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27. The Snake that Saves (Numbers 21:1-9)

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Life of Moses (27)

September 9, 2018

Marla and I have hiked thousands of miles, much of it in rugged terrain where rattlesnakes live, but so far, by God’s grace, we’ve never been bitten. We’ve had a few close calls, where suddenly before you see the snake, you hear the frightening rattle. But thankfully, those snakes didn’t strike us.

But from a spiritual perspective, we’ve all been bitten by the serpent of old, who deceived Eve and infected the entire human race with the poison of sin. God had warned Adam (Gen. 2:17), “but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” Not just Adam and Eve, but the entire human race, was plunged into sin and death because of their sin. As Paul explained (Rom. 5:12), “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” That death penalty involves not only physical death, but even worse, spiritual death, which is separation from God.

Often when I’m in public, I look at people and grieve over the obvious toll of sin on the human race. Sometimes you see it in physical infirmities—people’s bodies are broken and deteriorating toward death. Sometimes you see it in sensuality—women and sometimes men who are advertising their bodies in the vain attempt to deaden their soul-pain through physical pleasure. Sometimes you see it in anger—parents yelling at their children or couples arguing with each other. But whatever form it takes, it reflects that we’ve all been bitten by the evil serpent.

What’s the remedy? Our text shows that …

Although the wages of our sin is death, all who look in faith to God’s remedy will be instantly healed.

In Numbers 20, Israel was camped at Kadesh on the southern border of the Promised Land. They had been in the wilderness almost 40 years due to the sin of the previous generation that did not trust God’s promise to give them the land. From there, Moses sent to the king of Edom, asking permission for Israel to pass through his land. He promised that they would not take from their crops or even drink their water. They would just pass straight through their territory. But the king of Edom refused and threatened military action against Israel if they tried to go through Edom.

Then, after the death of Aaron, the Canaanite king of Arad, who lived just north of where Israel was camped, fought against Israel and took some of them captive. At this point (for a change!) Israel did the right thing: They sought the Lord and vowed that if He delivered these Canaanites into their hands, they would utterly destroy their cities. God granted them victory, the first in Canaan.

But then, rather than go into the land from the south, the Lord directed Moses to turn around and lead the people to the Red Sea, by the Gulf of Aqaba, to take a circuitous route around the land of Edom. At this point, the people became impatient because of the journey. They grumbled against the Lord and Moses, accusing Moses again of bringing them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness. And they complained about what they called “the miserable” manna and the lack of water.

The Lord then sent “fiery” serpents to bite them, causing many to die. (“Fiery” probably refers to the painful effect of the bite.) The people (for a change!) repented! They confessed their sin to Moses, and asked him to intercede for them. He prayed and God provided this unusual remedy of a bronze snake on a pole. Whoever looked to the bronze snake would be healed and live (which is why medical doctors often have a snake on a pole). Four lessons from this story:

1. The Lord is the holy Judge who can justly impose death on sinners.

God’s approval of Israel’s utter destruction of the Canaanites (Num. 21:3) raises the problem that becomes even more prominent in the Book of Joshua: How could a good and loving God order the slaughter of all the Canaanites? It’s one thing to kill all the enemy warriors. But how can God command the deaths of women and children? Prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins accuse God of “divine genocide.” Is he right?

First, we need to acknowledge that God justly imposed the death penalty not only on the Canaanites, but also on the entire human race (John Hendryx,­cide). As the righteous Judge, who knows every thought and intention of every heart, He pronounces (Ezek. 18:4), “The soul who sins will die.” That’s all people! As George Bernard Shaw wryly observed (source unknown), “The statistics on death are quite impressive: one out of one people die!”

Second, we need to understand God’s patience and mercy toward the Canaanites. Hundreds of years before this, God explained to Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land for four hundred years before He would give them the land of Canaan. He then explained (Gen. 15:16), “for the iniquity of the Amorite [Canaanite] is not yet complete.” God let these wicked people go on in their gross sins for 400 more years before He commanded Israel’s army to kill them. They practiced “rampant idolatry, incest, adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality, and bestiality” (Clay Jones, These are all sins that God condemns in the Bible, warning that those who practice such things will face His judgment if they do not repent (e.g. Lev. 18; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21; 1 Tim. 1:8-10). While all cultures deserve judgment, God knows when a people fill up the measure of their sins so that His judgment falls on them. This wasn’t genocide—it was capital punishment.

If you protest, “The Canaanites didn’t know any better,” the biblical answer is that the law of God is written on every human heart (Rom. 2). Creation clearly shows every person that God exists. But, people “suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” so that “their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom. 1:18, 21). When people persist in sin, God gives them over to judgment (Rom. 1:24-32). Also, historically the Canaanites were not far removed from the flood. They would have known through oral history that God wiped out everyone through that cataclysmic judgment because of their sin. Yet the Canaanites persisted in their rebellion against Him.

