The Serpent on a Pole and Jesus Lifted Up


Serpent on a PoleWho could have imagined that the circumstances surrounding the serpents described by Numbers Chapter 21, would be a representation of what Jesus would accomplish for us at the Cross? Those bitten by these “fiery serpents” were able to prevent their death by simply lifting up their eyes to look at the serpent on the pole which Moses had made.

Numbers 21:9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

[1] Jesus later described this event in the desert as a foreshadow of the time when He would also be “lifted up” on the cross–so that anyone who would look to Him for their salvation–would also be saved.

New Testament Fulfillment:

John 3:14-15 (Jesus Speaking) “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.

John 12:32 “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.

Here we see the ingenuity and forethought of the Father in engineering the events of the Old Testament to coincide perfectly with the work which Jesus would accomplish once He came to earth.

The people had begun to complain about the living conditions in the desert during their journey into the land which God had promised. The Lord took special offense at their ungratefulness and sent poisonous vipers into their midst. The cure for their error was simply to look up at the serpent on a pole and by their trust in what God had promised–they would be saved.

Numbers 21:5-9 And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.” 6 So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died. 7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD that He take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

The likely candidate for the identity of this desert viper is the Palestine saw-scale viper, which Inhabits the HaAravah, literally a “desolate and dry area.” [2] This particular variety of desert viper is extremely poisonous with a particularly painful bite–described as feeling “like fire.”

Palestine Saw Scale Viper[3]

Today, all that anyone has to do to be delivered from hell and eternal punishment for their sins is to lift up their eyes and look to Jesus on the Cross, and they will be saved.

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 whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” –John 3:14-15

John 12:32 “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” –-John 12:32

No one reading the description of Numbers Chapter 21 would have imagined that these events were prophetic. When we arrive at the New Testament, we clearly see that Jesus intended that Moses’ serpent pole and those who were saved by looking to it, were a prophetic prediction of what He would accomplish when He offered up His life for us. We can all be saved today by simply looking up at Jesus as He is dying for us on the cross and believe that His sacrifice has paid for our sins. If we do this in sincerity, God will save us.

What is the process that God requires to truly save a person? As we examine the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion, we remember that one of the thieves on a cross next to the Lord was also dying for his sins. He looked up at Jesus on the cross and said to Him, Lord, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

When we examine the New Testament description of this event, we find that there were two thieves that were also condemned to die by crucifixion along with Jesus. They are placed on either side of the Lord. At first, it seems that both condemned men ridicule Jesus for also being crucified with them. After one of these men witnesses the grace and the love with which Jesus endures His suffering, praying for those who placed Him on the Cross, this dying criminal has a change of heart. He cries out to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into Your kingdom.” A subtle statement of salvation in the final moments of life from a man condemned to die. Though his confession is short and subtle, it is sufficient to move Jesus to pronounce him— forgiven and worthy of eternal life.

Luke 23:39-43 Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

This encounter by a repentant dying criminal is forever a testament to anyone who comes to the end of his life with the belief that it is too late for him to change his life. Anyone can come to God at any time and find salvation.

This thief had so thoroughly destroyed his life that he was dying for his many sins. In a single declaration, Remember me, Jesus pronounces that he would be with Him today in paradise.

Where is “Paradise”?

Those who died, before the arrival of Jesus and the completion of His sacrifice, were held in a place of rest, somewhere in the deep recesses of the earth that is often referred to as Abraham’s Bosom or Paradise. This is illustrated by the thief on the cross next to Jesus at His crucifixion, whom He promised: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

When Jesus died, He descended into the lower parts of the earth and preached to the departed souls of the Old Testament, who did not believe in the promises of God for salvation through a coming sacrifice.

Ephesians 4:9 Now this, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth?

1 Peter 3:18-20 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah…

Jesus spoke of the “lower parts of the earth,” in Luke Chapter 16, as He vividly describes two men: one rich who rejected God’s salvation and is seen in hell; the other—a poor man who received God’s promise of a future Savior and is seen being comforted in Abraham’s Bosom.

Luke 16:19-31 (Jesus Speaking) “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’

Notice that after their death on the earth, both men are alive and conscious, one in hell, the other in Paradise. Both men have the ability to feel pain or comfort and perceive their surroundings. They are aware that the decisions they made while alive on earth have determined where they will remain for eternity, after their death.

