Meaning of the bronze serpent: the gospel in Numbers

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In Numbers 21, the Israelites experience victory over the Canaanites but soon fall back into grumbling and complaining.
God brings a plague of snakes upon the people. It’s a divine judgment.
Their grumbling against God was to their downfall. But the people beg for mercy.
8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
-Numbers 21:8-9
Moses prays. God tells Moses to make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole. So God doesn’t simply take the snakes away. He also doesn’t prevent people from continuing to get bitten by the snakes.
But once bitten, a person could respond by faith in the Lord by looking to the serpent on the pole.
It’s an odd story. A number of questions might come to mind.
Isn’t that idolatry? Making this bronze serpent?
In the Golden Calf episode of Exodus 32, Moses is on the mountain receiving instruction from the Lord. He’s there for 40 days and the Israelites get restless. They take their gold and melt it into the image of a cow.
Why is it ok with the bronze serpent?
It’s a totally different situation. Most importantly, because God told them to do it this time.
Secondly, this wasn’t idol worship because they weren’t worshiping the serpent.
The serpent didn’t represent God to the people.
There are many wonderful gospel themes in this scene.
The Israelites sin against the Lord.
And so God brings a plague of snakes upon the people as divine judgment.
And yet, once the people repent and the bronze snake is made, it is in looking to that by which people are healed.
A symbol of death becomes a symbol of life 
Snakes were bringing death, but looking to this particular snake brought the promise of healing.
A symbol of judgment the Lord then uses as a symbol of victory.
The cross was the greatest symbol of judgment and condemnation in the Roman world.
A brutal punishment. And yet, it is to the cross that we see Christ’s victory over sin.
Perhaps you look at the story and think “but why a snake? Aren’t snakes bad in the Bible?”
Yeah, so are people, but it is through a man that we are saved. The Lord Jesus, both God and man.
The gospel 
In a person being healed because of looking to the snake, it took what they were doing out of their hands. It was entirely the work of God.
So too we see this in the gospel. It is not based on us, or how good we are. We are totally helpless to heal ourselves from the disease of sin. It is looking to the cross, to looking at what Jesus has done, to trusting Jesus by faith that we can have salvation.
It’s foolishness 
The serpent doesn’t make sense.
The world is confounded by the gospel and the message of grace, the idea that we can be freely forgiven based on what someone else has done.
The world is offended by the message of salvation by grace.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians that the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18).
We want to save ourselves. We want to see how we measure up and to feel good about how good we are.
The gospel is that you cannot earn it. You look to what Jesus has done.
Salvation for the undeserving 
The Israelites were grumbling and complaining and blaspheming against God, and yet God saves them.
Jesus came into a world where people condemned him, polluted against him, betrayed him, and killed him.
While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
In both looking to the serpent and the death and resurrection of Jesus, what people needed was faith.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus will make specific reference to this event in Numbers. John chapter 3, Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, the Pharisee.
Jesus says “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” (John 3:14)
Moses literally lifted up the bronze serpent on a pole.
And Jesus was literally lifted up on the cross.
There, Jesus compares himself being lifted up to the bronze serpent.
For the Israelites who were afflicted by the serpent’s bite, life was found by looking to the bronze serpent. For us today, eternal life is found by looking to Jesus.
The main idea of our passage this evening is that: Opposing God brings death but true life is fond by faith.
Are you trusting in Jesus?
We’re infected with the venom of sin. And it’s a killer. There is nothing we can do on our own to take out that poison. The only antidote is found in looking to Jesus.
Look to him. Love him. Live for him.

Josh Benner is the associate pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in Minnesota.

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Categories: Bible, Christian living, Church, Commentary, Faith, Gospel, Theology

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