Numbers 21:8
Great Texts of the Bible
Look And Live

And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a standard: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it upon the standard: and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived.—Numbers 21:8-9.

[And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life.—John 3:14-15.]

1. While the children of Israel were roaming homeless through the wilderness, their heart, we read, failed them because of the way, and, as was their wont, they vented their vexation in angry thoughts and rebellious words against God. On this occasion God sent among them judgment in the form of fiery serpents. The bite of these serpents was deadly, so that when a man was once bitten by their venomous fangs his life was forfeited, and, although he did not drop down dead on the instant, in one sense he was a dead man already. What a moment of agony and terror it must have been as all around unfortunate victims were being attacked by these messengers of death! In this terrible emergency the people cried to God, and in doing so confessed, “We have sinned”; and in answer to their prayer Moses was instructed to make a fiery serpent of brass and set it on a pole, and it should come to pass that, if any were bitten by a fiery serpent, on looking at this they would live.

They did well, when they came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee.” So far as I know, it is the only real expression of true sorrow and willing confession which we find in the wilderness story. “We have sinned.” And if so, it is well worth while for us to notice, that this was the occasion for God’s giving to them the great sign of mercy to which Jesus Christ pointed as a sign of Himself. So it is that God gives grace to the humble, encourages the contrite, is found of those who seek.1 [Note: E. S. Talbot.]

2. Recalling this incident of Israel, Jesus found in it a type and prophecy of Himself. “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.”

It is very instructive to notice the New Testament use of the Old Testament record of Moses. His history and its incidents are constantly referred to as illustrations and types of Christ. St. Paul again and again finds his illustrations in the life of Moses, and much more than illustrations. Not with any curious fancy is it that his sturdy logic finds the materials for two compact arguments in these chapters. The manna, the rock, the veil on the face of Moses, are all immediately connected with Jesus Christ. St. John, too, in the Book of Revelation, constantly finds here the imagery by which he sets forth the things which are to come. And the Church in all ages has found in Egypt and the wilderness journey to the goodly land a very Pilgrim’s Progress. No type is more familiar, no illustration more constant. The arrangements of Jewish worship are full of predictions of Christ—living pictures of our salvation. The Lord Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins—the Lamb of God which beareth away the sins of the world. He is the Mercy-seat, as the word propitiation is rendered in the marginal reference. He is the High Priest who ever liveth to make intercession for us, and who is able to save to the uttermost all that come to God by Him.2 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]

The old is always becoming the new. “As Moses … so the Son of man”; as the old, so the new; as the historical so the prophetical. All the pattern of the spiritual temple has been shown in the mountain, and has been frayed out in shapely and significant clouds which themselves were parables. “That the Scripture might be fulfilled.” History always has something more to do than it seems to have; it does not only record the event of the day, it redeems old subjects, old vows and oaths; it takes up what seems to be the exhausted past and turns it into the present and energetic action of the moment. As Moses, as Jonah, as Solomon, as the bold Esaias; it is always a going-back upon the sacred past and eating up the food that was there provided. Do not live too much in what we call the present; do not live upon the bubble of the hour; have some city of the mind, some far-away strong temple-sanctuary made noble by associations and memories of the tenderest kind. You could easily be dislodged from some sophism of yesterday. If you are living in the little programmes that were published but last night you have but a poor lodgment, and to-morrow you will be found naked, destitute, and hungry. Always go back to the “As Moses, as David, as Daniel, as Jeremiah,” and see in every culminating event a confirmation of this holy word—“that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” The plan was drawn before the building was commenced; the specification was all written out before the builder handled his hammer and his trowel; we do but work out old specifications—old, but not decayed; old with the venerableness of truth. See that you stand upon a broad rock, and do not try to launch your lifeship upon a bubble.1 [Note: Joseph Parker.]

We have here—

I. A Pressing Danger.

i. Death from the bite of a Serpent—“The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:6).

ii. Perishing in Sin—“might not perish” (John 3:15 A.V.; “should not perish,” Numbers 3:16).

II. A Way of Escape.

i. A Brazen Serpent lifted up on a pole—“Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a standard” (Numbers 21:8).

ii. A Sin-bearer lifted up on the Cross—“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14).

III. How to use the Way of Escape.

i. Looking to the Serpent—“If a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived” (Numbers 21:9).

ii. Believing in the Sin-bearer—“that whosoever believeth in him,” R.V. “that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life” (John 3:15).

