“These verses show us the peculiar plan by which the love of God has provided salvation for sinners. That plan is the atoning death of Christ on the cross.
Our Lord says to Nicodemus, ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.’
By being ‘lifted up,’ our Lord meant nothing less than His own death upon the cross. That death, He would have us know, was appointed by God to be ‘the life of the world.’ (John 6:51.) It was ordained from all eternity to be the great propitiation and satisfaction for man’s sin.
It was the payment, by an Almighty Substitute and Representative, of man’s enormous debt to God. When Christ died upon the cross, our many sins were laid upon Him.
He was made ‘sin’ for us. He was made ‘a curse’ for us. (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13.) By His death He purchased pardon and complete redemption for sinners.
The brazen serpent, lifted up in the camp of Israel, brought health and cure within the reach of all who were bitten by serpents. Christ crucified, in like manner, brought eternal life within reach of lost mankind.
Christ has been lifted up on the cross, and man looking to Him by faith may be saved. The truth before us is the very foundation-stone of the Christian religion.
Christ’s death is the Christian’s life. Christ’s cross is the Christian’s title to heaven. Christ ‘lifted up’ and put to shame on Calvary is the ladder by which Christians ‘enter into the holiest,’ and are at length landed in glory.
It is true that we are sinners—but Christ has suffered for us.
It is true that we deserve death—but Christ has died for us.
It is true that we are guilty debtors—but Christ has paid our debts with His own blood.
This is the real Gospel! This is the good news! On this let us lean while we live.
To this let us cling when we die. Christ has been ‘lifted up’ on the cross, and has thrown open the gates of heaven to all believers.”
–J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on John, Vol. 1 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1869/2012), 141-143. Ryle is commenting on John 3:9-21.