Text: Numbers 21:4-9
Congregation of Jesus Christ, dear brothers and sisters,
“As the snake was lifted up in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” These well-known words of Jesus have made famous the story about the bronze serpent that we read in the book of Numbers. Jesus uses that story in Numbers to illustrate how God saves us.
So today we are going to look more closely at that story.
1. It is year 40 after the exodus. Israel, having been liberated from slavery in Egypt, is being brought by God to the promised land. It has taken 40 years because their parents refused to enter the land. God brought them right up to the border, and then they said: No. So God said: Okay.
A whole generation that had experienced God’s salvation in the exodus, his marvelous provision along the way, water from a rock, manna from heaven, the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. They had heard his voice on Sinai, they had seen and experienced so much of God. And they all perished in the desert. Because they didn’t really believe God’s promise. Despite all they had seen and experienced.
That generation is now gone. That period is over. Though God let a generation perish which did not believe in him, he had not let go of Israel. He stayed with them in the wilderness all those years. He continued to give them water, food, protection. Their clothes did not wear out. And he gave the next generation a new beginning. They would enter the land. And it is now that time. The wandering is coming to an end. The course is set: Direction, promised land. In less than 6 months they will be entering the land.
No, it’s not a straight path to Canaan. They have to take a long detour around Edom. Edom is a nation related to Israel (descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother. Jacob and Esau were sons of Isaac, the son of Abraham). So Israel is to leave Edom alone, they are not allowed to attack. Edom, however won’t allow Israel to pass through their territory on the way to the promised land. So they have to go around. South and then east and then up on the other side of Edom. Nonetheless, they are on the way and it won’t be long.
But along the way they become impatient. “Short of soul”--says the Hebrew text (verse 4). What is the problem? What are they short of soul about? We find out in verse 5. “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!’”
They accuse God and his servant Moses of leading them on a dead-end journey. They complain that they have no food or water. That’s what they say, anyway. What they say next shows otherwise. They do have food. They just don’t like it. They detest the food that God in his gracious care miraculously provides for them day after day. They are sick of that manna from heaven. That’s what they are short of soul about.
Can you understand that? Was it not hard in the wilderness? Would it not be tiring to eat the same thing every day? Yes, no doubt it was. Was it something to complain about? No, because of all that Israel got, was getting, and would get--made it something to bear gladly. Because Israel has a God who wondrously liberated them from slavery. She has a God who is daily providing for her, water from a rock, manna from heaven. A God who is leading her to a land flowing with milk and honey. Israel should be saying with the apostle Paul: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). But Israel doesn’t say anything like that. She complains.
Because what is it she really wants? Do they ask God to speed up the journey, do they pray that his promises will soon be reality? No. What they want is Egypt. They yearn for the time when they were slaves. Here in the wilderness is nothing. There in Egypt we had everything. If only we had been left there.
Incomprehensible! They don’t appreciate God’s salvation, they don’t appreciate God’s care, they don’t look with eagerness to the future God has in store for them.
You hold your heart fast. What is going to happen now? How is God going to react to this complaint?
Brothers and sisters, there is a lot about Israel’s situation that is comparable to ours. We too have been rescued from slavery, slavery to Satan, death and hell. Rescued by a wondrous act of God. His own Son came and died for us. He is our passover lamb for our exodus from eternal death. And every day of this life, which the New Testament compares to the wilderness journey, God is providing for us. And God is leading us to a future marvelous beyond compare.
No, the journey is not always easy. We have to do without a lot of creature comforts for the sake of the journey. The desert is not a luxury hotel. There are careers and jobs and recreation we have to say no to in order to join God’s people in worship on the Lord’s Day. We have to work out difficulties in our relationships, in our marriages, instead of walking away. We have to devote resources to Christian education, taking care of the poor, time for the church. We have to fight temptation on a whole host of fronts.
