The Bronze Snake Numbers 21
Numbers 21:1-9 NLTse The Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that the Israelites were approaching on the road through Atharim. So he attacked the Israelites and took some of them as prisoners. (2) Then the people of Israel made this vow to the LORD: “If you will hand these people over to us, we will completely destroy all their towns.” (3) The LORD heard the Israelites’ request and gave them victory over the Canaanites. The Israelites completely destroyed them and their towns, and the place has been called Hormah ever since. (4) Then the people of Israel set out from Mount Hor, taking the road to the Red Sea to go around the land of Edom. But the people grew impatient with the long journey, (5) and they began to speak against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness?” they complained. “There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!” (6) So the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many were bitten and died. (7) Then the people came to Moses and cried out, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take away the snakes.” So Moses prayed for the people. (8) Then the LORD told him, “Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” (9) So Moses made a snake out of bronze and attached it to a pole. Then anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed!
This is another one of those stories most Christians are familiar with. Most Christians know how that bronze snake on a pole pointed to Jesus.
John 3:11-17 NLTse I assure you, we tell you what we know and have seen, and yet you won’t believe our testimony. (12) But if you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things? (13) No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from heaven. (14) And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, (15) so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. (16) “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (17) God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.
This portion of John’s books also contains a well known verse. “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” I’ll bet you never realized how close the two stories are related. Jesus placed those stories together for a reason. One of the most important rules of Bible Study is to always look up and read the entire story referenced by an inspired writer. Is there anyone more inspired than Jesus?
How are those stories related? We have to look at how the introductions to each story are related.
Numbers 21:1-3 NLTse The Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that the Israelites were approaching on the road through Atharim. So he attacked the Israelites and took some of them as prisoners. (2) Then the people of Israel made this vow to the LORD: “If you will hand these people over to us, we will completely destroy all their towns.” (3) The LORD heard the Israelites’ request and gave them victory over the Canaanites. The Israelites completely destroyed them and their towns, and the place has been called Hormah ever since.
John 3:1-6 NLTse There was a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who was a Pharisee. (2) After dark one evening, he came to speak with Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.” (3) Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” (4) “What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” (5) Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. (6) Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life.
What do those two introductions have in common? They are more of a contract. But do they teach the same lesson? Nicodemus couldn’t comprehend how a person could be born again. He had absolutely no concept of a spiritual birth. We could apply this to the Canaanite king of Arad. He must have heard stories about how God freed those slaves from Egypt. Israel had been traveling throughout the region for more than two years, and nothing escapes the ears of a king.
What about applying the lesson to the people God was trying to train as priests? Nicodemus was a religious leader. Or so he thought he was. Still, Nicodemus had no concept of a spiritual birth. Neither did those people wandering through the wilderness. Is that where the connection lies?
When we look a little further in the story, we see how God handed over the Canaanites to the Israelites, who completely destroyed them. Then the unexpected happened. Poisonous snakes began attaching the people in the camp. There was no doubt in their mind God sent those snakes because they were complaining again. Of course they complained about the manna again. It seems after a few years they grew tired of the same diet. But to those people who were slaves all their lives, wafers that tasted like honey should have been a delicacy.
There is no reference to food in John chapter 3. But Jesus did use wind and light as symbols to explain how God’s Spirit works. It’s not likely Numbers 21 and John 3 are parallel chapters. But Jesus did choose that particular time, person, and lesson to link with the story about that bronze snake in Numbers 21. Why?
Jesus referenced that scripture because He wanted Nicodemus to go back and review the entire story. In that story, the people complained about the manna. They had a better idea. Nicodemus thought he followed a religion with a better idea. They thought they had everything all figured out. But Jesus saw straight through Nicodemus and used a subject he knew nothing about to illustrate a very important point. How could those people know anything if they didn’t understand how God’s Spirit worked? How could they interpret one line of scripture without God’s Spirit?
Sad to say, we have thousands of preachers and teachers in the world millions of people follow. Few of those religious leaders are able to explain how God’s Spirit works. Sure they have one or two explanations. And they are masters at bending the truth to make it appear they are experts. But the acid test is, are they able to explain how to have a personal relationship with the Spirit?
I’m not sure why they can’t. The answer is there in black and white on the same page, spoken by the same person, almost in the same sentence. We first have to learn to look up to Jesus. Do they really know the God who used the symbol of a serpent to represent himself? These stories hit the use of context smack dab in the center of the bulls-eye. There is not a better example of understanding context then these stories.
Look how Jesus tied them together when He spoke to Nicodemus. Jesus tied that serpent to His sacrifice. This is the only time anyone can say, “a serpent is a symbol pointing to Jesus.” Anyone familiar with scripture knows a serpent is a symbols pointing to Satan. That’s true in most cases, but not in this particular situation. Jesus just proved, symbols are useless when taken out of context. Jesus proved, symbols must be interpreted within their proper context. Jesus used an expert in religion to illustrate another point. How many religious experts are capable of explaining those simple rules of context?
Now apply that knowledge to a wilderness journey to the promised land. When people cut and paste God’s Word in ways it was never meant to be used, aren’t they complaining about the spiritual food Jesus provided? Think about that. If they are not learning from God’s Spirit within the context lessens were recorded, what are those religious leaders teaching? This lesson is so obvious.
What’s the cure for such a spiritual deficiency? They have to first look at Jesus. They have to look up to His life, ministry, and service He is performing in the Heavenly Sanctuary. But do they do that? Let’s admit, most preachers don’t know Jesus any better than Nicodemus knew Him before that night. They heard about Jesus. They read about Him. They heard rumors about Jesus, But do the really know Him? What about God’s Spirit? If the did, they’d have no problem telling people all about God’s Spirit, or how He communicates with people and speaks through His living Word. Like we see here. Stories are woven together to teach lessons other people easily miss.
People have to learn to look up to Jesus for the same reasons the world He lived in rejected Him. Look at how Numbers 21 and Jesus’ ministry agree. People in Israel asked for one thing but expected another. So they complained. Don’t we hear the same messages today?
We hear all about how Jesus saves people by forgiving sins. About the only other message we hear about Jesus is He is about to return. That is about the extent most Christians are able to teach about Jesus. But what about that sequence of events Jesus has to perform before He returns? My guess is less than 10% of all Christians know any of those details. I know for a fact, many demonstrations refuse to learn anything about that process. Most of them who know about the process Jesus has to go through ignore it. All of them are too busy trying to guess what’s gonna happen to this world next. Almost all of them have the prophetic sequence all messed up because they only know how to read proof text. So they jump from one sentence in one story and try to tie in into another story because it agrees with their theology, that doesn’t agree with the theology of any other denomination. And people wonder why. Did they ever stop to think, God recorded everything in order, because He knew how everything was going to follow a particular sequence? God never needed any of those self proclaimed prophets to rearrange what He had recorded. See the connection between modern day prophets and those people in Israel complaining about the physical food they received? See the connection between those people bitten by those physical serpents and modern day prophets who cannot explain a relationship with God’s Spirit?