Salvation on a Pole

The above title is suggested by the incident recorded in Num. 21:4-9.   The children of Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years and this incident took place toward the end of that experience.  In fact, the time period is thought to be around the 38th year after they had left Egypt.  That helps us to understand the frame of mind that the people were in.  After requesting permission to pass through Edom, which they were denied, they were forced to go around the land of Edom.  Num. 21:4 says, “And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.”  This is what led the people to speak some harsh words against God and Moses, and they were going to be severely punished for it.

Have you ever heard the expression, the “myth of nostalgia”?  This is where someone longs for the “good old days,” but they have a distorted picture in their mind of how things really were.  Unfortunately, Israel was often plagued with this malady.  Time and again they complained against God, longing to return unto Egypt because they had forgotten how terrible their existence was while in bondage to Pharaoh.  Here’s what Num. 21: 5 records, “And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?  For there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loathes this light bread.”  This was a terrible indictment against God because they were calling into question His faithfulness and saying that His provisions for them was inadequate.

The point is that they were an unbelieving and ungrateful group of people and God has finally run out of patience with them.  That’s when the Bible says in Num. 21:6, “And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.”  To me, this is horrible to even think about; to be invaded by poisonous snakes that are coming at you from every direction.  Please notice that Israel wasn’t attacked by just a few snakes.  No, it was a stampede of venomous vipers that lead to the deaths of “much people.”  What a horrible and frightening experience that must have been!

Finally, they confess to Moses, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.”  Moses goes to God on their behalf, but their prayer isn’t answered in the way they were hoping and expecting.  Instead of removing the snakes from their midst, God provides them with a means of salvation.  Listen to what Num. 21:8 says, “And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole: and it shall come to pass, that everyone that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.”  That’s exactly what Moses did!  He made a serpent of brass and put it on a “pole.”  This refers to a flagstaff or standard that lifted up the brazen serpent so that it could be seen by all the people.  We might say that it was their point of contact to God’s deliverance from death.  Num. 21:9 assures us, “. . . and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.”

What a story!  It is one that invokes terror, amazement, and an appreciation for God’s grace.  But did this incident really occur or is it just a Jewish fable?  The most definitive answer to that question is found in John 3:14-15, where Jesus said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  Jesus obviously believed in the historical accuracy of this incident, and He is letting us know that there are some great spiritual truths to be learned from it, even teaching us about the redemptive work of our Savior upon the cross.  Let’s dig a little deeper into this story and notice some things we learn from it.

First of all, just as those serpents infused poisonous venom into their victims, we today need deliverance from the poisonous venom of sin.  Remember that it was sin (unbelief and ingratitude) that brought about this disastrous circumstance.  Likewise, all of us have been “bitten” and poisoned by the bite of sin.  Rom. 3:23 affirms that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”  Sin is like a fiery serpent in that it poisons our soul and brings with it death.  Rom. 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Let’s talk about this idea that they were “fiery” serpents.  Some say to this day there is a large, deadly snake that lives among the rocks and bushes of this region.  They are marked with fiery red spots and wavy stripes.  They may look pretty to the eye, but it’s almost like nature’s way of saying, “Beware.  Stay away!  You don’t want any part of this.”  Also, it is said that when this kind of snake bites you, the victim feels like he has fire rushing through his veins and he suffers with a great burning sensation.  When you stop to think about it, that’s the way it is with sin.  The devil makes it look as appealing as he can, but the bite is deadly and eventually leads to the eternal fires of hell (Matt. 9:44).

Notice that God did not remove the snakes, but He gave them a means of salvation and deliverance. Likewise, God does not remove from us temptation and the presence of sin, but he has provided us with a means of salvation whereby we can be forgiven and escape the consequences of sin.

That brazen serpent on a pole was a type of Jesus Christ.  Or perhaps it is more correct to say that it was a type of His redemptive work upon the cross.  Remember that Jesus declared, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.”  We may wonder about this because we know that the serpent has long been a symbol of the devil himself.  When Satan conversed with Eve in the garden of Eden, he appeared to her in the form of a serpent.  Also, Rev. 12:9 identifies “that old serpent” as the devil.  This brings up the question of how that brazen serpent in the wilderness could have foreshadowed the lifting up of Christ upon the cross.

