As Moses Lifted Up the Bronze Serpent in the Wilderness

As Moses Lifted Up the Bronze Serpent in the Wilderness

Jesus established the bronze serpent as a type of Him: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). This is part one. Here is part two.

When I was in the military we trained with MILES gear. MILES stands for Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System. Thank of a big game of laser tag and you will have the idea. We would also use smoke, blank bullets, grenades, and Claymores to get closer to resembling actual combat.

One day a friend of mine said, “Look at these bushes. They stop lasers, but they won’t stop bullets. We want things to be as realistic as possible, but if people try to hide behind leaves in combat, they’re going to be in trouble. They think they’re safe when they’re not.”

Imagine believing something would keep you safe when it won’t, or believing something would not keep you safe, when it would. The Israelites faced a situation that required believing a brass snake on a pole would keep them safe from snakebites! Not only that, it would heal them if they had already been bitten. Let’s look at this account in greater detail to see a beautiful type of our Savior.

Remember the context from the previous chapter: Israel is making their second attempt at entering the Promised Land. This is the new generation God would bring in, because the old generation was forced to die in the wilderness. Sadly, this new generation (again) looks like their grumbling, faithless parents:

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. 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.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 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. 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.” 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.

Numbers 21:4-9

Reject the Manna and Get the Serpent

Israel had to go around Edom because the Edomites refused them passage through their country (Numbers 20:18). This forced the Israelites to travel far south back toward the wilderness and away from Canaan. Understandably this was discouraging. Combined with the lack of food and water, the people engaged in one of their favorite wilderness activities: complaining (Exodus 15:24, 16:2, 17:3, Numbers 12:1, 14:2, 16:3, 41 and 20:2).

Although, one difference in this account is that while Israel previously complained about Moses directly (and God indirectly), this time the people complained about God directly. Then they compounded their sin by complaining about the manna (a type of Christ; see chapter 8), and Israel heaped even more judgment on themselves. All of this contributed to the severe discipline. God didn’t punish the Israelites for wanting their bare necessities met; He punished them for their irreverence.

In the past, when Israel sinned, the glory of the Lord appeared and the judgment followed. But this time there was no warning. They didn’t want the bread from heaven, so God sent poisonous serpents into the camp. People became sick and “many people died.” It’s a somewhat fitting picture: they rejected God’s gift of life and health from heaven, so God sent them suffering and death from earth. The Israelites who died probably constituted the last remnants of the old generation God said wouldn’t enter the Promised Land.

The word “fiery” is the translation of the Hebrew word saraph, which means “burning.” The same word refers to the angels, or seraphim, who minister before the throne of God (Isaiah 6:2, 6). Fiery doesn’t describe the appearance of the servants. Instead, it describes the inflammation and pain caused by their venom. Those bitten suffered greatly.

In the past, Moses fell on his face before God and interceded for the people of his own volition, but now the judgment was so terrible the people begged him to pray for them. God didn’t answer the way anyone would’ve expected. Instead of removing the serpents and healing the people who had been bitten, God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, lift it up, and anyone who was bitten could look at it and live. Let’s understand the symbolism behind each element so the type comes fully into view.

The Bronze Serpent Represents Sin

I remember reading through the Bible soon after becoming a Christian in my early twenties. There were certain passages I found particularly confusing, and this was one of them. The most difficult part was contained in the word, “serpent.”

When I read that word my mind went back to the Garden of Eden and the Serpent tempting Eve (Genesis 3:1-14). Looking back at that famous account that apostle Paul wrote, “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). The Bible concludes with a strong focus on the devil, called the serpent, being defeated:

“The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. [An angel] seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer.”

Revelation 12:9, 20:2-3; see also Revelation 12:14-15

We can easily wonder why God would tell Moses to use the form that Satan took, the very embodiment of evil, but as we will see, it is this challenging symbolism that makes the bronze serpent such a beautiful type of Christ.