IV. The Good Effect.

i. Life—“When he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived” (Numbers 21:9).

ii. Eternal Life—“that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life” (John 3:15).


A Pressing Danger

The danger is—(i.) Death from the bite of a serpent (Numbers 21:6); (ii.) “perishing” in sin (John 3:16).

i. The Serpent and Death

1. The district through which the Israelites were passing is infested at the present day with venomous reptiles of various kinds, and this seems to have been its character in the time of Moses. It is impossible clearly to identify these “fiery serpents” with any of the several species now known, or to say why they received the appellation “fiery.” The name may have been given them on account of their colour, or their ferocity, or, inasmuch as the word is rendered “deadly” in the Septuagint, and “burning” in some other versions, it may indicate the burning sensation produced by their bite, and its venomous and fatal character.

2. The bite was fatal. “Much people died.” It was no light affliction which was but for a moment, a passing inconvenience that wore away with time; no sickness was it from which prudence and care could recover them. Not as when Paul shook off his venomous beast into the crackling flames, and it perished there. He who was bitten died: old and young, strong man and frail woman. “Ah,” said some of those who are always ready to make light of any illness unless it is their own, “he will get over it; he is young, and he has youth on his side.” “See,” said another, “what a splendid constitution he has; he will mend.” “Come,” said another, “we must hope for the best.” But much people died.

In October, 1852, Gurling, one of the keepers of the reptiles in the Zoological Gardens, was about to part with a friend who was going to Australia, and according to custom he must needs drink with him. He drank considerable quantities of gin, and although he would probably have been in a great passion if any one had called him drunk, yet reason and common sense had evidently been overpowered. He went back to his post at the gardens in an excited state. He had some months before seen an exhibition of snake-charming, and this was on his poor muddled brain. He must emulate the Egyptians, and play with serpents. First he took out of its cage a Morocco venom-snake, put it round his neck, twisted it about, and whirled it round about him. Happily for him it did not rouse itself so as to bite. The assistant-keeper cried out, “For God’s sake, put back the snake,” but the foolish man replied, “I am inspired.” Putting back the venom-snake, he exclaimed, “Now for the cobra!” This deadly serpent was somewhat torpid with the cold of the previous night, and therefore the rash man placed it in his bosom till it revived, and glided downward till its head appeared below the back of his waistcoat. He took it by the body, about a foot from the head, and then seized it lower down by the other hand, intending to hold it by the tail and swing it round his head. He held it for an instant opposite to his face, and like a flash of lightning the serpent struck him between the eyes. The blood streamed down his face, and he called for help, but his companion fled in horror; and, as he told the jury, he did not know how long he was gone, for he was “in a maze.” When assistance arrived, Gurling was sitting on a chair, having restored the cobra to its place. He said, “I am a dead man.” They put him in a cab, and took him to the hospital. First his speech went, he could only point to his poor throat and moan; then his vision failed him, and lastly his hearing. His pulse gradually sank, and in one hour from the time at which he had been struck he was a corpse. There was only a little mark upon the bridge of his nose, but the poison spread over the body, and he was a dead Man 1:1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]

ii. Sin and Perishing

1. The bite of these serpents was mortal. The Israelites could have no question about that, because in their own presence “much people of Israel died.” They saw their own friends die of the snake-bite, and they helped to bury them. They knew why they died, and were sure that it was because the venom of the fiery serpents was in their veins. They were left almost without an excuse for imagining that they could be bitten and yet live. Now, we know that many have perished as the result of sin. We are not in doubt as to what sin will do, for we are told by the infallible Word, that “the wages of sin is death,” and, yet again, “sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.”

Sin can have but one ending—death—death—death. The soul that sinneth it shall die, so rings the warning of God. How foolishly we talk of it! When it is the child, we say, “He is young, and will grow better.” When it is the youth, we say, “Let him sow his wild oats, and he will settle down.” Ah, what cruel folly! What a man soweth, that shall he also reap. When it is middle age, we say, “Yes, it is very sad, but he has a great many good points, you know.” And when he is an old man and dies, we say, “Well, we must hope for the best.” And in upon this Babel there comes the terrible note of doom: The wages of sin is death.1 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]

2. Is it always immediate? Not always. May we not play with the serpent? We may not. Are there not moments when the cruel beast is not cruel? Not one. The sandwasp paralyses the beetle with his sting that he may, and that his progeny may profit, by the paralysis. The sandwasp does not kill the insect, but thrusts a sting into him, not fatally; the insect can still lay eggs for the advantage of the progeny of the sandwasp. It is so with many serpentine tricks; we are paralysed to be used, not to-day, but to be eaten in six months. We are so paralysed that we will do this or do that and have joy in it and have a banquet over it, ay, a foaming tankard of wine that froths out its own mocking laugh. It is the sting of the sandwasp; it has thrust in that venomous sting and hung us up for the next meeting, for the next occasion, just before the bankruptcy comes, and the devouring of our very soul by those whom we have wronged.

The worst consequences of sin are sin itself, more sin. Drink and lust mean stronger passion, more ungovernable desire. Anger and temper mean as their consequence a heart more bitter, more ready for more wrath. Selfish ways mean less power even to see when we are selfish or what selfishness is. Yes, and not only is there deepening of the same sin, but other sins are bred from it; cruelty, even murderous, out of lust and drink; cruelty, too, out of selfishness; lying and slander out of the hot heart and ungoverned life of anger. So it goes: sin breeding sin, sin deepening into more sin.2 [Note: E. S. Talbot.]

It is necessary to be ever vigilant, and, always looking on a trifling sin as one of magnitude, to flee far from it; because if the virtuous deeds exceed the sinful acts by even the point of one of the hairs of the eyelashes, the spirit goes to Paradise; but should the contrary be the case, it descends to hell.1 [Note: “The Dabistan” in Field’s Book of Eastern Wisdom, 121.]

3. What was the sin the Israelites were guilty of?

(1) The fiery serpents came among the people because they had despised God’s way. “The soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.” It was God’s way; He had chosen it for them, and He had chosen it in wisdom and mercy, but they murmured at it. As an old divine says, “It was lonesome and longsome”; but still it was God’s way, and therefore it ought not to have been loathsome. His pillar of fire and cloud went before them, and His servants Moses and Aaron led them like a flock, and they ought to have followed cheerfully. Every step of their previous journey had been rightly ordered, and they ought to have been quite sure that this compassing of the land of Edom was rightly ordered too. But, no; they quarrelled with God’s way, and wanted to have their own way. This is one of the great standing follies of men; they cannot be content to wait on the Lord and keep His way, but prefer a will and a way of their own.

(2) The people also quarrelled with God’s food. He gave them the best of the best, for “men did eat angels’ food”; but they called the manna by an opprobrious title, which in the Hebrew has a sound of ridicule about it, and even in our translation conveys the idea of contempt. They said, “Our soul loatheth this light bread,” as if they thought it unsubstantial, and only fitted to puff them out, because it was easy of digestion, and did not breed in them that heat of blood and tendency to disease which a heavier diet would have brought with it. Being discontented with their God they quarrelled with the bread which He set upon their table. This is another of man’s follies; his heart refuses to feed upon God’s Word or believe God’s truth. He craves the flesh-meat of carnal reason, the leeks and the garlic of superstitious tradition, and the cucumbers of speculation; he cannot bring his mind down to believe the Word of God, or to accept truth so simple, so fitted to the capacity of a child.


A Way of Escape

The way is—(i.) a brazen serpent lifted up on a pole; (ii.) a Sin-bearer lifted up on the cross.

i. The Brazen Serpent

1. The command to make a brazen or copper serpent, and set it on some conspicuous place, that to look on it might stay the effect of the poison, is remarkable, not only as sanctioning the forming of an image, but as associating healing power with a material object. Two questions must be considered separately—What did the method of cure say to the men who turned their bloodshot, languid eyes to it? and What does it mean for us, who see it by the light of our Lord’s great words about it? As to the former question, we have not to take into account the Old Testament symbolism which makes the serpent the emblem of Satan or of sin. Serpents had bitten the wounded. Here was one like them, but without poison, hanging harmless on the pole. Surely that would declare that God had rendered innocuous the else fatal creatures.

That to which they were to look was to be a serpent, but it was to be a serpent triumphed over, as it were, not triumphing, and held up to view and exhibited as a trophy. Around on every side the serpents are victorious, and the people are dying. Here the serpent is represented as conquered and, we may say, made a spectacle of, and the people who see it live. Strong were the serpents in their power of death, but stronger was God in His omnipotence of life, and the life triumphed.

