8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
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In Numbers 21:1-9 God tells Moses to place a brass serpent on a pole and anybody bitten by serpents could look at the brass serpent and be healed. As real and literal as this serpent was it was only symbolic. There was no magic in the brass or the pole. The brass serpent was to point forward to Jesus dying for us on the cross and curing humanity from the snake bites of that old serpent the devil. The people knew that the serpent had no power to help them. As the image of the venomous serpents was lifted up for their healing, so Christ made “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3), was to be theirs, and our Salvation. The existence of the bronze serpent on the pole wasn’t enough to stop the bites from killing Israel - for the healing of their wounds, or the pardon of their sins, they could do nothing for themselves but have faith in the Gift of God. They were to look and live. As years passed, however, the Israelites lost sight of God’s symbol of love and salvation and some began to worship the serpent. They began to honor and rely upon the symbol rather than the Savior it symbolized, and finally Hezekiah had to destroy the brass serpent (2 Kings 18:4). Furthermore, in John 3 Nicodemus, a scholar familiar with the Scriptures, comes to Jesus seeking understanding. Jesus tells him that “just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him” (John 3:14, 15). In the same way, Jesus' death itself doesn’t bring salvation to anyone. His death provided the means of salvation, but just as Israel in the wilderness needed to look, people have to look to Jesus and believe in order to receive what He so freely and generously offers: eternal life.
I would say that, as Jesus Himself noted in John 3:14, the bronze serpent (a symbol of death) in Numbers was meant to be a foreshadowing of Christ, in that it was "lifted up" on a pole in the same way that Jesus (even though He Himself was without sin) would be "lifted up" from the ground in crucifixion to bear the punishment for the sins of the world (for which the penalty was both temporal death and eternal separation from God) from eternity past to eternity future. Just as anyone who looked at the bronze serpent in Numbers when bitten would not die, those who rely on Christ's atoning death for the forgiveness of their sins will be saved from the eternal penalty of their own sins.
I would like to include a couple of excerpts from a good website: "God was teaching the people something about faith. It is totally illogical to think that looking at a bronze image could heal anyone from snakebite, but that is exactly what God told them to do. It took an act of faith in God's plan for anyone to be healed, and the serpent on the stick was a reminder of their sin which brought about their suffering. There is no connection between this serpent and the serpent which Satan spoke through in the Garden of Eden. This serpent was symbolic of the serpents God used to chastise the people for their unbelief. The next reference we find in the Bible to this serpent is in John 3:14. Jesus indicated that this bronze serpent was a foreshadowing of Him. The serpent, a symbol of sin and judgment, was lifted up from the earth and put on a tree, which was a symbol of a curse (Galatians 3:13). The serpent lifted up and cursed symbolized Jesus, who takes away sin from everyone who would look to Him in faith, just like the Israelites had to look to the upraised symbol in the wilderness. Paul is reminding the Galatians that Jesus became a curse for us, although He was blameless and sinless—the spotless Lamb of God. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21)." --gotquestions
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