In Numbers 21, the people left Mount Hor after mourning over Aaron’s death and traveled around the land of Edom by way of the Sea of Suf (Red Sea, Reed Sea). The people became discouraged on the way and began complaining again about the lack of food and water in the wilderness. In addition, they asked Moses why he had brought them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness. You would think that the Israelites wouldn’t have done that considering the punishment that took place the last time they did so.
Unfortunately, the Lord heard their complaints and sent fiery serpents among the people. Poisonous serpents bit the people and they began to die. The people realized they had sinned so they pleaded with Moses to pray for them so the Lord would take away the serpents.
When Moses interceded for the people, the Lord told him to make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole so that anyone who had been bitten by a serpent could look at it and live. Moses did as the Lord commanded by making a serpent out of bronze and raising it up on a pole. Moses told the people to look at the bronze serpent if they had been bitten in order to live. The people obeyed Moses and trusted the Lord for their healing. If there were any doubters, the people being healed around them probably turned their doubt into belief.
This incident has more than one meaning. Many have come to understand the primary meaning because in John 3:14-15, Jesus said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (NKJV)
Jesus’ statement was important to understand in His day and it still has great meaning for us today because everyone has sinned just like those who traveled in the wilderness. When we realize our sinful condition, we can seek Jesus who was crucified on the cross and trust that He will forgive us and heal us so we can have eternal life.
Today, there are many people like the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness. They often speak against God and Jesus just like the Israelites spoke against God and Moses. The souls of many people today loathe Jesus who they consider to be worthless (Num. 21:5). They do not realize He was the manna in the wilderness that the Israelites loathed and that He is the Bread of Life.
There are additional meanings of the bronze serpent that we should consider. The fiery serpents represent the spiritual forces of evil mentioned in Ephesians 6—specifically, Satan who was the serpent that deceived Eve in the Garden of Eden and his demons that often tempt people to give in to the desires of their flesh. We must remember that Satan is a thief who desires to steal, kill, and destroy us. He doesn’t want us to experience the abundant life Jesus desires to give us. Instead of focusing on the desires of the flesh, we need to set our eyes on Jesus so we can have life (Rom. 8:13). In a way, the Lord gave the people the ability to see these spiritual forces of darkness in the form of physical serpents that were biting them in order to kill them.
Have you ever wondered what happened to the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness? Second Kings 18 indicates that Hezekiah broke it into pieces because the children of Israel had been burning incense to it. In other words, the bronze serpent (Nehushtan) had become an object of idolatry. This shows us that it is not proper to bow down before religious relics or icons, pray to them, or venerate them in any way—even “Christian” ones. Please understand that worshipping or venerating religious items is idolatry no matter what form they take.
Beloved, we must not be deceived. We must not commit idolatry, we must only look to Jesus who was lifted up and died for us on the cross. Isaiah 53:5 says, “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.” (NKJV) Because of Christ’s death on the cross, we can be healed of the deadly bites of the spiritual serpents we’ve already experienced or will encounter in our lives.
As we look to the future, we must also ponder the words of Isaiah. He prophesied that a viper will come in the future from out of the serpent’s roots. Its offspring will be a fiery flying serpent (Isaiah 14:29). Surely this is a reference to the descendant of the serpent from the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:15), the serpent of Amos 9, and the sea serpent called Leviathan in Isaiah 27. The dragon of Revelation 12 is the serpent from the Garden of Eden. He will give power to his offspring which is known as the Beast of the Sea (Revelation 13) and the Scarlet Beast (Revelation 17).
During the tribulation, there will be an unholy trinity: the Dragon (Satan), the Beast of the Sea (Antichrist), and the Beast of the Earth (False Prophet). Their goal is for the world to fall down and worship the image of the Beast which is the abomination of desolation that will stand in the holy temple. Don’t forget that those who worship the Beast instead of the true Jesus will not live but die separated from the one true God.
John 3:36 gives us a choice. It says, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (NKJV)
If you are bitten by the serpents of this world by drinking their poison you will experience eternal death unless you look to Jesus who was represented by the bronze serpent in order to live!