Arguably, the most widely recognized, memorized, and ubiquitous passage in all of the Bible is that of John 3:16. And why not? This beautiful verse summarizes the entire purpose of the mission and gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is no coincidence that the Lord has allowed this simple passage to seep into the consciousness of the entire world. But how often do we read the preceding text? Or really seek to understand the context of this passage?
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” – John 3:14-16
Suddenly verses 14 and 15 really magnify and expand the context of the well known verse 16. Why the allusion to Moses with the serpent in the wilderness? Let’s examine and review that story to find out. This is where it gets really interesting…
“And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.” So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.
Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” – Numbers 21:5-9
I’ve often wondered, why would God order His people to gaze upon an idol of bronze in order to attain their salvation from death? Surely with the swift and decisive manner in which God dealt with the idolatry of the Israelites He wouldn’t then order Moses to make an idol and have the people look to it for healing – would He? After years of never having a really satisfactory answer for this conundrum, I sort of wrote it off as just “one of those things”. God is God. Far be it from me to question His decisions and methods. And how wrong I turned out to be. The answer was there all along; and once I understood it, it really opened up my eyes to the truth and glory of God’s Word!
The serpent is the symbol for sin. The very first sin committed by mankind was at the behest and prodding of a serpent in Genesis. It was man’s choice to obey the serpent rather than God which set all of the wheels in motion that led to our Savior, His death, resurrection, and His yet future second coming.
As a result of the Israelites’ sin in Numbers 21, God sent fiery serpents to bite and kill the people, since the wages of sin is death. When the people repented and begged for salvation, God ordered Moses to “lift up” the symbol of sin itself (bronze serpent) for the people to behold and be saved from the fiery serpents (sin).
The real key to all of this is found in Galatians:
“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)” – Galatians 3:13
This passage Paul is referencing is in Deuteronomy:
“If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.” – Deuteronomy 21:22-23
Christ became our sin, and wore our curse as His own! It was as if He Himself had committed our sins, and bore them as His own sin, even though He was perfect, righteous, blameless, and sinless. When we look up to Him, who became our sin (symbolized by the bronze serpent), we are saved from death as a consequence of our own sin (the fiery serpents). Moses was literally holding up a picture of Christ on the cross as He hung there, cursed with our sin. Those who looked to the symbol of Christ crucified for their sin were saved from death!
It is absolutely amazing all of the prophetical metaphors and pictures of Christ that God worked through in the Old Testament in order that He may be identified as the Messiah when He walked among God’s chosen people centuries later, referencing these metaphors as He did in John 3:14-15. How incredibly sad it is that the offspring of those Israelites who beheld Him for salvation in the wilderness, reject Him in large part for their salvation today.
The law (Torah) righteously and justifiably prescribed the death of the sinful Israelites who cursed God in Numbers 21. Sin is a debt paid for with death. The law however did not prescribe a manner in which one may circumvent their death sentence permanently. The only permanent salvation from the curse of sin and death is through our Savior who willingly takes our sentence of death upon Himself – that He would die, and that we be saved. Rather, the whole of the law points to our Savior, the need we have for Him; and forces us to confront our sin – either through the temporary working of the edicts of the law which cannot wash us permanently clean of sin; or through the blood that was shed by Christ in our place, that we may live eternally.
“But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.” – 1 Timothy 1:8-11
As we discussed previously, the law isn’t made for the righteous. And we also know that righteousness isn’t obtained through the working of the law; but rather the law only gives one knowledge of sin – and convicts him of it:
“Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” – Romans 3:19-20
So how is one considered “righteous” if all are condemned under the law and with the knowledge of their sin? Through faith in Jesus Christ, as God’s Word clearly tells us:
“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” – Romans 3:21-26
The law itself even stands as a witness to righteousness in Christ apart from the law according to verse 21! How then are so many determined to vainly earn and prove their righteousness through the law, when this can never be attained according to God’s Word?
The Israelites were saved from death as they looked to the symbol of their sins being removed and placed upon another in their place. The bronze serpent that Moses held aloft signified sin itself being held up, in the same manner Christ was held up on the cross having become sin for us. The bronze serpent didn’t represent Christ per se, but rather sin itself upon Christ. As He hung on the cross, our sins were upon Him at that point, not upon ourselves. Had the Israelites looked instead to the law for salvation from the fiery serpents, they would have found simply a mirror reflecting their own sin back on them (Rom. 3:20), and would have died from the serpent’s bite – being condemned in their sin still upon themselves and not upon their Savior who bore their punishment in their place.
It’s important to understand that while the punishment of sin is death, it isn’t the sin itself that actually causes our death – but rather the rejection of God’s solution for our sin through His Son Jesus Christ. God’s solution for salvation from the bites of the fiery serpents in the wilderness was to look upon the symbol of man’s sin itself being held high for all to behold. Upon fixing one’s gaze on the bronze serpent, the sting of sin and death had no power.
There is no alternative, no matter how holy or righteous it is, that supersedes, replaces, or circumvents the one solution God has provided through the blood of Christ.
Only by looking to our Savior for salvation, does the sting of death hold no power – even though we are sinners ourselves. Had the Israelites chosen to instead reject God’s solution for the curse of their sin, they would have suffered total annihilation. Even if their own solution was to promise to act in accordance with the law, and swear by God to live out its tenets perfectly – they would have died from the fiery bite of the serpent. God provided one solution to save them from death, and one solution alone. There is no alternative, no matter how holy or righteous it is, that supersedes, replaces, or circumvents the one solution God has provided through the blood of Christ.
Will you fix your gaze upon Him for your salvation, or determine to find another path through the law, works, and earned righteousness?
Further reading: http://www.fountainoflifetm.com/articles/law-torah-and-the-believer/