Edwin Reynolds, PhD, retired professor of New Testament studies, is a research professor for Southern Adventist University, School of Religion, Collegedale, Tennessee, United States.

One of the well-known passages in the New Testament is John 3:14, 15. Jesus was talking with Nicodemus about the process of salvation. He said, referring to Himself, “ ‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life’ ” (NKJV). While it’s well-known, this text is poorly understood, and the result is a failure to understand what Jesus was trying to communicate.

Jesus was using an analogy from the Old Testament with which Nicodemus would have been familiar. The analogy is confusing when we fail to understand the nature of the original event and how it functioned as a type of Christ’s work for our salvation. Many wonder how a serpent could function as a type of Christ that would reveal the way of salvation. Nicodemus, no doubt, understood better than we do.

The Old Testament event

The original event involved a rebellion on the part of God’s people. From the discouraging report of the ten spies and the results (Num. 13:31; 14:10) to the attempt of the tribes to enter Canaan despite warnings that they would fail (vv. 40–45) to the rebellion by Korah and company (Num. 16:1–35) and the murmuring that ensued against Moses and Aaron (vv. 41–49), with God ending the controversy through the budding of Aaron’s rod (Num. 17:1–11), Israel continued to rebel against God.

After they made a vow to the Lord to destroy the Canaanite cities if He would deliver them into their hand, God helped Israel defeat the Canaanites and destroy their cities (Num. 21:1–3). But no sooner had they begun to move again than they became impatient with having to travel around Edom (v. 4; cf. Num. 20:14–21). Numbers 21:5 says that “they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’ ”1 They were referring, of course, to the manna, which typified Christ (John 6:32, 33). They despised it and its efficacy. They also denied that the water from the rock followed them in their journey, which also represented Christ (1 Cor. 10:4). They preferred the food and drink of Egypt to that which Heaven provided, and they wished to return to Egypt (Num. 11:4–6; 14:3, 4). They spoke as though God was not able to provide for their sustenance and protection in the wilderness.

After all He had done for them, God was very displeased. He sent poisonous snakes among them, which bit them, and many died (Num. 21:6). Then “the people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us’ ” (v. 7). So Moses prayed for the people. Then God said to Moses, “ ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live’ ” (v. 8). So Moses cast a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. When anyone who had been bitten by a snake looked in faith at the bronze snake, that person was restored (v. 9).

Unraveling the meaning

Many have wondered about this seemingly strange situation. Snakes were the cause of the people’s death, yet God had Moses prepare a representation of the snake to be held up before them. When they looked at it, they would be restored. There was no restorative power in the snake. Why did God use a snake on a pole to heal their deadly wounds? Surely they were not expected to worship the snake (cf. 2 Kings 18:4). Was the means of their impending death also supposed to represent their Savior somehow? The key to this apparent puzzle lies in the function of the pole.

Artists have usually portrayed the bronze snake made to look like a live snake wound around a pole or even a cross. This, however, is an unfortunate misrepresentation of the symbol. A careful study of the language of Scripture reveals that the pole was actually a sharpened stake, and the snake was portrayed as impaled on the end of the stake—dead. This was in harmony with the custom of the time. In Genesis 40:19, Joseph prophesied to the chief baker that in three days, “ ‘Pharaoh will lift off your head and impale your body on a pole.’ ” Verse 22 says that the pharaoh “impaled the chief baker, just as Joseph had said to them.” The Hebrew word used in Numbers 21:8, frequently translated as “pole,” may refer to a beam, plank, pole, or stake.

The practice among the heathen nations was to shame a person’s reputation by exposing the corpse in public. This was generally done by raising the corpse up high to be seen by all, often by impaling the body or the head on a tall stake or pole. The practice is seen in the edict of King Cyrus recorded in Ezra 6:11: “I decree that if anyone defies this edict, a beam is to be pulled from their house and they are to be impaled on it.” This is also what Haman’s wife, Zeresh, had in mind for Mordecai: “ ‘Have a pole set up, reaching to a height of fifty cubits, and ask the king in the morning to have Mordecai impaled on it’ ” (Esther 5:14). The NAB renders it, “ ‘Have a stake set up, fifty cubits in height, and in the morning ask the king to have Mordecai impaled on it.’ ” Haman ended up being impaled on his own 75-foot stake. This was common Persian practice (cf. Esther 2:23), just as it was practiced in Egypt and by the Israelites themselves (Josh. 8:29). The Philistines fastened the bodies of Saul and his three sons up on the wall of Beth Shan to expose them to public humiliation until the men of Jabesh Gilead came and removed them (1 Sam. 31:10–12). This is what was meant by lifting them up to shame them.

