Lessons from the Bronze Serpent
Written by: Richard Greene
“‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life…Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.’ But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.” (John 314-16; 12:31-33)
Jesus spoke of the mystery of His death on the cross by using the metaphor of Moses lifting the bronze serpent in the wilderness to save the Israelites from judgment. This story is found in Numbers 21. After a miraculous victory over the king of Arad and the destruction of his cities, the children of Israel continued their journey through the wilderness. They traveled around the land of Edom rather than through it and the journey was long. The people became impatient and complained against Moses and the Lord. He then sent fiery serpents among them. If someone was bitten, he would die. The people quickly repented and asked Moses to intercede for them. The Lord told Moses to make a bronze serpent and place it on a raised pole. When someone was bitten, he needed only to look at the serpent and he would be healed. This bronze serpent on a pole has become the international symbol for all medical care. It was called Nehushtan, meaning “a thing of brass.”
There are three key lessons for us in the story of the bronze serpent.
First, all who were bitten by the serpents could only be healed by looking at the serpent lifted on the pole. There was no other cure for the poisonous bite – no medical treatment, no human intervention, no act of worship, not even a word of prayer. They had to believe that looking at the serpent was their only hope to avoid death. This required faith on their part. Faith is the great equalizer because salvation is a free gift of God for everyone who believes in Jesus. Salvation is not given on any other basis than God’s grace and is received only through our faith, not by any works we have done (Ephesians 2:8-9). In faith, God has given all humans the opportunity to know Him and to be saved. Ultimately, faith is a choice – we can choose to believe in God because God has written the knowledge of Himself in our hearts and in creation (Romans 1:18-20). Faith is choosing what we already know to be true deep within ourselves. The story in Numbers 21 doesn’t include any distinction among the people. It seems that all complained against the Lord and Moses, and all were subject to the judgment of the fiery serpents.
Seeing the judgment for their sin, the Israelites repented and cried out to Moses who interceded for them before the Lord. Notice that God did not remove the serpents, He made a way to be healed from their poisonous bites. In the same way, we still must deal with our sinful desires and ways, but we do so knowing that God has provided healing and forgiveness for them through Jesus Christ.
The second lesson is the danger that we will worship the “things” of Christianity and use them for ourselves. In 2 Kings 18:4, hundreds of years after Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, we read that King Hezekiah destroyed it because the people were burning incense to it. The bronze serpent was a part of their history, an important story passed down to them from their fathers. It was made by Moses at the command of God and was used by the Lord to save the people. The children of Israel had been warned to burn incense only to God and only in the prescribed manner in the temple through the priests. However, over the hundreds of years since the time of the bronze serpent, the people had fallen into idolatry through their interaction with the Canaanites around them. This resulted in a mindset that caused them to use even the holy things of Judaism in an idolatrous way. We live in confusing times, with many social and cultural forces tempting us to use the things of our faith in ways they were not intended to be used. The things of our faith, our churches, worship, leaders, buildings, programs, and even our Bibles, are all good and used by the Lord, even as Nehushtan was good and was used to save the people. But they must never be the objects of our worship and we must not use them for ourselves. Many Christians struggle with low self-esteem, sin, past traumas, guilt, and feelings of inadequacy. They use the things of Christianity in a therapeutic way, to feel better about themselves. We do that with our worship. We worship God in a manner that pleases us. We tend to read the Bible for ourselves, seeking solutions to our problems. If we do, we will change the message of Scriptures and the stories of the Bible will become about us, not about the Lord.
The story of David and Goliath is often read as being about us. In the story we are David. The deeper meaning of that story becomes lost if we use it for ourselves. The story is not about us, it is about God. We must worship the Lord and Him only, and the things He has given to us must be used for His glory.
The third lesson is the meaning of the bronze serpent. Many wonder how Jesus could compare Himself to a serpent which is almost always symbolic of Satan and evil. Indeed, the serpent represents the evil one, “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31). One of the meanings of bronze in the Bible is “something that has been judged.” In Exodus 27:1 we see that the altar upon which the sin offering was to be sacrificed was made of bronze, signifying that our sin has been judged. The serpent in our story was made of bronze (Numbers 21:9). God likened Israel’s obstinacy to having a bronze forehead (Isaiah 48:4). Thus, the meaning of the bronze serpent is not that Jesus is the serpent but that through His death on the altar of the Cross, Satan, the ruler of this world, was judged. All who look to Christ’s finished work, seeing Him lifted up from the earth, will be saved. I urge you to look unto Jesus and Him only.
Let us not trust in the things of Christianity, but in Christ alone.
We are not saved by our worship or prayers or church attendance, but by faith in Christ alone.
In Jesus’ name!
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