John 3:14-15 — Jesus Explains that He is the Messiah (Nicodemus part 5) — LeGrand Baker

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

That story is told in the Old Testament, but its meaning is not given there. Jesus tells Nicodemus that it is symbolic of himself and of the saving powers of his Atonement. He is not just talking about mercy in this life, but also about eternal life through the resurrection.

Here is the story as it is told in the Old Testament.

5 And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. [the light bread was the manna which the Lord had provided for them to eat]
6 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.
7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.
8 And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.
9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived (Numbers 21:1-10).

In the Book of Mormon, when Nephi was confronted by apostate judges he cited the testimonies of many prophets, saying that the Messiah to come was the Son of God. Among those prophets was Moses, about whom he said,

13 But, behold, ye not only deny my words, but ye also deny all the words which have been spoken by our fathers, and also the words which were spoken by this man, Moses, who had such great power given unto him, yea, the words which he hath spoken concerning the coming of the Messiah.
14 Yea, did he not bear record that the Son of God should come? And as he lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so shall he be lifted up who should come.
15 And as many as should look upon that serpent should live, even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having a contrite spirit, might live, even unto that life which is eternal.
16 And now behold, Moses did not only testify of these things, but also all the holy prophets, from his days even to the days of Abraham (Helaman 8:12 – 16).

The Hebrew word, Messiah, is the same as the Greek word, Christ. They each mean “the Anointed One.” In ancient Israel, kings and priests were anointed to become such.

About the time Lehi left Jerusalem, the Jews lost their king, and temple, and Melchizedek priesthood. The were never to become an independent nation again until the last century. The oppressed Jews then chose to understand that the Messiah to come would be a king who was a remarkable military leader. But, as Jesus explained to Nicodemus, his being the Messiah meant something quite different from that: “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

There was a time when the Jews had understood that, but that time had long since passed. The ancient Feast of Tabernacles temple drama told of the crucifixion of their Messiah, and of his ultimate triumph in bringing the gospel to the people who had died without it. The account was still in their Psalms, but in Jesus’s time there were probably few who knew what it meant. It is likely that the scholar Nicodemus was among those who did understand, and it is also llikely that he and Jesus talked about this psalm during their conversation.

As part of ancient temple drama, the Jews had recited the 22nd Psalm which contains a vivid description of the Savior’s pain while he was on the cross.

After his crucifixion, each of the authors of the gospels cited Psalm 22 as prophetic evidence that Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 27:35,46; Mark 15:24, 34; Luke 23:34; John 19:24).Luke 23:34; John 19:24).

The first two thirds of Psalm 22 are about Jesus on the cross. Its first lines were quoted by the Savior as he experienced the horror the psalm had prophesied:

1  My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?
2 O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.
3 But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.
4 Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.
5 They cried unto thee, and were delivered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded.
6 But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.
7 All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying,
8 He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.
9 But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts.
10 I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly.
11 Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help.
12 Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round. [gossips] {1}
13 They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion.
14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.
15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.
16 For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.
17 I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me.
18 They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.
19 But be not thou far from me, O LORD: O my strength, haste thee to help me.
20 Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.
21 Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.

In the last third of the Psalm, we see the triumphant Messiah fulfilling his covenants in the midst of the congregation among the dead where “all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee,” as described in Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead (D&C 138).

22 I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee.
23 Ye that fear the LORD, praise him; all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him; and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel.
24 For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard.
25 My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him.
26 The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the LORD that seek him: your heart shall live for ever.
27 All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.
28 For the kingdom is the LORD’s: and he is the governor among the nations.
29 All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul.
30 A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.
31 They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this (Psalms 22:1 – 31).

John began this story by telling us that Jesus was very careful whom he talked to. It is a testimony of the character of Nicodemus that Jesus told him that he had the authority to perform the ancient temple rites, that he was a true prophet, that he was Jehovah, and now that he is the Messiah. That was not all, before this conversation is over, Jesus will tell Nicodemus everything.
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FOOTNOTE

{1} In the phrase “strong bulls of Bashan” the word “bulls” is in italics and was added by the translators, leaving room for us to wonder if “bulls” was the intended meaning. Jacobs’s reports that “cow of Bashan” was a derogatory term describing a gossip. Paul F. Jacobs, “‘Cows of Bashan’—A Note on the Interpretation of Amos 4:1,” Journal of Biblical Literature 104 (1985): 109-10.

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