The Bronze Serpent


Numbers 21


My first trek into Bible-reading started in the gospel according to John. I waded through several difficulties in chapters 1 and 2. I got as far as “In the beginning was the Word.” And I was confused already. What word? I knew that John 3 was coming. John 3 contained John 3:16. I knew and understood John 3:16. Surely the presence of this verse would magnify the meaning of John 3, and the meaning of the Bible would then become forever clear.


I made it through verses 1 and 2. Then I noticed – starting in verse 3 – that Jesus’ answers to Nicodemus weren’t matching the questions Nicodemus was asking. By the time I got to verse 7, I was getting the feeling that Nicodemus was making more sense than Jesus. Where did the topic of the wind come from? And I’m fairly sure that anyone who reads John 3:17-18 for the first time…. As hated as sentence diagramming is, I was now seeking a sentence diagram.


And don’t get me started on the serpent of John 3:14. OK, so it forced me to read Numbers 21. But I would have gotten around to it, God. Honest.


Today, I’m not real big on Bible symbolisms, or “types.” I know they exist, but I don’t hunt them out. The Bible makes so much more sense when you run with what God has said. Someone once asked me what “red” meant in Revelation 4:6. Confidently I replied, “It is the color of the horse.” He suggested alternate meanings and asked what I thought of them. I scanned the page he had opened and concluded “It’s the color of the horse.”


So just to make clear where I come from, I don’t spend a lot of time looking for deeper meanings. Too much focus on deeper meanings (the theological term for it is “sensus plenior”) leaves thousands and thousands of verses with no generally accepted meaning at all. Our jurisprudence has an axiom that legislation can never be interpreted as meaningless. Isaiah 55:11 tells me that no verse in scripture is without meaning.


Just like everybody looks suspicious to a rookie detective, everything looks like a deeper meaning to an eager Bible novice. It’s part of the maturing process.


But why a bronze serpent?


I’ll take a shot at that. But I will field no challenges. If you disagree with me, let the record show we disagree. We probably disagree on other issues as well.


First, let’s rule out that the serpent is in any way a type of Christ. There is nothing in all scripture that assigns any Christ-like qualities to a serpent. Further exploration there: wrong number!


The only thing that John connects with Numbers 21 is that Christ and the serpent are both lifted up. The serpent was lifted up on a pole, and Christ was lifted up on the cross. Beyond John, in Numbers 21, the afflicted Israelites were to look up at that which was lifted up; Hebrews 12:2 commands that we look toward Jesus.


But keep boundaries where they belong. The similarities end with the “lifted up.” John 3:15 has NOTHING to do with the serpent. Numbers 21 says nothing about believing, and (if it were possible) even less about eternal life. In Numbers 21, looking up at the serpent would result in a temporary extension of physical life. That is not the same as believing in Christ into eternal life.


I’ll admit to one other similarity. The Israelites were being afflicted by serpents, and they were instructed to look up to an image of the very thing that was afflicting them.


“For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” 2 Corinthians 5:21


When Christ was on the cross, He BECAME SIN. Sinners today are afflicted by sin. God instructs sinners being afflicted by sin to look up to an image of the very sin that afflicts them. Today, the King of Glory, on the cross, the image of sin.


In the alternate, Moses lifted up a serpent because that’s what God told him to lift up.


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