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 21:8-9)
Salvation In A Snake
It had been forty years since the Hebrews left Egypt and their journey was fraught with discouragement, rebellion, murmuring and dissatisfaction with the way God had treated them. Aaron had died and because of Edom’s refusal to allow them passage through their land, the people had to detour around the country as they made their way to the Promised Land. After a victory over the Canaanite king of Arad, the soul of the people became very discouraged. They complained to Moses and against God for the past forty years of trial saying they had no food and no water. Their spirits were filled with despondency. Tired of the monotonous manna provided by God, the people were angry with the Lord and showed their displeasure. Although God had given them water to drink and food to eat including the manna and quail, the heart of the people rose up against the blessings of the Lord with unthankful spirits and voices of complaint. The land they traveled was a sparse and difficult land uninviting to all who traveled its borders. They forgot how God had cared for them in the worst of circumstances and was unsatisfied with the providential care of the Lord. Speaking against God and against Moses, they took their frustrations out on the Lord and His servant. As punishment for their rebellious hearts, the Lord sent serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died. It did not take long for the people to realize their mistake and begged Moses to intervene to the Lord for mercy against the vipers. God could have simply destroyed all the snakes with a sweep of His hand but the Lord told Moses to make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole. If a person was bitten by a snake, they could look upon the bronze serpent crafted by Moses and their life would be spared. The man of God did as the Lord instructed and the plague of serpents ended.
The nation of Israel numbered close to two million people. Whenever the people camped in a certain place, each tribe had a specific area they were assigned to set up camp. The tabernacle was in the center of the encampment. Naphtali, Asher, and Dan were placed north of the tabernacle with Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun on the east and other tribes to the south and west. Moses had his tent on the east side of the tabernacle as well as the children of Aaron who kept charge of the sanctuary. If you were of the tribe of Judah it would not be difficult to find Moses and the bronze serpent because you were on the east side of the tabernacle. However, if you were bitten by a serpent and you belonged to the tribe of Ephraim, Manasseh or Benjamin, it would require you coming to the east side of camp to find Moses and the bronze serpent in order to live. If a person was bitten by a serpent they could sit in their tents and believe on the Lord and His power and ask God to bless them with His grace and die in their tent. God told Moses that salvation would only come to those who looked upon the bronze serpent. This required something more than faith but action. All the belief in the world could not save them and would not save them. The matter of faith had to be saving faith. Being cured of a snake bite does not come from a bronze serpent on a pole. The bronze does not save and the figure of a snake does not take away the poison. Someone could argue strongly the metal bronze had no power to heal and the image of a serpent would not bring saving power. What they failed to understand was the bronze serpent healed the affliction of the serpent’s bite because it was the word of God and His grace that brought life when a man looked upon the bronze serpent. Obedience to the word of the Lord would give life. Faith alone would not save. You see that faith was working together with their works, and by works, faith was made perfect when they looked upon the serpent.
During the ministry of Jesus, a man named Nicodemus came to Jesus at night to converse with the Lord about His work. In the discussion that followed, Jesus told the ruler of the Jews that like Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man would be lifted up. The death of Jesus on the cross was a figure of the saving power of God to the Jews in the wilderness when the deadly poison of serpents began killing the people. In an ironic parable of God’s wisdom, a serpent was chosen to save the people from death. It was a serpent that was used to bring sin into the world in the Garden of Eden and like the serpent lifted up in the days of Moses, Jesus would become the curse to cleanse men of the poison of sin. Faith alone in Jesus Christ will not save. A person can believe in Jesus and die in their sins because they have not obeyed the word of the Lord. The Bible never teaches salvation by faith alone. Like the serpent in the wilderness, men must come to the Lord and obey His word to find salvation. No matter where a man finds himself, he must come to the Lord and obey His word to enjoy the cleansing power of God’s grace. There are many who deny the purpose of baptism as salvation by works. If they were in the wilderness with Moses, they would also deny the purpose of a bronze serpent on a pole as salvation by works; and they would die in their tents because of their refusal to obey the word of the Lord. Is there something mystical about immersing in water that saves? No more than the bronze metal used to form the serpent but unless one looked upon the bronze serpent they would die. If a person refuses to accept the remission of sins in the waters of baptism they will die in their sins apart from the grace of God. Salvation came from a bronze serpent in the wilderness when men obeyed the word of the Lord. Today salvation comes from the blood of Jesus Christ found only in the waters of baptism with the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit. Jesus told Nicodemus this was how a man was born again.