You are here

10. Baptism and the Bronze Serpent

Baptism and Looking
at the Bronze Serpent

Baptism Message No. 10
John 3:14-15; Numbers 21:4-9
Eric H.H. Chang
Montreal, September 11, 1977


The Lord lays it upon my heart to expound to you the precious words in John 3:14-15. The next verse, John 3:16, is familiar to most of you, but how many of you can remember what is recorded 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.” (RSV)

To understand the background to this remarkable statement, let us turn to 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 the Lord (lit. “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 the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord, that He take away the ser­pents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord 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. (RSV)

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

Sin: An attitude of opposition to God

This is so true to life and so typical of Christians, isn’t it? God has granted us so many blessings, yet we are ungrateful, always blaming Him for every little difficulty that comes our way. A basic characteristic of sin is speaking out against God either with the mouth or in the heart. Sin is more than just making a mistake; it is a definite attitude of opposition to God.

Man brings much trouble upon himself and blames it all on God. “Why does God allow mankind to suffer?” We never hear an end to this question! But let us stop to ask who caused the suffering in the first place? Did God start the First World War? Or the Second World War? Humans destroy one another, bringing untold suffering upon millions, yet they raise the same familiar complaint: Why does God bring suffering upon us?

When a marriage becomes unbearable, the husband complains, “Why did God give me a wife like this? I deserve someone better!” And the wife says, “I’m so intelligent and good-looking. Why did God give me this useless hunk of humanity?” It’s always God’s fault. And the complaints go on: “God could have done something about it. He’s God! He knew that this wasn’t the right person for me!” Sin is this kind of attitude towards God which denies responsibility for our wrongdoings, yet blames Him for the consequences. Let us be careful lest we compel God to remind us who is the one truly at fault. He does this not to justify Himself but to show us that we cannot be changed until we see that we are the cause of the problem.

God deals with sin by a transforming love, not destruction

People have asked me, “The world is a mess, so what is God doing about it?” My reply: What can God do about it short of wiping out every sinner from the face of the earth? God has two choices. Which do you prefer? He can eliminate sin and suffering by destroying sinners or by transforming them. To destroy sin­ners, He doesn’t need your permission. But to trans­form you, He needs your cooperation. If you want a new world with changed people, God has to change you, but He will not 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 obey you, but you cannot control what goes on inside the head.

Jesus brings this out when he says to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath” (John 18:11). The kingdom of God is not expanded by the sword. If we mobilize every Christian in the world today, we could create an army of hundreds of millions of soldiers who are equipped with subma­chine guns and ready to fight for God.

But God in His perfect wisdom refuses to con­quer the world with the sword. You can control people externally but not internally. Nothing can change a man’s heart except love—the love of God. That is how God deals with sin in the world!

Do you obey or oppose God?

Some will still complain, “Why must we suffer the consequences of sin? After we have sinned, why doesn’t God limit the suffering?” How wonder­ful! We want to sin but not suffer its consequences. We want God to make it com­fortable for us to sin! On the contrary, He won’t let you escape the consequences of sin, but wants you to see its bitter fruits. If the fruits don’t come immediate­ly, He may even hasten them. If you think you got away with sin just because you didn’t suffer the immediate consequences, don’t be too confid­ent about it because God may make you suffer for it sooner than you expect. It is for your own good that He makes you understand how bad sin is. Even 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” not because they had fire blasting out of their mouths (no such species is listed in any encyclopedia) but simply because they were venomous. The people were dying from the venom and started to repent. Sad to say, many people do not repent when things are going well, but wait and wait until things get bad. That is why God tells Israel 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 a window and saw five persons trying to move a mule with all their strength and effort, but without success. They pulled it, beat it, and tried everything. The mule simply stuck out its front legs, leaned back, and refused to budge. They swung a log at the poor mule—I thought it was going to break its back—but it still wouldn’t move. They finally got it to budge by jabbing it with a sharp object. Why does it refuse to move until it gets hurt? It reminds us of some non-Christians who say, “The world may collapse around me, but I refuse to believe in God!”

There was another time just outside Shanghai when I saw people riding on beautiful horses. One of the riders did not carry a whip because his horse understood what he would say to it. He would lean forward and speak to the horse as it was galloping. If he told the horse to run faster, it would immed­iately pick up speed. Are we like this horse, or are we like the mule that does not budge unless it is goaded?

Is God’s way of salvation wise or foolish?

After Moses interceded for those dying from the snake bites, God instructed him to make a bronze serpent and put it on a signal staff. A signal staff is a pole for displaying banners to broadcast messages to the vast multi­tudes in the wilderness, including commands such as to camp or to march on.

We can picture the situation: A vast camp had been invaded by venom­ous snakes. The people were dying from the venom just as people in the world today are dying from sin. The Israelites did not die instantly because venom takes time to kill, so they were collapsing one by one. Then Moses lifted up the signal staff, not to broadcast the usual directives 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 had told Moses that anyone looks at the bronze serpent up on the pole will live even if he has been bitten.

Is God’s way of salvation wise or foolish? The people were dying from the venom, yet they were told to look at a bronze snake. Surely a snake was the last thing they would want to look at! Many must have mocked the idea: “Saved by looking at a bronze snake? What kind of salvation is this? It’s just superstition, one of Moses’s cranky ideas! He says that God had told him this and that, but I didn’t hear anything. Anyway, there’s too much distance between me and the bronze snake. It would make better sense for God to distribute an antivenin to fight the venom. I’m busy battling the venom, so don’t ask me to do something nonsensical like looking at a bronze object.” So they tried to save themselves by their own effort. If that was possible, God wouldn’t have asked Moses to put up the bronze serpent.

People today are dying in sin, and whom does God lift up on a pole but Jesus! What do we see at Calvary but a dead man hanging on a cross to die for our sins! So objections start pouring in: “Are you saying I will be saved by looking at a dead man hanging on a cross? What a ridiculous solution to the problems of the world! Anyway, there is too much distance between me and Jesus in terms of time and geography. He died two thou­sand years ago, in Israel, but I’m in China, Canada, England or wherever. He is now in heaven and I’m on earth. How can believing in Jesus break the power of sin in my life? The apostles must have fabricated the idea of Jesus dying for our sins, a human idea they attributed to God!” Similar thoughts may have crossed your mind at one time or another.

Truth is to be experienced

Isn’t it sad that while the people were arguing over the bronze serpent, they were dying one by one from the venom? But those who turned around and looked at the bronze serpent were saved. What does that teach us? For one thing, you cannot know if something is true or false until you experience it for yourself. Fix your eyes on the bronze serpent, and you will immediately experience the destruction of the power of the venom! But you will get nowhere if you spend your whole life analyzing the pros and cons of the idea of neutralizing the venom with the bronze serpent. Find out by gazing at it! You are dying anyway, so what do you have to lose? What a pity to lose your salvation over a mental block! The poison of sin is killing everyone in the world. Are you going to argue forever about whether you are saved by looking at Jesus hanging on the cross? The moment you look at him, you will experience God’s power working through him. It is not a fairy tale but something you can experience for yourself.

How can we tell if an apple is sweet? We can analyze its shape and color. We can weigh it and estimate its sugar content. We can slice it up and view it under a microscope. But the easiest way is to taste it! We don’t need to expend so much mental effort and make fools out of ourselves. Taste and see! It is like asking whether a certain medicine can cure you of a certain disease. If it works for other people, why not try it yourself?

Why would these brothers and sisters go forth into baptism if they have not experienced God’s power? Nobody compelled them to be baptized. It is the policy of our church to hold people back from baptism for as long as possible so that they won’t rush into it. We want to make sure that 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 it for the time being.

Those who will be receiving baptism today are taking the first steps in the Christian life. They still have a long road ahead, for they have not yet experienced everything in the Christian life. But having taken the first steps, they will experience more and more of God’s power, as those who have gone on ahead of them can testify.

Why a dead serpent, and why bronze?

Is God’s way of saving wise or foolish? His wisdom is seen in the way He does things. Paul says that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (1Cor. 1:25). So where is God’s wisdom in asking Moses to make a bronze serpent?

A bronze serpent is a dead serpent. As a result it symbol­izes the destruct­ion of sin and of the power of evil, for the wages of sin is death.

But having chosen to use a dead serpent, why go through the trouble of making a bronze one? God could have told Moses to kill a living snake. Again God had a good reason for making a bronze serpent: to show the world what His future redemption in Jesus Christ will be like. Not any snake would do; it had to be a bronze serpent unlike any other serpent.

The bronze serpent is not, by nature, a real snake but something that is cast into the form of a snake. Similarly, Jesus was “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom.8:3) and “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb.4:15). He “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb.5:8) and became the only perfect man, by God’s power. The word “make” in Num. 21:8 (“make a fiery serpent”) is the same word poieō used in 2Cor.5:21, to say that Jesus was “made” sin although he knew no sin.

