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Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life," John iii. 14, 15.
From this it is evident that many particulars in the Jewish history and political economy, had an interest and importance which extended far beyond the present moment, or the sensible and obvious appearance of things. And in this particular instance our blessed Lord has furnished us with an instructive example, which ought to serve as a rule, for the application and use of figurative, allegorical, and typical subjects. Here he enters into no detail; pursues no parallel or contrast through a multiplicity of particulars; furnishes no wings to the imagination; but fixing on one great, general view of the subject, renders it thereby more powerful and impressive. He was conversing with a ruler of the Jews; was explaining to him the nature and end of his own mission; was deducing the nature and tendency of the gospel dispensation from the established rites of the Mosaic, and the received facts of the Jewish history, with which Nicodemus was perfectly well acquainted. In this case he refers to a noted event, and appeals from it to one which was shortly to take place, betwixt which a striking line of resemblance should be apparent.The elevation of the brazen serpent in the wilderness, for the healing of the Israelites who were perishing by the envenomed stings of the fiery serpents and the elevation of the Son of Man upon the cross, the propitiation for the sins of the world; that when this last display of the divine justice and mercy should be exhibited, Nicodemus, and every intelligent and honest disciple of Moses, might be satisfied that "God had at sundry times, and in divers manners," presented as in a glass to the fathers, the method of redemption by Jesus Christ.
All the application, then, which the words of the Saviour himself warrant us to make of this passage to
him, is reduced to a few obvious and striking particulars. "Fools," such as the Isaelites in the desert, and transgressors of the divine law in general, "because of their transgression, and because of their iniquities, are afflicted. Their soul abhorreth all manner of meat; and they draw near to the gates of death. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he saveth them out of their distresses. He sent his word, and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions," Psalm cvii. 17-20.
The root of the evil, the cause of the plague, is to be found in human perversity and disobedience. The faithful and obedient sleep safe and secure in the lion's den; to the proud and rebellious the innoxious worm is converted into a fiery serpent, full of deadly poison. The remedy for this sore evil is to be traced up to the divine compassion, power and goodness.
The means of cure are not such as human wisdom would have devised, or the reason of man approved; they are the sovereign appointment of Heaven. The effect is preternatural, yet real; and reason rejoices in what it could not have discovered. The sight of a lifeless serpent of metal working as an antidote to the mortal poison of one alive; incredible, absurd! Such was the doctrine of the cross in the eyes of prejudice, and philosophy, "and science, falsely so called." "For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish, foolishness; but unto us which are saved, it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto the
Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God, and the wisdom of God," 1 Cor. i. 18-24.
The virtue flowed from the divine appointment, operating together with the believing act of the patient. To the sufferer who averts his face, or wilfully and contemptuously shuts his eyes, that banner is displayed in vain; no virtue issues from it, he perishes in his unbelief. To the despiser, the impenitent, the careless, Christ has died in vain. In the extension of all God's acts of grace to men, to produce the full effect, there must of necessity be an unity of design and exertion between the giver and the receiver, between him who acts and him who is acted upon. Man's body is "dust of the ground," mere matter, separated from the spirit, incapable of motion or direction. Even that active, penetrating organ, the eye, is but a little lump of pelucid clay, till the vital principle, the breath of God, kindle its fires, and direct its rays. It is this vital principle which, proceeding from God, exists in him, and possesses the power of rising and returning to him. The believing Israelite hears, in dying agonies, the proclamation of deliverance, lifts up his drooping head, looks, and is healed; his will meets the will of God, and the cure is already performed. The perishing sinner hears the voice of the Son of God and lives. Lifted up upon the cross he utters his voice, "Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else," Isai. xlv. 22. One of his fellow sufferers hardens his heart and reviles him, turns from the Saviour with disdain, and dies impenitent-the other hears with rapture the joyful sound, clings to the hope of salvation, prays in faith, and passes with him into pa
But the circumstance on which Christ chiefly rests, is Moses "lifting up the serpent in the wilderness.??
Moses probably had not a clear apprehension of the ex-. tensive meaning and import of the act he was performing, any more than the dying men who were the subjects of the cure. They looked no farther than the present moment, and for relief from a malady which affected the body. But, like the high-priest in latter times, they were prophesying, without being conscious of it. He was erecting, and the congregation in the wilderness contemplating an anticipated represention of the great medium of salvation, which God had appointed from the foundation of the world; and had, in a variety of other predictions, circumstantially declared and described at different periods to mankind. These predictions were slumbering unnoticed, neglected, misunderstood, even by the wise and prudent, in the sacred volume a dead letter, till Christ, their quickening spirit gave them life and motion, and a meaning which they had not before.
In the scene that passed in the wilderness we behold the shadow of good things to come, a prefiguration of the death which Christ should die. He is here "evidently set forth crucified before us," according to his own words, descriptive of "the decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem." "And I, if I be lifted from the earth, will draw all men unto me,' up John xii. 32.
This same idea, we have just observed, had been suggested by the evangelical prophet Isaiah, and a similar expression is put into the Saviour's mouth by that harbinger of the Prince of Peace. "Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else."
And in another place, speaking of gospel times, "At that day shall a man look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel," Isai. xvii. 7.
Thus was Moses, by what he did, and Isaiah, by what he wrote, pointing out to the world one and the
same great object, Christ Jesus, the end of the law for righteousness; the substance of the types; the accomplishment of prophecy and promise; the bruiser of the serpent's head; the restorer of defaced, defiled, degraded humanity. And thus we are taught to regard with peculiar respect, an event which Providence has, in so many different ways, rendered illustriously conspicuous; the death of Christ, on the accursed tree.
We shall have exhibited to you all that Moses and the prophets, all that the historian and the evangelist have suggested, on the subject of the brazen serpent, when we have led your attention to the impious and idolatrous use made of it in after times. That this illustrious instrument of Israel's deliverance in the wilderness, should be carefully preserved, as a monument of the divine power and goodness, and by length of time acquire venerability and respect among the other valuable memorials of antiquity, is not to be wondered at. But every thing may be perverted; and a corrupt disposition has ever manifested itself in man, to exalt into the place of God, something that is not God. Accordingly we find, about eight centuries from its original fabrication, even in the days of Hezekiah, the brazen serpent exalted to divine honours; and a besotted people rendering that homage to the mean, which was due only to the hand which employed it. The zeal of that pious prince, therefore, is worthy of commendation, who, in reforming the abuses of religion, which prevailed at the time that he mounted the throne of Judah, abolished this among the rest. Regardless of the purpose for which it was at first framed; of the venerable hand which formed and reared it, and of the lapse of so many years which had stamped respect upon it, "he brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan," 2 Kings xviii. 4, by way of contempt-a piece of brass.