"Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. The people spoke against God and 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 miserable food.” The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived. "
I think it was an old sermon of Spurgeon’s I was reading one day wherein he asserted that the cross of Christ can be found on every page of the Old Testament. I know he’s not the only one ever to have made that observation but he’s the one I remember.
What he meant by that is that the very lives of old testament saints and the subsequent recording of their stories in what came eventually to be what we call the Old Testament were designed by God to reveal His Christ; not to the eyes and minds of those who lived and wrote the Old Testament accounts, but to those on this side of Calvary who go back and read and have Christ and His cross revealed to them in those scriptures.
We remember that Jesus told the scoffing Pharisees that the scriptures bear witness of Him but that their deliberate blindness to truth prevented them from seeing it. John 5:39
Again, on the road to Emmaus after His resurrection as He walked with the two discouraged disciples He explained to them things concerning Himself in ‘all the scriptures’. Of course we understand the reference to the scriptures to mean what we call the Old Testament.
Hebrews 1:1 says that in times past God spoke to the prophets in many portions and many ways. One of those ways was through what modern students of the Bible call ‘types’ or ‘foreshadowings’. An example of a type would be the lamb that was sacrificed and the blood placed on the door of the Israelite’s homes on the night of the first Passover, when God struck down the firstborn of the Egyptians and delivered the Children of Israel from slavery. We understand the lamb to be a type of Christ who was sacrificed so we might be delivered from slavery to sin. That is a ‘type’ or ‘foreshadowing’ of Christ.
No place in scripture do we find a more striking type of the cross of Christ than here in Numbers 21, with the raising up of the fiery serpent by Moses. Jesus confirmed out of His own mouth that this was a foreshadowing of His cross as He talked with Nicodemus in John chapter 3.
"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life". John 3:14, 15
So let’s go to our text passage and see what the Lord will say to us in it today.
It is the time of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. God has been with them to provide for them and protect them. In chapter 20 we’re told with no fanfare that Miriam, Moses’ sister, died at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.
Now I know that means a great deal to you, as all of us are very familiar with the geographical layout of the middle east about 3,400 years ago.
If you study your maps later you may find Kadesh-Barnea in the southern most region of what we call Israel. You’ll see it on your map of the wanderings of the children of Israel. Going east from there across the Jordan is the area referred to in our text as Edom.
Moses led them south, away from the direction they had been taking, and then took a circuitous route around Edom, probably to avoid enemies there, which made their journey tedious and uncomfortable, which is probably why they were whining against him again here in verse 5.
More specifically, and very important to point out, is that they complained against God and His man, Moses. We’ll get to that.
So here is the setting of our passage of study today in brief.
Miriam has died. Moses and Aaron have disobeyed God by striking the rock to bring forth water instead of speaking to it as He instructed, and God has told them neither of them would enter the land of promise because of their unbelief (20:12).
Then Aaron died at Mount Hor and was laid to rest there. Then the king of Arad rose up against Israel and God gave them a victory over him. But probably due to that encounter Moses figured Canaan wasn’t going to be taken from the south so he changed course, and that brings us to where we are here in verse 4.
When we look at the sin of the children of Israel we have the first of the types we need to consider today.
Let’s take it one line at a time as they speak against God and against His servant.
First, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”
Now we understand that the slavery of the children of Israel in Egypt was a type of mankind’s slavery to sin under Satan’s whip. So their deliverance from there becomes a type of the deliverance of the one who puts his faith in the shed blood of the Lamb of God, who then moves out into a new life with Christ as his head.
So as we come to consider the actions of this nation of people here in Numbers 21, we have to pause and ask ourselves as believers in the same God who had done so much in their midst, to save them and provide for them and keep them from destruction, what lesson is there for us, what warning is there, in their faithlessness?
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”
They have asked this question before. Listen to chapter 14 verses 1-4
This was their reaction to the report of the spies Moses had sent into the land, and the encouragement from Joshua and Caleb that they could, indeed, with God’s help, take the land.
"Then all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. All the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.” "
The same sentiment, although not stated specifically, is being expressed here in our study text in chapter 21.
In the face of all that God has done for them, all the times that He has worked miracles among them, all the things He has said to them through Moses to assure them, they voice a desire to return to Egypt where they were in harsh slavery, treated badly, and at this point would not be welcomed back with open arms and ‘homecoming’ gifts.
