Bible Studies in Israel’s Wilderness Wanderings

Faith, Idolatry and the Bronze Serpent

By Fraser Gordon

 

Introduction

 

In our last study we looked at Moses’ blunder when he struck the rock twice.  God had called him to just speak to the rock but he failed to so and because of that he was rejected and was not allowed to take the nation into the Promised land.  We also looked at Miriam's death. 

 

This time we are going to carry on with Israel’s’ journey in Numbers chapter 21, which is straight after Moses had struck the rock twice. God wanted to be hallowed in the sight of Israel but Moses had become really discouraged and angry with the nation and because of that he did not remember Gods’ word and spoke and acted out of his own self.  Following that there is an incident with Edom.  Here we see that Moses wanted to make peace with Edom, but as we all know, the history of Edom goes all the way back to Jacob and Esau and how that there has always been hostility between the two brothers and it always will be so. Edom, like Amalek in the scriptures, is a type of the flesh and here Moses is trying to make peace saying “look, we want to go through your land, but we won't touch anything.” Edom, who was the descendant of Esau, would not allow Israel to pass through his land and came out with all his forces and attacked them.  Next you have the death of Aaron and then you get to chapter 21 and we will pick it up from verse 4. 

 

Must be time for another grumble

 

Num 21:4-5  Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. The people spoke against God and 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 miserable food."

 

So here they were, they had tried to make peace with Edom even saying ”I am your brother Jacob,” but Edom refused to allow them to pass through his territory. This meant that they had no option but to journey right around Mt Edom and the way was really hard going. So once again the people start to grumble...which is their usual reaction to trials. They keep blaming God for not actually loving and caring for them.  They are never really grateful at all and there are strong words spoken here such as “for there is no food, and there is no water and our souls loathe this worthless bread.”  Remember when we looked back at what God had provided:  Manna actually was a type of bread, it was God's provision for a redeemed people but here they are calling it “worthless.”  It had absolutely no meaning for them.  When we looked at what manna was like, it was enough to sustain them through their whole wilderness life; it tasted like honey and it tasted like wafers, so whatever was in it was enough to keep them going.   And here they are they are saying “it is absolutely worthless, and we don't actually appreciate God's provision.” We need to be careful in our own lives that we don't fall into that same trap by not appreciating the small things that God does for us, which He does continually.  So here they are, moaning and complaining and we will see in the next verse what God thinks of that.

 

Enter the fiery serpents... and a type of Christ

 

Num 21:6  The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.

 

It says God allowed fiery serpents to come to the nation of Israel and they bit the people. There are a couple of scriptures in the bible that talk about “fiery serpents.”  Either it was the colour of the serpents, because they were fiery red or more probably it had to do with their bite which caused an intense burning sensation.  However, God had allowed these serpents to come among the people for a reason and though many people died as a result, He had a remedy as we shall see...it was a brazen serpent upon a pole.

 

Num 21:8-9  Then the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live."  (9)  And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.

 

You have to keep in mind that this passage is referred to in John Ch. 3: v14 and 15.  Jesus quotes this passage as a picture of Himself.   

 

Joh 3:14-15  "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up;  (15)  so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.

 

Jesus says that just as the serpent was lifted up, so He also would be lifted up.  So God's purpose in sending the fiery serpents among them was what?  To call them to account!  Now all of us have been bitten by the serpent as well. We have all sinned and have sin in our life.   Their first response to Moses was to say “We have sinned for we have spoken against the Lord and against you.”  So the purpose God had for allowing this to happen was that they might come to a realization of what lies within.  That they might know that they have offended God and that sin is actually dwelling within them.

 

When you look around today, most people think they are okay.  They think that if they are not a murderer, or a rapist, not dealing in drugs or all those sorts of things then they are not sinful; they actually don't see that every single one of us is born in sin.  We have all been bitten by the serpents bite.  There are always things in our lives that fall short of God's standards and God's life and God's character and this is what the bible says in Romans 3:23 ‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.’

 

The glory of God is simply what God's character is like, and all of us fall short of that, way short of it.  Today everything is so P.C even when sin is talked about.  Within western countries morals are being broken down.  What we once considered to be sin is no longer actually seen as sin.  The word of God in western countries is being attacked on all fronts.  It is really hard these days to talk about what sin is without being labeled judgmental or narrow minded.  There was a day when these things were clear-cut, when you could say “this is wrong behavior.”  But everything is being slowly eroded away now and it is getting quite hard in western countries to uphold the Word of God, and to talk to people about sin.  You can even quote bible passages and they will reply “Well actually that really doesn't mean anything any longer,” or “how do you know that that is really true?” Morals are being challenged on every front. To believers the Word of God is precious because it is only that which can convict people of their sin.  It is not us speaking, but it is the word of God that actually does the convicting through the Holy Spirit.  

