Pastor John Piper recently preached a sermon on the comparison between the Son of Man and the Serpent in regard to John 3. To complement Piper’s comparison, I think it is important that we also ask what is significant in regard to the Hebrews looking to the serpent and believers looking to Jesus on the cross.
Looking back, I don’t think we should neglect the connection to the entrance of sin in the world. Sin entered the world through the temptation of a serpent in the Garden of Eden. In a very significant way, the serpent is the point of our own sin. When Moses lifts the serpent in the wilderness, we should not miss the symbol of the serpent and the fall, but we also should not miss the fact that the Hebrews had to look to the serpent. Numbers 21:8-9 explains:
And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”
Notice the emphasis: see it, look at it, and live. Why is it important to look at the serpent? By doing that, they are not only reminded about how sin entered the world, but also about their own particular condition: they are serpents! They are as evil as the serpent in the Garden with their own sins. By looking at the serpent, they are acknowledging that they are wicked serpents.
And that is indeed the significant connection to the cross. When Christ is lifted up, he is lifted up not for his own sins, but for the sins of the world. The pain and suffering and torment of the cross, it is all there for us to see. And make no mistake about it: we have to look at it, for in looking at the cross, we are confessing our own evil and acknowledging that it is our sin that put the perfect Son of God on the cursed tree. We are there on the cross with him; we died with him on the tree.
See Christ, look upon his death in your place for your sin, and live! For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.