Reading Leviticus, Seeing Christ (Part 7)

Expiation and Propitiation (Lev 16)

Leviticus 16 details an annual law of atonement (v.34). Aaron was commanded by God, via Moses, to offer up several animals in this law: a bull, a ram, two goats. The ram was for a burnt offering (v.3). The bull was for his own sin and the sin of his household (v.11). Some of the bull’s blood was to be sprinkled on the mercy seat (v.14). Already, it is quite obvious that coming before the Lord is a dangerous thing for the priest (in this case, Aaron). “The Lord said to Moses: ‘Tell your brother Aaron that he shall not enter at any time into the holy place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, or he will die; for I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat’” (v.2). This warning is given again in verse 13. Verse 2 makes certain that Aaron’s life would be in danger if he entered due to the presence of God. He would die because God would be there, over the mercy seat. The most dangerous place for a sinner to be is in the presence of God, for He is an omnipotent, just, holy God.

However, there was a way which Aaron could enter into the presence of God. “‘Aaron shall enter the holy place with this: with a bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering’” (v.3). Aaron was only able to come before God if a propitiation for his sin was provided. There had to be something to take the penalty for His unholiness and something through which he could then be credited with righteousness. Otherwise, Aaron would be left unholy and guilty before the holy and pure Judge. To enter the presence of God – for prayer, for the indwelling of the Spirit, for the final time of glory, etc. – we also must have a propitiation for our sins: something to take God’s wrath for our unrighteousness and give us righteousness. Praise God that this propitiation is Jesus Christ!

The two goats that Aaron brought were for a very unique purpose. Here we find the doctrines of propitiation and expiation beautifully illustrated. One of the goats (both were chosen by casting lots, v.7-10) was to be slaughtered as a sin offering for the people – the blood sprinkled on the mercy seat (v.15). Aaron was to take the other goat and “‘confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins’” (v.21). After this, the sins of God’s people were considered to be on the head of the goat. With this, Aaron would “‘send it away into the wilderness….The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land’” (v.21-22).

This ritual performed with two goats beautifully illustrates the work of Christ in relation to God the Father! In one sense, Christ served as a propitiation for our sins. He was the first goat, dying under the wrath of God and providing righteous blood to cover the mercy seat, thus satisfying God’s righteous indignation for our unrighteousness. In another sense, Christ served as an expiation for our sins. He was the second goat, who took upon Himself all of the unrighteous, wicked filth of His people. With such wretchedness upon His back, He carried it away – far, far into the wilderness and far, far away from the judgement throne of God.

Reading Leviticus, Seeing Christ (Part 6)

Standards of Cleanliness (Lev 11-15)

Leviticus 11 concerns which animals are “clean” or “unclean.” God divided the animals Israel would come across. The “clean” animals were good to eat and/or interact with; the “unclean” animals were not. This was part of the Mosaic Law, given to Israel as they were entering into the Mosaic Covenant with God. “Cleanliness laws” were part of the larger context of Israel distancing itself from the world and being sanctified to God.

The cleanliness laws continue in chapters 12-15. Chapter 12 concerns childbirth. A woman was to be considered unclean for 40-80 days after delivery (depending on whether the child born was male or female [vv.2-5]). This was a time of purification, after which she would be pronounced clean (v.8). Chapters 13 and 14 concern leprosy. When an individual or house was suspected of contracting leprosy, the priests were to test for the disease. The proper way to cleanse one suspected of contracting leprosy is outlined in chapter 14. The person/house thought leprous was pronounced unclean until it could be determined otherwise. Chapter 15 deals with other issues of unhealthiness, mainly unusual discharges.

Our 21st century context is a difficult lense through which to understand such laws. Is this really part of being holy as God is holy (11:44-45)? The purpose of this article is not to address the interpretive process used when we New Covenant believers determine which Mosaic Laws should still be kept today – but suffice it to say that I do not believe these cleanliness laws are applicable to the church in this age (Ac 10-11). I believe that all of the other questions listed above can be addressed by answering this: why did God give the Israelites these cleanliness laws?

