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.”
Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.
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.
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.”
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.
(ESV: Numbers 21:5-9)
These words from the Old Testament describe the sojourn of the Israelites in the desert following their deliverance from bondage in Egypt. They had begun to grumble “against God and against Moses” even though God had brought them out of Egypt through the leadership of Moses. Not only that, but the “worthless food” they grew to dislike is the manna that God sent to sustain them while they were in the desert. So, although God delivered them from captivity and daily provided for their bodily needs, they grew impatient with Him and wanted to return to the slavery and certainty of Egypt.
God sent the serpents to punish the Israelites for their unbelief in his guidance and for their despising of his love. Moses, however, interceded for the people, praying to God for their deliverance from death. In response, God told Moses to make a serpent and set it on a pole and if anyone would look upon the serpent he would live.
This narrative recalls the similar condition of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God created them and provided for all of their needs. At the tempting of the serpent Satan, however, they rebelled against God due to their lack of obedience to his will and their lack of faith in his Word and promises. In order to save Adam and Eve from living forever in sin and in alienation from Him, God drove them out of the Garden while promising them a future redeemer and intercessor. God told the serpent:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
(ESV: Genesis 3:15)
Like Adam, Eve, and the Israelites, all of us are in a state of rebellion against God. We sin, we grumble, we fail to love God with all our heart and mind and our neighbor as ourselves. We are angry when we have to endure troubles, trials, and tribulations; we are more comfortable in the captivity of sin than in the uncertainty of faith in God’s Word. By our own power and abilities, we can not attain a state of reconciliation with God; we can not save ourselves from the biting serpents. We are condemned already because of the state of sin into which we were born, but we can not bring ourselves out of this captivity of our own accord.
However, we can rely upon God’s grace to save us. Just as God brought the Israelites out of their captivity and then gave Moses a means of grace in order to save them from the serpents, so too does he provide us with a means of grace that delivers us from sin and death. As Jesus Christ told the Pharisee Nicodemus:
“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
(ESV: John 3:13-18)
Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Adam and Eve in Genesis; he is our redeemer, born of a woman, the child of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary. Satan, the old serpent, believed that he had defeated God’s plan for salvation when Christ died on the cross. Christ, however, following his death and burial became the victor over sin, death, and the devil by rising again to life.
Christ died and was lifted up into life, and by looking on him, by believing in him, we too have eternal life. Moses’ staff had the serpent, the symbol of death, as its head. By lifting up the serpent those who looked upon it were saved from death. Likewise, by looking upon Christ and his cross, this “bruising of the serpent,” we are saved from the stings of the serpent and the death he brings through sin. Through Christ’s cross, the symbol of death, we have life.
Just as Christ died, descended into hell, and on the third day rose again to life, we too will rise again from death on the last day. We will either rise to live eternally with God or rise to eternal alienation from God. By believing in God’s promise of salvation given through Jesus Christ we will live eternally with Him. However, if we do not believe God’s promise, then we are condemned already, because we have no claim on God nor can we redeem ourselves by our own works or merit. Only by believing in His promise of life given through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ can we be redeemed. Only by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ can we live eternally. What a comfort it is that from the very beginning God has planned for our salvation in order to redeem us from the power of sin and death so that we may be with Him forever!
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
(ESV: 1 Peter 1:3-5)