In Genesis Satan spoke through a serpent in the Garden of Eden and the first promise of the Messiah was prophesied.
“And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:
And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:14–15)
THE SERPENT ON THE POLE AND THE CROSS OF CHRIST
When the fateful day of disaster came, everything changed—and rightly so. God warned us that if we were to disobey Him then we would surely die. After sin, God fulfilled His warning in just manner. The serpent was cursed (more than all the other creatures) and mankind was to return to dust (i.e., die). Yet we should never overlook the first great working of God’s unlimited grace in the midst of His righteous judgment. God said to the serpent (Satan), “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head and you shall bruise His heel” (Genesis 3:15). This coming Seed that will crush the head of Satan was promised by God. From this point on, we see in Scripture and understand our true need for the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
In theological terms, this is called the proto-evangelium (the first Gospel). God promised that through the Seed (i.e., descendant) of a woman (Eve) would come one who would crush the head of Satan. This is the first promise of a Savior and the first great act of God’s grace after our tragic act of rebellion.
When we read the account of Genesis, and particularly the first eleven chapters, we get a full historical foundation for understanding of the significance of this promise of a Savior, and the depth of our desperate need for salvation. Not only do we see that we are rebellious, and under the wrath of God, but Genesis also tells us that since that rebellion, sin is constantly and aggressively crouching at our door (Genesis 4:7), and that we are totally consumed by sin (Genesis 8:21). The promise of a Savior from man’s rebellious nature is something we see consistently throughout Scripture—from its origin in Genesis, all the way through to Christ’s ultimate victory in Revelation.
So, we move to throughout the wilderness wanderings of Moses and the Israelites, God was constantly teaching them things about Himself and about their own sinfulness. He brought them into the wilderness, to the same mountain where He revealed Himself to Moses, so that He could instruct them in what He required of them. Shortly after the amazing events at Mt. Sinai, God brought them to the border of the Promised Land, but when the people heard the reports from the spies, their faith failed. They said that God could not overcome the giants in the land. As a result of this unbelief, God sent them into the wilderness to wander until that generation died out (Numbers 14:28-34).
In Numbers 21, the people again got discouraged, and in their unbelief they murmured against Moses for bringing them into the wilderness. They had already forgotten that it was their own sin that caused them to be there, and they tried to blame Moses for it. As a judgment against the people for their sin, God sent poisonous serpents into the camp, and people began to die. This showed the people that they were the ones in sin, and they came to Moses to confess that sin and ask for God’s mercy. When Moses prayed for the people, God instructed him to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole so the people could be healed (Numbers 21:5-7).
God was teaching the people something about faith. It is totally illogical to think that looking at a bronze image could heal anyone from snakebite, but that is exactly what God told them to do. It took an act of faith in God’s plan for anyone to be healed, and the serpent on the stick was a reminder of their sin which brought about their suffering. This serpent was symbolic of the serpents God used to chastise the people for their unbelief.
A couple of additional lessons are taught in the Bible regarding this bronze serpent. The people did get healed when they looked at the serpent, and the image was kept for many years. Many years later, when the Israelites were in the Promised Land, the serpent became an object of worship (2 Kings 18:4). This shows how easy it is for us to take the things of God and twist them into idolatry. We must never worship the tools or the people God chooses to use, but always bring the honor and glory to God alone.
The next reference we find in the Bible to this serpent is in John 3:14. Jesus indicated that this bronze serpent was a foreshadowing of Him. The serpent, a symbol of sin and judgment, was lifted up from the earth and put on a tree, which was a symbol of a curse (Galatians 3:13). The serpent lifted up and cursed symbolized Jesus, who takes away sin from everyone who would look to Him in faith, just like the Israelites had to look to the upraised symbol in the wilderness. Paul is reminding the Galatians that Jesus became a curse for us, although He was blameless and sinless—the spotless Lamb of God. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
When Jesus explained the nature of His atoning death on the cross to the Israelites of His day, He appealed to what is arguably the most fascinating of the redemptive symbols from the history of Israel’s wilderness wandering–namely, the bronze serpent on the pole (Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14). The bronze serpent is the clearest type of the saving work of Jesus at Calvary. Of all the types and shadows, there was not any that showed forth the principal work of the Savior better than this type. Jesus could have pointed to the Passover, or to any of the sacrificial types that foreshadowed His atoning death, but He chose to point to this type in his discussion with Nicodemus. Here are 14 points that are meant to teach us how the account of Numbers 21:4-9 serves to deepen our understanding of the Gospel:
1. The bronze serpent was God’s means of salvation for the Israelites who were bitten by the serpents in the wilderness. Jesus Christ crucified is God’s means of salvation for everyone who has been bitten by the deadly venom of sin in the wilderness of this fallen world.
