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, he lived. (Nu 21:7-9)
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (Jn 3:14-15)
There is so much that could be said about the cross, and this may not seem like the most obvious place to start, but bear with me, it's very significant.
Jesus tells us clearly in John's gospel that the bronze snake that Moses lifted up in the wilderness was a prefiguring of his own atoning death on the cross. Just as all who were dying from the snake bites could look to the snake and live, so too all who are dying in sin can look to the Son, put their faith in him and live.
So far so good, nothing new here. But as I was thinking about this again, a question occurred to me: why a snake? If this action was intended to prefigure Christ you would have expected a different and more appropriate symbol. If Moses had lifted up bread and wine, you would have caught the symbolism immediately. If he had been told to shed the blood of a lamb and lift that up, again the symbolism would have been unmistakable. But he didn't; he lifted up a snake... hold on Moses... what blasphemy is this?.... where we expect to see a symbol of the Christ we see instead.... THE SERPENT!
Now I know there is other significance here. The people were bitten by snakes and it was a snake that was lifted up. Jesus took the punishment that we deserved. The serpent is cursed, and Jesus became cursed on the cross, taking the curse from us so that we could be blessed... but I think there is more to it than that... The imagery of the serpent in a foreshadowing of the cross is too significant to be incidental.
You see it says in scripture that it was for the joy set before him that Jesus endured the cross. Jesus in his mind, although he set his face like flint to the cross, was always looking beyond it -- not to his death, but to all his death would accomplish. The thought of the death part itself was not something that Jesus liked to think about, you only have to read the account to Gethsemane to see that. It was what lay beyond the cross, that filled his heart with joy.
It makes you think - why do we like to fixate so much attention on the very part that Jesus himself liked to think about the least. The cross itself was a wonderful moment of victory, but it was not until the resurrection that this victory was declared. The cross without the resurrection would have been no victory at all. Thus it is not the dead Jesus hung on the cross that is the true symbol of the Christian faith, but the empty tomb; even better is the ascended Christ in glory and the outpouring of the Spirit. Thus the true mark of a Christian is not the cross around their neck, but the infilling of the Spirit in their life.
This makes me think that God, very deliberately, did not chose to use an image for his Son when he told Moses to lift up the pole in the wilderness, and instead chose an image of the enemy. You see, Jesus did not stay on the cross, but all the power of the enemy did! At the cross, Satan scored the greatest own goal ever. It says in 1 Corinthains, that if he had understood the cross, and what would have happened, he would never have done it. When Jesus hung limp and lifeless, he thought he had won -- when in reality he had just lost. The prophesy in Genesis had been fulfilled. He had struck his heel, but Jesus had crushed the serpent's head.
I like to think that when Moses attached the serpent to the post, one of the nails when through its head. A prefiguring of how the serpent would have his head crushed at the cross.
So when you consider the cross, don't see a lifeless Jesus hung there. Our Lord is alive, he has won, he has defeated death and is seated at the right hand of God in glory. See the serpent with his head crushed. Your Lord is victorious. Your enemy has been defeated.