As John 3 begins, we have the account of Jesus’ amazing words to Nicodemus the Pharisee about being “born again.”
Just a few verses later, the Lord refers to a snaky incident recorded in Numbers 21. Unlike Nicodemus, we modern Christians have heard the term “born again” enough that it no longer properly surprises us. What does catch us by surprise is the story from Numbers 21, with which Nicodemus would have been very familiar.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
Moses, we know. The wilderness, okay. What, pray tell, about this snake? What was Moses doing with a snake in the wilderness? Ah, it’s an amazing story!
If we want to find out what God thinks about grumbling, we need look no further than Numbers 21:4-8. The people of Israel are being led by God “the long way around” Edom on their way to the Promised Land, but they are already tired of the trip. They also are fed up with what they call “this detestable food.” The food (which the KJV calls “light bread”) was manna from heaven. If you’re a modern child and have never been so persecuted by your parents that you have had to eat something you don’t like, you won’t understand this story. Let’s just say that God has little use for grumbling and grumbles, and he doesn’t appreciate having his cooking criticized.
To punish the grumbling people, an angry God sends “fiery serpents” among the people, poisonous snakes known both for the fire of their venom and also, some say, for the color of their skin. Many Israelites are bitten, and many die.
When the people quickly deem repentance to be prudent, Moses prays for them, and God directs him to build a fiery serpent of his own! Moses is to fashion a serpent of brass, affix it atop a pole, and God promises that anyone who is bitten but who fixes his gaze upon that snake will be healed, and it was so.
That’s amazing, but what does that “souped up” serpent of brass in the wilderness have to do with Jesus? Much!
As the brass serpent was lifted up on the pole in the wilderness, so the Son of God was “lifted up” on the cross (and because of his sacrifice, “highly exalted,” lifted up, by his Father). Those Israelites envenomated by the poisonous serpents simply looked up to that serpent on the pole and lived. (Notice that they looked at the serpent, but that act showed their faith not in the serpent but in the God who had directed them to look.)
Likewise, we who have been poisoned by sin are invited to “look up” in faith to our crucified Lord that we may receive his mercy, healing, and life. Like the snake-bitten Israelites in the wilderness, we face a choice: Will we look up to God in faith and live?
Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at