Snakes and Sins


I have always thought that Moses had to have lived one of the most interesting lives of any human being in all of human history. To recap a few highlights:

He took a ride in a  basket as an infant, was raised in a royal palace, discovered he was of slave stock, killed a guy who was beating one of his countrymen, went into exile, talked to God in a burning bush, went back to his land of exile, performed some freaky miracles that wrought destruction on an entire nation, became the leader of an entire people group, parted a sea, saw God on a mountain and received the word of God in physical form.

And all that was just the first half of his life!

Unfortunately the last half would be wandering around a desert, but even that was not without its sets of interesting events. Deserts are dangerous places for a number of reasons, but our slithering friends can quickly become fiends. God’s people were prone to rebellion, and in one instance their sins would come back to bite them.


The infestation was apparently so severe that it drove God’s people to repent and beg God for mercy. And God, being infinitely full of mercy, forgave them in response to Moses’ intercession. The healing came about in an interesting way, however:

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (Numbers 21:8-9 NIV)

It’s a somewhat strange story, but then again Moses’ life is full of these types of events, so it’s not exactly out of the ordinary as far as he is concerned. The oddest aspect of it, however, is that thousands of years later the Son of God in flesh decides to use this episode as a means to explain the significance of being ‘born from above’ and receiving eternal life:

No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:13-15 NIV)

Now, on one hand the parallel that Jesus develops between himself and the serpent seems fairly straightforward: those who looked on the bronze serpent were healed of the serpents’ venom which would bring them death; those who look upon Jesus are healed of the death which comes through sin.

But Jesus seems to draw an even deeper parallel, for it is not only the salvific effects of looking upon the object that is lifted up which is in view; rather, he seems to draw a more direct link between the actual objects which are lifted up which makes the parallel all the more perplexing.

After all, the link between the bronze serpent which heals and the serpent’s bite which brings death is obvious; the serpent lifted up represents that which brings death and instead brings life. But Jesus, as the scriptures make clear, is neither the cause of sin nor sinful himself, and thus the parallel doesn’t really seem to fit.

However, we are given glimpses in other scriptures that may shed light on this parallel, all the while raising even more difficult questions. St. Paul writes these words:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV)

From the outset this seems to be nonsensical- how can one who has no sin be said to be made sin?  And if it to be taken at face value, what does that do for the notion that Jesus was without sin, if he was actually made sin for us? True, it does make more sense of the bronze serpent prefiguring Jesus on the cross, but at what cost?

Throughout the centuries Christian thinkers have struggled to understand exactly what is happening in the atonement, the mechanism (if you will) by which our salvation is actually effected. While it is not my intention to look into different atonement theories, one aspect of the story of the bronze serpent and Jesus’ appropriation of that for his own death is that his death on the cross is, like the serpent being raised, something that is ultimately meant for healing. Many of the early church fathers were fond of stating that ‘what is not assumed in not healed’ in reference to the Incarnation, and thus the Incarnation becomes the locus for understanding both how Jesus is prefigured by the serpent and how he can both be sinless but also be the one who was made sin for us.

St. Cyril of Alexandria comes at Jesus’ words in this manner:

This story is a type of the whole mystery of the incarnation. For the serpent signifies bitter and deadly sin, which was devouring the whole race on earth… biting the Soul of man and infusing it with the venom of wickedness. And there is no way that we could have escaped being conquered but it, except by the relief that comes only from heaven. The Word of God then was made in the likeness of sinful flesh, “that he might condemn sin in the flesh,” as it is written. In this way, he becomes the Giver of unending salvation to those who comprehend the divine doctrines and gaze on him with steadfast faith. (St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2.1)

St. Paul’s words in Romans about Jesus coming in the likeness of sinful flesh becomes a sort of matrix through which many of the church fathers will understand this constellation of ideas. St. Paul says:

For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4 NIV)

St. Augustine picks up on this notion of Jesus coming in the likeness of sinful flesh for the purpose of being a sin offering:

Begotten and conceived, then, without any indulgence of carnal lust, and therefore bringing with Him no original sin, and by the grace of God joined and united in a wonderful and unspeakable way in one person with the Word, the Only-begotten of the Father, a son by nature, not by grace, and therefore having no sin of His own; nevertheless, on account of the likeness of sinful flesh in which He came, He was called sin, that He might be sacrificed to wash away sin. For, under the Old Covenant, sacrifices for sin were called sins. And He, of whom all these sacrifices were types and shadows, was Himself truly made sin. Hence the apostle, after saying, “We pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God,” immediately adds: “for He has made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” He does not say, as some incorrect copies read, “He who knew no sin did sin for us,” as if Christ had Himself sinned for our sakes; but he says, “Him who knew no sin,” that is, Christ, God, to whom we are to be reconciled, “has made to be sin for us,” that is, has made Him a sacrifice for our sins, by which we might be reconciled to God. (St. Augustine, The Enchiridion, 41)