First, these laws kept them safe, serving as their own medical system for the prevention and spread of diseases. Certain animals in the Middle East at this time would have not been healthy for consumption or interaction (Lev 11:46-47). Child birth physically exhausting: the Law allowed for a time of rejuvenation and rebuilding of the immune system. Leprosy was deadly and could spread easily without caution, so the Law required proper standards that prevented such trouble (14:54-57). Unknown discharges and illnesses were especially troublesome because, as any medic knows, it is difficult to treat what you are unfamiliar with. The Law provided a system for preventing the spread of such illnesses (15:31).

Second, these laws were given to teach the Israelites that certain things on earth were clean and others unclean, and to live as God’s people meant to distinguish between the two and hold fast to the clean. In respect to the Mosaic Law, eating the right meat was paramount to establishing the cities of refuge (Deut 19). Cleansing oneself after childbirth was paramount to consecrating the priests for their duty (Lev 8). Abiding by the standards for suspected cases of leprosy was paramount to bringing before the Lord His prescribed form of offering and not “strange fire” (Lev 10). Following God’s Word concerning unhealthy discharges was paramount to keeping designated ranks in how Israel was to travel in the desert (Num 10:11-36). The laws of cleanliness were part of the Mosaic Law and therefore contributed to what it meant for the Israelites to be holy.

Further, these laws were theologically important in principle rather than in substance. For example, eating pork is not intrinsically something sinful, because the New Testament allows for it. However, it was sinful in the Old Testament. This is what we might consider a redemption law: a law whose purpose is to communicate something about the Gospel. Other laws (such as prohibitions of homosexuality) might be called creation laws: laws which prohibit an deed which is ontologically evil. (I credit Douglas Wilson with my understanding of redemption and creation laws).

Something “clean” was considered to be acceptable to engage with and still be in a sanctified relationship with God. Something “unclean” was associated with unholiness – an untouchable thing for one sanctified to God. Leviticus establishes a relationship between the terms “clean” and “holy.” This relationship is also seen in Psalm 24.

The earth is the Lord’s” (v.1) because “He has founded it” (v.2). Creator God owns all things because He has made all things. In Hebrew poetry, a truth was often stated in one line and re-stated in the following. “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord” may be the equivalent of, “and who may stand in His holy place?” This “hill” that one may climb and “place” in which one may stand is the domain which is shut by the “ancient doors” (v.7). The place is the hill Zion: God’s holy place. The one who may hope to enter into this holy place must meet the requirements of verse 4: “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood and has not sworn deceitfully.” He who is sinless, holy and righteous. The principle is no different than the Mosaic Law: he who desires to dwell with God must be holy like God.

Psalm 24 hits at two sides of a coin. On one hand, no one is truly holy before God. This is why God’s people need Christ’s righteousness to be credited to them – part of the blessing referred to in verse 5. Christ is the King of Glory (vv.7-10). Jesus truly lived a holy life and ascended God’s hill, where the ancient doors of glory opened to Him. He was the only one who could do this. Yet the one who is holy (v.4) will receive salvation (v.5). Why do you need salvation if you are holy? This is the other side of the coin. Through the work of Christ upon the cross, God’s people are righteous in His sight and in the power of His Spirit are called to live a holy life.

This Psalm refers to Christ in that He truly lived a holy life and ascended the hill of the Lord, but only after receiving a curse from God for our unholiness. This Psalm refers to us in that Christ lived a holy life for us and we now can ascend the hill of the Lord clothed in His merit, but only after receiving a blessing from God for His holiness. In light of this justification, he who repents of sin and follows Jesus will be credited the righteousness of Christ. God has decreed that a true striving for holiness on our part will be credited as true holiness on our behalf, won by Christ.

How do we see Christ in Leviticus 11-15? He is the one Who truly lived clean and sanctified to God. He judicially saves us in justification (the credit of holiness) and morally saves us in sanctification (the power unto holiness). Justification was accomplished on the cross, sanctification is being accomplished by the Spirit.

The Mosaic Law was salvifically insufficient. It served as a “schoolmaster” to lead people to depend on God for righteousness (Gal 3:24-25). The law showed the Israelites their uncleanliness. In light of such uncleanliness, those who then responded in faith to God received from God the most precious of blessings: Christ made them clean.

