Symbols of Christ in the Wilderness

Among the abundance of redemptive types that God gave Israel throughout the exodus experience, wilderness pilgrimage and the conquest of Canaan, I find none so fascinating as the Gospel-symbols that God gave them in the wilderness. In addition to the Tabernacle, the sacrificial system and the priesthood, the Lord intervened at specific points in time to bring about supernatural provision for their physical needs. These provisions were ultimately given as typological pictures of the coming Christ and the redemptive provisions that would come through His saving work. We know this because our Lord Jesus told Nicodemus that the bronze serpent on the pole was a picture of His being lifted up on the cross (John 3:14-15). He also taught the Jews who followed Him that He was the anti-type of the manna that their forefathers ate in the wilderness (John 6:41, 48, 51). The apostle Paul explicitly taught the Corinthian church that the rock in the wilderness–from which the waters came–“was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:3). We can add the account of the bitter water healed by the tree thrown into it (Ex. 15:22-27) to the account of the rock, the bronze serpent and the manna. Nevertheless, the question remains: How are we to understand these types without inappropriately spiritualizing or allegorizing them? A few considerations of each one will help guide us in a process of biblical-theological interpretation.

The Serpent on the Pole

The most explicitly cross-centered wilderness type in the Scriptures (see John 3:14-15) was the serpent on the pole (Numbers 21:4-9). Like all the other miraculous redemptive typical provisions, the serpent on the pole was given in response to Israel’s sinful complaining and in the face of the judgment they deserved. There are a series of parallels that can be drawn between the Israelites being bitten by the serpents and then given a means of healing through the serpent on the pole, and the theological truth of the redemption we have through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Consider the following:

  1. The bronze serpent was God’s means of salvation for the Israelites who were bitten by the serpents in the wilderness. Jesus Christ crucified is God’s means of salvation for everyone who has been bitten by the deadly venom of sin in the wilderness of this fallen world.
  2. The bronze serpent was God’s only way of salvation for the Israelites. Jesus Christ crucified is God’s only way of salvation for Jew and Gentile (see. John 3:16).
  3. The bronze serpent was a visual representation of the wrath of God against a grumbling and complaining people. The cross of Christ is a visual representation of the wrath of God against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.
  4. The bronze serpent represented the propitiation of the wrath of God. Whoever looked at the serpent would know that the wrath of God was turned away. The cross of Christ displays the wrath of God as well as the turning away of that wrath. Mercy and truth meet together at the cross; righteousness and peace kiss one another in the death of Jesus.
  5. The bronze serpent was a symbolic representation of the venomous serpents that bit the people and brought deadly consequences on account of their sin; however, it was without the venom that caused their death. Christ represented those who were ruined by sin, making Himself a body in the likeness of sinful flesh–yet without sin–so that He might, through His death, save those who by their own sin were poisoned unto death. He was made a curse for us that we might receive the blessings of God.
  6. The bronze serpent was meant to remind the Israelites of the cause of their sin. It was meant to carry their minds back to the Garden of Eden where Satan came in the form of a serpent to tempt their first parents. The punishment for the sin, brought into the world through the temptation of that Serpent of Old, was laid on Jesus at the cross. The penalty for our sin fell on Him. He became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
  7. With respect to the serpent in the wilderness, the healing was dependent upon the word of God concerning His means of salvation. With Christ crucified, salvation is dependent on God’s word concerning His means of that salvation.
  8. With regard to the poisoned Israelites being called to believe God’s command and the bronze serpent being the object of that command we see that both the means and the instrument of God’s salvation are typified. In the account of Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus both the means and the instrument of God’s salvation are pointed out. A crucified Savior is the means of God’s salvation. Faith (or looking to Him) is the instrument of salvation.
  9. The plagued Israelites were externally called to look upon the bronze serpent in order to be healed. Sinners are externally called to look upon the crucified Son of God to be saved.
  10. The serpent was lifted up before the Israelites in the midst of the camp so that those who were bitten might look and be healed. Christ was lifted up–first on the cross, then in His resurrection, then in His ascension, and finally in the preaching of the Gospel–so that sinners might look on Him and be saved.
  11. The bronze serpent was the central and all sufficient means of healing for the Israelites. The cross is the central and all-sufficient means of the saving work of Christ for the healing of all who believe in Him. The bronze serpent was the clearest type of the saving work of Jesus at Calvary. Of all the types and shadows, there was not any that showed forth the principal work of the Savior better than this type. Jesus could have pointed to the passover, or to any of the sacrificial types that foreshadowed His atoning death, but He chose to point to this type in his discussion with Nicodemus.
  12. Just as God chose a man, namely Moses, to lift up the bronze serpent on the pole so that men might look and be healed, God has chosen ministers to hold up Jesus in the preaching of Christ crucified so that men might look to Him and be saved.
  13. Just as looking to a bronze serpent was a foolish means of healing poisoned Israelites, so looking to a crucified Savior (an publicly executed Man) is a foolish means, in the world’s eyes, for the salvation of a sinners condemned to death.
  14. The bronze serpent was held up for many for salvation from the wrath of God and the deadly consequences of sin. Christ was lifted up for many for the salvation of men from the wrath of God and the deadly consequences of sin. 1

The Manna 

The redemptive type with which people are most familiar is the manna in the wilderness. We clearly see God’s provision for His people in giving them this miraculous bread that tasted like “wafers made with honey” (Ex. 16:31) and that could only be likened to  “Angels’ food” (Psalm 78:25). The Hebrew word that corresponds to our English transliteration manna (מָ‏ן) literally means, “What is it?” (Ex. 16:15). This corresponded to the response of the Israelites being confounded by the heavenly bread. Like the serpent on the pole and the water from the rock, God responded to Israel’s complaint in the wilderness by giving them this life-sustaining provision: “the whole congregation of the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. And the children of Israel said to them, “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex. 16:2-3). God’s grace is magnified in His provision for an undeserving people. Instead of allowing the people to starve in the wilderness, God gave them this heavenly delicacy for the entirety of their wilderness wandering. There was a supernatural preservation of the manna on the Sabbath that enabled Israel to keep it for their needs longer than bread would normally keep (compare Ex. 16:19-21 with 16: 22-26). In this way, God was teaching Israel that the manna had a spiritual relation with the Sabbath-rest-redemption that He would provide in Christ. Moses explained that “the children of Israel ate manna forty years, until they came to an inhabited land;they ate manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan” (Exodus 16:35). In addition, the manna was meant to serve the spiritual purpose of teaching the people that Christ would be their provision throughout their sojourning here. A brief consideration of John 6 establishes more of the Christological focus of this miracle.

When Jesus came to Israel, the covenant people were in the same spiritual condition as the first generation was in the wilderness. There are numerous wilderness parallels between Israel and Christ. Clearly the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness was the counterpart of the temptation of Old Covenant Israel in the wilderness. Then there are the bread miracles that our Lord performed in order to assure the people that He was the long-expected Messiah. In John 6 we find the lengthiest discourse associated with one of our Lord’s two miraculous feedings. After giving thousands of Israelites bread from a few loaves, Jesus departed from the multitude because He knew they wanted Him to be the King of physical bread (John 6:15). No sooner did they realize that Christ was gone that they began to seek for Him (John 6:24). Jesus knew that the people wanted the type without the anti-type. The people longed for the physical bread that typified Jesus, but they didn’t want the life-giving bread from heaven. Jesus took this opportunity to teach the people, “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life ” (John 6:27). Our Lord reminded the crowd that Moses gave the people physical bread in the wilderness, but that all that generation inevitably died (John 6:49). The life-sustaining bread that is Christ causes those who feed on Him by faith to live forever (John 6:50-51). In case there was any question about what (or, who) the bread from heaven was, Jesus finally declared, “I am the bread of life…which came down from heaven” (John 6:35, 48, 50). Just as those in the wilderness called the bread in the wilderness, “What is it?” so they said of Christ “Who are you” (John 8:25)? The lesson is simple. Unless the Lord opens the eyes of the hearts of men and women all they can see is the type and not the anti-type. Men may seek Christ for the bread that perishes, but they will not seek Him for the life-giving provision of His flesh and blood until He, by the Spirit, makes them see that He is the “bread that came down from heaven.”


