“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14, esv).
God takes our attitudes seriously. We see this clearly in another wave of murmuring recorded in Numbers 21. Forty years after the first round of grumbling, the wilderness rebellion at Kadesh Barnea, the new generation stood at the edge of the Promised Land. The previous generation had died in the wilderness. This generation knew the whole story and had an incredible opportunity to learn from their parents’ mistakes and inherit God’s favor instead of judgment. But they didn’t.
En route to the Promised Land, they wanted to cut through the land of Edom, but the Edomites (descendants of Esau) opposed the Israelites (descendants of Esau’s brother, Jacob). So the Israelites took the scenic route and trekked around Edom, but “the people became impatient on the way” (Numbers 21:4b). And they complained. “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’” (21:5). More murmuring.
God instantly and aggressively dealt with the complaining attitudes in wilderness generation number two: “Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (21:6). Apparently these snakes had a venomous bite that caused a burning sensation in the body. Ouch! Since the Garden of Eden, when Satan took the form of a serpent, snakes have been a symbol of sin, and here they’re sent in response to sin.
How did the people respond to the Lord’s chastening? They came to Moses and admitted, “We have sinned” (21:7). That’s repentance. Every good step with God begins with the humility of admitting, “God, I’m wrong. You’re right.” The children of Israel couldn’t access the grace they needed without repentance. They begged Moses, “‘Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people” (21:7b).
The people were very specific in their request to Moses, and undoubtedly Moses was specific with God—they wanted God to take the serpents away. God answered Moses’ prayer, but He didn’t remove the serpents. Sound like your life? God may not remove the hard consequences in our lives, which brought us to the point of humility and repentance—but He will provide the grace to endure. For most of us, no serpents = no sense of need = no coming to God. So when we beg God to remove something painful, He responds, “No! That’s what brought this moment about. That’s what opened your eyes to see how much you need Me.” Though God may not remove the serpents, He does provide relief and healing from their effect. That’s what He did for repentant Israel.
The relief came in the form of a bronze snake on a pole. “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” (21:8–9). Moses commissioned a craftsman to make a bronze serpent, suspended from the top of a pole in the middle of the camp. So as people were getting bitten by these fiery snakes, all they had to do was look at the bronze snake to be healed. They didn’t need a training workshop—God always makes His provision simple and available: Snakebite? Look up and be healed. Seems simple, but the text implies that some people chose not to look and weren’t healed.
Why would people not look?
Some may have denied their need for help. They clung to their self-sufficiency. I can heal myself. I don’t need God or His remedy, they reasoned.
Others may have denied the goodness of God. What if God won’t heal me? Maybe this is a trick. Maybe it’s not best for me, they argued.
Still others may have denied the very problem. What snakebite? I’m not really sick. Those aren’t teeth marks on my leg—I scratched myself, they stubbornly maintained. Like so many of us, they denied their true need.
That bronze snake isn’t a relic of the past. It has fresh meaning for us today. John 3:14 tells us the bronze serpent is a picture of Christ. Just as the Israelites looked to the serpent on the pole for healing, so if we look to Jesus, we will be healed of our sin problem.
Christ is the answer! We don’t heal ourselves. We can’t just try harder. We can’t earn our own salvation or sanctify our own sinful attitudes. God’s provision is simple and available: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27b).
Lord God, what a picture of sin, judgment, repentance, and grace! Open my eyes to see how what was true for Your people then is true for Your people today. Please bring to mind specific sin (attitudes and actions) of which I need to repent. I agree with You about my sin: I’m wrong, and You’re right. Please heal me. I know You won’t always remove the consequences from my life, but I’m confident You’ll provide grace and healing. I need You! I can’t solve my problems on my own. So I simply look to Jesus, Your provision for me, and it’s in His name I pray, amen.