Christ is exalted in Leviticus 11-15 as the holiness of His people. He is the purifier of His bride. He is the one who labored for 33 years to win for us clean wedding garments (Matt 22:1-14) fitting to stand before the holy King. He is the one with clean hands who gathers the saints and carries them up the hill of Zion, through the ancient doors and into the holy presence of God (Ps 24; Rom 5:1-2). He is the perfectly clean High Priest who intercedes for His people with blood upon the mercy seat (Lev 16:15-16), serving faithfully as our Advocate in the courtroom of Heaven (1 Jn 2:1-2).

Praise God for our holy Advocate, our sufficient Substitute, our capable Savior, our righteous Ruler – Jesus Christ our Lord! May we strive for holiness in light of His most excellent grace.

Reading Leviticus, Seeing Christ (Part 5)

Dishonorable Priests (Lev 10)

In Leviticus 10 we find two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, burning incense as an offering to God. Aaron and his sons had just been sanctified for the priestly duties. Nadab and Abihu offered their incense and the texts calls it “strange fire.” It is described: “which He had not commanded them” (v.1).

The Lord responded to the offering with fire. The fire consumed them, and they died before the Lord. After they died, Moses reminded Aaron of the Lord’s standard: “By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored.” The text says that in light of this word, Aaron kept silent.

Dialogue continues in the verses that follow but we will focus on these opening 3 verses. I myself, after first reading this passage, put my Bible down wondering, “What exactly did Nadab and Abihu do wrong?” What was their sin? Consider again the phrase, “Which He had not commanded them.”

Holiness is the theme of Leviticus. The book is concerned with God’s people being consecrated to Him. God gave rules and regulations to teach them how to be holy as He is holy. Nadab and Abihu burned incense in a fire that they themselves gathered, not from the fire lit by God to continually burn (Lev 6:12-13). God had not commanded them to do this, thus they were killed. The pathway of holiness was clearly outlined. They were to follow these rules – not taking away or adding to them.

The sin of Nadab and Abihu was twofold. First, their fire was less than what God had prescribed: it was not taken from God’s designated fire for offerings that He lit. Second, their fire was more than what God had prescribed: God did not tell them to sacrifice this incense in the presence of the Lord, and thus they were consumed in fire.

Reckless worship before the Lord does not have to come in the form of omission of His clear precepts. It can also come in the form of addition  of other precepts that are not His own. God gave the Israel boundaries to stay within as they brought their offerings and worship to God. Sadly, Nadab and Abihu breached these boundaries on both sides.

In our futile minds and dishonorable intentions, we like to flirt with grey areas. We often consider, “How much can I get by with?” or, “Where exactly is the boundary – how close can I get?” The holiness that God calls us to cannot be so flippantly fiddled with. Those who enter heaven will not be those who profess Him, but those who obey Him (Matt 7:21-23; Gal 5:16-25). We dwell in God’s Word that we might not stray away from it (Ps 119:9). We sometimes forget that sinners stray in two directions, as Nadab and Abihu did. We can stray unto omission or addition. Both omission and addition are forms of disobedience to the Lord, and neither are profitable for holiness.

By recklessly coming to the Lord, Nadab and Abihu dishonored God and did not treat Him as holy (Lev 10:3). Their father, Aaron, knew this – and so when they were killed, he kept silent. They might have believed God was holy but they did not treat Him as such. They brought strange fire before the Lord. In so doing, they dishonored God and treated Him as if He was something less than holy. In 9:24, God wondrously and terrifyingly consumed the offering presented. Why on earth did Nadab and Abihu think they should or even could come before God with their own ideas of how to treat Him as holy?

So how does this text point to Christ? First, Christ is the true and better worshiper, Who entered His presence properly sanctified and holy. Christ’s incense is not burnt on strange fire. His offering is given upon the flames prescribed by God. He does not provoke the wrath of God with careless worship. Nadab and Abihu were guilty of these things, and they received the just reward for their unholy worship. God is pleased with Christ’s worship and through the imputation of His righteousness, we are pleasing to God. God treats us for Christ’s works and not our own. Christ is treated for our dishonorable worship and we are treated for Christ’s honorable worship.

