And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
Jesus references the “bronze serpent” episode in the Old Testament. Israel was complaining about the food God was feeding them with – specifically, it says, they “loathed” the “worthless bread” God sent them – so God sent serpents to kill them. Moses interceded, so God had Moses make a bronze serpent, so that whoever looked at the serpent would not perish.
So also must the Son of Man be lifted up. Is this talking about Jesus’ death or His ascension? Based on the other big reference to this “being lifted up,” Jesus is referring to His death. “ ‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.’ ” This He said, signifying by what death He would die.”
Yet, here’s another instance where Jesus talks about being lifted up: “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and that I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things.”
What great thing is revealed at Jesus’ death, so that those who lifted Him up, the Jews, would know that He is the Christ? Or that Jesus is the Son of God?
Well, let’s go to John’s Gospel and find out: “[O]ne of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe. For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, ‘Not one of His bones shall be broken.’ And again another Scripture says, ‘They shall look on Him whom they pierced.’ ”
Water and blood coming out of Jesus is the great testimony of something. We need to reference this passage from John’s epistle again: “This is He who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth….there are three that bear witness…: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.”
The element of the Spirit comes from this passage of St. John, just at Jesus’ death: “He said, ‘It is finished!’ And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.” As it is written in the Psalm, “What You give them they gather in; You open Your hand, they are filled with good. You hide Your face, they are troubled; You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; And You renew the face of the earth.”
This Psalm binds several loose ends together. The Psalm is about how God provides food, and the faithful all “wait for You, That You may give them their food in due season.” Israel in the wilderness was not faithful, and complained about God’s food, as did Israel in Jesus’ wilderness, when He taught about the bread of life. When that happens, God hides His face, as Jesus did in John 8.
But when God sends forth His Spirit again, “they are created” and the Lord renews the “face of the earth.” And this happened at the cross.
We’ve wondered whether this “It is finished” is the actual completion of the creation, or rather, the eschatological completion of the creation. Keep in mind Jesus’ death was from the foundation of the world, as we read, “All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”
The lamb slain is the foundation of the world, the event releasing the Holy Spirit, along with water and blood, which testify to the truth for all to see, so that everyone who looks at these things will live.
On these terms, Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of the Father is simply an extension of His cross, for it was there too that He released the Holy Spirit, to come on Pentecost and begin the renewing of the face of the earth. You might say, what happened eschatologically at the cross began to be administered in time with Jesus’ sitting at God’s right hand, hence, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’ ”
With the beginning of the administration of Christ’s cross in time, eyes begin to turn toward Jesus’ cross. Jews who formerly “lifted Him up” now tremble and say, “What shall we do?” Eventually, Jesus tells us, all eyes will look on Him whom they have pierced.
This we learn from Zachariah, “And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. …In that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness.”
Clearly this is the day of Pentecost, when the eyes that looked on the pierced one were given a spirit of grace and supplication – “What shall we do?” “And you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2: 37-38) – followed by baptism. This is when people began to look at the one who was lifted up, the pierced one who is now the ascended one, the Lamb of God who sits at God’s right hand, the “Lamb as though it had been slain.”
And the testimony of the pierced one is the spirit, the water, and the blood. Holy Absolution, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion. Here is where we look on Him who has been lifted up.