Numbers 21:8 - Tragedy + Jesus = Life
Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall
come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it,
shall live. Num 21:8 (KJV)
This was in response to Israelites' eighth complaint again the
Lord and concerned their blindness toward His many and powerful
provisions for them. [New Bible Companion mod]
Why was God so strict about complaining? The people's
complaining was symptomatic of a much deeper problem: distrust of God.
The bronze snake was later used as an idol and had to be
destroyed (2 Kings 18:4). [New Bible Companion]
Nearby Timna was known for its copper smelting and for a
Midianite shrine, dating sometime after 1100 B.C. In the holy place of
that shrine a five-inch-long copper serpent was found (Wenham). A
connection between the later Midianite worship center and the earlier
events recounted here is possible. [Jamieson, Fausset, And Brown
These shiny reddish colored snakes are extremely poisonous and
aggressive as well. During the First World War the British army had many
problems with these snakes, in the same area the ancient Israelites were
passing through. [Victor Bible Reader's Companion]
The people prayed that God would take away the serpents from
them (v. 7), but God saw fit not to do this: for he gives effectual
relief in the best way, though not in our way. (Matthew Henry's
The secret of the healing power of the bronze snake lay not in
magic but in faith. [Victor Bible Reader's Companion]
Why use a symbol of death to bring healing?.... Facing death, they
found new life. [Quest SB]
Jesus compared this event to what would happen to himself (John
3:14-15). [New Bible Companion]
An illustration of Christ's vicarious death on the cross and of
the necessity of personal faith for salvation (John 3:14-15). [Ryrie
Moses was instructed to make a serpent of bronze and to place
the image of the serpent on a pole. All who looked upon the image
would be healed by faith. Similarly, God lifted up Jesus on the cross
and calls all men to look to Him in faith that they may be healed
(John 3:14, 15). [Believer's SB]
Repentance brought God's way for relief. Trust in God's chosen
symbol lifted over the people brought healing. Today trust in God's
lifted-up Son brings salvation (Jn 3:14-15).... This remarkable experience
of Israel is used as a prefiguring of the cross of Jesus and its
saving power (Jn 3:14-15). [Disciple SB]
When the bronze snake was hung on the pole, the Israelites
didn't know the fuller meaning Jesus Christ would bring to this event
(see John 3:14, 15). Jesus explained that just as the Israelites were
healed of their sickness by looking at the snake on the pole, all
believers today can be saved from the sickness of sin by looking to Jesus'
death on the cross. It was not the snake that healed the people, but
their belief that God could heal them. This belief was demonstrated by
their obedience to God's instructions. In the same way, we should
continue to look to Christ (see Hebrews 12:2).[Life Application SB]
This incident was used by the apostle John in the New Testament
as an illustration of what Christ did on our behalf. "As Moses in
the wilderness lifted up the bronze image of a serpent on a pole,
even so I must be lifted up upon a pole" (John 3:14). Evident in both
passages is God's saving grace, which provides salvation and healing for
anyone who responds in faith. Healing did not come to everyone in
Israel, but only to those who by faith looked at the brass serpent on
the pole. The apostle John makes it clear that personal forgiveness
and victory over sin can come only to those who look to Christ on
the cross. God provides the powerful means of recovery from sin and
failure; we need to receive it in faith. [Life Recovery SB]
Jesus said that as Moses lifted up the serpent in the
wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, "that everyone who believes
in Him [who cleaves to Him, trust Him and relies on Him] may not
perish, but have eternal life and [actually] live forever!" (John 3:14,
15). Obviously this implies that the look that caused the victim of
a fiery serpent to be healed was something far more than a causal
glance. A "look" would save, but what kind of a look? The Hebrew text
here means "look attentively, expectantly, with a steady and
absorbing gaze." Or, as Jesus said in the last verse of the chapter
quoted above (John 3:36). "He who believes in (has faith in, clings
to, relies on) the Son has (now possesses) eternal life." But
whoever does not so believe in, cling to , and rely on the Son "Will
never see ... life." The look that saves is not just a fleeting glance
it is a God-honoring, God-answered, fixed, and absorbing gaze! [EAV
The Jews themselves say it was not the sight of the brazen
serpent that cured; but in looking up to it, they looked up to God as
the Lord that healed them. There was much gospel in this. Our
Saviour declared, John 3:14,15, that as Moses lifted up the serpent in
the wilderness, so the Son of man must be lifted up, that whatsoever
believeth in him, should not perish. Compare their disease and ours. Sin
bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder. Compare the
application of their remedy and ours. They looked and lived, and we, if we
believe, shall not perish. It is by faith that we look unto Jesus,
Hebrews 12:2. Whosoever looked, however desperate his case, or feeble
his sight, or distant his place, was certainly and perfectly cured.
