Why did God command Moses to make a Bronze Serpent?
This question was specifically why the image Moses put up on the pole was a Serpent. The questioner was familiar with the words of the Lord Jesus to Nicodemus, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (Jn. 3:14). But the use of the serpent, an obvious reference to Satan, was puzzling.
This puzzle is understandable if we are not accustomed to reading the Old Testament histories with an awareness of their typological significance. So, let’s begin there.
As the quotation from John’s gospel suggests, the historical event recorded in the Old Testament passage of Numbers 21:4–9 is a picture of the Lord Jesus being lifted up on the cross. This is an example of a common technique used by the Holy Spirit to present an historical event in such a way as to represent a New Testament truth. The most well-known example is the record of Melchizedek which I wrote about in a previous post. Such references are usually called “types.”
The importance of recognizing types is given by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10. There the apostle writes, “And all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” (v. 4) And later “Now these things happened to them as an example, [i.e., a type] but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (v. 11) The word “example” in these verses does not carry the full significance. One might think of these incidences as examples in a “morality tale.” However, the meaning is deeper than simply an example as shown by how the story of Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18–20 is used in Hebrews 7. Furthermore, as the passage in 1 Corinthians says, we are to learn from these types.
There are actually two related characteristics that need to be understood to see the connection between the historical event and the “anti-type” of the Lord Jesus being lifted up. What is the significance of the serpent being made out of bronze and why the serpent?
There are over one hundred references to bronze in the Old Testament. Many of these are connected with items in the tabernacle. The significance of the use of bronze comes from the general observation of how it is used and mainly from its use in the construction of the tabernacle and later the temple. The connected thought seems to be that of righteous judgment. For example, in the tabernacle and temple, two items made from bronze are the altar (Ex. 27:1–5, 2 Chr. 4:1) and the laver or, “sea” (Ex. 30:18, 2 Chr. 4:2). The altar, of course, reminds us of the judgment for sin that Christ suffered. The laver, used for washing or cleansing before entering the tabernacle or temple, reminds us of the self-judgment required for our own practical sanctification.
Now, we come to the serpent which is a well-known picture (“type”) of Satan. What is he doing being lifted up? The answer is given in 1 Corinthians 15:55 and Hebrews 2:14. The truth in these verses is very important for our own peace with God. This is why the image of the serpent lifted up as judged (turned into bronze) is so important. Just as the Israelites were cured from the deadly bite of the serpents in the wilderness by looking toward the bronze serpent, we find peace knowing that the power of Satan is broken. We are no longer to serve Satan but to serve the Lord who has destroyed the power of Satan and delivered us from wrath.