Second, Christ is the true and better priest, Who abided by God’s standards and neither added to nor took from them. He did all that a true priest needed to do in order to make atonement for His people’s sins. He walked the narrow path before us, bringing us to God through His atoning death and exemplifying for us the life that is pleasing to God. Peter calls us a “royal priesthood” (1 Pt 2:9). Who can better show us how to live a holy life in the presence of God than Christ? Who else serves as our own high-priest, to make intercession for us and allow us to enter God’s presence in prayer, as a temple of the Holy Spirit, and one day in eternal worship?

Reading Leviticus, Seeing Christ (Part 4)

“Just as the Lord Commanded” (Lev 8:9)

Throughout Leviticus we see the phrase “just as the Lord commanded.” Israel was receiving the Sacrificial System and the Law from God. Great care was necessary to ensure that their practice adhered to God’s prescription. One specific instance is found in Leviticus 8. God tells Moses how to consecrate Aaron and his sons for priesthood (v. 9, 13, 17, 21, 29, 36).

By doing just as God commanded, Israel sanctified themselves to God. Leviticus 8 is relevant to Peter’s claim that all Christians make-up a “royal priesthood.” If we are priests in the New Covenant, perhaps we should be just as concerned with holiness as Moses, Aaron and his sons were in this chapter.

Even though the text clearly says that God was obeyed in all these things, we know from the rest of Scripture that Moses, Aaron, his sons, and the rest of Israel would later disobey God in many ways. Even after all that He had done to display His glory, they still chose to sin in disbelief (Ps 78:9-20). Moses was to be the mediator between Israel and God – the one through whom God communicated with His people and by whom He brought His Law to them. Yet Moses was a sinful mediator. He did not always do “just as the Lord commanded.” Perhaps the most prominent instance of his sin and disbelief is recorded in Numbers 20:9-13.

So the phrase is a bit ironic. Moses did just as the Lord commanded… sometimes. As a sinful mediator, Moses was not fit to enter the presence of God (Ex 33:20). Israel’s mediator himself needed a mediator – Jesus Christ. Christ lived an obedient life unto God, obtaining righteousness for all of His people: past and present. Because of what Christ did on the cross, Moses could serve as Israel’s mediator. So every time you read in Leviticus that someone did “just as the Lord commanded,” remember this: Christ is the only one who truly did just as the Lord commanded.

We see Christ exalted here as the only true righteousness of His people. We also see Him exalted as an exclusive Savior. He is not Savior for all people, but rather Savior to those who repent and believe on Him alone. The faithful ones in Israel did not do just as the Lord commanded in all things. However, their lives sung repentance and faith in God. This is what differentiates God’s people from the world. This is what defines the people whose sins are paid for by Christ. The redemption Christ accomplished on the cross is exclusive to those who “do the will of My Father in Heaven,” even though many will surely say “Lord Lord” on that day (Matt 7:15-23).

Sinful Priests (Lev 8:34-36)

This point is similar to the previous but extended to include the priesthood of Aaron and his sons. Just as Moses was an imperfect, sinful mediator, so were Aaron and his sons imperfect, sinful priests. It was their task to go before God on behalf of the people – though they failed miserably. Each priest himself needed himself to be cleansed of sin. It is almost applicable to equate this to a blind person trying to lead a blind person – or a bankrupt man trying to bail-out another bankrupt man.

In the same way that Christ mediated for even Moses, so He was High Priest for Aaron and his sons. Jesus was the true and better High Priest who would make true atonement for His people. Week after week after week, Aaron and his sons performed sacrifices and rituals as the Lord had prescribed. Time and time again, these sacrifices and rituals utterly failed to pay for the sins of God’s people. No matter what they did, or how much they consecrated themselves (Lev 8), they were imperfect priests making imperfect sacrifices in imperfect ways.

After centuries of imperfection, Christ comes and makes one sacrifice. In His present work as High Priest, He accomplishes all that Israel’s priesthood failed to accomplish. Christ is exalted in Leviticus 8:34-36 as the true and better priest who did not need “atonement on [His] behalf” (v.34) and who did not die ascending the hill of the Lord – for He truly had clean hands and a pure heart (Ps 24:3-4).

