Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-17
The Bronze Serpent (Good Friday)

The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation. – Exodus 15:2

This is the beginning of the famous song of Moses, a song sung as the waves of the Red Sea lapped onto the dancing feet of Israel. The horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is their strength, their song, and their salvation, because God is a God who works salvation.
Israel had languished as slaves under the oppressive regime of Egypt for 400 years. America has been a nation for less than 250 years, just to put that into perspective. When the Hebrews multiplied and grew numerous, the Egyptians did what all totalitarian rulers do when the people they have enslaved begin to outnumber them. They started to thin them out. So, they issued an edict, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live,” (Ex 1:22). Moses was one of these Hebrews babies destined for death, but God worked a great salvation, and his life was spared.
Israel continued to suffer under the Egyptians, continued to labor under the yoke of slavery and were under the constant sentence of death, but God didn’t abandon them. God worked a great salvation. He raised up Moses as a deliverer, sent the ten plagues, and led Israel out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand.
Pharoah, whose “head was bloodied, but unbowed”, hardened his heart. He chased the fleeing Hebrews right up to the edge of the Red Sea, but God worked a great salvation. He descended in fire and was a wall between Pharoah and Israel. He parted the sea and Israel walked across on dry land. He brought the watery walls down on the “unbowed” head of Pharoah and the horse and his rider He cast into the sea. But God’s great acts of salvation didn’t stop there.
The people of Israel were hungry and thirsty, walking through a barren a desert where there was no food and no water, but God worked a great salvation. He made water pour out from the Rock and made food fall from heaven upon them; their sandals didn’t wear out on their feet, their clothes didn’t wear off their backs. They were shielded and protected from enemies for forty years. The Lord was their salvation.
Story after story after story of the Exodus generation is a picture of what God does for His people.
What is God like? Crack open God, and what pours out? We certainly have many assumptions, predispositions about what we think God is like. And it is easy to unconsciously heave those up onto God. We assume God is nice, God is boring, God is friendly, God is angry, God is distant, God is everything. But what does God Himself tell us He is like? He is a God of salvation. This is just who He is. The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.
“Salvation” refers to our being saved, delivered, rescued from a great dilemma. But, in the Bible, salvation is not only being saved from bad guys and difficult circumstances out there. Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author and dissident, wrote, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” (The Gulag Archipelago, Part I). We need salvation from the evil that lies in here just as much (if not more) then the evil out there. 
And while God had brought Israel out of Egypt, there was still a lot of Egypt left in Israel. Despite setting up a virtual highlight reel of the back-to-back displays of God’s super-abundant care and provision for His people, Israel found themselves doing what we all tend to do. They took their blessings for granted. They grew frustrated, and they complained. A mere three days after the parting of the Red Sea, the people began to complain and question God. And so they continued to murmur for years.  And so we come to a story at the end of the book of Numbers that is the final installment of seven stories (in the book of Numbers alone) of Israel’s complaining and rebellion against the Lord.
"4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 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,” (Num 21:4-5).
The people are tired of trudging through the desert, tired of relying on faith, tired of what God has provided. What do they want? They want to go back to Egypt. Egypt! The place that was murdering their sons, the place of slavery, the place where they languished, the place where they groaned and cried for rescue (Ex 2:23-25). They crave Egypt the way a prisoner craves his chains and cell. The illogic of their posture is evident in their very statement: “there is no food…and we loath this worthless food.” So, there is food—it is the very food that God has sent down from heaven—they just don’t like it. In their eyes, what God has provided is “worthless.”
If you have a child or teenager at home who is constantly complaining, constantly rebelling, constantly grumbling, how do you feel? If they look at the home you have provided, the clothes they wear, the food you have given and say: I hate this! You don’t care about me! We feel angry, we feel hurt, we know that we are in the presence of someone who is blind to the good we have done for them. And if that is how we feel about our modest family life, what happens when take that to the depths of infinity? What happens when it isn’t just a single teenager, but a nation? And what happens when the “good” that is done isn’t just providing clothes to wear, or food to eat—but the good is their salvation from death! And they aren’t just complaining, but wanting to go back to where you just saved them from? What then?
Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died,” (Num 21:6).
While dramatic in its method, this is a basic re-presentation of the basic warning that God gave Adam back in Eden. Sin brings death. And like Adam and Eve, who were led into death by a serpent, here God demonstrates that Israel has likewise rebelled, they are another Adam who has failed. And so, God sends a plague of venomous serpents, and many people die.
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,” (Num 21:7)
The people realize the divine judgment and so entreat Moses to intervene on their behalf to deliver them. Here we have an ironic twist in the Israel story; they began in Egypt and cried out for salvation from the Egyptians, their slave-masters. Here, they are out of Egypt, but now they are crying out for salvation from their own sin—they have become their own slave-masters. So, Moses intercedes on their behalf, just like he has done so many times before.
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,” (Num 21:8-9).
What a fascinating response to Moses’ prayer. Notice, God doesn’t simply take the serpents away. Certainly at some point He did. But we are not told of it. The final sentence of verse 9 implies that the serpents continue for some time with Israel. Nor does God immediately heal everyone the instant Moses prays. Instead, and the most fascinating and odd element of the story, God directs Moses to craft a bronze serpent in the likeness of the fiery serpents plaguing the camp, and to set it on a long military standard, a pole. How do you put a bronze image of a serpent on a pole? Perhaps you make it so that the serpent looks as if it is impaled on the pole, or perhaps there is a small crossbar at the top that the serpent can be draped over. Either way, the bronze serpent is lifted up, and if one were bit by a serpent he could gaze at this bronze serpent, and live, be healed. This strikes us as odd for a number of reasons: (1) this sounds like superstition or magic, and (2) why would the image be of the very thing that hurt them?
To the first charge, we can confidently say that there was nothing magical about the image whatsoever. Much later in Israel’s history, king Hezekiah destroys this image because people begin to confuse it for a magic idol (2 Kings 18:4). If it is destroyed when it is treated like a superstitious object, then it certainly couldn’t have been that when it was first given by the prophet Moses. God wanted Israel to look in faith to receive healing.
To the second we can say that God wanted Israel, in their looking, to be reminded of two things: of the cost of their sin, and of God’s power to overcome it. Every snake-bitten Hebrew who looked up at the bronze serpent, the image of the very fiend who had wounded them, was reminded of his own rebellion that had brought about their suffering, they were reminded of how they were just like their father, Adam, who likewise was wounded by a serpent, and so were humbled. But also, the bronze serpent dangles from the spike like its dead. God’s people saw a vivid display of God’s promise given of a Snake-Crusher in the Garden when God cursed the serpent: “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel,” (Gen 3:15). So while the image was there as a stark reminder of their sin, it was also an image of the even greater power of God to heal and save, to work salvation for His wayward, complaining, rebellious people, and the hope of a coming Deliverer who would finally crush the Serpent.
And many years later, Jesus showed us what this story ultimately points to.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” John 3:14-15
As Jesus reflects back on this story, who does He identify with? Remember, Jesus is God in the flesh. He could have used this story to remind everyone that He was the one who sent the fiery serpents as the judgment. He could have identified with Moses, the righteous mediator who prays for wayward Israel. He could have used the story to scold everyone that they are just like their forefathers in their rebellion and complaining. All of those things are true! But how does Jesus use the story? Who does He point to and identify with?
The image of the dead snake.
If you are anything like me, that seems odd. Here is what I was expecting when I was first studying this: Jesus would have said that just as the bronze serpent pointed forward to the day when Satan would be crushed, now He had arrived to crush Satan—I’m the snake killer. But that isn’t what Jesus did with the story. Jesus said: just as the bronze serpent was lifted up, so too will I be lifted up.
What does that mean?
“By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,” (Rom 8:3). God sent His Son, Jesus, “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Jesus never sinned, He upheld the Law. Yet, the Law states that anyone who is killed the way Jesus was killed is cursed by God, is a wretched sinner (Gal 3:13). Jesus’ death sure looked like the death of a sinner. And that’s because it was. The Bible tells us when He is lifted up on the cross, Jesus “became sin” (2 Cor 5:21); He becomes the repository for our judgment, our guilt, our condemnation. Jesus is the snake crusher, He has come to kill the serpent. But how? By becoming a willing substitute. By becoming a sponge by which the sins of the world are heaped onto Him, by having the venom of the serpent so fill his veins, by having the fiery serpent of Satan so assault him that He becomes like a serpent, the very image of God’s enemy—He stands in our place and is crushed, is destroyed.
Jesus crushes the serpent by being crushed Himself.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” John 3:14-15
Just like the bronze serpent, Jesus’ death on the cross has a double-meaning. One, it shows us the consequence of our sin. The wages of sin is death, and not just physical death, but eternal death. But, it also shows us the unparalleled love and mercy of God. Because while our sin deserves eternal death, what did John tell us? Because Jesus is raised up like the bronze serpent, now “whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
“The cross of Jesus displays the most awful exhibition of God’s hatred of sin and at the same time the most august manifestation of his readiness to pardon it,” (Octavius Winslow).
Why on earth would God do such a thing? Why bear such pain?
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 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,” (John 3:16-17).
Who is this offer for?
-       Sinners. It was those who were bitten by the serpents, the symbol of sin and judgment, who found healing. It is the sick who need a doctor, not the healthy. Jesus said that He came to call sinners, not the righteous. If you are not a sinner, then Jesus has nothing for you.
How do they receive this offer?
-       Just look. As soon as an individual was bitten, what were they to do? There was no ritual, no good deed, no sacrifice to be made—just fix your eyes in faith on the bronze serpent. So too, Jesus simply states: What must one do to escape the judgment? Just believe. Look in faith at the crucified Messiah. Don’t look inward at yourself. The man who was transfixed with his wound, who couldn’t take his eyes off the snake bite, would find no healing there. Nor would the man who stared at others’ bites and compared them with his own to see which was worse. Nor would the man who went looking for another method of healing. There is only one way, one door, and there is only one way to receive—look in faith. Look to Him who bore your sins in His body, look to Him has suffered for your salvation, look to Him who has given Himself in love for you.
What is the result?
-       As soon as an individual looked up on the bronze serpent, he was healed. He wasn’t left waiting or remained uncertain of the results. The serpent sting suddenly posed no threat. And what happens when you look in faith on Jesus Christ? Eternal life! Sanctification, the process of growing in your faith is a slow progress that takes a lifetime. Justification, however, is received in an instant. The moment you look to Christ in faith, that very moment you are delivered from the condemnation of your sin and the judgment of Hell.

"Faint my head, and sick my heart,
Wounded, bruised, in every part. 
Satan’s fiery sting I feel 
Poisoned with the pride of Hell 
But if at the point to die,
Upward I direct my eye,
Jesus lifted up I see,
I live by Him who died for me."