In John 3:14-15, Jesus prophesies about Himself saying, “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.” So, why did Jesus use an Old Testament passage about a bronze serpent on a pole as an analogy for His Crucifixion? After all, isn’t Satan described as a serpent in Genesis 3? Before answering this question, we should read the passage that Jesus is quoting.
The Bronze Serpent
In the Book of Numbers Chapter 21, the Israelites complain about God’s and Moses’ seeming apathy toward their condition. After this, the passage states,
Then the Lord 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 everyone 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.
On its face, Jesus’ remark about the saving power of His Crucifixion fits well with the saving power of the bronze serpent. Granted, the bronze serpent was designed to bring temporal, physical healing, whereas the Crucifixion is designed to bring eternal life. Nevertheless, the connection is clear.
However, the question remains, Why use the imagery of a serpent on a pole as an analogy for the crucified Son of Man, especially when Genesis describes Satan as a serpent?
Why Jesus Described Himself in This Manner
The above passage provides the answer. Notice that serpents are killing the Israelites because of their complaining. God then uses the image of the thing that is killing them, lifted upon a pole, as a means to save them. If the Israelites who are bitten look upon the image, they will live.
Now, if we apply this to how we suffer spiritual death, we see that sin is the result of choosing that which is against our nature. Men spiritually die when they choose sin over God. Thus, man causes his own spiritual death when he chooses to sin. Man, therefore, becomes his own serpent, biting himself with venomous deeds, imitating the true serpent, Satan.
To remedy this problem, the Father sent His Son in human form – Jesus refers to Himself as “Son of Man” – to hang upon a cross so that everyone who looks at Him with the eyes of faith will live. Before Jesus walked the earth, He was (and always will be) the eternal Son of God. By choosing to be born of woman, He lowered himself and assumed human nature. This nature is the precise image of man. In fact, Jesus truly became man to save man.
Furthermore, St. Peter says, “[Jesus] himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24), and St. Paul wrote, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin…” (2 Corinthians 5:21). When Jesus was nailed to the cross and hung between heaven and earth, He hung there as a representative of all mankind (the last Adam), taking our sins upon Himself, so that by grace and through faith, we could be saved from ourselves, our fallen nature, and raised with Christ to our true nature.
The Role of Faith
Faith plays an important role in both stories. The Israelites who were bitten would not have looked upon the bronze serpent unless they had faith in God’s word that their lives would be saved. Similarly, we would not look upon Christ as the crucified Savior unless we believed He could save us. If Jesus were simply a man, we would be foolishly looking upon Him as the cause of our salvation. Instead, our looking up at Him implies a fundamental belief that Jesus is both God and man.
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, picks up on a subtle but relevant detail mentioned in Numbers 21. He states,
[Jesus] takes the symbol from the old law (the serpent), in order to adapt to the understanding of Nicodemus; so, he says, ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert….’ This refers to Numbers (21:5) when the Lord, faced with the Jewish people saying, ‘We are sick of this useless food,’ sent serpents to punish them; and when the people came to Moses and he interceded with the Lord, the Lord commanded that for a remedy they make a serpent of bronze; and this was to serve both as a remedy against those serpents and as a symbol of the Lord’s passion.
Jesus, the True Bread from Heaven
The food of which the Israelites referred to as useless was the manna from heaven. God gave them manna, supernatural food, to sustain them during their journey in the desert, and they called it useless. Despite previous grumblings that went unpunished, we can see why God punished them in this instance; this complaint was directed at God and His compassionate care of His people Israel.
Regardless, the manna from heaven is a type of Jesus (John 6:22-59), who is its fulfillment. We are to literally consume Him as the true bread from heaven. Unfortunately, many refer to Him as useless food, and if they die in this state of complaining and rebelling, they will receive the eternal punishment for sin.
Temporal punishment – sending serpents, for example – is designed to correct wayward behavior and orient us toward God. Eternal punishment, however, is something we choose when we remain in a state of sin until death. Fortunately, Christ has removed the eternal penalty if only we turn to Him and have faith in everything He teaches and does.
Jesus, Our Eternal Solution
If Jesus were man alone, He could not have bridged the infinite, sin-caused chasm between God and man. If He were the spiritual God alone, He would not have been able to give us the physical example of selfless love to the point of bodily death. By being both God and man, Jesus made God immediately available to us and gave us a physical example of how to live and love.
So, the next time you look at a crucifix (especially at Easter), remember that Jesus allowed Himself to be killed in order to give us the ability to live forever. The serpent on the pole was a temporary fix for a temporary problem. Jesus Christ crucified is the eternal fix for our otherwise inescapable – and eternal – condemnation.