The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.
John Calvin comments: “Just as it was only a snake in appearance and possessed no venom or poison, so Christ clothed himself in the form of sinful flesh, which was pure and free from all sin, so that he might cure in us the deadly would of sin.” (John: Calvin, The Crossway Classic Commentaries, p.75, emphasis mine)
Calvinists should consider John 3:16 in light of John 3:14, in which Jesus illustrated the lead-up to v.16 by citing Numbers 21:6-9, in which everyone who was bitten, had a provision available, so that whosoever was bitten, when he looked upon it, received healing from the provision. I’m surprised that Calvinists make so little of John 3:14 & Numbers 21:6-9, which should otherwise be considered fundamental toward any consideration of the Atonement. Calvinists instead insist that Arminians simply read too much into it, and that Jesus was only illustrating the manner of being raised up. However, this passage stands on its own, since it involves an atonement and redemption. God could have had the provision apply independent of human participation, but that’s not how God designed it, and Calvinists should take note of that fact. It applied when they looked upon it, not before.
On Calvinist comments: “Verse 6 states that many Israelites died because of the fiery serpents God sent. Did He not love them?”
There’s no question that God loved them, because according to Isaiah 65:2, God reached out His arms all day long to His people who rejected Him. Isaiah 5 describes the same thing. (Jeremiah 18:1-13 is another perfect example where God expressed His love toward those who persisted in rejecting Him, with vv.11-13 being definitive.) God loved Israel, but had to punish them for their sins against Moses, and many died, and many more died in punishment, too, well before that. Moses interceded and God provided the atonement for all who were bitten, so that anyone still alive, had an atonement available. As I see it, Calvinists will need to assume that everyone who hadn’t yet died, all looked to it, and all were secretly elect, for the entirety of remaining Israel, and the only way to reintroduce [alleged] non-elect people back into Israel was through their offspring. Calvinists are forced to assume this, and yet it is quite far-fetched.
Dave Hunt explains: “Old Testament sacrifices faithfully pictured Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross. Calvin himself admits that what ‘was represented figuratively in the Mosaic sacrifices is exhibited in Christ the archetype.’ Not one of the Old Testament sacrifices fits ‘particular redemption.’ All were for all Israel.” (Debating Calvinism, pp.185-186, emphasis mine)
Hunt adds: “The healing from the poisonous snakebite was not for a select group within Israel whom God had predestined to be healed, but for ‘everyone...any man.’ The only limitation was to look in faith to the upraised serpent. Likewise, everyone who has been bitten by ‘that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan’ (Revelation 12:9) is healed if they will but look in faith to Christ lifted up on the Cross.” (What Love is This?, pp.259-260)
Dave Hunt explains: “...the Passover, the Levitical sacrifices, or the serpent lifted up in the wilderness... they are for all Israel....” (Debating Calvinism, p.279, emphasis mine)
Michael Brown writes: “The fact is that atonement was truly made every year for national Israel on Yom Kippur, but not everyone benefited from it, due to choices of they made to refuse God’s grace. It remains the same to this day with the cross.” (Line of Fire)
However, one particular Calvinist agrees that the Numbers 21:6-9 standard was for all Israel, though on the basis that only the elect were left alive to receive it:
One Calvinist explains: “God preserved who He wanted to preserve amongst the Israelites...Same as now, God saved who He wanted to save out from this world...and Just as the serpent was not a provision for all other nations, neither is the cross a provision for all others save the elect, the bridegrooms wife.” (CARM.org)
In other words, the serpents killed off all of the “non-elect,” so that only “the elect” were alive and remaining, in order to look upon the standard and be saved. Perhaps the Calvinists can also explain how such a view could be a fitting correlation for Jesus to cite in relation to Calvary.
Just as the snake-bitten Israelites looked upon the bronze serpent for healing (Numbers 21:6-9), so too all sin-bitten sinners must look upon Christ for salvation. (John 3:14)
4-Point Calvinist, Ron Rhodes, writes: “John 3:16 cannot be divorced from verses 14-15, wherein Christ alludes to Numbers 21 with its discussion of Moses setting up the brazen serpent in the camp of Israel, so that if ‘any man’ looked to it, he experienced physical deliverance. In verse 15 Christ applies the story spiritually when He says that ‘whosoever’ believes on the uplifted Son of Man shall experience spiritual deliverance.” (The Extent of the Atonement: Limited Atonement Versus Unlimited Atonement)
For the 5-Point Calvinist, this is a legitimate “problem verse.” In contrast, for the 4-Point Calvinist, like Ron Rhodes, this passage means that Jesus died for everyone bitten by the sting of sin, and only those who were eternally elect in the Father will believe. That’s where the Arminian drops off from finding unity with the 4-Point Calvinist, and discovers that, in actuality, there’s really not much of a difference at all between a 4-Point and 5-Point Calvinist.
Here is a link to a satire on Numbers 21:6-9.