We first come upon the cross in the Old Testament in the account of Moses and the rebellion of the Israelites. God sent serpents to punish Israel and He sent for Moses to put a serpent on a pole to save the people. We read the Moses account, “8And 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.’ 9So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” (Numbers 21:8-9).
God had delivered the children of Israel from their bondage of slavery in Egypt and now they were wondering in the wilderness on their way to the promised land. And the people continually rebelled against Moses and against God. They continually complained because of their situation. They did not trust God. They continually sinned and in their sin they sinned even more.
And so, God punished the people. In the instance of our text, God punished the people by sending these snakes to bite and poison the people. There is nothing like the law and punishment to get people back in line. Of course the people did not like the fact that they were being punished and being killed off by these snakes and so they prayed to God. Whether they truly recognized their sin or not, I cannot say. All I can say is what the text says and it says they cried out for help.
God heard the cry of the people. He heard their cry of repentance and God sent forgiveness. The forgiveness God sent was a way for the Israelites to acknowledge their sin and confess and to, in faith, be given God’s forgiveness through the cure. God told Moses to put a snake on a pole so that in repentance and faith, when the person looked at the serpent on the pole he or she would be healed.
What we see happening here is that the curse has became the cure. The serpent which was sent to bite and punish the people has become the cure in that a simple look in faith at the serpent on the pole brought forgiveness and healing. Please keep these images in mind as we move into the New Testament.
Fast forward to the New Testament. When Jesus was speaking of Moses about this situation He says, “14And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
Jesus’ reference is first to Adam and Eve and their rebellion in the Garden of Eden. Their sin has been passed down, born in all people, genetically passed on. This sin which is passed on is what we call original sin. This sin was passed on even to God’s chosen people, the children of Israel. We see the fruition of this genetically inborn original sin in the rebellion of the children of Israel.
When God threatened to punish the sin of Adam and Eve that punishment was to be eternal, spiritual death. When God threatened to punish the children of Israel, at least in this instance it was the threat of temporal or physical death.
When Adam and Eve confessed, God promised and gave forgiveness. When the children of Israel confessed, God promised and gave forgiveness. When we confess our sins, we still have God’s promise and He gives us forgiveness of sins.
In the Garden of Eden God promise to send a Savior, even Himself in human flesh, the Son of man. In the wilderness God sent the serpent on the pole to be the cure. When the people looked at the curse on the pole and believed they were cured. When we look at the Son of man, the human Jesus, one of us who brought the curse, through Adam, Jesus became the cure.
What we are reading, hearing, is what we call a type and an antitype. The events of the Old Testament are a type of, are linked, and prefigure the events of the New Testament which are the antitype. Thus, we see the brazen serpent on the cross is a type of Christ and Jesus on the cross is the antitype. The poison-less (lifeless) serpent is the type and the “helpless” human Jesus, is the antitype. The “looking” at the brazen serpent meant healing is the type and “looking” at Jesus, that is faith in Jesus, means forgiveness and eternal life is the antitype. The punishment (being bitten by serpents) became the cure - the serpent being put on the cross is the type and the punishment for sin (death) became the cure - Jesus died on the cross in our place is the antitype.
What does this mean? Scripture continually bears out the truth that in the beginning God created everything perfect and holy, or as it says in Genesis, good and very good. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and sinned and now their sin infects all humanity as all people are conceived and born in sin.
God’s threat of punishment, eternal spiritual death must be appeased, the price for sin must be paid. The wages, the price, the cost for sin is death, physical or temporal death, but worse, eternal spiritual death which is hell. God’s threat is to all who have ever lived, all who are alive and all who ever will live. His threat is on those who are not perfect.
Thanks be to God that He has promised a way out and that way out is through His Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. In order for Jesus to be our Savior He had to be perfect. In order to be perfect, He had to be and He is truly God. In order to be our substitute He had to be one of us, a human being. Jesus was born of the human woman, Mary and so He is truly human.
Jesus, being conceived by the Holy Spirit is true God, who gave up the glory that was His in heaven. Jesus became man, being born of a woman, being born in a stable. Jesus lived perfectly, for us, in our place because we cannot be perfect. After living a perfect life. After fulfilling all God’s commands and promises fully, Jesus took man’s sin, upon Himself. He who knew no sin became sin for us. And Jesus suffered. He suffered the entire price for our sin. He suffered eternal spiritual death for us in our place and He died. Of course, we know the whole story, we know the rest of the story, He did not stay dead, death and the grave had no power over Him, for on the third day He rose from the dead, victorious over sin, death and the power of the devil.
The cross, the means of capital punishment, the means of death has became our cure. We are the ones who bring sin and death. Yet, when we look on Jesus, as one of us, by faith in Him we have forgiveness and life, even eternal life. And so, much like the early sacrifice, where the family would eat the sacrifice, and thus participate in the sacrifice, so at the Lord’s Table, at the Lord’s Supper we too eat Jesus body and drink His blood and participate in His life, death and resurrection so that His life becomes our life, His death becomes our death and His resurrection becomes our resurrection.
The cross, for us Christians is a symbol of death, but even more, it is a symbol of life. It is a symbol of physical death and our sins which cause such death, but it is a symbol of life, of Jesus giving His life for ours so that we have forgiveness of sins and with forgiveness life and salvation. To God be the glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.