Do we do that with gratitude for that which we have received? Do we do that out of the joy that it is God leading us? Do we do it with expectation for what he has in store? Or do we do it grudgingly, resentfully? Not really wanting to sacrifice time or money or pleasure for the sake of the kingdom? Do we look back envious of that old life without Christ? Preferring, for example, to satisfy our sexual desires over purity? Are we bored with the preaching of the gospel week after week, tired of it like the Israelites were with manna? Do we desire God’s future, or do we really desire Egypt?
God has given us so much more than Israel and brought us much closer to the promised land than he ever brought Israel. And that makes the rebellion of our hearts, our discontent, so much greater than Israel’s. We live in the light of God’s full revelation, in the light of God’s full salvation —in the last days, says the Bible.
Paul addresses this in 1 Corinthians chapter 10. Please turn with me to that chapter. In 1 Corinthians 10 (the first 11 verses) Paul writes:
"For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert. Now these things occurred… "
Notewell: Paul doesn’t say these things were simply written down for us; no, they occurred for us... He says,
"Now these things occurred for us as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did —and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 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.
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us…"
And now this is why our sin is so great, "These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us—on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come."
Today, we aren’t living in the shadow of the coming reality like Israel. We are living in that reality itself. If you hold your heart fast for how God is going to respond to Israel’s ingratitude, you really have to hold your heart fast for how he is going to respond to ours! What is going to happen now?
2. How does God respond to Israel? Verse 6: “Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.” The Hebrew Bible calls them “fiery” snakes. That is because their wounds inflict excruciating pain. They died in agony. The Sinai peninsula today is still full of such poisonous snakes. And that tells us something. It tells us that those snakes were there all along.
For 40 years Israel wandered in a land infested with snakes. Just traveling through that area is dangerous, to say nothing of camping there, camping there with little children. And yet for 40 years those snakes never posed a problem. That was due to God’s care, God’s loving care over them. The care they were now complaining about. If God hadn’t been watching over them and their children, they would have been bitten long ago by those snakes. Moses says that in Deuteronomy 8:15: “The Lord God guided you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions.” When Israel no longer appreciates that gracious care, and complains about it, God withdraws. And then the snakes he held back for so long, attack with all their vigor and ferocity. Stronger: he sends them. And many Israelites die.
That’s the way it is, when you don’t want to live with God, when you don’t want to follow his leading: you die. Is that God’s fault? Is God so mean? No, on the contrary. Death is something we bring on ourselves. God didn’t create death. He is life. But that’s the point. Life is only in him. Apart from him is only death. If we choose against him, we choose to die. God in his grace gave life to Israel, he rescued her from the death camps of Egypt. And he has given life to us, rescuing us from Satan’s death camp. And yet Israel didn’t value the life God gave her in him. What about us? Do we?
And if not, does God send snakes to rebellious Christians today? Like he did to Israel? He can, perhaps sometimes he does. But God doesn’t have to. He already sent them. Look again at 1 Corinthians 10: “These things occurred-- they occurred for us--as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.” God doesn’t have to do the same things over and over. He does it once and he expects us to take that to heart. God sent snakes back then as a warning to you and me today that discontent with his salvation results in death.
Our reading from Hebrews 3 also underlines how we should pay attention to those things that happened long ago in order not to miss out today. And Hebrews 10 underlines how much more serious it is today: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:26-29).
In other words, for us today, it is so much worse because now it is trampling over Christ, it’s spitting on the Spirit. It is denigrating a much greater and more costly salvation--and the punishment accordingly will be that much worse.
Again is that because God is so mean, so vengeful? No, it’s because God is so loving. He gave everything up in order to save us, and when we reject that—his everything—then there is nothing else that can be done. On top of everything else, we have then looked with disdain on his costly sacrifice. He is giving us here a very clear warning as to what we are then doing: We are choosing to go without his love, without his salvation. He warns us because he loves us. He warns us so that we repent and come back to him. The snakes to Israel are a warning to us.
3. How does Israel respond to the snakes. Look at verse 7. They say, “We sinned.” They make no excuses. They don’t say, “But it’s so hard in the wilderness.” No, “We sinned.” Israel repents. When the snakes come they realize how wrong they have been about God. They realize that all along it was his care guiding them and keeping them from such catastrophes, and they wish they’d never said the things they said. They wish that, not because they are being punished, but because they now see that they were wrong, and that they had wronged a God who loved them. The fact that they had hurt God now hurt them. They were truly sorry. That is true repentance.
