Many times when we think about the Old Testament being used in the New, explicit quotations come to mind: the NT authors will introduce the quote with a phrase such as, “as it is written.” But many times, NT authors weave in the OT in such a way that if we weren’t familiar with the language, we wouldn’t even know it was there.
This is the case in John 3:13-15.
The text reads: No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (ESV)
In the sermon, I pointed out the obvious reference in verse 14 to Numbers 21, where Moses makes a bronze serpent and raises it up on a pole in order to provide the Israelites salvation from their deadly snakebites. Jesus makes a comparison with that snake and Himself, the “Son of Man.” Just as belief in the healing power of that raised snake saved the Israelites from certain death, so belief in Christ’s work on the cross and resurrection saves believers from their sins.
But this isn’t the only reference to the OT we find in these verses. Verse 13 is an interesting callback to John 1:51, which itself is a callback to the story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28. There, Jacob got a vision of angels “ascending and descending” on a ladder that stretched between heaven and earth. The major difference between John 1:51 and Genesis 28 is that the angels are ascending and descending on Jesus instead of the ladder. Jesus becomes the connecting point between heaven and earth, between God and man.
John 3:13 clearly references John 1:51, with Genesis 28 in the background. Notice the number of connections between the two verses:
John 3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
John 1:51 And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
The words “ascended,” “heaven,” and “Son of Man,” all link these verses together. In addition, the phrase, “Truly, truly, I say to you” in John 1:51 matches with the threefold emphasis on this same phrase in John 3 (3:3, 5, 11).
The purpose here is to demonstrate that the promise Jesus made Nathanael in 1:51, that he will see heaven opened with angels ascending/descending on the Son of Man, is ultimately fulfilled in the cross and resurrection (3:13-15). The lifting up of Christ on the cross provides the ultimate means of interaction between God and man.
The phrase “Son of Man” is found frequently in the OT, mostly in the book of Ezekiel where it likely does not have any messianic connotations, but instead is just a way of referring to a human being (God calls Ezekiel “son of man”). However, there most certainly are messianic implications behind the term’s use in Daniel 7:13-14: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
Here, Daniel sees a vision, where one “like a son of man” comes and receives everlasting dominion. This is a clear reference to Christ, the Messiah, and His future reign. The use of this term in association with Jesus in John 3 recalls this eschatologically-charged passage in Daniel. The alert reader realizes that the “lifting up” of the Son of Man on the cross is the means by which this everlasting kingdom authority is given over to the Messiah. Before the kingdom reign comes the agony of the cross.
Speaking of that “lifting up” (John 3:14), many scholars find a reference here to Isaiah 52:13: Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. This is the opening line of Isaiah’s last “Suffering Servant” passage, one which NT authors found to clearly refer to the suffering of the Messiah. The same word “lifted up” (in the Greek OT – the LXX/Septuagint) is used in John 3:15. Numbers 21 does not have the word, so we might detect here a deliberate choice by Jesus to use the Isaiah 52 terminology.
So it seems that Jesus has woven together Isaiah 52:13 into this Numbers 21 reference in order to demonstrate that the “lifting up” of Christ on the cross was not only predicted by the OT, but also there explicitly connected with the exaltation/glorification of the Messiah (note the last phrase of Isaiah 52:13 – “and shall be exalted”). It is through the cross that Christ receives His glory and His kingdom.
All four of these passages – Genesis 28, Numbers 21, Daniel 7 and Isaiah 52-53 – mix together here in John 3:13-15 to bring together and enrich the theology of the cross and resurrection.