Reflection for Chukat
“Lifted Up to Save!”
John 3:9-21; 4:3-30; 12:27-50
by Mark Huey
Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1) is noted for detailing the purification rites of the red heifer, the death of Miriam, Moses striking the rock twice over the water shortage, the death of Aaron and the succession of the high priesthood to Eleazar, and various encounters with the Edomites, Canaanites, and Amorites as Israel sojourned through the desert. The one consistent theme seen in this week’s parashah seems to be best evidenced in the attitude of the “Exodus generation” of Israelites. They demonstrate a persistent problem of complaining about nearly every inconvenience that comes their way. We see in our reading how the lack of delectable food and a shortage of water, once again elicit grumblings against God and Moses. The Lord actually sends deadly snakes to judge the offenders—and once again the people plead with Moses to intercede before Him for deliverance:
“The people spoke against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.’ The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us.’ And Moses interceded for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘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.’ And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived” (Numbers 21:5-9).
The method for Israel’s salvation is not like when incense was dispersed throughout the camp (Numbers 16:42), but rather a seemingly strange manner with the fashioning of a bronze serpent. The Israelites who had been bitten by the poisonous snakes would have only needed to look at this object in order to be healed. In later Israelite history, this brazen serpent became somewhat of an idol, surviving until the time of King Hezekiah of the Southern Kingdom. It had to be destroyed as people were worshipping it, by burning incense to it in the courtyard of the Temple:
“Now it came about in the third year of Hoshea, the son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah became king. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem; and his mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. He did right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father David had done. He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan. He trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel; so that after him there was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor among those who were before him” (2 Kings 18:1-5).
The bronze serpent healing which took place in the Torah must have continued to have some kind of significance for later generations, as Yeshua the Messiah uses it to refer to His own work of salvation. In this familiar passage from John 3, Yeshua is confronted by the Pharisee Nicodemus in the dark of night, with some rather imploring questions:
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Yeshua by night and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.’ Yeshua answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?’ Yeshua answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’ Yeshua answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. 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. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God’” (John 3:1-21).
John 3:1-21 is one of the most well known salvation passages in the Apostolic Scriptures: a conversation and teaching encounter which takes places between Yeshua and Nicodemus. As the interaction transpires, it was clear that Nicodemus is definitely curious about this “teacher sent from God,” but seemed to be rather confounded about the concept He referred to of being “born again.” Despite years of studying and teaching and dialoguing and debating with others—Nicodemus could easily understand what Yeshua was speaking of in terms of being “born again.”
It has long been recognized in Biblical Studies that being “born again” or “born from above” was used in Second Temple Judaism to describe proselytes. The Talmud records, “R. Yosé says, ‘A proselyte at the moment of conversion is like a new-born baby’” (b.Yevamot 48b). Yeshua the Messiah simply took the terminology “born again,” and rather than apply it to proselytes to Judaism—applied it to His followers. Unless all of His followers experienced a personal transformation—which was only available in Him as Son of God—they could not hope to enter into the Kingdom.
It would have been very necessary for the teacher Nicodemus to make an effort to understand the deep, spiritual dynamic of what Yeshua had labeled as being “born again.” The fact that Nicodemus had to visit Yeshua secretly in the dark of night alone demonstrates that he had various spiritual inabilities that needed to be overcome. Yeshua was there to truly help Nicodemus understand realities of the supernatural (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:14-16; Isaiah 40:13).
Perhaps the most widely quoted Bible verse (other than Genesis 1:1) appears within the dialogue between Yeshua and Nicodemus. John 3:16 occurs immediately after John 3:14-15, where Yeshua asserts that by believing in Him lifted up like the bronze serpent—people can have eternal life:
“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. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14-16).
Only at a later date would Nicodemus, and anyone else who heard this teaching, be able to put all of the Messiah’s sayings together—realizing that He was lifted up before people to save them from their sins. Thankfully, it is indeed recorded that Nicodemus recognized Yeshua as Redeemer. Following His crucifixion he donated a costly mixture of myrrh and aloe in preparation for His burial:
“Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight” (John 19:39).
It took time for an inquisitive, and no doubt knowledgeable teacher like Nicodemus, to fully realize that Yeshua was the Messiah. For those studying and reviewing these Scriptures today, we should definitely be reminded of the significant importance of being born again. Being born again is something that comes only by being supernaturally regenerated by the power of God, and literally becoming a new man or woman in Him. It does not matter if you have the entire Bible memorized and can teach about it with eloquence and insight. The critical thing is that you have appropriated the finished work of Yeshua the Messiah in being lifted up from your sins!