The sight of the brazen serpent was as though God’s spear had pierced the plague, and held it aloft before their eyes, a vanquished, broken thing. It was not one of the serpents; it was an image of all and any of them; it was the whole serpent curse and plague in effigy.1 [Note: E. S. Talbot.]

2. How could a cure be wrought through merely looking at twisted brass? It seemed, indeed, to be almost a mockery to bid men look at the very thing which had caused their misery. Shall the bite of a serpent be cured by looking at a serpent? Shall that which brings death also bring life? But herein lay the excellency of the remedy, that it was of divine origin; for when God ordains a cure He is by that very fact bound to put potency into it. He will not devise a failure or prescribe a mockery. It should always be enough for us to know that God ordains a way of blessing us, for if He ordains, it must accomplish the promised result. We need not know how it will work, it is quite sufficient for us that God’s mighty grace is pledged to make it bring forth good to our souls.

ii. The Sin-bearer

1. It is strange that the same which hurt should also heal; that from a serpent should come the poison, and from a serpent the antidote of the poison; the same inflicting the wound, and being in God’s ordinance appointed for the healing of the wound. The history would sound a strange one, and would suggest some underlying mystery, even if it stood alone, with no after-word of Scripture claiming a special significance for it. But it is stranger and more mysterious still when we come to the Lord’s appropriation of it to Himself. The Son of Man, healer and helper of the lost race whose nature He took, compared to a serpent! Of what is the serpent the figure everywhere else in Scripture? Not of Christ, but of Christ’s chiefest enemy; of the author of death, not of the Prince of life. Disguised in a serpent’s form, he won his first success, and poisoned at the fountain-head the life of all our race. His name is “the Old Serpent”; while the wicked are a “serpent seed,” a “generation of vipers,” as being in a manner born of him. Strange therefore and most perplexing it is to find the whole symbolism of Scripture on this one occasion reversed, and Christ, not Satan, likened to the serpent.

There is only one explanation which really meets the difficulties of the case. In the words of St. Paul, to the effect that God sent “His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin,” we have the key to the whole mystery.

2. The “sign of salvation,” as it is called in the Book of Wisdom, which Moses was commanded of God to make, was at once most like the serpents which hurt the people, and also most unlike them; most like in appearance, most unlike in reality. In outward appearance it was most like, and doubtless was fashioned of copper or shining brass that it might resemble their fiery aspect the more closely; but in reality it was most unlike them, being, in the very necessities of its nature, harmless and without venom; while they were most harmful, filled with deadliest poison. And thus it came to pass that the thing which most resembled the serpents that had hurt them, the thing therefore which they, the Israelites, must have been disposed to look at with the most shuddering abhorrence, was yet appointed of God as the salve, remedy, medicine, and antidote of all their hurts: and approved itself as such; for “it came to pass that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” Unlikely remedy, and yet most effectual! And exactly thus it befell in that great apparent paradox, that “foolishness of God,” the plan of our salvation. As a serpent hurt and a serpent healed, so in like manner, as by man came death, by man should come also the resurrection from the dead; as by “one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one should many be made righteous”; “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ,” the second Adam, “shall all be made alive.”

3. That serpent, so like in many points to those which hurt the people, so like in colour, in form, in outward show, was yet unlike in one, and that the most essential point of all—in this, namely, that it was not poisonous, as they were; that there was no harm or hurt in it, as there was in them. Exactly so the resemblance of Christ to His fellow-men, most real in many things, for He was “found in fashion as a man,” hungered, thirsted, was weary, was tempted, suffered, died like other men, was yet in one point, and that the most essential, only apparent. He only seemed to have that poison which they really had. Wearing the sinner’s likeness, for He came “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” bearing the sinner’s doom, “His face was more marred than any man’s,” He was yet “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners”; altogether clear from every spot, taint, and infection of our fallen nature. What was, and indeed could only be, negative in a dead thing, such as that brazen serpent, the poor type and weak figure of the true, namely, the absence of the venom, this was positive in Him, as the presence of the antidote. And thus out of this Man’s curse came every man’s blessing, out of this Man’s death came every other man’s life.

