Jesus, the Serpent
In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus refers to an Old Testament event that illustrates a New Testament truth.
The children of Israel had become discouraged because of the difficulties in their travel and spoke against God and Moses. God then sent fiery serpents among them and many of the people died. The people then acknowledged they had sinned and asked Moses to pray on their behalf that God would take away the serpents. “And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8).
And so Moses put the serpent of brass on a pole and those that looked lived.
Jesus then refers to the event and says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). When the Israelites murmured against God, displaying a rebellious spirit, the consequences were severe. Judgment came in the form of fiery serpents and the ultimate result of those poisonous bites was death.
This depicts the condition of the whole human race. By an act of rebellion Adam transgressed the law of God and plunged all his posterity into a state of condemnation. “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). Just as the Israelites were unable to deliver themselves from the curse that came upon them, men today are incapable of delivering themselves from the curse and condemnation of sin. The remedy was God’s provision. Brass speaks of judgment. It was on the brazen altar that sacrifices were burned under the old covenant.
By the lifting up of the brazen serpent, we are reminded that Christ received the judgment that was due His people.
The people were not instructed to apply their favorite remedy and that if they were sincere all would be well. Neither were they were not told to look to Moses, but to the serpent. “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). The law can never deliver but only condemn. The law is the schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. The law demands perfection and when we see how far short we have fallen we recognize the impossibility of saving, or helping to save, ourselves.
The people stricken in the wilderness were not instructed to put forth their best efforts to fight the serpents. Donald G. Barnhouse writes, “If the incident had been met after the fashion of our day, there would have been a rush to incorporate the Society for the Extermination of the Fiery Serpents, popularly known as SEFS; and there would have been badges for the coat lapel, cards for the district workers, secretaries for organization branches, pledge cards, and mass rallies. There would have been a publication office and a weekly journal to tell of the progress of the work. There would have been photographs of heaps of serpents that had been killed by the faithful workers…”
But Moses instructed the people, not to fight the serpents, but to look to the serpent on the pole.
How often humanistic thinking is substituted for biblical instruction in this day! An idea may seem to have merit, a concept may be logical; but if it is not in harmony with God’s revealed truth, it is wrong. Man’s sin problem cannot be solved by moral reform, good works, or religious exercise.
There is only one Savior and his name is Jesus. Speaking of Christ, Peter said, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, He draws a parallel between those in a former day looking on the serpent and today believing on the Son. He declares that the one who believes has eternal life. We learn from Paul’s writings that faith itself is the gift of God. Man in his natural state cannot produce it, but in regeneration faith is given. Now the one who believes has the assurance that he will not perish but can rejoice that eternal life is his.
The cure God provided for his people was certain. Those that looked lived.
Some may have hesitated, doubting at first; but when they looked, they were delivered. There may be those today who, upon being convicted of their sins, feel such a sense of unworthiness that they question whether God could forgive them and eternal life be theirs. But there is good news for burdened sinners in the words of Jesus: “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).
In Moses day, some at first may have thought it foolish to expect deliverance by looking on the brazen serpent. And certainly men by nature think the gospel message is foolish.
Yet what a change is wrought by divine grace! Paul describes it in these words, “We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). The Jews stumble at the thought of a suffering, dying Messiah. The cultured Greek considers the whole idea of a substitutionary death bringing salvation to fallen sinners to be foolish.
Multitudes today scoff at the gospel message and are offended by Christ’s exclusive claims that he is the way, the truth, and the life. But when the Spirit of God does his work within — what a difference! Blind eyes are opened; a new heart is given. The stumblingblock is gone; that which appeared to be foolish makes sense. By God-given faith the burdened soul now looks to the Lamb slain and rejoices in hope. Those who believe see Jesus Christ as the Savior they need. And according to Jesus’ own words, the one who believes will not ever perish.