The book of Numbers contains the account of a strange event which took place during Israel’s time of wandering in the wilderness. It is most often referred to as Moses and the Bronze Serpent. Let’s take a few minutes to think about this unusual biblical story, see its significance to Israel, and then learn from Jesus’ interpretation and application in the Gospel of John. First, read the original account.
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.” 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 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. 8 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.” 9 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.
There are four truths God wants us to understand and embrace.
Saving faith realizes the guilt of one’s sin and the justice of God to punish the sinner (Num. 21:7a).
Just as personal admission of one’s sickness is a prerequisite to being helped by a physician, personal admission of sin is a prerequisite to receiving forgiveness from God. Before the sinning people could be forgiven they had to admit “we have sinned.” The snake bites brought them to the place of personal conviction and then they were ready to make a plea for forgiveness.
One of the two guilty thieves hanging next to Jesus had a similar response. While one thief joined the crowd in launching accusations at Jesus, the other realized his sinfulness—he knew he deserved to die for his sin. So, before he died he looked to Jesus with the look of faith (Luke 23:39-42). As a result, he joined Jesus in Paradise that very same day. When we honestly face our sin and guilt then, and only then, our heart is prepared to confess to God and look to the Savior for mercy.
Saving faith recognizes the need for an intercessor between the guilty sinner and God (Num. 21:7b).
When the people realized the guilt of their sin they immediately turned to Moses saying, “Pray for us.” Instinctively, every guilty sinner knows he cannot simply waltz into God’s presence on his own. He must have a representative, an intercessor, a mediator. The sacrificial laws and prescribed rituals found in the book of Leviticus made this clear to God’s people.
Thankfully, God has provided the one and only perfect priest to intercede for us, to reconcile us back to Himself. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time (1 Timothy 2:5-6). When we confess our sins to God, while at the same time looking to Jesus, we have an advocate with the Father (1 John 1:8-2:1).
Saving faith looks to God alone to provide the necessary remedy (Num. 21:8-9).
The bronze serpent could not save the people. Only God could provide the remedy. In looking to the brazen serpent on a pole their eyes of faith looked to God. Sadly, the bronze serpent eventually became an idol that was worshiped during the time of Hezekiah’s reign (2 Kings 18:4). But true saving faith does not look to religion, statues, or human priests. It looks to God as the only one who can rescue us. We are desperate sinners who cannot save ourselves; we must be saved by God’s grace, as the apostle makes clear in Romans 5:6-10.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
Saving faith looks to Jesus to be the Mediator, propitiation for sin, and the entrance into eternal life (John 3:14-18).
In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes it crystal clear that the bronze serpent was a type of Himself. 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). The word “as” indicates that Jesus was making a comparison. As God provided the means whereby the bitten people could be healed through faith, so He has provided the only means by which our souls may find healing and restoration—through faith. When we turn in faith to look to Jesus, as the only one who can intercede for us before a holy God, we are redeemed from sin and receive the gift of eternal life.
Saving faith looks to God alone. It does not look to self. It does not look to any goodness in one’s own heart, nor to the works of religion. There is only one way for the soul to find its healing—and that is in its return to God. To be reconciled to God we must first see our sin for what it really is—an offense to God’s holiness. Because our sin is offensive, God must punish it. But thanks be to God that He has already punished His sinless Son in our place. Are you looking to Jesus to save you?
[Adapted from last Sunday’s sermon, “Look to Jesus.” Search on the sermon title here.