Lifting up the Serpent

Taken and adapted from, “On the Historical Types Contained in the Old Testament” Twenty Discourses Preached before the University of Cambridge in the Year 1926.
Written by, Temple Chevallier


The Lord said to Moses, 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 21:8-9

“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. “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. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. — John 3:14-17

When we consider those historical types of Christ…

…which are mentioned in Scripture, and corroborated by prophecies, delivered before the appearance of the antitype, and subsequently fulfilled, we may now turn to those typical persons and events, which are ratified by the completion of prophecy, delivered by him who prefers a claim to the character of the antitype.

One prominent event of this nature, is the erection of the brazen serpent by Moses. The existence of a pre-concerted connection between two series of events may be revealed with various degrees of precision. Their mutual relation may be so strongly marked, and so plainly asserted, that no one who believes the authority of the writings, in which they are recorded, can doubt its reality.

The history of the brazen serpent is well known. When the time appointed for the wandering of the Israelites, in the wilderness, had nearly expired, the murmuring of the people, which had long been directed against Moses and his family, at length broke out into open rebellion against the Most High. “They journeyed from mount Hor, by the way of the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom,” through which they had in vain attempted to procure a passage. Their steps were thus turned once more from the promised land of Canaan; “and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, saying, wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, neither is there any water, and our soul loatheth this light bread.” Their impiety was soon visited with a special judgment. “The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people: and much people of Israel died,” Therefore the people, “terrified at the fearful visitation, “came to Moses and said, we have sinned: for we have spoken against the Lord and against thee: pray unto the Lord that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, “in form and color like those which had been the instruments producing the plague, “and set it upon a pole,” or, perhaps, set it up for a sign: “And it shall come to pass, that everyone that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.

And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole: and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.”

Such is the simple and brief narration of this miraculous event. Of the fact itself, there can be no doubt. Many experienced the salutary effects in the healing of their deadly wounds: and thousands were witnesses of its efficacy.

The brazen serpent itself was, for many centuries, preserved among the people as a memorial of the event. Neither can there be any doubt, that the cure was supernatural. The Jews themselves well knew, that the effect was not produced, as has been fancifully asserted, by any subtle incantation, nor by any human art, but by the power of God alone. They regarded the serpent as “a sign of salvation, to put them in remembrance of the commandment of the law.”

For they knew that “he that turned himself toward it was not saved by the thing that he saw, but by Him who is the Savior of all.’ Some of them, calling to mind the various promises, which had been made of old time to their fathers, instructed to look for that seed of the woman, which should bruise the serpent’s head, deeply feeling, in their own hearts, their need of a physician, who should heal them of the plague of sin, knowing how strictly the Israelites were forbidden to make any image, and yet that Moses was expressly commanded to make this might even regard the serpent in the same light in which many of the Jews have since regarded it, as a sacramental emblem of some higher blessing, which it prefigured. But no intimation occurs in the canonical Scriptures of the Old Testament, that the miracle had a designed reference to any subsequent event. From the day in which Hezekiah destroyed the image, and called it Nehushtan, a brazen bauble, we read no more of that serpent, until the day when Christ Jesus held his conference with Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.

On that memorable occasion, he discoursed on subjects of the deepest interest. Founding his instruction on the acknowledged authority of those miracles, which proved him to be a teacher come from God, Christ opened to the astonished ears of the teacher of Israel, the wonders of the spiritual world. The necessity of a new birth, the difference between that which is born of the flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit, were laid down with the accuracy of perfect knowledge. Christ claimed to himself a degree of wisdom and power, to which no mere man could ever pretend.

Nicodemus was no stranger to the emphatic question proposed by Agur, “Who hath ascended up into heaven or descended? Who hath gathered the wind in his fists? Who hath bound the waters in a garment? Who hath established all the ends of the earth? What is his name and what is his son’s name, if thou canst tell?” ‘But such knowledge was too excellent for unassisted reason to attain. The question remained a hard saying which none could answer, until Christ then declared, that “no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man, which is in heaven.”

Having thus laid the sure grounds on which his high commission rested. Christ proceeds to speak, in the spirit of prophecy, of the causes which the mercy of God has rendered efficacious for the salvation of fallen man; the meritorious cause, his own sufferings and death, and the instrumental cause, sincere faith in those to whom the doctrine is propounded. Christ conveys this instruction to Nicodemus, by referring to the erection of the brazen serpent. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Here, then, we find one, acknowledged to be a teacher come from God, in the beginning of his ministry, instructing a disciple well learned in all the customs and history of the Jews, by the delivery of a prophecy, the completion of which depended upon the similarity between the things which he was to suffer, and a wonderful and notorious event in the previous history of the Jewish nation. And in this prophetic assertion, two distinct circumstances of resemblance are pointed out; the outward act; the lifting up of the Son of man, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness; and the benefit, which the free mercy of God extended to those who looked with faith upon this symbol of salvation.

