JOHN 3:14, 15 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.
Jesus and his salvation were the substance of all the ancient shadows, the end of all the Mosaic rites, and the burden of every prophet’s song. They were the favorite theme of the Old Testament and the New. They are the subject of the highest songs of the upper world. They bring the purest joy to hearts on earth broken for sin.
There are few types of happier influence to illustrate the Gospel remedy and the manner of its application than the brazen serpent. When the Hebrews provoked God in the wilderness, he sent among them fiery serpents of a most deadly bite; so called either from their colour, or from the heat and thirst occasioned by the wound. They were probably of the species of the “fiery flying serpents” mentioned by Isaiah. It is supposed that they hovered in swarms over the camp and suddenly darted upon their prey; none of the congregation being able while on their march, and few being able in their encampments, to defend themselves against the fell attack. What a scene of distress was here! Hundreds lying dead in the camp; hundreds more writhing in torture and crying in vain for relief; every one trembling for himself; now a child and then a wife and then a brother crying out under the tormenting bite; and swarms of the enemy still hovering over the camp. What could they do?
They hasted away to Moses and said with tears, “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 to him, “Make thee a fiery serpent, [that is, the image of 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, [so that it could be seen from every part of the camp:] and it came to pass that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass he lived.” Glorious emblem of him who was “lifted up that whosoever, believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
This brazen serpent was preserved with great veneration seven hundred years, until it had become so much the object of idolatrous worship, that Hezekiah broke it in pieces about a century before the Babylonish captivity.
Let us trace a little more particularly the resemblance between this type and the antitype.
1. It was provided for people in a condition somewhat resembling that of the race to whom the Saviour was sent. Many of them were groaning under the anguish of their wounds and ready to die, others heard the cries of their parents and children around them, and could neither snatch them from death nor afford them a moment’s relief. Such is the state of those for whom a Saviour was provided. They are dying under the tormenting inflictions of sin; panting with restless desires which nothing can satisfy; or tossing under anguish of conscience and a “fearful looking for of judgment.” They behold around them the wide ruins which sin has made. They contemplate the present and endless misery of their parents and children, without being able to afford them any relief. The whole race lie in ruins, amidst the wide and frightful ravages of the curse,—amidst misery and death in a countless variety of forms; walking over clods once animated with human life,—seeing their brethren huddled together in the grave, and all the living going down after them,—sinking, sinking, till they are out of sight;—death temporal and death eternal swallowing up all. Such is the ruin of a world smitten with the curse of the Almighty. What need there was of a Saviour to seize a race going down to hell, to force death to resign its prey, and to call sleeping nations from the tomb.
Another resembling circumstance in the condition of the people was, that they appeared penitent. They confessed their sins and implored forgiveness. As soon as these symptoms of contrition appeared, (and nothing could be done before,) God ordered the remedy to be presented. In like manner the Saviour is revealed to none but to those who are humbled. He came to preach good tidings only to the meek, to bind up none but broken hearts.
2. The brazen serpent had the form of the fiery serpents, but not their poison. So Christ, though he came “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” and possessed both the body and the soul of a man, had none of our depravity.
3. The bite of the serpents must be cured by the lifting up, not of an eagle, but of a serpent. So Christ must take upon himself, not “the nature of angels, but—the seed of Abraham.” “In all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren.” It must be man that is lifted up to atone for the sins of man.
The serpent must be lifted up conspicuously in the midst of the camp, where all the eyes of Israel might centre upon it: and the Son of man must be lifted up in the centre of the world, on the top of Jerusalem, environed with proofs drawn from heaven and earth, brought in from the whole body of the Old Testament and confirmed by the miracles of the New; and there, in the midst of the world, in the centre of light, where all nations might see the reality and the divine appointment of the sacrifice, he made expiation for the sins of the world.
This is the chief meaning of his being lifted up. The phrase is twice used, in this sense, in other parts of the same Gospel. “When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he.” “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said signifying what death he should die. The people answered him, [for they understood him,] We have heard out of the law that Christ abideth forever, and how sayest thou, the Son of man must be lifted up?”
There is another sense in which the Son of man was to be lifted up in order to be the Saviour of the world. He was to be raised from the dead, and thus openly acquitted and accepted, that in his justification we might be acquitted and accepted. He “was raised again for our justification.”
There is yet another sense in which he was to be lifted up. He was to ascend into heaven, there “to appear in the presence of God for us;” there to receive and distribute the whole inheritance; there to rule the universe and complete the salvation of his people. Thus he was to be exalted “to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”
Had not the brazen serpent been lifted up, all who were bitten must have died. Not all the physicians in Israel could have brought relief. Had any caviller been disposed to say, “What is a brazen serpent? and cannot God heal his people without it?” yet, when bitten himself, he must have died if he had not looked to that remedy. And although the cross of Christ is to some “a stumbling block” and to others “foolishness,” yet without it no child of Adam could have been saved; and without a believing application to it, all must perish still.
