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The Signs and Secrets of the Serpent

The Signs and Secrets of the Serpent

Nicodemus the Pharisee came to Yeshua in the night, seeking clear answers.

Instead, Yeshua revealed to him mysteries and miracles, without Nicodemus even asking. Every part of this conversation has significance.

“Unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “How can these things happen?” Nicodemus asked.John 3:3-4a

By way of an answer, Yeshua started to explain:

“No one has gone up into Heaven except the One who came down from Heaven — the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,” said Yeshua, “so the Son of Man must be lifted up.John 3:13–14

Why on earth would Yeshua compare Himself to the serpent on the pole? We need to know because this is a foundational scriptural truth that often doesn’t get enough attention. What does it mean, and what’s the deeper spiritual significance? In the sign and secret of the serpent, we find a remarkably well-designed connection between the Old Testament and New, between Moses and the Messiah, that reveals new depths in what Yeshua has done for us, and the miraculous power He has today to atone, to provide, to heal, and to transform. As we explore the image of the serpent, we find that God has much to reveal to us.

What Is the Serpent on the Pole?

In His conversation with Nicodemus, Yeshua built on the idea that He was the greater Moses — the true Messiah:

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life!John 3:14–15

What is the meaning of this mystery of the serpent on the pole? On the surface, it seems like a strange analogy that Yeshua made. But all of this is based on Numbers 21:4–9, the account of the children of Israel wandering through the desert. And clearly, they were becoming disgruntled.

They travelled from Mount Hor along the route to the Sea of Reeds in order to go around the land of Edom. The spirit of the people became impatient along the way.
The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why have you brought us from Egypt to die in the wilderness, because there is no bread, no water, and our very spirits detest the despicable food [manna]?” So Adonai sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people and many of the people of Israel died.
The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against Adonai and you! Pray to Adonai for us, that He may take away the snakes!” So Moses prayed for the people.
Adonai said to Moses, “Make yourself a fiery snake and put it on a pole. Whenever anyone who has been bitten will look at it, he will live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and it happened that whenever a snake bit anyone and he looked at the bronze snake, he lived.
A harrowing story. Why would God do this? And why would God instruct Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole to represent salvation? More to the point, why would Yeshua connect Himself to this act of Moses? The first thing to understand is that Yeshua said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent.” The Hebrew word for “to lift up” is nasa. It can mean “to lift up,” but it can also mean “to bear,” “to carry,” or “to forgive.” The meaning in John 3:14 is “to bear” or “to carry” sin and guilt. In the Jewish system of atonement, a scapegoat was offered in the temple, on the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for the people; the goat carried the sins of the people: “The goat will carry [nasa] all their iniquities by itself into a solitary land and he is to leave the goat in the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:22). The Hebrew word nasa is one of the most critical words connected to salvation.
As a side note, we could say the English abbreviation NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, gives us the mental picture of lifting off, taking off, or going higher into outer space. That’s what the cross does for us. It causes us to blast off, to be able to leave earth, to go from death to life, from darkness into light, to go into the heavens where we’ve never gone before.
  • Yeshua was lifted up on the cross because He bore our sin like the scapegoat, just like the serpent on the pole.

The Messiah on the Cross

Isaiah 53:4 says,

Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our pains. Yet we esteemed Him stricken, struck by God, and afflicted.

When it says He “carried our pains,” the word for “carried” is nasa. In the Hebrew New Testament, the serpent in the wilderness was “lifted up” (nasa), and it bore the sins of the people who were grumbling. And as they lifted up (nasa) their eyes to look at that serpent, they found healing. When the Messiah was lifted up (nasa) on the cross, as the serpent was lifted up on the pole, He bore our sin and our pain, and it was for our gain. Just like the people who looked at the serpent on the pole found healing, when we look to Yeshua on the cross, we find healing and wholeness. So, Isaiah 53 — one of the most important messianic prophecies — connects back to the serpent on the pole in the wilderness. The serpent on the pole connects back to the scapegoat, which in turn connects to the cross, where the Messiah would bear our griefs and carry our pains.

Why would Yeshua need to be lifted up like the serpent on the pole, as He revealed to Nicodemus? Think about it. The first man and woman stole from the tree in the garden of Eden. When humankind took fruit down from the tree, it was a descent. There was a lowering spiritually, morally, physically, emotionally, and relationally — on every level. When humankind pulled that fruit off the tree and disobeyed God’s command, we dragged ourselves and all of creation down with us. So the Messiah had to descend from Heaven, and He had to be lifted back up onto the tree for you and me.

When He was lifted up, He was placed back on that tree to replace what we stole from the tree; He was placed on the cross to atone for the sin of the first man and woman and to redeem and repair us.

I don’t know about you, but I think what He did for us on that cross was amazing — a miracle. It brings to mind the words of Moses and the Israelites, singing to the Lord: Mi kamocha ba’elim Adonai, Mi kamocha nedar ba’qodesh, Nora tehillot oseh fele. Or,

Who is like You among the gods, Lord? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praises, working wonders?Exodus 15:11 NASB

We brought a descent, and Yeshua descended so that we could ascend.

Excerpted with permission from Signs and Secrets of the Messiah by Rabbi Jason Sobel, copyright Rabbi Jason Sobel.

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Your Turn

He descended because of the descent we brought about in Eden. He was lifted up onto the cross to repair the breach in relationship with God. Who would do such a thing but Jesus? Come share your thoughts with us about what Jesus did for us. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily