top of page

Why Did Jesus Compare Himself to a Serpent?

There is no creature that terrifies me more than snakes. I’ve had fears of snakes slithering out from under our furniture or coming out of the toilet. I know that my fear is irrational, yet sometimes I still have the urge to check under the bed and make sure my toilet is clear of venomous creatures.

I not only have an odd fear of snakes, but I also have a disdain for them. I know animals don’t have a moral compass, yet I feel as if snakes are wicked creatures just awaiting an opportunity to kill. I recognize this idea is most likely informed by Scripture as a serpent was the creature that tempted Eve to sin. Jesus also rebukes the Pharisees, calling them serpents and a brood of vipers (Matt. 23:33). Serpents are also used to communicate the sinful state of all humans by saying that “the venom of asps” is under our lips (Rom. 3:13). If that isn’t enough, various other verses, including many in Revelation, describe serpents as evil creatures that personify Satan or others who act in wickedness.

So when I read a verse in Scripture in which Christ compared himself to a serpent I was taken aback. When speaking to the Pharisee, Nicodemus, who came to Jesus inquiring about who He was Jesus preached to Him that a person must be born again, then He said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). I had read this before, but within the past few months it stuck out to me more. I can imagine Nicodemus’ reaction not being much different from mine as he was a man learned in the Old Testament who surely knew serpents were synonymous with wickedness. So why did Jesus, a man without sin, compare Himself to a serpent? Since He is God, He not only knew the day would come when He’d say these words, but He also planned on comparing Himself to the Serpent lifted up in the wilderness. So why didn’t He have Moses lift up a dove instead?

The event Jesus is referring to is this: As Moses was leading the Israelites through the wilderness they spoke against the Lord, so the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people and many died. After this, the people plead that the serpents might leave them, so Moses prays on their behalf and the Lord instructed him, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” Then we are told, “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 21:4-8).

Even this passage makes me wonder why the creature that was the cause of their death and illness was the same one to bring about their healing? All the people had to do was gaze upon the fiery serpent Moses held up and they would be healed from the effects of the fiery serpents that bit them. But if this serpent represents Christ who is righteous and holy then why would such a wretched creature that is the cause of death be representative of our Lord?

Here’s where the beautiful message of the Gospel comes in. This is one of those exciting glories in Scripture that must be thought through. And that seemed to be what Jesus wanted Nicodemus to do–to deeply consider what Jesus was communicating about the Gospel. Here’s what I glean: Jesus was like the fiery serpent that Moses lifted up because He became our sin. The sin that poisoned us and was the cause of our spiritual death is the very thing that Jesus became as He hung on the cross.

The man without sin became what is vile and poisonous in order to bring about our healing. He didn’t merely bear our punishment for sin, but as Scripture 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). As fiery serpents, our sin has bitten us, caused our illness and death so Christ became our iniquity–He became as a fiery serpent.

We are healed of our poisonous wounds because “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13a). These words are shocking–Christ became a curse. As the Israelites were cursed with fiery serpents those in Christ were once cursed by their sin, so He became a curse on behalf of His people. So when we look upon Him we are also saved–we are saved from the power of sin.

As the serpent was lifted up, so was our Lord (John 12:32). Just as the serpent was lifted up on a pole, so our Lord was also lifted up. Speaking of Jesus, Isaiah 11:10 says, “The root of Jesse who shall stand as a signal for the peoples”. The Hebrew word translated “signal” here is the same word used for pole in Isaiah 11:10. So Jesus, being the root of Jesse is the bronze serpent lifted up on a pole that we may look to for salvation.

There is no salvation apart from our Lord. And by His wounds we are healed–we are healed from our sin and we are brought to life. He became sin and curse on our behalf so that we might look upon Him and be righteous as He is righteous.

“And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,”

1 Corinthians 1:30


bottom of page