Moses and the bronze serpent (John 3:14-15)

Isn’t it funny how you can read a passage of Scripture 5 times, 50 times, 500 times, and still not realise what it is talking about? That’s what Jesus rebuked Nicodemus about in John 3:10. And it is what I’ve experienced the many times I’ve read John chapter 3. It probably won’t be the last time either, so I can’t be too critical of Nicodemus.

Jesus had been explaining why Nicodemus – and all of us – need to be born again [see John 3:1-13]. And He was adamant that this new birth was entirely a work of God by the Holy Spirit, not something any of us are able to do for ourselves.

Then Jesus inserts these words that I’ve never before connected with the rest of the passage; “… as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” [John 3:14-15].

As it turns out, they are critically important words for us to understand our part in the work of new birth, the work that is done entirely by God. Confused? Let’s see if we can shed some light on it.

To do that, we need to go back to the (infamous) event in Numbers 21:4-9 that Jesus was referring to. It is worth the minute it will take you to read it, because the insights from it are amazing.

The Israelites had been complaining bitterly and criticising both Moses and God, so the LORD (see footnote) sent serpents to bite them and kill them as punishment for their sin.

It is in God’s solution to this problem that we discover amazing insights that speak to us today, and must have spoken to Nicodemus 2,000 years ago.

But God’s solution seems absurd. Craft a serpent out of bronze and put it up on a pole for the people to look at. “That’s just crazy talk! How can that cure us? There are a dozen better ideas that I could come up with.”

But their problem was sin. And there is no earthly solution, no human solution to the poison of sin. If there was, God would have given them one. But the only solution to their sin is the solution that God Himself provides. And it previews God’s solution for our sin, indeed for the sin of the whole world.

What else do we learn from this passage?

  • Just as the venom from the serpents infected every part of their bodies, so sin has infected every part of us.
  • In their case, they faced physical death as punishment for their sin. Now, all mankind faces spiritual death, eternal death because of sin.
  • The remedy offered to them was a representation of their sin lifted up on a pole for the whole nation to see. So too, the remedy for our sin is the Son of Man lifted up for all to see.
  • The bronze serpent had no power to heal. But Christ does, and He can heal permanently.
  • A look to the bronze serpent brought physical healing; a look to Christ in faith brings spiritual healing.
  • There was no other remedy provided for them. There was no other way to be cured. And there is no remedy for sin provided but Christ, lifted up on that cross, that we may be healed, and healed forever, of sin.
  • The serpent on a pole was only an image, a likeness, of the thing that poisoned them. It was not the real thing. It had no poison in itself. Just so, Jesus Christ was a man without sin in Himself, but He became sin for us. He was crucified “in the likeness of sinful flesh” [Rom 8:3].

Why was it only a model of the serpent, not a real serpent hung on that pole? Because that would have spoiled the picture. That would have told us that judgment is inflicted on the sinner himself. But in Christ, the judgment that we deserve is inflicted on a sinless substitute. Truly, the picture is perfect, and the picture is beautiful.

It didn’t matter how sick the people were, it didn’t matter how close to death. It didn’t matter how many times they had been bitten, nor how long they had been infected. It didn’t matter if they were close to the serpent, for they didn’t need to touch it. It didn’t matter how clearly they could see it; a tiny speck on the horizon is all they needed to see.

All they needed to do was to look, and they would live.

This apparently ridiculous method of healing is God’s method of healing from sin. It is the part we play in the work that God alone can perform when he brings about new birth. We must look in faith to the cross and to the One hung on it.

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” [1Cor 1:22-23].

God’s remedy is so often a stumbling block and folly to us. It’s ridiculous. Surely I must do more than look to a Man crucified on a cross. That’s just too simple!

Yes, it is simple; so simple that even a small child can do it. But have you done it? Have you looked to Christ on that cross? He was made to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” [2Cor 5:21].

For just as all who looked to the serpent lived, so all who look to Christ will live. Look to Him!


Footnote: When you see ‘LORD’ written in your Bible in all capital letters, it is translating the Hebrew word YHWH, sometimes written Yahweh, or Jehovah. It comes from Ex 3:14. The New Testament makes clear that YHWH is none other than Jesus Christ.

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