THE BRASS SERPENT
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
John 3:14a (Holman) AJust as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness . . .@
In Numbers 21:4-9, the Israelites, accusing Moses of bringing them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, complained they had no bread or water and hated the manna. The Lord sent serpents among them. Many Israelites died. When they confessed their sin against God and Moses, the Lord told Moses to make a brass serpent and put it on a pole. Everyone who beheld the brass serpent lived.
This incident, the last miracle of Moses, left a deep impression on Israel. The people kept the brass serpent as a memorial. The Jews eventually began worshiping the symbol itself. Thus, King Hezekiah destroyed it (II Kings 8:14).
The brass serpent was meant to be not a mechanical charm, but merely a symbol that healing was wrought by God. The brass serpent bespoke God=s willingness and ability to save. People had to respond to His provision by looking toward the brass serpent in faith.
The same is true of the cross. It cannot work as a mechanical charm. Its efficacy depends on a response of faith.
John 3:14b ASo the Son of Man must be lifted up.@
ASo@ B Similarities exist between the lifting up of the brass serpent on the pole and the lifting up of Jesus on the cross.
The serpent was an appropriate symbol, glancing back to Eden=s serpent, who offered the first temptation and prepared the way for Christ=s death. The serpent first stung us by the fruit of a tree. Christ saved us by suffering on one.
The brazen serpent had no poison in it. A serpent=s poison was rendered harmless by a poisonless serpent. Similarly, the sin of man had to be rendered harmless by a sinless man. The issue of sin was begun by a fallen man (Adam) and had to be settled by a perfectly sinless man (Jesus, see Romans 5:19, I Corinthians 15:21-22). As the brass serpent had the form but not the poison, even so Christ had our body and nature, but not our sin (Hebrews 4:15). His emptiness of sin enabled Him to absorb all other sin (II Corinthians 5:21).
What cured the people in the wilderness reminded them of their plague. The serpent was in the likeness of what caused the harm. In the same way, Jesus became sin itself to let us vividly see the horrors of our spiritual sickness.
In Christ=s death, sin is set before us at its fieriest and most formidable. Sin culminated in Christ on the cross. He suffered there its severest penalty. Our curse was removed when Jesus was made a curse for us (Galatians 3:13).
The brass serpent was seen by all, openly proving the serpent=s venomous power had been overcome. Jesus did the same at the cross; Ahaving spoiled principalities, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it@ (Col. 2:15).
Jesus was lifted up as a spectacle between heaven and earth, as if unworthy of either and abandoned by both (Henry). But there He won history=s greatest victory. On the cross, sin was absorbed, judged, condemned, and executed. Jesus was resurrected, but not the strength of Satan (Hebrews 2:14-15).
John 3:15 Aso that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.@
God=s remedy for sin is enduring. Once we receive God-life, there can be no return to lostness. God-life never dies.
Christ was the Teacher of never-ending life, and the Giver of it. Faith is the medium through which we receive it.
To believers this seems simple, but the vast majority of people reject it. Why? For the same reasons the sick might not have looked at the serpent.
First, procrastination. Many plan to take care of spiritual matters, but delay until it is too late to look and be healed.
Second, insufficient conviction, not realizing the full seriousness of their condition. Those who looked were admitting their consciousness of pending death. Their situation was terminal and they knew it. Sinners often don=t realize how serious their condition is. They are dead in two ways: spiritually, their wound is mortal. Unless Christ heals them, their disease is fatal (Romans 6:23); legally, they are justly condemned for their crimes against God.
Third, belief in other means of healing. By looking at the brass serpent, people admitted a cure was impossible any other way. Self had to be abandoned. God alone had to be sought.
Fourth, hopelessness, looking too much at the sickness, feeling incurable. Self-contemplation usually leads to despair. The way to life is to look outside one=s self. A sailor looks down into the hold of a ship to see if it=s damaged, but must look up to see the north star which will guide him to help.
In the same way we must glance within to see our sin, but then must quickly look up to see the Sun of Righteousness. The cure offered by the brass serpent was available for the most desperate cases. No one was considered helpless and hopeless. Similarly, the case of sinners is deplorable, but not desperate.
In the wilderness, the people God healed were terribly unworthy. They were constant grumblers. God had mercy on them anyway. Remember, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8).
Fifth, unbelief, the ultimate reason. Looking was something all could do. The serpent was lifted up to be visible to all. By looking, the Israelites expressed confidence God could heal. Refusal to look meant they did not trust God.
God=s ultimate sacrifice was also made openly. At Calvary Jesus died publicly, nothing hidden. Believing is something we all can do, but each individual is required to look personally.
All people are in the same condition. There is no difference. It is simply a decision of whether we will believe or not believe. There are no other excuses.