Expositor's Bible Commentary
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?Chapter 8
THE BRAZEN SERPENT.
“Nicodemus answered and said unto Him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou the teacher of Israel, and understandest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and bear witness of that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you heavenly things? And no man hath ascended into heaven, but He that descended out of heaven, even the Son of man, which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth may in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him. He that believeth on Him is not judged: he that believeth not hath been judged already, because he hath not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil. For every one that doeth ill hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, lest his works should be reproved. But he that doeth the truth cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, that they have been wrought in God.”- John 3:9-21.
There are two great obstacles to human progress, two errors which retard the individual and the race, two inborn prejudices which prevent men from choosing and entering into true and lasting prosperity. The first is that men will always persist in seeking their happiness in something outside themselves; the second is that even when they come to see where true happiness lies they cannot find the way to it. In our Lord’s time even wise and godly people thought the permanent glory and happiness of men were to be found in a free state, in self-government, lightened taxes, impregnable fortresses, and a purified social order. And they were not altogether wrong; but the way to this condition, they thought, lay through the enthronement of a strong-handed monarch, who could gather round his throne wise counsellors and devoted followers. This was the form of worldliness which our Lord had to contend with. This was the tendency of the unspiritual mind in His day. But in every generation and in all men the same radical misconceptions exist, although they may not appear in the same forms.
In dealing with Nicodemus, a sincere and thoroughly decent but unspiritual man, our Lord had difficulty in lifting his thoughts off what was external and worldly and fixing them on what was inward and heavenly. And in order to effect this, He told him, among other things, that the Son of man was indeed to be lifted up-yes, but not on a throne set up in Herod’s palace. He was to be conspicuous, but it was as the Brazen Serpent was conspicuous, hanging on a pole for the healing of the people. His lifting up, His exaltation, was secure; He was to be raised above every name that is named; He was destined to have the pre-eminence in all things, to be exalted above all principalities and powers; He was to have all power in heaven and in earth; He was to be the true and supreme Lord of all,-yes; but this dignity and power were to be attained by no mere official appointment, by no accidental choice of the people, by no mere hereditary title, but by the sheer force of merit, by His performing services for men which made the race His own, by His leaving no depth of human degradation unexplored, by a sympathy with the race and with individuals which produced in Him a total self-abandonment, and suffered Him to leave no grievance unconsidered, no wrong unthought of, no sorrow untouched. There is no royal road to human excellence; and Jesus could reach the height He reached by no swift ascension of a throne amidst the blare of trumpets, the flaunting of banners, and the acclamations of the crowd, but only by being exposed to the keenest tests with which this world can confront and search human character, by being put through the ordeal of human life, and being found the best man among us; the humblest, the truest; the most faithful, loving, and enduring; the most willing servant of God and man.
It was this which Christ sought to suggest to Nicodemus, and which we all find it hard to learn, that true glory is excellence of character, and that this excellence can be reached only through the difficulties, trials, and sorrows of a human life. Christ showed men a new glory and a new path to it-not by arms, not by statesmanship, not by inventions, not by literature, not by working miracles, but by living with the poor and becoming the friend of forsaken and wicked men, and by dying, the Just for the unjust. He has been lifted up as the Brazen Serpent was, He has become conspicuous by His very lowliness; by a self-sacrifice so complete that He gave His all, His life, He has won to Himself all men and made His will supreme, so that it and no other shall one day everywhere rule. He gave Himself for the healing of the nations, and the very death which seemed to extinguish His usefulness has made Him the object of worship and trust to all.
This is certainly the point of analogy between Himself and the Brazen Serpent which our Lord chiefly intended to suggest-that as the serpent was lifted up so as to be seen from every part of the camp, even so the death of the Son of man was to make Him conspicuous and easily discernible. It is by their death that many men have become immortalized in the memory of the race. Deaths of gallantry, of heroism, of self-devotion have often wiped out and seemed to atone for preceding lives of dissipation and uselessness. The life of Christ would have been inefficient without His death. Had He only lived and taught, we should have known more than was otherwise possible, but it is doubtful whether His teaching would have been much listened to. It is His death in which all men are interested. It appeals to all. A love that gave its life for them, all men can understand. A love that atoned for sin appeals to all, for all are sinners.
