That One Weird Story Where Jesus Compared Himself to a Snake

That One Weird Story Where Jesus Compared Himself to a Snake

Armin Sommer and I worked together on this blog post. Armin is my senior pastor. Dude's a godly man and a brilliant Bible scholar. Each week, we work together in a collaborative effort to prep & deliver the sermons on Sundays at Grace Church on the Mount. This blog post is one of those awesome joint ventures!


I (Segun) tend to overcomplicate things.

For example, the title of this blogpost went through several reiterations before I finally settled on the title that drew you to it. I could have just called it, "The Simplistic Premise of the Gospel" or even "Jesus and the Bronze Snake", but nooooooo, I needed to go and get all clever on ya! 

This is not uncommon in other areas of my life, especially in evangelism. I was once engaged in a gospel-related conversation with a young man who wanted to know about the meaning of the colors of the four horsemen of the apocalypse in the book of revelation. Instead of sticking close to the narrative I started with, I pivoted and tried explaining my unfiltered eschatology, only to get jumbled 3 minutes into it before I realized I was talking about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

You ever been there? Perhaps you didn't overcomplicate the Gospel, but went in the opposite direction and felt like you oversimplified it? So you try to RE-explain it, only to further complicate it again?

There was once a man for whom the Gospel seemed too simple. 

THE DAY JESUS SCHOOLED NICK

In John 3, we read of a Jewish ruler named Nicodemus who secretly came to visit Jesus. He came in secret because he was one of the 70 men who served on the Jewish ruling courts called the Sanhedrin. This group was made of men known as Sadducees and the Pharisees. If you know anything about these guys, you know that they did not hang out on Friday nights partying with Jesus. To the contrary, they opposed Jesus Christ and everything He had to say at every turn.

However, Jesus’ words and His miracles were undeniable, and it had apparently struck a cord with Nicodemus (who himself was a Pharisee). So, he’s snuck out from his gang to inquire more about Jesus from Jesus. You may actually be more familiar with this passage than you think because it’s where Jesus gives him the famous line in John 3:3 where He says, “… no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”, and then later on in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Both of those statements taken together are the simplest expressions of the Gospel: In order to be saved and have eternal life, you must believe in Jesus.

Now, Nicodemus had a little bit of a problem believing that the key to eternal life was that simple. Here was a man who had spent the better part of his life pursuing holy living and strictly observing all 613 Mosaic laws, yet here was Jesus claiming that the only way to be saved was through faith in Him?

It was just too simple for Nick.

So, Jesus graciously invites him to take a closer look when he makes this statement in verse 13-15, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

Oookaayy?

I'M KINDA LIKE THAT SNAKE IN THE DESERT

That statement about Moses and a snake may not make much sense to us, but to Nicodemus, who was a student of the Old Testament, he would have understood clearly what Jesus was getting at. He would have understood that Jesus was referring to an event in the book of Numbers, chapter twenty-one after God freed the Israelites from 400 years of slavery in Egypt and was leading them to the Promised Land (Canaan).

That desert-journey, however, took way longer than it should have, like 40 years longer! That’s because, shortly after packing their bags and leaving Egypt, the Israelites refused, out of fear, to take possession of the land they were being given. So, as a consequence for their rebellion, they had to wander in the desert for 40 years until the entire generation that doubted God died (Numbers 14).

The event Jesus was referring to (in His conversation with Nicodemus) about Moses and the snake takes place near the end of the Israelite’s 40 years of wandering in the desert.

During that 40-year period, God supernaturally provided food, water, and protection for them.  

  • In Exodus 16, God literally rained down from heaven some sort of honeyed-bread called, “Manna” to feed them.
  • Later on in that same chapter, God caused the wind to blow thousands of quails into their camp so they had meat to eat.
  • In Exodus 15:27, when they got thirsty, God directed them in the middle of the desert to hidden locations where there were 12 springs,
  • And then in Exodus 17, God literally brought water for them out of a rock.
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As if it weren’t enough evidence that His presence was with them, God also granted them victory in almost every battle they faced when enemy nations attacked them.  In fact, in the verse preceding this event with Moses and the snake, God had just helped them obliterate a tougher army – yet, one of the first things the Israelites did after that victory was to revert to complaining about their living conditions.

WOULD YA'LL STOP WHINING ALREADY!  

Numbers 21:4 “They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 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!”

To be clear, this was not the first time the Israelites had grumbled against God. In fact, at one point in Exodus 17, they got so worked up in their discontentment and their grumbling that they wanted to kill Moses.

And so, once again, turning a blind eye to God’s past-faithfulness, they began to speak discontentedly of what God had done and distrustfully of what God would do. Look again at their choice of words in verse 5 because it is a blatant insult, not only to how God had cared for them, but a blatant insult to God Himself.

Consider also where they are. They were in the 40th year of wandering in the wilderness. Within a short time, God would lead them into the land He had promised them, yet they repeatedly whined and complained against and grumbled against God.

There’s a warning in here for us. DO NOT ALLOW GRUMBLING AND DISCONTENT TO EVER MAKE ITSELF AT HOME IN YOUR HEART! Because if you do, even a miraculous gift from God will lose its savor; and that will become the seed of a rebellious heart!

