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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Smith :: Portraits of Christ

Don Smith :: Num 21; The Bronze Serpent

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Portraits of Christ in Numbers 21:1-14
“The Bronze Serpent”

Snakes are not my favorite topic.

  • I cringe when I read about pet snakes coming out of toilets or devouring a neighbor’s pet.
  • I agree with Indiana Jones,—“I hate snakes.”
  • Historically, snakes are a symbol of death and evil, as well as healing.
  • For example, we refer to Satan as a “serpent” yet medic alert bracelets use the insignia of a snake coiled around a pole to represent medicine.
  • So why would Jesus refer back to a bronze snake lifted up by Moses as an explanation of His life purpose?
  • In what way does the “brazen serpent” point to Christ’s life?
  • Why didn’t God instruct Moses to make a bronze lamb or a bronze lion to raise up on a pole?
  • Our quest for these answers should help prepare Christ’s church to take of the Lord’s Supper set before them.
  • We will begin by reviewing the events recorded in Numbers 21 and then conclude by looking at Jesus’ comments in John 3:14-15.

The Bronze Serpent demonstrates God’s ways are not necessarily man’s ways. (Numbers 21:1-4)

  1. Israel’s plight is described in Numbers 21:1.
    • Most of the people referred to here were approximately 38 years old.
    • At this time Israel was divided into two generations.
    • There were those still alive who came out of Egypt.
    • They were the terminal generation not permitted by God to enter the Promised Land because of their incorrigible ways.
    • The other generation was made up of those under the age of forty.
    • They grew up knowing the harsh realities of the wilderness.
    • But as their journey was drawing to a close, tragedy struck again.
    • This time Arad the Canaanite set an ambush for the Israelites.
    • He and his army fought them and took a substantial number of hostages.
    • Some things never change.
    • Fear struck the hearts of God’s people.
  2. Israel then turned to the Lord for deliverance. (Numbers 21:2)
    • A vow is a serious commitment to make to the Lord.
    • They promised to utterly destroy the Canaanite cities if God would set their people free.
    • Their imprisonment was a foreshadowing of Israel’s future captivity in Babylon.
  3. The Lord heard their cry as He had before in Egypt. (Numbers 21:3)
    • It was the power of God that defeated this formidable enemy.
    • God’s people were learning a valuable lesson of faith.
    • If they couldn’t trust God in this skirmish, how would they later face the fortified cities and giants of Canaan?
    • It was after their thrill of victory that Israel faced the real enemy within their ranks—themselves.
    • God tested His people again to expose the sin in their hearts.
  4. God’s path led Israel around Edom, not through it. (Numbers 21:4)
    • He did not take them on the shortest or the easiest road to the Promised Land.
    • Instead He took them on the road to the Red Sea.
    • In the minds of the people, they were taking two steps forward and three steps back.
    • God was in essence back-tracking through the most desolate, dry, dangerous part of the Sinai.
    • When the people recognized familiar landmarks on the way and saw their old footprints in the sand, discouragement swept over them.
    • Discouragement led to impatience and impatience to crankiness, and crankiness to rebellion.
    • Like their forefathers who died in the wilderness, they began to verbally attack God and Moses
    • They questioned God’s holiness in leading them all these years.
    • Their grumbling was a rejection of God’s grace and sovereign plan.
    • The path God had chosen was one they despised.
    • Here is where the shoe leather of their faith touched the hot sands of adversity.
    • Was God really in charge of their lives?
    • And did He even care about their difficulties?
    • The Scriptures clearly admonish us to trust God’s ways above our own, especially when they lead us through mind fields of adversity. Psalm 1:6 says, “For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish.”
    • Proverbs 14:12 warns, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”
    • Isaiah 55:7-9 admonishes us, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the LORD. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.’”
    • Let’s pause for a moment!
    • Are you bemoaning God’s providential care of your life?
    • Has disappointment, discouragement and distance ever characterized your attitude toward God?
    • If so, listen carefully as we trudge ahead in our story.

