“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14–16).
Jesus was talking to Nicodemus as He made reference to a story found in Numbers, chapter twenty-one.
“Then they set out from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to bypass the land of Edom, but the people became impatient because of the journey. The people spoke against God and Moses: ‘Why have you led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread or water, and we detest this wretched food!’ Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit them so that many Israelites died. The people then came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Intercede with the Lord so that he will take the snakes away from us.’ And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Lordsaid to Moses, ‘Make a snake image and mount it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will recover.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten, and he looked at the bronze snake, he recovered”(Numbers 21:4–9).
When did this happen?
When we get to the twentieth chapter of Numbers, we’re getting close to the end of the forty years of Wilderness wanderings. “Aaron died there...” (Numbers 20:28). In a review of their travels recorded in chapter thirty-three, we learn that “Aaron ... died there on the first day of the fifth month in the fortieth year after the Israelites went out of the land of Egypt. Aaron was 123 years old when he died” (Numbers 33:38–39). So, everything that happened in Numbers twenty-one, happened in the last year of the journey.
Why did God send the poisonous snakes?
For forty long years, Moses had listened to the same complaints. The congregation grumbled and griped incessantly. Just after crossing the Red Sea, “the entire Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat and ate all the bread we wanted. Instead, you brought us into this wilderness to make this whole assembly die of hunger!’ ” (Exodus 16:2–3). Their rebellious tune hadn’t changed much. Forty-years later, they were still fussing.
By the way, did you do the math? How many Israelites died in the Wilderness? Something like one-million, two-hundred thousand. Forty years... fourteen thousand, six hundred days... divided by... Yikes! Eighty-two people died every day! Eighty-two on Monday. Eighty-two on Tuesday... day after day ... year after year. Yet, the congregation continued to complain.
Most importantly, this story shows us that God rescues and redeems. When the people repented and looked faithfully at God’s gracious provision, they were saved. The same is still true today. So, look faithfully to Jesus, the One lifted up! He saved!