14 “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. – John 3:14-17 NASB
5 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.” 6 The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 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. 8 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.” 9 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. – Numbers 21:5-9 NASB
This is Jesus’ first direct Old Testament reference in the gospel of John. At first glance it seems impossible for Him to have chosen a more obscure passage! I think you’ll agree that once you reflect on it, this is one of the most powerful gospel messages in all of scripture.
What are these serpents? They are agents of the wrath of God. The people of Israel had seen many powerful miracles of release and provision, and yet they remained utterly ungrateful and faithless. The Lord sent these fiery serpents among the people with a deadly bite.
How does this compare with Jesus? Isn’t He meek and loving? Isn’t it true that the bruised reed He will not break? It is true. But make no mistake, if you are a healthy reed He may have to bruise you before He heals you. He is God’s agent of wrath. He knows how to press the law to make you squirm. He says, anyone can love those who love them back. Love is proven when you love your enemies! SSSSSSSTRIKE! He says, if you look at a woman to lust, you are guilty of the fires of hell! SSSSSSSTRIKE! He says, unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you cannot be my disciples! SSSSSSSTRIKE! He says, be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. SSSSSSTRIKE! No one wants to hear this stuff. Not just His words, but His very life, stands as a perfect condemnation of our selfish self-worshiping rottenness. Jesus is indeed the serpent whose bite kills. He knows how to kill you off, to take you down to the raw need for mercy, no matter who you are.
Isn’t it strange that the same creature who bit and killed is raised up as a standard and becomes a symbol of healing? Why is that? Here is what I think: it is the judge who must be the seat of mercy. It is the giver of wrath who must be the healer. If someone else heals, the serpent can come and bite again, and death reigns. If the rest of the world wants mercy but the judge does not, then all of that mercy doesn’t matter. It must be the bearer of wrath’s ultimate power who bears the ultimate power to heal. And so it must be the serpent which is raised up, because the serpent bears the power to kill – so it must be the one to heal.
And so, Jesus, the very embodiment of the wrath of God against sin, is raised up as an instrument of ultimate mercy. He is the perfect example which condemns, and so has gained the right (which is more powerful than simply bearing the right) to judge. He can honestly say, when it was harder than anything you ever faced, I obeyed. Why didn’t you? And yet, He is raised as a propitiation. The ultimate judge has become the ultimate forgiveness. He is the serpent who was raised up in the wilderness.
Finally, notice this. All they had to do was look at the serpent, and they were healed. A mere glance worked the wonder. There was nothing more complicated than simply looking. And they raised it up high so it was easy to see from just about anywhere. They didn’t have to repent! They just had to look. In the same way, we have Jesus Christ lifted high. All we have to do is believe in Him. His sacrifice worked. We do not have to repent – that’s all a self-serving crock of poo anyway. We “repent” as a self-serving subset of perfection in order to serve our own interests. No – all we must do is look to Christ. The agent of God’s wrath, the ultimate judge, has become our savior. All we must do is believe.