“If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” John 3:12 – 15.
“I have many things to speak and to judge concerning you, but He who sent Me is true; and the things which I heard from Him, these I speak to the world.” They did not realize that He had been speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak thee things as the Father taught Me. And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” John 8:26 – 29
“Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die. The crowd then answered Him, “We have heard out of the Law that the Christ is to remain forever; and how can You say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up”’? Who is this Son of Man?” John 12:31 – 34
Three times in the Gospel Jesus speaks of being lifted up. In John Chapter 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that He must be lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness, a reference to Numbers 21:6 – 9. In Numbers Chapter 21 we see the following sequence:
Israel is attacked and defeated by Arad, a Canaanite king.
Israel asks God to be with them in subsequent battle against Arad.
Yahweh gives Israel victory against Arad.
Israel continues its journey to the Promised Land.
During this leg of the journey Israel becomes impatient and speaks against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread and no water, and our soul loathes this miserable food.” [A reference to the manna God was providing].
As a result of Israel’s rebellious complaining, judgment comes to them from Yahweh in the form of fiery serpents and many die. The people come to Moses and implore him to intercede with Yahweh for them for they have sinned. As a result of Moses’ intercession Yahweh says, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.”
While there are various facets of the fiery serpent pericope that we could explore, the central point is that Jesus is using the Numbers 21 account to refer to Himself in His conversation with Nicodemus and that the two elements of Numbers 21 that Jesus specifically mentions are being lifted up and believing. As the serpent was lifted up so Jesus will be lifted up; as the Israelites needed to believe the Word of Yahweh through Moses that deliverance lay in looking at the bronze/brass serpent on the pole, so we must believe the Word of God that in looking to Jesus we have salvation.
In the above passage from John Chapter 12, the Gospel writer tells us, “But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.” Some think that there is a link between the above three lifted up passages in John and Isaiah 52:13, where in the Greek version of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, we have the following, “Behold, my servant shall understand and be lifted up, and glorified exceedingly.” The Greek word for lifted up in Isaiah is the same word used in John. The connection between John and Isaiah is based on more than a word or a verse, for Isaiah 52 commences an account of the Suffering Servant and leads to Isaiah 53, a passage recognized as a picture of the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, note that Isaiah 52:13 says that the servant will be glorified exceedingly. The Greek word for lifted up in Isaiah and John is not only used in reference to crucifixion in New Testament times, but is also used for exaltation, for being in a place of glory. The result of Jesus Christ being lifted up on the Cross is His being lifted up in exaltation to the right hand of the Father – and ultimately every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
One other point I want to make before concluding this post is that while “manna” is not specifically mentioned by Jesus to Nicodemus in John Chapter 3, that it is an integral part of the fiery serpent event (Nicodemus would have known this); the Israelites rejected the manna and in their rejection of the manna and in their complaining they brought judgment on themselves. In John Chapter 6 Jesus will teach that He is the true manna.
Again, there are other facets in the juxtaposition of the serpent on the pole in Numbers 21 and the “lifted up” passages of the Gospel, but this is a blog and not a commentary. Once again we see the backdrop of Moses in the Gospel of John.