Serpent Uplifted, Serpent Crushed

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What a strange, silly, or sickening occasion Good Friday must seem in the sight of the sons of this age—millions upon millions of people in sundry times and diverse places all finding comfort—and more so salvation—in the brutal murder of an innocent man. I count myself among them and sing of Christ’s “Passion” along with Kutless:

Within my mind’s eye
Flickering from the past
Come images that terrify and calm
A paradox in me

Nail-pierced hands, they run with blood
A splitting brow forced by the thorns
His face is writhing with the pain
Yet it’s comforting to me

He chose to give it all
Jesus endured the pain
Paying a debt I owed and creating
A paradox in me

Nail-pierced hands, they run with blood
A splitting brow forced by the thorns
His face is writhing with the pain,
Yet it’s comforting to me

But the foolishness or offensiveness of this is exactly the point of God bringing about the salvation of his people in this way. It’s foolishness according to the wisdom of this world. Yet this foolishness from God is wiser than the wisdom of this world, and in its own wisdom, the world does not know the God who is pleased to save those who are lowly in various ways through foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18-31). And thinking of the precise event we remember today, we do have a different manner of wisdom from God:

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

1 Corinthians 2:6-8

There are two wisdoms to consider—two wisdoms signified by two serpents. One of them is uplifted, and the other is crushed in the event remembered on Good Friday.

We see the serpent marked by wisdom in the creation account where he is introduced as being wiser than any beast of the field that the Lord God had made (Gen. 3:1). Like so many lesser creatures in the Old Testament, the serpent is a pedagogical animal. He’s meant to instruct man about something that God wishes to teach. Even Christ taught us how serpents continue to be symbols of wisdom, cunning, and shrewdness whose example we are to emulate (Matt. 10:16).

Man failed to take dominion over the wise serpent in the garden as God commanded him to do. Instead, Adam and Eve submitted themselves to the twisted counsel of the serpent. They all sinned against God’s word, and they were all judged by God.

Concerning the serpent:

The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

Genesis 3:14-15

That cursed serpent who slithers on his belly and eats the dust out of which man is made and to which he returns grew with time into Satan as we know. He is the great red dragon who “is that ancient serpent called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world (Rev. 12:9; 20:2). He was a murderer and a liar from the beginning, and his children do likewise (1 John 3:12 cf. John 8:44). This cunningly deceitful serpent whose wisdom informs the wisdom of this age and this world was promised by God that his head would be crushed by one whom the serpent would strike in the heel.

This promise of God in Genesis 3:15 is called the Protoevangelium meaning the first proclamation of the Gospel. As soon as sin was in the world, the most merciful God was promising us that he would save us from our sins.

On several occasions, the stiff-necked Israelites who were dwelling in the wilderness grumbled and rebelled again the Lord and his servant Moses, and the Lord chastised them to humble them and bring them to repentance. In one instance after Aaron the High Priest had died, the chastisement came through poisonous serpents:

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 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 we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And 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. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Numbers 21:4-9

When explaining the mystery and the miracle of the new birth by the Spirit and the way into the kingdom of God, the Lord Jesus pointed Nicodemus to this incident in Israel’s wilderness wanderings as the crescendo of his teaching:

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that all of the ones believing in him would have eternal life.”

John 3:15

If the analogy seems murky, the Apostle John offers a parenthetical explanation for our Lord’s statement about being lifted up in the famous words that follow next:

For in this way God loved the world: he gave his unique Son so that all of the believing ones would not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world would be saved through him. The one believing in him is not condemned, but the one not believing is condemned already, since he has not believed in name of the Son of God. And this is the condemnation: the Light has come into the world, yet men loved the darkness rather than the Light because their deeds were evil. For the one who practices wickedness hates the Light and does not come to the Light, lest his deeds would be exposed. But the one who practices truth comes to the Light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.

John 3:16-21

For Israel in the wilderness, those who had the poison of venomous serpents coursing through their veins needed only to look in faith to the sign of the bronze serpent lifted up on a pole in order to be healed—to receive life from God. For the world composed of Israel and the nations, those who have the poison of sin coursing through their souls need only look in faith to the Son of Man lifted up on a cross to be healed—to receive eternal life from God. All of the believing ones who look to the Son of God show that the Spirit of God has wrought this within them—that they have been born of God.

The serpent lifted up in the wilderness signifies the Son of Man crucified for our sins who has become the power of God and the wisdom of God for salvation (1 Cor. 1:24). And the serpent whose head was crushed by the Son of Man upon the cross at the site called Golgotha (meaning the skull) is the wisdom of this present world that has been exposed as foolishness by God. The one serpent of wisdom from God is lifted up, and the other serpent of wisdom of this world is crushed under the heel of the Son of Man all in one event on Good Friday.

The unique Son of God endured this malediction for his people upon the tree:

May the Lord curse you and forsake you.
May the Lord turn his face from you and heap affliction upon you.
May the Lord look upon you in wrath and strike you with torment.

Now, the children of God enjoy this benediction in the Son given by the Father:

May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

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