The first two centuries following the birth of Jesus were devastating for the Jewish people in Judea. The Jewish people witnessed the crucifixion of Messiah and growing tensions between those who believed in their heart that God raised Him from the dead, and those who were disillusioned and still looked to the Temple sacrificial system for their forgiveness. Then followed the destruction of that Temple. The disillusioned refused to look to Messiah, and instead looked to themselves and created a new religion, that of modern day Judaism. The tensions grew into persecution for the Jewish believers at the hands of both the Romans and the Jewish establishment, and then following the Bar Kokhba revolt, the tensions exploded into Emperor Hadrian’s order of banishment for all Jews, both believers and disillusioned from the land of Israel. His attempt to thwart God and expunge the memory of Israel from history led to his renaming of the area Syria-Palestina, from which comes the modern name often used of the area, Palestine. Yet, despite all this, the rabbis of the time would write in the Babylonian Talmud, dated to the 4th century, in a commentary on Numbers 21, “Did the serpent kill, or did the serpent heal? Rather, when the Jewish people turned their eyes upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed, but if not they rotted from their snakebites” (Rosh Hashana 29a).
I had the opportunity recently to preach this text, accompanied by Jesus’ teaching to Nicodemus that culminated in probably the most familiar verse in the New Testament, John 3:16. In that gospel lesson, Jesus likens himself to the bronze snake on a pole. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14). Just as God used a symbol of wrath to draw the Israelites eyes upward in the wilderness, so he did also with Y’shua on the cross. To paraphrase Rosh Hashana 29a then, if the Jewish people would simply turn their eyes upward and subject their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they would have eternal life.
So often I find myself talking to Jewish people who are asking the same question that Nicodemus asks. “How can these things be.” There is really no evidence in the texts that Nicodemus ever confessed his faith in Y’shua as Messiah. Yet, his provision of embalming spices led Alfred Edersheim, a Jewish believer and author of The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, to conclude that that was a public testimony of his faith. Pray with me that the Jewish people would simply look up and subject their hearts to their Father in Heaven, in Y’shua’s name.