Christ in all the Scriptures: Numbers and the Bronze Snake

Signs are symbols often without words. Signs can be powerful. Clear signs are instantly recognisable. We use them to educate, to guide, to warn, to instruct, even to intimidate and change behaviour. Common signs can be understood irrespective of your language or your culture. You don’t even have to read or write to learn to recognise simple signs.

So the clearer and simpler the sign, the better. There is nothing worse than an ambiguous or a confusing sign, or one that is clear, but is ignored. Interpreting signs correctly therefore is important. That is especially true if you are driving a car, you are a cyclist, a pedestrian or you are a small child.

But discerning the difference between an interesting sign and a warning sign is very important. And obeying signs there for your safety, or the safety of other people, is most important of all.

In today’s story from the Book of Numbers we see a powerful sign God used to save his people from death. It’s a sign we still use today to symbolise somewhere or someone you can go to when you are sick.  But before we look at this particular sign, lets remind ourselves of three other signs God gave in Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus to help us understand how and why the Lord Jesus came to be our Saviour.

In our series called Christ in all the Scriptures, we are discovering how God gave signs or symbols to help his people understand how they could know him, love him, follow him and service him.

Three weeks ago in Genesis we saw in the story of Abraham and Isaac, how the Lord provided a male lamb as a substitute for Isaac. This prefigured, in a wonderful way, how the Lord Jesus willingly became the sacrifice in our place. Then in the Book of Exodus we saw how God passed over his people on the night of judgement because they hid behind the blood of the lamb sprinkled on their lintels and door posts. Thus the ‘Pass-over’ meal became an annual reminder of how God liberated his people them slavery. We saw how Jesus became our Passover lamb when he died on the cross. Then last week in Leviticus we learnt about the Day of Atonement. We saw how the High Priest became the mediator between God and his people entering the temple to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. How one goats was sacrificed for sin and how one goat, the scapegoat carried their sins far away into the wilderness. Sins forgiven and forgotten. We saw how the New Testament interprets this as a wonderful symbol of what the Lord Jesus did as our mediator and scapegoat.

Like the story of Abraham who almost sacrificed Isaac in Genesis, like the Passover lamb sacrificed in Exodus, the image of the two goats offered on the Day of Atonement in Leviticus, point to Jesus.

So please turn with me to Numbers, the fourth book of the Old Testament and let’s discover what it too can teach us about the Lord Jesus.

  • The pillar of cloud and of fire resting on the Tabernacle over the Holy of Holies [Numbers 9:15-23; John 8:12]
  • Aaron the High Priest is portrayed as a type for the Lord Jesus our great High Priest [Numbers 16:46-50; Hebrews 7:15-16]
  • The water of separation parallels the cleansing of sin by Jesus [Numbers 19; 1 John 1:7]
  • Balaam’s prophecy of a coming deliverer “a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel” is seen as fulfilled in Jesus the ‘Bright morning Star” [Numbers 24:17-19; Matthew 2:2; Revelation 22:16]
  • The bronze snake [Numbers 21; John 3:14-15]

Please turn with me to Numbers 21 and let us observe:

The Sin – the rebellion of God’s people.
The Snake – the judgement of God’s people.
The Saviour – the deliverance of God’s people.

1. The Sin – The Rebellion of God’s People

In the Book of Numbers, we find the record of the failure of God’s people to go in and possess the land. God’s purpose in rescuing them out of Egypt was to bring them into the Land of Promise (see Exodus 3:8). In His tender care, He did not lead them by the shortest route,

“God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” (Exodus 13:17).

So God’s people wandered in the desert for 40 years. Why? – Because when God rescued them from Egypt, he needed to prepare them. He gave them his Law to show them how to live in a right relationship with him and one another. He led them personally by a cloud in the day and a fire at night. But despite his miraculous provision of food and water, they would not follow him. Even their clothes and shoes did not wear out but they still complained. He had led them right to the border of the Promised Land but they refused to follow him into it. They were afraid to enter the Promised Land because they believed the majority report about the size of the inhabitants rather than the minority report of Joshua and Caleb about the size of their God. They didn’t believe God could protect them. Simple as that. And so they paid for it dearly. In Numbers 14, God explains what they were doing in the wilderness. They were not wandering because they didn’t have a sat nav. They were wandering because they wouldn’t follow God’s instructions. They would wander until every last person who left Egypt had died in the wilderness.