Water from the Rock

Another fascinating account of God’s supernatural provision for Israel in the wilderness is unfolded in the accounts of God giving His people water from the rock. As the Israelites began to progress through the wilderness, we find God giving Moses instructions about providing for Israel’s thirst in the wilderness by means of striking a rock (Ex. 17:1-7). As was true of the account of Israel with the serpents, the covenant people were found quarreling against Moses and God. One might be tempted to sympathize with the Israelites, who were in a dry and barren land where there was no water.; but Israel is not a victim, she is the offender. We soon discover that Israel was actually complaining against God and the redemption that He provided for them. The Israelites say, “Why is it you have brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst” (Exodus 17:3)?

In the Ancient Near East a staff was a symbol of judicial authority. Even in the Roman world, juridical magistrates carried a rod in their hand. Striking someone with the rod was a symbol of justice being executed. So it was with Moses before Pharaoh. God was judging Pharaoh and Egypt with the plagues with which were symbolically executed by the rod. The rod with which Pharaoh was struck, was the rod with which God told Moses to strike the rock. Two pertinent details emerge out of the context of the account that help make sense of the spiritual meaning of the act. First, Israel deserves to be struck with the rod of justice. The rock did not deserve the wrath of God, Israel did. Second, the Lord told Moses, “I will stand before you there on the rock in Horeb; and you shall strike the rock” (Ex. 17:6). It was a symbol given to Israel of the Lord being struck with His own rod of justice. When the apostle Paul says, “that rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:3), he was referring to the incident in Exodus 17. The rod of God’s justice fell on Jesus at Calvary. God took the wrath that we deserve for our sins. Zechariah prophesied so much when the Lord spoke through him saying, “‘Awake O sword against My Shepherd, against the Man who is my companion,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘Strike the Shepherd…'” (Zech. 13:7). The sword of God’s wrath fell on the Son of God at the cross. In the words of Dorothy Sayers, God “took His own medicine” for the spiritual healing of His people.

Edmund Clowney explained the significance of the historical setting and the details of the context when he wrote:

Israel accuses God of abandoning them to die in the wilderness. They demand justice. Since God is not available to stand trial, they will accuse Moses in his stead. They are ready to stone him. Stoning, of course, is not mob violence but judicial execution by the community, with witnesses throwing the first stones. Moses understandably asks why they want to stone him. They have been brought to Rephidim by the word of the Lord. It is really against God that they are bringing charges.

Appreciation of this judicial setting enables us to understand what follows. The Lord tells Moses to take elders of the people with him, and his rod in his hand. The elders are the judges of Israel; they are to serve as witnesses for a court case. The rod of Moses is identified as the rod with which he struck the Nile River, turning it into blood. It is the rod of judgment: both a symbol of authority and an instrument for inflicting the penalty. We recall the fasces carried by the Roman lictors, a bundle of rods that were both symbols of authority and means of punishment.

Deuteronomy 25:1-3 describes the procedure for inflicting the penalty on the wrongdoer when a law-case is brought before the judges. The judges shall acquit the innocent and condemn the guilty. If the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the limit is set at forty blows.20 Moses is to go before the people with the elders to convene a public trial. He will raise his rod of judgment to bring down a blow of justice upon the guilty. Isaiah describes the rod of the Lord descending in judgment upon Assyria: “Every stroke the LORD lays on them with his punishing rod will be to the music of tambourines and harps, as he fights them in battle with the blows of his arm” (Isa. 30:32, NIV).