 

So the serpents come among them and they come to the realization that “we have sinned”.  They understood what they had done but it wasn't until the serpent's bite was afflicting them and quite often this is the case.  The hardest people to get to come into the Kingdom are often those that don't have a realization of their sin.  Sometimes the ones that are leading the worst lives are the easiest to reach because they know that their lives are not right.  They know that what they are doing is wrong just like the nation did here.   And notice that they have got the order right.  They said “we have sinned against God and against you” and that is always the order.  Our sin first of all, is always against God.  It is against His character that our sin is directed, first of all toward God and then toward man.  So Israel saw that they had offended God first, and then because of that they sinned against Moses.  They had rejected God in His provision and they had rejected God's provision of leadership in Moses and they had moaned about both of them.  So they asked Moses to pray to the Lord on their behalf.

 

Joh 3:14  "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up;

 

So again remember John 3 where Jesus quoted this very thing about Himself. This is the type that Jesus is saying applies to Himself. He says, “I am exactly like this bronze serpent that was lifted up.”  So the first thing we see about this fiery serpent is that Moses made it bronze.  What does bronze stand for in the scriptures? It stands for judgment, and whenever you see bronze mentioned in the scriptures this is what it speaks of.  Remember the type in the Old Testament where the tabernacle was set up? Here the entrance to Gods’ presence was first of all through the bronze altar.  When the nation was disobedient they had over them a ‘bronze heaven’ meaning that they were under judgment.  So here you have this picture of the serpent, which is a type of sin, and it was bronze.   Then you see that if you looked to it when you were bitten you would live. This is a type of sin being judged upon a pole.  Remember that Christ said “In the same way that Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man will be lifted up.” So when the Lord Jesus was hung upon the cross He was being judged for all of the sins that we would ever commit.  The ones past, the ones present and the ones in the future.  He was actually made sin, the righteous for the unrighteous.  He was judged by the wrath of God for you and for me.  God judged His perfect righteous Son in our place.  He was judged as the sin offering and that is something radical to think about, that Christ Himself was actually made sin for us.  2 Corinthians actually says that “He was made sin that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” When Christ was on the cross the skies went dark, because the Father had to remove Himself from the Son as He was made sin.  He was the perfect sin offering because He was the only one who had never done anything wrong.  He was the righteousness of God and yet He was made a sin offering for you and for me.  For the first time in all of eternity the Father had to separate Himself from His Son and this is why you get this cry from Christ “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me!” There had never before been a separation between them.  At that moment He was judged by God as the perfect sin offering. Then after He cried out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” you get the cry “It is finished,” which is the beautiful Greek word “tetelestai” which means “paid in full.”  

 

Where are you going to look?

 

So the nation had to put this fiery serpent, which was a picture of sin being judged on their behalf, up on a pole.  There was only one remedy for the people and God said “all they really have to do is come forward and look to it.”  It wasn't any good looking to anyone in the nation of Israel to meet their need, or looking anywhere else.  God provided one remedy for the nation to be healed and it was to come forward and look upon this bronze serpent which spoke of judgment.  There would have been those among them that would have thought it a silly thing to actually come before a pole with a bronze serpent on it and look to that for their healing.  But each person had to do this for themselves; it could not be done by proxy.  It is as true for us today, repentance is an individual thing.  You have to come and look at the Lord Jesus Christ for yourself, and only if you look can you be healed.    

 

Lots of people today think the very same thing as the children of Israel did; they think that the idea of someone coming and dying upon a cross is actually foolish.   But God says in Corinthians that “He has chosen the foolish things of this world to put to shame those that are wise.”  They look at Christians as having a crutch, and it is actually true that we do, for we need to lean on Christ.    We need this living Lord Jesus Christ.  We need Him to cover our sin and we need Him in our lives to enable us to live a righteous life; don't ever be ashamed if people look at you and think that you haven't quite got it altogether.  God was able, in His grace, to show the people another way in which they may be healed.  It also says “that many of the people of Israel died,” and it will always be like that.  There will always be many that just won't receive Christ no matter what you do. 

 

An illustration of the simplicity of salvation

 

I read an account of how Charles Spurgeon got saved.  He was going to church in London and there was a massive snowstorm.  He couldn't make it to his church because the snowstorm was so heavy.  He only managed to get half way there, and ended up going into a little church on the way.  Because of the snowstorm the visiting preacher who was supposed to come couldn't make it either.  They didn't know what to do, so this old gentleman who was a member of the church thought he ought to read a scripture and so he stood up and read Isaiah 45 which says “look to Me and be saved all the ends of the earth for I am God and there is no other.”  He shared a couple of thoughts that he had on this scripture and he didn't know what else to say so he just kept shaking the pulpit and calling out “look to Me and be saved” and he pointed right at Charles Spurgeon, who was convicted of his sin and went on to become one of the best preachers that came out of that part of the world.  So when I read that, I thought that is so cool.  God always has His ways.  This man had nothing to say about the scripture but the scripture itself was enough to convict Charles Spurgeon and it brought him to his knees and he accepted the Lord that day.  It took a couple of snowstorms and someone not turning up but God is able to use these things.. 

