Medicine: an old symbol
…as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
John 3:14-15 (ESV)
The British Medical Association is the main body that represents doctors in Britain today. For such an august body, it has a curious logo: a snake coiled round a stick. Where does this come from?
It harks back to Hippocrates, the so-called father of western medicine, who created the ‘Hippocratic Oath’. The stick represents the rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing at the time of Hippocrates. Amongst other things, the snake reflected the practice of using parts of a snake to treat snake bites. A 2018 exhibition, in London’s Natural History Museum, showed how snake venom is still processed today into the main antidote to snake bites.
Surprisingly, the Bible also uses a snake on a stick to represent healing. After the Israelites complained about conditions in the wilderness, God sent snakes–or ‘fiery serpents’–to bite them, and many died (Numbers 21:4-8). They asked Moses to intercede with God who then told Moses to make a brass serpent raised on a pole. Whoever looked at it was healed.
How interesting then, that Jesus quoted this incident to anticipate his ‘lifting up’ on the cross. The cross would draw all people to him, to receive the ultimate healing–the gift of eternal life (John 3:14-15). But why include a snake?
There are various interpretations. However, just as the snake kills with deadly poison, so also the serpent in the Garden of Eden brought the poison of sin into the world, and death ensued. With Jesus, the snake and the pole pointed primarily to the cross. And it was on the cross that Jesus defeated the Serpent of Eden and brought complete healing to all humanity.
In the present pandemic, we rely heavily on the medical profession to save us from this dangerous, pervasive enemy. While we greatly value their dedication and self-sacrifice, we know–and doctors themselves know–that they can only do so much. Life and death are ultimately in God’s hands. Beyond the limits of medicine, the ultimate rescue from death can only come from the greatest healer of all time, the Son of God, who offered himself to be nailed to a ‘stick’ for you and me.
Great Father, please strengthen and encourage our doctors and nurses in the current pandemic, and bring it to an end soon. But may it also remind us of the complete eternal healing we have through Jesus, our Lord and Saviour.
Study by Gordon Brown
About the writer:
Gordon Brown is an elder in the Central London Congregation
of Grace Communion International.
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