The Brazen Serpent
In some ways the brazen serpent is one of the simplest types in Scripture, but what is simple can also be profound. The blood on the Great Day of Atonement (see Lev. 16: 1–34) put away the sins of the flesh, while the water of separation mingled with the ashes of the red heifer (see Num. 19: 1–22) cleansed the pilgrim from defilement contracted along the way, but in the brazen serpent we see the whole mischief in man traced to its source. It shows how sin itself (and not merely sins) has been judged in the sinless One.
Loathing the Manna
In Numbers 21, the children of Israel “journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to go round the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became impatient on the way; and the people spoke against God, and against Moses, Why have ye brought us up out of Egypt that we should die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and no water, and our soul loathes this light bread” (vs 4, 5). They had often murmured against Moses the servant of God, but now it is blatantly against God Himself. Never before had their murmuring assumed this bold character. There might have been dissatisfaction with the manna in the past (see Num. 11: 6), but to add loathing to the discontent brings into full view the extreme hostility of the flesh to God and His Christ, the One who is “the living bread which has come down out of heaven” (John 6: 51). To Israel, the manna was “light bread” (Num. 21: 5, my emphasis), reminding us of what is said prophetically concerning the Lord: “He is despised and left alone of men … and like one from whom [men] hide their faces;—despised, and we esteemed him not” (Is. 53: 3). Such is man’s true character! Sins and transgressions are bad enough, but they are only the fruit of the evil root in man’s nature—the symptoms of a veiled and intractable disease within man.
Israel’s desire for Egypt’s food was constant. With every difficulty in the way, there was coupled with it regret for leaving Egypt. This is the sure and certain evidence of a deep evil, an evil for which no sacrifice or ordinance had yet been provided on the wilderness journey. Blood had been shed for transgressions, and ashes had been sprinkled with running water for the defiled, but nature, the flesh, the root of all, had not yet been the object of any ordinance. It had now broken out in its worst form as an evil that admits of no remedy. A pure thing may become defiled and then cleansed, but death is the only solution for the flesh. Wash it as much as you like, it is still flesh. It cannot be improved and though it may be covered by fig–leaf aprons of ‘civilised’ or even religious behaviour, beneath that camouflage it remains as vile as ever.
As has been well said, man is not merely a sinner because of what he has done, but because of what he is: “by the disobedience of the one man the many have been constituted sinners” (Rom. 5: 19). It is as when a man is sold into slavery—not only has he become a slave, but his children are also slaves, and grow up in slavery, with the thoughts and feelings natural to the slave. Whatever man may do he cannot change his nature: the brand of sinner is upon his brow, just as the spots are upon the leopard’s skin (see Jer. 13: 23). Some “work all uncleanness with greedy unsatisfied lust” (Eph. 4: 19), while others despairingly cry out “what I hate, this I practise” (Rom. 7: 15), but none can escape the fact that, as natural men, they are “sold under sin” (Rom. 7: 14).
The Fiery Serpents
The bubbling up of evil in the camp of the children of Israel was swiftly followed by judgment: “Then Jehovah sent fiery serpents among the people, which bit the people; and much people of Israel died” (Num. 21: 6). How our thoughts are immediately taken to that “ancient serpent, he who is called Devil and Satan” (Rev. 12: 9)—the one who instilled his poison into the heart and nature of Adam in Eden! Every bit of unbelief, rebellion, and murmuring can only be properly understood when we see that all had its origin in the serpent. His venom not only made Adam a transgressor of a known command, but changed his whole being morally before God. Adam truly became a different man. Death inevitably followed, and the whole world consequently bears its impress: “sin entered into the world, and by sin death” (Rom. 5: 12). This connection between sin and death has never been dissolved. Hence though Moses may pray and the people cry out in anguish of heart, the Lord will not remove the executioners of His righteous judgment from the camp—the serpents remain. So it is in the Gospel. The sentence of death pronounced on sin at the beginning is not reversed. Saying “We have sinned” (Num. 21: 7) does not alter what God thinks of our natural condition. God has only one answer for it, and that is death.
