So at the start of 2012 (7 days before the cancer hit) Kim and I made a New Year's resolution to read through the Bible in a year. We've tried this before and often end up failing around this time of the year - where we typically hit Leviticus & Numbers. (What can I say? These are difficult books!). However, this year we decided to read through the Bible in chronological order (first time ever) and because of this we ended up reading through the book of Job in late January as opposed to in the month of June. What perfect timing for us as we spent a good chunk of January in the ICU!
My dad is a surgeon and so I remember as a kid seeing this symbol in our house and being enamored by it. (what boys aren't enamored by snakes?) It wasn't until I read a little story in the book of Numbers a few years ago that it dawned on me what the symbol really meant.
There is a little story in Numbers 21 that is so short (only 6 verses) if you blink you might miss it. While the Israelites were roaming in the desert for 40 years (after they refused to take the Promised Land by faith despite their miraculous redemption from Egypt) the people began to grow impatient and spoke against God and Moses in their sin. At that time "fiery serpents" came among them and began to bite some of them leading to their immediate death. The people quickly ask Moses to save them and God instructs Moses to "make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." (Nu 21:8) And this is in fact what happened. This all seems a bit strange doesn't it? What is going on here?
"No. Keep your eyes on that bronze serpent. This is your only hope for salvation."
On the surface, this appears to make little sense. God just got done telling them that they were strictly forbidden from worshiping any other gods or creating any graven images (Ex 20:1-4). Now here He is commanding them to stare at a "bronze serpent" Moses was instructed to create. Was God contradicting Himself?
Jn 1:29) and as he is eventually crucified on (you guessed it) the Jewish Passover.
So what does a bronze serpent on a pole have to do with Jesus? Well, if you go one book earlier in Leviticus you will find that "bronze" always symbolized God's judgment - because in order to bronze something you had to put it under intense heat to remove all the impurities in the metal. (bronze = judgment).
Figuring out what "the serpent" symbolized is a little easier - a couple books earlier (Genesis 3) a serpent is the creature Satan uses to disguise himself in the Garden of Eden and so serpents are often a symbol of "sin". (serpent = sin).
So if you put it all together the Israelites were told to fix their eyes on a bronze serpent on a pole because it was a profound foreshadowing of "sin being judged" (i.e. JESUS on a cross!). Let me lay it out in the form of a mathematical proof:
SIN BEING JUDGED = JESUS ON A CROSS
1,400 years before our Heavenly Father sends His Son, He is laying down the gospel story of salvation to all who look upon Him with eyes of faith. Just in case you think I'm just making this stuff up, Jesus himself identifies with this bronze serpent while talking to Nicodemus and immediately before the famous John 3:16 verse he says:
"And 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." (Jn 3:14-15)Nicodemus, being a Pharisee, was a bonafide expert on the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). He gets it. When we understand this little story we now understand what Paul means when he says this:
"God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Cor 5:21)What an amazing verse! At the cross we see Jesus taking on our sin and our judgment so that we might be made holy. And He has done all this so that we could be restored back into a loving and intimate relationship with the holy God who created us. What was lost in the Garden of Eden can now be found at the Cross of Calvary.
And it's not just a neat little story that has zero relevance to us today. We place our faith on the finished work of the cross as the Israelites placed their faith on that "serpent on a pole". And every day we wake up we will find ourselves surrounded by "serpents". But no matter how venomous or how many there are - may we keep our eyes fixed on the "bronze serpent" - the One who "became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God".
In His Grace,
Peter & Kim