2. The bronze serpent was God’s only way of salvation for the Israelites. Jesus Christ crucified is God’s only way of salvation for Jew and Gentile (consider the redemptive-historical reading of John 3:16 in light of John 3:15. In the OT the Israelites were loved by God and so given a typological way of healing; in the New Testament we are told that “God loves the world,” that is, Jews and Gentiles, as so gave His Son for the redemption of His people from every tongue, tribe, nation and language).
3. The bronze serpent was a visual representation of the wrath of God against a grumbling and complaining people. Christ crucified is a visual representation of the wrath of God against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.
4. The bronze serpent represented the propitiation of the wrath of God. Whoever looked at the serpent would know that the wrath of God was turned away. The cross of Christ displays the wrath of God as well as the turning away of that wrath. Mercy and truth meet together at the cross; righteousness and peace kiss one another in the death of Jesus.
5. The bronze serpent was a symbolic representation of the venomous serpents that bit the people and brought deadly consequences on account of their sin; however, it was without the venom that caused their death. Christ represented those who were ruined by sin, taking to Himself a body in the likeness of sinful flesh–yet without sin–so that He might, through His death, save those who by their own sin were poisoned unto death. He was made a curse for us that we might receive the blessings of God.
6. The bronze serpent was meant to remind the Israelites of the cause of their sin. It was meant to carry their minds back to the Garden of Eden where Satan came in the form of a serpent to tempt their first parents. The punishment for the sin, brought into the world through the temptation of that Serpent of Old, was laid on Jesus at the cross. The penalty for our sin fell on Him. He became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
7. With respect to the serpent in the wilderness, the healing was dependent upon the word of God concerning His means of salvation. With Christ crucified, salvation is dependent on God’s word concerning His means of that salvation.
8. As the poisoned Israelites were called to believe God’s command–and the bronze serpent was made the object of that command–we see that both the means and the instrument of God’s salvation are typified. In the account of Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus both the means and the instrument of God’s salvation are pointed out. A crucified Savior is the means of God’s salvation. Faith (or looking to Him) is the instrument of salvation.
9. The plagued Israelites were externally called to look upon the bronze serpent in order to be healed. Sinners are externally called to look upon the crucified Son of God to be saved.
10. The serpent was lifted up before the Israelites in the midst of the camp so that those who were bitten might look and be healed. Christ was lifted up–first on the cross, then in His resurrection, then in His ascension, and finally in the preaching of the Gospel–so that sinners might look on Him and be saved.
11. The bronze serpent was the central and all sufficient means of healing for the Israelites. The cross is the central and all-sufficient means of the saving work of Christ for the healing of all who believe in Him.
12. Just as God chose a man, Moses, to lift up the bronze serpent on the pole so that men might look and be healed, God has chosen ministers to hold up Jesus in the preaching of Christ crucified so that men might look to Him and be saved.
13. Just as looking to a bronze serpent was a foolish means of healing poisoned Israelites, so looking to a crucified Savior (an publicly executed Man) is a foolish means, in the world’s eyes, for the salvation of a sinners condemned to death.
14. The bronze serpent was held up for many for salvation from the wrath of God and the deadly consequences of sin. Christ was lifted up for many for the salvation of men from the wrath of God and the deadly consequences of sin. Only those who looked were saved from the poison of the serpent bites. Only those who look in faith to Christ are redeemed from the deadly bite of sin.