Snake on a Stick

They say that death and taxes are inevitable. They are. But so is the certainty of God’s people grumbling. During the forty years in the wilderness, Israel complained, whined, and protested with such frequency that like a gemstone in a sand tumbler, it transformed grumbling into an art form.

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. (Numbers 21:8-9 /ESV)

They say that death and taxes are inevitable. They are. But so is the certainty of God’s people grumbling. During the forty years in the wilderness, Israel complained, whined, and protested with such frequency that like a gemstone in a sand tumbler, it transformed grumbling into an art form. They didn’t like the food, the leadership, and the miraculous provisions along the way. The Lord freed them from Egyptian slavery, but all they wanted was to return to the memories of the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic “that cost nothing!” (Numbers 11:5)

At one point, they became impatient with the Lord and His meager provisions. In response, God sent fiery serpents to torment and kill many. Predictably, the people quickly relented and repented. As Moses interceded, God provided a surprising remedy and commanded Moses to “make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” (Numbers 21:8 /ESV)

Perhaps the image is not such a surprise after all. Since the fiery serpent causes death, kill it and place it on a pole for everyone to see. Those who trust the Lord for healing will be healed. It makes sense. The serpent is evil. It needs to die. And that death needs to be cruel and in front of all whose sinful grumbling caused the problem in the first place.

It’s not the story of the snake on a stick that would give Israel pause to consider beyond just being one more example of the faithless grumbling of their forefathers. But the point of the story remained hidden for fifteen hundred years till Jesus gave it a passing reference in His conversation with Nicodemus, one of the Jewish religious leaders. “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.” (John 3:14-15 /ESV)

Nicodemus was struggling with what Jesus meant by the requirement to be “born again” to receive eternal life. Jesus could have simply instructed him to believe in Him, but Jesus reached back fifteen centuries into Israel’s wilderness wanderings to reveal the significance of a well-known national story. Jesus made a significant change to the serpent on a pole account. This time it wouldn’t be the snake on a pole that would bring healing to Israel; it would be Himself, the Son of Man, who would be lifted up on the cross to bring eternal life to the world.

It made sense that the fiery serpent should die because it caused so many in Israel to die. But it made no sense to see the innocent Son of Man hanging on a pole. The devil deserves his coming destruction in the eternal flames of hell. His rebellion brought sin and death to the world, but Jesus did not deserve such treatment. 

He died not because of His sin, but because of ours. We are the ones who should die on that cross. But even at that, our deaths would be insufficient to satisfy God’s wrath. Instead, “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 / ESV) He took our places, the righteous for the unrighteous (Romans 3:8).

Moses instructed Israel to look at the serpent and be healed, not because the serpent heals, but He would if they would trust Him by looking to His provision. That same act of faith looks to Jesus for eternal life. It’s not the snake on a stick that heals; it’s Jesus on the cross.


Authored by Dr. David Ingrassia, Pastor at Charlotte Awake

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