4. The serpent being thus erected in full view of the camp, the people, when bitten, had only to fix their eyes upon it and they lived. Wounded to death and racked with pain, they had only to cast their languishing eyes on this serpent of brass, and all the fire within them was quenched,—all their anguish relieved. Precious symbol of a precious Saviour! When the soul, under conviction of guilt, sees hell naked before it and destruction without a covering, let it then catch one view of Christ atoning for the sins of the world,—of Christ exalted to the seat of intercession and rule; let there be opened upon it one sun-shine of God’s mercy and truth; and all its anguish and fear are soothed, and the dying sinner lives: his sense of guilt and wrath is changed to a sense of pardoning love,—his midnight darkness to a morning without clouds. Instead of lying, weak and helpless, under the feet of trampling foes, he feels omnipotence growing up within him, and he can march boldly against earth and hell combined.
All that is wanting to bring everlasting relief to the most abject guilt and wretchedness, is to fix a believing eye on Christ,—is to embrace him as a complete Saviour, and to take, with him, all that God has tendered to men,—is to rely on him as the great High Priest appointed by God to atone and intercede, and whose offering God has sworn to accept,—is to confide in the sincerity of God in this appointment and oath. When these great truths open on the soul, and the glory of God is seen shining in the face of Jesus Christ, the believer sees that were his guilt doubled ten thousand times, he might easily be forgiven, and feels that if he had ten thousand souls he could venture them all upon a precious Saviour; that there is a fulness in him for the necessities of all the lost children of Adam: and he wonders why a whole world do not come to him and partake.
It is a great thing to believe these sublime realities. The heart of man is prone to unbelief. For God to pardon sins so enormous, and be so kind to enemies and rebels, is so unlike the human heart, that it is hard for men to believe it. And under the glooms of guilt, it seems too good news to be true. And then they have but little confidence in God, and fear to trust him for so much. They are not in the habit of ascribing to him any great desires to make his creatures happy. But when the wonders of his love open on the soul, and Christ is seen as a lamb upon the altar and a lamb in the midst of his father’s throne, then the sinner forgets his pains; his glooms are fled; his conscience, purged “from dead works,” is filled with peace,—with joy unspeakable and full of glory. The vilest sinner has a warrant thus to believe, thus to receive the Saviour, and thus to rejoice in him. For the offer is to all; and in believing all this he only believes the word and oath of God,—an oath sworn by himself and attested by miracles: he only believes Christ to be what he really is,—a highway paved to the throne of mercy, by which a whole world may go abreast. Such a view, attended, as it will be, with a willingness to receive him, and which will bring an instant consciousness of its own existence, cannot fail to produce a sense of safety. Christ is seen to be a rock on which the soul may rest, and on which it is conscious of resting. It knows that it has not a phantom in its embrace, but the very God of Israel.
One look at the brazen serpent was enough to relieve the most desperate case. Nothing in the patient,—nothing which he had done, or had been, or then was, could prevent his cure, provided it did not prevent him from looking. No merit was required for an efficacious look. The bad and the good might equally enjoy the privilege. That they were bitten was no prevention, but the very reason why they ought to look. In like manner faith in Christ will heal the vilest sinner that ever descended from Adam. There is nothing in any man,—nothing which he has done, has been, or is, which can prevent his cure, provided it does not prevent him from looking. No merit is required, nor any one virtue but what is involved in an operative faith. That men are sinners is no prevention. It is the very reason why they ought to look. All that is necessary to fit the vilest sinner for heaven, is faith in Christ; not a dead faith, but that faith which includes repentance, love, and good works; not a belief that Christ died for me in particular, without any thing above a selfish temper; but a holy approbation of all that appears of God in his law and works,—of all that appears of Christ in his gospel and providence. If one’s temper and life do not reflect the image of God, he never believed in him that was lifted up.
5. On what easy terms might the poor, distressed Hebrews live. They had not to search the world for physicians, and spend all they had and only grow worse. They had only to cast their eyes on the image that was lifted up; and this they might do without money or price, and without going out of their way. And equally easy it is to be healed of the wounds of sin. Wondrous grace! After men have raised such mountains between them and God, and lie buried under worlds of guilt, the weight of which is crushing them to the lowest hell; has heaven provided that they shall be so readily forgiven? Had they been permitted to hope after doing penance for years,—after wandering for ages through the world,—after giving their first born for their transgression, the fruit of their body for the sin of their soul,—even then the grace would have transcended thought: but to have the whole debt discharged with no other pain or expense to them than to look on him who was lifted up; this is indeed “the exceeding riches of his grace.”
