In Numbers chapter 21 there is the story about a bronze snake that appeared in the Israelites’ journey from Egypt towards the Promised Land. Just six verses.
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!” 6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 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. 8 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.” 9 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.
It’s a sad story in a way. After the Israelite nation, probably numbering about two and a half million people, had left Egypt, God directly fed them with a food they called manna, which contained all the minerals, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and vitamins required for life. But here they are in the middle of the desert, having a good old moan because they were fed up with the same food, day in, day out. They had lost sight of the miracle – I calculate that God probably supplied them with over 100 billion meals during their 40 year journey to the promised land. What a miracle! But nevertheless they moaned and had the audacity to focus their lack of gratitude on God. So as we read on, it says the Lord sent poisonous snakes among them. Many Israelites were bitten and died from the snake bites. There was no antidote until the point when they realised that they had sinned by their lack of gratitude to God. Following prayer, Moses made a bronze snake at the Lord’s command and mounted it on a pole. Furthermore, the Lord said that if anyone looked at the bronze snake, in faith for God’s gracious provision, they could then be healed.
But let’s fast forward to the conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus. Remember him? The Pharisee who came to see Jesus by night? Anyway, in the conversation, as recorded in John 3, Jesus made the prophetic statement, “14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.” Jesus was telling Nicodemus that the prophetic event in Numbers 21 was going to be fulfilled. And soon.
The serpent on the pole represented the judgment of God that Jesus took in place of us. To the Israelites, the serpent on the pole was salvation from the snakes on the ground. Gazing on it for them was to believe that this bronze serpent would save them from their sin against God. And God graciously healed all those who came to Him in faith.
In this pandemic season we are not being being plagued by snakes but instead by a particularly nasty virus. Straight away, I should say that I am not advocating that someone should make an image of the Covid virus and stick it on a pole, so that everyone who is sick can be healed by looking at it. Even if that would be nice. I’m also not saying that the virus has been sent by God as a punishment for man’s sin, though, for all I know, that might be the case. But we do know about Jesus. We do know that about 1400 years after the bronze snake in the wilderness event, God decided that He would give His only Son, Jesus, as a sacrifice for our sins so that whoever looks at Him believing, and in faith and true repentance will receive forgiveness. This was a one-off, never to be repeated, act of love and grace. We read in the next few verses in John, 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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
In the story about the poisonous snakes in the wilderness, God didn’t answer the Israelite’s prayer to take the snakes away. Instead He gave them a remedy for their sin. I’m sure many prayers have been lifted up to God, to take away this virus, but it’s still here with us. But as we gaze at the Cross, believing in faith and true repentance, we too will receive a remedy for our sin, but, even more, we will receive the right, through God’s grace, to spend eternal life with Jesus. In this Covid season, let’s refocus. Let’s lift our eyes up from the social restraints, lockdowns and restrictions imposed upon us by secular politicians, no matter how unjust we think they are or persecuted we feel, and instead focus on Jesus and His cross. For He has the words of eternal life. Through Jesus lies the remedy for our sin. And, by the way, we will find no traces of a pandemic in Heaven.