THE BRAZEN SERPENT
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-12-70 8:15 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Brazen Serpent, the serpent of brass. It is a message from John 3:14: "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." And the typology that the Lord is using is to be found in the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Numbers:
And they journeyed from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom, to go around it: but the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.
And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore, they said, have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this manna.
Can you imagine that? "And our soul loatheth this manna." If our hearts are not right, nothing is right; even the sweet, precious gift, as the psalmist calls it, "angels’ food" [Psalm 78:25], doesn’t satisfy.
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.
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 – cast it;
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 that is a typology that the Lord refers to when He said to Nicodemus: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up: That whosoever looks to Him shall live" [John 3:14-15]. Look and live. Believe, and be saved [Acts 16:30-31].
Lifted up, raised high: so the Son of Man shall be lifted up, high, between the earth and the sky; raised, exalted, lifted up. But this ascension of our Lord, raised high, lifted up, will not be on the throne of King Herod, nor on a raised dais in the court of Caesar; the Lord shall be lifted up, raised high, like a serpent hanging limp and lifeless from a pole, dead [John 3:14-15, 19:16-30]. What an astonishing thing!
There is nothing more sure, more certain than the exaltation of Christ. The Lord God said, "I have given Him a name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow in heaven," the angels and the saints, "in earth" – Oh, what a prophecy! – "and in earth, and under the earth, in the netherworld" [Philippians 2:9-10]. Lifted high: the ascension of our Lord far above all power, or principality, or things present, or things to come [Ephesians 1:20-21] – the exaltation of Christ. But this ascendency and exaltation shall not be due to hereditary title, or to political preferment, or to the election of the people. The exaltation of Christ, the lifting up of Christ, shall not be by military conquest or prowess. The raising up of the Lord and the exaltation of the Prince of glory will not be midst the flaunting of banners, and the blowing of trumpets, and the acclamation of the throngs. But His lifting up and His exaltation will be as a serpent: dead, hanging limp on a pole, "lifted up" [John 3:14-15]. Oh! What an astonishing thing for the Lord to say to this ruler of the Jews, this Sanhedrist, Nicodemus.
It all began in a plague, in a fiery death; for those venomous vipers were everywhere [Numbers 21:6]. When a man went into his house, there they were; when he walked out the door, there they were; when he walked down the road, there they were; wherever they went, there they were. Deadly, like adders, like asps, those small, slender, tenuous serpents. And when they bit, you could hardly see the place; but inside there was raging fever and convulsion and death. The fiery vipers bit the people, and the people were dying. This of course, is a type and a picture of the universality of sin and death – inescapable, there’s no place to run from it, there’s no wall so high but it floods over it. And there’s no life so strong but is wasted by it: the universal depravity of the human heart.
The house, the home, the shop, the fellowship, the church, the life – everywhere, inexorable – like the old-time doctrine of total depravity: not that we’re as vile as we could be, but that sin has entered every faculty and emotion of our lives. Like the old man of the sea, he has seized upon the shoulders of humanity and rides him to death. It began in a plague: the universality of sin [Romans 3:23].
It also is a picture of the destructive power of evil and transgression in our lives. The strongest man who ever lived, look at him. His locks are shorn, his eyes are blinded, and his arms are bound, and he grinds and he grinds at the prison mill. And as they made sport of him, and ridiculed his God, the strongest man in the world bowed his head and said, "Lord, let me die, let me die with the Philistines" [Judges 16:30].
The wisest man who ever lived – oh, how auspicious his first presentation before the people! God loved him, and God blessed him [1 Kings 9:10-10:29]. The wisest man who ever lived, as the years of his reign multiplied, found his heart turned away [1 Kings 11:1-13] – the destructive power of sin. And the man after God’s own heart [Acts 13:22], even Nathan the prophet stood before him and said, "The sword shall never leave thy house" [2 Samuel 12:10]. And the story of the house of David is written in blood, and tears, and unspeakable tragedy: the destructive power of sin.
I think I have had more heartbroken conferences this week than any week I’ve ever known in my life. And back of every one of those unspeakable conferences is the sowing of Satan: the destructive, wasteful power of sin. Wherever it enters in your heart, in your home, in your house, in your life – O Lord, the convulsion, and the raging fever, and the death! And it is a type of our helplessness before it. What do you do? Lord, Lord, if I had the wisdom of five thousand Solomons, what could I say and what can I do? The destructive, wasteful power of sin.
The world is thousands and thousands of years old, but we are still just as we were at the beginning. Mankind has lifted himself out of ignorance and superstition and darkness; but he’s spiritually as he always was. With all of our vaulted achievement and incomparable technical advancement, we’re still on the same spiritual level with Adam and Eve. Where do you turn? And what do you do? And who can deliver us from the curse?
That’s the background against which the Lord said to Nicodemus, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; That whosoever looks to Him should not perish, but have healing, and health, and help, deliverance, and life" [John 3:14-15].
What an amazing thing gain! The remedy is like the sin, it’s like the serpent. And as I read history and look at the signs and symbols of the ancient day, the medieval day, our modern day, I’m overwhelmed by what I learn and what I see. I go to a hospital, and to my amazement the sign of health and healing is a caduceus: a serpent wrapped around a pole. I look at a doctor’s automobile; he’ll have the sign of the healing profession on the tag affixed to his car. And I’m overwhelmed as I look! It’s a pole with a serpent wrapped around it, a caduceus. And I go back in ancient history, back and back and back and back through the thousands of years, and through all of those years I see that same sign and symbol: the sign of the healing profession is the caduceus; a pole with a serpent hanging around it. Oh! What could it mean? "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up" [John 3:14]. The sign of our healing and of our health and of our salvation is as a serpent lifted up on a pole.
