There’s a rather strange story in the Old Testament about an incident that occurred as Israel was journeying from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land:
Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread." So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.
Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people.
Then the Lord said to 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."
So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived. (Numbers 21:6-9)
What’s curious about this story is the method God uses to cure His children. A bronze serpent on a pole, what’s with that?
Christian readers, though, see here (as in virtually every page of the Old Testament) a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. And where do we get this idea? From Jesus Himself! For this is one of those times when Scripture does interpet Scripture. Jesus said:
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. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. (John 3:14-17)
All Christians are fond of quoting John 3:16, but for some reason, few quote these verses just before and after it. But when we do read the context, we notice two or three very interesting things. One is that the phrase, “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” occurs twice within three short verses. Jesus repeats Himself, as if for emphasis. I have come to heal you, who have all been bitten by the ancient serpent of Eden. I am like that bronze snake Moses lifted up. As those who looked upon the bronze serpent lived, so those who look to Me in faith shall live forever.
This theme of destroying death and giving of life, the Lord’s own analogy (though not His only one), is the central, guiding motif of Orthodox teaching about the Cross: Jesus died to bestow upon the world eternal life. Every other thing we say about the atonement is one or another facet of this gem, is another way of getting at the fathomless mystery of how Christ destroys death and gives immortal life. This is the framework into which all the other pieces are fitted: that by death, Christ trampled down death and bestowed life upon those in the tombs.
We notice, in passing, that the story in Numbers gives no hint of that bronze serpent being punished in the place of disobedient Israel! It was raised for their healing, for their life. That’s what Christ twice says. In fact, it lifted their punishment. When Moses prayed, God simply forgave, without punishing anyone. The serpent on the pole was the form His forgiveness took. He demonstrated His forgiveness by healing the people. In just such a way, Christ, too, while on the Cross, prayed to the Father, "forgive them, for they know not what they do." And the Father did, still without having to punish anyone, and the Cross is the form His forgiveness takes, for upon it, our death is healed.
And yet, in an entirely different sense, that bronze serpent mounted on the pole definitely implies punishment; see the next post in this series, in which we will also examine how Christ's death could heal anybody else of death. How does that work?