The rich man is not in hell for being rich but for his apparent rejection of the requirement which God has made, that all men must receive a pardon for their sins by the coming Messiah.

The poor man is not in Abraham’s bosom because he was poor; he is found in this place of comfort because he apparently received a pardon for his sins, by his trust in a coming Messiah and the sacrifice He would make for all sins.

What happens after death?

What we learn about heaven and hell and life after death from this story is that all men have an eternal soul which lives on past the moment of physical death. Where that soul ends up is determined by the individual’s personal decision—to either receive God’s Savior or to reject Him.

We learn from Luke Chapter 16:19-31 that during the period of time before Jesus came as the Messiah, when a person who had been trusting in the coming Savior died, he descended into the lower parts of the earth, into a holding place where he was comforted. Ephesians Chapter 4 tells us that when Jesus died and then descended into the lower parts of the earth, He freed all those who were being held in Abraham’s bosom and took them with Him when He ascended back to heaven. Apparently, this former chamber, located in the center of the earth, is no longer being used and was closed permanently by Jesus upon His ascension to heaven. Today, since Jesus had completed our salvation, when a person dies who has lived his life believing that Jesus is his Savior, that person immediately ascends to heaven. He does not remain on earth as a spirit, nor does he descend into the center of the earth, as in the former days before Jesus made His sacrifice for sins. Paul wrote of the death of the believer in Jesus Christ, that “to be absent from the body (death) is to be present with the Lord (in Heaven).

2 Corinthians 5:8 “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.”

How salvation is obtained

Redemption for all men, for all time, is found only in the blood of Jesus Christ, as He died as the one sacrifice that would forever satisfy the righteous requirements of God to put away sin forever.

1 Peter 1:18 knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.

In Jesus’ being lifted up on the cross, dying and rising again on the third day, we have the assurance that God will accept anyone who comes to Him through the life of infinite value which the Son of God has presented to the Father on our behalf.

Matthew records the events immediately after Jesus death on the cross

Matthew 27:50-53 “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

After Jesus died on the cross, immediately, the veil in the temple was torn from top to bottom. This signified that the barrier between God and men was now removed. Anyone today can approach God–through Jesus sacrifice for their sins. In the days of the Old Testament, men could not come into the presence of God in the “Holy Place” of the Temple. Only the high priest was permitted to enter the Holy Place–and then–just once per year as he brought the blood of a sacrifice for the sins of the people.

Here, Matthew describes an incredible event where many of the graves around Jerusalem which contained the bodies of those who had died believing in the salvation of the coming Messiah were raised to life. These believers, in bodily form, were seen walking around the streets of Jerusalem. The possible meaning of this display was to illustrate the future resurrection of believers in the Messiah when He returns at the Rapture.

“…the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”

Jesus said that after He is raised from the dead, everything will change. Those who did not believe in Him before His resurrection will now be faced with the reality that He has power over death. We know that Jesus is the Messiah today because He rose from the dead, never to die again.

John 8:28 Then Jesus said to them, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and that I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things.” –John 8:28

The simplicity of salvation

The criminal on the cross next to Jesus who requested that he be “remembered,” was saved by Jesus with no altar call, no opportunity to be baptized in a particular style, no church membership, or speaking in tongues; only his sincere  request of Jesus: “Remember me.” Immediately, and without hesitation, the Lord declared that today his sins are forgiven and he will be with Jesus in paradise.

Even the slightest movement towards Jesus in sincere repentance, will be enough for Him to grant a person forgiveness and eternal life.

[1] Illustration by Rob Robinson
[2] “עֲרָבָה” [Arava]. אנציקלופדיה מפה (in Hebrew) 6. Tel Aviv: Mapa. 2000. pp. 107–110. “השם קדום (דברים א 1 ועוד) ומשמעו אזור שומם ויבש”
[3] Image:Echis_carinatus_sal.jpg Date=2008-08-18 Author=*derivative work by Saleem Hameed <saleemham at> Used by permission of wiki commons with attribution to the author who does not endorse this article in any way by allowing the use of this picture.

Categories: Prophecies Fulfilled by Jesus, Salvation through Jesus, What happens after death?

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