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 Jn 2:1). Our hope in sin is that we have an Advocate. If Christ was not righteous, He could not enter God’s presence to plead our case. Upon entering the Heavenly holy of holies, He would be consumed in wrath. Praise God that our Mediator stood erect when we all crumbled in temptation. Christ our Advocate strides boldly into the holy room of God and sprinkles His own blood on the mercy. By His merit, it still drips wet and we are kept in salvation.

Reading Leviticus, Seeing Christ (Part 3)

Same Atonement for Rich and Poor (Lev 5:7)

Leviticus specifies the particular ways in which offerings were to be presented to God. A sacrifice had to be of a certain quality and given in a certain manner, among other things. I have wondered: how many animals would an Israelite have offered over his lifetime? In light of this, how prosperous was the average Israelite? Could every Jew afford to offer the required animal offering?

Israel had its fair supply of poverty. Jesus commented in Matthew 26:11, “For you always have the poor with you; but you do not always have Me.” Among poor communities, perhaps many struggled to bring a prescribed offering. These particular families found great hope in Leviticus 5:7ff: “But if he cannot afford a lamb, then he shall…” Moses goes on to write-down what one had to do if he could not afford to bring a lamb for the Guilt Offering. In this way, God provided a means for poor Israelites to partake in the sacrificial system.

So the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin which he has committed, and it will be forgiven him” (v.10). Though this man was poorer than most, the atonement promised him was no different than the wealthiest merchant’s. The foreshadow quickly leads us to the cross. God always requires a sacrifice to atone for sin. However, in order to make atonement for your sin, you do not need a wealth of riches or righteousness. The poor in Christ enjoy the same forgiveness as the rich in Christ. We see in Leviticus 5:7, 10 a shadow of Christ coming and making a way for all kinds of men – rich and poor, high and low, king and peasant. Earthly status and possession does nothing to atone for sin. All who come to Christ will enjoy the same redemption.

An Atonement Despite Ignorance (Lev 5:17-19)

Consider this scenario: a man sins but is unaware that what he does is sinful. He is ignorant of the Law. Therefore he should be spared judgement under the Law, correct? Consider God’s answer: “Now if a person sins and does any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, though he was unaware, still he is guilty and shall bear his punishment” (v.17). The text says that ignorance of the Law does not excuse someone from a judgment under the Law.

The glimpse of Christ in this text is simple yet powerful: Christ’s death atones for sins that His people do not even realize they commit. I do not have perfect knowledge of my depravity. If I contemplated my wickedness and guilt for centuries, there would still be dark recesses of evil that I could not comprehend. Yet my ignorance of sin does not mean that Christ is an insufficient Savior.

There is a bottomless well of peace here: my confession of sin does not make Christ’s blood atoning. His death was sufficient to redeem me from my sin.

Reading Leviticus, Seeing Christ (Part 2)

An Insufficient Sacrificial System

Hebrews 10:4 is of particular importance for this study (even though it is not in Leviticus). “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Does this verse dismantle the purpose of Mosaic Law? What good were the sacrifices, offerings and ordinances if they did nothing to take away Israel’s sin? Perhaps this question would be more helpful: “Why did God give the Law if it could not save Israel?” A similar question would be: “If offerings and sacrifices did not take away their sin, then how was anyone ever saved?” First consider the second question.

I. How Were Old Testament Believers Saved?

Old Testament believers were saved by the same grace New Testament are: the blood of Jesus Christ upon the cross. “Christ Jesus, whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:25-26). Christ’s death demonstrated righteousness not simply for all future acts of grace but for all the forbearance of God in which He passed over sins previously committed.

When Old Testament believers sinned, God forgave their sin by looking-forward to Christ’s death on the cross. When New Testament believers sin, God forgives their sin by looking-backward to Christ’s death on the cross. The death of Christ was timeless. It satisfied God’s wrath for the sin of God’s people – for all time.

II. Why Did God Give the Mosaic Law?

Now we address the second question: if Jesus paid for His people’s sin, what purpose did the Mosaic Law serve? I have included three brief thoughts below. There is more to say, but certainly we can see this much.

