Moses and the Bronze SerpentThe story of the bronze serpent is found in Numbers 21. The people of Israel were nearing the end of their 40 year wilderness journey. Most of the people who had departed from Egypt with Moses had died, but the new generation was following in their footsteps. Instead of thanking the Lord for delivering them from slavery in Egypt and caring for them for 40 years in the hostile wilderness, they complained, grumbled and questioned God’s ways and motives. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There's no bread! There's no water! And we detest this miserable food!” They were so dissatisfied with God’s provision for them that they actually had the audacity to say that they loathed the manna God had miraculously given them!
We might wonder how they could have been so insolent, ungrateful and calloused towards a good and gracious God? Well, let’s do a personal attitude check! Do I ever grumble? Do I ever complain about my circumstances? Do I occasionally question God’s ways and motives- even after all He’s done for me? Am I discontented with my “never sufficient” finances, or my house, or my food? Am I dissatisfied about the way God is providing for my personal relationships? Have I ever blamed God for “leaving me stranded” to “die in the wilderness”? We may say (and even deceive ourselves into believing) that we would never complain like the Israelites, or treat God with such ingratitude, but let’s take a minute to examine our thoughts and talk! And remember—sometimes our actions and attitudes “speak louder than words.”Because of the people’s sinful attitude and insolent words, God sent poisonous snakes into their camp to discipline them and correct their attitude. There’s nothing like a poisonous snake crawling into your tent to cause an attitude change, and the people quickly repented of their bad-mouthing! God directed Moses to mold a snake and set it on a pole in the middle of the encampment. Anyone who had been bitten by a snake and was dying could live simply by looking at God’s provision for their healing, the bronze serpent. The rebellious people who refused to turn and look to the bronze serpent, however, perished from the venomous bites.
Why a Bronze Serpent?We understand why God chose this unusual method to bring healing to His dying people because John 3 tells us that the bronze serpent lifted up on a pole is a wonderful picture, or “type,” of God’s way of salvation from sin through Jesus’ death. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-16). Notice that God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake, not a bronze lamb. Our Lord was certainly the Lamb of God, but when He hung on the cross He was taking our place and carrying our sin. “He became a curse for us” (Galatians 3:12). “He was made sin on our behalf” (2 Corinthians 5:21). “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24). Notice, too, that God instructed Moses to put a bronze model of a serpent on the pole, not an actual serpent. Even in the type, our Lord’s intrinsic holiness was protected. On the cross He did not become contaminated or infused with sin in any way, but He became the sin-bearer—that is, He was judged as if He were a sinner. Romans 8:3 says that “God, sending His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.”
Bronze Serpents Gone AwryThe Israelites carefully preserved the bronze serpent for 700 years. Unfortunately, over the years it became a religious relic, and it actually resulted in the downfall of the pure and true worship of God by the people of Israel. Until King Hezekiah’s time, the Israelites had even been burning incense to it! However, during Hezekiah’s revival the king destroyed this stumbling block.
Think of all the “bad press” King Hezekiah must have received as a result of smashing the serpent, the very item God had commanded to be molded for the salvation of His people so many centuries before! What right did Hezekiah have, to order the destruction of a “God-given” object? However the Bible includes this action as part of Hezekiah’s godly cleansing of the land from idolatry, emphasizing that he did the right thing. We, too, must carefully scrutinize our static or entrenched lifestyle patterns, or any spiritual “objects” or practices that may actually be obstructions in our spiritual pathway—even if they were at one time used by God! If we look carefully we can find many bronze serpents that are hindering the work of the Lord and the growth of His people.v Human beings have an unfortunate propensity for distorting all kinds of God-given biblical directives, providing themselves with obstructions to spiritual progress and sources for spiritual pride. Take, for example, orthodox Jewish men who take great care to bind phylacteries on their foreheads and wrists when they pray. They take a biblical directive from Deuteronomy 6:8 and distort it, creating a false, legalistic standard for worship and a source of spiritual pride.What about the Shroud of Turin? Even if it were conclusively proved to actually be the authentic burial shroud of Christ, shouldn’t we destroy it (if it were in our possession) rather than have it continue as an object of worship for millions of people? Well, you may say, phylacteries and the Shroud of Turin are not a problem for me! Maybe not, but there are many other “bronze serpents” that can creep into our lives and cause stagnation of our spiritual life and growth. Smashing today’s bronze serpents has a wide range of application. What about the WWJDbracelets or crosses we may wear? The Bible teaches us to live as Jesus lived, but the “reminders” can become an end in themselves—a source of merit or pride! What about our “devotional” habits? The Bible certainly directs us to communicate with God through Bible study and prayer. But even our “quiet times” can become a bronze serpent! If we just go through the motions of “burning incense” to our habit of ritualistic reading and prayers with no intention of obeying God’s Word, has not our so-called devotional time become a bronze serpent? What about our church services? Believers are directed to meet together for worship and teaching, but church services can actually degenerate into prideful tradition. Preserving the tradition and form can become more important than the pure worship of the Lord. Are we placing more emphasis on preserving customs, practices or liturgies that have evolved over the years than on true and pure worship of the Lord? Are new believers encouraged or stumbled by our attitudes? Traditions must be carefully examined. If the tradition has become more important than the true worship of God, and if spiritual pride and judgmental attitudes are hampering the growth of young believers, some traditions may need to be scrapped, just as Hezekiah scrapped the bronze serpent.