For St. Augustine, this notion of ‘being made sin’ cannot be separated either from a fully robust incarnational theology nor the types and shadows afforded by the old covenant. Following the Septuagint’s reading, he notices that what is generally translated as ‘sin offering’ is often simply ushered under the shorthand of ‘sin.’ Thus, there is at least a linguistic identification between the sin-offering and the sin for which it is being offered. However, he understands this as being more than just semantics, and makes a similar point elsewhere:

If it were said, “He made sin upon Him,” or, “He made Him to have sin;” it would seem intolerable; how do we tolerate what is said, “He made Him sin,” that Christ Himself should be sin? They who are acquainted with the Scriptures of the Old Testament recognise what I am saying. For it is not an expression once used, but repeatedly, very constantly, sacrifices for sins are called “sins.” A goat, for instance, was offered for sin, a ram, anything; the victim itself which was offered for sin was called “sin.” A sacrifice for sin then was called “sin;” so that in one place the Law says, “That the Priests are to lay their hands upon the sin.” “Him” then, “who knew no sin, He made sin for us;” that is, “He was made a sacrifice for sin.” Sin was offered, and sin was cancelled. The Blood of the Redeemer was shed, and the debtor’s bond was cancelled. This is the “Blood, That was shed for many for the remission of sins.” (St. Augustine, Sermon 84.5)

For Christ to be ‘the likeness of sinful flesh’ thus means that he is taking upon the nature of a sacrifice, offering his life up to God to heal the death that has come upon humanity. The Incarnation thus takes on a depth of importance because Jesus identities completely with those who are in bondage to death and sin, without himself being subject to them as the rest of humanity is. It is because he is the fullness of truth and righteousness that he can be the way of escape, the one who heals humanity’s wounds wrought by sin.

St. Augustine draws a fascinating parallel between the death and sin with which Christ identifies and the righteousness with which we partake in him:

He, then, being made sin, just as we are made righteousness (our righteousness being not our own, but God’s, not in ourselves, but in Him); He being made sin, not His own, but ours, not in Himself, but in us, showed, by the likeness of sinful flesh in which He was crucified, that though sin was not in Him, yet that in a certain sense He died to sin, by dying in the flesh which was the likeness of sin; and that although He Himself had never lived the old life of sin, yet by His resurrection He typified our new life springing up out of the old death in sin. (St. Augustine, The Enchiridion, 41)

In other words, Christ becomes identified with the woundedness of our nature to the same extent that we become his righteousness in him. On the one hand, death is endemic to our race because of sin. But Jesus is not subject to it as we are since he knows no sin. It is something he must bear upon himself by taking on our nature and suffering its effects (death) in his body. On the other hand, righteousness is something that belongs to God alone, and that of which we cannot attain apart from him. But in Christ we partake of his righteousness just as he partook of our nature; hence St. Peter states that we become partakers of the divine nature.

Since sin is not a substance, but rather a privation of good, death is the punishment and ‘nature’ of sin, since that it what occurs when one is not united to God, the source of all being. And thus, just as as sin is shorthand for a sin-offering, so death is synonymous with sin. In this manner, we can finally see how Jesus can truly be made sin for us, in that he took upon himself the death that is the fruit of sin. Since he is Life itself, however, even the privation of sin which brings created being to nothing cannot hold him, and it is through his death- through his being made sin- that sin and death are defeated.

Thus, the parallel that Jesus draws between himself and the bronze serpent takes on a whole new significance. The serpent becomes the medium of healing its own wounds, and death becomes the gateway into life. St. Augustine closes out this thought with a truly remarkable passage:

What are the biting serpents? Sins, from the mortality of the flesh. What is the serpent lifted up? The Lord’s death on the cross. For as death came by the serpent, it was figured by the image of a serpent. The serpent’s bite was deadly, the Lord’s death is life-giving. A serpent is gazed on that the serpent may have no power. What is this? A death is gazed on, that death may have no power. But whose death? The death of life: if it may be said, the death of life; ay, for it may be said, but said wonderfully. But should it not be spoken, seeing it was a thing to be done? Shall I hesitate to utter that which the Lord has deigned to do for me? Is not Christ the life? And yet Christ hung on the cross. Is not Christ life? And yet Christ was dead. But in Christ’s death, death died. Life dead slew death; the fullness of life swallowed up death; death was absorbed in the body of Christ. So also shall we say in the resurrection, when now triumphant we shall sing, “Where, O death, is your contest? Where, O death, is your sting?” Meanwhile brethren, that we may be healed from sin, let us now gaze on Christ crucified; for “as Moses,” says He, “lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believes in Him may not perish, but have everlasting life.” 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. (St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 12.11)

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