded in Numbers 21:4-9, where the Israelites grew impatient and discouraged during their 40-year wilderness wanderings. Verse 5 reads:

So the people spoke against God and Moses: “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we are disgusted with this miserable food.”

As punishment, “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (v. 6). When the people begged Moses to intercede for them, God told Moses: “Make a fiery serpent, and put it on a flag pole; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, and looks at it, will live” (v. 7).

The Heavenly Truth
As an aside, it appears that Jesus’ reference to the fiery serpent which had been “lifted up” (John 3:14) was a veiled prediction of His coming death on the cross. Just as the serpent was “lifted up” on a pole, so would Jesus be “lifted up” on a cross.

Referring to the incident in the wilderness, Jesus noted that those Israelites who were doomed to die would have to look to the lifted-up serpent in order to be saved. In the same way, all humanity who is doomed to die because of sin (Romans 3:23; John 3:36), must look to the “lifted up” Christ in order to be saved from eternal damnation.

All humanity exists in a natural state of sin (Isaiah 53:6; Psalm 51:5; 1 John 5:11-12), but those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Acts 16:31; Romans 10:9).

Just as the Israelites who looked up to the serpent were saved from immediate physical death, so does any individual who looks up to Jesus in repentance “have eternal life in Him” (v. 15).

This reference to “eternal life” is the first of 17 in John’s gospel – 4 times more than any other New Testament book.

Pre- and Post-John 3:16
Hence, in 5 verses – John 3:14-18 – we see these Gospel “elements” introduced:

  • Verse 14: Jesus as Savior (as result of being “lifted up”).
  • Verse 15: Eternal life for those who put their faith in Him.
  • Verse 16: Eternal damnation for those who reject Him (“perish”).
  • Verse 17: Jesus’ desire is to save doomed sinners, not condemn them.
  • Verse 18: Unrepentant sinners are judged and condemned.

So yes, John 3:16 is a marvelous verse filled with eternal truths, but the verses which precede and follow it are just as powerful and truthful, and it is a shame they too often get overlooked.

May those who love the Lord Jesus remember that “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes out of the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4, emphasis added)!