There is a slightly obscure story from the Old Testament when the Hebrew people were roaming around in the wilderness which holds remarkable implications for us today. It is the story of the bronze serpent:
“Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. The people spoke against 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 we loathe this miserable food.’ The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.’ And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.’ And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.”
– Numbers 21.4-9
At first glance this story is strange and seems contradictory to the nature of God. He had just delivered the ten commandments in which He belabored the point that man shall have no other gods and shall make no statues or images to worship. Why, then, would He instruct Moses to form a snake out of bronze which looked like the very curse they were suffering, raise it on a stick and instruct the people to look at it for healing?
Thankfully, when Jesus and the apostles read the Old Testament, they had insight from God which revealed much of the imagery and foreshadowing of the stories therein.
“If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.”
– John 3.12-15
When Jesus was explaining salvation and Spiritual life to Nicodemus, He explained the imagery of the serpent: Jesus is the serpent. Now this is a strange imagery to be sure. The devil used the form of a snake in Genesis when he tempted Eve, and God cursed the snake because of it. There is enmity between humanity and the snake as part of the curse, and to this day people are terrified of and hate snakes – by in large. They are venomous, they bite, they kill. And yet Jesus is as the fiery serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness for salvation.
This speaks first and foremost to the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. He not only offered Himself to take our place in punishment, He actually became sin – He became the curse – He was accursed, on our account.
“If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.”
– Deut 21.22-23
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’.”
– Gal 3.13
“[God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
– 2 Cor 5.21
Therefore, the imagery of the snake – the very means by which the people were being bitten and poisoned unto death – being the means of their salvation was symbolic of Jesus taking our sin – the very means by which we are cursed to damnation – and saving us from it. Jesus could only receive the wrath of God against sin by being made the fullness of sin so that God could pour out His wrath upon that sin and therefore declare us acceptable by means of having our punishment already paid. God never pardons sin, He never overlooks sin. His righteousness demands that every sin be punished fully, and thus He supernaturally transformed Jesus into that sin which we have committed and punished it in Him so that we do not have to be punished.
The snakes in the camp were sent from God as a punishment for despising the manna that God had sent for them to eat and for complaining. We are under the curse from God because we sin. God has provided a means of salvation, by becoming accursed Himself and taking our place, and all we must do in order to be saved is to look upon Jesus. Note, also, that the serpent serves as a means of salvation for those people who are already bitten. They are poisoned. They are going to die. We are all sinful and are cursed. We are not poisoned in the sense that sin is not something outside of us that cases our death, but we already spiritually dead and headed straight for an eternity in Hell apart from looking upon Jesus and receiving Spiritual life.
“Look to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth;
For I am God, and there is no other.”
– Is 45.22
Salvation is so simple, yet so difficult. We are either prepared to do a million acts of service to justify ourselves and earn merit with God, or we expect God to love us in spits of our sin and wickedness. But God says “Look to Jesus” and “Believe” and you will be saved (Is 45.22, Acts 16.31, Rom 10.9). The looking and believing recognizes that we are doomed, poisoned as it were, headed to Hell and in need of a Savior. When we see Jesus crucified having taken on our sin, and believe in His work as our substitution, we are saved. It is that simple, yet that difficult. We must recognize that it is not of us, we cannot earn or merit God’s salvation and we cannot demand it. We must simply accept it.
When we are poisoned, when we recognize our flesh coming out and our sinful tendencies merging into our hearts and minds, we must look to Jesus and be saved. This is true at our initial conversion and it is an ongoing battle that we will fight until we are free of our flesh and sinful bodies (Gal 5). Look to Jesus. Remember His word. Claim His promises. Abide in Him. Pray to communicate your heart and listen to hear His. Fight sin with Scripture and replacement techniques. Press into Jesus.