Nicodemus had words spoken to him by the Lord which he could only have understood after the crucifixion and after much thought. They were spoken with such certitude and conviction that their truth could not be questioned. To the ruler of the Jews Jesus said, “We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen…”. Jesus was sweeping aside any imagined privileges Nicodemus might have entertained belonged to him as a member of the chosen race. Moreover, any wisdom he fancied he possessed in excess of others was being seriously questioned. Did he not in fact belong to the ruling classes of Jewry, being of the Sanhedrin, which would be responsible for the most serious case of mistaken identity in history and the greatest crime of all time?

What could Nicodemus have made of the words of the Lord, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life?” Here was indicated the death of the Son of Man, presumably the speaker, by means of being “lifted up”! The Roman death by crucifixion was referred to, for the raising of the serpent in the wilderness illustrates the manner! But the speaker, whom we know to be the Lord, the Son of Man, but whom Nicodemus had not yet positively identified, went on to unveil the amazing outcome of this “lifting up”; it would bring the gift of eternal life to whomsoever might believe in him!! How could the death of a man bring into existence the offer of eternal life to the whole world?!!

So Jesus illustrates things that are “new” with things of “old”. We shall investigate this noteworthy incident which took place towards the end of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, and see how it dramatically portrays greater things. Herein we shall see a marvellous example of Yahweh’s foreknowledge as He foreshadows details of the ultimate means of redemption in Christ! The incident involving the raising of the serpent in the wilderness is a remarkable example of ritual prophecy.

The Serpent on the Pole (Num 21:4–9)

 When Israel questioned the intentions of Yahweh when He brought them out of Egypt, he sent fiery serpents among the people. The result was put pithily and specifically: “Much people of Israel died” (v6). No mention is made of any strangers in the midst of Israel being smitten. Once bitten, death was inevitable. It was significant that the serpent bite inflicted death, and the serpent in Eden deceived Eve and so sin was brought into the world (Gen 3). The result of this deadly bite illustrates what is happening to us all, “for all have sinned” and “the sting of death is sin ” (Rom 5:12; 1 Cor 15:55–56). Death is not a problem peculiar to Israelites!

In their desperation the people came to Moses and pleaded with him to pray to God that He might come to their aid. Moses’ prayer was answered, and Yahweh said to Moses, “Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole (Heb “ness”): and it shall come to pass, that everyone that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live”.

 Here, the “cause” of their dying, the serpent, was itself put to death as a basis for life being restored! Moreover the serpent had to be lifted up on a pole so that all might see it and be healed. The record is specific. This cure would not only provide for the “people of Israel” who were bitten (v6), but for everyone”, for Israelite and stranger alike. Those who were smitten had to do something as well. They had to respond and “look upon” the impaled serpent if they would live. So it was that Jesus, when likening the lifting–up of the Son of Man to the lifting up of the serpent, drew other parallels with that incident. This means of finding life would be for all, as signified by his use of the words, “whosoever” and “the world” (John 3:15–16); also, there would have to be a personal response, some action taken on the part of those who would receive this abundant and eternal life. So he continues his salient, meaningful words to Nicodemus, “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life(John 3:15–16).

It is worthy of note that this novel institution of the serpent on the pole had no precedent. It was a unique and arresting diversion. Under the Law of Moses there was a sin offering that could have been made in the event of the congregation sinning (Lev 4:13–21). It was completely bypassed, as were the Levitical priests who administered the Law. Yahweh was therefore teaching that the Law of Moses could not give life and that ultimate salvation and eternal life would come extraneous to the Law so recently given!

“An Ensign of the People” (Isaiah 11)

 Later in the history of God’s people there would be a further echo of this amazing happening in the wilderness. The prophecy of Isaiah more than any other Old Testament book presages the call of the Gentiles, and so it is appropriate that in his prophecy we find a further reference to this “pole” or “ensign” (Heb “ness”). In Isaiah 11 we have one of the most glowing portraits of conditions pertaining to the Kingdom of God (v1–9), which concludes with a statement that all nations will be beneficiaries of Christ’s reign, “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea”. Then we are told of the source of this knowledge and why all nations will benefit: this root of Jesse would be conspicuous, “Which shall stand for an ensign (pole, Heb “ness”) of the people”—RSV and Rotherham translate this as “peoples”, that is, Gentiles. This is manifest from the following words, “to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest (“menuchah”) shall be glorious”.

