The Serpent in the Wilderness – Jerry C. Brewer

Jerry C. Brewer

And the people spake against God, and against Moses, 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. And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people 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, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one 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. (Num. 21: 5:-8).

And 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. (John 3:14-15).

The fiery serpents which God sent among the Israelites in the wilderness were punishment for their murmuring against Him and against His spokesman, Moses. The people were powerless to save themselves from this plague and came to Moses admitting their sin and asking for relief. Upon Moses’ intercession to God for the people, he was told to make a fiery serpent of brass and set it upon a pole and if one was bitten, he could be healed by simply looking on the brass serpent which Moses made.

In His conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, Jesus referred to the brass serpent that Moses erected in the wilderness, some 1,500 years before, and likened that to His crucifixion. The serpent in the wilderness was a type of our salvation today through Jesus Christ.

The word type is not found in the Bible, but the word pattern in Titus 2:7 and Hebrews 8:5 is from the Greek tupos, from which we derive our English word type. So, the serpent in the wilderness was a pattern—or type—of salvation through Jesus Christ. The cross of Christ is central to the scheme of redemption which God purposed. Only by blood could sins be remitted as the Hebrews writer wrote: “And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without the shedding of blood is no remission” (Heb. 9:22). It is the pattern of the serpent and salvation through Jesus Christ that is our focus in this lesson.

Israel’s Plight in the Wilderness

The plague of fiery serpents which God sent upon Israel was of their own making. In their journey from Mount Hor to “compass the land of Edom,” “…the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way” (Num. 21:4). As a result of one of their many instances of complaints against God and Moses, God provided them Manna from heaven to sustain them, which never ceased until they crossed into the promised land (Exo.16; Josh. 5:12). But not content with God’s care for them, they again complained, saying “our soul loatheth this light bread” (Num. 21:5). Their punishment was brought upon themselves and they had no remedy except by divine intervention.

Man’s Plight Today

The world is lost in sin today. Paul said, “…for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) and, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Sin came into the world through Adam (Rom. 5:12), but no person subsequently inherited Adam’s sin. Paul further wrote, “Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression” (Rom. 5:14). Of this verse, R.L. Whiteside wrote,

This does not mean that the people from Adam to Moses did not sin at all, for that would contradict other things that Paul had said, but it means that they did not sin after the likeness of Adam’s sin. They were not guilty of a sin like Adam’s sin. To say that they did not sin after the likeness of Adam’s sin is equal to affirming that they were guilty of a different kind of sin. Adam violated a positive law; these people violated the moral law. And that was not like Adam’s sin. But if the statement in verse 12, that all sinned, means that all sinned in Adam, then all did sin after the likeness of Adam’s sin. Thus, in an unexpected place, we have positive proof that we are not all guilty of Adam’s sin (122).

Thus, the inspired Paul makes the case that “all have sinned.” Now, since this is the plight of every man from Adam to this present day, there is not a person who ever lived who could provide remission of sins for himself. That had to come from God in the Person of His Son, Jesus Christ, just as God, through the serpent in the wilderness was the only possible means of healing for Israel.

The Remedy in the Wilderness

Paul said that, “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish, foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18). To Israel, that brass serpent on a pole as a snake bite cure may have seemed foolish. It would certainly be foolish today for a doctor to prescribe a look at a brass serpent as a cure for a rattlesnake bite! But God’s ways are not man’s ways (Isa. 55:8). Healing by the serpent in the wilderness was neither according to God’s moral law nor any scientific method. Israel’s healing came by obedience to God’s positive law. Neither was their healing accomplished by “grace only,” although it was a simple plan. One who was bitten by a serpent had to do something—he had to look upon the brass serpent on the pole to live. There were no exceptions to this positive law and when he obeyed (looked) he was healed of the deadly bite.

The Remedy Today

As God’s power to heal in the wilderness was exerted through the brass serpent, the cross of Christ is God’s power to remedy sin’s deadly consequences today. “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved, it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). Comprehended in the preaching of the cross is God’s positive law which saves from sin. For this reason, the preaching of the cross for salvation is foolish to men, as the brass serpent for a snakebite remedy is foolish to medical practice.

