I really am fascinated by the amazing parallels in the Bible between the Old and New Testaments. There are so many examples of people, places, events, or things in the Old Testament that are fulfilled in the New Testament.
There is a term for this called typology. The word is a little confusing. Think of an old manual type writer that uses hammers for each of the individual letters. When a key is pressed, a hammer strikes the paper, making a slight indentation in the paper along with the ink. Likewise, certain Old Testament persons, places, things, events, etc. are sort of a faint impressions or models of what is more clearly brought to light in the New Testament. For example, the story of Jonah (three days in the whale) is just a faint imprint of what is greater to come - Jesus three days in the grave.
I wanted to give this introduction because many of my future posts will be on such typology topics, although some of the comparisons I make may not be true 'typology' in a purest sense, but rather what I like to call 'amazing parallels' of the Bible.
Now, to the story of a "snake on a pole". This is an example of Biblical typology. This story starts in the Old Testament and ends in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, there is a scene described where the nation of Israel is grumbling and complaining. After all God had done for them through Moses - led them out of Egyptian slavery - miraculously gave them food (manna) - and protected them - there was a time when the people of Israel started to complain as they were traveling in the wilderness. They began to speak against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness? There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!” (Numbers 21:4-5).
Wrong thing to do! Because they spoke against Him and against Moses, God decided to punish them severely. He sent poisonous snakes among them. Some Bible translations call them fiery serpents. Fiery serpents sure sounds more terrifying. Maybe they were called fiery because of the inflammation resulting from the bites, or maybe because of the judgment against them by God (many times fire signifies judgment in the Bible). Regardless, these serpents began biting the people, and many died. Then the people realized what was going on and came to Moses, crying out, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.” So Moses prayed for the people. (Numbers 21:6-7).
God heard Moses' prayer and through His mercy, God decided to provide a way out for them - a way of rescuing them - a way of healing them. Now He could of just done that through a clean sweep sort of miracle. But He instructed Moses to do something very strange - probably something that didn't make much sense at the time.
God told Moses to make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. He told Moses all who are bitten will live if they simply look at it! So that's exactly what Moses did. He made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. And sure enough, when anyone was bitten by a poisonous snake and they looked at the bronze snake, they lived! (Numbers 21:8-9). Which means that if someone got bitten and didn't look at the bronze snake, they would die. This cure was conditional, it was their choice to stare at the snake on a pole and trust that it would cure them, and it did!
Now the story could have just stopped there and it would have been an incredible story. As a matter of fact, it did stop there for a long, long time - until the Apostle John reflected on it. John realized something - that this whole serpent on a pole thing had double importance. First, it was obviously a miracle of healing, saving the people. But secondly, and more importantly, it was a prefigure, a model, of Jesus crucified on a cross! Maybe that's why God came up with this snake on a pole idea to begin with.
John writes about it in the two verses that precede one of the most popular verses in the entire Bible - John 3:16 ( “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.") But take a look at the two verses that lead up to it - John 3:14-15. That's where John compares the story of the snake on a pole to belief in Jesus!
Here's what John writes: "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:14-16).
There are several parallels that John is making. First, just as the poisonous snakes bit the people, sin poisons us. Second, just as the people would die if they didn't look at the snake, believing that it would cure them, we will die in our sins if we don't believe in Jesus, who offers us life. Third, just as the snake was lifted up on a pole, Jesus was lifted up on a cross, for our sake. Fourth, just as the bronze snake was the one and only cure for the people, Jesus is the one and only cure for the sins of all people. Fifth, just as the people needed only to look at the bronze snake, we are saved, not by good works or deeds, but by grace.
I'm sure you could come up with even more parallels in this story. What's important to remember though, is that this comparison of the Old Testament bronze snake story to Jesus on the cross is a legitimate comparison because the Apostle John teaches it as such.
So from now on, when you hear the story of the snake on a pole, let it remind you of Jesus and how he saves you. And may your eyes continue to look toward Him, for healing and for forgiveness. "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:2)
One more interesting thing.....the Bible mentions the snake on a pole in one other place. It occurs in 2 Kings 18:4. It's when King Hezekiah smashes it to pieces, hundreds of years later. By that time, it had become an object of idol worship. Perhaps they trusted the snake for healing instead of trusting in God Himself. King Hezekiah wanted to do right in the sight of God, so he got rid of all the false idols, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. "He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it." (2 Kings 18:4).
It makes you wonder, would we do the same today if we had a piece of the actual cross, or the ark of the covenant, or a part of Noah's ark? Would we worship those things more than God Himself? (Romans 1:25). Maybe there's a good reason we don't have such things.