But the sin is not in wanting to go back. The sin is in why they want to go back. It is unbelief.
"For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief." (Hebrews 3:16-19)
Christians, the thing that lies behind every failing and faltering of our spiritual walk is unbelief. However it is expressed, whether striking the rock when God said only to speak to it, or wanting to go back to Egypt after He has so graciously and miraculously delivered them from it, or just grumbling against the one God has put in their life to lead and guide and counsel them, at the bottom of it all is unbelief.
Did you hear what they said in those verses from chapter 14? “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt”. How foolish is that?
You don’t need a leader to go backward! You don’t need a leader to go back to sin. You’ve been there and you know the way. People don’t need to be led BACKWARDS! They don’t even need to be led in order to just sit on their ample fannies and do absolutely nothing.
The only people who need a leader are the ones on their feet, looking forward, wanting to amount to something and get something done that at the end of their own life’s journey will have accomplished something. That’s who needs a leader!
But believe me when I tell you; going back is unbelief, sitting still is unbelief, refusing to move forward when the Lord says go is unbelief, and doing anything in any way different than He has said to do it is unbelief, and that, brothers and sisters, is sin.
Listen to this line again.
“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 miserable food.”
What is the ‘miserable’ food they’re maligning? Manna! Now listen to what Jesus said to the crowd looking for Him to feed them miraculously:
"Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. “For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst. “But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe. " John 6:32-36
God had fed the Children of Israel in the wilderness with bread coming down out of Heaven itself, and they were ‘dissing’ it! “…this loathsome food”!
And then some 1,450 years later their very descendants violently rejected the One of whom the manna was a type. Is it any wonder God sent deadly serpents among them?
Folks, God the Father sent His precious, sinless Son to the world as the Bread of Life and those who reject Him, who loath Him, are feeling the stings of sin every day and they are dying.
It is unknown whether the serpents God sent among them are called ‘fiery’ because of their bright color or because their bite burned with inflammation, but reading it we get the idea of great and searing pain.
So the people cry out to Moses. The one they had just been rejecting. The one they had just been accusing of leading them wrongly.
“We have sinned because we have spoken against the Lord and you”
Now isn’t this strange? Weren’t they just accusing God and Moses of bringing them there to die? So why be so surprised? He was only giving them what they were claiming as their own.
But I want you to notice that they knew where their sin lay. “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you” At least they had the presence of mind to know that they had sinned first against the Lord.
Christians whenever we sin in any way, to whatever degree (since we are so in a hurry to put degrees on sin), we must understand that whoever else is involved and whatever the hurt we cause anyone else, we have sinned first against the Lord. He is really the only One whose offense at sin is pure because He is perfectly holy.
If you ever find yourself in the position of having to go to another and ask their forgiveness for a wrong you’ve done them, remember that you have first offended Holiness and own it.
This is true repentance.
We can criticize them for their ungratefulness and their rejection of God’s goodness but let’s be careful to stop and ask if any actions or attitudes of our own, even in recent days, have come out of ingratitude and forgetfulness of His goodness to us. Unbelief.
But this is true repentance. “We have sinned” good start. “…against the Lord…” keep up the good work. “…and you…”
And the unchanging God provides once more. Now notice here also that their request was that the Lord would remove the serpents from them. But He does not remove the serpents, because the serpents are a type of sin and when we became believers in Christ sin didn’t die. Sin is very much alive. It is we who have reckoned ourselves dead to sin and with the Helper’s help, that’s the Holy Spirit in us, we are to die daily to self and sin and follow Jesus. God doesn’t take away the sin nature. He provides salvation from its effect, which is death.
"Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” " Numbers 21:8
Now I know there’s a lot of guys out there a great deal smarter than I. So I’m not saying no one would have gotten it, but I just don’t think I ever would have understood that the bronze serpent on the pole represented Jesus if Jesus Himself hadn’t said so to Nicodemus.
It is offensive to us, isn’t it? A snake? Jesus, Lily of the Valley? The Rose of Sharon? The Light of the world? A reptile?
If we didn’t have this particular story from the Old Testament and we read in any book outside of the Bible some fiction writer’s reference to Jesus Christ as a serpent on a stick we’d be outraged! We’d protest and picket and hire lawyers and write more books to combat the very thought.
But here it is. A fiery serpent made of bronze, attached to a pole and raised up in the wilderness. And God says that anyone who simply raises their eyes to look at it will live and the bite of the serpent will be nullified and negated.
Deuteronomy 21:23 ‘…he who is hanged is accursed of God…”
"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— " Galatians 3:13
The cross of Christ is both terrible and wonderful. And I think we have largely lost the sense of the terror of it in our modern age, where we wear little silver or gold crosses around our necks and adorn the fronts of our churches with them carved out of stone or rustic pieces of wood.
I don’t mean only the physical aspects of Christ’s suffering there although that is part.
But we get reminded about every other Easter season, don’t we; and could be every year I suppose, if we deliberately looked for someone once more bringing out a teaching on all the horrors of the scourging and the placement of the spikes and the nature of these wild thorns that grow in the middle east, and the splintery rough-hewn upright beam digging into the wounds as He raised and lowered Himself up and down to breathe and so on.
But I think that although we should know those things too sharp and frequent a focus on them keeps us looking at the surface, physical, historical aspects of what happened there and causes us to miss the thing that should and must be understood by all who have raised their eyes and looked up to His cross for salvation from sin and death.
He hung there, cursed of God, so that we might be blessed of God.
He was made to be sin there 2 Cor 5:21, so we might be made right with God.
His flesh was condemned there Romans 8:1-4, so we might be set free from sin and death and so that we might walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
As Jesus hung on Calvary’s cross He became the physical representation of sin and God judged it there forever, removing its penalty from us, forever.
How amazing is this grace that Jesus was willing to become the accursed, fiery serpent of sin, and invite us to look up at that terrible sight for our healing?
There He hung in disgrace and humiliation, naked, torn, bloodied, the spittle of pagans running down his face.
How many times have you known or heard of someone in the hospital who asks that visitors be kept out because the patient is embarrassed at how they look? How their injuries make them look or the fact that their hair hasn’t been washed or combed…
Yet, for the joy set before Him he endured the cross, despising the shame… Heb 12:2
…and invites all who will to look up so that He might draw them to Him.
Look up at Him, you who believe and also you who feel the fiery sting of sin. He was put there for you and there is nothing for you to do but lift up your eyes and behold and the poison of death is removed from you forever.
IDOLS, THEN AND NOW
One more thing I want to discuss briefly as we are considering the types of this account.
If the bronze serpent was a type of Christ then the pole was a type of the cross. With that in mind I want you to go to II Kings with me and find out what finally happened to that fiery serpent Moses made; that thing God ordained and used to heal His people there on the borders of the land of Edom
II Kings 18:1-4 "Now it came about in the third year of Hoshea, the son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah became king. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem; and his mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. He did right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father David had done. He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan. "
Do you ever wonder why no one has ever found Noah’s Ark or the Arc of the Covenant, or Moses’ body? This is why.
I’ve never been to Israel. I’ve seen pictures and heard talks by people who have been there though; and from what I’ve heard every spot of significance they have found, they’ve built a church on it and turned it into a shrine.
It’s been over 600 years from the time Moses made the serpent until this period of Israel’s history, and they’re burning incense to it; and, I might point out, this is going on very shortly before their exile to Babylon in 722 B.C.
Does it make you wonder at the validity of putting up all these crosses everywhere?
I know the icon of the cross has been misused in history and I know it has been outwardly worshiped; even kissed by the masses as priests hold it up for them.
So we might defend our own use of it and say that it is a sign of victory and no more. The empty cross, indicating that our Lord triumphed over it and through it.
Let’s just be very careful, Christians, to remind ourselves that on that implement of the cruelest kind of torture ever devised by evil minds, Jesus Christ became for a moment the ugliest entity in the universe so that the Father could, like lightning, pour His wrath out on it for the healing of our disease and the removal of our death.
Let it be a reminder not of beauty, but of horror that took place there for you and for all who will look up.
And after you have dutifully kept the object itself in its proper place in your thinking, then worship the One who hung there. Because what He did there crushed the serpent’s head.
Satan is forever cast down and ruined and the prince of this world is stripped of his power and of his claim on you forever, all because “…the Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil”
I Jn 3:8
“…and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.”