You are here

11. Baptism and Looking at the Bronze Serpent

Chapter 11

Baptism and Looking 
at the Bronze Serpent

John 3:14-15; Numbers 21:4-9
Montreal, September 11, 1977


The Lord lays it upon my heart to expound to you the important words in John 3:14-15. What does this passage say? Most people are familiar with the next verse, John 3:16 (“for God so loved the world”), but how many of you remem­ber what is said in verses 14 and 15? In these two verses, the Lord Jesus says to Nicodemus:

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15, RSV)

This striking statement comes from an Old Testament story in Numbers 21:4-9:

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against 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 worthless food.” Then Yahweh sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against Yahweh and against you; pray to Yahweh, that He take away the ser­pents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And Yahweh said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:4-9, RSV, “the Lord” replaced by “Yahweh”)

Complaining against God

God had delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt through awe­some and mighty deeds, and led them out into the wilderness. Imagine two million people wandering about in the desert for forty years! How do you feed so many people in a desert? God achieved this very thing by bring­ing down manna from heaven which they ate every day for forty years. God saved them from starving in the desert, yet the people were so brazen as to grumble against Him: “We loathe this worthless food! Back in Egypt we had nice garlic, but now we have something called manna. Why did You bring us out of Egypt for us to die in the wilderness?” They had somehow forgotten that when they were in Egypt, they were oppressed slaves.

This complaining spirit is so true to life and typical of Christ­ians. God has blessed us in many ways, yet we are ungrateful to Him and blame Him for the difficulties that come along our way. A basic characteristic of sin is the tendency to speak against God either with the mouth or in the heart. Sin is not just making a mistake, but an attitude of opposition to God.

Man does things which bring trouble to himself, yet he blames them on God. “Why does God allow me to suffer?” We never hear the end of this question. But who caused the suffering in the first place? Did God start the First and Second World Wars? Humans destroy one another, bringing untold death and suffering to millions, yet we blame it on God.

When a marriage turns sour, the husband complains, “Why did God give me a wife like this? I deserve someone better!” And the wife says, “I’m intelligent and good-looking, so why did God give me this use­less hunk of humanity?” It’s always God’s fault. “God could have done something about it. As God, He knew that this wasn’t the right person for me!” Sin is an attitude that blames God for everything but denies responsibility for one’s own wrongdoings.

People have asked me, “What is God doing about the problems in the world?” My reply: What can God do short of wiping out every sinner from the face of the earth? God has two options. Which do you prefer? He can eliminate sin and suffering by destroying sinners, or he can do this by transforming them. To destroy sin­ners, He doesn’t need your permission. But to trans­form you, He needs your cooperation. If you want a whole new world of trans­formed people, God has to change you, but He won’t do it by force.

The communists have tried—and failed—to change people by force. I lived seven years under the communists, and I know that you cannot change a person by force. You can point a gun to his head and force him to submit to you, but you cannot control what goes on inside the head.

After Peter struck a man with a sword, Jesus rebuked him: “Put your sword back into its sheath” (John 18:11). This reminds us that we must never expand God’s kingdom with the sword. If we arm every Christian in the world today, we could create a billion-strong army ready to fight for God.

But God in His perfect wisdom does not con­quer the world with the sword. You can control people externally but not internally. Nothing can change a man’s sinful heart except God’s love.

Some may still ask, “Why must we suffer the consequences of sin? Why doesn’t God limit the suffering?” How convenient! We want the freedom to sin but not suffer its consequences. But God allows the consequences so that you may taste sin’s bitter fruit. Even if the consequences won’t come immediately, He can hasten them for your spiritual welfare. Even God’s judgment is designed for your salvation.

When the Israelites grumbled against God in the wilderness, He sent fiery serpents to bite them. The serpents are said to be “fiery” because they were venomous, not because any fire came out of their mouths. The people were bitten and dying from the venom, so they began to repent.

Some people won’t repent until something bad happens to them. When things are going well, they don’t repent. God exhorts us not to be like a stubborn mule that refuses to walk unless it is forced to (Psalm 32:9).

In Nanjing I once looked out my window and saw five men trying to move a mule with all their strength. They pulled it and beat it, but the mule would stretch out its front legs, lean back, and refuse to budge. They swung a log at the poor mule—I thought they were going to break its back—but still it didn’t budge. They finally got it to move with a sharp prod. Why did it refuse to move until things got painful? It reminds us of people who say, “The world may collapse around me, but I refuse to believe in God!”