Well, as I look at it and as I think of it: a serpent of brass, not an actual serpent – had Moses raised an actual serpent, it would have just reminded us of how many others there were. Had he lifted up a serpent that was dead, it would have just been to call to our attention how many others there were that were still alive. But a representative serpent, a serpent made out of brass and hanging there with its fangs extracted, limp, lifeless, dead, no longer power in its venom and in its bite, dead, destroyed, lifeless, the poison gone; a serpent hanging limp, fangless, dead, made out of brass, a representative serpent.
So with the Lord God: raised and exalted; not just another sinner as you and I, who deserve to die and had the penalty of death already written in our soul, the condemnation of sin already in us, not just another sinner, not just another crucified thief, but there raised in the midst of the camp a representative Man, the God Man Christ Jesus. And as the representative Man for all mankind, there He lies, hangs. In Him all of the poison of all of the sin of all the world: "For God made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him" [2 Corinthians 5:21]. And the judgment of all the sin of all the world was in Him; and He died [1 John 2:2]. And that representative Man hangs limp on the pole, on the tree, on the cross, dead, lifeless [Philippians 2:8]. Sin has its fangs extracted. Sin has been judged; it has been condemned. It has found its final day. And there’s no more power in it. And its venom is gone, and its fangs are extracted: dead. So certainly dead that there’s no need for another blow; not a bone broken – dead, lifeless, limp, hanging on a tree [John 19:30-33]. The caduceus, the sign of healing and health, the sign of deliverance and salvation: a serpent hanging on a pole. "That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life" [John 3:15]. God’s incomparable way of salvation: that we look and live [Numbers 21:8-9; John 3:14-15].
Oh! As the people died, as they were bitten by the serpents, as they felt inside the fever of the fiery sting – wherever the man was falling, if he’d just look, lift up his eyes and look, he would live [Numbers 21:8-9]. What an astonishing way of God! Less could not have been required. I could not think of a way for God to save us that would be more minimal, that could be less: just to look and live. And in many, many instances, more could not have been offered; for the man is dying, helpless, and just to look is all he could offer to God, to look. But there was life for a look at the Crucified One! That is, we are saved by a moral act. For when the man looked, it showed that he had faith in the Word of God, that he expected healing, that he felt himself dying and needed God’s mercy and God’s help. And if the man would look, he’d live.
Last Sunday night I preached on the atonement, how the death of Christ saves us. And in that message I described two years of my theological doctoral work in which I studied the atonement. And when I finished the two years of intensive study, I said last Sunday night that at the end of the study, and passing the doctoral examination on it, that I still was as baffled by the impenetrable mystery of the atonement of Christ as I was when I began the study. It is something in God, and it is something that God does; and a man cannot enter into it.
It’s like this woman with the issue of blood: she touched the hem of His garment, saying, "If I but touch His garment, I will be whole" [Matthew 9:20-21]. How would you explain that, that touching the hem of a garment saves? But if God’s in it, it saves. It is the presence and power of God that make the difference. She touched the hem of His garment and was made whole. It’s something God does.
So with our looking to Jesus: it is something God does; it is something in God that heals. And this was His way that we might be saved: to look and to live. When that companion malefactor turned his face to Jesus and said, "Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom" [Luke 23:42], then it is something that God must do Only God can do it. "Lord, remember me, remember me, in my helplessness, in my age, in my death, in the judgment of sin, Lord, help me." It is something that only God can do; we cannot, man cannot, even these who love us most and best cannot.
When the judgment of death falls upon my mortal life, all they can do is to bury me out of their sight; they are helpless. It is something God does. It’s a mystery in the heart of the Almighty: the saving grace and power that pours out on the earth in the death of Jesus Christ. And I’m saved by looking to Him. I’m saved by trusting Him [2 Timothy 1:12]. I’m saved by believing in Him.
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.
["I’ve a Message from the Lord"; William A. Ogden]
So many times is it mentioned to me, "I see you have a picture of Spurgeon there."
"Yes." Then in another place in my house, "I see you have a picture of Spurgeon there."
"And look at these volumes. You must read Spurgeon."
"This boy here, Rodney Sawtell, he’s from Spurgeon’s College."
"How was the incomparable preacher saved?" On a wintry night he turned into a little chapel. There was a layman speaking. He had taken a text in Isaiah: "Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none beside" [Isaiah 45:22]. And in his stammering way, the layman was elaborating on the text, "Look to God." And he pointed out young Spurgeon, and said, "Son, you look so miserable. Look to Jesus, and be saved." And Spurgeon said, "That night, I looked and I lived." It’s something God does. It’s a miracle from heaven:
It’s recorded in His Word, Hallelujah!
It is only that you look and live.
["Look and Live"; William A. Ogden]
We’re going to sing a song of appeal in a moment. And as we sing that song, somebody you looking to Jesus, would you come and tell it to me? Would you avow that faith and commitment before the angels in glory and before the congregation of the Lord? Would you? "Here I am. I am acknowledging my sin before God. I am asking God to forgive me. And I am trusting Jesus for that forgiveness. And I am coming this morning; I am looking to Jesus."
Is there a family you today, to put your life with the Lord’s people in this precious fellowship? Is there a couple you to come? In the balcony round, on this lower floor, into the aisle, down a stairway, and to the front, "Here I am, pastor, here I come." Make the decision now, then in a moment when you stand up to sing, stand up coming. And may God open the way as you respond, as you answer with your life. Do it today, while we stand and while we sing.