The Lord can relieve us from dangers and distresses, by means which
human reason never would have devised. Oh that the venom of the old
serpent, inflaming men's passions, and causing them to commit sins which
end in their eternal destruction, were as sensibly felt, and the
danger as plainly seen, as the Israelites felt pain from the bite of
the fiery serpents, and feared the death which followed! Then none
would shut their eyes to Christ, or turn from his gospel. Then a
crucified Saviour would be so valued, that all things else would be
accounted loss for him; then, without delay, and with earnestness and
simplicity, all would apply to him in the appointed way, crying, Lord, save
us; we perish! [Matthew Henry Commentary]
All who have ever lived upon the earth have felt the deadly
sting of "that old serpent, called the devil, and Satan." The fatal
effects of sin can be removed only by the provision that God has made.
The Israelites saved their lives by looking upon the uplifted
serpent. That look implied faith. They lived because they believed God's
word, and trusted in the means provided for their recovery. So the
sinner may look to Christ, and live. He receives pardon through faith
in the atoning sacrifice. Unlike the inert and lifeless symbol,
Christ has power and virtue in Himself to heal the repenting sinner.
While the sinner cannot save himself, he still has something to
do to secure salvation. "Him that cometh to Me," says Christ, "I
will in no wise cast out." John 6:37. But we must come to Him; and
when we repent of our sins, we must believe that He accepts and
pardons us. Faith is the gift of God, but the power to exercise it is
ours. Faith is the hand by which the soul takes hold upon the divine
offers of grace and mercy. PP430-2
Many of the Israelites saw no help in the remedy which Heaven
had appointed. The dead and dying were all around them, and they
knew that, without divine aid, their own fate was certain; but they
continued to lament their wounds, their pains, their sure death, until
their strength was gone, and their eyes were glazed, when they might
have had instant healing... Though millions who need to be healed will
reject His offered mercy, not one who trusts in His merits will be left
to perish. PP430-2
Many wander in the mazes of philosophy, in search of reasons and
evidence which they will never find, while they reject the evidence which
God has been pleased to give. They refuse to walk in the light of
the Sun of Righteousness, until the reason of its shining shall be
explained. All who persist in this course will fail to come to a knowledge
of the truth. God will never remove every occasion for doubt. He
gives sufficient evidence on which to base faith, and if this is not
accepted, the mind is left in darkness. If those who were bitten by the
serpents had stopped to doubt and question before they would consent to
look, they would have perished. It is our duty, first, to look; and
the look of faith will give us life. PP430-2
What a strange symbol of Christ was that likeness of the
serpents which stung them. This symbol was lifted on a pole, and they
were to look to it, and be healed. So Jesus was made in the likeness
of sinful flesh. He came as the sin-bearer....
The same healing, life-giving message is now sounding. It points
to the uplifted Saviour upon the shameful tree. Those who have been
bitten by that old serpent, the devil, are bidden to look and live....
Without the cross, man could have no union with the Father. On
it depends our every hope. From it shines the light of the
Saviour's love; and when at the foot of the cross the sinner looks up to
the One who died to save him, he may rejoice with fulness of joy;
for his sins are pardoned. Kneeling in faith at the cross, he has
reached the highest place to which man can attain. SD222
CHRIST THE UPLIFTED BRAZEN SERPENT (21:1-9)
John 3:14 is our authority for making this a type of Christ.
Note how it pictures for us the salvation we have in Christ.
A. The need
The people had sinned in two ways: they had spoken against God,
and they had spoken against Moses. Because of this, they were dying.