Another time just outside Shanghai, I saw people riding on beautiful horses. One of the riders did not have a whip because his horse under­stood his commands. He would lean forward and speak to it while it was galloping. If he told the horse to go faster, it would immediately go faster. Are we like the horse or the mule in our interactions with God?

Is God’s way of salvation foolish?

Moses was praying for those who were dying from the venom, so God told him to make a bronze serpent and put it on a signal staff. A signal staff is a pole that displays banners to broadcast commands to the multi­tudes in the desert, including commands such as to camp or to march on.

Picture the situation: The vast camp had been invaded by venom­ous snakes that were biting the people. The people were dying from the venom just as the people in the world today are dying from sin. The Israelites did not die immediately because venom takes time to kill, but they were collap­sing one by one. Moses lifted up the signal staff, this time not to broadcast the usual instructions, but so that everyone may see the bronze serpent. It must have been a fairly large serpent for the people to see it from afar. God then said to Moses that anyone who looks at the bronze serpent will live even if he has been bitten.

Is God’s way of salvation wise or foolish? The people were dying from the snake bites, yet were told to look at a bronze snake. Surely a snake would be the last thing a dying man, bitten by a snake, would want to look at. Many must have mocked the idea: “Do you mean that I am saved by looking at the bronze snake? What kind of salvation is this? It’s just one of Moses’s superstitions. He says that God tells him many things but I don’t hear anything. In any case, there is too much distance between me and the snake. It would be better for God to distribute an antivenin to neutralize the venom. But don’t ask me to do something as silly as looking at a snake.”

People today are dying in sin, and whom does God lift up on a pole but Jesus hanging on the cross? Yet objections are raised: “Are you saying that I am saved by looking at a dead man hanging on a cross? That’s a lame solution to the problems of the world. In any case, there is too much distance between me and Jesus in terms of time and geography. He died in Israel two thou­sand years ago, but I live in China, Canada, England, or wherever. Jesus is in heaven and I’m on earth. How can believing in Jesus break the power of sin in my life? This silly idea must have been fabricated by the apostles.” Similar thoughts may have crossed your minds.

While the people were debating over the bronze serpent, they were dying one by one. But those who turned around and gazed at the serpent were saved. What does that tell us? It tells us that you won’t know whether something is true or false until you experience it for yourself. Fix your eyes on the bronze serpent and you will experience salvation from the venom’s deadly power. Find out by gazing at it. Since you are dying, what have you got to lose? It would be a pity to lose your salvation over a mental block!

The venom of sin is killing everyone in the world. Are you going to debate whether one is saved by looking at Jesus hanging on the cross? The moment you look at him in faith, you will experience God’s power through him. It is not a fairy tale but something you can experience for yourself.

How do we tell if an apple is sweet? We can analyze its shape and color. We can measure its sugar content. We can look at a slice under a micro­scope. But the best way is to eat it! Taste and see!

Why would these brothers and sisters go forth into baptism un­less they have experienced God’s power? Nobody forced them to be bap­tized. Our church tends to hold people back from bap­tism so that they won’t rush into it. We want to make sure it is God who is drawing them to baptism. If I sense any reason for them not to receive bap­tism, or if I feel before God that they are not ready, I will advise them not to receive baptism for the time being.

Those who will be baptized today are taking the first step in the Christian life, so there is still a long road ahead of them. But having taken the first step, they will experience more and more of God’s power.

Why a bronze serpent?

Is God’s way of salvation wise or foolish? Paul says that the foolishness of God is wiser than men (1Corinthians 1:25). So where is God’s wisdom in commanding Moses to make a bronze serpent?

A bronze serpent is dead in the sense of being inanimate, which alludes to the destruct­ion of sin and evil’s power. But why a bronze ser­pent? God could have told Moses to catch a live snake. Again God has a good reason for a bronze serpent: to show the world the future redemption in Jesus Christ. Not any snake will do; it had to be a bronze serpent.

