When looking at the John 3 narrative, understanding Christ's message as a whole is infinitely more valuable to us than simply quoting John 3:16 and packing all of our understanding of the Gospel into that one verse. Surrounding verses all inform both the simplicity and the complexity of God's redemption plan.
Christ said to Nicodemus, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up..." (John 3:14). As a teacher of the law and a Pharisee, Nicodemus' mind immediately went to the source of Christ's reference. He knew the history of his people, the Israelites, almost as if he had lived through it all himself, for his entire life had been dedicated to studying these stories. The historical event likely sprang fresh in his mind....
Numbers 21 opens with Israel's divine victory over the Canaanites (vs.1-3). Yet how short their memory was. As they set out once again to claim the Promised Land, Moses took them on a course around instead of through Edom. The people grew weary and impatient on this unexpected, longer journey, and they grumbled against God and Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?" they complained. "For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food” (vs.4-5). They did not trust God. They were not content with the food He faithfully provided. They longed for slavery over God's redemption. It is a wonder God did not do away with every one of them right then and there!
But God, ever patient and ever just, brought judgment with mercy, for He did not wipe them all out immediately. He sent fiery serpents amongst the people, serpents with a fatal bite. The people recognized their sins and cried out to Moses, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you." (vs.7). They humbled themselves in their misery by confessing their sins and repenting, and they asked for Moses to plead their case to God.
God could have redeemed His people from these serpents in many ways. He could have sent a plague to wipe out all of the serpents. He could have given the people an immunity to their bite or made the serpents instantly disappear. He chose, however, another way. “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole," He commanded Moses (vs.8). "Everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” Moses fashioned a bronze serpent and attached it to a pole. He lifted this serpent high in the air so that all throughout the camp could look to it in their need. Every person who was bitten by the snake needed only lift his head to the center of the camp, looking to the bronze serpent, trusting God that He would heal him. And it was so.
The story had been passed down through the ages, and Jesus knew Nicodemus would recall it. Now, standing before this seeker of truth and speaking in language he would understand, Christ brought new meaning to this ancient story: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life." Predicting His death by crucifixion, Jesus illuminated to Nicodemus the mystery of salvation. The bronze serpent in the wilderness was a type, a foreshadowing of the greater and truer redemption plan God had for humanity's sin problem.
Just as the serpent had been raised on a pole for the redemption of the Israelites in their immediate need, so the Son of Man would be lifted high on a cross, that whoever looks to Him in repentance and belief will be saved from the shackles of the sin condition. This believing to which Christ called Nicodemus meant that he would never be the same. To believe on Christ meant that Nicodemus must cast off everything he knew and follow this man Jesus, for believing Jesus required a rejection of all Nicodemus had to this point understood. Just as the Israelites could not look to the bronze serpent in repentance and expect to continue in their sinful rebellion, so Nicodemus could not look to Jesus in true belief and be the same.
Perhaps Nicodemus did not immediately get the deeper meaning. We do not know, for Nicodemus' response is not recorded in John 3. But there is no doubt that he walked away that night mulling over the call of Christ to believe. Nicodemus began that conversation with belief that Jesus Christ had God's blessing, but he ended that conversation with a call to believe in Christ as God's Son. He began with a question that required nothing of him, but he ended with a call to believe that would require everything of him.
Believing. Christ made it clear that it is not a static mental activity. It is dynamic; it is specific; and it is ongoing. The faith to which Christ calls us is an active and all-encompassing belief in His saving power as God's risen Son. Believing affects every aspect of the person. It begins at the point of salvation and it continues on forever.
Believing is not saying, "This boat will float." It is stepping into the boat and pushing out into the water.
Believing is saying, "Christ saves, and His way is better."