The Bronze Serpent (Numbers 21:4-9)

bronze serpent

When you go to a doctor, or when you go to a pharmacist, you will probably see a symbol with one or two snakes wrapped around a staff or a rod. One of these symbols is called the Rod of Asclepius. It’s used by the Canadian Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and countless others.

Where did this strange symbol come from, and how did it ever get to be associated with medicine, with healing? There are a few theories, but you’ll notice that the account we just read includes a snake, a staff, and healing. There are some who think that the medical symbol we used today has its origins in the account that we just read.

But this raises even more questions. What in the world is this passage about? It’s incredibly strange. At first glance it looks like some primitive magic from ancient times. It also looks at first glance like there’s a drastic overreaction to a pretty common problem. There are many passages in Scripture that are hard to understand. This one’s easy to understand, but it leaves us scratching our heads.

But as we look at it again, we’re going to see that this passage tells us three things that we need to know. First, what’s wrong with us. Second, where things start to turn. And finally, how we are healed of what’s wrong with us.

So first let’s look at what’s wrong with us.

If you’ve read the books of the Bible that recount the wanderings of Israel on the way to the Promised Land, you know that it wasn’t smooth sailing. They kept grumbling and complaining the whole way through. But when we get to Numbers 21, we’ve reached a turning point. Right before the passage we just read, Israel defeats a Canaanite king. This is the first victory over the Canaanites, and many more are going to follow. It really looks like things are finally turning around for them.

But some things don’t change. In verse 5, we encounter a problem that stayed with the people of Israel, and that if we’re honest it stays with us today. Verses 4 and 5 say:

But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Now what’s going on here? When Israel wandered through the dessert, there obviously wasn’t a lot of food. But we read earlier that God miraculously provided for them. Every day he gave them what they called manna, which was a fine, flake-like frost. It was like a coriander seed, white, and it tasted like a wafer made with honey. They ground into a meal, boiled it in pots, and made it into cakes.

When you think about it, it’s amazing and miraculous that God provided so well for such a great multitude in the middle of the dessert. But here we read that the people are impatient. And if you notice, they don’t really complain that they’re hungry or that they lack food. What they do say is that they “detest this miserable food.” The manna that God provided for them, they begin to see as worthless, good for nothing, and miserable.

Now, that doesn’t look like much, but that’s probably because we suffer from the same problem that they had. It’s a problem that really doesn’t look too serious, but as we’re going to see in a moment, it’s fatal, and there are very few cures.

What is the problem? Do you notice when this sense of dissatisfaction hit? It hit right after a victory. Israel had just achieved a great success, and right after they’re complaining. They’re empty.

The New York Times ran an article of some successful people. One of them, Diane Knorr, a former dot-com executive, said, “The first time I got a call way after hours from a senior manager, I remember being really flattered.” She thought, “Wow! I’m really getting up there now.” But eventually her work and family life became a blur with hours that were hard to scale back. Back in college, she had set the goal of making a six-figure salary by the time she was 49. She had reached her goal at age 35, years ahead of schedule, and yet she said, “Nothing happened; no balloons dropped. That’s when I really became aware of that hollow feeling.”

Do you know the problem with us? Inside of us, there is this hunger, this longing. And we think, “If I just get this” – a marriage, a job, children, an achievement, this house, this car, recognition – “If I just get this, then I’ll be satisfied.” But it never happens. We reach our goals, we achieve success, but we’re still left wanting more.

Brad Pitt starred in Fight Club, which is about a man who has the American dream and yet remains unsatisfied. Rolling Stone interviewed him. Listen to what Pitt said:

Man, I know all these things are supposed to seem important to us–the car, the condo, our version of success–but if that’s the case, why is the general feeling out there reflecting more impotence and isolation and desperation and loneliness? If you ask me, I say toss all this–we gotta find something else. Because all I know is that at this point in time, we are heading for a dead end, a numbing of the soul, a complete atrophy of the spiritual being. And I don’t want that.

Rolling Stone asked him what we should do to avoid this dead end of dissatisfaction despite all that we have, and he said:

Hey, man, I don’t have those answers yet. The emphasis now is on success and personal gain. I’m sitting in it, and I’m telling you, that’s not it. I’m the guy who’s got everything. I know. But I’m telling you, once you’ve got everything, then you’re just left with yourself. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it doesn’t help you sleep any better, and you don’t wake up any better because of it.

This isn’t a new problem. It goes as far back as Genesis 3. Adam and Eve were in paradise. Everything was good. They could enjoy everything – everything! – except for one tree that God placed off limits. And even though they were in paradise, it wasn’t good enough for them because they wanted more. They wanted what they couldn’t have. They got it, too, but instead of leading to satisfaction, it led to disaster and disintegration, and the world has never been the same since.

In fact, the apostle Paul says that this dynamic is at the heart of what we call sin. In Romans 1:21 he says, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Sin is essentially looking to other things besides God for meaning and satisfaction, thereby rejecting God and refusing to give thanks to him. And the results, as we’re going to see it, are disastrous. One author put it this way:

It is the desire for God which is the most fundamental appetite of all, and it is an appetite we can never eliminate. We may seek to disown it, but it will not go away. If we deny that it is there, we shall in fact only divert it to some other object or range of objects. And that will mean that we invest some creature or creatures with the full burden of our need for God, a burden which no creature can carry. (Simon Tugwell)

And this leads, ultimately, to not only a rejection of God, but to enslavement and deep dissatisfaction. You see this in what happened in response to this problem in the passage.

