The Christ in the Book of Numbers—Part 5: The Bronze Serpent
A Bible Study Series based on “The Christ in the Book of
Numbers” by Shen Chuan Chen
Numbers 21:4–9 records an incident
similar to a number of others during the wilderness years. In each case, discouragement
and anxiety from an arduous journey led to rash words followed by punishment
from God—this time involving fiery serpents.
The people had traveled north from
Mount Hor towards Edom, by the Way of the Red Sea, a difficult and desolate
route. Not only was the journey itself trying, so were the circumstances. The
nation had been left bereft from the passing of Miriam in Kadesh (Num 20:1) and
Aaron on Mount Hor (Num 20:22–29). At the same time, the king of Edom refused
them passage through his land, meaning they had to change course (Num
20:14–21). We can imagine that morale was at its lowest ebb, hence the harsh
words directed at God and Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to
die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes
this worthless bread” (Num 21:5).
The murmuring incurred God’s
wrath, such that He sent fiery serpents to bite the people, causing many to
die. While it is uncertain what the serpents were, we can speculate they were
so-called because of their venom’s effect.
Moses, on his part, bore patiently
with his brethren’s castigations and even agreed to intercede on their behalf
before God—the Lord of life and death—asking Him to forgive their sins and to
remove the fiery serpents from their midst. Eventually, God instructed Moses to
make a bronze serpent set on a pole, so that those who were bitten could look
up at it and live (Num 21:8).
Viewed in isolation, God’s method
of deliverance seems strange and even somewhat arbitrary. However, with the
benefit of hindsight, we understand that the bronze serpent prefigured the
salvation of Jesus Christ.
In a conversation between Jesus
and Nicodemus about spiritual rebirth, Jesus referred him to this particular
episode in history, saying “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the
wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in
Him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:14–15). As a Pharisee,
Nicodemus would have been familiar with this story. However, there was a gap in
his knowledge, which was the significance of the bronze serpent—a
thousand-year-old enigma. Jesus explained that the serpent, far from being an
inconsequential detail, prefigured the Son of Man. It revealed the mystery of God’s
salvation plan and His transcendental wisdom.
For some of us, there may be an
inherent difficulty in accepting that the bronze serpent represents Christ. We
cannot help but recall that our first ancestors were tempted by the serpent in
the garden of Eden. For this reason, we have the notion that the serpent is
exclusively a symbol of Satan. However, in ancient Near Eastern culture, the
serpent was a symbol of power. The Egyptians, for example, revered the serpent,
along with the eagle, two regal animals of the desert. Both coalesced in the
persona of the pharaoh, highlighting his political and religious supremacy.
God Himself utilized the serpent
as a symbol of His divine power prior to the exodus (cf. Ex 7:8–12). When He
sent Moses and Aaron to meet Pharaoh, He told Aaron to cast down his rod before
Pharaoh, and let it become a serpent. However, Pharaoh’s magicians were able to
do the same. Pharaoh, possessing a powerful combination of political and
religious clout, was determined to show that he was not to be defied by anyone,
least of all Moses and Aaron who dared to ask for the freedom of his slaves.
Yet Aaron’s rod swallowed up Pharaoh’s, demonstrating God’s superior authority.
Despite this, Pharaoh refused to give in, thereby incurring trouble for himself
and the whole land of Egypt.
From the afore-mentioned story, we
see that the serpent does not always represent Satan; it is also a symbol of
authority. Unknown to Moses, the bronze serpent prefigured the Messiah: just as
the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, so Jesus Christ would be lifted up
on the cross, so that sinners can look up at Him and be saved.
Unfortunately the bronze serpent
later became an idol to which the Israelites offered sacrifices for seven
hundred years. When Hezekiah ascended to the throne in Judah, “he did what was
right in the sight of the LORD, according
to all that his father David had done. He removed the high places and broke the
sacred pillars, cut down the wooden images and broke in pieces the bronze
serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned
incense to it, and called it Nehushtan” (2 Kgs 18:3–4). In short, Hezekiah put
an end to the Israelites’ deviation of faith, at least for a time.
Serpent Set on a Pole
Hidden within the miracle of the
bronze serpent are a number of teachings and insights for Christians.
One Bronze Serpent
Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned,
for we have spoken against the LORD and
against you; pray to the LORD that He take
away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and
set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at
it, shall live.”
Aside from symbolizing the suffering
Messiah, the bronze serpent also revealed His uniqueness. For this reason, God
told Moses to make only one.
Satan can be likened to the fiery
serpents in the wilderness, harming the elect during their journey. At the
beginning of time, he had also tempted Adam and Eve to sin (Gen 3). However,
because Christ was lifted up, we are granted new life and forgiveness of sins
if we believe in Him. Hence, Peter and John testify for the Savior, saying,
“This is the ‘stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the
chief cornerstone.’ Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other
name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11–12).
In the 1400 years from the time of
Moses until the birth of Christ, the Jews, as a nation, upheld the belief in
the one true God through the Law of Moses. For this reason, they found it hard
to accept that Jesus, the Son of Man, was “the Christ, the Son of the living
God” (Mt 16:16), that He was one with God (Jn 10:30) and was God manifested in
the flesh (1 Tim 3:16). Due to their unbelief, the Jews were constantly trying
to find fault with Him and were convinced that eliminating Him equated to zeal
and piety towards God. Even so, God, in His loving kindness, did not abandon
them. Indeed, He went on to fulfill His salvation plan, first alluded to 1400
years earlier by the bronze serpent set on a pole.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so
must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not
perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave His only
begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have
This extraordinary prefiguration
revealed the will and plan of God, and reminds us of prophet Isaiah’s words: “Remember
the former things of old, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and
there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient
times things that are not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will
do all My pleasure’ ” (Isa 46:9–10).
Man’s perspective is limited and
partial. Hence, it is difficult for many to grasp the truth of the Godhead,
particularly the fact that God is self-existent and eternal. Yet the Bible is
clear that He was the one true God in the past; He is the one true God in the
present time; and He will be the one true God in the future. When elder John
wrote the Book of Revelation, he documented these words of Jesus: “ ‘I am the
Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,’ says the Lord, ‘who is and who
was and who is to come, the Almighty’ ” (Rev 1:8). Accepting that Jesus Christ
is the one true God is a condition of grace for both Jews and Gentiles.
Set on a Pole
Then the LORD said to Moses,
“Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who
is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.”
Before the arrival of God’s saving
grace, the world was under the power of sin. Its effects could be likened to
the venom of the fiery serpents, bringing about man’s certain doom. However,
Christ died on the cross to save us from the bondage of sin and to give us the
chance of renewal: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we
might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21). This is the key
significance of the bronze serpent.
To Look and Live
As the poison of the fiery
serpents acted on the Israelites, Moses worked swiftly to make a bronze serpent
according to God’s instruction (Num 21:9). This method of deliverance must have
seemed improbable at the time, but it worked.
In truth, the instruction to look
up at the bronze serpent was nothing short of a test of faith—of the people’s
willingness to believe and act upon Moses’ words. We can imagine that perhaps
there were some who, even under the dire circumstances, judged the situation on
the basis of their own logic and concluded that it was impossible for the
bronze serpent to save them. If this was the case, they would have forfeited
There is a vast difference between
God’s thinking and man’s, and this is particularly apparent in the New
Testament period. Despite the fact that Jesus ushered in a new era of grace,
the scribes and Pharisees held on tightly to their Old Testament laws and
traditions. In effect, their stance excluded them from the blessing of
justification by faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 4:1–16).
The situation is similar today.
Many people still find it hard to accept that they can be saved by simply
believing in Jesus. However, the story of the bronze serpent reveals that
salvation is appointed by God; everyone can have easy access to this grace. All
we need to do is believe: “Behold, the eye of the LORD
is on those who fear Him, on those who hope in His mercy” (Ps 33:18). Such
truths could neither be grasped by the Jews with their legalistic mindset, nor
by those who later advocated complex and ascetic forms of religion. For them,
God’s salvation grace was a stumbling block.
We may wonder whether the bronze
serpent had any inherent powers to heal those who had been bitten. The answer
is no. Healing came simply from the people’s belief in God’s word. The lesson
for Christians is that we, too, can be renewed in our spiritual lives if we
look up at the bronze serpent set on the pole. We don’t need to look towards
Moses, who represented the Old Testament Law, nor Aaron, who represented the
sacrificial system. Rather, we should look upon Jesus Christ who died on the
cross, and we will be assured of victory over death.
“O Death, where is your sting?
O Hades, where is you victory?”
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Cor 15:55–57)
Salvation was once shrouded in
mystery, but God in His wisdom chose to reveal its path in different ways over
the generations. One by one, His revelations pointed to the coming of Christ.
The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by
hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and
Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are His
witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to
those who obey Him.
As we have since received the
salvation of Jesus through repentance and belief, we should hold on to it
tightly by looking to Him each day of our faith journey.