home > Pastor’s Desk > 2022 > December 23rd > AS MOSES LIFTED UP THE SERPENT

It might seem an odd thing to write about just two days before Christmas, but the story of God plaguing the Israelites with poisonous snakes and then commanding Moses to construct a bronze serpent and attach it to a cross-beamed pole has baffled even the best minds for centuries. Some people have regarded this story as yet another reason for them to reject God and the Bible and consider both to be nonsense. An ever-so-slightly-less-cynical approach that some, who seem to really want both God and the Bible to be true, have taken is to regard the story as a fictional myth with mysterious allegorical meaning. I think this is how Dr. Jordan Peterson recently interpretted it in his discussion with Mr. John Anderson on their Youtube discussion last week. The high profile psychologist Dr. Peterson seems to have been on an interesting spiritual journey of late and he is obviously delving into the Bible and coming up with what appear to be some roadblocks to his complete acceptance of the claims of Christ largely due to these obscure passages in the Bible such as this account in Numbers 21. “No one has ever been able to explain it to me!” he told Mr. Anderson. I wish he had asked me; because if he had, this is what I would have explained to him.

Dr. Jordan Peterson interviewing Mr. John Anderson on his Youtube channel

Dr. Jordan Peterson interviewing Mr. John Anderson on his Youtube channel.



From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red [or Reed] Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient 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 we loathe this worthless food. Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And 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. And 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.” So 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 21:4-9

Theologically liberal scholars take this account in Numbers to be fictional and to be the later work of an exiled Jewish scholar around 500 B.C. I have a couple of reasons why I do not agree with this dismissal of the story’s truthfulness. Firstly, there is biblical evidence that the bronze serpent which Moses made was preserved up until the time of King Hezekiah (2Kings 18:4). Secondly, Jesus cites this story to Nicodemus in John 3:14 and makes a case from it about His own destiny that demands that it must have been non-fictional (true).



Based on this story, the Israelites whom God had just redeemed from their bondage in Egypt were now complaining about their arduous conditions involved in trekking from Egypt to the Promised Land. There are several parallels to the New Testament gospel in this account that also make this story very consistent with the Bible’s message about our spiritual journey through this life not being without some hardships and even some deprivation. It has often been noted that Israel’s deliverance from Egypt is a type of the world that keeps unsaved souls in bondage to sin (note John 1:10). 

We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents,
nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.
First Corinthians 10:9-10

It will also come as no surprise even to the novice Bible reader that serpents are emblematic of evil. When the redeemed people complain about God and Moses not caring about them, they had grossly under-estimated God’s amazing care that He had already bestowed on them. In what became a lesson that the Israelites did not fully understand at the time, it certainly became a lesson that they would never forget when God said, You think that I am not caring for you? Then I will lift my hand of protection from off of you just for a moment so that you will realise what I have been all along! The deadly truth that resulted was a truth that we still need to be reminded of today — God is caring, protecting and sustaining us even when we don’t realise it! The lifting of His hand of protection against the deadly serpents that swarmed that part of the wilderness for just a moment was catastrophic. In First Corinthians 10:9-10, the apostle Paul reveals that the fiery serpents were instruments of the devilish Destroyer!

The next time you are tempted to think that God no longer cares for you, you might need to postpone your complaint against Him and take a moment to thank Him for all of your existing blessings that you currently take for granted. A simple test to discover what these unappreciated blessings might be is to ask yourself, What if tomorrow I only had left what I was thankful to God for today? 

While the result of God momentarily lifting His protective hand off of the Hebrews was widespread death, He also had an unusual momentary solution to the serpents’ poisonous venom that was immeasurably profound.



Bronze can apparently withstand tremendous heat. The altar in the Tabernacle where the sacrificial animals were slain was to be a brazen (bronze-plated) altar. Bronze became a symbol, a type, of that which withstands judgment. When the Son of God appeared to the apostle John on Patmos, John describes Jesus as having feet that were like burnished bronze – that is, Christ has been judged and has withstood the judgment on behalf of all those deserved everlasting judgment!

His feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace,
and His voice was like the roar of many waters.
Revelation 1:15

The Israelites who had been bitten by the fiery serpents and contracted the deadly venom were instructed to look at the bronze serpent on the pole that Moses had made and be healed. This is reminiscent of the later prophecy of Isaiah who also told people to look to the Lord and be saved.

