The Cross – prefigured in the Law

Dies auch in Deutsch erhaeltlich

‘They travelled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.’ Numbers 21:4-9

This bronze serpent on a pole, which represented the cause of their death, was originally given so that when the people looked upon it in faith, they would acknowledge that their own sin had brought about death and God would heal them. The bronze serpent on the pole, given to Israel when they rebelled against Moses, foreshadowed the vicarious death of Jesus on the cross. It was kept by the Israelites for a long period until it was finally destroyed by King Hezekiah because it had become an object of idolatry: Hezekiah removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan) 2 Kings 18:4

Jesus referred to the bronze snake that Moses lifted up and said that in the same way he would be lifted up on the cross, and that all who look to him in faith will be delivered from their sins and receive eternal life: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15). “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die (John 12:32-33).

When the Israelites grumbled against Moses, it was an act of rebellion against the Lord. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did— and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did— and were killed by the destroying angel (1 Corinthians 10:9-10). In order that they would fully realize the absolute folly of their rebellion and the deadly consequence of their sin, “the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.” Most people have a tendency to overlook the seriousness of sin. The bronze serpent reminded them that it was their own sin and rebellion that was the cause of death.

In the same way Isaiah prophesied concerning the atoning death of Jesus the Messiah so that Israel would fully appreciate the extent of their sin and rebellion towards God: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)” Zechariah prophesied that we would be saved by looking to the pierced Messiah: “They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son” (Zechariah 12:10).

In the same way that the bronze snake was a symbol of Israel’s deliverance from the venom of the snakes, the cross has become a symbol of our deliverance from the deadly consequence of our own sin. Sin is like a deadly poison which eventually produces death. “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:20). It is interesting to note that the symbol of a snake on the pole is now used as a medical symbol as is the Red Cross. Isaiah prophesied: “by his wounds we are healed.” The symbol of the cross may serve as a reminder of what the Messiah endured for our iniquities, but it should never be used as an object of worship. The cross has become a Christian symbol in much the same way as the Star of David is recognised as a Jewish symbol. However, just as the snake on the pole later became an object of idolatry, the crucifix (a cross with the sculptured figure of Jesus still on it), has become an object of idolatry within apostate Christendom.


The cross was devised by the Romans as a singularly cruel and humiliating form of capital punishment reserved only for those who were not Roman citizens. The slow, torturous, suffering and death on the cross was so agonizing that a unique word, “excruciating,” was invented to describe it! This word comes from the Latin words ex- (completely) + cruciare (to torture), the base of the word being crux which means rack or cross.

Before the Romans had devised this barbaric form of capital punishment, King David prophetically described the death of the Messiah in graphic detail. The way in which the victim was nailed to the cross meant that in order to breathe he would have to push himself up by his feet, through which iron stakes had been driven. Each time he pushed himself up he would scrape the open wounds of his back, which had first been ripped open by a particularly cruel form of flogging, against the rough wood of the cross. If a victim had not died after several agonizing hours, the Romans would eventually break their legs so that they could no longer lift themselves to breathe and they would suffocate. In this cruel death every bone of the victim’s body was pulled out of joint. The following are extracts from Psalm 22 – a psalm of David, which prophetically describes the suffering and atoning death of Jesus the Messiah on the cross:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: “He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing. But you, O Lord, be not far off; O my Strength, come quickly to help me. Deliver my life from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs. Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen. I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you.


The apostle Paul wrote: For Messiah did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel— not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Messiah be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:17-18).

There is not a single person who is righteous according to the Torah. Therefore all are under the curses for disobedience. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Even Daniel, a righteous man by human standards, prayed: “All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you” (Daniel 9:11).

The apostle Paul wrote: All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, “The man who does these things will live by them.” Jesus the Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” Galatians 3:10-13

There is a stigma and shame associated with death on a cross. Most of the people of Israel, who were hoping for a redeemer who would set them free from Roman oppression, did not want to look to the cross. When we look upon the beaten, disfigured, naked body of Jesus on the cross it forces us to acknowledge our own sin and rebellion that put him there. While we cling to our human pride and self-righteousness and refuse to admit our guilt we do not want to look in faith to the one who was pierced for our transgressions. See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him– his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness– so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him (Is.52:13-15).

The Torah says: If a man guilty of a capital offence is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance. Deuteronomy 21:22-23

When Joshua led the Israelites into the land of Canaan, the wicked kings who were displaced were hung upon trees. Then Joshua struck and killed the kings and hung them on five trees, and they were left hanging on the trees until evening. At sunset Joshua gave the order and they took them down from the trees and threw them into the cave where they had been hiding. At the mouth of the cave they placed large rocks, which are there to this day (Josh. 10:25-27).

The Anointed King, Redeemer and Holy One of Israel died in precisely this shameful way in order to take the curse upon himself and redeem us to God. Jesus was killed because he bore the curse of our disobedience – the Messiah will be cut off but not for himself (Daniel 9:26). He was crucified between two criminals. A rich man, Joseph, from Arimathea, placed his body in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock and a large stone was rolled in front of the entrance to the tomb. This was to fulfil the words of the prophet Isaiah (53:9): “For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.”

What fateful irony that Israel’s Messiah King was destined to die in the same shameful manner as was imposed upon the enemies of Israel. How tragic that Jesus is regarded by many of his own people as their worst enemy. In the words of the prophet Isaiah Jesus is truly “like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. When we identify with the One who died this shameful death on our behalf we can expect to be scorned as he was and to share in the disgrace he bore. In this way the prophecy of Isaiah 66:5 is perfectly fulfilled: Your brothers who hate you, and exclude you because of my name . . . However, whoever does not listen to the word of God spoken through the Messiah will be called to give account for their disobedience (Deut.18:18). The day will come when everyone will stand before Almighty God and all self-righteousness and hypocrisy will be completely exposed. Jesus warned: “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:24).

Only by looking to him who was pierced for our transgressions are we delivered from the curse brought about by our own sin. The cruel cross is not, and should never be, an object of worship, but it is a reminder of the suffering and death of Jesus the Messiah, our Saviour and Redeemer whom God raised from the dead. Just as his shameful death was prophesied so was his resurrection: After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities (Is.53:11). King David prophesied of the Messiah: “Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay” (Psalm 16:10-11). The cross, which is a symbol of the cruel death of the Messiah, has at the same time become to all who believe a symbol of the power of God’s redemption and of everlasting life!