Christ and the Brazen Serpent
"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
"That whosever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life." - John 3:14-15
Christ, in his explanation of the Gospel message to Nicodemus, strikes a vivid parallel to his own sacrifice: the brazen serpent of Moses. God has never wasted one word (Matthew 4:4) and we know that there must be great significance to Christ using this illustration. Christ here directly applies the brazen serpent to Him, and creates very easily one of the clearest of all types in the Bible. Not withstanding the directness, clearness, and bluntness of this statement, there are great truths to be seen in this.
As a means of introduction into the typology involved here, we will first break down the events of Numbers 21:4-9 into principal parts which we will then examine in light of Christ and His work. By doing so we will familiarize ourselves with the setting, purpose, items, and people behind this story so that we may see the groundwork for the type. When we have concluded these, we will see how Christ is the antitype to the brazen serpent.
The children of Israel were wandering in the desert "from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom" (Numbers 21:4). This would place them upon the Arabah plain, which runs between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. This plain is very arid with soft and shifty sand that frequently blows about in dust storms. An interesting note is that in some places in this area the sand is almost a deep, Martian red in color. It is not void of vegetation, especially about the oases, but it is still a desert wilderness. It was here that the people of Israel became discouraged with the way.
The fiery serpents themselves are a great curiosity in their own right. There is a particular species of serpents in that area, which are quite poisonous. As is the habit of many species of animals in the desert, these snakes bury themselves in the sand to escape the sweltering rays of the desert sun. It is quite possible that the children of Israel pitched their tents above these borrowing serpents. These are red in color, though the descriptive term "fiery" probably refers not to their hue but to the sting of their bite.
Now let us go on to the purpose of the brazen serpent. The fiery serpents, which struck and killed many of the children of Israel, were sent by God as judgment for the sin of the people. "And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people" (Numbers 21:6) in response to when "the people spake against God" (Numbers 21:5). These were sent as the judgment for the people sin.
The brazen serpent itself is a source of points we will discuss. Brass was the material used in its construction, not gold, silver, or anything else. It was suspended upon a pole, between earth and heaven, and was in sight of all the camp.
Then last of all, we have the method for the healing of those bitten by the fiery serpents. All they had to do was look upon the serpent to have their life spared. They did unto have their own serpents or do anything, only look.
Now that we have laid the groundwork, let us build the structure of our argument. We base these arguments upon Christ's statement in John chapter three that even as the serpent was raised by Moses, so must He be lifted up for the salvation of men. We shall now consider the pictures used in Numbers to show how we have salvation.
The wilderness is a picture of the world. The Israelites wandered in such terrain because they would not surrender to the will of God and cross the Jordan. The barrenness and lack of life picture life away from God. So we are presently simply struggling for survival amidst the harshness of our environment and the disapproval of God.
We know that throughout the Bible that the serpent is used as a symbol of sin and evil. Since the Garden when Satan appeared in the form of the serpent it has been thus. These fiery serpents picture sin, but not just sin itself, but also sin's penalty. We know that the penalty of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and that death has a sting (I Corinthians 15:55). Those struck by those serpents it seems were doomed to die. Note that God did not send these on His own decision ("just for the fun of it"), but as a punishment for breaking His laws and turning against Him. Even so it was in the Garden, for Adam and Eve did not die originally, only after breaking God's law. God's law carries penalties and the penalty for just one sin is death, not just physical but also spiritual (Rev. 20:11-15). God is above all just, and though man has a free moral will to choose our own actions we must remember that when we break God's laws we will face the penalties. Just as those Israelites in the wilderness, we stand under God's judgment. We stand condemned lest God make a way of escape for us and still be appeased.
If these serpents used by God are identical to those mentioned afore, then we have a few notes to make. These serpents sprang forth from the red soil. Note that the name "Adam" in the Hebrew language means "red" (Brown-Driver-Briggs, etc.). From what was Adam created but from the "dust of the ground" (Genesis 2:7)? Adam is our father after the flesh, and from the flesh springs forth our sinful nature. These serpents came out of the red soil of that area and struck their deadly blows. Even so, sin lurks within our flesh and when its occasion comes strikes with its fatal blow (James 1:15).
As a side note, the next two points we will see carry two different forms of Biblical interpretation. I cannot fully say either is incorrect, for both bring out a truth worth mentioning. Perhaps these ideas will be unfamiliar, each of these have their support from greater Bible scholars than I.
Now let us look to where Christ likens himself in the story: the brazen serpent. It was a serpent, which as before stated is a symbol of sin. We may here draw two separate conclusions. First, Christ became sin for us (II Corinthians 5:21). Second, it was only like a serpent, not real but the image of one, and so Christ had the likeness of sinful flesh (Romans 8:3). Either course illustrates great truth.
Next, we see that it was made of brass, which may have one of two interpretations also. The first is that it symbolizes judgment (Deuteronomy 28:23 and illustrated in Exodus 21). Thus we see Christ bearing the penalty of ours sins and taking upon himself the wrath of God reserved for us. Also, brass may symbolize strength, durability, and firmness. Even so, the work of Christ upon Calvary endures forever, everlasting from eternity past to eternity future.
The Brazen serpent was suspended upon a pole, even as Christ was suspended upon the cross between heaven and earth. Matthew Henry states, "He was lifted up as the brazen serpent, hung between heaven and earth because we were unworthy of either, and abandoned by both." We may also adopt the language of John and say that he was "lifted up", thus immediately bringing to mind that Christ said "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me" (John 12:32). Even so is the Cross the great Lighthouse sending out its beam to save those lost souls upon life's sea, so long as we lift it and let it shine.
Notice that there was but one serpent made, and there was but one method for saving the dying. Even so there is but one way to be saved and but one method for doing it. Christ said, "I am the way" (John 14:6) and 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" (Act 4:12). The Bible clearly, repeatedly, and emphatically states that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Oh, but how simple was the cure for those Israelites! Simply look! Nothing of themselves, no gifts, no works, no merits, or no points of any kind, just a simply act of obedience in faith. Hear the cr y of the Lord today: "Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else" (Isaiah 45:22). Simply look to God is obedient expectation according to His Word!
Was it the brazen serpent that healed them? Was it their lifting the heads and gazing upon it that restored their the looking as the method, He alone cured them. First aid stations do not stock brazen serpents, so we know the power is greater than metal. We may look upon brazen figures of snakes all day, but the power to heal is not in them. No the power was and is God's. So is salvation. Though Christ is the object of our faith and our prayer to Him for salvation is the method, God alone does the saving. He always has and always will keep His promises, and we know that if we simply do as He has directed we will be saved.
If only we could sit at the feet of Christ and hear Him teach this! How much we must miss in our finite studies of the matter. Each point we have made is worthy of description the length of this entire work or more. We must here draw a close, however, due to time constraints. I do so with more on my heart and mind than I have been able to share at this time.