THE MYSTERIES OF THE BRAZEN SERPENT
Delivered on Sabbath Morning, September 27, 1857, by the
REV. C. H. Spurgeon
at the Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens.
"And as 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 3:14.
WE are told by wise men that all languages are based upon figures, that the speech of men who are uncivilized is mainly composed of figures; and that indeed the language of the most civilized, when cleaved so as to bring it to its natural foundation, is based upon a set of metaphors perceived by the mind, and then used in language. This much I know, that when we would teach children to speak, we are accustomed to call things, not exactly by the names by which they are known to us, but by some name which represents, for instance, the kind of noise which is uttered by some animal; but which in some way or other, by a species of figure, is easily understood by the child to represent the things. But certain it is that among savage nations, the speech is almost entirely composed of metaphors. Hear an Indian warrior addressing the chiefs, and inflaming them for war; he gathers together all the metaphors of heaven and earth to make his speech. And you will note the same thing is true even in the names which the Indian warriors bear. Those of you who are acquainted with their nomenclature will remember, that the strangest names are given to their great men, by way of figure and metaphor to set forth the qualities of their mind.
Now, beloved, it is the same in spiritual language as it is in natural speech Nicodemus was but a child in grace: when Jesus Christ would teach him to speak concerning things of the kingdom, he did not talk to him in abstract words, but he gave him metaphorical words whereby he might understand the essence of the thing better than by giving him a mere abstract term. When he talked to Nicodemus, he did not say anything about sanctification; but he said, "Except a man be born of water." He did not talk anything to him about the great change of the heart; but he said, "Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." He would not tell him much about the Spirit when he began, but he said "The wind bloweth where it listeth." And when he wanted to teach him faith he did not begin by saying, "By faith we are allied to Christ, and derive salvation from our living head;" but he said--;"Like as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness." And so the first religious talk of converted men must always be in figures. Not the epistles of Paul, which are pure didactic teaching, but the words of Jesus, must first be applied to the sinner, before he is enlightened by the Holy Spirit, and understands the mysteries of the kingdom. And I believe I have hit upon the reason why our Master used this figure, and talked to Nicodemus with metaphor after metaphor, and figure after figure, because the root of all language must be in figures.
And now, to-day, I am about to address the mass of my congregation concerning that simple subject of faith in the Lord Jesus, whereby men are saved. And instead of addressing them in a didactic and doctrinal manner, I shall adopt the parable of my text, and endeavour to imitate the example of my Lord, in trying to make faith plain to those who are but children in grace.
Allow me, then, dear friends, to describe first, the people in the wilderness—the representatives of men who are sinners. Let me describe next, the brazen serpent—the type of Jesus Christ crucified. Let me then note what was to be done with the brazen serpent—it was to be lifted up; and so was Christ to be lifted up. And then let us notice what was to be done by the people who were bitten—they were to look at the serpent; and so sinners must believe in Christ.
I. Our first figure represents MEN IN THE ESTATE OF SIN; and the figure is borrowed from the children of Israel in the wilderness, when they were invaded by the fiery serpents. Can you imagine the horror and dismay depicted upon the countenances of the Israelites, when, for the first time, they saw themselves invaded by an army of fiery flying serpents? They had stood valiantly in fight against Amalek; but these were things that trembled not at the sword. Moses had taught them the use of the bow, as it is written in the book of Jasher, but these were thing, against which the arrow could not prevail. They had endured weariness, and thirst and hunger; the sun had sometimes smitten them by day, and the frost by night, and but for God's preservation, the hardships of the wilderness would have cut them off. All these they had endured and were inured to them; but these fiery serpents were novelties; and all new terrors are terrible from their very novelty. Can you imagine how they began to tell one another of the awful visitants which they had beheld! and can you. imagine how their terror spread like wildfire through the camp, and ere the rumour had spread the serpents were devouring them?
And now, dear friends, if we could all of us see our position in this world, we should this day feel as Israel did when they saw the serpents coming upon them. When our children are born into this world, we believe there is sin in them; but it is a terrible thing for us to reflect that even if the serpent had not bitten them in the birth, yet they are surrounded everywhere by innumerable evils! Can a father send his son into this wicked world with a consciousness of all the evils that will surround him, without a sense of terror? And can a Christian man trust himself to walk in the midst of this ungodly and libidinous generation, without feeling that he is surrounded with temptations, which, if he were left to himself, would be a thousand times more dangerous to him than the most destroying of serpents?
