The Serpent of Brass
April 13th, 1960 @ 12:00 PM
THE SERPENT OF BRASS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
4-13-60 12:00 p.m.
This is the forty-first year we have conducted these services, twenty-five years by the great, illustrious pastor, Dr. Truett, and this is the sixteenth year that I have conducted them. Each year, the messages are built around a theme, and this time, "The Five Emblems of Grace": Monday, The Blood of the Passover; yesterday, The Type of the Tabernacle; tomorrow, The Breaking of Bread; and Friday, The Sign of the Cross; and today, The Serpent of Brass.
As they journeyed from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom: the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.
And the people spake against God, and against Moses, saying, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of the land of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this manna.
And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people; and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.
The people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that He take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.
And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.
And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.
"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" [John 3:14-15]. Lifted up, high, suspended, exalted, between the earth and the sky, but not lifted up on a throne in Herod’s palace or on a dais in Cesar’s imperial court; lifted up, high and exalted, on a pole, dead, like a serpent.
The exaltation of our Lord is sure and certain. It is ordained of God. "God hath given to Him a name that is above every name" [Philippians 2:9], that in Him He might have the preeminence. Above all things in heaven and in earth, above all principality and power, above all things present and things to come; the Lord’s Christ is exalted, high and lifted up [Ephesians 1:20-22].
But this place of exaltation, and dignity, and of power has not been achieved by mere official appointment, not by the accidental choice of the people, nor by hereditary title, but by a sacrifice for mankind that makes the race His own. Lifted up, not by military conquest or political favor or strategic prowess and power, but by dying for a dying people, the just for the unjust, the sinless for the sinful. Lifted up, not by a swift ascension into fame and notoriety, amidst the unfurling of banners and the flaunting of flags, and the blaring of trumpets, and the acclaim of the crowds, but by blood and by suffering, by sobs and by tears, by sacrifice and by death. Lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness, dead on a pole [John 3:14-15].
For it all began in a plague, in the judgment of God upon sin. It began in the story of transgression, and rebellion, and blasphemy, and unbelief. And the judgment of God turned the whole earth into the strike of the scorpion and the bite of the asp and the adder. The whole earth seemingly was filled with the fiery, venomous vipers, small, slender, slight, tenuous, but everywhere. The external mark of the wound was hardly visible, but oh, the hurt inside, the swelling, and the convulsing, and the death [Numbers 21:5-6].
Sin is the darkest, darkest reality, the greatest fact of life, of human nature, of time and of history, universal, inescapable, unmistakable, ugly and awful – sin in the heart, sin in the mind, sin in the house, sin on the street, sin in the marketplace, sin in high places and in low, sin in government, in public and in private.
The old time doctrine of total depravity is never preached anymore, but it is everlastingly real and true. Not that men are as vile as they can be, but that sin has reached into every faculty of a man’s mind, every emotion of his will, every part of his life. However it may be denied, or argued, or extenuated, or defended, or explained, sin is the darkest fact of human life. Like the old man of the sea, he has climbed upon the shoulders of humanity and has choked its spiritual life to death.
Philosophize about it as a man may, the harshest tragedy of human life is that we are a sinful people and a dying humanity. The sobs, and heartaches, and cries of the race, the penitentiaries, and the asylums, the guns, the wars, and the cemeteries, all are a vast universal amen to the stark tragedy of sin in the world.
And its power to destroy is in describable and inescapable. The strongest man that ever lived, with his locks shorn, and his eyes blinded, and his arms bound, grinding at the prison mill, cried, "O God, let me die with the Philistines" [Judges 16:30].
The wisest man that ever lived, his heart turned away, bequeathed to his son a kingdom dissolving and divided [1 Kings 11:9-13]. And the man after God’s own heart [1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22], to him did the prophet in judgment say, "The sword shall never leave thy house" [2 Samuel 12:10], and the story of the house of David is written in tears and in blood.
"In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" [Genesis 2:17]. "The soul that sinneth shall die" [Ezekiel 18:4]. "The wages of sin is death" [Romans 6:23]. God Himself has linked, has welded that iron chain together. To sin is to die, physical death, mental death, moral death, spiritual death, eternal death, the second death: "The wages of sin is death."
