Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Mar 19 2019 - Numbers 21:1-9 – The bronze serpent

Here we go again! The Israelites are complaining against God and against Moses, this time just after the Lord had answered their prayers and given them victory over the Canaanite king of Arad. Their complaints are like a cracked record that plays the same phrase over and over again, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!" (v. 5). This miserable and detestable food was the Manna, the bread which God provided them with from heaven.

In return for their moaning, God sent them a plague of snakes that bit many of the Israelites and they died. The people recognised that they had sinned and cried out to Moses to intercede for them with the Lord. The Lord told Moses to make a bronze image of a snake and set it up on a pole. Anyone bitten by a snake who looked at this image would live.

What is that all about?

Jesus speaks of this strange incident when talking with Nicodemus, a serious student of the Old Testament Scriptures. In John 3:14-15 it is recorded that Jesus said, "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him." These words of the Lord Jesus are followed by one of the most famous verses in the entire Bible, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

When Jesus says that he "must be lifted up" he is speaking of his crucifixion. But how is Jesus being lifted up to die upon the cross like that brass snake on a pole made at Moses' command?

Like the Israelites, we too are rebels against God. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We too have been bitten by that ancient serpent; we are sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. And as a result we live in a wilderness world rather than Paradise, a world marked by disappointment, suffering and at last death: we are doomed to die.

But God does not delight in judgment; rather, he is full of compassion towards the world he has made. In love he sent his own beloved Son into the world so that we might find healing and eternal life through him. Just as Moses lifted up a snake on a pole – the symbol of God's judgment on his rebellious people – so Jesus was lifted up on the cross. But his lifting up is no mere symbol of God's judgment; here is God's judgment upon our sin – "the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." God's judgment fell there, not on us but on him, and he bore it to the full; "he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed."

All the venom of the snake and the judgment of God are focussed there at Calvary and are exhausted there. And as we look with the eye of faith at Jesus Christ hanging on the cross, trusting in his atoning work, we are healed and have life – we are forgiven, embraced by the love of our Father God and given eternal life. Moses' snake on a pole points us towards Christ.

God calls us, his people, to be those who point others to the cure for their deepest disease and to the source of life and hope. We are not simply to rejoice that God loves us and has given his Son for us, we are to urge others to look to Jesus and live. "There is life for a look at the crucified one."

Father God, we thank you that you have not left us to die of the serpent's bite – to die in our sin – but have provided us with life through our wonderful Saviour, Jesus Christ your beloved Son. Help us always to look to him as our hope and our help and to point others to him that they also may have life in him.

Peter Misselbrook