This Sunday we will have two Gospel lessons read in church - one for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 22:35-46, and the other for the Sunday before the Universal Elevation of the Cross, John 3:13-17, which is celebrated on September 27.
The Gospel lesson from Saint John offers a really interesting comparison between the bronze serpent God instructed Moses to lift up on a pole and Christ lifted up on His pole - the Cross.
The bronze serpent is described in the Book of Numbers (21:1-9). The story follows a familiar pattern of Israel following God's commandments, then getting bored and tired and disobeying, God chastising them, Israel repenting and turning back to God (rinse and repeat basically through the whole Old Testament).
Israel was facing a war against the Canaanites. They prayed to the Lord for help, promising that they will destroy Canaan completely. God heard and granted them their prayer. I will leave aside the topic of annihilation by Israel of some other nation with the help of God that seems to happen so often in the Old Testament. I'll just say this - it is not as simple as God clearing out the land for His people. The historical background and context is a lot more complex than one nation wiping out another.
Anyhow, after Israel defeated and destroyed Canaanites, the people, who were still roaming the wilderness on their way to the promised land, very soon became impatient and began to complain and whine about lack of food and water, and about God bringing them out of slavery in Egypt. God heard their murmuring and sent chastisement in the form of poisonous snakes, who bit and killed many Israelites. The people, realizing that they sinned before God (again) and angered Him (again), ran to Moses, who was sort of a mediator between God and Israel, and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us" (Numbers 21:7).
So Moses prayed, and God said, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole. And everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live" (Numbers 21:8). Moses made the serpent of bronze, put it high on a pole, and anyone who was bitten would look at it and live.
If this story seems strange to you it's probably because it is. Yet, it is in the Bible and it is God Who tells Moses to make this serpent on a pole, even though there is a Second Commandment that states that we should not make graven images as idols. This bronze serpent, strictly speaking, does not qualify as an idol because God did not direct to create it and then worship it. The Second Commandment prohibits creating images that are to be worshiped. However, people being people, later in the Old Testament some took this snake and started worshiping it, so it had to be destroyed.
But the question still remains - why did God tell Moses to make the bronze serpent and hang it on a pole? And couldn't God just heal people, instead of making them look upon this thing? Speaking with historical background and context in mind I can't give an answer to these questions. But for Christians, looking back at the Old Testament through the lens of Christ, this story a prefigurement of Jesus' crucifixion.
The above Gospel lesson is a part of a discourse between Nicodemus and Jesus, where the Lord refers to this story to tell him where He is going. Nicodemus was a pharisee, meaning that he knew Jewish Scriptures, basically, by heart. Christ invokes the bronze serpent to predict that He will be lifted up on a pole (the Cross), so that whoever believes in Him will be saved, just like those who looked at the snake on the pole survived venomous bites.
We can be sure that Nicodemus did not understand the full meaning of the reference at that time. Through the four Gospel accounts we are told that even Christ's disciples had very hard time comprehending what He was talking about until after the crucifixion and resurrection. And when they received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, their eyes and minds were opened and everything connected and made sense.
Yet, another question arises - what was the serpent on the pole? What is the serpent an image of? It was an image of the thing that was afflicting the people. Saint Paul picks up on this image because Christ, Who is sinless, becomes sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). When we look at Christ on the Cross, we see death, which is the consequence of our sin.
The snakes were biting and killing people; therefore, God instructed Moses to lift up a serpent on a pole and be healed by looking at it. Death bites and kills people; therefore, God sent His Only-begotten Son to be lifted up on the Cross, so that those who believe in Him would have eternal life because by hanging on the Cross He defeated death by His own death.
Yours in the Lord,