“as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the LORD fills the whole earth, not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times—not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it.” (Numbers 14:21-23)

No one who had entered the desert would ever leave it. Only their children, led by Joshua and Caleb, would enter the Promised Land. So here they are wandering around the desert and they begin to moan, again.

“They travelled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” (Numbers 21:4-5)

What were the people complaining about? God’s food. But it was more serious than wanting a change of diet. They wanted a change of leadership. They were criticizing God. But they picked the wrong person to criticize. Hebrews asks,

“Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies perished in the wilderness? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.” (Hebrews 3:16-19)

Negative criticism is a killer. We take our eyes off God and his glory and we home in on another person’s faults to hide our own. We drag people down, instead of building them up, and we test God’s patience. Jesus experienced the same attitude even after he had performed some amazing miracles like feeding over 5000 people with a few loaves and fishes. The people demanded yet another sign. “Prove you are as good as Moses then…”

“Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe.” (John 6:32-36)

Even after the miracles of Jesus, even after such a wonderful invitation, the people would still not believe Jesus. That’s because miracles alone cannot remove sin and rebellion from the heart. The Sin – the rebellion of God’s people

2. The Snake – the Judgement of God’s People

“Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.” (Numbers 21:6-7)

Why snakes? Was God reminding them of the first snake in the Garden? Was God forcing them to face the root of their problem – sin? It’s so easy to focus on the symptoms – the little white lies, the sinful desires, the lusts, the gossip, the barbed criticism. Focusing on the symptoms – the snake bites – tempts us find a solution in a self-help book, a seminar or conference. Maybe we could wear trousers to avoid the snake bites; we could carry an anti-venom kit. We could exercise more so that our reflexes are quick enough to dodge the snake. But none of those things deal with the root problem. Self-help doesn’t cut it.

God wants us to lift up the problem – our sin – our rebellion – our untrusting and unloving hearts and realise its consequences – separation and death. We are more sinful that we ever realised, but more loved than we ever dreamed.

The Sin – the rebellion of God’s people.
The Snake – the judgement of God’s people.

3. The Saviour – the Deliverance of God’s People

“The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” (Numbers 21:8-9)

Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures do we find a more striking type or symbol of the cross of Christ than here in Numbers 21.  Jesus confirmed the bronze snake to be a foreshadowing of His cross in a conversation with Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel.
Its recorded in John 3. Just before what is probably the most well-known verse in the whole Bible (John 3:16), Jesus identifies himself with the bronze snake Moses held high. In doing so, he predicts the manner and purpose of his death to save the world.

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:14-17)

We have sanitised the cross and turned it into a piece of jewellery. We no longer see loved ones hanging in agony from crosses along our roads and in our town centres. But to Hebrew minds, to hang someone’s body from a tree after they had died was a sign of God’s curse. In Deuteronomy, God insists:

“If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 21:21-23)

The New Testament insists Jesus not only empathised with our condition, deserving death for our sin, he took our sin on himself. He was literally cursed by God for us.

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”” (Galatians 3:13)

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

That is why the bronze snake in Numbers is a terrifying but wonderful type for the cross of Jesus.

The Sin – the rebellion of God’s people.
The Snake – the judgement of God’s people.
The Saviour – the deliverance of God’s people.

In the light of the bronze snake of the Book of Numbers, look at the cross in a new way today.  Look at the cross in the same way God’s people looked at the snake in the wilderness. Look at the cross and remember the rebellion in the Garden; Look at the cross and remember the rebellion in the desert; Look at the cross and remember the rebellion and sin in your life and mine. God invites us to come to the cross of Christ just as he called people to look at the snake on the pole, and see that it is not our sin we face but the one who took our sin in our place –

“Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1) and He will heal us, he will forgive us and give us new life.

Let us pray.

Sources used with thanks:

A.M. Hodgkin: Christ in all the Scriptures
Robert Reymond: Jesus Divine Messiah
Eloy Gonzalez “Of Snakes and Crosses”
Clark Tanner “The Cross and the Fiery Serpent”