Death consumed the camp ground. Once again, the bareness and dryness of the wilderness led the people to cry out against Moses and against God. And, once again, God’s judgment came down to the people in a plague.
This time, it was through the venomous death of serpents.
The poison was quick-acting and uncomfortable from the moment the serpents sunk their fangs into flesh. It would begin with a burning sensation that would quickly spread throughout the whole body. Death was soon to come.
Yet, God was gracious toward his people and provided salvation through an unlikely means. Moses was commanded to craft an image of what plagued the people—a fiery serpent—and if the people would only look—no, gaze—upon this serpent they would live.
For those who actually took God at his word, can you image the ferocity with which they would look on this serpent? Can you imagine how you would look at this bronze serpent as you felt venom burning through your system? It wouldn’t be a passing glance. It would be a penetrating stare; an unbroken gaze. You would fix your eyes on that serpent until the effects of the venom were reversed. You would gaze on it until you had life.
What a Gazing-Faith Looks Like
Jesus points back to this story, found in Numbers 21:4-9, to describe his own work for us. In John 3:14-15, Jesus states, “And 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.” Jesus intentionally changes the language from looking (found in Numbers 21:9), to believing (in John 3:15). Our faith in Jesus is to be a type of gazing.
There are two important ways that this Old Testament story points us to what a gazing-faith should look like.
First, we must gaze upon the ugliness of our sin.
Consider the oddity of what God calls the Israelites to do. The Israelites were called to look upon the serpent. This serpent was a reminder to God’s people of the judgment brought about because of their sin. They had to stare the consequences of their sin right in the face.
So to, we stare at the ultimate consequence of sin displayed on the cross. The final and inevitable consequence of our sin is death and judgment before God. We gaze at a crucified Christ because we believe that our salvation is from a Savior who was willing to bear death and judgment for us. On the cross, we cannot avoid the consequence for our sin. We must stare directly at it.
This is the great paradox of our faith, and why Paul, on so many occasions, says that our faith is folly to the outside world (1 Corinthians 1:18). It is through death that Christ freed us from death. That is why Hebrews 3:14-15 says,
…he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death…and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
Second, we need to gaze upon Christ for life.
The second way our faith reflects the looking of the Israelites is that we need to gaze upon Christ until we have life. I cannot imagine that any Israelite who was facing death would dare take their eyes off that fiery serpent until they had life, and the effects of death had worn off. The same is true for Christians. We must not take our gaze off Christ’s work until we have the fullness of eternal life.
We see this witness throughout the New Testament, but I think comes to us most clearly in Colossians 3:1-4. In that passage, we see Paul exhorting Christians to set their mind and gaze on Christ, “who is your life” (3:4). This is the impetus for present fight against sin (3:5) and our hope for eternal glory (3:4). We are to gaze upon Christ and his work, as his life-giving power works in us now while we fight sin, until finally we will be glorified with him.
Look to Live Until Christ Comes
In every season, do not forget to gaze upon Christ afresh. While it may seem like foolishness to the outside world, the cross is God’s means and power for saving the world. Do not take your eyes off him. Gaze upon him until your salvation is fully revealed, until Christ comes again to glorify us with himself.