THE SNAKE & THE STAKE
“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.” John 3:14-15.
Allow me to quickly paint the backdrop. The setting is this: A man has come to Jesus under the cover of darkness. His name is Nicodemus and he is a teacher of Israel. Nicodemus said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God.” It’s with that in mind that Jesus begins to teach Nicodemus that He has indeed come from God! In the clearest of terms, Jesus tells Nicodemus why He has come from God.
So, we are to notice that Jesus responds to people. His response to you will depend on how you look at Him! Nicodemus viewed Jesus as a “Teacher come from God.” So Jesus in turn responds by demonstrating the truth of Nicodemus’ statement In teaching Nicodemus “the teacher come from God” uses “concrete terminology.” He illustrates what He means using everyday terms. He reveals profound spiritual truth by using illustrations with which Nicodemus is familiar. For instance He speaks of water and wind to portray the invisible workings of the Spirit of God. He uses light and darkness as representations of truth and evil. And, the thing we will mostly be focusing on in the following, He uses Moses and the brazen serpent to illustrate the Gospel!
Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:14-15, “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.” Nicodemus would be more than familiar with the passage of Scripture Jesus was referring to. And we need to be familiar with it too because it perfectly illustrates the Gospel!
To say that Israel in the wilderness had a problem with snakes is an understatement! The Lord sent fiery flying serpents among the Israelites! These were snakes with fangs full of poison! And they were injecting deadly venom into their bloodstream as they bit people! To be bitten would be like having a jolt of electricity fired into you, like a cattle prod on full power, like a police stun-gun. Not only would there be a burning sensation at the puncture marks, but the muscles would begin to ache and burn! Every joint in your body would seem to be on fire. Your breathing would be affected and your heart-rate would fluctuate. Then would come the unquenchable thirst, fire in your mouth, in your body, all over.
Why did the Lord send the snakes among His people? It was a judgment against their sin. “The wages of sin is death”! The people were speaking against God and His servant Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness” They were saying, “there is no food and no water, and our soul detests this worthless bread.” God sent them manna from heaven and Israel detested it! Thus they were blaspheming God and despising His providence.
How would you expect God to respond to this kind of abuse from His own people? The Lord sent in fiery serpents and “many of the people of Israel died” for their sin. They ought to have been thanking God for His grace and mercy toward them. He had set them free from their captivity to Pharaoh in Egypt. He had done many miracles as He released them from their bondage. He even parted the Red Sea for them to cross without so much as getting a little toe wet! He had caused the waters to fully immerse His enemies and drown all of them.
The Angel of the Lord Himself went with them in the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. And all the thanks the Lord got was grumbling! So the Lord responded accordingly to them! “And many of the people of Israel died” Numbers 21:6. So as Israel looked around at all the death and mayhem they knew it had come from God.
God got their attention when He sent those fiery serpents into Israel. And the Israelites learned quickly that this was in judgment against their sin. They discovered that they were a wicked and a rebellious people. They knew that they were biting the hand that fed them, and they knew that the Lord was biting them back!
Where did all this rebellion against God begin with these people? We have to say that it began with the serpent in the Garden. Satan was the one who injected poison into the minds of Adam and Eve. He was the one who caused Eve to doubt the very Word of God, “Has God really said?”
Satan through the mouth and fangs of the snake injected His poison into the world, so to speak. As his venom began to take effect, rigor mortis slowly set into the bodies of Adam and Eve. When Adam and Eve saw the serpent they should have looked to the Lord and they would have lived. However, instead they turned their backs to God demonstrating that they were unhappy with God and His providence. Thus Adam and Eve became dead in their sins, and all mankind became dead in their sins with them.
To be dead in your sins means that you don’t care about God or His providence. By “providence” here we mean that which God provides for your well-being, pro-vidence. So who would grumble and complain about God and His providence? Well, Adam and Eve as they listened to the serpent and sinned in the Garden. Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. And let’s not forget every human being who has ever lived.
Romans 5:12 says, “Through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men.” So we see that Satan, that serpent of old, has bitten Adam. His venom not only killed Adam but it spread to all mankind through him. To poison a river you go upstream to its source. To kill a tree you attack its roots. To kill the human race you attack the first man, Adam.
