The Lifting Up of Jesus
"And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me."(John 12.32).
God is a God of order. He works out his plan in a methodical way, finishing one stage before commencing another. This is seen in that famous passage in Acts, where James says that the first thing God did after the Ransom had been provided, was to visit the Gentiles to take out a people for his Name. Just before his death Jesus said: "I have finished the work thou gavest me to do". On the cross He said, "It is finished". We have no difficulty in recognising that He meant one stage of the Father's Plan committed to him had been successfully brought to a finish, namely, the giving of himself for sin. This would have availed the world little if the Plan of God had stopped at that point. There are further stages to be worked out. The benefit of that redeeming sacrifice must be proclaimed by all men far and near. "Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is none other name under Heaven given among men whereby we must be saved" (Rom. 10.13-14; Acts 4.12). If belief in Jesus is the only way to life, then it clearly follows that everyone, living and dead, must have an opportunity to know the way, else it cannot truly be said that Jesus gave his life a ransom for all.
The New Testament contains two statements of our Lord which are difficult to understand until one recognises the fact that one feature of God's plan must be worked out before another commences. Both are found in John's Gospel, and both of them speak of the lifting up of Jesus. The first is the well-known one when, early in his ministry, Jesus talked with Nicodemus, the Jewish ruler who went to him by night because he was afraid of others knowing of his interest in Jesus. To him Jesus said, referring to himself: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up" (John 3.14). The other passage, spoken to his disciples, occurs in the words of Jesus at the close of his ministry. "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me" (John 12. 32).
The first text indicates that God has provided a means of salvation, but that the onus of obtaining the same is put upon the one who sees himself smitten by sin and under sentence of death. He must do something himself if he is to obtain relief. The other text indicates something different, for it tells of an active work by Jesus which will result in his victory over all the forces which have hindered, and would hinder men from seeing him, and then obtaining those blessings which God has set in him.
These two words of Jesus illustrate the two phases of the programme which God purposed when He sent his Son into the world to be its Saviour. The two phases are distinct in character. Clearly the first passage tells of an opportunity provided to accept a favour set forth for those who seek it. This is voluntary in character. The second just as clearly indicates that a work is to be done, not primarily by man himself, but which begins outside man and apart from him, a work which shall draw him to Christ, that at least he may know and understand that He is God's appointed Saviour. Whereas the former phase is voluntary in character, this one is in a measure compulsory.
Jesus told Nicodemus why He came into the world. "For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." For thousands of years the world had been under the rule of sin and death; millions had perished in that they had died without any hope of resurrection, and men would continue thus to perish unless God did something to stop the reign of sin. The illustration Jesus gave to Nicodemus is a graphic one. Nicodemus knew the story well, how in the wilderness shortly before they reached Canaan, their fathers were attacked by fiery serpents whose bite resulted in burning inflammation and speedy death. That difficult people, then nearly at the borders of the Promised Land, had complained of God's provision for them, saying they would rather be in Egypt. The fact was that many of that multitude, who had been sentenced to wandering in the wilderness some thirty-nine years before, had not yet died. Now God brought them into tests which demonstrated that they were still of the same disobedient and unbelieving spirit which they had manifested a generation earlier, and which brought upon them that sentence of death in the wilderness. God had said: "As truly as I live, your carcases shall fall in the wilderness . . . doubtless ye shall not come into the land concerning which I swore to make you dwell therein, save Caleb and Joshua".
The fiery serpents were means used to bring retribution, but, as the people cried out and expressed repentance, God, on the plea of Moses, instructed him to make a brazen serpent and set it on a pole. In the sunshine it would bear the appearance of fire, and He said that whoever looked on the serpent should live. As they looked upon it they were reminded of their sin. It was only by an acknowledgement of their sin that they could gain freedom from the curse which had come upon them. They looked and lived. "When he beheld the serpent of brass he lived" (Num.21.9). It is interesting to note that the word "beheld" has a sense of, not a casual glance, but a purposeful set gaze, a look of expectancy, a look of faith.
It was to this incident that Jesus referred when He said to Nicodemus: "Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up". There could be no special point in his referring to the lifting up of the serpent if He meant only the fact of his being put to death on a cross; evidently it was his intention to show that in his lifting up He, too, should be as one bearing sin. It is a graphic picture, but it tells as perhaps no other illustration could, not only of the fact of the ransom price being provided, but that the poison of sin can be eradicated, and the sufferer completely healed. God has provided not only for the forgiveness of the sinner, but also for the breaking of its power in the lives of those who accept the salvation He has offered in his Son. "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son." This text tells of the cost to God of his provision for human salvation. The Bible explains quite simply that the love of God was so great for mankind that He gave his Son, for its salvation. The sacrifice was made greater by reason of the shameful death which was necessary, and the cost to the Son was great too, for He gave, that we through his poverty might be rich. He had been loyal to his task and faithful and trustful throughout. "I do always those things which please him" was his outspoken conviction. Why, then, should He go out of this life with such a stigma upon him? Branded as a sinner, would it not appear that Satan had won the contest and secured a notable triumph in his death? He had come to show how sin and death could be conquered. Should He, the would-be conqueror, succumb as a victim just as millions of the human race had done before him? So it was to be. Jesus, in the manner of his death, was to be made to appear as if He were a sinner.
After his resurrection the Apostles proclaimed that God had made him a Prince and a Saviour. Since then thousands have heard something of his righteousness, that the power of sin would be broken, and all the forces of evil, which had kept men down, would be restrained. So they would have liberty to serve God and find eternal life. He knew, too, that He would be chosen of the Father to reveal unto men the beauty and grace of his character. There was this difference, that whereas now the spiritual perception of most men was so dulled by the poison of sin that understanding was impossible; then the blinded eyes should see and faculties so long blunted by human frailty would be awakened to full power. Not only a handful of Gentiles would be enquiring for him, but the whole Gentile world would be drawn to him He would teach them of the love of God for all men, for all the power of the Kingdom would be in his hands. Meanwhile, if it was his Father's will, Jesus was content to declare his message to the few. Now was the opportunity for him who hated his life in this world to secure the life eternal: "If any man serve me let him follow me, and where I am there shall my servant be". While it was his Father's good pleasure that the door of opportunity should remain open, He must wait until his day should come to be lifted up in power and glory and establish his Kingdom.
Thus it is seen that the two texts considered tell of two ages during which the Gospel is preached. The first occupies the time between the two Advents, when God is drawing a people to himself by the message of his love, and when He causes those who come to him to behold his beloved Son crucified, and tells them of the resurrection and the power of salvation which now is to be realised in him. The second is the time of Christ's reign, spoken of as the Millennial reign, because the Bible says it will last a thousand years. It is when the Kingdom of Jesus is fully established that the turmoil of the present trouble will cease, and there will be a drawing to righteousness which will prove to be the world's real hope and its salvation.