Lifted up to Eternal Life. This section of the Gospel concludes with an impressive statement of the purpose of the death of Jesus. Jesus recalls the incident wherein, when fiery serpents bit the Israelites, Moses was told to make a snake of bronze and set it on a pole (Num. 21). Whoever looked at the bronze snake was healed. And, just as that snake was “lifted up” in the wilderness, so, Jesus says, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
The significance of the ascension of the Son of Man is elaborated through an OT example (Num 21:8-9). The key to interpreting this analogy between Moses’ lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness and the ascension of the Son of Man is the verb (hypsoō), meaning both “lift up” and “exalt.” (The Hebrew verb nāsā’ has a similar double meaning; see the pun based on this verb in Gen 40:9-23.) Once again the Fourth Evangelist asks the reader to hold two meanings together simultaneously. As the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up on the cross. The double meaning of hypsoō implies, however, that the physical act of lifting up is also a moment of exaltation. It is used of Christ’s exaltation (Acts 2:33) and again in a compound (Phil. 2:9). It is part of John’s aim to show that Jesus showed forth his glory not in spite of his earthly humiliations, but precisely because of those humiliations. To the outward eye this was the uttermost in degradation, the death of a criminal. To the eye of faith it was, and is, the supreme glory.
John 3:14 is one of three statements about the “lifting up” of the Son of Man in John (see also 8:28; 12:32-34). These three sayings are the Johannine analogue to the three passion predictions in the synoptic Gospels (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33.34; and parallels).
The overlap of crucifixion and exaltation conveyed by v. 14 is crucial to Johannine understanding of salvation, because the Fourth Evangelist understands Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension as one continuous event. Verse 14 also contains a key to the theological grounding of the Evangelist’s attraction to irony; the cross as humiliation is actually exaltation. This will become especially clear in the crucifixion narrative of John 18-19. The Fourth Gospel is often criticized for having an inadequate theology of the cross, but such criticism misconstrues the Johannine treatment of the crucifixion. As v. 14 makes clear, there is no exaltation apart from the crucifixion for John.
The overlap of crucifixion/exaltation also provides the context for interpreting the role of the ascent/descent language in v. 13 (and 1:51) and the Fourth Evangelist’s use of the title “Son of Man.” The Fourth Evangelist appropriates the traditional apocalyptic figure of the Son of Man (cf. Dan. 7:13) and invests it with his christological perspective. Ascent/descent language thus speaks of Jesus’ relationship to God and to the world. The Son of Man’s ascent to heaven is salvific, because he is the one who has descended from heaven, the very one whom the Prologue celebrates.
“15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” makes explicit the salvific dimension of the crucifixion. Jesus’ offer of his life through being lifted up on the cross makes “eternal life” (zōēn aiōnion) possible for those who believe. “Eternal life” is one of the dominant metaphors in the Fourth Gospel to describe the change in human existence wrought by faith in Jesus (e.g., 3:36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:27; 17:4). To have eternal life is to live life no longer defined by blood or by the will of the flesh or by human will, but by God (cf. 1:13). “Eternal” does not mean mere endless duration of human existence, but is a way of describing life as lived in the unending presence of God. To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God. To speak of the newness available to the believer as “eternal life” shifts eschatological expectations to the present. Eternal life is not something held in abeyance until the believer’s future, but begins in the believer’s present. The focus on the crucifixion in 3:13-15 provides the key to interpreting Jesus’ earlier metaphors of new birth and the kingdom of God. The offer of new life, “to be born anōthen” has only one source—Jesus’ offer of his own life. The cross thus makes sense of the double meaning of anōthen: To be born from above is to be born again through the lifting up of Jesus on the cross.
John 3:14 as Moses lifted up the serpent… The Jewish understanding of this passage insisted that Yahweh, not the snake, brought deliverance. “He who turned toward it was saved, not by what he saw, but by thee, the Savior of all” (Wis. 16:7); “But could the serpent slay or the serpent keep alive!—it is, rather, to teach you that such time as the Israelites directed their thoughts on high and kept their hearts in subjection to their Father in heaven, they were healed; otherwise they pined away” (Mishnah, Rosh. Hash. 3:8).