The Savior in the Old Testament: Jesus and the Bronze Serpent

Numbers 21:4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!" 6 Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 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. 8 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." 9 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, he lived.

Complaining, whining, grumbling, impatience – these were the constant refrains of God’s chosen people – the Israelites.

The Israelites had initially complained that they were trapped between the waters of the Red Sea and the fury of the Egyptian army. So God drowned the Egyptians in the Red Sea. Then the Israelites had whined that they didn’t have any water to drink in the desert. So God allowed water to flow from a rock. Then the Israelites grumbled that they didn’t have any food to eat. So God sent bread from heaven every morning (except for the Sabbath) … but the people grew tired of the manna every day and grumbled about that, too. Then the Israelites disagreed with God’s estimation that they could overtake the huge people living in the promised land of Canaan.

God finally had enough. His divine patience with the Israelites’ constant impatience had run out. So God sentenced the Israelites to forty years of wandering in the rough country of the Sinai Peninsula. One-by-one, the over-twenty crowd of the Israelites died off. Slowly, but surely, a new generation took over responsibility and leadership among the clans of Israel.

But the incessant whining did not die off with their parents and grandparents. Now the next generation was carrying on the family tradition of grumbling. “They traveled 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 desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’”

What would you expect God to do with those ungrateful Israelites? What do you do with your children when they whine, complain, grumble and talk back to you? You need to get their attention so that they understand that what they are doing is not acceptable. It is disruptive. It is contagious. But, above all, it is a sin. A sin against you. A sin against those who have to listen to your children. And especially a grievous and damnable sin against their holy and just God.

We are often so wishy-washy when it comes to punishment. A time-out. A not-so-stern-talking-to. Taking away electronics. Maybe a swat on the behind. But those minor things don’t really carry the severity of the sin to our children. They just bide their time and wait for the time-out to be over, the spanking to stop smarting, the electronics to be returned, and then they go back to their former behavior. And we haven’t affected them at all. … Because we haven’t gotten to the root of their problem – sin. Our weak discipline wasn’t strong enough to lead them to repentance, confession and, ultimately, forgiveness.

How different is the way our God disciplines His misbehaving children! He got to the root of their problem by sending snakes. “Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.” The people cried out, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” The heavy anvil of guilt was dropped onto their souls with the weight of how dangerous and damnable their sin really is.

It isn’t just our children who whine incessantly. We, too, carry on a constant litany of grumbling, complaining, and impatience. We have immersed ourselves in the culture of complaint. We bellyache because the check-out line is too long. We are unhappy because our order wasn’t exactly right. We are dissatisfied with the service we received. We find fault with our teachers. We badmouth our politicians. We belittle our parents or our children. We gripe about the weather, taxes, schools, roads, neighbors, and anything else we can think of.

Sometimes we keep our bitterness hidden behind a grumpy, internal, and silent complaint. Other times, we whisper our criticisms to those near us, so that we can gain their pity for our dissatisfaction. And other times, we make our disapproval known with loud and bold statements so everyone can fear our indignation.

Do we ever realize that our complaining is announcing our disdain with God’s blessings? Do we ever think about how our grumbling is displaying our unhappiness with God’s direction for our lives? Do we ever contemplate that our criticisms are grievous and damnable sins against a holy and just God?

So, what did God do with these grumbling, complaining, impatient children of Israel? He sent poisonous snakes to bite them. That doesn’t sound very loving, does it? Until you consider the alternative – to let them continue in their sins; to let them destroy themselves and rebel and sin themselves to death. It was tough love!

God loved them. He loved them despite their incessant whining and rebellion. And so He did what was hard and painful. He brought righteous judgment upon them. He sent venomous snakes to bite them and poison them to death. The same venomous snakes that naturally lived in the desert, but God had apparently protected the Israelites from for all this time. Now God sends the snakes to wake them up and turn the people back to Him. Before the snakes had shunned their camp. Now they invade it. Before God had brought them manna and quail to feast on. Now He brings snakes upon them to bite them.