Israel is guilty, but the rod of Moses is not raised against Israel. Instead, we have one of the most astonishing statements in the Bible. God says, “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb” (Ex. 17:6a, ESV).21 In this trial scene, Moses stands with the rod of judgment in his hand, and God comes to stand before him! In judgment, men stand before God; God does not stand before a man. The law reads, “Then both men in the controversy shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who serve in those days. And the judges shall make careful inquiry . . .” (Deut. 19:17-18, NKJV). Israel has called for justice, and the Lord brings the case to trial.

He, the accused, stands in the prisoner’s dock. His command to Moses is, “You shall strike the Rock.” Moses dare not strike into the Shekinah glory of God’s presence. But he is to strike the Rock upon which God stands, and with which he is identified. In the Song of Moses, God’s name is “the Rock”: “For I proclaim the name of the LORD: Ascribe greatness to our God. He is the Rock, His work is perfect” (Deut. 32:3-4a, NKJV). Jeshurun “forsook God who made him, and scornfully esteemed the Rock of his salvation” (v. 15, NKJV). “Of the Rock who begot you, you are unmindful, and have forgotten the God who fathered you” (v. 18, NKJV). “For their rock is not like our Rock, even our enemies themselves being judges” (v. 31, NKJV). In two psalms that mention Massah and Meribah, God is called the Rock (Ps. 78:35; 95:1).

God is the Rock; he is not guilty, but he stands to receive the blow of judgment. “In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His Presence saved them; in His love and in His pity He redeemed them, and He bore them and carried them all the days of old” (Isa. 63:9, NKJV).

God who is the Shepherd of his people not only leads them through the wilderness; he stands in their place that justice might be done. The penalty is discharged: Moses strikes the Rock. The Lord redeems by bearing the judgment. From the smitten Rock there flows the water of life into the deadly wilderness. When Paul says the Rock was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4), he perceives the symbolism of the passage. Christ is present both in person and in symbol. In that incident, Christ the Lord stands on the Rock as the theophanic Angel, but the symbol of the Rock is needed to provide the symbol of that human nature he must assume to receive the atoning blow of judgment.2

There is a very clear principle of substitutionary atonement in the account of the striking of the rock at Rephidim. The LORD took the punishment that His people deserved. Having been struck with the rod of justice, life-giving water flows out of Christ. There is a clear allusion to this in the blood and water that flow from the pierced side of our Lord when He is struck with the rod of God’s justice. John’s Gospel repeatedly emphasizes the correlation between redemptive grace and provision and the symbol of water. Whether it was what our Lord said to the woman at the well (John 4), or what He cried out at the feast of Tabernacle (John 7:37), Jesus was constantly teaching of the need that we have for “the living waters” that flow from Him on account of His redemptive work.

If this is not enough, the Lord carries this symbol further into Israel’s wilderness wandering. God again gives His people water from the rock (Num. 20:1-13) when they thirst in Kadesh. When the people thirst and then complain, as they did at Rephidim, God told Moses to again take the rod and go to a rock. We might think that this is one and the same as the incident at Rephidim, until we see the new directive God gives Moses: “Take the rod; you and your brother Aaron gather the congregation together. Speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will yield its water; thus you shall bring water for them out of the rock, and give drink to the congregation and their animals.” Instead of being commanded to strike the rock, Moses is commanded to speak to the rock. Given the significance of the rod, we find that God is teaching Israel a deep, spiritual lesson. The rock only needs to be struck once for life-giving waters to flow. After that, all we need to do is ask the rock for water. This is, no doubt, meant to highlight the fact that Christ only needed to be struck once with the rod of God’s justice (see the book of Hebrews on the once-for-all nature of Christ’s death). Now, all we need to do is ask Him for the life-sustaining waters. Clowney drew Ex. 17 and Num. 20 together and viewed them through the lens of Calvary when he wrote:

