Everything in the Old Testament is meant to help us understand Jesus Christ better. That is one of the keys to reading the Bible correctly. The pictures and symbols of the Old Testament help us better understand Jesus and his cross. This is especially true in the story before us today.
This is a well-known Bible account. Its title is the Bronze Serpent. The Israelites were once again complaining in the wilderness as they made their way to the Promised Land. Moses writes: Then they set out from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to bypass the land of Edom, but the people became impatient because of the journey. The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why have you led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread or water, and we detest this wretched food!”
So, God sent poisonous snakes that bit the Israelites, and many of them died. The people repented of their sin of complaining against the Lord and turned to God for rescue.
Here is the thing I want to talk about this morning: the way God rescued his people (that is, saved them from death) was through a bronze snake. He told Moses to make a replica of the thing that was causing their death (the snakes) and to put it on a tall pole. Then he said, “When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will recover” (v. 8). And that is exactly what happened.
How strange? Moses takes a metal object in the form of a serpent, and everyone who goes and looks at it is healed. What do we have in this Biblical account? Is this superstition? Or is this something else?
Now, the Latino/Hispanic culture is generally known for being superstitious. That is a generalization. Another generalization is that the American culture is not superstitious. But I think that people are more superstitious than they let on, irrespective of the culture. What does this look like in practical living?
Well, in Peru there is a famous painting of Christ known as el Señor de los Milagros (the Lord of Miracles). The story is that an earthquake destroyed the cathedral it was hanging in, but the painting remained completely undisturbed. So, many people in Peru believe it has special powers. People who are sick go to it and pray to it hoping to be healed. And I am sure that there are stories of people doing that very thing and soon afterwards being healed.
So, what is the difference between that and the bronze serpent? Because this is an accusation that people will make against Christianity. “It’s just another form of primitive superstition.” The difference, however, is God’s word of promise. God specifically told Moses to make a bronze serpent, and then God specifically attached his promise to this visual symbol. It wasn’t the metal that healed the people; it was God’s power that healed the people.
It is the same thing in the Lord’s Supper. It is not the bread and wine that have any power. No, it is God’s promise of forgiveness that has the power. He promises that when we receive Holy Communion, we receive Jesus’ true body and blood. In other words, the same body and blood that were given and shed for us on the cross we receive, and along with them the forgiveness of sins.
Superstition is a belief void of God’s word. God never said, “If this happens then that will happen.” So, for example, let’s take the common case of a black cat crossing your path. Nowhere has God said that if a black cat crosses your path that you will have bad luck. Neither did he ever say that if a person goes to the Señor de los Milagros painting in Peru and gazes upon it, that he or she will have their prayer answered. But he did say that all those Israelites who went to the bronze snake and gazed upon it would be healed. That’s the difference! It is not in the earthly object. It is in God’s promise!
Now, remember I said at the outset that everything in the Old Testament is meant to help us better understand Jesus Christ. That is how the Bible works. It takes things from the Old Testament and then shows how they are connected to Jesus in the New Testament. And it just so happens that a perfect example of this is found in our Old Testament and Gospel lessons appointed for today.
Let’s turn our attention to John chapter 3 and verse 14. There Jesus explains the connection to a man named Nicodemus. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14, 15).
Do you see how that works? The serpent that Moses fashioned out of bronze in the desert was a real thing. Just like the snake bites and the death that resulted from them were real things. The people who were about to die and looked to the bronze serpent were really healed.
But the reason this account is included in Scripture is to help us understand the message of the cross. For the more deadly bite of the Serpent (Satan) is sin. And sin always kills. It always leads to death. But the Good news of the Bible is that all who look to Jesus and his cross are healed. Just like the Israelites in the desert. The bronze snake was hoisted on a pole. Jesus was lifted up on the cross.
But how does the cross save? You see, this is what our unbelieving friends struggle with and what we struggle with when we are trying to explain it to them.
God’s power. That is how the cross saves. God’s powerful word of promise that he attaches to the cross of Jesus Christ. That is where the power of salvation comes from—God’s promise, for God’s words always have power.
Listen to these words once again. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:14-17).
So, that is the promise. It is not superstition. It is not magic. It is not make-believe. It is the power of God.
Do you believe it?
Well, notice how the Israelites who were bitten by the snakes believed it. How do we know they believed? By their actions. They did exactly what God said. God said, “Whoever is dying and looks at this bronze serpent will be healed.” That the people believed is evident from the fact that they went and looked upwards at the bronze serpent.
Now, what does God promise you?
That everyone who believes in the Son of Man raised on the cross—Jesus—will have eternal life. “Anyone who believes in him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God” (v. 18).
In the same way that the people who didn’t believe in the promise attached to the bronze serpent died. Surely there were some of them who didn’t believe. There are always some who don’t believe God’s promise.
And that is the sin of this text. The real sin in the wilderness was not the people’s complaining, but rather their lack of trust that God would take care of them that led to their complaining. God has said he would take care of them, and he did! In fact, in the section just before these verses, he gives them a total victory in battle.
He does the same for you. Moreover, he does it even when you sin and in spite of your sin. Listen to how the Apostle Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:4, 5. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!
That is the beautiful and powerful promise. Do you believe it?
Well then remember that the promise is attached to Christ’s cross, and go to that cross daily for healing from your sin. But don’t just hang a cross on your wall or wear one around your neck. Believe that Jesus’ death has paid for all your sins. Believe that Jesus died for your sin, so that you will never have to. You will die, but you won’t die for your sin. You will die as the means by which God takes you to heaven.
If you don’t know that, or worse, if you don’t believe that, then the cross on your wall, or in your car, or around your neck is just superstition. People use it thinking that it will protect them from something bad happening. Well, God never said that if you hang a cross around your rear-view mirror that you will never be in a car accident. But he did say that whoever looks to the crucified Jesus and believes in him will be saved from hell. Where? Right here:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:14-17).