"Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life." (John 3:14-15)
"Then the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyonewho 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 21:8-9)
How was the serpent staff lifted up in the wilderness?
1. The serpent staff was given in response to contrition and repentance.
In Numbers 21:7, the people cried out to Moses: "We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us." It was after hearing these words that the serpent staff was provided for their salvation.
It is useless to look to Christ for salvation without true contrition and repentance. Many preach a gospel of belief that excludes repentance. We would do well to return to the original message of the apostles: that men "should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance." (Acts 26:20). Just like the repentance of the Jews moved God to give them life through the serpent staff, in the New Covenant repentance moves God to grant life (Acts 11:18), the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47) and salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10). Repentance does not "move God" because it is meritorious, but because it is the condition of all of His gracious blessings. It, coupled with faith in Christ, is the key to God. Anyone who does not repent will surely perish (Luke 13:3) just like those who had been bitten by the serpents in the wilderness but didn't look to God's source of salvation.
When we are sorry for our sins, aware of our danger and seeking change, God lifts the crucified savior before our eyes, so that we can look and live.
2. Whoever looked at the serpent staff was infected and dying, and looked there for healing. They looked because they knew they were sick and in grave danger.
In the same way, "it is the sick who need a physician" (Luke 5:31). Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). It is the will of God that the wicked be saved, and He takes no delight in their death (Ezekiel 18:23). But His perfect justice binds Him to judge all sin (Exodus 34:7). This is the dilemma that the cross solves!
"God presented Him as an atoning sacrifice through faith in His blood, in order to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance He had passed over the sins committed beforehand. He did this to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and to justify the one who has faith in Jesus." Romand 3:25-26
If someone has not become intimately aware of their sin and eternal danger, then what use is this message to them? What good is a savior to someone who believes they are "pretty good after all", already righteous in God's eyes because they "mean well and don't hurt anybody"? (8 out of 10 people would say something very similar to that if you asked them why they are going to Heaven). We must learn again to bring the knowledge of sin by the law, "for by the Law is the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20).
Faith in Christ is only effective when great need is felt and known. "Have mercy on me, a sinner!" Is the only true cry of saving faith. The staff was not provided until there was a great sickness and danger of death. The savior was not provided until the people were aware of great sin and danger of judgment (Num. 21:7). It was after the Israelites found themselves to be fatally poisoned and in danger of death that they looked at the serpent for themselves, and were healed. It is only after you find yourself to be fatally sinful that you will look to Christ for yourself, and be saved.
The Israelites needed the serpent staff to solve their sickness problem...we need the crucified savior to avert our sin problem.
3. Whoever looked at the staff lived.
Whoever believes in Christ has eternal life (John 3:15). Looking and believing are compared because it was an act of faith to look at the staff as much as it is an act of faith to look to Christ. Those who looked to the staff looked believing in their hearts that doing so would cause their healing. Those who look to Christ must do so believing in their hearts that doing so will move Him to grant us what He promised. “Whoever comes to me I will in no wise cast out!” (John 6:37). There is saving power in the simple sight of Jesus Christ! When we look to Christ, we are gloriously set free from the bondage of sin (Romans 6:6) and the wrath of God (Romans 5:9). We are reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18), adopted as His children (Gal. 4:5) and sealed with His Spirit (Ephesians 1:3)! We are no longer enemies of God, nor merely slaves, but friends (John 15:15)! Eternal life is not just dying and being transported to a "better place" some day. It is being reconciled to the God who we were made for, and walking in communion with Him! "And this is the way to have eternal life--to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth." (John 17:3)
4. Whenever someone was bitten, no matter how often or terribly they were bitten, they would look at the staff and live.
In the same way, Christ is our life and salvation daily. If we are ever bitten by the fangs of sin, we must turn back in repentance and look to Christ. It is no use going on questioning if God will accept us - we are dying and getting worse every day. How would it have gone for those in the wilderness if they held back from looking to the serpent because they thought themselves unworthy, so they were unsure if looking to the staff would heal them? They would have died! Died, died, died! Dead, dead, dead! This is why God insists that we look to Christ, no matter how bad we have been poisoned. If we don't, we are headed for death! We will get worse and worse by the day, and finally die ("For if you live according to the flesh, you must die." Romans 8:13). We must turn back, and look to Christ all over again - yes, as often as we are bitten and poisoned by the serpent. Christ is our life. He will restore us as soon as we look to Him seeking healing and holiness.
5. It is up to the individual to look and be saved.
If an Israelite chose to look to the serpent staff, they would be healed, and live. In the same way, "whoever believes in me will not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16), but apart from faith, we are "already condemned" (John 3:17). The staff has been lifted! The savior has died, risen, and been enthroned. It is now in your court. Will you look to Christ and be saved, or refuse to? If you will not look to Christ, "the wrath of God abides on you” (John 3:36).