And they ask Moses to pray to God for them. And he does. Amazing. Because they had sinned not only against God but also against Moses. They had maligned and abused also God’s messenger. But he still intercedes for them. Moses is like Jesus. People maligned him. They called him a glutton, a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. They lied about him. False witnesses came forward to speak against him. They killed him. They nailed him to a Roman cross. What did he do? He cried out words of intercession from that very cross. “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Israel repented, seeking Moses’ intercession. What is our response to the snakes God sent Israel as a warning to us over our sin? Do we too repent? If you do, then you have not Moses, but Jesus, God’s own Son interceding for you. 1 John 2 says, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
4. How does God respond to this intercession? How does God respond to Moses’ prayer? God responds graciously but not as they asked. The people asked Moses to pray that God take away the snakes. But God doesn’t take them away. They remain, they keep on biting, and the people continue to suffer excruciating pain, but they no longer die as long as they look to God’s remedy.
And what is God’s remedy? It is an image of a snake lifted up on a pole. A strange remedy. Because of these wretched snakes people are dying in agony. They want God to take them away. The last thing they want is to see another snake. But what does God require? He requires them to look and to look real good at a snake. And in looking at the very means of their punishment they find life!
Just as there is life for us by a glimpse of the cross.
Our Lord Jesus himself makes this connection between the snake and his cross in his conversation with Nicodemus recorded in John 3, the gospel lesson we read. As the snake is lifted up, our Savior too, is lifted up, so we can see him. But what do we see when we look at him, the crucified? The same thing Israel saw in the bronze snake: our own punishment, the curse that is upon us, which we are supposed to bear.
Only now our punishment no longer falls on us, but on another. On Jesus. God showed Israel already way back then that there is a connection between our punishment and the way we are delivered from it. We have to see our punishment borne by another. Christ on the cross. “Christ redeems us from the curse by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).
An awful sight: our punishment, death.
A wonderful sight: life for us.
An awful sight: God’s judgment
A wonderful sight: God’s love.
Lifting his Son up on the cross God shows us his will and power to save.
5. What is now our response? In Israel the dying weren’t saved unless they looked. And looking required faith, faith in God’s remedy. Faith in God’s will to save, in God’s power to save.
We too must look in faith on God’s remedy, on Jesus lifted up on the cross. There we must see him suffer our suffering. There we must see him die our death. That is our life.
That is the message for today and every day. Look to Jesus and his sacrifice, keep him in view, don’t let him out of your sight. That way you will not perish along the way out of ingratitude; that way you will not lose sight of God’s care over you; that way you will not let the hardships of the wilderness hinder you; that way you will enter the promised land.
Order of Worship
GOD GATHERS HIS PEOPLE
Call to Worship: Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22
Silent Prayer concluded with "To God Be the Glory" PsH # 632
God's Greeting, "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen."
Hymn: "Now With Joyful Exaltation" PsH # 95
SERVICE OF COVENANT RENEWAL
God's Law from Exodus 20: 1-17
Hymn: "Out Of the Depths" PsH # 257
WE HEAR THE WORD
Gospel reading: John 3: 14-31
Epistle Reading: Hebrews 3: 7-4:2a
Text: Numbers 21:4-9
Sermon: "An Awful Wonderful Sight"
Prayer of Application:
we live, we move, we have our being in you.
You made us for yourself;
that’s why our hearts
and the hearts of all people are restless
until they rest in you.
Therefore make us determined
to let no selfish interest hold us back from knowing your will,
and to let no weakness keep us from doing it;
that in your light—we may see light,
and in your service—find genuine freedom;
and one day enter your eternal rest
through him who was lifted up,
our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
WE DEPART WITH GOD'S BLESSING
Hymn: "As Moses Raised the Serpent Up" PsH # 219
Benediction from Numbers 6:24-26
Doxology: "Lift High the Cross" PsH # 373:4-7