Did you know that Jesus once compared His crucifixion to a brass statue of a serpent attached to a metal pole in the middle of the desert? Stick around and we’ll talk about it…here on 5 minutes of truth.
One of the most interesting elements of the four Gospels is how each Gospel is unique in its own way. Though they essentially tell the same story, each of them have their own unique characteristics that differentiate them from the others. But of all of them, the Gospel of John is by far the most unusual.
The Gospel of John stands alone amongst the others by including events and conversations the other three (also known as the synoptic gospels…which simply means “similar”), do not include. For example, Jesus’ first miracle at Cana; His conversation with Nicodemus; His healing of the man at the pool in Bethesda; and His raising of Lazarus from the dead are just a few of the many things that makes John’s Gospel unique amongst its peers.
Perhaps one of the more fascinating aspects of this Gospel is John’s use of metaphors. Or, to be more specific, John’s recording of Jesus’ use of metaphors to give the reader more insight on Who He really was (and is). Of course, all of the Gospels do this to an extent, but John accentuates this much more prominently than did his fellow Gospel writers. Probably the most famous manifestation of this reality is displayed in the so-called “I Am” sayings attributed to Jesus.
Jesus used these statements to provide the reader a point of reference about His nature and the purpose of His mission on the planet. There are seven of these sayings that are some of the most well-known in all of Scripture. He made comparisons like: “I am the light of the world”; “I am the good shepherd”; “I am the resurrection and the life”; and “I am the way, the truth and the life”. That’s not all 7…but you get the idea.
Jesus’ reasoning behind the use of these metaphors was to try and provide a familiar picture that illustrates a very complex theological assertion. He used every day, familiar symbols to illustrate His nature, His love and His salvific mission on this planet. It gives us a reference point and helps us understand. But perhaps the least known (and possibly oddest) of metaphors has nothing to do with the “I Am” sayings and instead has to do with Jesus comparing His crucifixion with a rather obscure Old Testament event that most Believers have never even heard of. What am I talking about?
During Jesus’ amazing conversation with the Pharisee leader Nicodemus as recorded in John chapter 3, Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus Who He really was. Nicodemus had acknowledged that Jesus had “come from God” but that just scratched the surface. And almost right, is not right. Nicodemus needed to understand that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah…the Savior…God incarnate. And He used a bronze snake to make His point.
In Jesus states: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Now, it is clear that when Jesus states that the Son of Man (one of His favorite titles for Himself) must be “lifted up”, He is clearly referring to Himself being lifted up on the Cross during His crucifixion. How do we know this? Because He connects Himself being lifted up to salvation and having eternal life. That only took place on the Cross. But what about that reference to Moses and the serpent. What’s up with that?
The Book of Numbers gives us the answer…and it is an amazing answer. To keep a 40 year story relatively short…remember that after the Exodus from Egypt, because of their lack of faith, the Hebrews were forced to wander through the wilderness for 40 years before entering the Promised Land. And if there was one thing that permeated virtually every part of that 40 years, it was the constant complaining and sometimes near mutiny of the people after their rescue from bondage. To mix Biblical personalities, Moses had the patience of Job.
He endured hardship and turmoil almost beyond belief. When the people were hungry, thirsty, tired and bored…they complained to Moses. In this event in Numbers 21 they were even complaining about the manna God had miraculously provided for them…for over a million people…for 40 years. They were actually complaining about a miracle. As often happened and after much long-suffering, God decided to punish the ungrateful people by unleashing a horde of “fiery serpents” among the people so that whomever was bitten…would die.
Once the people saw the error of their ways and the sin in their hearts, they cried out for Moses to intervene for them. God then told Moses to do something that even to this day seems a bit odd. He tells Moses to make a bronze statue of a serpent…place the serpent on a pole…and lift the pole up so that “everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live”. And God was as good as His word as the Bible records that everyone who had been bitten, once they looked at the serpent, was saved and lived.
An obscure passage to say the least. And a perfect metaphor for Jesus to use. Look at this more closely. The Hebrews in the desert were punished for their sin…and the punishment was death. God told them their salvation rested on this object being lifted up and they needed to believe in order to be saved. He didn’t say look at the serpent to keep from being bitten. He didn’t give them medical advice. They were dying because of their sin…and they needed saving because they certainly couldn’t save themselves.
Such is the case with Jesus. We are born into sin and the end result of that is death. We cannot save ourselves neither can we prevent this from happening. We are dying in the wilderness of our own sin. And then…Jesus is lifted up. We do nothing save look at Him, believe and live. When God was telling Moses to put a bronze serpent on a stick…He was already preparing for His Son to be lifted up in the very same way…for us. How cool is that?
On behalf of myself, Robert Houghton and all of us here at Growth Project. Keep reading God’s Word.
Dr. Purvis started Growth Project with Robert Houghton after spending 20 years on active duty as a Chaplain in the United States Navy. After many moves and multiple deployments, he settled in Winter Haven, Florida to do God’s will. A glutton for educational punishment Danny has a BA in English from Carson-Newman College, an MDiv from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; a ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary; and a PhD in Organizational Leadership from Regent University. He has been married to his wife Kimberly (whom he met when they were 6 years old) for nearly 30 years and they have four wonderful children.