The story of Israel’s journey through the wilderness gives us many lessons to learn from, one of which we find in Numbers 21:4-9.
The Israelites were getting discouraged along the way, and as a result, they began to murmur and speak out against Moses and God. “So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died” (verse 6).
These fiery serpents were not uncommon in the wilderness. The desert was home to many such fiery serpents (Deuteronomy 8:15). It is said that they may have been called fiery because of their color, and because of the heat, violent inflammation, and thirst brought on by their bite.
God had been a hedge of protection to the Israelites throughout their journey. However, this protection was now removed. It took a striking judgment for the people to see their guilt and to confess their sin. The consequence of sin can have a sobering effect.
They now came to seek the intercession of Moses, whom they murmured against, and asked that he would pray for God to take away the serpents. God heard the prayer of Moses, but not in the way they desired (they asked for the serpents to be removed.) This is the answer the Lord gave Moses: “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live” (verse 8).
One may wonder how this may remedy the deadly sting and poisonous effects of these serpents by simply looking at a brazen serpent. Here, the Lord gives a way out, not as the people wanted, but in a way that connects the promised salvation to the faith of the people.
Unbelief and murmuring, which comes as a result of unbelief, brought them into this predicament. Faith was to be their salvation. A single look at the lifted-up fiery serpent was enough to be healed. The virtue of healing could not come from the figure but from God, who appointed it to be made. We then read: “And so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived” (verse 9).
The “looking” at the fiery serpent does not have the meaning of intensely looking or staring at it. Our Lord Jesus explains the spiritual significance of this event in His conversation with Nicodemus: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
If those who had been bitten by the fiery serpents looked upon the raised serpent, they lived. So today, Jesus is telling us that in order to be free from the poison of sin, we should look to Jesus with eyes of faith, and we shall live.
Our Lord then continues with perhaps the most well-known verse, and for good reason. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him [looks with eyes of faith] should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).
This message is presented in the law, in the gospels, and in the prophets. Consider the words written in Isaiah 45:22, “Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.” This is the gospel in a nutshell – look to Him, and you will be saved. Do not look anywhere else but to Him alone.
In the wilderness with the fiery serpents, God supplied the means for those who had been bitten to live. Had they sought their remedy elsewhere, they would have died. Had they looked at Moses, they would still have died. Had they scoffed or considered it foolish or too simplistic, they would have died. Had they asked someone else to look for them, they still would have died. Each person who was bitten had to personally look.
The message is simple, yet clear. All of humanity has been stung by the serpent and has been injected with the venom of sin. God sent His only chosen vessel as the remedy for sin: Jesus Christ. Look to Him, and you will live. Simply look. It is much easier to look than to do something with your hands or feet. The simplicity is what throws people off; they’d sooner do something difficult. God’s Word is telling us that you need to only look with confidence and trust in His saving mercy. Don’t try to improve yourself by self-effort. The cure for sin and the hope of eternal life is only to be found by looking to (believing in) Him.
The life of faith is a supernatural walk. We must continue to look upon Him in order to walk victoriously. If we stumble and fall, it’s because we are looking away, looking elsewhere to our circumstances, our weaknesses, and so forth. Our hope, strength, and salvation lies in Him. Therefore, we are given the simple command: look to Him, for with Him all things are possible.
Yet there is only one door, one entry, one way, one Savior, one name given us whereby we may be saved so that we may live. Jesus is the door, the way and the life; no one can have eternal life except through Him. Anyone who tries to come in any other way is a thief and a robber, Scripture says (John 10:1).
It is Christ who keeps us, if we continue to look to Him in faith. Our Savior spoke these words: “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40).
A song writer sums this message up well in this hymn: