Evidences of Faith
Snake on the Pole
The people were complaining again. This time, they were tired of eating the manna God had given them to eat - food which they did nothing to earn, but was rained down from the sky for them:
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 our soul loathes this worthless bread." (Numbers 21:5)
It should be remembered that the manna tasted pretty good, like wafers made with honey (Exodus 16:31). Yet this was not the first time they had complained about it; a short time earlier, they whined about not having meat, and God rained down quail for them. Indeed, this incident is just one in a seemingly endless series of complaints.
God had performed wonder after wonder through His servant, Moses, while the people were enslaved in Egypt. God wanted His people released, but Pharaoh did not wish to lose his slave workforce. God overwhelmed the hard-hearted Pharaoh with demonstrations of such awesome power, that Pharaoh finally drove the people out of his land. And yet, when Pharoah changed his mind and came after them, the people complained and accused Moses of leading them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness. Then God parted the waters of the Red Sea for them so that they could cross, and then He destroyed Pharoah's entire army in those very same waters. Still, when the people were becoming hungry, they complained again, and again accused Moses of leading them out to die. God rained down food from heaven, the manna, for them. Over and over again, God demonstrated His love and concern for this people by performing truly awe-inspiring deeds on their behalf; and over and over again, they complained and blamed His servant Moses whenever things didn't seem to be going right. They even complained about the manna! On the whole, they were very much like we are: short-sighted, selfish, forgetful, fearful, faithless. Nevertheless, God continued to be patient with them, and continued to provide them with everything they needed - including ample reasons to trust Him.
It must also be remembered that God's patience did not preclude His teaching them some painful lessons. He regarded the nation of Israel as His son (Exodus 4:23). Like any good parent, God exercised purposeful and goal-oriented discipline to guide His people to think and behave appropriately. And this time, when they again complained about the manna He had given them, was an occasion when they seemed especially to need one of those lessons:
So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died. (Numbers 21:6)
And we see that, at least for the short term, He achieved the desired result:
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 among us." So Moses prayed for the people. (Numbers 21:7)
Thankfully, the people got the message, and repented. And Moses, true to character, interceded for them again. And as always, God heard Moses' prayer.
However, the solution which God provides on this particular occasion appears somewhat enigmatic:
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." So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived. (Numbers 21:8-9)
It seems strange that God would have Moses make an image of the very thing that the people were dying from, in order to cure them. The snakes were what were killing the people, and yet God told Moses to raise up an image of these very snakes as an antidote. But, like all of God's solutions, it worked: whoever looked at the snake on the pole survived.
This, of course, leads us to the New Testament, written some 1500 years after the book of Numbers. Here we see God's ultimate solution to man's fundamental problem:
"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." (John 3:14,15)
So we see that God had arranged the lesson of the fiery serpents to provide yet another foreshadow of Christ. Just as the bronze serpent was hung up on a pole for all to see, so also was Jesus on the cross. Here is another one of those coincidences! How could there be so many stories in the Old Testament, each one very different from the others, yet all parallel to Jesus? There is only one way that could happen, because only God can reveal the future. The snake on the pole, then, provides us one more piece of evidence that scripture is inspired by God.
Now, in order to see the parallels more accurately, let us consider again the words of Jesus we just read from the Gospel of John. First, note that Jesus said that eternal life awaited whoever believes in Him; clearly, if we believe in Him, we will believe whatever He said, including this:
"Not everyone who says to Me, `Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven." (Matthew 7:21)
So then, when we look to Jesus with eyes of faith, we must respond appropriately to what we see in order to avail ourselves of the cure. But what is it that He cures?
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace (Ephesians 1:7).
He cures us of sin, against which we are all helpless:
Jesus answered them, "Most assuredly I say to you, whoever commits sin is the slave of sin." (John 8:34)
And we are all trapped in this state of bondage...
...for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)
And we would rather not have earned our slave wages:
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 6:23)
Just as the Israelites were helpless against the snake's venom, so are we against the consequences of our sin. Just as the snake bite led to death, so also sin. In fact, sin is the fundamental ailment of mankind, and in Jesus God has provided the cure for all those who will look to Him.
There is one more peculiarity about the bronze serpent: it looked like the very thing for which it was the cure. But Jesus, the cure for sin, was pure and sinless (Hebrews 4:15). So, how is this parallel? Well, although He had no sin in Himself, nonetheless He did carry sin with Him to the cross:
[Jesus] Himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness - by whose stripes you were healed. (IPeter 2:24)
In fact, He so fully took on the sins of the world, that the apostle Paul expressed it this way:
For [God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (IICorinthians 5:21)
Jesus in effect became sin - the very thing for which He is the cure - on the cross: and thereby sin was punished. In this way, God was able to be both just and merciful, to punish sin while at the same time extending His offer of lovingkindness to the sinner:
...to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:26)
In order to be just, God cannot let evil go unpunished. And, God is absolutely just (Romans 3:3-4). But God is also merciful, and because of His love for us, He willed that there be some way we could escape the consequences of our sins. That way is Jesus Christ.
So now, the imagery is complete. The people were helpless against the snake bite, as we all are against sin: in both cases, God's mercy is required for anyone to escape. The result of the snake bite was death, as is the case with sin. The bronze serpent was raised up on a pole for all to see, as was Jesus on the cross. And Jesus on the cross, like the snake on the pole, represented the very thing for which He was the cure. Thus the incident with the fiery serpents provides us with another vivid foreshadow of Jesus, a foreshadow written 1500 years before He offered Himself for us.
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