But the picture blackens; we must have deeper shades to paint it. Behold the people after they were bitten! Can you picture their writhings and contortions when the poison of the serpent had infected their veins? We are told by the old writers that these serpents when they bit caused vehement heat, so that there was a pain throughout the body, as if a hot iron had been sent along the veins. Those who had been bitten had a great thirst; they drank incessantly, and still cried for water to quench the burnings within. It was a hot fire which was lit in the fountain, and which ran through every nerve and every sinew of the man; they were racked in pain, and died in most fearful convulsions. Now my brethren, we cannot say that sin instantly produces such an effect as this upon the men who are the subjects of it; but we do affirm, that, let sin alone, and it will develop itself in miseries far more extreme than ever the bite of the serpent could have caused. It is true the young man who quaffs the poisoned cup of intoxication, wots not that there is a serpent there; for there is no serpent except in the dregs thereof. It is sure that the woman who boasts herself of her riches, and arrays herself right gaudily in her pride, wots not that a serpent binds the zone of her waist; for there is no serpent there as she knoweth, but she shall know it when the days of her frivolity are ended. It is true he that curseth God knows not that a viper hath infused the poison which he speaks out against his Maker; but he shall know it in days to come. Look ye at a bloated drunkard; see him after years of intoxication have defaced all that was manlike in him, as he totters to his grave a poor feeble creature; the pillars of his house are shaken, his strength has failed him, and that which God had meant to be his own image hath become the image of misery incarnate! See the lascivious debauchee after his brief day of pleasure has closed!—No, it is too loathsome for me to paint; my lips refuse to depict the miseries which our hospitals see every day; the awful loathsomeness, the accursed disease which eats up the very bones of those who indulge in sin. Fiery serpents, ye are nothing when compared with fiery lusts! ye may infuse poison into the blood; but lusts do that, and do something more, for they infuse damnation into the soul! When sin has had its perfect work; when its last fair conception has been brought forth, and hath developed itself in the dire crime and the loathsome iniquity—then we have a picture which serpent-bitten Israel would not set forth to us in all its horrors!
And the shades thicken yet again; the darkness lowers, and the clouds are heavier! How awful must have been the death of those who died by the serpents! There are some deaths which are sweet to think upon. The death of the late eminent preacher, Dr. Beaumont, who died in his pulpit, was a death which all of us might envy; whose released spirit, whilst the singing of God's praise was ascending up to heaven, left his body, and was forthwith raised to the throne of God. The death of him, who having served his Master, sinks like a shock of corn fully ripe, or like a sun that hath run its race, is something to be noted and remembered with delight. But the death of the sinner, who hath been bitten by his lusts, and hath not been saved by faith in Christ—oh, how terrible! It is not in the power of mortal language to depict the horrors of the death-bed of a man who has lived without God and without Christ. I challenge all the orators that have ever lived, to draw forth from their vocabulary, words full enough of horror and of terror to depict the departing scene of the man who has lived at enmity with God, and who dies with his con science quickened then. Some men it is true live in sin, and take the last dregs of their infatuation before they die, and sink into the pit blindfolded, without the slightest pang of horror; but other men who have had their consciences awakened, die not so. Oh, the shrieks, the yells, the screams! oh, the face of anguish, the contortions, the misery. Have you never heard how men do bend their fists and swear they will not die; and how they start forth, and declare—" I cannot, and I must not die; I am unprepared!" Starting back from the fiery gulph they clutch the physician, and desire him, if possible, to lengthen out the thread of their existence! Ay, many a nurse has vowed that she would never nurse such a man again, for the horrors would be with her till she died.