But though this is the chief point of analogy there are others. We do not know precisely what the Israelites would think of the Brazen Serpent. We need not repeat from the sacred narrative the circumstances in which it was formed and lifted up in the wilderness. The singularity of the remedy provided for the plague of serpents under which the Israelites were suffering, consisted in this, that it resembled the disease. Serpents were destroying them, and from this destruction they were saved by a serpent. This special mode of cure was obviously not chosen without a reason. To those among them who were instructed in the symbolic learning of Egypt there might be in this image a significance which is lost to us. From the earliest times the serpent had been regarded as man’s most dangerous enemy-more subtle than any beast of the field, more sudden and stealthy in its attack, and more certainly fatal. The natural revulsion which men feel in its presence, and their inability to cope with it, seemed to fit it to be the natural representative of the powers of spiritual evil. And yet, strangely enough, in the very countries in which it was recognised as the symbol of all that is deadly, it was also recognised as the symbol of life. Having none of the ordinary members or weapons of the wilder lower creatures, it was yet more agile and formidable than any of them; and, casting its skin annually, it seemed to renew itself with eternal youth. And as it was early discovered that the most valuable medicines are poisons, the serpent, as the very “personification of poison,” was looked upon as not only the symbol of all that is deadly, but also of all that is health-giving. And so it has continued to be, even to our own days, the recognised symbol of the healing art, and, wreathed round a staff, as Moses had it, it may still be seen sculptured on our own hospitals and schools of medicine.
But whatever else the agonised people saw in the brazen image, they must at any rate have seen in its limp and harmless form a symbol of the power of their God to make all the serpents round about them as harmless as this one. The sight of it hanging with drooping head and motionless fangs was hailed with exultation as the trophy of deliverance from all the venomous creatures it represented. They saw in it their danger at an end, their enemy triumphed over, their death slain. They knew that the manufactured serpent was only a sign, and had in itself no healing virtue, but in looking at it they saw, as in a picture, God’s power to overcome the most noxious of evils.
That which Moses lifted up for the healing of the Israelites was a likeness, not of those who were suffering, but of that from which they were suffering. It was an image, not of the swollen limbs and discoloured face of the serpent-bitten, but of the serpents that poisoned them. It was this image, representing as slain and harmless the creature which was destroying them, which became the remedy for the pains it inflicted. Similarly, our Lord instructs us to see in the cross not so much our own nature suffering the extreme agony and then hanging lifeless, as sin suspended harmless and dead there. All the virus seemed to be extracted from the fiery, burning fangs of the snakes, and hung up innocuous in that brazen serpent; so all the virulence and venom of sin, all that is dangerous and deadly in it, our Lord bids us believe is absorbed in His person and rendered harmless on the cross.
With this representation the language of Paul perfectly agrees. God, he tells us, “made Christ to be sin for us.” It is strong language; yet no language that fell short of this would satisfy the symbol. Christ was not merely made man, He was made sin for us. Had He merely become man, and thus become involved in our sufferings, the symbol of the serpent would scarcely have been a fair one. A better image of Him would in that case have been a poisoned Israelite. His choice of the symbol of the brazen serpent to represent Himself upon the cross justifies Paul’s language, and shows us that He habitually thought of His own death as the death of sin.
Christ being lifted up, then, meant this, whatever else, that in His death sin was slain, its power to hurt ended. He being made sin for us, we are to argue that what we see done to Him is done to sin. Is He smitten, does He become accursed, does God deliver Him to death, is He at last slain and proved to be dead, so certainly dead that not a bone of Him need be broken? Then in this we are to read that sin is thus doomed by God, has been judged by Him, and was in the cross of Christ slain and put an end to-so utterly slain that there is left in it not any so faint a flicker or pulsation of life that a second blow need be given to prove it really dead.
When we strive to get a little closer to the reality and understand in what sense, and how, Christ represented sin on the cross, we recognise first of all that it was not by His being in any way personally tainted by sin. Indeed, had He Himself been in the faintest degree tainted by sin this would have prevented Him from representing sin on the cross. It was not an actual serpent Moses suspended, but a serpent of brass. It would have been easy to kill one of the snakes that were biting the people, and hang up its body. But it would have been useless. To exhibit one slain snake would only have suggested to the people how many were yet alive. Being itself a real snake, it could have no virtue as a symbol. Whereas the brazen serpent represented all snakes. In it each snake seemed to be represented. Similarly, it was not one out of a number of real sinners that was suspended on the cross, but it was one made “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” So that it was not the sins of one person which were condemned and put an end to there, but sin generally.
This was easily intelligible to those who saw the crucifixion. John the Baptist had pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world. How does a Lamb take away sin? Not by instruction, not by example, but by being sacrificed; by standing in the room of the sinner and suffering instead of him. And when Jesus, Himself without sin, hung upon the cross, those who knew His innocence perceived that it was as the Lamb of God He suffered, and that by His death they were delivered.
