PRECUSOR TO THE CROSS6 The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. 8 Then the Lord said to Moses, “[j]Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” 9 And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived. (Numbers 21:6-9)
This passage is no small matter. We are never told what Moses prayed when he interceded for the people one more time. Before this last episode recorded above in Numbers 21-6-9 , we are told that the Israelites rejected God ten (10)times! This time, God ran through the latest rebels like a knife through butter. He unleashed poisonous serpents which bit countless Israelites who paid the ultimate price for their sin. Realizing their sin, the people came and begged Moses to intercede on their behalf with Almighty God. Moses was then given instructions to fashion a snake and put it on a pole, high and lifted up. God then ordained that whosever look upon that snake, was healed. And they were healed.
The significance of this can be found in the greatest passage in Bible history – John chapter 3, where Jesus Himself recalled the instructions He gave Moses then, during His nighttime meeting with Nicodemus. Jesus said "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[a] have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:14-16).
The serpent in Scripture is synonymous with sin, Satan and self. It was the serpent in the Garden of Eden who introduces sin into the world and brought the downfall of mankind, leading to death, destruction accompanied with all the pain and suffering we see today. The reason Christ recalls this incident with Moses in John 3 is its dynamic parallel to the Cross. The equation is as follows: just like Adam and Eve in the garden, the Israelites sinned immensely against Holy God and died. They deserved to die, just as we do. However, Yahweh (Jesus in the Old Testament) had Moses place a snake on a wooden pole and lifted it up high. Then, when those same Israelites in the desert looked up to that pole with sin wrapped around it, they lived, in spite of their deadly snake-bitten bodies full of sin.
Jesus was predicting His own Sacrifice to Nicodemus when He said to the teacher of Israel that just as Moses lifted up that bronze serpent on pole in the desert, so must He (the Christ) be lifted up. Later on, at Golgotha, Nicodemus would realize what that meant when he and Joseph of Arimathea took the deceased body of Jesus off the Cross – the same Jesus Who became sin, lifted high on a piece of wood. This ultimate sacrifice of the Ancient of Days on behalf of sinful man was done in order that we may look up to the payment on the Cross, believe in His finished work and confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord.
Yes, this is much more than an instance when Moses once again prayed for God to spare a rebellious and evil generation. This is the foreshadow of our coming salvation.