The words in which the first part of this prophecy is expressed, are sufficiently clear to prevent any ambiguity in the application of them. The term, “to lift up,” re-applied to the death of the cross, was so frequently used in that sense that it’s meaning here cannot be mistaken: but being a figurative expression, it possessed precisely the degree of uncertainty which would prevent its exact signification from being known, until interpreted by the event. On two other occasions, our Savior employed the same words for the same purpose. He preferred the Jews for a more perfect knowledge of his mission, to the time when they should have “lifted up the Son of man.” And at another time he declared, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” And “this we know” he said, “signifying what death he should die.” “When, therefore, Christ said, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up,” he declared it to be determined in the Divine counsels, that he, who alone had come down from heaven, “who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God,” had now made himself of no reputation, and taken upon himself the form of a servant, and had been made in the likeness of man: and that, being found in fashion as a man, he should humble himself, and become obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Every man, who has read the undisputed narratives of the evangelists, corroborated by the testimony even of their adversaries, knows how accurately this prediction was accomplished by the crucifixion of Christ. The resemblance between the two events, the lifting up of the serpent, and the lifting up of the Son of man, was perfect.

Still it was a resemblance, which a mere conjecture of Christ could hardly have devised; and which no sagacity could have anticipated, when the first event occurred; even if the general circumstances of the second event could have been contemplated.

If an Israelite had conceived the idea of a prophet exciting the animosity of his countrymen, so as at length to be put to death at their instigation, the lifting up of the serpent would have conveyed to others no adequate notion of such a transaction. The fulfilment implied a most important political change. Crucifixion was not a Jewish, but a Roman, punishment. If Christ were guilty of blasphemy, of which they afterwards accused him, they had a law, and by that law he ought to die. But death for such a crime would be inflicted by stoning. It had been revealed, however, in the prophets and in the law, that the Messiah should suffer death upon the cross: and the fate of empires was so ordered as to complete the designs of Divine wisdom. And Christ himself, to whom the Spirit was given without measure, knew from the beginning all things which must be fulfilled: and what he foresaw he also foretold.

He knew, and he declared, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, and chief priests, and scribes: that they should condemn him to death, and “deliver him to the Gentiles, to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him.” ‘And with full consciousness of this termination of his earthly ministry, he declared to Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.”

The prophecy, thus delivered by Christ, appears also to illustrate the previous narrative of the sacred volume. There seems to be no assignable connection, between the lifting up of a brazen serpent, and the cure of those who had been bitten. It is not necessary to suppose, as some have done, that looking upon the serpent of brass would have naturally aggravated the deadly symptoms. But it is evident, that to cast a look upon such a representation had no intrinsic effect in producing the cure. To account for the benefit received, it might be sufficient to refer to the uncontrollable will of God, who will have mercy upon whom he will have mercy, by the means which his sovereign wisdom dictates. But it has pleased him, even in his miraculous acts, often to render his ways in some degree visible and intelligible; to work by means, to which He has attached some ordinary efficacy. To purify the waters of Marah by casting into them a tree, or those of Jericho by infusing salt; to heal a leprosy by washing in the waters of Jordan, or a grievous boil by the application of a vegetable preparation, were all instances, among many others, in which the immediate power of God was exhibited by preternaturally augmenting the effect of the natural means employed. Upon other occasions, the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man was immediately answered, by the cure of the sick, or the restoration of the dead to life: the blessing, ordinarily promised to the prayer of faith, being thus increased, and bestowed in an extraordinary manner. But in the desert it pleased the Almighty to appoint an instrument, which in itself had manifestly no influence in producing the cure.

The thing which the wounded Israelites saw could never save them.

If the serpent had no reference to any future event, there is no apparent connection between the means and the end. If we conceive it to have designedly prefigured the lifting up of Christ upon the cross, this connection is supplied. Although they who were bitten could not be cured by the thing which they saw, they might be, and on this supposition they were, cured by Him who is the Savior of all.

From the mode, then, in which Christ mentions the mention of the brazen serpent, from the manner in which the very peculiar prophecy of his own death is connected with it, from the accurate resemblance in the external circumstances, and from the absence of all other assignable connection between the means employed and the cure effected, it seems highly probable, that the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness was intended to prefigure the lifting up of the Son of man.

The conclusion, thus deduced from the correspondence in the external acts of the two events, is confirmed by the similarity in the effects which were produced, expressly pointed out by Christ: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

By the sin of our first parents, all mankind were far gone from original righteousness. In Adam all died. The sting of death, sin, was deeply fixed in our nature; and man lay exposed to the wrath of God, unable, by his own power, to raise himself from this state of misery: aptly represented by the fainting Israelites, extended upon the desert, dying with the mortal bite of the fiery serpents. But behold the mercy and loving-kindness of God.  While we were yet sinners, God sent into the world the promised seed of the woman, who should bruise the serpent’s head. He gave his own Son to be made sin for us, although himself without sin, to take upon him our nature, to pass a life of privation and suffering; to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows; to be despised, and rejected, and buffeted, and scourged, and to suffer death upon the cross: that as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of man should be lifted up; and that when so lifted up, he should draw all men unto him.