Look to Me, and be saved,
All you ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.”
Isaiah 45:22 NKJV

The fact that Moses was instructed to set the brazen serpent on a pole to be lifted up for all Israel to see is also significant. In Athanasius’s De incarnatione Verbi Dei: “On the incarnation of the Word” (published in A.D. 318) he points out that Christ had to be killed publicly where anybody could look at Him. He also pointed out that His death was the defeat the “Prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2) which is why He died suspended in the air while He was nailed to the cross. When Moses was ordered to make the bronze serpent he was told to lift it up in the air on a pole. This is also how Christ was to die (Acts 2:32-33).

So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man,
then you will know that I am He, and that I do nothing on My own authority,
but speak just as the Father taught Me.
John 8:28

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,
will draw all people to Myself.”
John 12:32

Athanasius answers the question, Why couldn’t Jesus have died for the sins of the world secretly? He points out that it was Christ’s public and very visible execution that became the means—the doorway—to His glorification (Rom. 6:4) and the verification of His indisputable death. And if someone could have seen into the spiritual realm as Christ was nailed to cross and lifted up into the air they would have seen that while on that cross Adonai-Christ was grotesquely transformed into the sin of all the human race.


The significance of Moses being commanded by Yahweh to make a bronze serpent and lift it up on a pole was not merely, as Dr. Jordan Petersen proposes, for the snake bitten Israelites to now “confront their greatest fear”. Rather, the significance was that it was a type of what the Saviour would one day do for all poisoned people – not just from snake-bites – but from something far deadlier: sin. When Jesus was lifted up on a Roman cross he became sin. He was embodying all of the sins of all of the people of all time – past, present, and future! Just as the bronze serpent represented the Hebrews’ sin of rebellion against God (the root of all sin), Jesus-Adonai literally represented the sins of all humanity when he died on the cross and shed His life-blood for us all. The Apostle Paul describes this as a great exchange in Second Corinthians 5:21 –

For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin,
so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.
Second Corinthians 5:21

Like all of the typology in the Old Testament, when the Yahweh-Christ was lifted up on the cross to face the Father’s wrath for our sin as our propitiation {one whose blood is shed to atone for the sins of others} (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1Jn. 2:2; 4:10) the lifting of the bronze serpent up via a pole was just another ‘shadow’ of what Jesus the Christ would one day do. Those who interpret God allowing fiery serpents to bite and even kill some Hebrews as an indication of God’s maliciousness have got it completely wrong! It is completely on the contrary. This is why John 3:16 makes little sense unless we accept what Jesus told Rabbi Nicodemus in their clandestine conversation.



John 3:16 is perhaps the most memorised Bible verse among Christians. It was probably a part of the Apostle John’s commentary on the conversation he had just heard between Jesus and Nicodemus (despite most of our Bible’s printing it in red letters as if Jesus had just said it). But its full impact cannot possibly be understood unless it is read in the context of the previous verses about Moses and the bronze serpent being lifted up.

John 3:14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, John 3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness…” (John 3:14) was a dramatic pre-figuring of what The Christ would do and Jesus told Nicodemus that this pre-figuring of what Moses did would ultimately soon be fulfilled by His own on death on the cross. All of this would happen because of God the Father’s great love for all people. “Wilderness” in the Bible is presented as the devil’s domain – it is a place wild barrenness (‘wilderness’) which fittingly depicts the devil’s work. When Christ was crucified, He was taken outside of the city limits to a barren hill called Golgotha (Matt. 27:33) in a way that resembles Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness. At the time of Moses, the people repented, were healed, and never faced the threat of a plague of fiery serpents again. As a result of Christ’s atoning death as the only One who could withstand the wrath and judgment of God, all those who look to Jesus as Saviour in repentance can also be healed from the poison of their sin and have their sin-stain wiped away for all eternity! So, Dr. Peterson, this is what I would have told you about the significance of Christ telling Nicodemus about lifting the bronze serpent up in the wilderness if you had asked me. Merry Christmas everyone.

The Cross of Christ changes your future

Your Pastor,


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