The Serpent and The Savior
There’s a fairly bizarre little story told in Numbers about an event that occurred while the Jews were still wandering around in the wilderness. At one point, they were traveling to the Red Sea by going around the land of Edom when the people (once again) started grumbling about how long it was taking and God got angry. So he sent poisonous snakes that bit the people. Many died and so the people came to Moses asking for relief from the snakes stating, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.” So, Moses prayed and the Lord told him to make a replica of a snake and put it on a pole. The Lord told Moses that anyone bitten by a snake only needed to look at the image of the snake in order to be healed. (Numbers 21:6-9)
Flash forward about 1400 years and we see Jesus telling Nicodemus in the book of John, “And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.” (John 3:14)
The obvious meaning of Jesus’ words, are that just as Moses stuck an image of a snake on a pole and “lifted it up”, Jesus must also be “lifted up” on the cross. Okay, I get that, it’s pretty basic. There’s also the concept of faith involved. In order for the children of Israel to be healed, they had to believe that by looking at the image of the snake they would be healed, just as in order for us to be saved, we have to believe that the work Jesus did when he was lifted up on the Cross was real, and valid, and the only way for us to be free of sin – the only way for us to be healed.
I get that too, but what intrigues me here is the picture of the Israelites gazing on the image of a snake, which they would have known is first off, an image. Something they had been told by Moses via God was forbidden to even exist among them. And secondly, it’s a snake! Who was it that tempted Eve in the garden? Who was it that got us kicked out of there in the first place? A serpent. I’m pretty sure God’s Chosen knew the story.
Today we have images all around us. Visit your local museum and you will find tons of sculptures, maybe even some of snakes. We have images in our homes of all kinds of interesting things. Our children have stuffed images on their beds, even a few grown-ups have them too (Don’t even get me started on God’s definition of what an image is). It’s hard for us, who are free from the Law because of the blood of Jesus, to understand how offensive and dangerous the thought of violating God’s law against graven images must have been to the children of Israel, even as they felt themselves growing weaker from the bite of the snake.
Now let’s add the fact that the image they are supposed to look upon must have been one of the most hateful they could imagine. A snake? The very creature doomed to crawl on its’ belly because of the part it played in the downfall of man? Are you kidding me?
God doesn’t do anything by accident. I truly believe that. I think what He’s doing by creating such a difficult cure for the disease is asking his chosen people to move beyond the Law and trust in Him, and Him only. I believe this vignette in the wilderness is also another picture of Messiah. God already knew how hard it would be for the Jews to accept the Christ in the form that God was sending Him. In the image of the hated snake, we see God’s chosen people doing exactly what most of their descendants would do when the real Savior came to them; He would be rejected, for the most part, by His own people in favor of the Law given to them by God. In both cases, they made the choice to die instead of receive life, and later eternal life based on the Law and their own interpretation of it.
They couldn’t or wouldn’t move beyond the physical realm we live in and envision the type of Kingdom now offered to them by God through His son; a Kingdom that would reside within them. More than likely, they envisioned a champion riding in with his legions to once and for all throw off the oppression of invading armies. They envisioned another David. After all, wasn’t the Messiah supposed to be from the line of David?
I don’t know if I would have been any different. Moving beyond the only reality we’ve ever known isn’t an easy thing. In Ephesians 6:12 we are told:
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
It is vital for us to remember that here is a battle going on above and around us that few of us know about, or stop to consider. It is a battle that has been waging from the first words of the Serpent as he tempted Eve into her downfall and will continue until the glorious return of the One who is already victorious: our Lord, our Savior, our King, Jesus Christ.