In case you missed it, here is Part 1.
(Context: Comparing the wrath of God shown to the Jews in Numbers 21 to the wrath that Christ underwent in our place on the cross. The attempt is to find the parallels between Moses and Jesus, as relates to the work of a mediator and a savior.)
It is here that the Israelites recognize their sin, acknowledge that only God could have sent such a plague on them, and then ask Moses to be their mediator. First they repent, then they ask Moses to “pray to the Lord” to spare them. Suddenly the previously impatient ones are being taught something about God’s rightful and wrathful impatience with their disobedience. Moses here acted as their mediator, praying to God on their behalf, like a lawyer pleading before the judge for his client.
The interesting thing is that God doesn’t say what we expect Him to. An atheist who misinterprets Scripture to his own benefit may wish to see God desire to prolong the punishment, and thus show Himself to be vindictive and unrelenting. A Christian may wish to see God immediately relent and rid the field of fiery snakes. A mainstream Christian may wish to see God relent immediately and then resurrecting all the fallen.
Thankfully there is no guessing game here, God does what is both just and forgiving here, as is always the case. His forgiveness is based on a visible item which will serve as the wrath-bearer in place of the dying Jewish people. I suppose that it would be easy to get trapped into misinterpreting this passage as one that teaches iconography, idolatry, or even medieval witchcraft.
Again, thankfully there is no guessing game here either, for Scripture interprets Scripture, and an otherwise difficult passage becomes quite straight-forward. All it takes is a few sentences by Jesus towards Nicodemus to uncover the meaning of this historical event: “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, 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, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:13-16).”
This old and mysterious story is therefore clearly a type of Christ. The answer that God gave Moses as to how to rid the field of the fiery snakes (or viper) was to build one out of bronze and set it on a pole, high enough to be visible by all in the camp. The word would spread, and those who had been bitten and were nearing death had only to look (implying some level of trust) at the bronze viper to be saved from certain death. Moses, by way of the snake, was therefore acting as a savior, not only as a mediator. If he had not built that bronze viper, I suppose all would have died.
In a very real sense, without Christ, who is the Way, there would be no way to God. He is the Savior in a world full of false heroes, failed leaders, and corrupted religious ideals. Christ is also our Mediator, a reconciler before God, whom all mankind has ignored and dishonored. The author of Hebrews has this to say about Christ, our High Priest:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
The curious and fitting choice of “High Priest” to define Christ’s current ministry is an intriguing one, weaving together the lawful responsibilities of both one who sacrifices and one who mediates on behalf of the people.
Christ thus becomes the prophetic fulfilment of the historical event found in Numbers 21, where He serves as the mediator who speaks to God on our behalf, only after He has justly appeased God’s wrath by taking upon Himself the full wrath of God. The bronze viper on a pole seems to point to two important realities, the wooden cross on which Christ was crucified, and the cursed detestability with which God saw His Son with at the time of the crucifixion. This is how Paul defines this idea in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”
What better symbol could exist than a poisonous serpent to identify with something that is cursed, despicable, condemned, and rejected? Paul, in connection with this graphic portrayal says: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).” Peter, in a similar vein, also expresses: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God… (1 Peter 3:18a).”
In the historical event described by Moses it was impossible to know that the one who would freely offer life to all, would lose His life in the process. Neither can it be understood that this Savior would be righteous, undeserving of death, although substitution is clearly portrayed. Lastly, we cannot foresee that this Savior would also be our Mediator.
Therefore, while Moses is here portrayed as both a savior for his people and a mediator before God, he is more importantly serving as a type of Christ, showing that Christ would reconcile humankind to God by His substitutionary and propitiatory death on a despicable cross.