Speaking to a Pharisee named Nicodemus, Jesus uttered those now-famous words from John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…”. But slightly less well-known is the ancient story that Jesus referenced in John 3:15, and in case you missed it, you kind find the backstory in Numbers 21:4-5. Here’s the short version: the Israelites sinned as they grumbled against God in the wilderness – so he sent poisonous snakes and many of them were bitten and died. The people repented and asked Moses for help, and that brings us to the verse that Jesus referenced to Nicodemus. God told Moses, “Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” (Numbers 21:8-9)
God’s instructions to Moses were confusing for two reasons: snakes were bad, and so were idols. It took simple faith for the Israelites to obey. Numbers 21:8-9
If you know your Old Testament, then the story of Adam and Eve should jump out at you right here. God said, “Don’t eat from this one tree in the middle of the Garden” – but Satan, in the form of a snake, convinced them to disobey. And so sin entered the world (and snakes are bad). And even crazier than that: God had just given the 10 commandments to the people through Moses, explicitly commanding them not to make any idols. But now Moses is essentially commanded by God to do just that: to make an idol of a snake and put it on a pole.
Confusing. Until you read the rest of the Bible.
The bronze snake foreshadowed God’s plan for saving humanity. Jesus became sin for those bitten by sin, so that we would be rescued by looking to the cross. John 3:15-16, 2 Corinthians 5:21
This is what’s going on in Numbers 21: it’s a “type” of Christ, a foreshadowing of what God would do through Jesus. In the olden days we used to sing a song about “lifting Jesus higher,” referencing this passage in John 3:15. But here’s the twist: this passage is not about lifting up the name of Jesus in worship; it’s about lifting up his body as a sacrifice on the cross! Paul makes this idea explicit in 2 Corinthians 5:21: Jesus, the sinless one, became sin for all of us. To the human mind this makes no sense, but it was God’s plan all along (1 Corinthians 1:21). The simple message of the Bible is that we can’t save ourselves. By faith, we must look to the one who can save us: Jesus Christ.
But there’s one more powerful insight from this story, in case you missed it:
Later in history, the snake on a pole became an idol for the people of Israel. This is a reminder that God’s message can get corrupted in future generations. 2 Kings 18:4
Years later, the people of Israel wandered away from God yet again. And so we read that “King Hezekiah broke up the bronze serpent that Moses had made, because the people of Israel had been offering sacrifices to it” (2 Kings 18:4). Isn’t this just like us a humans? Isn’t it typical for a religion to start off with the simple truth that faith alone saves – symbolized by the snake on a pole – only to corrupt that message in later generations? The Israelites ended up worshiping the powerless bronze thing instead of the God behind the whole message in the first place.
Do you recognize that you’ve been bitten by sin? Will you look to Jesus alone for salvation?