A Snake, A Pole, And Salvation

A snake, a pole, and Jesus – is there a connection? To one unfamiliar with the Bible, the question may be perplexing. But to one familiar with the teachings of Jesus, there is a powerful connection.

Jesus was the Master Teacher! He often utilized word pictures to communicate truth. He would also utilize the Word of God itself, often citing the Bible (the Old Testament) in communicating aspects of His life, His identity, and His mission.

On one occasion in the middle of the night, He shared gospel truth with a man, utilizing a visual picture found in the Scriptures to communicate the gospel. In so doing, the Lord provides us some valuable lessons as we seek to effectively communicate the good news in our world today.

In John 3, a Pharisee named Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night, seeking to interact with the Lord. In the process, Jesus declares to Nicodemus the reality of the new birth, stating unless “one is born-again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3). 

The narrative surrounding the new birth continues in John 3:4-10. Nicodemus, “the teacher of Israel” (John 3:10), is perplexed by Jesus’ teaching.

Then, in John 3:14-15, Jesus makes a gospel connection for Nicodemus directly from the Torah:

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” 

The Lord’s capacity to communicate in an economy of words is staggering. These words, pregnant with meaning, reveal much about Himself and His saving work.

In these two verses Jesus refers to Numbers 21:5-9, where God judges the Israelites for their disobedience, while at the same time providing a means of physical salvation from the judgment:

“And the people spoke against God and against Moses: ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.’ 

So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord that He takeaway the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”

As the Lord teaches Nicodemus about His saving work, I call our attention to three general evangelistic principles applicable to our own witness.

Understand Your Audience 

In this narrative Jesus is talking with a Jewish man of repute, “the teacher of Israel.” Nicodemus would have been a biblical authority in his time, so here Jesus evokes the Bible, which Nicodemus would have known inside and out. The Lord understood His audience perfectly in every situation because He knew even what was in the heart of man (John 2:25). You and I aren’t so ‘in the know!’

Years ago I was passing through Salt Lake City, Utah, while doing music ministry with my Jewish Gospel Band, The Liberated Wailing Wall. Before we went out to do street evangelism, our music team had a training with a former Mormon who had become a believer. One thing I remember him saying was, “Ask people if they’re LDS (Latter-Day Saints), because if you ask if they’re Mormon, immediately they’ll know you’re an outsider – and you’ll have no credibility with them.” That tip was very helpful on the street as we sought to contextualize the gospel to that particular audience.

As you understand your audience, you’ll be more effective in then making the gospel relevant to them.

Connect With Your Audience 

Nicodemus would have known this snake story surrounding Moses and the children of Israel in the wilderness. Jesus masterfully connects the gospel and the Old Testament. We should also do well to strive the share the gospel in ways that resonate with our audience.

Once, many years ago I spoke at a youth basketball camp. Prior to my sharing, I thought I could get their attention if I used the illustration of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. At that time, the Bulls and Michael were ‘it!’ Using Jordan and the Bulls as my basketball connection, I sought to connect the kids to Jesus as the Coach. Just as a coach is in charge of the team and provides ultimate leadership, so is the Lord – who wants to orchestrate people’s lives. But first they have to trust in Him.

Once you connect with your audience, take the opportunity then to challenge them.

Challenge Your Audience

Challenging someone is not exactly PC – politically correct, but it is certainly BC – biblically correct! Let me explain. 

In a biblical sense, we want to challenge our audience in this way – exhort them to take action!

Jesus told Nicodemus, “that that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:15). The Lord was exhorting Nicodemus and anyone else to believe.

We can challenge our audience in a variety of ways. How? We can challenge people to think for themselves, search for truth, seek the Lord, read the bible, and make a decision to trust in Christ. We can also lay out the consequence of believing in or rejecting the Lord, as Jesus does in John 3:14-18.

In my witness, I have often told people to not necessarily believe me, but find out for themselves by going to the source – God Himself. I’ve also encouraged those who don’t believe in God to pray a “skeptics prayer,” which goes something like this – “God if you are real, reveal yourself to me.”

In my journey of faith, that’s exactly what happened. Three months before I got saved in 1987, a man on an airplane challenged me to ask God as I knew Him what the truth was. I did, and the Lord answered that prayer of faith (Jeremiah 33:3).

Understanding, connecting with, and challenging your audience certainly takes some wisdom and discernment. Pray for God’s guidance, His words, and His ways. This process may occur with a new found friend as you witness on the way, or may occur in the midst of an established relationship where there is a degree of rapport and trust already in place. Remember, there is no exact formula to follow – we follow the Lord in faith (2 Corinthians 5:7) – yet we can apply these biblical principles in testifying about the Savior in many situations.

May we, like Jesus, contextualize the gospel without compromising the gospel as we strive to communicate with clarity the wonders of His grace and mercy found in Christ.

So, what’s a snake, a pole, and Jesus have to do with salvation. Much, for those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear. Amen!

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