We’re all dead, dead in Adam, dead in our sins. Unless a Person trusts in God all of mankind is lost, extinct. Unless a Person appreciates His providence we’re all doomed to destruction. The trouble is that there’s nobody like this anywhere. That’s what the Bible tells us. Romans 3:11 says, “There is none who seeks after God.” Romans 3:13 says, “The poison of asps is under their lips.”
We have poison in our veins, venom in our blood. We need an antidote, an anti-venom, an antivenin. Where among the dead mass of humanity will One like this be found? One who will trust in God to provide for Him? Scripture says, “The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God. They have all turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is none who does good, no, not one” Psalm 14:4. “For the eyes of the Lord run to & fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him” 2 Chronicles 16:9. Thus, the picture is of God scanning the earth looking into the face of mankind.
Where on earth is God going to find One who is loyal to Him? Where is He going to find one who trusts in God and His providence? You won’t find One like this on earth. Scripture says all earthlings are dead. The venom of the serpent has got under their skin and poisoned the lot of them. Therefore, the Person God’s looking for would need to come from somewhere else. He would need to come from God!
We’ve looked at The Snake and we’ve seen that his venom was injected into Man through Adam and has killed all mankind including you and me. Now let’s look at the stake.
I’ll never forget a dramatic scene in one of the movies about the Titanic they’re always making. All these people with life-jackets on, hundreds of them, floating in the frozen Atlantic Ocean. They’d been in the water for ages waiting to be rescued. Only one lifeboat came back to look for survivors after the Titanic had sunk. There was a light shining from the lifeboat, scanning the faces of those in the freezing water. As the light shone to and fro on each face there could be heard the cry, “Is anyone still alive?” Alas! The lifeboat had been too late in coming back. Death had clasped his icy-fingers around the throats of all of those who looked like they might survive. They all had bobbed in the freezing water with their lifejackets on. But their blood had run cold and rigor mortis set into them one by one. They all were dead, all but one person on a piece of wood. The light from the lifeboat had shone upon her, but she look just like all the rest, dead. So she was almost passed by but she took courage called out to the life-boat ever so feebly. The whole audience in the movie theater gave a collective sigh when her cry for life was heard. She was lifted up into the boat and had blankets wrapped around her. God is shining His light into the face of all human beings. “Is anyone still alive?” No! Death has claimed every last one. The whole ship has gone under and they are going down to the grave with it. “Is there anyone still alive?” Wait! There’s one person on a piece of wood calling out for life! What is He saying? He’s saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”
Herein lies the vaccine, the antidote, the antivenin that cures the serpent’s bite. Paul the Apostle said to the Corinthians, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” 1 Corinthians 2:2. He said to the Galatians, “God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Galatians 6:14. Through the cross of Christ, an instrument of death, the Lord provided the means of escaping death!
Moses had interceded on behalf of Israel in the wilderness. So God told Moses to set a fiery serpent on a pole, a snake on a stake. This is more commonly referred to as the brazen serpent. The American Medical Association has this as their emblem. God, in the Garden had placed a curse upon the serpent who deceived Eve. But here’s a serpent hanging on a pole bringing life!
So is Jesus being compared to a serpent? Only in that He too became like one who is cursed by God. Scripture says, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13. And Jesus looked no different bodily from cursed humanity Philippians 2:7.
Jesus said to Nicodemus, “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.” It’s as if Jesus is saying: “There you have it Nicodemus, I can’t make it any simpler for you than that. I am the Teacher come from God. Look at Me and live! I am the One who has come from God to crush the serpent’s head, the serpent whose poison flows through your veins even as we speak. The serpent will bite Me too, but it won’t be fatal. He’ll only bruise My heel. Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to let wicked men place Me on a piece of wood. The serpent’s fangs will pierce My hands and My feet as they pin Me to the stake. Every blow of the hammer will have venom in it. They’ll lift Me up and hang Me between heaven and earth for all the world to see. Then they’ll circle round taunting Me as My precious blood pours out of Me. All My bones will pop out of joint and they’ll begin burn! My tongue will cling to My jaws as if on fire. My thirst will be unbearable. O Nicodemus, as Moses lifted up the serpent, the fiery serpent, so too must I be lifted up. Look at Me, Nicodemus, and live!” Essentially that is what Jesus was saying to Nicodemus.