A bronze serpent is not a real snake. It is a bronze object cast into the likeness of a snake, just as Jesus was “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom.8:3), though Jesus “was tempted in every respect as we are, yet with­out sin” (Heb.4:15). He “learned obedience through what he suffered” and became perfect (Heb.5:8-9). The Greek word poieō (“make”) in Numbers 21:8 (making a bronze serpent) is used in 2 Corinthians 5:21 to say that Jesus was “made” to be sin although he knew no sin.

Another reason for choosing a bronze snake over a real one is that a real snake is of corruptible flesh, but bronze is incor­ruptible.

In the Old Testament tabernacle, some of the implements for the sacrifice are made of bronze (e.g., the utensils and the bronze basin, Exodus 30:18), or over­laid with bronze (e.g., the bronze altar, Exodus 27:1-3).

Bronze is too hard to be shaped with hand tools. The only way to make a bronze object is to subject the bronze to furnace fire. Fire in the Bible symbolizes various things, an important one of which is judgment (e.g. Isaiah 66:16).

Even the manner of Jesus’ death was foretold by the lifting up of the bronze serpent. In John’s gospel, “lifted up” means to be crucified. The criminal would be nailed to the cross which is laid on the ground. Once he is secured to the cross, it is lifted up and put into a hole in the ground for upright support. The Son of Man is lifted up (e.g., John 12:32-33) just as the serpent was lifted up in the wilder­ness.

God’s wisdom is amazing. Even if you find His ways foolish and incomprehensible, He has a good reason for everything He does.

Looking at the bronze serpent: An act of faith

How does looking at a bronze serpent save someone who is dying from the venom? Ultimately it is not the bronze serpent that saves us but God who saves us. We are not saved by any magical property of bronze. We are saved by God’s power. When I look at Jesus hang­ing on the cross, I am saved by God’s grace and power working through him. We fix our eyes on Jesus whom God has sent “to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col.1:20).

The word “believes” in John 3:15 (“so that everyone who believes may have eternal life”) tells us that looking at Jesus is an act of faith that leads to eternal life, just as those who looked at the bronze serpent were saved. But no one is saved merely by taking a quick glance at the serpent. There is a key distinct­ion be­tween “glance” and “look” that the Bible is careful to make. The Hebrew word nabat in Numbers 21:9 means an attentive concentrated looking, a nuance that is absent in the English word “look”. The BDB Hebrew-English lexicon defines nabat as “pay attention to” and “look with consideration,” among other definitions.

Many Israel­ites must have turned around to look at the bronze serpent, but they won’t be saved without a concentrated look. Physi­cally weakened by the venom, they would have to crawl out of their tents with all their strength and fix their gaze on the bronze serpent. This is an act of faith similar to what Hebrews 12:2 describes as “looking to Jesus, the pion­eer and perfecter of our faith.” In this verse, the Greek word aphoraō (“looking to”) implies an intense look. The first definition of this word in the BDAG Greek-English lexicon is “to direct one’s attention without distraction”. Looking to Jesus is not just taking a glance, but fixing one’s attention on him with full heart and mind. God does not save us through a superficial glance any more than He saves us through a superficial belief.

Faith is an act of obedience to God, the opposite of disobed­ience. To be saved, the Israelites had to obey God’s instruction to turn away from their pain and fix their gaze on the bronze serpent. It was an act of obedience to God even if it made little sense to the people. Likewise, when we take the step of faith, God’s power will come into our lives. This is New Testament faith. Hebrews 5:9 says that Jesus is the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, just as he obeys his Father.

God’s way of salvation will sound either wise or foolish to you. Are you rejecting God’s salvation because it sounds absurd to you? Do you have a better way of salvation? Do you have the power to break sin in your life? Or will you say to God, “I have been rebelling against You and blam­ing You for everything, but today I learned that Jesus was lifted up on the cross to die for my sins. I cannot break the power of sin in my life, so I will look intently at Jesus for deliverance and salvation.”

Jesus did not come to bring peace but a sword of division (Mt.10:34). Which side are you on? Those who are getting baptized today have taken a stand by crossing the line, moving from opposing God to obeying God. You are taking a step of obedience just like a person who looks at the bronze serpent. He obeys God’s instruction, and the venom is neutralized. You too will experience the power of sin broken in your life, and the guilt of sin removed. Your past sins will be cleansed, and you will enter into a new freedom you have not known before.

(c) 2021 Christian Disciples Church