The Lord as a Serpent
By Richard Glenn
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.
As we head out of the Christmas season and into a new year, I often see this as a distinct time of year beginning with Christmas and ending with Easter. Just as the Lord came into the world during a dark time in human history, the celebration of this comes to us during some of the darkest days of the year. And just as the Lord’s resurrection signaled a new life for all people, Easter coincides with the revitalization of springtime. During this time between the celebrations of the Lord’s birth and resurrection, I find my mind being drawn to what Jesus did while in the world. While reading the Gospel of John, the opening quote stood out to me in a way it hadn’t before. While talking to the Pharisee, Nicodemus, Jesus presents himself with the symbol of a serpent. Jesus is foretelling his crucifixion, but why would the Lord refer to himself using the symbol of the serpent, the same symbol that bookends the bible with the deceptive serpent in the garden and the great red dragon, “that serpent of old?”
Jesus is referencing a story of the children of Israel wandering in the desert. As they wandered, they lost trust in the Lord and began to complain about their natural conditions. As a result, they were attacked by deadly venomous snakes. When people started to die they came to Moses apologetically, asking to be saved. One might think that the obvious solution to snake attacks is to get rid of the snakes, but Jehovah answered them with specific instructions for 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.” 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 (Numbers 21:8-9).”
Why is an image of a serpent what saved the people from other serpents, and how does that have anything to do with Jesus? We find our answers in the correspondence of a serpent as the sensory or bodily part of a person (Secrets of Heaven 6949). Often times a serpent has a negative role in the bible because we often let our sensory experience distract us from more important things. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, and the story of the children of Israel in the desert, tell us about the state of the world during the time of Jesus. People were completely victim to their sensory experience, so unable to think past them that it was killing them spiritually. We see this show up especially in the bodily possessions that were happening at the time. Hell had so much power over people’s external lives, that internal life was nearly impossible. There was only one way for this problem to be solved, and that was for the Lord to become a serpent. He took on earthly, sensory experiences, and from his advent to his being raised on the cross, showed people how to live (AC 3863). Through his teaching and resistance to temptation, he showed people what the antidote was to their serpent problems.
However, this didn’t just matter to people back then. Those deadly serpents exist with us today. The invitation to ignore higher, more important things, for lower things is ever-present. But that bronze serpent has not been taken down. The Lord is risen. When those deadly temptations to discard our higher callings sink their teeth into us, we can look to the teachings the Lord has given us. We can see and connect with a visible human God and live.