So, we’ll start off with what is, probably, the most well-known verse of scripture in the Bible, and we’ll look at what Jesus is referring to when He says it. If you’re like me, you may not have ever had anyone make these connections, because the verse is usually quoted/preached like it was spoken in a vacuum. So, here we go.
“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. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:14-16
Jesus makes this statement while He is speaking with Nicodemus, after briefly chastising him for his lack of understanding (“Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”). He is making a specific reference to a passage in Numbers which tells a story of Israel’s stubborn rebellion and a judgement which was brought upon them. It says:
“From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 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 we loathe this worthless food.’ Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And 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. 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 21:4-9
Ok, first of all…before anything else: WHOA. Fiery serpents. That’s like something out of a video game or a bad science fiction movie…and totally awesome. Ok, but seriously, do you see the parallel?
First: a little background. At this point in Numbers, Israel is out wandering in the desert, and God has over and over and over shown His faithfulness to take care of His people and provide for them. Also, He has over and over shown His hatred for rebellion and His mercy in forgiveness. The Israelites get themselves plagued FREQUENTLY in the book of Numbers (see Chapters 11-16). This is the case because they are frequently in rebellion despite God reminding them of His faithfulness. One chapter before this passage, Numbers 20, the people are freaking out because they have no water and think they’re going to die, and so God makes water come from a rock. A LOT of water…enough for 600,000+ people and their hundreds of thousands of livestock…from a rock. And one chapter later we see them complaining again: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water…”
What we should recognize is that the Israelites weren’t complaining because of lack. They KNEW God could provide water (chapter 20). They CERTAINLY knew He could provide food (see Numbers 11 where the people complained of no meat and God sent quail on them “…until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the Lord who is among you…”). They were complaining because they were rebels. They were whiny. They had rejected God and were, like a stubborn 2 year old, throwing a fit because they didn’t like being in the desert and were ticked off at God. See what they say after that first phrase? “For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” The worthless food they loathed was the manna God sent them every day, without fail. It was the merciful bread from heaven.
Do you see the deepening similarity? Look at what Christ says in John 6:
“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:48-51
Amen! Ok, so we’re about to tie this all together. Ready? The people of Israel reject God by calling His merciful bread from heaven worthless, and so He sends fiery serpents to punish them, but allowing life to be preserved through looking on a snake on a pole. THEN, the pharisees and others in Israel (and much of the world today) reject God by rejecting the merciful bread from heaven: Jesus Christ! But God, in His great mercy, has provided for ETERNAL life by lifting up His Son on a tree. In Numbers 11, whoever looked at the lifted up snake lived, and in John 3 whoever believes in the lifted up Son LIVES!
God, because He loves the world, has mercifully provided a remedy for the rebellion of the world in Jesus Christ, just as He mercifully provided a remedy for the rebellion of Israel in Numbers 21, EVEN THOUGH the world has said of Jesus Christ, “…we loathe this worthless [bread from heaven].”
Father, how can we even fathom your great mercy? We so often reject and treat as worthless the perfect bread of life in Jesus Christ, and we deserve nothing more than death by fiery serpents. But You, oh God, in your great mercy, have lifted up your Son, that we might look on Him and live! All glorious praise to the giver of all good gifts! Praise the unending mercies of God, whose depth we cannot fathom. Blessed be the name of the Lord! May we ever delight in the bread of heaven, Father, and so delight in You. Keep us and provide for us, dear Savior. Blessed be your Name!