When Yeshua says, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up" (John 3:14), He was hinting about the kind of death He was going to die, but there is a second meaning to these words as well. He was speaking not only of His death, but also of His ascension forty days after the resurrection.
God told Moses to "make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard." (Numbers 21:8) A standard is a pole atop which an emblem is displayed. The Hebrew word nes (נס) may also be translated as “miracle.” God told Moses to “make a bronze serpent, and set it on a nes …” The sages wanted to know the particular “miracle” Moses was to set the serpent upon. By reading nes as “miracle” instead of “pole,” they explained that Moses set the serpent on a miracle by tossing it into the air where it remained hovering above the ground so that all Israel could look upon it:
“Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a miracle (nes, נס)” (Numbers 21:9). That means he cast it into the air and it stayed there.” (Numbers Rabbah 19:23)
This fanciful explanation of the Hebrew also fits the context of John 3. Yeshua was explaining to Nicodemus that the Son of Man must be “lifted up.” He had just told Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man” (John 3:13). In a similar passage, He told the Galileans that He had descended from heaven. When they objected, He replied, “Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before?” (John 6:61-62).
In John 3, He told Nicodemus that no one has ascended to heaven, but He will be lifted up because He descended from heaven. Then He explains, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). In this context, His words seem to point toward His ascension. It is the ascension of Yeshua—His return to His former station of glory with the Father—that holds the promise of salvation for everyone who believes.
How will this ascension be accomplished? Just as Moses tossed the serpent into the air and there it remained for all to look unto for salvation, so too, the Son of Man will ascend and remain “lifted up” for the salvation of all who will look to Him.
Yeshua’s words to Nicodemus imply both His cross and His ascension. The lifting of the Son of Man upon the pole (nes) will bring about the lifting of the Son of Man through the miracle (nes) of His ascension.
This week there is a double portion. Click here for reading from parashat Balak.