There is yet another reason for choosing a bronze serpent over a real one: a real snake is of corruptible flesh, but bronze is incor­ruptible. Corres­pond­ingly, although Jesus was truly human, yet “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col.1:19). It is God “who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2Cor.4:6).

Finally, in the Old Testament, the implements of atonement were made of bronze or covered with bronze: the altar, the laver where the priests washed, and the instruments used for the sacrifice. God’s way of doing things is wise!

Bronze is too hard to be carved or shaped with hand tools. The only way to make something of bronze is to subject the bronze to intense heat in the furnace. Fire, in the Bible, represents various things, of which an important one is judgment. Before bronze can be fashioned into the likeness of a ser­pent, it has to pass through fire. And for Jesus to save us from our sins, he had to pass through the fire of God’s judgment for you and for me.

Even the manner of Jesus’ death was prophesied in the story of the bronze serpent. Moses was told not only to make a bronze serpent, but to lift it up on a pole. In the New Testament, the expression “lifted up” means to be crucified. The criminal would be nailed to a cross which is laid flat on the ground. Once he is secured to the cross, it is lifted up and dropped into a hole in the ground for upright support. We now see why the Son of Man had to be lifted up in the same way the serpent was lifted up in the wilder­ness. In John 12:32-33, Jesus uses the words “lifted up” to show what death he was to die.

God’s wisdom is marvellous! Do His ways sound foolish or wise? He has a good reason for everything He does even if you don’t understand it yet.

God saves those who fix their eyes on Jesus

But how can looking at a bronze serpent save a person who is dying from the venom? The answer is simple. It is not the bronze serpent that heals but God who heals. We are not saved by any superstition or magical power in­volving bronze. We are saved by God’s power. When I look at Jesus hang­ing on the cross, it is not his physical body hanging there that heals me of my sin, but God’s power working through him. A Christian is not saved merely by believing that someone died on the cross two thousand years ago, but by God’s power working today. The power works when we fix our attention 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). That is faith.

John 3:14-15, by the use of the word “believe,” tells us that looking at Jesus is an act of faith. As those who looked at the serpent were saved, just as those who believe in the Son will have eternal life. But nobody is saved just by taking a quick glance at the serpent. There is an important distinct­ion be­tween “glance” and “look” that God’s Word is careful to make. The Hebrew word nabat in Numbers 21:9 means an attentive, concentrated looking—this shade of meaning is not obvious in the English “look”. Many Israelites must have turned around to take a look at the bronze serpent, but they won’t be saved unless they take a careful, concentrated look. To do that, they would have to crawl out of their tents with all their strength after having been weakened by the venom, 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.” Here the Greek makes the distinction between a glance and a look. Looking to Jesus is not just taking a glance, but fixing one’s attention and concen­tration 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.

God’s power works by faith—by obedience to Him

When God’s power works in you, on your part it is an act of obedience to God. You do what God tells you to do. It is the opposite of sin, which as we have seen is an attitude of disobedience to God. To be saved, the Israelites had to obey God’s instruction to turn their focus away from their suffer­ings and concentrate it on the bronze serpent. It took them great determination not to be distracted. It was an act of obedience to God even if it made little sense to the people. Likewise, when we take the step of obedience, God’s power will come into our lives. This attitude of obeying God is the New Testament definition of faith. Hebrews 5:9 says that Jesus is the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, just as he obeys his God and Father.

God’s way of salvation will sound either remarkably foolish or remark­ably wise to you. The Lord Jesus, the one sent by God, did not come to bring peace but a sword that creates division (Mt.10:34). Which side of the border are you standing on? Those who are getting baptized today have indicated their stand by crossing the line. Baptism is crossing the line from opposition to God to obedience to God. Although many do not understand the mean­ing of baptism, these brothers and sisters are taking a big step of obedience as an expression of their faith.

Does God’s way of salvation sound so foolish to you that you don’t obey it? 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 many things, 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, but I will look intently at Jesus as Your way of saving me.”

You are now taking a step of obedience, like a person who is dying from a snake bite and cannot see how looking at a bronze serpent could save him. Yet he obeyed, and discovered that the venom had ceased to be active in his body. You too will experience the power of sin broken in your life, and the guilt of sin removed. Your past sins will be cleansed away, and you will enter into a new freedom you have not known before.

(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church