Let’s consider some things that should help us in our understanding about this.  To begin with, please observe that it was a replica of the deadly serpent that Moses raised on a pole.  “Make thee a fiery serpent,” Moses was told, “and set it on a pole.”  What did that mean?  It meant that on that pole was a representation of the very thing that had brought death into their midst.  We should see in that a picture of what happened when Jesus was nailed to the cross.  Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 5:21, “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be the righteousness of God in him.”  Notice what Paul did not say– He did not say that Jesus was made to be a “sinner”; neither did he say that Jesus was made to be “sinful.”  However, Paul did say that He was made to be “sin” for us.  That surely means that He became our sin-bearer upon the cross. In His death He bore the penalty of our sins and died in our stead.  As Gal. 3:13 declares, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree.”

Also, think about how the cure for their snake bite was another snake (on a pole).  In other words, the very thing which brought them death also brought them life.  Likewise, the very thing which brought Christ death (the cross) is what brings spiritual life.  Jesus promised in John 12:32, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”  John went on to explain in verse 33, “This he said, signifying what death he should die.”  When Jesus was lifted up upon the cross, it was as if He was suspended between heaven and earth, making it possible for Him to reconcile man unto God.  That makes it very clear that the sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross is our only hope of salvation.

Another parallel to consider is how there was only one snake (on one standard) that could save the people.  Moses was not to raise up twelve snakes on twelve poles for the 12 tribes of Israel.  No, there was only one snake, on one pole, for all the people! Likewise, it is only by the redemptive work of Christ that we can be saved.  Since He is the world’s only Savior, that’s why we must look to Him with trusting faith.

In this story we see the look of faith.  I am calling this sermon, “Salvation On A Pole,” but surely you realize that the serpent made of brass was not a cure for a snake bite (in and of itself).  No, it was actually the power of God that gave them life, but it was faith that gave them access to that power.  God’s promise was, “And it shall come to pass, that everyone that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.”  However, that “look” was motivated by faith!  That has to be the case because simply looking at something made of brass will not cure a person of a snake bite or any other malady.

Furthermore, we are not seeing in this story an example of faith only.  Consider the words of Jesus in John 3: 14-15, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  By using faith in connection with this incident, it is clear that the Lord is talking about an active faith or one that leads to action.  Let me illustrate the point by imagining that an Israelite has just been bitten by one of those fiery serpents.  Can you see him in your mind’s eye?  Picture him there lying on the ground, with his face toward the earth, and he’s saying to himself, “I believe in the promise of God.”  He really believes in his heart that he can look on that brazen serpent and live, but suppose that he never actually does it.  Instead of acting upon his faith in obedience to the command of God, he just keeps staring at the ground.  Is that Israelite going to be saved by his faith alone?  Obviously, the answer to that question is no.

No wonder James 2:24 says, “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”  The truth is that people today are not looking to Christ in trusting faith if they are not willing to obey the gospel.  Yes, we are justified by faith (Rom. 5:1), but the Bible shows that it is an obedient faith that leads to salvation.  Gal. 5:6 states that what avails with God is a “faith which worketh by love.”  We also read of “the obedience of faith “ in Rom. 16:26.

Each person who was bitten by one of those fiery serpents had to look for himself.  This was not something that could be done by proxy, but each Israelite was responsible for his own actions.  So it is with the sinner today!  Have you obeyed the gospel?  Have you done what the Lord requires you to do to be saved?  You must believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (John 3:18); you must repent of your sins (Luke 13:3); you must confess that “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” (Acts 8:37); you need to be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins (Acts 2:38).

What will it take for people today to have a sense of urgency about their salvation, bringing them to repentance now?  Does God literally have to send snakes into our midst to humble us before Him?  Is that the kind of thing that it takes for people to get serious about their relationship with God?  Surely not!  Instead, it should be the “goodness of God” that lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).  God’s love and grace should provide us with all the motivation we need to live for Him.  That love, grace, and mercy is best seen in the lifting up of our Savior upon the cross of Calvary!


Article by: Billy Dickinson