[K:NWTS 2/3 (Dec 1987) 10-15]

The Bronze Serpent History

Numbers 21:1-911 Kings 18:1-8; John 3:14,15

T. Hoogsteen

On the salvation way from the Old into the New Testament, God raised a mighty sign with a dual function–to seal the mouths of all malcontents against his plan of redemption and to articulate the source of eternal life. Therefore as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness, also the Son of man must be elevated, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (cf. Jn. 3:14,15). According to the apostle, this composes the sign of life in the history of the bronze serpent. Concomitantly, this stops the mouths of all who propose alternatives to God's revelation of eternal life.

Grumblers against God's salvation plan find their prototype in old Egypt. After even the ten plagues, the then Pharaoh regnant remained acidulous in temperament concerning God's exodus for Israel. And Israel? In the historical passages of the covenant people from Egypt to the Promised Land, from slavery to freedom, from death to life, we find they repeatedly offered dissatisfaction to the Lord God for the manner in which he chose to reveal the Savior and eternal life in him. They had shaken off the contamination of discontent by their baptism in the Red Sea.

Still for the sake of the promise of eternal life for his people, God lifted up a serpent.

A Serpent Raised

With an outstretched arm and a mighty hand the Lord God released his people from the house of bondage, but apparently they had not left the old Egyptian habit behind. Israel as a nation cankered at every opportunity.

The Pharaoh's discontent with God drowned in the Red Sea crossing, but Israel's continual grumbling received a more hopeful outcome. When this people again complained about the way of salvation from Egypt to Canaan, at a stage in which food and water gave out and the manna became (seemingly) unpalatable, and recriminated loudly against the Lord God and against Moses, in favor of the fleshpots and onion soup in Egypt (cf. Ex. 16:3; Num. 11:4-6), God responded with a plague of fiery serpents.

Had Israel overruled God, the human will victorious over the divine plan of salvation, the Messiah could not have been elevated on the cross in the Promised Land and eternal life would thus have been effectively stymied.

With a wrathful answer to Israel's vexatious carping, God then released the fiery serpents, symbols of the old Serpent, so that many in Israel died (cf. I Cor. 10:9-10) to suspend the malcontents. Surely "it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (cf. Heb. 10:31; 12:29; Ex. 24:l6ff.).

Only when Israel turned to the Lord in repentance, ready to accept his way, how quickly he replied. His anger melted and he removed the snake infestation. If the people would only look at a bronze serpent Moses had hoisted on a pole, they would be healed of the venom in their veins and the grumblings of their hearts. This bronze serpent did not serve as an antidote to the venom; rather, the 'snake' symbolized God's grace, to avoid every pretense of magic. All who perceived this bronze serpent in obedience of faith received healing. Thus they proved, by looking; they believed God at his word ready to proceed according to the plan of salvation.

Israel never forgot this serpent episode because the account is written in Scripture. Apparently, according to the next account, they preserved the serpent for those who disgrace the way of salvation with grumbling.

A Serpent Deified

Yet Israel ignored the serpent's purpose, seeking to preempt God's salvation plan; the covenant people deified the bronze snake as the carrier of life. In Palestine decades after the reign of David and Solomon, further dissatisfaction erupted against God. Israel then turned to their Nehushtan, to break the second commandment. As a disobedient nation they had come under the cloud of the approaching exile. Though they kept the form of the true religion, only to deny its power, thus to forestall the coming Messiah.

Never content with God's leading from grace to grace, they worshipped the bronze serpent even as their forefathers had attempted with the golden calf, faithlessly. With guile and according to his inimical style the Serpent had twisted Israel away from the way of salvation, filled the people with venom, so that they could complain and grumble against God with the implication that their own way of salvation, the worship of Nehushtan, served better, quite independently from the Lord God. Through the bronze snake they worshipped the Serpent, instead of the Creator, with consequences (cf. Jer. 8:17).

God put down the old Egyptian grumbling. Not to be outfaced by the Serpent's mien and corruption to prevent the incarnation of the Messiah, God, through the offices of king Hezekiah, caused the bronze serpent to be destroyed, lost, never to serve as a stumbling block in Israel again, contrary to the history of salvation.

The Son of Man Lifted Up

On the long journey of the Old Testament way of redemption, God preserved Israel. Wise in the way of redemption, he caused in the fullness of time, the Son of man to be born. In the development of the Old Testament, he began to focus attention more and more upon the cross of Christ, as was the purpose already with Moses' bronze serpent upon the pole (cf. Num. 21:8,9). For the Son of man, who was the Word and was with God, and is God from eternity to eternity, in his humiliation was lifted up on the pole of Calvary to become God's ultimate work of redemption.

In John's gospel, the manner in which the Son of man was lifted up is superseded by the function for which he was crucified. As Moses elevated the bronze serpent for the people to see and believe and live, so the Son of man on the cross of Golgotha.

All Jews and Gentiles had to look at the 'serpent' on the cross and believe! And live eternally free from the venom of faithlessness which manifests itself in grumbling and complaining about the way God brought salvation. Discontent with God is the poison of the Serpent. The Christ on the cross brought conversion and healing and life. Thus the Lord worked the cessation of all Egyptian grumbling among his people, for in the fullness of salvation his people no longer canker about but rejoice in the fact of salvation. Christ heals his people from their dissatisfaction with God's plan of salvation; for he is the new life. Therefore Jesus was lifted up before the entire world (cf. Jn. 8:28; 12:32-33) with universal force.

All who now regard the Son of man on the pole of Golgotha in faith receive the Spirit who works the gift of eternal life (cf. Jn. 3:36; 5:24). And this is the life: "that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent" (Jn. 17:3 KJV). To believe the plan of salvation, to be saved through God's mighty Son brings the fullness of joy.

When God had completed the purpose of the wooden cross, the wood was lost. It had served its function and never would his people worship that cross, not even splinters and nails. His own should pay attention to the Son of man, for in him is eternal life.

The half-life of the bronze serpent may have been long, as that of bronze, but the life in the Son of man is eternal. And Christ cannot be turned into a Nehushtan. All must look at him with deep, believing concentration on that which occurred on the cross: the disclosure of redemption, the conquest of the old Serpent and the initiation of eternal life.

In this eternal life the Serpent, though bound for a thousand years, may and does seek to withdraw our eyes from the Son of man and doubt the fulfillment of God's plan of salvation. That begins the grumbling about God's way, as if it were insufficient and requires, for instance, free will to accomplish his purpose. The Serpent may and does on occasion bring back the old Egyptian malaise and people begin to imagine again that they know better than God.

The only way to overcome the poison, to get the venom out of the system and out of the heart is to regard the Son of man, crucified, and rejoice in the completeness of the plan of salvation. God raised his Son so high that all the world may see him, believe him and live. Forever!

First Christian Reformed Church
Brantford, Ontario, Canada