 

That which is used by God can become an idol!

 

Does anyone know what happened to this fiery serpent on this pole?   Turn to 2nd Kings Chapter 18:

 

2 Kings 18:1-4 Now it came about in the third year of Hoshea, the son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah became king. (2) He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem; and his mother's name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. (3) He did right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father David had done. (4) He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan.

 

800 years later Hezekiah is king at the age of 25 and he is a good king, he wants to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord.  But for 800 years this fiery bronze serpent which had been put upon a pole was preserved within the nation.   When Hezekiah was on the throne, he wanted to put the kingdom in right stead before God so he began to get rid of all idolatry. These verses show that the bronze serpent was one of the things that the people were worshipping---the people were burning incense to it!  So they had made an idol out of one of God's methods of bringing healing to the nation and they worshipped the bronze serpent rather than God Himself.  I thought we are blessed that we don’t have items from the past like that or we might be tempted to do likewise. If we had the cross would we worship it?   If we actually had the timber that Christ was crucified upon would it be worshiped?  And the answer is “yes, it would!”   If we had Christ's burial cloths they also would be worshiped.  Among the catholic faith people jump at these things. They worship the shroud and bits of wood which were supposedly part of the cross and they become idols.  We are like that.  If we can hold onto something outward to revere we will.   

 

I was thinking about how people corrupt God's means and make an idol for themselves regarding the cross in our culture today.  As we know, it is popular as an item of jewellery.  Christians wear a cross.  Non-Christians wear a cross.  Christians get tattoos of a cross. Non-Christians get a tattoo of a cross.  What did the cross stand for in Roman times?  It symbolized death.  It was a very violent form of execution; an abrupt ending to a human life over a long period of time.  The Romans were skilled in execution and the cross was a really cruel way for someone to die.  There are books around on this subject which tell us it took a very long period of time for someone to die by crucifixion.  It was a very shameful, violent, humiliating way to die.   It had no compromise; it slew everybody--- unless you were taken down prior.   That is what it stood for in Roman times.  What do you think it stands for now that it has become quite popular as an adornment?  It has become a symbol, which is very different from the cross that our Savior hung on.  

 

A. W. Tozer, a great Christian writer, wrote about this and he said,

The old cross slew men, the new cross entertains them. 

The old cross condemned, the new cross amuses.

The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh, the new cross encourages it.

 

There is probably a lot there to think about, because the true meaning of the cross has become obscured.  It is not what it was originally.  

 

Conclusion

 

So where does this leave us?  Just as the nation of Israel had to look to the fiery serpent on the pole if they wanted to live, it is exactly the same for all of us; it is just a simple looking unto Christ.  It is a looking in simplicity of belief in faith to someone who can meet a need on your behalf.  John 3 says “they receive eternal life” something gets reversed, the Lord Jesus comes in, forgives them of all sin; the sin issue is dealt with and He comes in and empowers them to live for Him. 

 

Heb 12:1-2  Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  (2)  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

 

In this passage He is saying “that our looking needs to be continual”.  Not only is He the author of our faith, but He is also the finisher of our faith as well.  So it is not a once and for all looking at Christ, it is a continual thing and the writer of Hebrews here is just urging us to lay aside every weight; lay aside everything that hinders us in our walk with God. Then we are to run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith. Jesus is saying that the joy that was set before Him was that He might present us before the Father absolutely faultless.  The joy for Him was that He would sit at the right hand of God and that He would have a multitude of people there that are actually holy and righteous because of His sin offering on our behalf. We are only faultless because of Christ, there is no other reason.  He imputes His righteousness to us.

 

I found something that Andrew Murray had written and I just want to end with that and I couldn't say it any better.  It is all about looking to Jesus.  

 

Let us run looking to Jesus. Looking not to ourselves or our sin, but to Him who has put away sin forever.  Not to ourselves or our faith, whether in its weakness or its strength, but to Him whose presence in our life is the life of faith.  Not to the world or its temptations, but to Him who said be of good cheer for I have overcome the world. Don't look to men, but look to Jesus the God Man, Emmanuel our King. Looking to Him always in trials and in trouble, in joy and prosperity, in quiet and repose, in business, in worship always looking to Jesus.  Looking to Him to see what He is, to hear what He speaks, and to do what He says and to follow where He leads.  Looking to Him to be changed from glory to glory, let us run with patience looking unto Jesus.