My predecessor, Dr. Gill, edited the works of Tobias Crisp, but Tobias Crisp went further than Dr. Gill or any of us can approve; for in one place Crisp calls Christ a sinner, though he does not mean that He ever sinned Himself. He actually calls Christ a transgressor, and justifies himself by that passage, “He was numbered with the transgressors.” Martin Luther is reputed to have broadly said that, although Jesus Christ was sinless, yet He was the greatest sinner that ever lived, because all the sins of His people lay upon Him. Now, such expressions I think to be unguarded, if not profane. Certainly Christian men should take care that they use not language which, by the ignorant and uninstructed, may be translated to mean what they never intended to teach.1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]

There is a text (2 Corinthians 5:21) which tells us that He “knew no sin.” That is very beautiful and significant—“who knew no sin.” It does not merely say did none, but knew none. Sin was no acquaintance of His; He was acquainted with grief, but no acquaintance of sin. He had to walk in the midst of its most frequented haunts, but did not know it; not that He was ignorant of its nature, or did not know its penalty, but He did not know it; he was a stranger to it, He never gave it the wink or nod of familiar recognition. Of course He knew what sin was, for He was very God, but with sin He had no communion, no fellowship, no brotherhood. He was a perfect stranger in the presence of sin; He was a foreigner; He was not an inhabitant of that land where sin is acknowledged. He passed through the wilderness of suffering, but into the wilderness of sin He could never go. “He knew no sin”; mark that expression and treasure it up, and when you are thinking of your substitute, and see Him hang bleeding upon the Cross, think that you see written in those lines of blood traced along His blessed body, “He knew no sin.” Mingled with the redness of His blood (that Rose of Sharon), behold the purity of His nature (the Lily of the Valley)—“He knew no sin.”2 [Note: Ibid.]

4. The Serpent and the Sin-bearer were “lifted up.” The elevation of the serpent was simply intended to make it visible from afar; but it could not have been set so high as to be seen from all parts of the camp, and we must suppose that the wounded were in many cases carried from the distant parts of the wide-spreading encampment to places whence they could catch a glimpse of it glittering in the sunshine.

Of the meaning of this there cannot well be any mistake. It denotes the lifting up of our Lord on the Cross; as St. John, in another place, tells us, that when He said to the Pharisees, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me,” He spoke, ‘signifying by what death he should die.” He did not mean merely that His Name should be preached in all the world, and made thoroughly known as the only way of salvation; He meant that He should be really and bodily lifted up. He meant His nailing to the Cross, and then the setting of the Cross upright in the earth. By this He became, more especially, the “scorn of men, and the outcast of the people.”1 [Note: John Keble.]

It is the lifting up that is the chief point in the comparison The word is mentioned twice—“As Moses lifted up the serpent, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” To Jesus, and to John as taught by Him, the “lifting up” was doubly significant. It meant death upon the Cross, but it also suggested the beginning of His exaltation. As the serpent was lifted up so that it might be seen, we are compelled to adopt the same reason for the lifting up of the Son of Man. It is a marvellous thought, an amazing foresight. The death which was intended to consign Him and His teaching to oblivion was the means by which attention was directed to them. That which was to make Him “accursed” became the means by which He entered into His glory. His name was not obscured, but was exalted above all other names by the shame which men put upon it. The crucifixion was the first step of exaltation, the beginning of a higher stage of Revelation 2 [Note: John Reid.]

I feel a need divine

That meeteth need of mine;

No rigid fate I meet, no law austere.

I see my God, who turns

And o’er His creature yearns:

Upon the cross God gives and claims the tear.3 [Note: Dora Greenwell, Carmina Crucis.]


The Acceptance of the Offer of Escape

The offer of escape is accepted—(i.) by looking to the brazen serpent; (ii.) by believing in the Sin-bearer.

i. Looking to the Serpent

1. We are not told that trust in God was an essential part of the look, but that is taken for granted. Why else should a half-dead man lift his eyelids to look? Such a one knew that God had commanded the image to be made, and had promised healing for a look. His gaze was fixed on it, in obedience to the command involved in the promise, and was, in some measure, a manifestation of faith. No doubt the faith was very imperfect, and the desire was only for physical healing; but none the less it had in it the essence of faith. It would have been too hard a requirement for men through whose veins the swift poison was burning its way, and who, at the best, were so little capable of rising above sense, to have asked from them, as the condition of their cure, a trust which had no external symbol to help it. The singularity of the method adopted witnesses to the graciousness of God, who gave their feebleness a thing to look at, in order to aid them in grasping the unseen power which really effected the cure. “He that hath turned himself to it,” says the Book of Wisdom, “was not saved by the thing which he saw, but by thee, that art the Saviour of all.”