A. To teach the ugliness and seriousness of sin. Modern depictions of the Tabernacle often show the altar as a clean, pristine place – but was this really so? I suggest not. The sacrificial places would have been gruesome. Imagine the stain of blood from daily offerings – the smell of animal flesh – the rough, knife-grooved altar. The place of sacrifice was anything but pretty: it was a place of death. This demonstrated that sin always warrants death and God always follows through with the warrant. In seeing blood being spilled week after week for their sins, the Israelites were given a vivid picture of the sin’s costliness. “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) was engraved into their very culture and it prepared them for the arrival of a true sacrificial Lamb Who would spill His blood to truly cleanse them of their sins.

B. To show the need for a propitiation. As they witnessed the routine sacrifices for sin, none could doubt that God was a righteous God Who saw punished all rebellion. Israelites presented an offering in their stead, taking their place under the wrath of God. Every bull, ram and lamb were all substitutes in someone’s place, to make atonement on his behalf. As these offerings were made regularly, it would have been near impossible for any Israelite to overlook the definite conclusion: “I need another life to die my death, or else I shall die for my sin.” The sacrificial system taught the Jews that God always punishes sin. In light of Hebrews 10:4, we know that this sacrifice didn’t actually serve as a propitiation for their sins. It simply still showed Israel her need for a propitiation.

C. To foreshadow Christ. The slaughtered animals did nothing to atone for sin – but Christ did. Every animal put on the altar served as a horn: blaring the seriousness of sin and the need for propitiation. In doing so, every sacrifice groaned for the Messiah Who would one day come and truly redeem God’s people. He would be the propitiation that Israel needed. It is not mere coincidence that John the Baptist cried, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). The sacrificial system established a principle: forgiveness was only possible through sacrifice. This paved the way for Christ.

Looking back at the Old Testament from the New Testament, we see that the sacrificial system was an exercise of faith and a foreshadowing of Christ rather than a means of atonement. Christ gave the Levitical Law its proper context. Certainly we may confess that God inspired Leviticus with Christ’s redemptive work in view. You cannot understand all that is going on in Leviticus until you read it in the context of Jesus Christ.

Reading Leviticus, Seeing Christ (Part 1)

A Christ-Centered Text

We believe that “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Similarly: “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scripture we might have hope” (Rom 15:4). These texts may be easy to believe when reading Psalms or Isaiah – but what about books like Leviticus? Are these sacrificial prescriptions applicable for the church today? How do we draw instruction and profit from this book?

One response to such questions would be to refute Antinomianism. A second response would be that Leviticus is an infallible, God-breathed book – by sole merit of this, it becomes valuable to us. A third response, perhaps: texts such as 2 Timothy 3:16 and Romans 15:4 charge us to have faith that it is beneficial for us. Yet I would like to focus on a fourth response: all Scripture is Christ-Centered. One reason that Leviticus is valuable and profitable for us is that it exalts Jesus Christ. Consider John 5:39. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me.”

This series of articles will not be an exegesis of Leviticus. I simply want to show you several passages that scream “Messiah!” to me. I pray this is helpful, faithful and truly Christ-exalting.

The Law of Burnt Offerings (Lev 1:3-9)

God gave the Israelites five main criteria for burnt offerings. A burnt offering must be:

  1. Without defect (v.3)
  2. Before the Lord (v.3)
  3. The man’s substitute, having been affiliated with him (v.4)
  4. Pleasing the Lord (v.9)
  5. Presented by a priest (i.e. mediator; v.5-9)

Jesus Christ is foreshadowed in this, for He was:

  1. Righteous, “without defect” (1 Pt 2:21-22)
  2. A propitiation before the Lord (Rom 3:24-26)
  3. Incarnated in our image and died as one of us, being affiliated with man to be his substitute (2 Cor 5:21)
  4. A propitiation that pleased God (Isa 53:10)
  5. And is the timeless High Priest and intercessor on behalf of His people; a perfect mediator (Heb 4:14-16; 7:23-28)

As the book goes on, we see various reiterations of these criteria. Every time I read “without defect” or “before the Lord,” I immediately recognize a shadow of Christ. We always want to be careful not to allegorize the text or go to extreme typologies. However, to not recognize that these phrases hint at what is to come is to commit a grievous exegetical fallacy.

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).


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).