When each of us receives a heart and mind which have been transformed, filled with the Spirit of God—we have a new, supernatural capacity to understand things which we may not have previously understood. If you had read the Bible before, the significance and meaning of various passages will often take on new dimensions for you. The theme of being “lifted up” like the bronze serpent was one which Yeshua used to speak to His Disciples and followers about His death.
In John 12 as His arrest and execution were imminent, we see Yeshua struggling through how He knows He will be tried and humiliated. As He is praying to His Father, a voice thunders from Heaven in assurance that what He will endure must occur. The purpose for Yeshua being lifted up—which should remind us of the bronze serpent—is so that all people can be drawn to Him. Sadly, we also read how various political and spiritual leaders acknowledged the Messiah, but refused to do so publicly:
“‘Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, “Father, save Me from this hour”? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.’ Then a voice came out of heaven: ‘I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ So the crowd of people who stood by and heard it were saying that it had thundered; others were saying, ‘An angel has spoken to Him.’ Yeshua answered and said, ‘This voice has not come for My sake, but for your sakes. 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 Messiah is to remain forever; and how can You say, “The Son of Man must be lifted up”? Who is this Son of Man?’ So Yeshua said to them, ‘For a little while longer the Light is among you. Walk while you have the Light, so that darkness will not overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes. While you have the Light, believe in the Light, so that you may become sons of Light.’ These things Yeshua spoke, and He went away and hid Himself from them. But though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet which he spoke: ‘LORD, WHO HAS BELIEVED OUR REPORT? AND TO WHOM HAS THE ARM OF THE LORD BEEN REVEALED [Isaiah 53:1]?’ For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, ‘HE HAS BLINDED THEIR EYES AND HE HARDENED THEIR HEART, SO THAT THEY WOULD NOT SEE WITH THEIR EYES AND PERCEIVE WITH THEIR HEART, AND BE CONVERTED AND I HEAL THEM [Isaiah 6:10].’ These things Isaiah said because he saw His glory, and he spoke of Him. Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God. And Yeshua cried out and said, ‘He who believes in Me, does not believe in Me but in Him who sent Me. He who sees Me sees the One who sent Me. I have come as Light into the world, so that everyone who believes in Me will not remain in darkness. If anyone hears My sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day. For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak. I know that His commandment is eternal life; therefore the things I speak, I speak just as the Father has told Me’” (John 12:27-50).
It is most sad, either in the First Century or today, when people are known to be Believers in Yeshua the Messiah and do not publicly confess it. While it is true that some people unwisely force their religious or spiritual views on others without discernment, it is also true in how the Lord is most clear to say: “whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32; Luke 12:9). Were various First Century Jews finally forced out of secrecy to publicly confess Yeshua as Savior? Today in the Messianic movement, we often hear things about hundreds of Orthodox Jewish rabbis in Israel who have apparently come to believe that Yeshua is the Messiah. But we do not know who they are. Is the information really true (and not an urban legend), or do such individuals fear reprisals and what following the Messiah might cost them? Thankfully, only the Lord Himself gets to determine the final destiny of any person who claims to know Him.
I hope and pray that we are all reminded of how believing in Messiah Yeshua—and recognizing who He is to others—are both required for a person to be designated as “born again.” Of course, it is very true that if you do this that you will have to pay a price. Some of you will only be socially ridiculed for your faith. Others of you may have to endure various degrees of exclusion of ostracism. As the Apostle Peter details,
“Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. AND DO NOT FEAR THEIR INTIMIDATION, AND DO NOT BE TROUBLED [Isaiah 8:12-13], but sanctify Messiah as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Messiah will be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong. For Messiah also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:13-18).
A few Messiah followers may actually have to die for the faith. But if one has genuinely experienced the salvation of Yeshua—there can be no greater duty than being a martyr for Him (cf. Revelation 2:10; 6:9-10)!
In response to how He was lifted up to atone for our transgressions and sins—always lift up the Messiah Yeshua in your praises and adorations! Make sure to speak of and to demonstrate forth His goodness to others!
 Numbers 19:1-22.
 Numbers 20:1-7.
 Numbers 20:8-13.
 Numbers 20:14-29.
 Numbers 20:18-23; 21:1-5.
 The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary.
This teaching has been excerpted from TorahScope Apostolic Scriptures Reflections by William Mark Huey