Why does a serpent represent what Jesus did on the cross?

Q.  In the gospel of John, when Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, why does he liken Himself to the serpent that was lifted up in the desert in the Old Testament, considering that serpents are usually associated with Satan? Why was a serpent chosen as a type/foreshadowing of what Jesus would do on the cross, especially in light of the Bible always emphasizing the “lamb” that was slain? I’ve thought that perhaps in a sense sin/evil was on the cross since Jesus “became sin” to put an end to it, but other than that it just seems weird to me.

Sebastien Bourdon, “Moses and the Brazen Serpent”

Jesus refers to the way Moses made a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole in order to make one specific point to Nicodemus.  Jesus has just told him that he needs to be “born again” in order to enter the kingdom of God.  Nicodemus has misunderstood this and thinks that Jesus is describing something physical rather than something spiritual.  (This happens often in Jesus’ conversations with people in this gospel, as I explain in my study guide to John.)  “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asks.

Jesus tries to explain that he’s talking about being “born of the Spirit,” but Nicodemus still asks, “How can this be?”  So Jesus uses the episode of the bronze serpent to explain more precisely what he means by being “born again.”

This episode is related in the book of Numbers.  The Israelites are traveling through the wilderness and they start complaining about the very manna that God has been providing miraculously to feed them in the desert.  (They say, “We detest this miserable food!”)  As a punishment for their ingratitude, God sends poisonous snakes among them and many of the Israelites start dying from snake bites.  So they come to Moses and admit, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you.”  They ask him to “pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.”  God forgives the people and tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole.”  God promises, “Anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”

In other words, an admission of sin and a response of hopeful faith, looking to the means God provided for deliverance, was how the Israelites could be rescued from physical death in this instance.  Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the same thing will be true, on a much grander scale in the spiritual realm, when he is “lifted up” onto the cross.  Anyone who is sincerely sorry for the way they’ve disobeyed and offended God, and who looks in hopeful faith to Jesus’ death on the cross for their sake, will be rescued spiritually and given the chance to live anew.  This is what it means to be “born again.”

So that is the single point of comparison:  just as the Israelites needed to look in hopeful faith to God’s provision for their physical deliverance in the wilderness, so Nicodemus (and anyone else, ever since, who hears about Jesus’ conversation with him) needs to look in hopeful faith to God’s provision for their spiritual deliverance in the form of Jesus’ death on the cross.

We should not make any further points of comparison, such as “Jesus must be like a serpent in some way, rather than a lamb, because he said he had to be lifted up just as the serpent was lifted up.”

However, we should keep in mind that in the gospel of John, there are always multiple levels of meaning at work.  Behind physical references there is often spiritual significance.  We’ve already seen that this is true when Jesus speaks about being “born,” and it’s also true when he speaks of himself being “lifted up.”  This can mean simply being raised onto the cross, but as a footnote in the NIV explains each time this phrase occurs in John, “The Greek for lifted up also means exalted.”  We need to recognize that this spiritual meaning is also in view when Jesus says things like, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

13 thoughts on “Why does a serpent represent what Jesus did on the cross?”

  1. A nice explanation. Thank you. The only change I would make to the explanation is to modify this part “God sends poisonous snakes among them” with “God permits poisonous snakes among them” since their camp already lived in that snakes territory. God, miraculously kept the snakes away from the camp on a daily basis.

    As a matter of fact God performed a lot of miracles on a daily basis that they took for granted like preventing their sandals from wearing out.

    1. You’re right that God did sustaining miracles for the Israelites throughout their time in the wilderness, but the account of the bronze snake in Numbers says specifically that YHWH sent venomous snakes among the people. The Hebrew verb is shalach, which is the standard way of saying that one person sent another person (or creature, in this case) to do something. So it wasn’t just the removal of a protecting providence, it was an active judgment on the people. That’s something we need to deal with as we consider this passage.

      1. Very thought provoking and a lot closer to the truth in my opinion. You have a keen mind and your post agrees with what Jesus said.

        Jesus said, Jn 12:48 “There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day..”

        Also in my opinion asking how the serpent is a foreshadow of Christ is the wrong question. We should rather ask, “Why did God choose a serpent, a representative of evil, to foreshadow Christ?”

        The answer is simple.

        When the Jews crucified Jesus, and therefore lifted him up, he in their eyes was evil. To them he represented a serpent.

        The forshadow themed is not from the perspective of God, but from the people’s.

        It’s the same with the Day of Atonement. The goat is a symbol of evil. Scapegoat in Hebrew is Azazel which directly translated means ‘devil.’

        When Pilate presented Jesus with Barabbas in an effort to free him; the people chose to free Barabbas instead because they saw Jesus as a devil.

  2. Whatever the serpent had done in the garden of Eden in Genesis is nullified in the Divine Exchange on the Cross where Jesus Christ died for All our sin and curses, every dominion of darkness, took away/satisfied God’s wrath, conquered the Devil and Death, so that those who are born again in Christ, have new life and blessed hope and assurance of Eternal life !

  3. so my question in regards to the bronze snake – wouldn’t this be considered a form of idolatry ? Or lead to idolatry in that the people would worship the bronze snake instead of God ?

    1. It has been well said that the difference between an icon and an idol is that you look through the icon to gaze towards God, but when you look at an idol, your gaze stops with it. Originally the bronze snake was an icon. Looking at it was a way of repenting from the sin that had led God to punish the people by sending the poisonous snakes, and those who looked at it looked through it to the merciful God who provided it as a means of healing and deliverance from the poisonous snakes. But later it did become an idol. Many years later, godly King Hezekiah had to destroy it because the people had been burning incense to it. So there is always a risk, in creating any icon (a creative work designed to direct our gaze to God), that it will become an idol. But the problem is not with the icon. The problem is with what people do with it.

  4. Your response seems to overlook 2 Cor 5:21 where it says that Jesus became sin. This is an absolutely horrible thought and difficult to bear, but it is the price that He had to pay for redeeming us. It is the gospel.

    1. I agree that we must affirm the doctrine that you cite. However, that does not seem to be the application that Jesus himself drew In John 3:14 from the episode of the serpents in Numbers 21:4-9. Jesus did not say that the bronze serpent represented sin and that he himself would become a representative of sin when he was lifted up. Rather, the serpents represent the consequences of sin. Because the people grumbled against God and Moses, God sent the serpents to punish them. But God then turned the consequence of sin into the remedy for sin: When Moses made a bronze replica of one of the serpents and put it up on a pole, everyone who looked at it lived. As Jesus applies this episode to himself, the consequence of sin is death, and God turns that consequence into the remedy for sin: Whoever believes in Jesus, in his death on the cross, has eternal life. So as I said, I agree that we must affirm the doctrine in 2 Cor. 5:21, but I don’t believe that Jesus was saying that the serpent on the pole = sin and by analogy he himself on the cross = sin. Rather, the serpent on the pole represents the consequence of sin become the remedy for sin. This too is consistent with Paul’s teaching, for example, in Romans 5 that death entered the world through sin, but we are reconciled to God and have eternal life through the death of Jesus.

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