The story of the bronze serpent in the Bible (Num. 21:4-9) often confuses believers. It appears as if God is instructing idolatry. The power of this scene is what it foreshadows in the person and work of Christ.
In the 40th year of their wandering through the wilderness, the people begin to complain again.
God does something drastic before they can enter the Promised Land.
God punishes their sin by sending venomous serpents to bite them. As people are dying, they stop complaining against Moses and now ask for his help. God instructs Moses to put a symbol of a fiery serpent on a pole and if they gaze at it, they will live.
What is amazing about this passage is that you can’t really grasp John 3:16 until you grasp John 3:14-15. You can’t grasp John 3:14-15 until you grasp Numbers 21:4-9.
The imagery is around you every day and you may have never noticed it.
Have you ever wondered why there are snakes on a pole on the back of a vessel that is supposed to provide healing?
That’s kind of interesting, isn’t it?
Maybe this story can help us understand it.
- “Impatient” means the soul of the people became short (Num. 21:4).
- In one moment, they complain against Moses and the LORD, and in another, they are calling out for Moses and the LORD (Num. 21:5, 7).
- We have a way of giving God credit for bad but neglecting to give him credit for good (Num. 21:5).
- Criticizing the gifts criticize the Giver.
- Sin leads to death (Num. 21:6; cf. Rom. 6:23).
- The symbol of their punishment became the instrument of their salvation.
- Beware that what God uses as an instrument of deliverance does not become an object of idolatry (2 Kings 18:4).
- Later in Israel’s life, they were worshiping this statue. It was called the “Nehushtan” (2 Kings 18:4). It literally meant the “bronze thing.” How pathetic are our objects of worship!
- This symbol must be lifted up (Num. 21:9; cf. John 8:28; 12:32, 34; Is. 52:13).
- You must fix your gaze upon this symbol (Num. 21:9). It is more than look at it and it is more than a simple belief (John 3:16; cf. James 2:19). It is a realization that if I don’t fix my gaze upon the one who can save me, I am going to die.
- The bronze serpent served to foreshadow Christ on the cross (John 3:14-16).
- The serpent provided life, but the Savior provides eternal life (John 3:16).
- Is my joy so complete that I beg and plead (2 Cor. 5:20)?
- Since God reconciled himself to me, how could I not be his ambassador?
- The cross is sufficient for all, but effective for all who believe (2 Cor. 5:20).
- Christ became sin so that we might know righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21).
“[The serpent] saved those that looked upon it, not because they believed it to live but because it was killed, and killed with it were the powers that were subject to it, being destroyed as it deserved. And what is the fitting epitaph for us?…You are overthrown by the cross. You are slain by him was is the giver of life.” -Gregory of Nazianzus (circa 325-389)
I pray that this story will continue to cause you to gaze upon Jesus even more! Study these passages and look to the one who can save forever!
The symbol of our punishment became the instrument of our salvation.