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.
After explaining about the new birth from Ezekiel to Nicodemus, Jesus leaves him with these words about eternal life based on an account from Numbers 21. It makes a puzzling comparison between Jesus’s crucifixion—being “lifted up”—and Moses lifting up an image of a snake on a pole.
The episode in Numbers takes place at the end of the wilderness wandering, after the exodus generation of Israel has died, excepting Joshua, Caleb, and Moses. They had just experienced their first victory over the Canaanites (Num 21:1–3). But rather than moving north into the promised land, God leads them south into the Arabah toward Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba to go around Edom. On the way, Num 21:4–9 recounts Israel’s final incident of complaining, followed by God’s judgment and provision of a solution through Moses.
Rather than taking away the snakes, [God] instructed Moses to create an antidote.
Now the second generation is following in the steps of their fathers. They are “impatient because of the journey” (v. 4) and sick of the “wretched food” God had provided (v. 5). So God sent snakes among them that were “poisonous,” literally “burning” or “fiery”— describing either the feeling of being bitten or the inflamed wound. Many died before representatives begged Moses to plead for them before God. Rather than taking away the snakes, God instructed Moses to create an antidote. The antidote would be “a fiery thing” mounted on a pole, which the CSB renders “a snake image.” Simply looking at the image after being bitten would keep one from dying (v. 8). Perhaps Israel is near the copper mines of Timna, since Moses makes the image out of copper or bronze (copper plus 10% tin). In the 1960s archaeologists found a Midianite tent shrine in Timna, within which was a five inch copper snake.
God’s provision of life in response to Israel’s sin involved looking at the image of an unclean animal, one that also symbolized evil. But all sacrifices involved blood and dead animals, things that in themselves made someone unclean. The homeopathic nature of God’s cure for the impatient and ungrateful people is somewhat parallel to the act of the Philistines who had captured the ark in 1 Samuel 4. Terrified at the damage done to their temple of Dagon and the outbreak of tumors, they returned the ark to the Israelites accompanied by a guilt offering of “five gold tumors and five gold mice,” which God accepted (see 1 Sam 6:1–21). Using disease-causing germs to create vaccines might be a modern counterpart. Perhaps God used such an image so that Israel would be discouraged from worshiping it, although that didn’t work for long. Some in Israel eventually began burning incense to it (see 2 Kgs 18:4). Of course, to God, the most important thing seemed to be the “fiery” nature of the image. Made out of copper, it would have even appeared reddish in color, perhaps suggesting sacrifice (compare the red heifer sacrifice, cedar wood, and the scarlet cord in Numbers 19). Perhaps the most striking thing is that although bringing a sacrifice for sin always involved touching the animal, here was deliverance by merely looking at a representation of a sacrifice.
Connecting the Snake to the Cross
Why did Jesus use this episode to illustrate the salvation and gift of eternal life he would provide by dying on the cross? The principle of “look and live” was certainly in view. John the Baptist called upon people to “look” at Jesus (1:36). Jesus invited the disciples to “come and see,” as did Philip (1:39, 46). In 6:40 Jesus said, “Everyone who sees the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” In 14:19 Jesus told his disciples, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Because I live, you will live too.” At the crucifixion, John quotes Zech 12:10 in John 19:37: “They will look at the one they pierced.”
Jesus used the verb for “lift up” again in John 12:32–33: “As for me, if I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.” Then John explains, “He said this to indicate what kind of death he was about to die.” There was a physical aspect to being “lifted up,” but there was also the aspect of resurrection and exaltation. In drawing all people to himself, he would bring them up with him into eternal life, resurrection, and exaltation. “Eternal life” refers to the life of the age to come, which is only ours if we are joined to Christ by faith. The word “must” means that the cross is absolutely essential to our gaining eternal life; this was God’s sovereign plan.