They would try all their own remedies before they turned to the Lord. I can think that none would be so busy as the charmers. Amongst them would be some who knew the secrets of the Egyptian snake-charmers. In the “mixed multitude” may have been the professional charmer, boasting a descent which could not fail in its authority. And they come bringing assured remedies. There is the music that can charm the serpent, and destroy the poison. There is the mystic sign set around the place that made it sacred. There are mysterious magic amulets to be worn for safety; this on the neck, and this about the wrist. There is a ceremony that shall hold the serpent spellbound and powerless. But come hither. Lift up this curtain. See here one lies on the ground. “He sleeps.” Nay, indeed, he will never wake again. Why, it is the charmer. Here are the spells and the charms and the mystic signs all around him. And lo! there glides the serpent; the charmer himself is dead.1 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]

2. We can imagine that when that brazen serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, there were some bitten by those fiery serpents who refused to look at this exalted sign of salvation, and so perished after all.

We may imagine, for instance, a wounded Israelite saying, “I do not believe this hurt of mine to be deadly. If some have died of the same, yet this is no reason why all should die. Surely there are natural remedies, herbs, or salves which the desert itself will supply, by whose aid I can restore health to myself.”

We can imagine another Israelite running into an opposite extreme, not slighting his hurt, but saying on the contrary, “My wound is too deadly for any remedy to avail for its cure. Thousands who have been bitten have already died, their carcases strew the wilderness. I too must die. Some, indeed, may have been healed by looking at that serpent lifted up, but none who were so deeply hurt as I am, none into whose frame that poison had penetrated so far, had circulated so long;” and so he may have turned away his face, and despaired, and died; and as the other perished by thinking lightly of the hurt, this will have perished by thinking lightly of the remedy, as fatal, if not as frequent, an error.

Can we not imagine one of the Israelites demanding, in a moodier and more sullen discontent, “Why were these serpents sent at all? Why was I exposed to injury by them? Now, indeed, after I am hurt, a remedy is proposed; why was not the hurt itself hindered?” Translate these murmurings into the language of the modern world, and you will recognize in others, perhaps at times in yourself, the same displeasure against God’s plan of salvation. “Why should this redemption have been needful at all? Why was I framed so obvious to temptation, so liable to sin? I will not fall in with His plan for counterworking the evil which He has wrought. Let Him, who is its true author, answer for it.” We all know more or less of this temptation, this anger, not against ourselves, but against God, that we should be the sinners which we are, this discontent with the scheme of restoration which He has provided. But what is this after all but an angry putting of that question, older than this world of ours, “Why is there any evil, and whence?“—a mystery none have searched out or can search out here. This only is sure, that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all”; and of the evil in the world, that it is against His will; of the evil in us, that He is on our side in all our struggles to subdue and cast it out.

ii. Believing in the Sin-bearer

1. The brazen serpent was to be looked upon. The wounded persons were to turn their eyes towards it, and so to be healed. So Christ, lifted up on the Cross, is to be believed on, to be looked upon with the eyes of our heart. “The Son of man” is “lifted up, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” “The Law could not save us, in that it was weak through the flesh”; through the corruption of our fallen nature, for which it provided no cure. It could but point to Him who is our cure, as Moses did to the brazen serpent. It could not justify us, it could only bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. Justification by faith is that which was betokened by the healing of the Israelites when they looked up to the serpent. It justifies, because it brings us to Him, with whom to be united is to be justified; that is, to be forgiven and saved from this evil world, to be clothed with heavenly righteousness.

2. Trust is no arbitrary condition. The Israelite was told to turn to the brazen serpent. There was no connexion between his look and his healing, except in so far as the symbol was a help to, and looking at it was a test of, his faith in the healing power of God. But it is no arbitrary appointment, as many people often think it is, which connects inseparably together the look of faith and the eternal life that Christ gives. For seeing that salvation is no mere external gift of shutting up some outward Hell and opening the door to some outward Heaven, but is a state of heart and mind, of relation to God, the only way by which that salvation can come into a man’s heart is that he, knowing his need of it, shall trust Christ, and through Him the new life will flow into his heart. Faith is trust, and trust is the stretching out of the hand to take the precious gift, the opening of the heart for the influx of the grace, the eating of the bread, the drinking of the water, of life.