When Moses struck the rock, a stream of life-giving water poured out into the desert.  When Jesus was crucified, John tells us that blood and water poured from his side (John 19:34). . . . We do not wonder that Moses was judged severely for striking the rock a second time, when he had been told to speak to it (Numbers 20:7-13). Only once, at the appointed time, does God bear the stroke of our doom.3

The Bitter Waters Healed

One final type in the wilderness is worthy of our consideration. Different from the aforementioned on account of the fact that it is not explicitly said to be a type in the New Testament, this type, nevertheless, presents us with the same truths. While we must proceed with extreme caution because of this factor, it is incumbent on us to take the same principles deduced from the serpent, manna and water from the rock and apply them to the interpretation of this final wilderness redemptive-type provision.

In what was the first of all the supernatural provisions that God would provide for Israel after the Exodus, the account of Exodus 15:22-27 prepares the way for all the subsequent miracles we have already considered. No sooner has Israel been delivered from the servile bondage they were held to in Egypt, that the begin to complain against Moses and God. This is the common thread that has run through all of the supernatural provision accounts we have explored. Israel complains, Moses intercedes and God graciously provides. Israel was thirsting in the wilderness and they came to a pool of bitter water which they could not drink. If Israel can’t drink water they will die. There is clearly a physical provision in the miracle, by which the Lord is teaching His people that He will care for their physical needs. But there is something else taking place in the miracle at Marah.

We know that the healing of the waters was a spiritual type of the healing of God’s people because after healing the waters the LORD told Israel, “I will put none of the diseases on you which I have brought on the Egyptians. For I am the Lord who heals you.” So what are we to make about the details of the prescription by which the waters would be healed?

In his article “Proving and Provision at Marah” David J. Klein helpfully explains what he believes to be the typical meaning of the tree thrown into the bitter waters. he writes:

God did not show Moses a rock, Moses did not put his staff in the water. The reference to the tree is not incidental. The tree is obviously the instrument of healing. Does not the collocation of tree and healing immediately bring to mind Revelation 22, where in the new paradise there is the tree of life whose leaves are healing to the nations? That which was the future reward held out in the garden, that which is the final provision of the heavenly Jerusalem, is already intruding itself into the wilderness. The tree represents nothing less than the new order penetrating into the old. As Geerhardus Vos wrote, “The kingdom of God, what else is it but a new world of supernatural realities supplanting this natural world of sin.” And access to this tree of life comes only via Calvary’s tree. The sweetness of heaven, the new heavenly order, comes to us by the work of Christ. His obedience merits for us the eschatological reward of the tree of life. He drank the bitter waters on the cross, he endured the bitter wrath of God, he tasted the bitterness of death, that you might know the sweetness of the forgiveness of sins, the sweetness of sonship, the sweetness of communion with the Father. Christ has taken the bitterness out of your wilderness sojourn, because even now in your wilderness you have access to this tree of life, because of Jesus’ tree.4

While so much more could be said about each of these accounts, the things we have said should suffice to encourage us to prayerfully dig deeper into the pages of Scripture to see how “the sufferings and Christ and the glories that followed” are foreshadowed in the redemptive-types of the Old Testament. These things were written that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that believing we may have life in His name.

1. For a development of these points, see John Brinsely The Mystical Brazen Serpent (London: Thomas Maxley, 1652)

2.Edmund Clowney Preaching Christ in All of Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003) pp. 28-30

3. Clowney The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament(Philipsburg, Penn.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1988), p. 126.

4. David J. Klein “Proving and Provision at Marah,” (Kerux Journal vol. 15, n1 a2) http://www.kerux.com/documents/keruxv15n1a2.htm

6 Responses

  1. With regard to the bronze serpent, and point six in particular, do you believe the serpent was emblematic of their sin? I’ve heard Tim Keller remark that the figurative venom in the people’s mouths was the reason God sent serpents in judgment with literal venom. In this view, the bronze serpent isn’t just a representation of the cause of their sin but of the sin itself – much like Christ was made to be sin for us (2 Cor 5:21). Thoughts?

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