Yahweh Nissi (Exodus 17:15)

 When Israel battled the Amalekites in Rephidim they achieved victory with Yahweh’s help. Moses’ hands were lifted up by Aaron and Hur and, while they were so directed to Yahweh on High, Israel “discomfited Amalek”. The Amalekites were Israel’s enemies in history and as such were a symbol of sin, the greatest enemy of all. Only with Yahweh’s help can spiritual Israel prevail and this help has been provided in the Lord Jesus, the “Saviour of the World”. Significantly at the end of this battle, Moses built an altar, and he called the name of it “Yahweh Nissi”, meaning “Yahweh is my banner” or ensign. This is the same cognate word as is translated “pole” (Num 21) and “ensign” (Isaiah 11). This incident in the wilderness also foreshadows the work of Christ, Yahweh’s servant, who was lifted up for all to see and believe in that they might not perish. With Yahweh as our banner we shall prevail.

“Sir, We Would See Jesus” (John 12)

 Following the Lord’s “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem, just days before he was “lifted up”, certain Greeks (Gk “hellenes”), who were present at Passover to worship at the feast, came to Philip with a request, “Sir, we would see Jesus” (v 21). Significantly in John’s record this incident follows a desperate outburst from the Pharisees as they sought to curtail Jesus’ influence, “Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing? behold the world is gone after him”!!

Philip passed on the request to Andrew and they both came to Jesus with the intimation. Jesus’ answer is highly significant. He reflects upon his death. What connection did his death have with Gentiles “seeing” him? In Scripture “seeing” can have a superficial or a profound meaning. To “see” him in the ultimate sense conveys the ideas of understanding him and all that this could lead to— glory, honour, and immortality. His death would lead to a “door of faith” being opened to Gentiles, of whom those few Greeks were representative.

Jesus’ reflections are instructive and illuminating. After indicating that the hour was coming when the Son of Man would be glorified (by a resurrection to eternal life and the response of all nations to the Gospel relating to him), he speaks of the way this would be brought about. “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (v 24). Jesus saw himself as the corn of wheat. He, like it, would have to die and be buried before others “after His likeness” could be produced! He then speaks of the cost this would involve for others: as he had to surrender his life in order to find it, so would they (v 25). He then spoke of the need for serving and following his example, and gives the assurance that his Father would honour those who did so. But it is notable that this offer is not limited. He again uses one of the terms which embraces Jews and Gentiles: “If any man serve me…” This is the way in which the Greeks who requested to see Jesus could have their wish fulfilled.

Following the troubling of his soul as he contemplated the path of rejection and suffering ahead and the reassuring voice from heaven, Jesus returned to thoughts about the significance of his death. There would be the judgment of this world, for the prince of this world would be cast out. Sin would be conquered (Rom 8:3), and the serpent power destroyed (Heb 2:14). This event would have a dramatic impelling effect upon all, both Jew and Greek: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (v32). How true this has been. What a remarkable prophecy this is—his death, which his enemies thought would relegate him into oblivion, in fact was part of the Almighty’s predetermined purpose! It was the essential foundation upon which God’s mercy would be extended to all men! And we Gentiles, stung mortally by the sting of sin, have “run to him” and found mercy and forgiveness in this One whom God has set forth—

Behold, I have given him for a witness to the people, a leader and commander to the people. Behold, thou shalt call a nation that thou knowest not, and nations that knew not thee shall run unto thee (Jesus Christ) because of the Lord thy God, and for the Holy One of Israel; for he hath glorified thee” (Isa 55:4–5; see John 12:23,28).

A Roman Death (John 18:28–32)

 Jesus had indicated the mode of His death very clearly (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). It is fascinating to see how this prediction was fulfilled. At one point Pilate told the Jews to take Jesus away and judge him according to their law. They sought the death penalty upon him, but they were forbidden by Roman law to carry this out: “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death”. This was notable and John makes the point that the Jews were unwittingly bringing to pass the very words of their victim: “that the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which He spake, signifying what death He would die” (v 32). The Roman death penalty was by crucifixion, whereas under the Law of Moses capital punishment was inflicted by stoning.

In all that we have written we should not lose sight of the amazing linkages in Scripture. We can see how remarkable these connections between the Old and New Testaments are. In this we perceive the inspiration of God. No man could possibly have written such words, spanning thousands of years and many writers. How our respect for Scripture is strengthened. Also, our appreciation as Gentiles is heightened, for we have been drawn to the one lifted up, that we might not perish but find eternal life.