Looking at Jesus—what does it mean practically? It means hearing about Him first, then actually appealing to Him, accepting His word as personal to one’s self, putting Him to the test in life, trusting His death to square up one’s sin score, trusting His power to clean the heart and sweeten the spirit and stiffen the will. It means holding the whole life up to His ideals. Ay, it means more yet; something on His side, an answering look from Him. There comes a consciousness within of His love and winsomeness. That answering look of His holds us for ever after His willing slaves, love’s slaves. Paul speaks of the eyes of the heart. It is with these eyes we look to Him, and receive His answering look.1 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Service, 16.]

Faith is the keynote of the Gospel by John. The very purpose for which this Gospel was written was that men might believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that believing they might have life through His name (John 20:31). This purpose is everywhere its predominant feature. From the announcement that John the Baptist was sent “that all men through him might believe” (John 1:7), to the confident assurance with which the beloved disciple makes the declaration that he knows his testimony is true (John 21:24), the Gospel of John is one long argument, conceived with the evident intention of inducing men to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Saviour of all who trust in Him. The word “believe” occurs in this Gospel no fewer than ninety-eight times, and either that or some cognate word is to be found in every chapter.2 [Note: H. Thorne.]

A woman who was always looking within herself, and could not reach assurance and peace, was told she must look out and up. Yet light did not come. One night she dreamed that she was in a pit which was deep, dark, and dirty. There was no way of escape—no door, no ladder, no steps, no rope. Looking right overhead she saw a little bit of blue sky, and in it one star. While gazing at the star she began to rise inch by inch in the pit. Then she cried out, “Who is lifting me?” and she looked down to see. But the moment she looked down she was back again at the bottom of the pit. Again she looked up, saw the star, and began to rise. Again she looked down to see who or what was lifting her, and again she found herself at the bottom. Resolving not to look down again, she for the third time gazed at the star. Little by little she rose; tempted to look down, she resisted the desire; higher and higher she ascended, with her eyes on the star, till at last she was out of the pit altogether. Then she awoke, and said, “I see it all now. I am not to look down or within, but out and up to the Bright and Morning Star, the Lord Jesus Christ.”3 [Note: J. J. Mackay.]


The Good Effect

The effect is—(i.) life: “when he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived”; (ii.) eternal life: “that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life.”

i. Life

It does not seem possible that so great a thing as life should depend upon so small a thing as a look. But life often depends on a look. A traveller was once walking over a mountain-road; it grew quite dark, and he lost his way. Then a thunderstorm came on, and he made all the haste he could to try to find some shelter. A flash of lightning showed just for a moment where he was going. He was on the very edge of a precipice. The one look that the lightning enabled him to take saved his life. A few weeks ago I was in a train after it was dark. The signal was put “all right,” and the train started. We had gone a few hundred yards, when I heard the whistle sound very sharply, and soon the train stopped. Some one had shown the engine-driver a red light, and warned him of danger. It turned out that one of the chains by which the carriages were coupled together had broken. If the man who saw the broken chain had not looked, and if the engine-driver had not looked and so seen the red light, most likely many lives would have been lost. Here, again, life depended upon a look.

The wounded Israelite was in one sense dead already, his life was forfeit as soon as he was bitten; it follows that the new life infused by a look at the brazen serpent was miraculous in its character. What have we here but a striking figure of death and resurrection? Not by any natural process of improvement or gradual restoration was the death-stricken Israelite rescued from his fate, but by the direct and supernatural intervention of Him who was even then, as He is still, the resurrection and the life, in whom whosoever believes lives though he were dead.1 [Note: W. H. M. H. Aitken.]

ii. Eternal Life

1. Our Lord said, “Ye must be born again,” and Nicodemus answered, “How can a man be born again when he is old?” Our Lord replied by telling him something more. A man needs to be born not only outwardly of water, but inwardly of the Spirit, and when he is so born he will be as free as the wind—from legal bondage—from the tyranny of sin. And to this Nicodemus replied by asking yet more impatiently, “How can these things be?” The answer that he receives is given through the speaking figure of death and resurrection, and if we desire a striking commentary on the figure, and a definite statement of the truth, we have only to turn to St. Paul’s Epistles. “You hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, and hath raised us up together.” “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses.” “Having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in his cross.” Surely nothing can be more striking than the parallelism between the words of this passage and the symbolism of the scene that we are contemplating.