Like the Bronze Serpent, Christ Became Sin for Us

Jesus established the typology between himself and the bronze serpent: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). If the serpent were put on the pole horizontally toward the top, it would have formed a cross. If the snake were wrapped around the pole, it would form the Asclepius, the sign for healing. This too would be fitting imagery in that “by [Christ’s] stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

But all of this can make the symbolism—the serpent representing sin—even more troubling, because now we see an association between Jesus and the serpent. It was one thing for the serpent to look good, but it’s another thing entirely but that same serpent to be tied to Christ. But how perfect does this become when we read, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is classic double imputation: our sin (unrighteousness) imputed to Christ’s account, and Christ’s righteousness imputed to our account. This occurred when Jesus was “lifted up” on the cross and God “made [Jesus] to be sin.”

Isaiah 53:11 looks forward to Christ’s sacrifice: “he shall bear their iniquities.” Consider these verses looking backward on Christ’s sacrifice: “having been offered once to bear the sins of many…He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (Hebrews 9:28, 1 Peter 2:24). These verses all look to Christ as our sin bearer. Romans 8:3 says, “God…[sent] his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh. What has the “likeness” of sin more than a serpent?

The Bronze Serpent Represents Judgment

Bronze pictures judgment because it is formed and shaped by being passed through fire. Here are some biblical examples establishing the association.

The bronze altar was the largest of the tabernacle’s seven pieces of furniture. Situated prominently in the outer court, the bronze altar was the most imposing object (Exodus 40:6). No worshiper could avoid seeing it upon entering. In other words, every Israelite would have been familiar with it, and it would’ve shaped their understanding of bronze. Here’s part of the instructions for it:

You shall make horns for it on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze. You shall make all its utensils of bronze. You shall also make for it a grating, a network of bronze, and on the net you shall make four bronze rings at its four corners. And you shall make poles for the altar, poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with bronze.

Exodus 27:2-4, 6

All the elements of the tabernacle pointed to God’s plan of salvation through Christ. Each ritual taught the people the fundamental principles of salvation. The bronze altar—where priests offered animal sacrifices for the sins of the people—vividly illustrated substitutionary atonement. According to Leviticus 6:13 “fire shall be kept burning on the altar continually; it shall not go out.” The bronze altar was also called “the altar of burnt offering” (Exodus 30:28), which means—like the bronze serpent—it combined bronze, sin, fire, and judgment.

When God pronounced judgment on the devil, Genesis 3:14-15 records, “The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘[Jesus] shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The word bruise might make us think of bumping into something, but the word is shuwph and it means, “crush.” Jesus will crush Satan’s head, communicating His complete victory.

Satan will bruise (or crush) Jesus’ heel (a serious injury, but not fatal), referring to Jesus having to go to the cross. Jesus paid for our sins on the cross, and Satan was instrumental in introducing sin into the world; therefore, the cross is attributed to him. Why heel? This would be within the serpent’s reach after God told him “on your belly you shall go” (Genesis 3:14).

Revelation 1 contains one of the most dramatic descriptions of the glorified Christ in Scripture. Verse 15 says, “[Jesus’s] eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters.” Jesus has recovered from His heel being crushed! His indestructible feet survive the furnace and crush Satan’s head. One commentator said, “Glowing, hot, bronze feet are a clear reference to divine judgment.” Psalm 110:1 says, “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Then this verse is quoted and applied to Christ in Matthew 22:44, Mark 12:36, Luke 20:42-43, Acts 2:34-35, Hebrews 1:13. Christ’s feet of bronze will rest on the necks of His enemies. For the purposes of understanding the type, recognize that bronze is associated with judgment.

Sin Lifted Up and Judged

Being “lifted up” is one of Jesus’s most common ways of referring to His crucifixion. In John 8:28 He said,  “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me”:

“I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”

John 12:32-34

Let’s connect the dots. With the serpent representing sin and bronze representing judgment, the bronze serpent represents sin being lifted up and judged. There could be no more fitting description of what occurred when “the Son of Man [was] lifted up” on the cross (John 3:14): because Jesus became sin for us, sin was lifted up and judged. Looking forward to Christ, Isaiah 11:10 says, “In that day the root of Jesse (referring to Jesus), who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.” The bronze serpent stood as a signal and people looked up to it to be saved from physical death. Similarly, Christ stands as a signal and people look up to Him to be saved from eternal death.

