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The Christ in the Book of Numbers—Part 5: The Bronze Serpent
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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.[1]

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).

Prefiguration of Christ

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.

The Bronze 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.”

              (Num 21:7–8)

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 everlasting life.

              (Jn 3:14–16)

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.”

              (Num 21:8)

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 their lives.

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.

              (Acts 5:30–32)

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.

[1] See “Serpent, Fiery” in Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, eds., Charles F. Pfeiffer, Howard F. Vos, John Rea (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983).

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