God has two kinds of law which we describe as “positive law” and “moral law.” The distinction between these is critical in understanding how God saves man and that distinction is made clear by Benjamin Franklin.

Moral law relates to that which is right in itself, always was right, and requires things to be done because they are right. The things it requires can be seen to be right in the reason and fitness of things, and will be readily admitted to be right–not because any authority requires them, but because they can be seen to be right in the nature of things. But positive divine law is of a higher order than this. It has the force to make that right which is not right in itself, and is the highest test of respect for divine authority known to man. It is also the greatest trial of faith ever applied to man. It is intended to penetrate down into the heart, and try the heart, the piety, the devotion to God. The very acts that some men have irreverently styled, ‘mere outward acts,’ ‘mere external performances,’ are the Lord’s tests of the state of the heart, intended to penetrate deep down into the inmost depths of the soul, try the heart, the piety, the devotion to God. They try the faith. The man that will obey a commandment, when he cannot see that the thing commanded can do any good, or, it may be, that he can see pretty clearly that it cannot do any good in itself, does it solely through respect to divine authority; does it solely to please God; does it solely because God commands it. This has no reference to popularity, pleasing men, or to the will of man, but it is purely in reference to the will of God. This is of faith; it is piety, devotion to God. It rises above mere morality, philosophy, or the pleasure of man, into the pure region of faith, confidence in the wisdom of God, and in submission to the supreme authority—yields to it reverently when no other reason can be seen for it only that the divine will requires it. The man in his heart says, ‘It must be done, because the absolute authority requires it.’ (pp. 151, 152).

In the preaching of the cross, there is no distinctive moral law attached. When the apostles preached, they did not tell their hearers to be morally good. Morality has been required of the human race since the creation and Jesus Christ brought no new moral precept into the world. What He brought was a remedy for sin, devised in the eternal counsel of God (Eph. 1:3-11), executed at Calvary, and which requires obedience of all who would be saved eternally.

Man’s failure to understand this concept is his greatest problem today. The world has the idea that moral goodness is that which justifies man before God. But God’s moral law is not the means by which He saves from sin. One may be morally upright in every facet of his life, but a single sin he commits will stain his soul and, although he may be perfectly moral the rest of his days, that single sin can never be remitted by his own moral works (Eph. 2:8). That can be done only through the blood of Christ, when a man hears God’s positive law and “obeys from the heart” (Rom. 6:17).


It was disobedience to God’s positive law—not His moral law—that brought ruin to the human race (Gen. 2:16; 3:1-7) and it is obedience to God’s positive law which tests man’s faith and brings remission of sin. That positive law is clearly revealed in the Bible. It requires faith on man’s part in God and His Son Jesus Christ (Heb. 11:6; John 8:24), repentance of sin (Luk. 13:3; Acts 2:38; 17:30-31), confession of faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah (Rom. 10:10; Acts 8:36-37), and baptism into Jesus Christ for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38).

No one violates God’s moral law by refusing to do any of those things. Adam was not immoral when he ate of the forbidden fruit, nor would any Israelite have been immoral who refused to look upon the serpent in the wilderness. Adam was given a positive law for his good in the Garden, Israel was given a positive law to save them from death in the wilderness, and God has given positive laws by which men are saved today. As the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, so Christ was lifted up for our salvation and no one today can be saved apart from obedience in faith, repentance and baptism any more than an Israelite could have lived had he not looked upon the serpent in the wilderness.

Works Cited

All Scripture quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible

Franklin, Benjamin, “Positive Divine Law,” The Gospel Preacher, Cincinnati, G. W. Rice, 1877

Whiteside, R. L., A New Commentary On Paul’s Letter To The Saints At Rome, Denton, TX, Miss Inys Whiteside, 1945

(Reprinted from the 2016 Bellview Lectureship book, Typology, Bellview church of Christ, Pensacola, Florida, Ed. Michael Hatcher).

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