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Jesus and the Fiery Serpent 

What would Jesus have in common with a fiery serpent?

John 3.13–21

By Don Ruhl

When He slew them, then they sought Him;
And they returned and sought earnestly for God.
Then they remembered that God was their rock,
And the Most High God their Redeemer.
(Psa 78.34, 35)

What is your image of a deadly, fiery serpent? What is your image of Jesus? Are those pictures similar? And what is with that quote from Psalm 78?

Jesus made a connection between Himself, and a deadly, fiery serpent, and the connection is so strong that we must know it to be saved.

Saved from what? Saved from God’s condemnation, and when God condemns, He banishes somneone from His presence…forever. However, He does not want to do that, and Jesus will show us just how far God went to save us from His own condemnation.

A highly respected Pharisee named Nicodemus went to see Jesus, and as they talked Jesus compared Himself to a fiery serpent. Why would Jesus do such a thing, and what about that quote from Psalm 78?

Jesus – John 3.13 

“No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (John 3.13).

Jesus indicated clearly His divine home, the place from which He came, and the place to which He shall go.

He also declared clearly both His deity and humanity, because He descended from heaven, but He is also the Son of Man.

The Fiery Serpent – 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” (John 3.14, 15).

Numbers 21 shows the historical incident to which Jesus referred.

An enemy of Israel fought them and took some Israelites as prisoners. Israel then made a vow, promising that if God delivered the enemy into their hands, they would totally destroy the cities of that enemy.

Numbers 21.3 shows that the Lord listened to Israel and delivered up the Canaanites into the hand of Israel.

Israel knew they could ask, and they knew God had the power to grant their request, and they were willing to give Him something in return.

From that incident Moses showed what happened next.

First, the Bible shows Israel becoming discouraged and complaining, “Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread” (Num 21.4, 5).

This was a huge undertaking, but they wanted to be in Canaan immediately!

Therefore, they made a threefold complaint: First, they questioned why God and Moses brought them out of Egypt, whether it was to die in the wilderness. Second, they complained that there was no food and no water. Third, they told God and Moses what they thought of the food that God did provide, saying that they loathed the worthless bread He dropped out of the sky for them, bread for which they did not grow the grain, harvest the grain, nor bake the grain into bread!

Then the Lord gave them something else instead, “So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died” (Num 21.6).

You do not like the bread that you do not have to grow, that you do not have to harvest, that you do not have to bake, that you do not have to buy, then how about this, I will send deadly, fiery serpents among you.

You do not like what gives life, I will give you what takes life!

The Lord showed them His great ability to deal with them, whether delivering them from the Egyptians or the Canaanites, providing them with food, or punishing them.

He taught them that He knew what He was doing, and that they could have given Him thanks, worshiped Him, and asked for provisions.

The people learned, “Therefore 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 (Num 21.7).

Oh, there is Psalm 78! They saw their sin of speaking against the Lord and against His leader.

They learned that they could ask the Lord for something, and He would give it, leading them to ask the Lord to take away the serpents.

They wanted Moses to pray for them, and Moses, without bitterness or holding a grudge against them, prayed for them.

They wanted the serpents taken away, and the Lord answered their request, with a modification, because the Lord answers prayer in several ways: No, Yes, Not now,  Yes, but with modifications.

The Lord did not take away the serpents, but gave what they did not ask, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived” (Num 21.8, 9).

Moses had to make a fiery serpent of bronze, and lift it up so that all people could see it and be saved.

Jesus told Nicodemus that just like the serpent, the Son of Man had to be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but can have eternal life, and that included more than Israel, but the whole world.

Life – John 3.16–18 

“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. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3.16–18).

Jesus explained why God sent Jesus down from heaven to be lifted up. Even as God commanded Moses to make the bronze serpent, so God commanded Jesus to go down from heaven to the earth to save Israel and the world.

God did not send the fiery serpents because He hated Israel, but God loved Israel, which is why He brought them out of Egypt to take them to their own land, which they could call their own. Israel was condemned in Egypt. God set them free from that condemnation.

God did not send Jesus to condemn the world, because the world is already condemned, the world is already perishing, and if the world does not believe in Jesus, the world will perish in eternal condemnation, because a deadly, fiery serpent has already bitten the world, but everyone of us can be saved from that bite.

It is also true that the world needs to know why they are condemned and what the condemnation is. Thus they need to know about sin and God’s wrath, then just like Israel in the wilderness as Psalm 78 relates, people will seek the Lord earnestly, remembering that He is their Rock and their Redeemer. Therefore, Jesus talked about the condemnation next.

The Condemnation – John 3.19–21 

“And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God” (John 3.19–21).

To explain further the condemnation of which He spoke to Nicodemus, Jesus declared that the light came into the world, but men did not love the light, because they lived their lives in the darkness, they liked it that way, and so did not want the exposure that their works were unacceptable to their Creator.

They are like cockroaches in the light. They are like a man sleeping in the dark when someone turns on a bright light, it irritates him.

However, those who live in God and do their deeds in Him, do not fear the light, but welcome it that it can be seen why they do those works.

Can you see that God loves you? Can you see the manner in which He showed you His love? Now do something about it!

God loves you, but Jesus taught that does not automatically mean you have eternal life and have escaped condemnation. The key is believing or accepting who Jesus is, seeing what Nicodemus saw initially, that no one could do the things that Jesus did, unless God was with Him, “This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him’” (John 3.2).

Do you believe the same thing? Can I talk you out of that belief? Or are you so convinced that you would argue with me? If your belief has found that much of a home in your heart, will it move you into action? Will you state verbally what you believe? Will you live what you believe? Will you obey the One you believe?