The Brazen Serpent
Repentance in itself is not deliverance, because repentance is simply my acceptance of what God has said about me as one worthy only of death. It is only because repentance travels in the company of faith that we are truly delivered from judgment: “And Jehovah said to Moses, Make thee a fiery [serpent], and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, and looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole; and it came to pass, if a serpent had bitten any man, and he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (vs 8, 9). Salvation then was in a look, and not just in a look, but in a look of faith. To nature, the suggestion that deliverance from the judgment of death in the camp could be effected by looking at a brass snake raised on a pole must have seemed utter folly. In the same way, “the word of the cross is to them that perish foolishness, but to us that are saved it is God’s power” (1 Cor. 1: 18). Indeed, there was nothing of intrinsic value in the brazen serpent as such—a point quite lost on those in 2 Kings 18: 4 who were later found burning incense to it. All value lay in believing what God had said about it. God had told the Israelites of the way of salvation, and that ought to have been enough. It is not what I feel or think that counts, but simply a matter of believing what God has said. So it is in the Gospel: “faith then [is] by a report, but the report by God’s Word” (Rom. 10: 17). How beautifully simple! What does it say of Abraham, the father of the faithful? “And he believed Jehovah; and he reckoned it to him [as] righteousness” (Gen. 15: 6). Believing then, is the way to blessing. As those who have been bitten by sin, the only answer to our lost condition is faith in the Word of God.
It is only as we abandon all our futile attempts to merit favour with God and fall back upon divine mercy and provision that we truly enter into life. A bitten Israelite could do nothing to remove the venom from his veins—life was simply in heeding what God had said, and looking to the uplifted serpent. Yet the serpent on the pole was not like others and made of “flesh of beasts” (1 Cor. 15: 39) but made “of brass” (Num. 21: 9). Brass is a figure of righteous judgment (see Deut 28: 15, 23) and so a brazen serpent suggests the thought that sin in the flesh has been judged in the one lifted up.
Furthermore, the life or healing was to be individual—the bitten Israelite himself must look to the uplifted serpent. No one else could do it. “Every one that is bitten, and looketh upon it, shall live” was what God had said to Moses, and then the history tells us that “it came to pass, if a serpent had bitten any man, and he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Num. 21: 8, 9, my emphasis). So it is now as between man and God in the Gospel. It is as individuals that we “reason together” (Is. 1: 18) with Him concerning our lost condition. The Saviour sits with us alone at the well of Sychar, feels our touch in the midst of the busy crowd, and looks up into the sycamore tree to catch our eye, but it is always as individuals. It does not matter what your family connections or ecclesiastical contacts—you must be individually connected with God. Job said “I know that my Redeemer liveth” (Job 19: 25, my emphasis). Faith is the act of the soul in personal dealing with God.
The Son of Man Lifted Up
No one else can believe for me, and nor can religious ordinances take God’s place in relation to me. He and I must have to do with one another. But how is this brought about? The answer is that Christ must be lifted up and I must look to Him. This is the unmistakable interpretation that the Lord Himself makes upon what has been before us: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus must the Son of man be lifted up, that every one who believes on him may [not perish, but] have life eternal” (John 3: 14, 15). The context here is a conversation between Nicodemus and Christ in which “the teacher of Israel” (v10) is arrested by the Lord’s words that without new birth, he couldn’t even see the kingdom of God. In the same way that death was before the bitten Israelite, so Nicodemus, pious Jew as he was, had to learn that he was about to perish. As it would not have done for a bitten Israelite to occupy himself with any object but the uplifted serpent, so Nicodemus must come to the Lord as the life–giver. Death was before him if he did not look there. We are not told how much confidence Nicodemus had placed in the fine appearance of the flesh as a “ruler of the Jews” (v1), but all this avails for nothing when once it is realised that the whole of man’s being is permeated by the poison of sin and that his case is utterly hopeless in God’s sight. It is at this point that the Lord lets Nicodemus know that the brazen serpent was in the camp of Israel again, and that there is life in a look at the Son of Man lifted up.
