The Bronze Pole and the Greater Cure

ROCKWALL, TX – April 15, 2022 — A woman who approached our dinner table shocked our small church group. Someone asked her, “How much weight did you lose?” “Fifty pounds,” the woman replied with no enthusiasm.

This poor soul had suffered the harsh effects of a deadly superbug. Her cure was harsh as well: high-power antibiotics for weeks. The treatment worked, though the woman possibly resembled Lazarus coming forth from the grave.

Her illness reminded me of the warnings that come with prescription drugs. Possible side effects are listed, usually followed by an emphatic statement: The potential benefit of this drug outweighs the risks.

There’s a strange Bible story that involved a snake as a cure. The brief account in the book of Numbers likely served to inspire the staff and serpent symbol used to represent pharmaceuticals—long before Greek or Roman mythology adopted the image.

After 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelite people were nearing the Promise Land. They longed for real food instead of the manna God had sent to sustain them; they grew frustrated with roadblocks in their final journey; and they ran out of patience. Speaking against both God and Moses, they called the bread from heaven “this worthless food” (Numbers 21:5*).

Our earthly father might take us out to the woodshed for such complaining, but our heavenly Father has more effective resources. Deserts have snakes, and God sent in the troops—fiery serpents. Some of the complainers died, and the survivors quickly came to their senses, asking Moses to pray for them.

In response to Moses’ plea, the Lord provided unusual instructions: “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8).

We might wince at God’s formidable cure for his people; the serpent image represented the very punishment for their sin. We may further dislike Jesus’ analogy regarding the bronze pole: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).

We can react wrongly to Jesus’ hard-to-understand statements, like the impulsive disciple, Peter. After Jesus warned his disciples of his coming suffering and death, Peter took him aside and said, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22).

As the apostle Paul later explained, through Christ, “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them . . . 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 Corinthians 5:12, 21).

While we prefer to look at a cross adorned in Easter lilies, the crucifixion scene was horrific. The prophet Isaiah foretold of the Messiah, “He was despised and rejected by men . . . But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:3, 5).

The comparison of Moses’ bronze pole to Jesus’ cross goes beyond the fearsome images. Both represented the punishment for sin. And each held the same promise of a cure: whoever looked to it would live. The bronze pole offered deliverance from imminent physical death; the cross offered—and still offers—redemption from looming eternal death.

Before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). The next verse (11:26) contains the Lord’s question for us all:

Do you believe this?

*English Standard Version


By Patti Richter. Patti writes and edits Christian faith articles and has co-authored Signs of His Presence: Experiencing God’s Comfort in Times of Suffering (March 2019). Read more of her essays at

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