Up a Pole: the Serpent and the Savior

The Brazen Serpent Monument atop Mount Nebo in Jordan, is a serpentine cross sculpture created by Italian artist Giovanni Fantoni. It incorporates the bronze serpent created by Moses, the pillar of fire which led the people of God through the darkness of the wilderness, and the crucifixion of Christ. Photo by David Bjorgen via wikimedia commons.

John 3:14-18 (NRSV)
Jesus said, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, (Numbers 21:4-9) so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

What was to be done with the brazen serpent? The text says, “Moses lifted it up;” and we read he was to lift it up upon a pole. Ah, dear friends, and Christ Jesus must be lifted up. He has been lifted up; wicked men lifted him up, when, with nails on an accursed tree, they crucified him! God the Father hath lifted him up; for he hath highly exalted him, far above principalities and powers.
- Charles Hadden Spurgeon, The Mysteries of the Brazen Serpent

“Look to Christ.” For remember the brazen serpent was lifted up, that every one in the camp who was bitten might live; and now Christ is lifted up to you, that “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Sinner, the devil says you are shut out; tell him that “whosoever” shuts out none. Oh that precious word, “whosoever.” Poor soul, I see thee clutch at it and say, “Then, Sir, if I believe, he will not cast me away.” I see the harlot in all her guilt bemoaning her iniquity; she says it is impossible that Christ should save. But she hears it said, “Whosoever,” and she looks and lives! Remember, it mattered not how old they were, nor how much bitten they were, nor whereabouts in the camp they lived; they did but look and live. And now ye that have grown grey in iniquity, whose hairs might rather be black than white, if they showed forth your character, for it has been blackened by years of vice. Remember there is the same Christ for big sinners as for little sinners; the same Christ for grey heads as for babes; the same Christ for poor as for rich; the same Christ for chimney sweeps as for monarchs; the same Christ for prostitutes as for saints: “Whosoever.”
- Charles Hadden Spurgeon, The Mysteries of the Brazen Serpent

Just as they who looked on that serpent perished not by the serpent’s bites,
so they who look in faith on Christ’s death are healed from the bites of sins.
- Augustine of Hippo

He must be lifted up, that hereby he may purchase salvation for all believers: all those who look to him by faith recover spiritual health, even as all that looked at that serpent recovered bodily health. - John Wesley

If the solution in Numbers was a snake raised up on a pole — because the problem was poisonous serpents on the ground; so in John if the solution is a human (the Word made flesh) on a pole, the problem must be the humans on the ground.
- Brian P. Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes at Crossmarks

Maybe the problem isn’t the humans on the ground; it’s that humans are of the ground. We are the children of Eden. We are dust and to dust we shall return. We are common, soiled, short-lived, and snake bit. On our own, our condition keeps us more with the serpent than the Savior. Yet, God’s creative love reaches out to us in Christ, supplying what our earthiness needs. The kiss of eternal life is blown our way. Will we reach out and catch it? - Lisa Ann Moss Degrenia <><

The event of the cross isn’t just an advertisement, or a show. It actually does something. The cross is effectual. Just like when the Israelites looked at the brazen serpent they were able to be healed, the cross has the power to heal and give life too. But, according to John, gazing upon it isn’t enough. You need to have faith. You need to be moved to believe. - Rick Morley, Lifted High- a relfection on John 3:14-21

The Cross bridges the gap, heals the breach, and ignites the reconciliation.
In every way, we are “saved.” - Steve Harper

Jesus was hung on— and held together —the cosmic collision of opposites (revealed in the very geometric sign of the cross). He let it destroy him, as his two nailed hands held all the great opposites safely together as one: the good and the bad thief, heaven and earth, matter and spirit, both sinners and saints gathered at his feet, a traditional Jew revealing a very revolutionary message to his and all religion, a naked male body revealing an utterly feminine soul. On the cross, Jesus becomes the Cosmic Christ.
- Richard Rohr

Lord Jesus,
You are my righteousness, I am your sin.
You took on you what was mine; yet set on me what was yours.
You became what you were not, that I might become what I was not.
– Martin Luther

The Devil speaks:
Now then, Hades, mourn
And I join in unison with you in wailing.
Let us lament as we see
The tree which we planted
Changed into a holy trunk.
Robbers, murderers, tax gatherers, harlots,
Rest beneath it, and make nests
In its branches
In order that they might gather
The fruit of sweetness
From the supposedly sterile wood.
For they cling to the cross as the tree of life.
-Romanos, as translated by Marjorie Carpenter.

Tell me, Dear Tree
A Lenten hymn of sacrifice
by Lisa Ann Moss Degrenia
Meter- 86.86 double (CMD)
Suggested tune: KINGSFOLD (UMH #179)

Tell me dear tree on which my Lord,
my blessed Lord did hang,
How could you hold the spotless Lamb,
be party with the gang?
That cheerless day, that shadowy hour,
my blessed Savior died,
to free my soul for heavenly things,
O tree, you must have cried.

Yes all your fibers must have screamed
for you one time did live a green and growing tree, alive,
but your whole self did give
to be the instrument of death,
to be the very tree
to be the place for Christ to die
upon dark Calvary

But do I hear a shout of joy
from somewhere deep within?
Your duty done; the battle won
so all the world might win.
How beautiful your love for Him
He sewed it long ago
You bore the weight. You took the stain,
and now the world must know

The tree of death felt every wound,
felt all the pain and loss.
She loved her maker through it all,
was glad to be His cross.
Teach me dear tree on which my Lord
My precious Lord did die
To treasure grueling duties done
so Christ is lifted high

© 1992, revised 2009 Lisa Ann Moss Degrenia
You are welcome to use this work in a worship setting with proper attribution. Please contact Lisa for information and permission to publish this work in any form. Lisa is especially interested in collaborating with someone to set this text to original music.

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For more information on the scripture translation, photo and the use of this resource in other settings, please refer to the copyright information page.

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