"The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). Here we have the two aspects
of the Law of God: behavior toward God and behavior toward one
another. Because of sin, death is in the world and all are condemned
(John 3:16-18). Every person born into this world has been bitten by
the fiery serpent of sin and is destined to die.
B. God's grace
God could have ignored his people's plight, for they deserved to
die, but in His love and grace He provided a remedy. The intercession
of Moses in v. 7 reminds us of the prayer of Christ, "Father,
forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
C. Another serpent
How strange that Moses should make another serpent when it was
serpents that caused all the trouble to begin with! Were there not enough
of them in the camp already? But the serpent of brass pictures
Christ, who became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). Brass is the metal that
speaks of judgment, and on the cross, Christ bore our judgment for us.
Note that the serpent was not effective in Moses' hand, or on a
shelf. It had to be "lifted up"--Christ had to be crucified. See John
3:14, 8:28, and 12:30-33.
D. By faith
The people had prayed, "Take away the serpents!" But God's
method was to overcome the sting of death by faith. "Look and live!"
was the answer. It was not by ignoring the bites, beating the
serpents, applying medicine, or trying to flee that the afflicted people
were saved. Salvation came through looking by faith to the uplifted
serpent in the center of the camp (cf. Isa. 45:22). Note that the
serpent was not connected with the tabernacle in any way. No amount of
sacrifices could have saved the people from death.
The serpent was not lifted up in some hidden corner. It was
lifted up in the center of the camp where all could see it and live.
Christ is available today; He is not far away. See Rom. 10:6-13 for
fuller application. The remedy was available to all; "whosoever will,
let him take" (Rev. 22:17).
It cost dying sinners with Moses nothing to look and live. They
may not have understood the how and why of it all (and who does
understand salvation?) but they could believe and live!
The one uplifted serpent sufficed for the whole camp. Christ
alone is sufficient for our salvation; we need nothing more. The dying
were not saved by looking at the serpent and then keeping the law, or
looking and bringing a sacrifice, or looking and making promises to do
better. They were saved by faith alone. Christ is sufficient to take
care of all our needs for time and eternity.
H. Immediate healing
Salvation is not a process; it is an immediate miracle that
takes place when the sinner looks to Christ by faith. Christ in His
death and resurrection does not save us "a little bit at a time." He
saves instantly, immediately, and completely.
I. One remedy for all
Thoughtless people say, "As there are many roads leading to
Rome, so there are many roads to heaven, many ways to be saved!" There
was only one way to be saved in the camp of Israel, and there is
only one way today. Read John 14:6 and Acts 4:12. Unless a sinner
looks to Christ by faith, he or she is lost forever.
J. Double assurance
How did the dying people know the remedy would work? First, they
had the assurance of the Word of God. God had promised that if
anyone would look, he or she would live. Second, they could see what
had happened in the lives of others. God would give no special
revelation, no special feeling; sinners had to depend on what God had
All of this seems so foolish to the people of the world (1 Cor.
1:18-31). Imagine, looking at an uplifted serpent to be saved from death!
People today scoff at the cross, while they try to kill the snakes and
manufacture new anti-snake remedies. Yet every remedy man has manufactured
has failed! Reformation, education, better laws, religion--all have
had their day. And still people are dying in sin. The only answer is
the cross of Jesus Christ, the uplifted Savior....
Jews preserved this brazen serpent and made an idol out of it.
This is human nature, to look at the material thing and ignore the
God who deserves our trust. It was not the serpent that healed the
people; it was the God who commanded the serpent to be made.
This is idolatry, to "worship and serve the creature rather than
the Creator" (Rom. 1:25). Hezekiah broke the serpent idol in pieces
and named it, "Nehushtan"--"a piece of brass." We wonder what God
thinks of the millions of idols scattered across this world, pieces of
wood or metal that are robbing God of the trust and glory that He
deserves. [Wiersbe Expository Outlines]
Often the sequence of events recorded in Scripture, as well as
the events themselves, teach us important truths. This is certainly
the case in Numbers 21, which contrasts so greatly with chapter 20.
In the former chapter, Israel reached the low point on her journey
toward Canaan. Even Moses was shown to be vulnerable to unbelief.