This is the tough love and discipline they needed to live – not just at that moment, but for the rest of their lives. For they were on a road that was only going to lead them to death. So He sends the snakes to bite, but He allows Moses to make a snake out of bronze and put it on a pole so they might be healed. This bronze snake on a pole is just a snake on a pole … until God attaches His Word and promise to it. Then it becomes and Old Testament Sacrament. Because when God’s Word is attached to something visible and tangible, like Word and water in Baptism or Word and bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, then there is forgiveness, new life and salvation in that Sacrament.

God responded in a very firm and visible way to the constant complaining of the Israelites. We like it that they got what they had coming to them. But we don’t like it so much when our sins come back to haunt us. We like divine discipline on the Israelites … but not so much on us. We would rather that God overlooks our sins, passes over our mistakes, turns a blind eye to our willful disobedience and a deaf ear to our constant complaining.

But God knows that if He overlooks your sins, then it is as if He is putting His stamp of approval on your sinful lifestyle. If He doesn’t discipline sin, then that just makes you comfortable and secure in your sin. That’s why God reminds you that you deserve wrath and punishment in hell for every impatient thought, every slight dissatisfaction, every little criticism. That’s why God also reminds you that you may also have to endure earthly consequences for your pouty mood, your potty mouth, and your poor attitude. It might be the loss of friends, the anger of those whom you criticize, the lack of respect from your children, or the general unhappiness of living with bellyaching instead of blessings.

God chastens, in order to heal. He tests, in order to strengthen. He gives the Law in order to drive us to the Gospel. He does what is best for us to drive us to Himself and His love.

“For God so loved His people that He sent them venomous snakes, that whoever would look upon the bronze snake should not perish but have life. For God did not send the snakes to His people to condemn them, but to save them through the bronze snake.” That’s John 3:16-17 with an Old Testament twist!

The Israelites begged for God to take the snakes away. But did not remove the snakes. He allowed the snakes to continue to slither and bite and poison. But He provided relief. He provided healing. He provided life. True life. Not the plastic, artificial, imitation life of happiness and toys that this world holds before us, but true life. The Tree of Life. His life. Life which does not end, but will last into eternity.

Life and love found only in Jesus Christ. As Jesus taught Nicodemus on a dark evening, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). God has provided the cure, a cure that curiously looks like the disease. His Son on the pole of the cross, dying a cursed death. He looks damned by God, stricken, smitten and afflicted … and He is, in our place, for us and for our salvation.

This is how much God loves this snake-bitten world. He doesn’t simply love it abstractly and in general. “Oh, nice world, I love you.” He loves the world in a very specific and personal way. He sent His Son Jesus, who provided the cure by being made in the likeness of that which was wounded. Though He was perfectly free from sin, yet He was sent in the likeness of sinful flesh (Romans 8:3). As the bronze snake was lifted up and people could fix their eyes on it and have life, so Jesus Christ was lifted up on the cross, so all may fix their eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, and receive life in Him (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus was lifted up and became a spectacle to the world so that the world might be saved through 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 3:16-17). That’s Numbers 21:9 with a New Testament twist!

The parallels with God’s great relief from sin through Jesus are remarkable. The bronze snake was fashioned in the likeness of a poisonous snake, but it had no poison. Jesus took on the form of a human being, but He had no sin. The bronze snake was lifted up on a pole. Jesus was lifted up on the cross. Whoever trusted God’s promise of relief from poison by looking up to the bronze snake lived. Whoever believes in God’s promise of relief from sin by looking up to Jesus lives forever.

The bronze snake gave immediate relief. Jesus’ forgiveness is immediate. The bronze snake was the only help for the Israelites. Jesus is the only Savior. With the bronze snake God gave the Israelites victory over death. With Jesus, God has given us the victory over eternal death. With the bronze snake in the center of the camp the Israelites could look up and call out with courage, “O snake, where is your sting?” With Jesus as the center of our lives, we can look up and call out with courage, “O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).

On the cross, Satan’s serpentine fangs sank deep into Jesus’ flesh, pumping poison and venom into His divine blood. But on that cross, Jesus absorbed the serpent’s strike against His heel so that He might step down hard to crush the Ancient Serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15).

Our constant complaining and incessant whining are sins. They sting and kill. Fix your eyes on Jesus lifted up on the cross. He is the only cure. Amen.