The flesh is always bad, whether we look at it in its filthiness or its finery, or when we view it in the infidel or the believer. Nicodemus may have thought that by cultivating his best he would merit divine favour, but any complacency is interrupted by the Lord’s stark warning that “Except any one be born of water and of Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3: 5). The irredeemable evil of the first man is seen in its most glaring form when the Lord came as Saviour “to his own, and his own received him not” (John 1: 11). To His people had been “entrusted the oracles of God” (Rom. 3: 2) and yet they hated the One of whom those oracles spoke. This hatred was “without a cause” (John 15: 25), except as it was the inevitable fruit of an evil tree (see Matt. 7: 17). The culmination of all this was what the Lord foretold: “When ye shall have lifted up the Son of man” (John 8: 28, my emphasis)—they put Him to death. Such was the judgment of the best of man according to nature! God would have been perfectly just in sweeping all away in judgment, but instead we read those marvellous words that “I, if I be lifted up out of the earth, will draw all to me” (John 12: 32). Now this does not refer to the Lord’s resurrection but to His death (see v33), and it is in that death that God has laid the foundation by which a new order of man can be born, not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (see John 3: 6).
He Must be Lifted Up
Man after the flesh may be prepared to accept Christ— so long as it is on his terms and not God’s. Thus Jesus (it is never Lord Jesus) is often acclaimed as an extraordinarily good man, a wonderful teacher and a moral exemplar. His death, many will admit, was a disgrace, a martyrdom in the cause of justice. Yet this and no further, will the natural man go. Scripture, however, goes much further: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3: 14, my emphasis). He must be the Saviour and He must die! How man hates this! That word must reminds man of his great need, of his lost estate, and that without Christ, his case is utterly hopeless! How he recoils against the notion that Christ is the Saviour! Why? Because it reminds him that he must therefore be a sinner! Indeed, such is the depravity of man that “there is not one that seeks after God” (Rom. 3: 11) and were it not for the sovereign mercy of God, none would be saved, for faith itself is the gift of God (see Eph. 2: 8).
He that is Hanged is a Curse of God
Some have sought to apply every detail of the brazen serpent to the Lord Jesus Christ. He, however, only drew a parallel between the fact that just as the brazen serpent was lifted up, so too must He, the Son of man, be lifted up: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3: 14, my emphasis). On hearing this, the Jewish mind would immediately be reminded of Deuteronomy 21: “And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and thou have hanged him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day (for he that is hanged is a curse of God)” (vs 22, 23). Now it should be noted that hanging (or crucifixion—the Jews used the same word for both) was not a mode of execution under the Law of Moses. Hanging came after death in order to put a special mark of disgrace upon the one put to death (see Josh. 10: 26, 27). The two elements of the cross—the curse and the death—though closely related, are thus to be distinguished. As hanged upon a tree (see 1 Pet. 2: 24), the Lord was lifted up both to die and to be a curse. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 that “Christ died for our sins” (v3), while in Galatians 3 he says that “Christ has redeemed us out of the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (v13). What was the curse of the law? The apostle tells us in the same passage: “For it is written, Cursed is every one who does not continue in all things which [are] written in the book of the law to do them” (v10). The curse, therefore, relates to what I am naturally—my inherent incapacity, as a child of the first man, to please God. With respect to the Jew, this was proved by a broken law—but it was just as true (though not so apparent) of those of the nations who had no law. Of course there was nothing wrong with the law, but “what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, having sent his own Son, in likeness of flesh of sin, and for sin, has condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8: 3). What is in view here, is not sins, but sin (the disease itself)—and sin is never forgiven but condemned. But the apostle does not stop there. He goes on to say that it was all “in order that the righteous requirement of the law should be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to flesh but according to Spirit” (v4). What is the result of walking in the flesh? “Death” (v6)—just as those in the camp of Israel who were bitten by the serpents died. What is the result of being “in Spirit” (v9)? “Life and peace” (v6)—just as those who looked in faith to the brazen serpent lived. At the Cross of Christ, not only were our sins dealt with but sin, for “Him who knew not sin he has made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5: 21). Personally, He was ever the delight of His God and Father, but as made sin, He was accursed. Note the two wonderful words “for us” (my emphasis). He had to be made sin (and therefore endure the judgment of God against sin) in order that “whosoever believes on him may not perish, but have life eternal” (John 3: 16). Wonderful Saviour!
The incident of the brazen serpent came towards the end of Israel’s wilderness journey when the true condition of the hearts of the people became evident. Nicodemus, as “the teacher of Israel” (John 3: 10) was probably an old man when he first heard the teaching connected with Numbers 21 expounded. Both he and the nation had the excuse of having had only a partial revelation from God, but we have no such plea. How good it is to arrive (and quickly) at the conclusion that “in me, that is, in my flesh, good does not dwell” (Rom. 7: 18)! Then, and then only, can we truly enter into the enjoyment of life.