Another point of analogy between the lifting-up of the serpent and the lifting-up of the Son of Man on the cross is to be found in the circumstance that in each case the healing result is effected through a moral act on the part of the healed person. A look at the brazen serpent was all that was required. Less could not have been asked: more, in some cases, could not have been given. If deliverance from the pain and danger of the snake-bite had been all that God desired, He might have accomplished this without any concurrence on the part of the Israelites. But their present agony was the consequence of their unbelief, and distrust, and rebellion; and in order that the cure may be complete they must pass from distrust to faith, from alienation to confidence and attachment. This cannot be accomplished without their own concurrence. But this concurrence may be exercised and may be exhibited in connection with a small matter quite as decisively as in connection with what is difficult. To get a disobedient and stubborn child to say, “I am sorry,” or to do the smallest and easiest action, is quite as difficult, if it be a test of submission, as to get him to run a mile, or perform an hour’s task. So the mere uplifting of the eye to the brazen serpent was enough to show that the Israelite believed God’s word, and expected healing. It was in this look that the will of man met and accepted the will of God in the matter. It was by this look the pride which had led them to resist God and rely upon themselves was broken down; and in the momentary gaze at the remedy appointed by God the tormented Israelite showed his reliance upon God, his willingness to accept His help, his return to God.
It is by a similar act we receive healing from the cross of Christ. It is by an act which springs from a similar state of mind. “Every one that believeth,”-that is all that is required of any who would be healed of sin and its attendant miseries. It is a little and an easy thing in itself, but it indicates a great and difficult change of mind. It is so slight and easy an action that the dying can do it. The feeblest and most ignorant can turn in thought to Him who died upon the cross, and can, with the dying thief, say, “Lord, remember me.” All that is required is a sincere prayer to Christ for deliverance. But before anyone can so pray, he must hate the sin he has loved, and must be willing to submit to the God he has abandoned. And this is a great change; too difficult for many. Not all these Israelites were healed, though the cure was so accessible. There were those who were already insensible, torpid with the heavy poison that ran through their blood. There were those whose pride could not be broken, who would rather die than yield to God. There were those who could not endure the thought of a life in God’s service. And there are those now who, though they feel the sting of sin, and are convulsed and tormented by it, cannot bring themselves to seek help from Christ. There are those who do not believe Christ can deliver them; and there are those to whom deliverance weighted with obligation to God, and giving health to serve Him, seems equally repugnant with death itself. But where, there is a sincere desire for reconcilement with God, and for the holiness which maintains us in harmony with God, all that is needed is trust in Christ, the belief that God has appointed Him to be our Saviour, and the daily use of Him as our Saviour.
In proceeding to make a practical use of what our Lord here teaches, our first duty, plainly, is to look to Him for life. He is exhibited crucified-it is our part to trust in Him, to appropriate for our own use His saving power. We need it. We know something of the deadly nature of sin, and that with the first touch of its fang death enters our frame. We have found our lives poisoned by it. Nothing can well be a fitter picture of the havoc sin makes than this plague of serpents-the slender weapon sin uses, the slight external mark it leaves, but, within, the fevered blood, the fast dimming sight, the throbbing heart, the convulsed frame, the rigid muscles no longer answering to our will. Do we not find ourselves exposed to sin wherever we go? In the morning our eyes open on its vibrating fangs ready to dart upon us; as we go about our ordinary employments we have trodden on it and been bitten ere we are aware; in the evening, as we rest, our eye is attracted, and fascinated, and held by its charm. Sin is that from which we cannot escape, from which we are at no time, nor in any place, secure; from which, in point of fact, no one of us has escaped, and which in every case in which it has touched a man has brought death along with it. Death may not at once appear; it may appear at first only in the form of a gayer and intenser life; as, they tell us, there is one poison which causes men to leap and dance, and another which distorts the face of the dying with a hideous imitation of laughter. Is that not a diseased soul which has no vigour for righteous and self-sacrificing work; whose vision is so dim it sees no beauty in holiness?
Of this condition, faith in God through Christ is the true remedy. Return to God is the beginning of all healthy spiritual life. Faith means that all distrust, all resentment at what has happened in our life, all proud and all despondent thoughts, are laid aside. To believe that God is loving us tenderly and wisely, and to put ourselves unreservedly into His hand, is eternal life begun in the soul.
 In saying, “Art thou the teacher of Israel, and knowest not these things?” our Lord hints that it is bad enough for an ordinary Israelite to be so ignorant, but for a teacher how much worse. If the teacher is thus obtuse, what are the taught likely to be? Is this the state of matters I must confront? And in saying that the subjects of conversation were “earthly” (John 3:12) He meant that the necessity of regeneration or entrance into the kingdom of God was a matter open to observation and its occurrence a fact which might be tested here upon earth.