Sign of the Serpent

by Pastor Doug Batchelor

An Amazing Fact:  It is estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 people die from snakebites each year, 75 percent of whom live in densely populated India. The most deadly snakes in India are the cobra, Russell's viper, saw-scaled cobra, Indian krait, and Ceylon krait.

Burma has the highest snakebite mortality rate, with 15.4 deaths per 100,000 people per year. Australia has some of the world's most poisonous snakes, but the average death toll there is only six persons per year. In South America about 4,500 people die annually from contact with the Fer-de-lance.

None of the snakes just mentioned are found in the United States, where the chief offenders are coral snakes, copperheads, cottonmouths, and rattlesnakes.

Why Study Snakes?
Four times in one year, John Fretwell's air-conditioning equipment company in Dallas was robbed. Finally Fretwell went up to Oklahoma for a snake hunt and brought back what may be the ultimate in burglar protection: seven diamond-back rattle-snakes. During business hours, he now displays the snakes in the window of his business office, labeled with a sign: DANGER: SNAKES BITE.

Before going home at night, he frees the five-foot rattlers to glide around the premises. In the morning, armed with a hooked stick and a burlap bag, he rounds them up. The seven rattlers seem to be working like a charm to ward off burglars.

The key to his success is that most people find these creatures among the most revolting and terrorizing. My mother was so deathly afraid of snakes that she would jump and scream even if she saw one on TV. My brother and I would sometimes capitalize on her phobia and place a rubber snake in her dresser drawer to enjoy a cruel laugh when she discovered it.

Few people relish the idea of studying snakes. It may not sound like a very appealing subject, but these cold-blooded, legless reptiles are mentioned in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, so it is therefore profitable for us to compel ourselves to consider these unusual creatures.

Throughout the Scriptures, the serpent generally represents the devil. It was in the form of a snake that the devil first manifested himself to the human race (Genesis 3:1); hence the symbol stuck all the way to Revelation 20:2, where he is called "the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan."

There can be great benefits to understanding this clever enemy. When I lived in the desert mountains as a young man, rattlesnakes were abundant. A basic knowledge about their habits and behavior helped me to avoid ever being bit, despite several close encounters.

The Bible says that "the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made" (Genesis 3:1). Perhaps this is why Jesus commands us to be "wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). In order to be as "wise as serpents," we must understand at least a little about them.

Master Counterfeiter
Snakes are the ultimate experts in camouflage and counterfeits. Whether hiding in the grass or entwined in the branches of a tree, they are masters at blending into the scenery to remain undetected. When threatened, the harmless bull snake will vibrate its tail in the dry leaves to sound like his venomous cousin, the rattler.

Satan too is a clever counterfeiter. In Revelation 12:9 he is called "that old serpent, ... which deceiveth the whole world." For every truth of God, Satan has a convincing counterfeit. He has counterfeit baptisms, a counterfeit Holy Spirit and tongues, a counterfeit Sabbath, and even a counterfeit for love.

In the Exodus story, the Pharaoh's magicians were able-to a point-to counterfeit the power and miracles of God (Exodus 7:10-12). Likewise, Satan is most dangerous and effective when he is imitating God's miracles and messengers. "And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14).

Flying Serpents?
Dozens of cultures have legends and traditions about flying serpents or dragons. These can be seen the world over in their ancient carvings and art.

Fables are often rooted in at least some element of truth. There is a serpent in the tropical rainforests that can spring from the trees, flatten its ribcage, and glide a short distance-something like the flying squirrel. But even beyond this modern example, many Bible commentators believe that before it was cursed, the serpent had wings and the ability to fly. The fossil record is full of examples of other flying reptiles, like the pterodactyl, that lived before the Flood.

The Bible itself alludes to the existence of flying serpents. One prophecy states: "For out of the serpent's root shall come forth a cockatrice [viper], and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent" (Isaiah 14:29).

Genesis 3:14 explains why we do not see flying snakes today. "And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life."

If the serpent was cursed to go upon his belly after he tempted Eve, it is obvious that before the curse he propelled himself differently. Satan is called "the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience" (Ephesians 2:2). Just as the serpent was grounded by the curse, the fallen angel Lucifer had his wings clipped when he was cast to the earth.

Satan and the Sword
The first question found in Scripture is posed by the serpent, who sought to discredit God's word. "Hath God said?" (Genesis 3:1), he asked Eve.

From that first insidious query to the present, Satan has been ever casting suspicion on the Word of God to undermine the faith of God's children. Sin, suffering, and death entered the world after Satan succeeded in leading our first parents to disbelieve God's word. Planting seeds of doubt regarding the dependability of Scripture remains the devil's primary war tactic.

However, victory comes to God's children when they claim and believe the powerful promises in the Word: "Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust" (2 Peter 1:4).

When Jesus did combat with the arch villain in the wilderness of temptation, He deflected every assault with Scripture. The serpent trembles when God's people take hold of the living sword of His Word (Hebrews 4:12)!

The Snake and the Seed
Genesis 3:14-15 is where we find the first prophecy of the ongoing battle that would exist between the woman (the church) and the serpent (Satan). This passage of Scripture also promises the ultimate victory of the woman's seed (the coming Savior), who would crush the head of the snake.

Verse 15 says, "And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel."

Notice that the serpent bites the heel of the woman's seed, not the toe. The heel is the back of the foot, the lowest part of the body. Satan gets us from behind, when we are at our lowest point. Likewise, he came to Jesus when He was weak and tired after 40 days of fasting.

The good news is that Satan only manages to bruise the heel of Christ and the church; the church continues to limp along. On the other hand, the serpent receives a mortal wound to the head, promising the ultimate victory of Jesus over the devil.

Power Over Serpents
When the Lord commissioned Moses to return to Egypt and lead His people to freedom, He gave Moses a strange sign concerning his rod and a serpent. "And he said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it. And the Lord said unto Moses, Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail. And he put forth his hand, and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand" (Exodus 4:3-4).

A rod in the Bible is a symbol of power (Revelation 12:5) and protection (Psalm 23:4). When Moses' rod turned into a serpent, it signaled that God would give him power over and protection from the forces of evil as he ventured into the snake pit of Pharaoh's palace. This same power is promised to all of God's children who seek to work with Jesus to liberate others from slavery to Satan.

Luke 10:19 states, "Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you." And Psalm 91:13 declares, "Thou shalt tread upon the lion and the adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet."

Don't Play With Snakes
This power over evil is what Jesus was talking about when He said, "And these signs shall follow them that believe; … they shall take up serpents" (Mark 16:17-18).

Some misguided pastors have interpreted this passage to mean that Christians should double as snake charmers and prove their faith by collecting and handling rattlesnakes or other venomous vipers. For obvious reasons, the membership in these congregations has always remained small.

The New Testament account of Paul's shipwreck reveals how to correctly understand this passage. "And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita. And the barbarous people showed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold. And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god" (Acts 28:1-6).

Just as God saved Paul from the venom of that serpent, He will save us from the poison of sin. However, we are never to deliberately seek out snakes to flirt with disaster. That would be tempting the Lord (Matthew 4:7).

A rattlesnake only two minutes old can strike effectively. During a family picnic, a 2-year-old discovered a brood of baby rattlesnakes. The unsuspecting child began to play with what she thought were pretty worms until she had been repeatedly bitten beyond hope.

Likewise, some people feel that little sins are harmless, but they often prove more fatal in the long run than the more obvious transgressions.

Most Famous Verse
Probably one of the most well-known, beloved, and memorized verses in the Bible is John 3:16. But if you were to ask the average Christian what are the two verses that precede John 3:16, I would venture to guess not one person in 50 could quote them. Yet that immortal verse is actually the continuation of a thought begun in the preceding two verses. Here they are together: "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. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:14-16).

These three verses together encapsulate the entire great controversy in the cosmic conflict between the serpent and the Lord. Let's look at the original story, to which Jesus was alluding.

"And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water, and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died" (Numbers 21:5-6).

Remember that sin entered the world when the serpent succeeded in tempting our first parents to doubt God's word. In this story, after the children of Israel rejected God's bread (a symbol for Jesus and the Word), then the serpents bit them. It is the Word of God that keeps people from sin (Psalm 119:11).

Let's read on: "Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole; and it came to pass that, if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived" (Numbers 21:7-9).

Snake on a Stick
For this nation of shepherds, the serpent lifted on a pole served as a strong symbol which they all well understood. Snakes are a deadly menace to sheep. A dog might get bit by a rattlesnake and survive without any special treatment, but sheep are much more fragile. This is one of the reasons why shepherds must carry a rod.

When I lived in the desert mountains, my snake stick served a couple of purposes. If I found a venomous intruder in my cave, I would club it to "bruise his head." But a mortally wounded snake might continue to thrash and writhe for hours. So rather than grab it with my hand, I would lift it up with the rod to move it far away from my premises.

A snake on a stick is a vivid symbol of a defeated serpent. Beyond this, there is a much richer prophetic significance to this symbol. Inspired author E.G. White writes:

"All who have ever lived upon the earth have felt the deadly sting of 'that old serpent, called the devil, and Satan.' Revelation 12:9. The fatal effects of sin can be removed only by the provision that God has made. The Israelites saved their lives by looking upon the uplifted serpent. That look implied faith. They lived because they believed God's word, and trusted in the means provided for their recovery. So the sinner may look to Christ, and live. He receives pardon through faith in the atoning sacrifice. Unlike the inert and lifeless symbol, Christ has power and virtue in Himself to heal the repenting sinner" (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 431).

"The people well knew that in itself the serpent had no power to help them. It was a symbol of Christ. As the image made in the likeness of the destroying serpents was lifted up for their healing, so One made 'in the likeness of sinful flesh' (Romans 8:3) was to be their Redeemer" (Desire of Ages, p. 174).

Jesus said, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me" (John 12:32). It is by looking to Jesus on the cross that we are drawn by His love for us. By gazing in faith at our Redeemer's sacrifice, we are saved from the sting of the serpent.

Notice in our story that God did not take away the serpents, but instead He provided a remedy. Likewise, as long as we are in this world, we will have the devil to contend with; however, God has provided an abundance of antivenom in the blood of Jesus to save us from the viper's bite! When Jesus was on the cross, although His heel was painfully bruised, the serpent's head was mortally crushed.

Good-Luck Charms
The bronze serpent Moses had forged and elevated on the stick somehow managed to survive all the wanderings and battles of the Israelites for more than 700 years. Most of the surrounding pagan Canaanite nations worshiped serpents as gods of fertility and mystical power. And over time, the Israelites began to imitate their neighbors and to treat this bronze relic of God's forgiveness as a deity in and of itself (2 Kings 18:3-4).

Like the ancient Israelites, millions around the world today are inadvertently worshiping the serpent while thinking they are worshiping the Lord. They have slowly, unwittingly been sucked into base idolatry.

Sadly, many Christians have done the same thing with the symbol of the cross as the ancient Israelites did with the bronze serpent.

In the same way the Israelites were not to worship the serpent on the pole, we are not to bow down or to pray before a cross. Neither are we commanded to make the sign of the cross on our persons. There is no mystical power or virtue in this image of an ancient torture implement!

When Jesus said to His disciples, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Matthew 16:24), He was commanding His followers to bear the cross, not to wear the cross.

Revelation speaks of being saved not by the cross, but by the blood of Jesus. It was the cross as a demonstration of Jesus' love and sacrifice that Paul and the disciples exalted, not the revolting instrument itself. Hebrews 12:2 says, "Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God." The redemption of the cross is what should be the focus of Christians.

The Cup of Sin
In the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, there is a very precious goblet. In the center of the inside of that goblet is a gold serpent. It has ruby eyes and diamond fangs; its mouth is open and ready to strike. When the goblet is filled with wine, the red liquid covers the snake. As the wine is drunk, suddenly the serpent with its menacing appearance is revealed.

Jesus, when He came to die for us, shrank from the thought of sin and separation from the Father when He prayed, "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Matthew 26:39).

Humbling Himself, He drank the cup of sin down to the dregs. At Calvary the serpent, which had been lingering through it all, struck with all of his diabolical vengeance. The intensity of evil! Jesus bore it all.

Defeated Foe
Some have wondered, "If Satan was defeated by Jesus on the cross, then why do we still see and feel so much evidence of his evil activity?"

The devil knows he was defeated at the cross, but he is crazed with pride and anger. In order to inflict as much heartache on God as possible, he continues to fight tenaciously, wanting to take down with him as many as possible.

Revelation 12:12 declares: "Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time." Satan is now thrashing about wildly in his final death throes, striking any and all within his reach.

However, the Bible promises that ultimately Satan and his angels will be cast into the lake of fire. This also holds true for those who follow him. "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?" (Matthew 23:33).

The good news is that in heaven, we will no longer need to walk through the woods in fear. Isaiah 11:8-9 describes a paradise without harmful snakes: "And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' [viper's] den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea."


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