The consequence of Israel’s anger reminds us the wages of sin is death. (Numbers 21:4-6)

  1. Israel’s provocation was to speak against God and His appointed leader.
    • There wasn’t anything they were grateful for.
    • They especially loathed God’s provision of manna.
    • In their minds they may not have considered the ramifications of their complaint.
    • Because the manna was a type foreshadowing the coming of Christ; so they were not just rejecting God’s provision of bread, but also God’s provision of His Son.
    • To reject life in Christ is to face certain death.
    • To teach this spiritual reality God sent fiery serpents among the people.
    • When these snakes bit the people, poisonous venom pulsed through their veins until their skin burned fiery hot.
    • Death was quick and certain.
    • Many people died without a serum or cure.
    • It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of an angry God.
  2. Israel then pleaded for Moses to pray for them. (Numbers 21:7)
    • The sting of the serpent had awakened their sensitivity to their sin.
    • They openly admitted their sin of speaking against the Lord.
    • Their only hope was prayer.
    • In desperation they begged Moses to intercede on their behalf.
    • The irony was they were asking the one they cursed to pray for their blessing.
  3. Moses’ prayer was similar to the prayer of Christ. (Numbers 21:7)
    • As Christ prayed on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing,” likewise, Moses prayed that God would forgive this rebellious people.
    • Jesus taught His disciples the same truth: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.” (Matthew 5:10-11)
    • The incentive is enjoying the benefits of Christ’s kingdom rule now and forever more in our lives.
    • His kingdom is a kingdom of grace and mercy.
    • Blessed are those who learn to appropriate and offer His grace to other undeserving sinners like themselves.
    • Are there people in your life whom you avoid and despise because they have hurt you or offended you falsely?
    • Christ would command us to pray for them—to pray for their blessing and not their buffeting.

God’s remedy had to be lifted up. (Numbers 21:8-9; John 3:14-15)

  1. Lifting up the bronze snake was a type that foreshadowed Christ’s death on the cross.
    • The Lord commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent.
    • You may remember that God had previously commanded Moses to build a bronze altar and bronze wash basin for the tabernacle courtyard.
    • Bronze was a symbol of righteous judgment on the earth.
    • The bronze also was a metal that shone brightly in the desert sun for all the tribes to behold.
    • But why did God use the symbol of the curse to be a remedy for death?
  2. In Genesis 3:15 the Lord pronounced a curse on the Serpent, the Devil.
    • The curse would result in enmity between the Serpent and the Seed of the Woman.
    • The blessed Son of the woman’s Seed would someday bring a crushing defeat of the Serpent.
    • The bronze serpent was not intended to be an object of worship.
    • It was only a prophetic type anticipating God’s greatest demonstration of His grace—the cross.
    • Almost 800 years later a young Judean King by the name of Hezekiah cut down this revered object when Israel began to pray to it. (2 Kings 18:4)
    • There is no place for idolatry in worshiping God then or now.
    • God ordered Moses to make a bronze serpent as a prophetic object lesson.
    • That which cured them of the curse was shaped into the likeness of that which wounded them. (John 3:14-15)
  3. The Bible teaches that Christ was made in the image of man.
    • Romans 8:3-4 says, “For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
    • Galatians 3:13-14 explains further, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us for it is written, Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”…that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
    • 1 Peter 2:24 reminds us, “Christ Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.”
    • 2 Corinthians 5:21 offers us such hope, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
    • The snake was a symbol of Christ’s identity with the curse of sin on our behalf.
  4. The Serpent was put on top of or impaled upon a tall pole for all to see.
    • Isaiah 53:4-5 anticipates Christ’s death on the cross. “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.”
  5. Jesus said He too must be lifted up.
    • In John 8:28 Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and that I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things.”
    • The cross was a symbol of Christ’s loving obedience to the Father.
    • In John 12:32 Jesus said, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.”
    • When He was lifted up on the cross, He was demonstrating God’s sovereign power to save His people.
  6. Numbers 21:6 reveals that everyone died who was bitten.
    • There was no human cure or remedy.
    • The fangs of the serpent had struck a death bite at man’s heel.
  7. This is also man’s spiritual condition:
    • Romans 3:23 tells us, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
    • Romans 6:23 explains further, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
  8. The only hope for Israel was to look upon that which was lifted up.
    • When they looked upon the object of their curse they lived.
  9. Jesus likewise taught that all who believe in Him will live.
    • John 3:15 promises, “Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
    • 1 John 5:11-13 adds, “And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.”

Here is what we have learned:

  • All have sinned and the wages of sin is death.
  • God’s wrath on sin is righteous and just.
  • God’s grace is the only provision for the curse of sin.
  • Christ was made in the likeness of man, yet He was without sin.
  • The cross is a symbol of sin’s curse.
  • Christ became sin that we might be saved from death.
  • God’s justice was completely satisfied when He poured out His wrath on His Son.
  • As the bronze serpent was lifted up for Israel to see, so Christ is lifted up for all the world to see.
  • One must personally look by faith upon God’s remedy for our salvation.

“Looking unto Jesus, Who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)


The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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