John in John 20:39 tells us that Nicodemus went with Joseph of Arimathea after the crucifixion and took Jesus’ dead body to prepare Him for burial. As Nicodemus cut those strips of linen and wrapped the dead body of Jesus surely he’d be thinking of the words the Teacher come from God had spoken to Him? “Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish.”
“But Teacher, You Yourself have perished. The serpent has killed You too”
“Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up. Trust Me Nicodemus. Look at Me and live”
“But Teacher, You’re dead! Your body is limp. Your brow is covered in blood! Your face is beyond recognition from the beating you took before they crucified You. There are bloody holes in Your hands where the nails were. There’s the gash where the centurion pierced Your heart with his spear. And Your feet are bruised and covered in blood where the spike went through. Oh Teacher, all Your talk of eternal life means nothing as I look at You now!”
Can you imagine the kind of thoughts going through Nicodemus’ mind as He attended to the Master’s body? To look at a Jesus as dead as yourself makes no sense whatever! The Apostle Paul says, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” 1 Corinthians 1:18. And, “We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” 1 Corinthians 1:23.
How can a dead Saviour save anyone when He can’t even save Himself? That’s what Nicodemus was wondering as He handled the dead Savior. However, Jesus didn’t remain dead, did He? He was lifted up early on the morning after the Sabbath. “Nicodemus, even so the Son of Man must be lifted up.”
After His resurrection Jesus was seen by over five hundred people 1 Corinthians 15:6. Not the least of them Thomas, Doubting Thomas. What did Jesus say to Thomas? “Do not be unbelieving but believing” John 20:27. Then Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen yet believed”
Do you believe? Do you really believe? What makes you think you believe? Maybe you’re just sitting there with your life jacket on thinking that the Lord is going to come back and save you. But maybe He’s been shining His light in your face but you’ve already froze to death! Maybe it would take a jolt from a fiery serpent to thaw you out a little! Maybe you’ve been complaining about God and His providence like Israel in the wilderness.
Is your mind everywhere else when you’re supposed to be worshipping God? What are you thinking about as you sing the hymns at church? Are you really praising God or just mumbling words? Is a Bible-study the last place you’d be found? Did you go once and all they talked about was the Bible? Did you find it too hard to follow even though you’ve been a Christian for years?
What makes you think you’re a Christian anyway? Do you look into your own heart and say, “Well, I don’t smoke and I wouldn’t even put so much as a cough-lolly in my mouth in case there is alcohol in it!” Do you come to church complaining in your heart that the place is so dead? Have you ever thought that maybe it’s you who are dead? Maybe everyone else is looking at a holy and righteous God, everyone except you! The Lord wants you to look at Him and live and not at everything else and die.
Why did the Lord send fiery serpents in among His people? It was because they were complaining about God and His providence for them, wasn’t it? He got their attention. He got them to look where He wanted them to look! When Old Testament Israel discovered they were facing certain death for complaining they responded, didn’t they? They looked at the fiery serpent on a pole and were saved from the serpent’s poison.
God wants you to stop looking at yourself in a selfish, self-centered manner. He wants you to keep on looking at Christ and His cross so you don’t perish like those in the wilderness. Keep on looking at Christ and His cross and you’ll live forever. For Jesus has been lifted up not only on a cross, not only from the grave, but He has also been lifted up to the highest heaven. And it’s the job of the Christian to do as Moses did with the Brazen Serpent. Christians are to lift up Christ among a humanity that is dying. We are to parade Christ before the serpent-poisoned humanity as Paul did for the Galatians, “before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified” Galatians 3:1. This is how the church is to shine forth the light of Christ! Simply by displaying Christ in the Gospel and urging people to look at Him and live!
However, don’t be fooled. You yourself need to keep on looking at Jesus. Otherwise it’s not the Gospel you’re portraying, rather it’s hypocrisy!
Are you looking at Jesus during the worship service? Are you looking at Jesus in the Bible Studies and the Prayer Meetings? Are you looking at Jesus while you work and while you eat your lunch? Are you looking at Jesus with your whole life? If you are, then that means that you are lifting up Jesus! It means that you are lifting up the Son of Man for all the world to see. It means that your like Moses in the wilderness lifting up the Brazen Serpent! You’ll be like the lifeboat looking for the survivors of the Titanic disaster!
Oh! Will you lift up Jesus for all the world to see “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life”?