Sometimes people ask, “Why can’t God just forgive sins? I forgive those who wrong me. Why doesn’t God do that? Why does He have to impose death on sinners?” The answer is: because God is perfectly holy and just. He would not be God if He were unholy or unjust. If a human judge let a man go free after he killed your mother to support his drug habit, you would rightly be outraged. That’s not right or just! Justice demands that sins receive appropriate penalties. To sin against the infinitely holy God requires infinite punishment. Thus the Bible warns (Rom. 6:23), “The wages of sin is death ….” And (Heb. 9:27), “… it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.”

But, the good news is that God has not left us to die in our sins. He sent His eternal Son to bear the punishment that we deserve. In that way, God can be (Rom. 3:26) “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” As Jesus explained to Nicodemus (John 3:14-16),

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

When you read this story of Israel in the wilderness, it’s easy to think, “What’s wrong with these people? How could they be so prone to grumbling?” Right after God grants them victory over the king of Arad, they immediately turn again to grumbling. But, we need to apply it to ourselves, because …

2. In spite of many manifestations of God’s grace, we all have grumbled against the Lord, and thus we deserve His judgment.

Israel finally got a small taste of victory when they defeated the king of Arad at Hormah (Num. 21:1-3). Perhaps they thought that they were ready now to march north and take the entire land of Canaan. But God directed Moses to turn back to the wilderness and go around the land of Edom (Deut. 2:1-7). This detour back toward the wilderness caused them to become “impatient because of the journey” (v. 4) and to speak against God and Moses again, as they had done frequently (Num. 21:5): “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.”

Even though the manna was God’s gracious gift to sustain them in the barren desert, they were despising it. Since Jesus claimed that the manna pointed to Him as the true bread of life sent from heaven (John 6:32-33), to reject it was the same as despising God’s provision of the Savior (see Ronald Allen, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 2:876).

But before we condemn Israel, we need to admit that we’ve done the same thing. We get impatient with trials that God brings to refine us and shape us into the image of Christ. We get tired of waiting on God to fulfill His promises. We complain about our circumstances, even though God has abundantly provided for our needs. We exaggerate our trials and minimize our blessings, just as Israel did. But we never have valid reasons to accuse the Lord of cruelty or complain about His treatment of us.

In this case (Num. 21:6), “The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” Those who had not yet died repented (Num. 21:7):

So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people.

When we realize that we have sinned, we should confess our sins to the Lord (1 John 1:9). We don’t need to go to a human priest to intercede for us. Rather, we can go directly to the Lord, because (1 John 2:1), “if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” In this case, God provided this very unusual remedy (Num. 21:8): “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.’” This teaches us:

3. God has graciously supplied the remedy for our death penalty.

God didn’t remove the snakes, but rather provided a remedy for their bites. It’s often difficult to know how far to go in applying Old Testament types to New Testament truth, but in this case, we don’t need to wonder, since Jesus applied it to Himself. If He had not done so, I never would have dared to compare Jesus to this snake on a pole in the wilderness! Note seven things:

1) God’s remedy was supernatural, but strange.

This remedy is rather bizarre. In the Ten Commandments, God had said not to make any graven images. Aaron had disobeyed by making the golden calf, but now Moses makes a bronze serpent. Israel also would have known the story of Eve in the garden being deceived by the despicable serpent. So some may have thought, “What is Moses thinking? Has he lost it?”

But, the bronze snake wasn’t Moses’ idea. It came directly from God. Probably many thought that it was crazy. But it was supernatural and skeptics always think that the miraculous is crazy because they don’t believe in God’s power to do miracles. Here, instead of deadly snakes, God provided a substitute snake, but one without poison. He took what was deadly and turned it into a source of life for all who would trust in His remedy.

Even so, Paul wrote (1 Cor. 1:18), “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The cross is God’s remedy. It didn’t come from the world’s most brilliant philosophers or religious geniuses. It seems strange or foolish to the world, but it’s God’s supernatural remedy for our sin.

3) God’s remedy was singular.

It was the only remedy. There were no other cures if you didn’t like or didn’t believe in this one. Apart from the cross, there is no human cure for sin. Christ and Him crucified is the only way.

3) God’s remedy was sufficient.

Moses didn’t say, “Look at the snake, and then rub on some of this special oil that I’ll sell you on, and you’ll be cured.” He didn’t say, “Bring your own offerings to the pole and offer them up to the snake.” There was nothing to add to it. If you only looked at that bronze snake God would heal you.

In the same way, the cross of Christ is sufficient for the salvation of the worst of sinners. You can’t add anything to it. You don’t need to do penance to pay for your sins. You don’t have to join the church or give money to the church. You don’t need to add your good works to what Christ has done. Jesus paid it all! There’s nothing for you to do, except to look to Christ in faith and He will save you.

4) God’s remedy was sweeping.

God said (Num. 21:8), “everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” There weren’t any cases too hard. There were no exceptions: whoever looked would live. Even so, John 3:16 promises, “whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Romans 10:13 states, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

5) God’s remedy was sure.