Some have wondered why God responded so severely to this problem. We read in verse 6: “Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.” The word venomous literally means fiery. The snakes would bite, and the result was this burning inflammation. This would probably lead to other symptoms – paralysis, blindness, thirst – and ultimately to death. Why so severe? Tim Keller has pointed out that the physical symptoms here are merely a mirror for the spiritual symptoms. When we’re bitten by this dissatisfaction of the heart, a dissatisfaction that is ultimately a rejection of God, a very similar thing happens within our souls, and the ultimate result is death. We think it’s not a big deal, but our spiritual condition is just as fatal as these snakes.

So what do we do, then? We’ve seen our condition, and how serious it is.

Let’s now look at where things begin to turn.

We read in verse 7:

The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

You see what’s happened here? One minute they’re complaining. The next moment, they’ve realized what they’ve done wrong. There’s no blame-shifting going on here. There are no excuses. What there is a simple confession of sin, a recognition of what’s gone wrong.

The biblical word for this is repentance. One of my favorite authors, Jack Miller, says that repentance is a form of sanity. He says that “Repentance is a return to God as my center… What a simple thing it is to humble the heart and return to sanity by repentance and praise.”

We know that repentance itself is a gift of God. It may be that God is giving some of you this gift this morning. Most of us are scared to death of repentance. We have this picture of a traumatic experience, or some dramatic experience. Repentance is something we think we’re going to hate. But repentance is actually just a return to sanity, a recognition that we’ve put other things at the center of our lives that just don’t belong there, and that can kill us. Repentance is coming to our senses and returning to God as our centers, which leads us to the cure for our disease.

That’s the last thing I want to look at this morning: the cure for what’s wrong with us, or how we can be healed.

Verses 8 and 9 say:

The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

This is the last thing you’d expect. Shouldn’t there be some medicine, some treatment? When you’re being bitten by venomous snakes, the last thing that you want is to look at a bronze version of that snake. And you certainly wouldn’t expect that this would save you! You would at least expect a list of things to do in order to get better. But here you have the simple cure: that anyone who is bitten and about to die can simply look to this bronze snake, and they live.

The poet and composer Michael Card wrote a song about this passage, and he got it right when he said, “the symbol of their suffering was now the focus of their faith, and with a faithful glance the healing power would flow.” What does this mean? It’s a paradox! They’re saved by looking at the very embodiment of what had bitten them.

And that’s exactly how we are saved as well. In one of the most famous passages of Scripture, Jesus explained to Nicodemus and to us what why he came to the world. And, amazingly, Jesus talked about this snake. Listen to what he said: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15).

Do you see what Jesus was saying here? Three times in the book of John, this phrase “lifted up” appears. John tells us later in chapter 12 that this “lifting up” image was given to show us “the kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:33). In other words, Jesus was saying that he was like this bronze serpent. That’s shocking! He was going to be lifted up and placed on the cross at Calvary, and that everyone who believes and simply looks will be saved.

On the cross, Jesus became the very embodiment of what was killing us. He became the curse; he became the embodiment of our sin; he absorbed the venom. And Jesus became the source of our healing, so that all who look upon him live. When we look at the cross in faith, our sin and God’s wrath are taken away, and we live. We are healed by looking at what has been lifted up on the tree. We are healed by looking to Jesus. All we have to do is to look.

In 1850, Charles Spurgeon was a young 15-year-old boy. One morning he was walking to church in a snowstorm. The snow was so bad that he never made it to his destination. He turned into a little Primitive Methodist chapel. Only a dozen or fifteen people were there.

The minister never showed up at that church; he probably was snowed in. A thin man who was a shoemaker or a tailor, but not a preacher, was called upon to preach. Spurgeon describes what happened:

He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth [Isaiah 45:22].”
He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter. There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in that text. The preacher began thus: “My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pain. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just, ‘Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to college to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand [pounds] a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look.
“But then the text says, ‘Look unto Me’. . . . Many of ye are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. Ye will never find any comfort in yourselves. Some look to God the father. No, look to him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Some of ye say, ‘We must wait for the Spirit’s workin’.’ You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, ‘Look unto Me.'”

At some point in the sermon, with only a small congregation present, the preacher noticed the young Spurgeon there. Spurgeon said:

Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I dare say, with so few present he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart he said, “Young man, you look very miserable.” Well, I did, but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, “and you always will be miserable–miserable in life, and miserable in death–if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.”
Then lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a primitive Methodists could do, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothing to do but to look and live.” I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said–I did not take much notice of it–I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me.
I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, “Look!” What a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could have almost looked my eyes away.
There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to him…

And Spurgeon’s life was forever changed. Let’s pray.

We’ve seen this morning what’s wrong with us. We’ve seen that it’s far more serious than we expected. But we’ve also seen that things begin to turn as we come to our senses and repent.

And we’ve seen that we are healed as we look to the cross and believe. We have nothing to do but to look and live.

I pray, Father, that we would look to the cross, that we would see what Jesus has done for us in absorbing the venom, and that we would live. Because whenever anyone is bitten and looks at what was lifted up, they live.

May everyone here look to the cross today, and live. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada