THE BRAZEN SERPENT
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-12-70 10:50 a.m.
This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and if on the radio or television you are sharing the hour with us, we bid you Godspeed as the Spirit shall open your heart to the living Word of the living Lord. The title of the message is The Brazen Serpent, and the text is a typology that our Lord referred to in John 3:14 and 15. Speaking to Nicodemus, the learned ruler and Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, the high court of all world Jewry, the Lord said, “And 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]. And the incident that the Lord referred to by type is in the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Numbers:
And the children of Israel journeyed from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to encompass the land of Edom, to go around the land of Edom: but the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.
And the people spake against God, and against Moses, and they said, 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.
Could you find in all of God’s Word or in all human experience a sadder commentary on human nature than that? There is a perverseness in us, there is a depth of depravity in us that is almost unfathomable and indescribable. God’s gracious care for His people in giving them manna from heaven to eat [Exodus 16:12, 14-15], the psalmist calls it “angels’ food” [Psalm 78:25]. But the children of Israel murmured against God and against Moses, saying, “Our soul loatheth this manna [Numbers 21:5]. We hate it. We despise it.”
And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.
Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for 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, one cast out of a fiery molten brass, 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.
And using that type, the Lord said to Nicodemus: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up: That whosoever shall look to Him may live” [John 3:14-15]; to look and live, to believe and be saved.
“And the Son of Man shall be lifted up” [John 3:14]; lifted up, high, conspicuous, exalted, ascending, lifted up between the earth and the sky. But lifted up not as though He were seated on the throne in Herod’s palace, or as though He were exalted on a raised dais in the court of Caesar, but lifted up, our Lord lifted up like a serpent: dead, hanging, drooping, limp, lifeless, on a pole [John 3:13-15; Numbers 21:6-9]. There is nothing more assured in all God’s creation than the exaltation of our Lord. He shall be lifted up high, high, high. The Scriptures say, “Wherefore God hath given Him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of things in heaven”—the heavenly hosts shall bow in His presence—“of things in earth”—every soul that has ever lived shall bow in His presence—“and of things under the earth” [Philippians 2:9-10]—even the nether world shall own the mightiness and the deity of the Lord God. Nothing is more assured than the exaltation of our Savior. Far above all power and principality, of things present and of things to come, shall our Lord be King and Ruler [Ephesians 1:20-23]; raised, lifted up [John 3:14]: “Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” But that ascension and that exaltation will not come through some hereditary title or through some political preferment; nor will it be achieved by military prowess or conquest; nor will the Lord ascend to that exalted place in the flaunting of banners and the blowing of trumpets and the acclamation of the people. He shall be lifted up: but it will be like a serpent hanging dead and limp and lifeless on a pole. He will be exalted; but it will be through suffering, and sorrow, and dying; “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up” [John 3:14; Numbers 21:8-9].
It all began in a plague; in a riot of death. For it seemed that those venomous vipers were everywhere [Numbers 21:6]. They were universal. If a man went into a house, there they were. When he uncovered his bed, there they were. When he sat down to eat, there they were. When he went out into the way, there they were, everywhere. And those slender, small, tenuous serpents bit, and they stung and burned like fire. And when they struck, the place was so small it was hardly discernible; but on the inside there was fever and convulsion and death [Numbers 21:6]. This is a type used by our Lord of the universal depravity of the human heart, the universal presence of sin in human life. It’s in our hearts, it’s in our houses, it’s in our homes, it’s in our uprisings and our downsittings, it’s in our goings forth and our coming back, it is in all of our relationships in life; inexorable, inescapable, the universal presence of sin and of death [Romans 5:12].
Like that old time doctrine of total depravity, which we never preach anymore, but which is as true as God’s heaven and as characteristic of human life as God’s descriptive Word. Total depravity: not that we are as vile as we can be, but that sin has entered all of our faculties and all of our emotions and all of our volitions. Humanity is a depraved and a fallen race. Like the old man of the sea, on the shoulders of mankind and chokes the spiritual life out of it. And however we philosophize or rationalize or extenuate, the harshest fact in human life and in human history is this: that men are lost in sin and transgression. We are dead in them; the universal presence of sin [Ephesians 2:1-5].
Not only that, but this is a type of its destructive and wasting power: sin, serpents, the fiery venom everywhere, and how it wastes and destroys [Numbers 21:6]. The strongest man who ever lived, shorn of his locks, blinded in his eyes, and they put out his eyes, and bound hand and foot and grinding at the prison mill, around and around and around [Isaiah 16:21-29]. And as the uncircumcised, blaspheming Philistines mocked his God, Samson bowed his head and prayed, saying, “Lord, let me die with the Philistines” [Judges 16:30]—the wasting, destroying power of sin [James 1:15].
And the wisest man who ever lived [1 Kings 4:29-30], how auspicious and august the introduction of his kingdom; and the Lord loved him, and God sanctified and hallowed every word that he said and every kingly deed that he did [2 Chronicles 1:12]. But as the years passed his heart turned away through sin, and he left to his son a dissolving and a divided kingdom [1 Kings 11:10-11].
And the man after God’s own heart [1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22], God’s prophet came before him and said, “And the sword shall never leave thy house” [2 Samuel 12:10]. And the history of the house of David is written in blood and in tears and in death.
“The soul that sins shall die” [Ezekiel 18:4, 20]. “The wages of sin is death” [Romans 6:23]. Those venomous fiery serpents were everywhere and the people were dying [Numbers 21:6]: death, physical death, spiritual death, moral death, the second death, eternal death [Revelation 20:11-15].
Not only that, but it portrays our helplessness before it [Numbers 21:6]. How inescapable and how incapable this humankind. We have lived in this earth on this planet for thousands and thousands of years; but spiritually we are the same now as we were then. Mankind has lifted itself out of ignorance, and out of superstition, and out of a thousand other darknesses; but in our hearts and our souls we are still just the same. Our technological achievements are fantastic. What science and knowledge and understanding have done for the human race in its advancement is almost beyond what libraries can describe. But we’re still on the same moral, spiritual plane with Adam and Eve [Genesis 3:1-6]. We have never learned yet, and we have never found a way out yet from the universal affliction, and waste, and destruction, and judgment of sin. We are a dying people [Romans 5:12].
And Moses, hearing the cry of the throng, took it before God. I can hear Moses as he speaks to God, saying, “Lord, the people are dying; they are dying. The serpents are everywhere. They are dying.” And God said to Moses, “Make you a brazen serpent, cast it; make a brazen serpent, put it on a pole, and raise it up in the midst of the camp. And it shall be, if a man is bitten and dying, if he looks he shall live” [Numbers 21:6-8]. That’s one of the most astonishing things that I find in human experience.
If I go to a hospital and there is a sign on that hospital, it will be a pole with a serpent wrapped around it. If I see a doctor’s car and he has a sign on his car, it will be that caduceus: a pole with a serpent wrapped around it. If I see a special stationary and it is used by a physician in the healing profession, on it will be that caduceus: a pole with a serpent around it. And when I turn the pages of history and go back through the hundreds of years and the millennia of years, back and back and back and back, will be that same sign of health and healing: a pole with a serpent draped around it. What an unbelievable and amazing and astonishing thing, that the sign of health, of healing, of deliverance, of salvation should be a serpent hanging on a pole! Not a real serpent, a venomous snake killed and draped over that pole; that would have but served to remind us how many others were still alive. It would have been just another snake that ought to have been killed, stomped. Not a real snake, not a real serpent, but a representative serpent; one cast out of brass and raised high on that pole lifeless, dead, with its fangs extracted, limp, no more power to sting and to bite and to kill. So with the Son of God: “As Moses lifted up that brazen serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up; like a serpent” [John 3:14-15; Numbers 21:8-9], dead, hanging on a pole.”
The representative Man: not another sinner who should have been there dying for his transgressions, not one of us who deserves to die because of our sins, not just another crucified thief hanging there on the tree; but the representative Man, the God-Man—and did ever a hyphen mean so much—the God-Man Christ Jesus, dying on a tree [1 Peter 2:24; John 3:14-15]. In Him all of the venom and all of the poison of all the sin of the human race: “For God made Him to be sin for us, Him who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” [2 Corinthians 5:21]. Made sin for us, and died! [John 19:16-30]. Sin condemned and sin judged and sin helpless, lifeless, limp, its fangs extracted, dead—and so certainly dead there was no second blow needed, no bone broken; dead! [John 19:31-33]. The great representative Man dying for the sins of the whole world; “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up” [John 3:14-15]; the great Savior of mankind, God’s representative, man’s representative, lifted up: dead; the serpent limp and lifeless, hanging on a pole [Numbers 21:8-9]. “That whosoever looks to Him should not perish, but have eternal life” [John 3:14-16]. What an astonishing thing! Oh! to look and live [John 3:14-16], to believe and be saved [Acts 16:30-31], to wash and be clean! [Revelation 7:14; 2 Kings 5:10-14].
Oh! the incomparable, inscrutable ways of the Almighty: that we’re saved by a look [John 3:14-16; Numbers 21:8-9]; that we’re saved by a trust; that we’re saved by the moral act of acceptance [Acts 16:30-31]. Less could not have been required: to look and to live [Numbers 21:8-9]. More by many could not have been offered; for they were a dying people. A man who had just been bitten could look [Numbers 21:8-9]. The man who was almost gone could look. Just to look—it was a moral act. When the man looked it showed that he believed God’s word and promise; he accepted God’s healing, and he expected God’s salvation—to look and to live [John 3:14-16; Numbers 21:8-9].
In it also is a part of that unfathomable mystery that ever characterizes God. Last Sunday night I preached a message entitled How the Death of Christ Saves Us. And in that sermon I described that in my doctoral work at the seminary, for two long years I studied the atonement. And when I had done two years of intensive study of the doctrine of the atonement, how the cross of Christ saves us, I said last Sunday night, when I had finished the course and had passed the examination on it, that the inscrutable, unfathomable, impenetrable mystery of the divine mercy in the cross of Christ was as unreachable, and my capacity to encompass it was as finite as when I began. There is a mystery in the mercy of God, in the saving power of the cross, into which my mind cannot enter. But that is God; and that’s God’s provision for the saving of the lost: it’s God that does it [John 3:16].
Like that woman with an issue of blood who came in the throng, and behind our Lord reached forth and touched the hem of His garment: how does the hem of a garment save? It doesn’t. But she said in her heart, “If I but touch the hem of His garment, I will be saved” [Matthew 9:20-21]. The healing is in God; it is God that heals. So it is on the cross: it is the pouring out of the life of our Lord that heals, that saves [1 Peter 1:18-19]. And a man takes it as a gift; he receives it in the love and mercy of God [Ephesians 2:8]. He accepts it: “God said it, I trust it.”
“Look and live” [John 3:14-16; Numbers 21:8-9], God said; “Believe and be saved” [Acts 16:30-31], God said; “Wash and be clean” [Revelation 1:5; 2 Kings 5:10-14], God said. There is a mystery in it known but to Him. It is a part of the infinitude of the love and provision of the Lord. As that fellow, crucified one, who turned to the Lord and said, “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom, remember me.” And the Lord said, “Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise” [Luke 23:42-43]. Who could say that but the Lord? It’s God that does it.
These who are most dear to us, when time comes for them to die, all we can do is to bury them out of our sight, to lay them away. Only God can receive us to Himself. Only God could say, “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise” [Luke 23:43]. Only God can stand by the side of the bed of death and say to the trusting soul, “Today, today you are to come to My house. Today you are to be with Me. Today you are to cross that swollen river. Today you are to enter into the kingdom. Today you will be crowned.”
It just illustrates once again our helplessness as a human being—even as a father or a mother, or someone dear and precious whom you love. It’s God that does it. It is God that saves us! And that atoning grace is poured out in a cleansing fountain in the cross to which we look and 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 and be saved,
Unto Him who was nailed to the tree.
[“There is Life for a Look,” Amelia M. Hull]
Look and live! [John 3:14-15; Numbers 21:8-9].
In the study where I am, my desk facing it, is an effective picture of Spurgeon. In another room by my study is another picture of Spurgeon. In my desk where I study I have mementos, letters, and sermon outlines written in his own hand; and the shelves of my library, book volume after volume of Spurgeon. People come in, say, “You read Spurgeon?”
“You greatly admire Spurgeon?”
“Oh yes!” And when he was a young man, lost, he wandered out of a storm into a little chapel; no minister there, too small for a minister. There was a layman there, and he was expounding in his stuttering tongue and halting language the great passage in Isaiah, “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none other” [Isaiah 45:22]. And as he spoke, he pointed to young Spurgeon and said, “Young man, you look so miserable. Look to Jesus. Look to Jesus.” And Spurgeon said, “That night I looked, 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.
[“Look and Live,” William A. Ogden]
The acceptance of what God has done for us, the gratitude for the manna [Exodus 16:15], the thanksgiving for the water of life [John 4:10-11], the opening of the soul that God could do for us what we cannot do for ourselves nor for one another [Psalm 49:7], the looking in expectation of the healing from His divine and omnipotent hands [Titus 3:5]; when you do it, you’re saved. That’s what it is to be saved: “I have looked, and I live” [John 3:14-16; Numbers 21:8-9].
In a moment we shall stand to sing our hymn of appeal, and as we sing that hymn, you, that somebody you, into that aisle and down here to the front, “Here I come, pastor, today I look to Jesus.” In this balcony round, that somebody you, as the Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart, come today, do it now. A family you to put your life in the church; “Pastor, these are my children and this is my wife; all of us are coming today.” Or a couple you, or just one somebody you [Romans 10:9-10], while we make this appeal, come now. On the first note of the first stanza, come now. In the quietness of this moment, make the decision now. And in a moment when we stand up to sing, stand up coming, down one of these stairwells or into the aisle and to the front: “Here I am, pastor, I’m coming this morning.” May angels attend you in the way as you come, while we stand and while we sing.
I. The type of the brazen serpent
B. Son of Man lifted up
– high and conspicuous; dead, on a pole
C. His exaltation certain
and sure (Philippians 2:9-10)
D. Place of dignity and
power not attained by man’s choice or fiat
II. Story begins with the sting of death
A. Sin is a terrible
reality (Ezekiel 4:20, Romans 6:23)
doctrine of total depravity
B. Sin has terrible
power to destroy
1. The strongest
man (Judges 16:30)
2. The wisest man
(1 Kings 11:39-43)
3. The man after
God’s own heart (2 Samuel 12:10)
C. We are helpless
III. The remedy
A. Resembled the
disease (Numbers 21:6-9)
1. The caduceus
2. Brazen serpent
representative of them all, dead on a pole
B. So Christ
represented all mankind (2 Corinthians 5:21)
IV. The call to look to Him (Numbers 21:9)
A. The moral act to
turn and look (Mark 5:21-34, Luke 23:42)
B. There is life for a