In Deuteronomy 21:22, 23, God declares, “If anyone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.” This public exposure and humiliation was not a practice that God approved of but, if it happened, the exposed person was under a curse and should not be left up overnight because that would defile the land (v. 23).

A parallelism?

We can see the parallels between the impaling of the snake on the stake and the nailing of Jesus on the cross, the Roman form of impaling on a stake. The cross was literally a xylon, a wooden beam (Acts 5:30; 10:39). It was no different from the stake in its purpose; only the cross was intended to prolong the agony of the criminals while the public gathered to abuse them. To increase their shame, the Romans exposed them naked.

The apostle Paul records in Galatians 3:13 that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.’ ” In His crucifixion, Christ became a curse for us by being exposed to shame in our place as a condemned sinner, although He was innocent. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This is the language of substitutionary atonement.

Returning to the story of the bronze snake on the stake, we see that the snake represented the cause of the peoples’ death. From the very beginning, the snake represented Satan (Gen. 3:1–5, 15; Rom. 16:20; Rev. 12:9), a beautiful creature in its original creation, intelligent and talented, but using its cunning to deceive and destroy, becoming cast down to the earth and full of deadly poison (Gen. 3:14, 15; cf. Rev. 12:9). The poisonous snakes in the wilderness of Zin could have destroyed every person in the camp of Israel had God not intervened to provide a remedy. When the people realized that it was their sin that had brought about the plague of snakes and confessed their sin against the Lord and against Moses, Moses prayed for the people.

Then God told him to make a bronze snake and lift it up on a stake for all to see, and “anyone who is bitten can look at it and live” (Num. 21:8). They were not looking in faith at a representation of a live snake threatening to harm them. They were looking at a portrayal of a dead snake impaled on a stake and held up as a trophy for them to gaze at and exclaim, “The snake is dead!” The source of their misery and death was no longer a threat. It represented the end of sin and the death of Satan as a result of their confession of sin and turning away from it. By faith, they were pointed forward to the death of Jesus on the cross as putting an end to the penalty of sin and signaling the death knell for Satan.

At the time of the Fall, God placed a curse upon the serpent and promised a remedy for sinners: the Offspring of the woman would one day crush the head of the serpent, although His “heel” would be wounded in the process (Gen. 3:15). Paul told the Roman believers in Romans 16:20, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” At the cross, Satan became a defeated foe (John 12:31–33; 16:11; Rev. 12:10–12).

A snake representing Christ?

Hebrews 2:14, 15 says that Jesus came in human flesh “so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” However, according to Jesus’ own words in John 3:14, the snake on the stake represents the death of Jesus, not of Satan. In what sense does the snake represent Jesus?

The snake represented Jesus because it symbolized the sin and death that Satan brought into the world when he tempted our first parents to sin in the Garden of Eden. It also represented the cause of death in the camp of Israel when they rebelled against God in the wilderness. Jesus had to take that sin upon Himself, with its curse, and pay the ultimate penalty for our sin by dying the death of the sinner, being lifted up, impaled on the cross much like the bronze snake on the stake. All who look to Jesus in faith can see the death of the serpent and sin and, thus, the hope of our own eternal life.

Evidence and faith

We are the rebellious people of God, despite all that God has done for us. Yet “God was in Christ reconciling [us] to Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19, NKJV) by the sacrifice of His own Son, uplifted on the cross. Jesus said, referring to His own death, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).

Commenting on this statement, author Ellen White observes, “All are drawn. Not one is left without conviction. Christ gives everyone evidence. But not all accept the evidence.”2 It is our privilege to choose to be drawn by the uplifted Christ, impaled on a Roman stake for our sins, becoming sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus calls us to look by faith to Him uplifted on the cross just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent as a trophy that the power of sin has been broken.

  1. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture is from Today’s New International Version.
  2. Ellen G. White, “Walk in the Light,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, November 13, 1900, 1.

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Edwin Reynolds, PhD, retired professor of New Testament studies, is a research professor for Southern Adventist University, School of Religion, Collegedale, Tennessee, United States.

September 2021

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