And the means, by which, as in Adam all died, even so in Christ all should be made alive, were precisely similar to those by which the brazen serpent, erected by Moses, was made efficacious to heal the Israelites.

It was an act of faith, to which the wisdom of God attached an exclusive blessing. No other remedy was provided for the wounded Israelites, than to look upon the sign which Moses lifted up. Salvation is now proposed by no other means than by faith in the blood of Christ, who was in like manner lifted up upon the cross. All who looked upon the serpent of brass lived. All who believe in Christ shall not perish, but have eternal life. They who tempted and rebelled against Christ in the wilderness, were destroyed of the serpents. They who now tempt and rebel against him, by neglecting his revealed word, have no promise, and, therefore, can have no ground for hope, that they will be enabled effectually to resist “that old serpent, which deceiveth the whole world.”

Without pursuing the comparison by a deduction of any more minute coincidences, these resemblances are sufficient to shew a remarkable correspondence, between the effects produced by the elevation of the serpent in the wilderness, and the lifting up of Christ upon the cross.

And the correspondence, being predicted by Christ himself, arises from no ingenious accommodation of circumstances accidentally similar. Christ, while delivering an undoubted prophecy, clearly fulfilled, points out the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness, and the cure performed by it, as an event to which the circumstances and consequences of his own death should be like. In order, therefore, to fulfil the prophecy, as it was fulfilled, the two series of events were, by the Providence of God, to be made to correspond. And it is difficult to conceive any correspondence, unless, either the present, when it was so lifted up, intentionally prefigured the future death of Christ upon the cross, or that death were adapted, if we may so speak, to an event previously indifferent. Now the lifting up of Christ on the cross was not an isolated fact. It was the great event so long predicted in the prophets, and foreshadowed in the law. Christ himself continually referred, during his life, to this termination of his ministry: and his followers, after his death, preached what was a stumbling-block to the Jew, and foolishness to the Greek, as the foundation of all their hopes. When so vast a fabric harmonizes, in this manner, with a single event, we can scarcely avoid the conclusion, that the correspondence was designed from the beginning: that the connection between the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness, and the lifting up of the Son of man upon the cross, was pre-concerted, and therefore typical.

But whatever opinion may be formed respecting the typical character of the brazen serpent, indicated in the words of Christ, the practical doctrine, which those words convey, is of the highest interest to all.

There are few doctrines which have been more opposed, than that which attaches such pre-eminent importance to belief in Christ. Endless are the cavils and discussions to which it has given rise. But surely it is not for man to supply the secret connection, which the Almighty counsels have established, between an act performed, and the benefit received. No Israelite, burning with the wound of the fiery serpent, would have stayed to make the enquiry, “how can these things be?” before he looked up to the sign of salvation erected by God’s command, that by looking he might live. The act of looking, might originally have been an indifferent act. But God commanded it to be performed; and it then became a duty.

So it is in spiritual things. God has thought fit, in his unerring wisdom, to make faith in his Son the indispensable means of salvation, to all those to whom the doctrine is propounded.

The benefits freely proposed are incomparably greater than any which this world can offer: the pardon of sin; release from eternal death; the gift of everlasting life. What should be said of that man, who, instead of searching the revealed will of God to know, with certainty, whether these things be so, and receiving with thanksgiving such inestimable benefits, will continue to harden himself in sin, and refuse his assent, because he cannot precisely comprehend the mode, in which the relief is conferred? Yet this is the conduct of thousands.

If then, the Son of man were lifted up, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life;” if by grace we are saved, through faith, and that not of ourselves, since it is the gift of God: it is most important, that we all consider whether we have this faith or not. Now to say, we believe, is most easy and most common. We are all Christians in name. And God alone can read the heart, and know how fervent and how effectual is the belief of any man. But there is one criterion by which all may, in some degree, judge of the insincerity of faith. No faith is sincere, which does not produce the fruits of a holy, pure, religious, charitable life. “A good man, out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man, out of the evil treasure, bringeth forth evil things.” Actions, therefore, and actions only, shew to other men the truth and sincerity of religious principles. And if any man affect to possess a saving faith, while he indulges in the known practice of unrepented sin, the reply to his pretensions is made in the words of Saint James: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?” “Faith, if it hath not works, is dead being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.”

To those who thus sincerely, although imperfectly, endeavor to follow the precepts of our holy religion, the doctrine of the atonement is full of comfort.

They feel, like the Israelites, the mortal bite of sin. They feel their moral strength fail. They know how widely the poison is spread: that the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. Still will they raise the eye of faith to Him who was lifted up, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. They will contemplate the wonderful love of God thus shewed to his creatures.

They will receive “the ministry of reconciliation: to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them:” “for he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”