The Serpent, the Standard, the Sight (Numbers 21:5-9)

I cannot think of many Old Testament stories that glorify Christ more explicitly than Numbers 21:5-9…

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.

Israel’s persistent rebellion wrought a particular reaction from God. He is not provoked to anger as a man, but is full of righteous indignation. Never is His wrath uncontrolled, as though He were a mad viking swinging in rage at innocent villagers. His fury is just, undeterred and full of holy purpose: going forth to bring rebels to justice. In this particular instance, God’s just sentence for sin was to send fiery serpents upon the Israelites. The venom from these serpents killed many.

In response to Moses’ intercession, God graciously promises healing if three conditions are met: 1. Moses must make a serpent out of bronze, 2. Moses must lift this serpent up on a pole, 3. those bitten and dying must look at the serpent. Consider with me these three conditions.

1. The Serpent

Moses was commanded to put the very thing that caused their death upon a pole. What a vivid image of Christ, for “He Who knew no sin became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21). The bronze serpent exalted by Moses on a rod pre-figured Christ placarded by God on a cross. We read Numbers 21 and see God’s Son as the substitute for our sins. On the cross Jesus did not literally become a sinner, but was treated like one. Similarly, the serpent on the pole was not literally a snake, but was fashioned to represent it. Christ, being treated like a sinner, suffered God’s wrath in His people’s stead. All of the righteous indignation that should have befallen His people crushed Him on the cross.

How thankful am I, Lord, for such a blessing?

2. The Standard

This bronze serpent was to be raised up on a pole/standard. Anyone who looked would live. It was not hidden in a dark, desert tent: Moses thrust it out in the open, high in the air. Jesus Himself was lifted up in public, not in secret. He was the One Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation (Rom 3:25). Outside the busiest center of Israel, on a hill, in broad daylight – that is where Christ bore His people’s sins. The proclamation of His death is likewise a public affair. Yet not only do we preach His death, but also His resurrection. Would God have the news of His Son’s death be public, only to hide the fact that He then rose three days later? The pole in Numbers 21 represents the public nature of Christ work. God has nothing to hide concerning Christ’s death: all who cling to Christ will find Him to be a sufficient Savior.

3. The Sight

Those bitten by serpents were commanded to simply gaze upon the bronze serpent. There was nothing in “looking” that healed them – no magical remedy for snake-bites manifests itself when you happen to see a metallic snake on a stick. The Israelites were to simply look and God would do the healing in response to their looking. For a man to be saved, all he must do is fix his gaze upon Christ. He may be tired and weary with guilt – grieved and down-trodden with toil – weak and distraught with death – yet it matters not. If that man would but look upon the Christ, he would find in Him a sufficient Savior.

Unwilling to See?

Once a man hears the gospel, the only thing keeping him from eternal life is the unwillingness of his own heart to follow Jesus. It’s simply because he does not desire Jesus enough to look to Him and be saved. Ah, but it would be such a simple thing to do! “For all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13).

For some, it may be tempting to dismiss this principle: “If any man looks, he lives.” You may ask, “What about Ephesians 1? Doesn’t God designate who receives His gospel mercy?” This is worth considering: is it correct to say that the only thing keeping a hearer of the gospel from salvation is his own willingness to believe? I suggest that this statement is most definitely true – but only in a certain sense. We know that God works salvation and that faith is indeed part of our redemption (Jn 6:29; Eph 2:8-9). It is not as though salvation depends on the will of man to gaze upon Christ. Rather, it is that no one gazing upon Christ shall be left unredeemed. In the context of obedience to the gospel, then, we say, “If you would but come, you would be saved.”

Consider Jesus’ words: “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” (Jn 3:14).

Exhortation

Look up from your kingdom of pleasure and see Christ on His cross, directly before your eyes. He beckons you! The work He did on the cross was a salvific work. It provided, through propitiation and imputation, a means of substitution and acquittal for all His people’s sins. Bend your knee to Jesus and not a burden you bear shall be left unmercied by the Father. See the Son of God placarded as a sinner. Shall You keep poison in your veins for lack of faith? Shall you pridefully stumble amidst the camp when above your brow is hoisted a Savior?

If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water‘” (Jn 7:37-38).

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