6. And in this way men must be pardoned if pardoned at all. Had God required them to make any part of the atonement; that is, to contribute a mite towards answering the purpose of their eternal punishment without enduring it; on that spot had been entombed the last hope of man;—there had been an end to all compact between heaven and earth.
On the other hand, after the atonement is provided, there can be no salvation, to those who hear the Gospel, without faith. After the serpent had been erected, had the wounded Hebrews neglected to look at it, they would have remained in torments till they died. All the physicians in Israel could not have relieved them. No other remedy in heaven or earth was provided. And provided it might be, yet had they refused to look, it would have been in vain. Of what avail would it have been to say, “What is the use of looking at this thing? if virtue is in it cannot that be conveyed but through the eyes?” A thousand such cavils could not have mitigated their anguish nor gained for them a moment’s respite from death. There was indeed no such merit in looking. The efficacy depended on God’s appointment, that was intended to set forth the efficacy of faith in a Saviour to come. And this Saviour may be provided,—may be displayed in our streets, yet if we do not fix our eyes upon him, we shall die none the better but all the worse for this provision. All the strictness of morality, all the prayers of ages, the giving of all our goods to feed the poor and our bodies to be burned as martyrs, would not avail without faith. It is of no use for unbelief to plead “How can I be benefited by looking on perfection which only shames my guilt?” What if there is no intrinsic merit in faith? By divine appointment it is made the condition of salvation.
Nor was this appointment arbitrary. In the nature of things, without that holiness which, in the circumstances of men under the Gospel, cannot fail to embrace a Saviour, there can be no communion with God,—no heavenly happiness.—Further, it was calculated to familiarize to the universe the great fact of the substitution, for both parties, (God and the sinner,) to stand, as it were, together at the altar, and as the Lamb is slain, to consent mutually that its life should go for the life of the sinner. Without this consent on the part of man, the vicarious exhibition is far less distinct and impressive. Also, without this consent and the accompanying conviction of need, the sinner can never feel his indebtedness to the Saviour nor give the glory of his salvation to the Sacred Three, nor indeed be happy, if he is an adult under the Gospel. On these accounts faith in Christ is made the essential condition of salvation. When he was on earth, carrying about in his person the healing virtue of the brazen serpent, all who looked to him for a cure were healed; and it was his practice first to extort from them a profession of their faith: “Believe ye that I am able to do this?”
And now, my dear brethren, suffer me to hold up before you the antitype of the brazen serpent. If any of you are mourning under guilt and filled with anguish, raise your believing eyes to him who is lifted up in the midst of this assembly today; and one look will make you whole. Ye who are groping in darkness, look hither and be enlightened. Ye who are weak and polluted, look and be strong and pure. Ye who complain of hardness of heart, cast your eyes upon him who hangs on the tree covered with sweat and blood, and be melted into contrition and love. Ye who are tempted, look and be delivered. Ye who are agonized with doubts respecting your adoption, look again and gain a clearer vision and a firmer assurance. Whatever be your infirmities or your sorrows, look,—from every part of the house look, to him who is lifted up in the midst of this congregation. As the serpent was erected in the centre of the camp, so Christ has been lifted up in the centre of the world, that all eyes from east, west, north, and south may centre there.
There he hangs, and every lacerated vein bleeds balm for the healing of the nations. He sheds influence in every direction to heal all other wounds but his own. And from the top of the bloody tree I hear a voice trembling in death, “Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” While millions of eyes are turned thither from all the regions of the globe, and millions of souls are healed by a look, my heart exclaims, “How much is this like that wondrous scene in the wilderness!” I ascend the high and trembling mount, whence I have a view of a world gazing at the cross by which I stand. I see ten thousand eyes, glistening with joy and tears, meet in this centre, from Asia, Africa, Europe, and America. I see new faces turned this way. I see their distorted features settle into heavenly peace as they gaze: and now they brighten, and now they shine as Moses’ did.
I stand and enjoy the transports of nations. Ye kingdoms of redeemed sinners, roll hither the volume of your united praise. Shout, for the healer of the nations is lifted up.—I follow him up to heaven. I see him, with solemn formality, take his throne. Every eye which lately gazed at Calvary, follows him hither. He takes the reins of government, and a voice, deep as ten thousand thunders and sweet as the “influences of Pleiades,” issues from the glorious throne, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” A mingled sound, as “of many waters,” responds, “We come, Lord, we come.” And let us go with them. Let us go and commit ourselves eternally to him who is our righteousness, our strength, our all in all. Amen.
Edward D. Griffin, Sermons by the Late Rev. Edward D. Griffin, D.D., (Albany: Van Benthuysen & Co., 1838), 2:15–27.