Saved by Faith from the Serpent’s Bite

Everyone has been infected, or bitten, by sin: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Just as those who were bitten by the serpents died, so too do the people infected by sin end of dying: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). But it was only those who recognized they were bitten that would look to the bronze serpent to be saved. Similarly, only those who recognize they have been bitten by sin look to Christ to be saved. Without that knowledge of sickness people trust in their own “health” (or righteousness). Trying to offer them the Gospel is like trying to offer an antidote to people who don’t think they’re dying, or life preservers to people who don’t think they’re drowning. They don’t see their need for a Savior, because they don’t see their need to be saved.

To be delivered the Israelites didn’t need to perform acts of service, give an amount of money, or pray and fast for hours. Instead, they only needed to look at the bronze serpent. This took faith, and it is that faith that saved them, looking forward to the way we are saved by looking to Christ in faith.

Imagine the joy in the camp when the word spread that a cure was available. But were there some who scoffed or mocked? Maybe they didn’t believe it would work, or it seemed too easy for them. There wasn’t enough for them to do. Perhaps they thought it was illogical and foolish.

The bronze serpent illustrated the gospel. How many today scoff and mock at the idea that God provided a Savior for their sins and it required He die on a cross in their place? It is totally illogical to think that looking at a snake on a pole could physically heal anyone from a snakebite, but how illogical is it to think that looking to a Man hanging on a cross could spiritually heal us from sin? As 1 Corinthians 1:18 says, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Were there Israelites who wouldn’t look up? If so, they would have perished with salvation right at fingertips. They are very much like the countless people who enter a Christless eternity when salvation is available to them.

Personal Application (Continued in Part Two)

Frustration Isn’t an Excuse to Sin

The long detour the Israelites had to take around Edom was frustrating, but this still didn’t excuse their response: “We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents” (1 Corinthians 10:9). They tried the Lord’s patience too much, and he punished them for it.

In the same way, when we experience frustrating situations, it is not an excuse to complain. Peace, patience, gentleness, and self-control are all fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). When we suffer, but remain calm, we are yielding to the Spirit and letting these fruit be produced.

God Disciplines His Children

Numbers 21:6 and 8 says, “Fiery serpents…bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. Everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” Israel suffered greatly in this chapter. Many people died and many others endured painful snakebites. But all of this could have been avoided. Everything was a consequence of their immature response to disappointment.

Consider the following verses: “If you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:14, 17). We can suffer for one of two reasons: doing good (righteousness’ sake) or doing evil. Israel suffered for doing evil and we would do well to learn from them: “These things (in the Old Testament) took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they (the Israelites) did. These things (in the Old Testament) happened to them (the Israelites) as an example, but they were written down for our instruction (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11).

Complaining about Authority Can Be Complaining about God

The Israelites thought they were complaining about Moses, but Moses let them know they were complaining about God. Consider these examples:

The whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Exodus 16:2-3

The people thought they were accusing Moses and Aaron of trying to starve them to death, but: Moses replied, “The Lord has heard your grumbling that you grumble against him—what are we? Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord.”

Exodus 17:2 says, “The people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” The Israelites thought they were quarreling with Moses, but he let them know they were testing God.

When the old generation rebelled on the board of the Promised Land Numbers 14:2 records, “Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron.” Joshua and Caleb said, “Only do not rebel against the Lord” (verse 9). Again, they thought they were grumbling against Moses and Aaron, Joshua and Caleb let them know they were rebelling against God.

Two hundred fifty of Israel’s leaders opposed Moses and Aaron’s leadership. Numbers 16:3 records, “They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” Moses told them, “It is against the Lord that you and all your company have gathered together” (verse 11). They thought they were criticizing Moses and Aaron’s authority, but Moses said their criticisms were against God.

When we complain about authority, assuming it is the authority God has put in place, we are complaining about God Himself. Romans 13:2 says, “Whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” To resist the authority God has established is to resist God Himself.

6 Responses

  1. This is very timely in our study of the Word of God! Thank you very much for your wise responses and instructions to us all! The podcast was very helpful and opened our eyes to several issues we’ve discussed lately! Thanking God!

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