Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Numbers 21:4-91NIV New International Version Translations
4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” 6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.


The people of Israel were tired by a long march round the land of Edom. They speak discontentedly of what God had done for them, and distrustfully of what He would do next. What will they be pleased with? They are ungrateful for the manna that was provided for them.  This example warns us that many in our world cast doubt and contempt on the word of God. However, it does not make God’s word less valuable to each of us.

Like manna, the word of God is the bread of life, substantial bread, and will nourish those who by faith feed upon it, all the way to eternal life. There are those who call it “light bread.” What we see in Numbers is that for their murmuring, righteous judgment from God is brought upon them. God sent deadly serpents among them, which bit or stung many to death. To “murmur” against God and His word is to be feared. It is sinful in the eyes of God. If the people had not felt the punishment there would have been no repentance.

God made a wonderful provision for the relief of their anguish. The Jews themselves say it was not the sight of the brazen serpent that cured  but the faithful action of looking up to it. As they faithfully repented and prayed to their God, the Lord healed them.

Artists most typically portray the pole as a cross to indicate the coming of a Savior, who by His sacrifice will become the modern snake on a pole for all Christians. For examples of how our world attempts to darken God’s Word, we only need to look at these examples:

Rod of Asclepius

  • The Rod of Asclepius is described as an ancient Greek symbol associated with medicine, consisting of a serpent coiled around a rod. In ancient Greek religion and mythology, Asclepius was the god of medicine and healing.


  • The Caduceus symbol consisted of a rod with two snakes coiled around it. The English word comes from the Latin caduceus, which echoes the ancient Greek kèrix, translated as herald. The word was mainly used to indicate the rod assigned to the Greek god Hermes as herald (messenger) of the gods and patron of commerce.

Yet we can plainly see by history that the bronze snake upon the rod that Moses erected was clearly the first use of the snake coiled around a pole meant to direct the people of Israel to repentance and prayer for healing.



Items for Discussion

  • How are things, physical things, used in our world today as symbols of greater things?  e.g. our Flag
  • What worldly symbolism draws you to think of God and to prayer?
  • What worldly symbolism draws you to repentance?
  • Why do consequences for one’s actions often work as an effective stimulant for repentance?


John 3:14-21
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” 16 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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.


Our verses follow a dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-10), verse 16 does fall within a discourse (3:11-21) in which Jesus offers a kind of summation of God’s good purposes for the world. Jesus’ speech takes the form of second order reflection upon the meaning of his own life, offering a His reflection on Himself.

We have a wonderful example of why the Old Testament is still an important part of God’s word. Our Saviour, declares in John 3:14,15, is the same as serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness. Just as the serpent was lifted up, so the Son of man must be lifted up, so that who believes in Him, should not perish.

To compare:

  • Sin bites like a serpent and stings like an adder.
  • Without repentance, there is death.
  • If we believe, we shall not perish. It is by faith that we look to Jesus, Hebrews 12:2.

How many times have we heard that it is essential for us to “believe in Jesus” in order to be saved? Most recognize that it is impossible to stress the significance of the principle of “believe in Jesus” enough! Perhaps the most quoted verse in the Bible is one that makes clear the essential condition of salvation is believing in Jesus, John 3:16.

All people have been bitten by the fiery serpent of sin. To be healed each must go look upon the one God raised up on the cross to die for our healing. For our faith to be the kind of faith that brings us to spiritual healing, our belief must bring us to respond to “the Son of Man” being “lifted up” in the divinely prescribed manner. Just as the Israelites had to go to the center of the camp to look up at the bronze serpent, so we must do as God directs.

Placing our trust in this Jesus means confronting the inconvenient truth that God’s purposes for those God loves is not always synonymous with our own common-sense values of happiness, health, and safety. The trail of faith that Jesus blazed reveals that, while there is nothing in this world worth killing for, there are things worth dying for. The “lifting up” of Jesus reminds us that the true life God has promised us is not the life that we can secure for ourselves through self-interest and caution. It is a life found in pursuit of Christ.

Items for Discussion

  • Why is the example in Numbers such a good example of the plight of mankind?
  • What does “believing in Jesus” mean to you?
  • What does it mean to withhold our ultimate loyalty and trust from other things that ask us to pledge our allegiance over Christ?
  • Jesus offers us a new life – how to we find it?

Discussion Challenge

  • The story in both Numbers and John’s Gospel relate to the seriousness of sin, the urgency of repentance, and the necessity of Jesus. How can we bring this alive in our lives, our church and our families?