Nor could I describe our helplessness before it and our inability to cope with it. This earth is thousands of years old. Generations have come and gone, but we are still lost and undone. Mankind has lifted itself out of ignorance, and poverty, and disease, and darkness, and superstition, but we are still on the same spiritual level of our ancestors. In the ages past, we killed with a club, or a stone, or an axe. Today, we do it with a gun, or a bomb, or a plane. As one great philosopher observed, "We have learned to fly through the air like a bird. We’ve learned to swim through the sea like a fish. But we have never learned to walk on the earth as a man created in the holy image and likeness of God." We have never been able to conquer sin and to conquer death.
And the people came and cried unto Moses [Numbers 21:7], and a lost, dying humanity cries unto God, "O Lord, O Lord." And the remedy resembles the disease, a caduceus, a serpent of brass. One of the strangest things in human history is this, that in the ancient, ancient time, as in our present moment, the universal sign of healing is a serpent entwined around a pole.
Whether on our hospital or on your doctor’s car, the emblem of health and of healing: "Make thee a serpent of brass, and nail it on a pole" [Numbers 21:8] – its head drooping, its fangs motionless, limp, lifeless, dead, harmless. Not an actual serpent. That would have been just another snake that deserved to be destroyed, just to remind us of how many other snakes there were that were yet alive, but a brazen serpent, representative of all, hanging there, dead, limp, lifeless!
As the serpent of brass was nailed to the pole, even so must the Son of God be nailed to the cross and lifted up between the earth and the sky, God’s Man [John 3:14-15]. Not just another sinner stained with the guilt in his own soul, not just one other among us who deserved to die for his own iniquity, not just another thief, on this side one, on that side one [Mark 15:27], and in the center yet another, but the representative man, the God Man, Christ Jesus, nailed to the tree, made sin for us [2 Corinthians 5:21], made in the likeness of our human flesh, our human iniquity [Romans 8:3], receiving into His own body the venom, and the virulence, and the poison of the whole human race, nailed to a cross [1 Peter 2:24]. Sin, dead, lifeless, suspended, its poisonous fangs extracted, dead; so certainly dead no second blow is needed. Dead! No bone is broken; so certainly dead [John 19:30-33]. Raised, nailed to a pole.
And the way of salvation; "and whosoever shall look shall live." The healing is effected in a moral act, to turn and to look. Less could not have been required, more by many could not have been offered. Just to turn, and to look, and to live, but it was enough [Numbers 21:8-9; John 3:14-15].
A child in disobedience sat waiting for the father to come home to be punished. And when the father came home and the disobedience was described, he went to the room. And there sat the child. He raised his hand to punish, and when he raised his hand to strike, the tears overflowed out of her eyes, and she looked in sorrow and in repentance. It was enough.
To look meant that the man acknowledged he needed God’s help, that he believed God’s Word, that he trusted God’s offer. The will of man accepted the will of God. And it was the pledge of God’s love that if he turned and if he looked, he lived [Numbers 21:8-9]. Some bitten terribly and almost gone, some barely stricken, but whether the worst or the least, to look and to live:
There is life for a look at the Crucified One.
There is life at this moment for thee.
Then look, sinner, look unto Him
Who was crucified for thee on the tree.
["Look and Live," William Ogden, 1887]
The greatest preacher our people has ever produced, the immortal, incomparable Spurgeon of London, as a youth sought salvation and found it not. On a stormy winter’s night turned into a little Methodist chapel, had no preacher, a layman there with a text from Isaiah, "Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all ye ends of the earth" [Isaiah 45:22]. And the layman, departing from propriety and decorum, the layman looked at the young Spurgeon and said, "Young man, you look so miserable. Look to Jesus, look to Jesus!" And Spurgeon said, "I looked that day, and I lived."
I’ve a message from the Lord, hallelujah!
It is only that you look and live.
Look and live, my brother, live.
Look to Jesus Christ and live.
‘Tis recorded in His Word, hallelujah!
It is only that you look and live.
"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up: That whosoever trusts in Him, looks to Him, shall not perish, but have eternal life" [John 3:14-15].
May we pray? O blessed, blessed Lord, we who are identified with sinful humanity, all of us, the sting of the scorpion, the bite of the asp, the stroke of the snake, the venom, the black drop in our blood, the stain in our souls, all of us, all of us, dear God, to whom shall we turn and to what shall we look?
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.
["Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus," Helen H. Lemmel, 1922]
And blessed Jesus, we turn to look upon You, full in His wonderful face, and there to receive from His precious hands redemption, salvation, and grace. O bless and save Thy people, Lord, in the exalted name of Jesus, amen.