4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
On Sunday morning, I used several Old Testament passages as pictures of the work done by Christ on the cross. We saw how the substitution of the Passover lamb is like Jesus who died to protect us from eternal death. We saw how the blood of Jesus is like the blood of the covenant in Exodus 24:1-11 which allowed the people to enter into relationship with God. We saw how Isaiah 53’s picture of the suffering servant who would become a sin offering is a perfect picture of Jesus, the Son of God, who was punished for our sins, making atonement for us.
Recently, as I walked through Numbers in my daily reading, I saw one more beautiful picture of Jesus in the Old Testament. Jesus himself, in John 3:14-15, draws this parallel out into plain sight.
John 3:14-15 (ESV)
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
The story is simple. The people of God spoke out against God and rebelled against him. God then allowed the people to suffer death because of their sin by sending poisonous snakes into the camp (remember, the wages of sin is death according to Romans 6:23). Then the people pleaded with Moses to help them to be forgiven by God. God told Moses to make a bronze “fiery” serpent and put it on a pole. If a person who was bitten by a snake simply looked at the serpent on the pole, he would be healed of the snakebite.
This story reminds us of Jesus in two ways. In one very simple way, the serpent put up on a pole reminds us of how Jesus was hanged up for the world to look upon. Jesus described his crucifixion as being “lifted up.” So, there is a similarity.
The greater similarity, however, is the aspect of looking for salvation. The people who had been bitten by the snakes simply had to look at the bronze snake to be healed. They did not have to go and get some magic ointment. They did not have to perform some religious ritual. They did not have to say some particular prayer. The moment that a snake-bitten person had the faith to turn his eyes to the serpent on the pole, he was healed.
In the same way, Jesus saves us, not as a result of our religious work, but simply by his grace through faith. We are not saved by performing religious rituals. We are not saved by repeating a particular type of prayer after some conference speaker. We are not saved by walking an aisle. We are not saved by baptismal waters. We are saved, forgiven of our sins and brought into right relationship with God, when we trust God enough to look to Jesus for forgiveness.
Obviously, looking to Jesus for forgiveness will entail much change in our lives. A person who will look to Jesus has already had his or her dead heart made alive by God. A person who will look to Jesus will necessarily turn away from his or her sin and self reliance to look to Jesus; thus repentance is part of the process. A person who looks to Jesus will then participate in religious rituals such as baptism, communion, and worship services because that is what a follower of Jesus does. But none of those acts are at the heart of how we are saved. We are saved by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. This is wonderful news, for if there were any other, any greater, requirements, none of us would ever be saved. Praise the God who saves us when we look to Jesus in faith.