Hopelessness, defeat, and death seemed to be all that God's people could look
But then the tenor of the Old Testament text shifts
dramatically. Israel sought God's help and won a victory over the Canaanite
king of Arad (vv. 1-3). What if that southern kingdom was tiny? It
was a victory at last. When everything seems dark, every victory is
And then the people spoke against God and Moses again! This time
the LORD sent an infestation of poisonous serpents. But again a new
theme was introduced. Moses made a bronze serpent, raised it high on a
pole, and promised that bitten individuals could simply look at the
bronze snake and be cured. Individuals with faith looked. And they
Even though the community is riddled with unbelief, there
remains hope for individuals who are willing to trust God. Clearly,
trust is an effective antidote for unbelief!
The next incident suggests that trust was now contagious, just
as unbelief had been contagious before. The Israelites faced a
major enemy in two neighboring Amorite kingdoms--and conquered them.
God had said, "Do not be afraid of him, for I have handed him over
to you, with his whole army and his land." This time the people
believed, obeyed--and won!
This phase of the journey, which had begun in such despair,
ended in joy. Israel was learning that a purified people, willing to
trust God, would enjoy victory rather than defeat.
What a message for us to remember. No matter how flawed our past
life, no matter how dark our present, we do have hope. We can
determine now that the next steps we take on our pilgrimage will be steps
We can believe. We can obey. And, when we do, we can win! [The
365-Day Devotional Commentary]
Personal Application: Remember that both trust and unbelief are
contagious. Be sure to give your loved ones the right "disease." [The
365-Day Devotional Commentary]
Your Daily Walk: Find a small piece of sandpaper and tuck it in
your pocket or purse. Then read the next few paragraphs thoughtfully
. . . prayerfully.
In chapter 21 the nation Israel conquered three national powers.
Smashing victories! Stunning triumphs! But for some of the people it
wasn't enough. After all, they were still on the wrong side of the
Jordan and didn't possess even a spadeful of the Promised Land. Their
impatience led to criticism - and criticism to fiery judgment.
One key to consistency in the Christian life is simply giving
God time to work. Rough edges take time to smooth. Growth to
maturity never occurs overnight. But each day can be a step in the right
Is God using a little sandpaper on your life right now? How can
you cooperate with - rather than oppose - the work of the Master
Carpenter? [Your Daily Walk SB]
If there was anything Adrienne Rivera didn't want it was
attention. She felt self-conscious about her looks, and she was fairly sure
no one really liked her.
Adrienne began having trouble with her right knee. Soon she
could hardly walk on it, and nothing eased the pain. Finally, she went
to a doctor.
She couldn't believe what the doctor found: a rare, cancerous
tumor. And to save her life, he had to treat her with chemotherapy and
then amputate her leg.
Amputate? Word spread fast through school. Adrienne - who
avoided being in the spotlight - suddenly found herself the center of
school gossip and the focus of curious stares. She hated it.
Adrienne was confused and angry. Was God punishing her? What had
she done to deserve this?
Then one day during her chemo treatments, Adrienne was thinking
about her three-in-a-million chance of getting this cancer. And a
thought struck her. "Suppose God isn't punishing me? Suppose he chose
Adrienne's new perspective gave her the courage to face surgery
- and the world. During recovery, her shyness disappeared as she
answered her classmates' questions and satisfied their curiosity.
With just one natural leg, she joined the school flag squad,
swim team, and track team. Recently she started something she
probably wouldn't have done with two legs: downhill competitive skiing.
Now there's no stopping the girl who once had trouble standing on
her own two feet. [Youth SB]
When Crisis Strikes. We feel surrounded by uncontrollable forces
and a hopeless situation. At times like this the weakest fall into
sin; the strongest lift their eyes to God and find new power. We can
learn of God's provision in the wilderness for those who believe.
[Quiet Time SB mod]
As the Israelites of old looked to the fiery serpent in the
wilderness and found healing; so today, when we find ourselves bitten by
some tragedy of Satan, we too can look to Jesus and find healing.
There is healing in tragedy if we but look to Jesus. [F. Gibbs]