Many are familiar with John 3: 16.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

But out of all of those who know John 3: 16, how well do they know verses 14 and 15?

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.

Jesus references an account recorded in the twenty-first chapter of Numbers; a bizarre one-time incident demonstrating both God’s wrath and a redemption outside of the Mosaic Law.  Was it not for Jesus’ reference to Moses and the serpent, the account would be but a strange story in the history of Israel.  Yet because of the gospel of Jesus, this strange story becomes prophetic in the same way that the Passover is prophetic; it foreshadows the gospel of Jesus Christ and New Testament doctrine.

Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey.  The people spoke against God and 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 miserable food.”  The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.  So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us.”  And Moses interceded for the people.  Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.”  And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.  Numbers 21: 4 – 9

It is easy for the casual reader of Scripture to overlook this account, because just as quickly as it comes it goes.  There is not really another significant reference to this passage in the rest of the Old Testament.  Yet because of Jesus’ words we know that the Holy Spirit intended for this account to be used to foreshadow the gospel of Christ.  Consider then, this Old Testament passage and its support of New Testament doctrine:

  • The people grumbled against God and Moses and were being afflicted unto death.  The New Testament teaches
    “For the wages of sin is death…”  Romans 6: 23
  • The people in their sin could not have imagined God sending serpents to smite them unto death, and yet God also allowed Moses to intercede for the ignorant people.  The New Testament teaches that we, in our sin, are ignorant of God’s wrath and need intercession to be saved. 
    “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”  Luke 23: 34
  • The antidote to being bitten by a serpent was to look at a serpent.  The New Testament teaches that the answer to our sin is to look upon Him who became sin. 
    “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”  2 Corinthians 5: 21

Regarding The Scarlet Thread, this account of Moses and the serpent is a particularly fun passage to study, because Jesus Himself specifically references it and alludes to how we ought to read the passage in light of the cross of Christ.  And yet it also serves as a stark warning to everyone who hears the gospel preached.  The Apostle Paul references the passage in his warning to the Corinthian church, which was plagued with sin:

Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents…Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.  Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.  1 Corinthians 10: 9, 11 – 12

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