And now, my dear hearers, you are not dying now; but you will be dying soon. None of you have taken a lease of your lives; it is impossible for you to guarantee to yourselves existence for another hour. And if you are Godless and Christless, ye have all in your veins the venom of that death unutterable which will make your departure doleful beyond expression! I would to God I could cut the cords of my stammering tongue so as to address you with vehemence and passion upon this subject. Men are dying every day around us; at this very hour there are thousands departing into the world of spirits. In upper chambers, where mourning relatives are pouring floods of tears upon their burning brows; far away on the wild sea, where the sea-gull utters the only scream over the shipwrecked mariner; down, deep, deep, deep, in the lowest valley, and high upon the loftiest hills, men are dying now, and dying in all the agonies I have sought to describe, but have failed to do. Ah, and ye must die also! and will ye march on heedlessly; will ye go on step after step, singing merrily all the way, and dreaming not of that which is to come! Oh, will ye be like the silly bullock that goeth easily to the slaughter, or will ye be like the lamb that licks the butcher's knife! Mad, mad O man, that thou shouldst go to eternal wrath and to the chambers of fell destruction, and yet no sigh comes from thy heart; no groan is uttered by thy lips! Thou diest every day, but groanest never, till the last day of thy death, which is the beginning of thy misery. Yes, the condition of the mass of men is just like the condition of the children of Israel when they were bitten by the serpents.
II. And now comes THE REMEDY. The remedy of the bitten Israelites was a brazen serpent; and the remedy for sinners is Christ crucified. "Stuff, nonsense," said some of the children of Israel, when they heard that a brazen serpent lifted up on a pole was to be the means of their cure. Many of them laughed in the jollity of unbelief—absurd, ridiculous; who ever heard of such a thing, how can it be? A serpent of brass lifted up upon a pole, to cure us of these wounds, by being looked Upon! why all the skill of the physicians cannot do it; will a glance at a brazen Serpent do it? It is impossible!" This much I know, if they did not despise the brazen serpent, there be many that despise Christ crucified. Shall I tell you what they say of him? They say of him as they did of the brazen serpent. Some Wise one said—" Why it was a serpent that did the mischief; how can a serpent Undo it?" Yes, and men will say, "It was by man that sin and death came into the World, and can a man be the means of our salvation?" "Ah," says another, having the prejudice of a Jew about him, "and what a man he was! No king, no prince, no mighty conqueror; he was but a poor peasant, and he died upon a cross." Ah, so said some in the camp; they said it was only a brazen serpent, not a golden one, and how could a brazen serpent be of any use to them? It would not sell for much if it were broken up. What was the use of it? And so men say of Christ. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and they hide their faces from him because they cannot see how he is adapted for their cure.
But some will have it that the preaching of the cross not only cannot save, but will increase the evil. Old physicians tell us that brass was the most likely thing in the world to make people die the quicker; the sight of anything that is bright would have the effect of making the poison yet more strong in its effects, so that it would be death at once to look upon brass. And yet strange to say, to look at the brazen serpent saved them. "Now," says the infidel, "I cannot see how men are to be saved from sin by the preaching of Christ." "Truly, sir," he says, "you go and tell men that though they have sinned never so much, if they do but believe, their sins shall all be washed away! Why they will take advantage of that, and they will be more wicked than ever they were. You tell men that their good works are of no avail whatever, that they must rest on Christ alone!" "Why," says the sceptic, "my dear fellow, it will be the destruction of all morality; instead of a cure, it will be a death. Why preach it?" Ah, the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved, it is Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. I cannot, myself, but admit, that at first sight the brazen serpent seems to be the most absurd invention, in itself, for curing those who were bitten, that ever mind of man could have invented; and yet I see in the brazen serpent, when I come to study it, the highest wisdom that even God himself could develop. I grant you that the cross of Christ also does in its outward appearance seem to be the simplicity of simplicities; something which any one might have thought of, but which would have been beneath their thought. But when you come to study and understand the marvellous scheme of God's justice vindicated, and man pardoned through the atoning blood of the cross, I say, that not even the mighty intellect of God could have conceived a wiser plan, than the wisdom of God displayed in Christ Jesus crucified.
But remember, that much as those who heard of the brazen serpent might have despised it, yet there was no other means of cure. And, now hear me for one moment, while I tell the whole story of salvation. Men, brethren, and fathers, we are born of a sinful generation, and we have ourselves increased our guilt, for us there is no hope; do what we may, we cannot save ourselves.
"Could our zeal no respite know,
Could our tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone."
But brethren, Christ Jesus, God's eternal Son, came into this world, and was born of the virgin Mary, he lived a doleful life of misery, and at last he died a death accompanied by unutterable pangs—that was the punishment of the sins of those who, as penitents, come to Christ. If you this day so repent, and put your trust in Jesus, you have in your trust and repentance a sure proof that Christ was punished for you. (Please click here to continue reading, "The Mysteries of the Brazen Serpent")