Updated: Apr 17, 2019
The Book of Numbers records Israel’s journey from the wilderness of Sinai to the plains of Moab on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Although the people of Israel enjoyed God’s presence, provision and protection, they found the going tough and frequently grumbled and complained about their circumstances. In effect, they were a traumatized generation. They carried a lot of psychological baggage from the oppression they had suffered at the hands of the Egyptians.
On one occasion the people allowed their emotions to get the better of them and they expressed their resentment toward God and his designated leader, Moses. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.” In response, the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and many of the people died from their venomous bites. Distraught and ashamed, the people came to Moses and said,
“We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived. (Numbers 21.7-9).
God was not instructing the people to take a casual or cursory glance at the scenery, but rather, to look with meaningful intent upon the bronze serpent as an ensign of hope. They were to look upon the bronze serpent with a ‘look of faith’, that is, a look of thoughtful consideration and hopeful expectation. The bronze serpent was thus a sacrament — a visible sign of a spiritual grace … a point of contact through which people could receive God’s healing and deliverance.
Jesus referred to this incident in his conversation with the Jewish theologian, Nicodemus, who sought him out under the cover of darkness, fearing the wrath of hard-line members of the Sanhedrin:
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life; For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3.14-17).
Just as the bronze serpent was raised up on a pole and placed in a conspicuous position in the camp of Israel so that people may look to it in faith and be delivered from their afflictions, so Jesus himself would be raised up on a Roman cross, and through the subsequent proclamation of the gospel, be placed in a conspicuous position in the world so that people may look to him in faith and be saved from their sins. Jesus would thus become a banner for the peoples (Isa 49.22) and an object of faith and desire for the nations (Hagg 2.7).
The Greek word pisteuo, translated ‘believe’ in John’s gospel, signifies more than just mental assent to a creed or doctrine. Rather, it indicates total persuasion concerning the veracity of something or someone, issuing in complete dependence on and absolute commitment to the object of faith. The Amplified Bible describes it as “cleaving to, relying on, and trusting in” the person of the Son of God. The word suggests turning to Jesus as the only option of salvation in much the same way as the children of Israel turned to the bronze serpent as their only hope of deliverance.
The prophet Isaiah alluded to the international attention that would one day be garnered by the preaching of Christ’s gospel:
“Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. I have sworn by Myself; the word has gone out of My mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, that to Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath. He shall say, ‘Surely in the Lord I have righteousness and strength. To Him men shall come, and all shall be ashamed who are incensed against Him. In the Lord all the descendants of Israel shall be justified, and shall glory.’” (Isa 45.22-25).
The Lord reveals himself as “a just God and a Saviour” (v.21), and the justifier of the one who turns to him in faith (cp. Rom 3.26). Moreover, he declares, “I am God and there is no other!” In effect God is saying, “There’s no point in putting your trust in anyone else. I am the only option. I am the only hope. I am the only one with the power to save you. Look to me!”
The word ‘saved’ (Heb. yasha) speaks to the entire spectrum of human need, including physical and spiritual oppression, plague and famine, and sickness and disease. It is the root word from which we get the derivative yeshua, transliterated in the New Testament as ‘Jesus’ (Saviour). One could say, “Look to Jesus the Saviour, and you will be saved.” Or, as the apostle Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10.9).
The Isenheim Altarpiece
In the year 1095 a congregation was founded at La-Motte-Saint-Didier in south-eastern France called the ‘Hospital Brothers of Saint Anthony’ for the purpose of caring for pilgrims and for the sick, particularly those afflicted with St. Anthony’s Fire, an advanced form of ergot poisoning. Over the next several hundred years the congregation spread throughout France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, and at its height in the 15th century boasted some 370 hospitals.
One such hospital was established in Isenheim, near Colmar in north-eastern France, which cared for those suffering from the plague and other skin diseases. In 1512 Matthias Grünewald, a German renaissance artist, was commissioned to paint the altarpiece for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim. He chose as his theme the image of the crucified Christ, framed on the left by Saint Sebastian (the patron saint of plague victims) and on the right by Saint Anthony the Great (the patron saint of the hospital’s order). However, Grünewald’s crucifixion is unique, insofar as it not only portrays Christ’s body writhing under the pain of the nails in his hands and his feet, the crown of thorns on his head, and the spear thrust in his side, but also shows his body pitted with plague-type sores.
This remarkable painting conveyed a clear message concerning Christ’s identification with us in our sin and sickness, and our identification with him in his righteousness (2 Cor 5.21) to plague sufferers undergoing treatment at the hospital. Basically, the message of the Isenheim Altarpiece can be divided into three parts:
Firstly, Christ is a compassionate High Priest who understands our afflictions and is able to comfort us in our distress (Heb 4.15-16).
Secondly, through the mystery of suffering we are united with Christ in his passion (Phil 3.10).
Thirdly, because of his wounds we are healed (1 Pet 2.24).
Only heaven knows how many desperate and dying people looked to the image of Christ on the cross and were miraculously cured of their diseases, or received assurance of sins forgiven, or the promise of eternal life. As Dr. Sally Hickson observed, “The emphatic physical suffering was intended to be thaumaturgic (miracle performing), a point of identification for the denizens of the hospital.”
The miracle of David Reekie
In September, 1972, my father, David Reekie, was admitted to Box Hill Hospital in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne to undergo an operation on a varicose vein in his leg. The procedure was standard, and to all intents and purposes appeared to be successful. However, ten days later, my father was rushed back to hospital with a pulmonary embolism (a blockage caused by a blood clot in the artery that carries blood from the heart to the lungs). X-rays showed that the clot had shattered 75% of his left lung. The consulting specialist declared that it was the worst case he had ever seen, and that there was no way my father could survive, given the damage to his vital organs.
For a week my father hovered between life and death, heavily sedated with morphine in order to ease the excruciating pain in his chest. My mother, Olive Reekie, was a woman of faith and prayer. Refusing to accept the doctor’s grim verdict, she contacted friends and asked them to intercede for a miracle. One afternoon, as my father lay in the darkened hospital room, he looked up and saw Jesus standing at the foot of the bed. My father later recalled the incident:
“Jesus didn’t say anything. He just looked at me. But I remember saying to him, ‘Jesus, I can now understand a little of what you suffered on the cross.’”
Some people may say that it was a hallucination, induced by the heavy dosage of morphine. If so, all I can say is, “God give us more hallucinations!” Because the fact is, from that moment on my father began to get better, and three weeks later was discharged from hospital, deemed to be “too healthy” for the ward.
Three months later my father underwent a battery of tests at Royal Melbourne Hospital which showed that there was not even any scar tissue on the lung that had been all but destroyed by a clot of blood! The head of the Cardiology Department at Royal Melbourne said that if the consulting specialist at Box Hill had not been a personal friend of his, he would have believed that it was a hoax. It was simply not possible that the two sets of x-rays pertained to one and the same person.
The turning point in my father’s life was when he “looked to Jesus”. It was at that moment that the miracle happened. For as the scripture says: “Everyone who looks to Him shall live!”
 Dr. Sally Hickson, “Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed April 13, 2019, https://smarthistory.org/grunewald-isenheim-altarpiece/.