God promised (Num. 21:8), “when he looks at it, he will live.” The remedy never failed. It cured every person who believed God enough to look. God’s promise is that if you believe in Jesus Christ as the one who bore your sins on the cross, you will not perish, but have eternal life. If in faith you call on the Lord for salvation, He will save you from judgment. Jesus promised (John 6:37b), “The one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” You can count on His word as the truth.

6) God’s remedy was simple.

As I said, it was sufficient so that nothing else was needed. Its sufficiency made it very simple. You didn’t have to crawl on your hands and knees over broken glass to go and look at the snake. You didn’t need to learn a difficult mantra that you had to recite perfectly as you looked at the snake. You didn’t need to take special classes where you learned, “Seven steps to fight snakes.” You didn’t have to buy a replica of the snake, set it up in your tent, and pray to it all your life, hoping that you would finally get better. All you had to do was to look and live. And all you need to do is believe in Jesus as the One who paid the penalty for your sin and you will have eternal life.

7) God’s remedy was self-effacing.

No one could take credit for looking! You couldn’t boast in your wisdom because you looked, because, as I said, to look at a bronze snake and be cured instantly from a deadly snakebite sounded crazy. You couldn’t boast that you fasted and did good works to get healed. You just needed to realize that you couldn’t cure yourself. You were doomed if God’s remedy didn’t work. All you could say is, “God promised if I looked I would live. So I looked and I live.” (See C. H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 25:597.)

We’ve seen that the Lord is the holy Judge who can justly impose death on sinners. In spite of many manifestations of God’s grace, we all have grumbled against the Lord, and thus we deserve His judgment. But God has graciously supplied the remedy for our death penalty, namely, Christ crucified. Finally,

4. To be healed instantly from God’s curse of eternal death, look in faith to the remedy He has provided.

God didn’t remove the snakes, but He provided the cure. But the remedy was not automatically effective for everyone. Each person had to believe God’s promise and look at the uplifted snake if he or she wanted to live. But when a person looked, he was healed instantly. There were no delays. He didn’t need to accumulate enough good works to merit healing. The instant he looked, he was miraculously healed.

In the same way, as we’ve seen, Jesus told the Pharisee Nicodemus (John 3:14-15), “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” Lifted up refers to Jesus being lifted up on the cross (see, also, John 8:28; 12:34), but the apostle John, who was fond of double meanings, also meant that Jesus would be lifted up in glory and majesty (Isa. 52:13; Acts 2:33; 5:31). When God raised from the dead the Savior who bore our sins on the cross, He (Phil. 2:9) “highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

If you will look in faith to the crucified and risen Savior, God will give you eternal life right now as a free gift. But you need to understand that looking to Christ or having faith in Christ is not faith in an idol of Jesus as a good luck charm. Rather, it’s faith in the living person of Christ. In the wilderness, the Israelites had to believe in God’s promise that whoever looked to the serpent would be healed. In the same way, we need to believe God’s promise that whoever looks to Jesus and His death as the just payment for his sins will be forgiven and given eternal life. But we need to be careful not to fall into idolatry by making a charm or magic token out of a statue of Jesus or the cross.

About 700 years after this incident in the wilderness, King Hezekiah had to destroy this bronze serpent because it had become an object of idolatry to the Israelites (2 Kings 18:1-4). That took some courage on Hezekiah’s part! But he saw that people had begun to look to it as a good luck charm. In the same way, there are many today who set up a statue or picture of Jesus on the cross and pray to it, thinking that it will protect them or bring them good luck. But that’s not what faith in Jesus means. That’s a form of idolatry! Destroy your idol and put your trust in the living Lord Jesus to save you. He promised (John 3:16) that “whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.”


When Charles Spurgeon, who would later become the greatest preacher of the 19th century, was 15, he was under deep conviction because of his sins. Although his father and grandfather were both preachers and Spurgeon had read many of their solid Puritan books, he didn’t understand the gospel. He thought that he needed to do many more things to be saved.

Then one snowy day he wandered into a small Methodist chapel. The regular preacher wasn’t there because of the snow. A layman preached on Isaiah 45:22, which reads (KJV), “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” He made the point that looking doesn’t take any effort or any special status. Anyone can look. Finally, he looked directly at young Spurgeon and exhorted, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.” Spurgeon said (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:88), “Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me.” He looked to Jesus and God saved him.

And you will be saved too, if you look in faith to Jesus, who was the fulfillment of this strange but effective remedy that God provided to cure the snakebite of your sins.

Application Questions

  1. Can a person come to saving faith if he (or she) doesn’t feel any deep conviction of sin? Can the conviction come after he believes?
  2. If someone said to you, “I believe in a non-retributive, loving Lord who did not come to ‘die for us’ to ‘satisfy’ an angry God but came as our friend,” how would you respond?
  3. In light of Galatians 1:6-9, can a person who believes that we must add our good works to faith for salvation be truly saved?
  4. Some argue that to require sinners to repent and submit to Jesus as Lord adds unbiblical requirements to salvation by faith alone. Agree/disagree? Cite biblical support.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

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