Eternal life is the blessing of the Kingdom of God viewed as a personal possession. The description is peculiar to John’s Gospel, but it agrees with the “life” which is spoken of with such emphasis in the other Gospels. According to them, to enter into the Kingdom is to enter into “life” (Matthew 18:3; Matthew 18:8-9). It is not so much duration that is expressed by the word “eternal” as the peculiar quality of the life that arises out of the new relations with God which are brought about by Jesus Christ. It is deathless life, although the believer has still to die, “and go unterrified into the gulf of Death.” It may be described as a life which seeks to obey an eternal rule, the will of God; which is inspired by an eternal motive, the love of God; which lives for and is lightened by an eternal glory, the glory of God; and abides in an eternal blessedness, communion with God. It is both present and future. Here and now for the believer there are a new heaven and a new earth, and the glory of God doth lighten them, and the Lamb is the light thereof. No change which time or death can bring has power to affect the essential character of his life, though its glory as terrestrial is one, and its glory as celestial is another. Wherever after death the man may be who has believed in Jesus, the life that he lives will be the same in its inner spirit and relation. “To him all one, if on the earth or in the sun,” God’s will must be his law, God’s glory his light, God’s presence his blessedness, God’s love his inspiration and joy.1 [Note: John Reid.]

I distinguish between Life, which is our Being in God, and Eternal Life, which is the Light of the Life, that is, fellowship with the Author, Substance, and Former of our Being, the Alpha and Omega. It is the heart that needs re-creation; it is the heart that is desperately wicked, not the Being of man. I think a distinction is carefully maintained in Holy Scripture between the life in the heart and the Life of the Being: “Lighten thou my eyes that I sleep not in death.” It is the Light of Life we want, to purify or re-create or regenerate our hearts so that we may be the Children of Light.2 [Note: R. W. Corbet, Letters from a Mystic of the Present Day, 63.]

2. In the Revised Version there is a little change made here, partly by the exclusion of a clause and partly by changing the order of the words. The alteration is not only nearer the original text, but brings out a striking thought. It reads that “whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life.” “May in him have eternal life”—union with Christ by faith, that profound incorporation into Him, which the New Testament sets forth in all sorts of aspects as the very foundation of the blessings of Christianity; that union is the condition of eternal life.

A soldier lay dying on the battlefield; the chaplain speaking to him read St. John 3. When he came to Numbers 21:14-15, he was asked to read them again; when they were read, the soldier, having repeated them, added, “That is enough for me; that is all I want.”3 [Note: L. N. Caley.]

There is a most impressive little story which tells how Sternberg, the great German artist, was led to paint his “Messiah,” which is his masterpiece. One day the artist met a little gypsy girl on the street, and was so struck by her peculiar beauty that he requested her to accompany him to his studio in order that he might paint her. This she consented to do, and while sitting for the great artist she noticed a half-finished painting of Christ on the cross. The gypsy girl, who was ignorant and uneducated, asked Sternberg what it was, and wondered if Christ must not have been an awfully bad man to be nailed to a cross. Sternberg replied that Christ was the best man that ever lived, and that He died on the cross that others might live. “Did He die for you?” asked the gypsy. This question so preyed upon the mind of Sternberg, who was not a Christian, that he was greatly disturbed by it. The more he pondered it, the more impressed he became that, though Christ had died for him, he had not accepted the sacrifice. It was this that led him at last to paint the “Messiah,” which became famous throughout the world. It is said that John Wesley got one of his greatest inspirations from this picture.


Aitken (W. H. M. H.), God’s Everlasting Yea, 117.

Banks (L. A.), On the Trail of Moses, 201.

Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year, Holy Week, 114, 480.

Mackay (J. J.), Recent Letters of Christ, 156.

Maclaren (A.), Christ’s Musts, 1.

Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, 362; St. John i.–viii., 162, 171.

Macpherson (W. M.), The Path of Life, 105.

Parker (J.), The City Temple Pulpit, iv. 12.

Pearse (M. G.), Moses, 253.

Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, ix. 169.

Reid (J.), Jesus and Nicodemus, 185.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxv. No. 1500.

Talbot (E. S.), Sermons in Leeds Parish Church. 147.

Thorne (H.), Foreshadowings of the Gospel, 57.

Thorne (H.), Notable Sayings of the Great Teacher, 25.

Trench (R. C), Sermons in Ireland, 228.

Christian World Pulpit, xx. 237 (Walters).

Churchman’s Pulpit (Second Sunday after Easter), viii. 15 (Caley).

Preacher’s Magazine, iv. (1893) 469.

The Great Texts of the Bible - James Hastings

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