Thursday, October 27, 2011

Q&A: Why a bronze serpent & how is that a shadow of the Messiah?

Question: Why did Moses use a serpent image and how was that a type of Jesus?

So after church last Sunday I was asked a question that I only was able to answer in part.  It intrigued me so I went home and sought the rest of the answer and decided to give it tonight since there may be others who have wondered the same thing…  The question came from Numbers 21.

Numbers 21:4-9 - From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And 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. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

The question was, why did Moses make the image that would save the people to look like a serpent and how was this, a shadow of Jesus Christ?

And it is sort of curious considering that the serpent in Genesis is Satan… why a serpent here?  Well, firstly, the serpent in Genesis and the image of the serpent here are not representative of the same thing.  How do we know that?  Well, in verse 9 of Numbers 21 it tells us that those who looked on the image of the bronze serpent were saved from the venom of the bite and they lived.

To give you a context for what’s happening here, the Israelites have been led out of Egypt by God’s hand and now they are making their way towards the land of Canaan.  Edom blocked their way and so after a successful battle they journey south to the Red Sea and then back North to Canaan thereby completely by passing the land of Edom altogether.

Along their journey, as Israel often did, the people began to complain.  Aaron has just died, and Miriam had died a while before him, and they are mourning and their mourning is moving to groaning over their situation.  Apparently having quickly allowed their trials to over power the memory of having experienced God’s power in saving them and providing for them at every turn.

So they complain against God and Moses and ask ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?’  So God allows for their punishment at the hands of or rather at the venom of a deadly snake.

As a result the people realize their sinful ways.  v7a - And 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.”

They realize that they have sinned and go to Moses to make intercession with the Lord on their behalf.  Now, Moses does go and do just that.  He prays for them.  In the last half of verse 7 it says, v7b- So Moses prayed for the people.

And God responds to Moses request, but not in the way that the people had requested.  Not in the way that Moses had likely requested either to be honest.  God responds, v8 - And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”

God answers by providing a remedy for the bites.  He does not remove the snakes.  The snakes stay among them for a certain period of time to be a reminder to them.  Every time they would be bitten by or just see one of those snakes they would remember what had brought that consequence upon them to begin with. 

v9 - So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

So God provides for the Israelites, not by removing the snakes, but by removing the ability for the snakes to kill the people if bitten.  He did it by instructing Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and raise it up on a pole high above the people for the whole camp to see.  I would surmise that it was likely centrally located in the camp so that everyone passed by it and saw it frequently.

And the implication is more an issue of when the serpents bit someone and not if they did.  If they bit anyone, that person wasn’t to try and suck out the venom, they weren’t to see the local physician for an anti-venom medication or attempt to treat it in any way on their own whatsoever.  They were to simply look to the image of the bronze serpent on the pole and they would live.

Now, how in the world was this supposed to teach the Israelites about the coming Messiah in whom they should place their trust and hope for salvation?

To get a better understanding we need to look over to John 3.

John 3:1-15 - Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

So Jesus is trying to wrap Nicodemus mind around the idea of the new birth.  Jesus tells him that to see Heaven one day a person MUST be born again.  Nicodemus couldn’t grasp it because his mind was legalistic and prone to think of salvation in terms of what he could accomplish… works he could do to EARN God’s forgiveness.

You see Jesus’ statement has an implied point that someone of Nicodemus’ well educated intellect would have grasped very quickly.  What confounded him was obvious.  It was as if Jesus asked Nicodemus, ‘Nicodemus, how much did you have to do with your physical birth?  Your first birth?’  Nicodemus responds, how can a man be born again?  How can HE re-enter the womb for a second time…

Nicodemus said, there is no work I can do to be born again, which was the whole point.  It wasn’t up to him to be born again, it was up to God to perform this work, that was what Jesus was driving home to him. 

To further explain using something that Nicodemus would be well acquainted with, v14 - as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Jesus compares Himself to the serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness.  He said, just as the serpent was lifted up, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.  That whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.

So we know that the serpent was a type of Jesus... a shadow of the coming Messiah... let's look at the similarities

- both the serpent and Jesus were lifted up, the serpent on a pole and Jesus on a cross.

- both were lifted high above the people (Golgotha could be seen for MILES to some degree)

- both were cures... the serpent cured the bite from a living serpent so that the people wouldn't die, Jesus cures our most serious venom of which we’ve all been bitten by, namely sin

- if the people looked to any cure besides the serpent image... medicine.. anything... they died, if we look to anything but Christ to save us (works, etc) we die... there is no work we can perform that will save us… our good works and efforts to be good don’t amount to squat. We must be born again, forgiven and justified by the Savior who hung on a wicked cross for our sin

- God ordained that looking upon the serpent image to be a cure... God ordained Christ to be the only Savior

- both were a very unlikely method of cure that no one would naturally think would work (the serpent because looking on a pole would do no good under any other circumstances, Christ was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks... they'd both rather seek "cures" to their sin on their own. 

In John 3:13-14 Jesus makes reference to the serpent when talking to Nicodemus... as a Jew, Nicodemus couldn't wrap his brain around having to trust Christ's grace and not his own works to atone for sin... it was mind blowing to him... and Jesus said, just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so much HE be lifted up...

- and now I think it is THIS one that explains the most about why a snake was used... ok, so what was a snake?  A vile, grotesque thing... especially knowing the history of the serpent in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve compiled with the danger of a snake’s venom, no one wanted to have anything to do with a snake... it was gross, its symbol offensive, YET to be cured of the deadly snake bite, they had to look on this thing that they despised so much... what about Christ?  Beautiful to us because we are born again and have been saved but what was He to the Jews?  For that matter, what is He to any unbeliever... a vile thing, grotesque... He was beaten and bloody... 

Isaiah 52:14 – As many were astonished at you— his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—

Isaiah 53:2-3 - For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.


- that which would provide a cure from a snake bite was the image of a snake... that which saves us from our sin, had to become the very thing that killed us spiritually... Romans 8:3-4 - For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

There were no magical powers in that bronze serpent.  They merely needed to look upon Him because that was the stipulation that God had in place in order for Him to heal them.  No other man could have taken Christ’s place.  Because no other man qualified.  The healing from our sin comes from the sacrifice of Christ because He is the Son of God, God in the flesh, not simply because He was a man.  He had to be a man in order for His sacrifice to qualify as a representative for humanity.  He had to be fully God so that He would be able to live a life as human that was unstained by sin and was thereby qualified to be the sin sacrifice for all who would ever be saved.

- The serpent image didn't wound anyone, even though it looked like the thing that caused the wound... again, Christ did not cause our sin, nor did He sin, yet He became the very thing that had caused our sin... as if HE had committed our sins...

2 Corinthians 5:21 - For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

You see, the bronze serpent was a very reddish bronze in color.  In fact, archaeologists have found bronze and copper in that region and it has a very deep red tone to its color.  The event with the Israelites illustrates both the sacrifice of Christ and the faith of His people.

Just as the bonze serpent was lifted up, so Christ, as one born “in the likeness of sinful flesh” was lifted up.  The afflicted Israelites had no other way of rescue than to look at the bronze serpent, just as sinners have no hope for salvation, for being spared from God’s wrath, except faith in the crucified and risen Son of God.

Isaiah 45:22 - Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.

Jesus Christ, in order to rescue us from our sin and from certain eternal death, put on human flesh, not subject to sin because He was fully God.  The God-man.  Second person of the Trinity, clothed in humanity but retaining full Deity.  Doing this He became our representative before God.  Since the world, under its own reasoning, cannot understand the wisdom of God, Christ was offered up in the foolishness of the cross. 

1 Corinthians 1:21 - For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

That we would look on Him who became our sin.  Just as the Israelites detested looking on the serpent, so too we should detest looking on what Christ had to become in order to save us.  When I look at the cross I see the innocent Savior covered in and paying the fine for my lies, my lusts, my idols… every sin that I should have been made to pay for, Christ willingly stepped in and paid my fine, taking my place on the cross.

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