In the case of the Israelites, their rebellion had reached a point where it invited God’s heavy hand of judgment.

WHEN GRUMBLING BACKFIRES

Numbers 21:6, “Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 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.” So Moses prayed for the people.” 

If we're honest, some of us are probably thinking right now, “Wow, this seems a little over the top, even a little bit harsh!”

I remember reading this story as a boy in Sunday school and thinking God was really mean… "Send some frogs or a ton of gnats to torture them, but NOT snakes!"

So let me address the strangeness of this judgment first by saying, God knows every human heart, and He sovereignly delivers judgments according to His divine insight into every person’s heart. You and I are in no moral position to point fingers at an utterly holy God who sits enthroned over ALL of creation and say, “That’s not fair!” The fact is, this was not a random judgment. It was sovereignly and divinely selective.

The wilderness in which the Israelites had marched through for the last 40 years is described in Deuteronomy 8:15 as a, “… vast and dreadful wilderness, …thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions.” In other words, the wilderness was the natural habitat for hundreds, maybe thousands of poisonous creatures.

Think about the implication of that insight.

Since this is the first time we’re hearing of the Israelite being tormented by snakes in their desert wanderings, that means that for the last 40 years, God had protected them every single day from being bothered or bitten by those venomous creatures. God kept every scorpion, every snake, and every insect from harming them!

So when they thumb their noses at God and mock Him for bringing them out to the desert to die, God basically goes, “Oh, is that what I have been doing these last 40 years? Letting you die? Tell you what, how about I let you experience what life in this wilderness really is like WITHOUT me!”

See what happened there?

The uncomfortable truth is that, for many of us, we may need to experience the heat of God’s wrath before we willingly turn to the light of His goodness and grace.

Which is naturally what happens next in Numbers 21:7-9, “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.” So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.”

SNAKES ON A POLE

The solution here seems simple enough, right? Moses was instructed to fashion some kind of bronze snake on a signal pole, which he would raise up high enough so everyone in the camp could see. If you wanted to be saved from the poisonous sting of death, all you had to do was look upon it and you would experience relief, you would be saved!

Interestingly, God didn’t actually do what they wanted. In verse 7, they asked God to “take away the snakes from them”, but God doesn’t do that. Instead, He provided a NEW means through which they would find relief from their torment. I also think it’s interesting that Moses didn’t say, “Okay, tie a tourniquet around the extremity of the bite, or stay quiet so as to slow the spread of the poison, or try and suck the venom out.”

The solution was way simpler than that!

The Hebrew word (“nabat”), which is translated as “Look” in verse 8 means, to gaze upon in belief. So, this is more than just seeing with the eyes, rather, it speaks of embracing something with your whole heart.

So that means, if anyone looked on the bronze snake, understanding that it was their only hope, they would be saved. But if they merely glanced at it or dismissed it as ridiculous, or meaningless, or trivial, then they would die in that wilderness!

It is, of course important to point out that it wasn’t the physical object that saved them, but it was an HONEST LOOK OF UTTER RELIANCE ON WHAT GOD HAD PROVIDE TO SAVE THEM!

The invitation was not to work out the math of how one gets saved by gazing on an object that was a symbol of the very thing killing them, the invitation was simply to admit their need, look upon what was provided, believe, and be saved!

It is this story, then, that Jesus is referring to in His conversation with Nicodemus on that night in John 3:13-14 when He tells Nick, “Just as those people were saved when they looked on the bronze snake, so in the same manner, ALL who admit their need for a savior, and look upon me for salvation and believe – WILL BE SAVED!"

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THE GOSPEL IS SO SIMPLE!

Jesus was using that story as a foreshadowing of what He would do for us on the cross. All of us have been “bitten” by a venomous serpent called SIN. Its venom runs through all of us and it is killing us and will ultimately LEAD us to an eternal separation from God in a fiery end called Hell.

The good news is that God Himself devised an antidote for this venom.

As unlikely as it may seem, the blood of Jesus Christ that was shed on the cross is the ONE thing that God has prescribed to cancel our record of sinful DEBT owed to Him.

God placed His Son on a cross so that all who look to Him and put their trust in Him would be saved! Ephesians 1:7 says, ““In Him [Jesus] we have redemption [that is, our deliverance and salvation] through His blood, [which paid the penalty for our sin and resulted in] the forgiveness and complete pardon of our sin, in accordance with the riches of His grace” (AMP).

The fact IS: NO manmade remedy of religion can save us from the curse of sin. No observance of rituals, rites, or religious systems can deliver us from the deathly grip of sin’s venom. ONLY A SIMPLE TRUST IN JESUS’ DEATH AND RESURRECTION CAN DELIVERS US FROM ETERNAL HELL INTO ETERNAL LIFE IN HEAVEN.

So I will ask as directly as I can.

  • Have you acknowledged to yourself that you are a sinner in need of God’s grace?
  • And have you looked upon Jesus Christ to put your trust in Him alone for salvation?

If not, I offer you an invitation right now in front of your computer to humbly confess your sins to God and put your faith in Jesus Christ.  Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

It’s that simple. 


Armin Sommer is the senior pastor of Grace Church on the Mount. Segun works in collaboration with pastor Armin weekly to prepare and preach the sermons.