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[Jesus said:] “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).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Many parents will tell you that the only thing worse than traveling a long distance with small children is traveling a long distance ten years later when they’re all teenagers. They can tell time now, so it is generally no longer a constant question of “How much longer until we get there?” but complaint after complaint. “Put something good on the radio.” “You’re going too slow.” “I’m bored.” “I’m hungry.” “Why do I have to always sit in the middle?” “It’s too hot!” “It’s too cold!” “I don’t have any bars [any wireless reception] here!”
Now, take that picture and multiply it by thousands; then imagine the trip going on for months, years, even decades. That’s what Moses and God had to put up with.
The children of Israel were already whiny when they reached the Red Sea. It didn’t get better from there. They complained about everything! They complained about bread and meat. They complained about water. They complained that Moses was taking too long getting the Ten Commandments. They complained about the lack of variety in their diet. They complained about Moses and God, and the likelihood that they would all die in the desert.
Over and over, God answered their whining. He gave them bread from heaven, meat, and water from a rock. But every once in a while they simply pushed it too far. It was well past time they repented of their sinful grumbling and started trusting in the Lord. But unfortunately, these people needed more than a gentle reminder; they needed a serious wakeup call.
It should have been enough for Moses to say, “Hey, guys, God’s brought us this far. Stick with the program.” Maybe a nice reminder of the plagues that God used to free their people from His miraculous parting of the Red Sea would do the trick. Not to mention the decades that the Lord had so graciously provided them with their daily bread. But, no, the children of Israel were slow to get it. Yet again they cried to Moses, “Why have you and God brought us out here to die? And, by the way, that food God gives us so we won’t starve really stinks. How about a little variety? How about something better?”
This generation of Israelites really should have known better. Their parents and grandparents were the ones who had left Egypt nearly forty years earlier. Those Israelites had stood on the border of Canaan, rejected the reports of Joshua and Caleb, and begged to go back to Egypt. God had been so fed up with them, He was ready to strike them down and create a new nation from Moses. Instead, Moses intervened on the people’s behalf, and God spared them. However, no one older than twenty years at that time would live to enter the Promised Land. Instead, they would spend forty years wandering the wilderness until the adults all died off.
The complainers at this point, then, are the children of the original Israelite adults. Most or all of their lives has been spent in the wilderness with Moses leading them and God ruling over and providing for them. They’ve had ample time to experience God’s continued care. But they’ve not learned a thing, so they let loose a string of complaints against tired, old Moses and their ever-faithful God.
And then come the fiery serpents. Everywhere among the millions of traveling, complaining people, snakes sneak their way in. And these aren’t just any snakes. Fiery serpents slithered between the people’s feet, biting and killing. While “fiery” may refer to their shiny, metallic-like skin, it likely also applies to the intense pain of their poisonous bites.
Experts tell us that most snakebites are not lethal, but those that are can kill in a variety of horrible ways. They can result in a burning sensation that runs through the body, and the poison can eat away at the flesh. They can destroy brain cells, disrupting the nervous system and paralyzing muscles. Some snake venom will prevent blood from clotting, making it easier to bleed out. Others makes the blood coagulate, becoming so thick and goopy it can’t flow properly. Inflammation, chills, and breathing difficulties are just some of the symptoms snake venom can bring. In the end, death can come quickly or take days.
With these particular snakes, we know only that their bite is painful, lethal, and that death takes at least a little while to come. The Israelites are in a world of hurt, as the snakes bite everyone in their paths and people die all around. Then something important happens. For the first time in a long while, the people realize it is their own fault. Theirs. Not Moses’ fault. Not God’s fault. Their fault.
Amazingly, they do exactly the right thing for once. They come to God’s representative, Moses, and admit how wrong they have been. They recognize that those snakes represent their sins. They realize their sins brought the snakes. So, they repent. Even as the poison crawls through their bodies and their systems begin to shut down, they crawl to Moses pleading with him to beg the forgiveness of the Lord on their behalf. Given how obedient they’ve been, they must figure God will not want to hear from them directly.
It says something about Moses’ character that he is willing to intercede on their behalf given how much they have complained about him. But Moses prays to God, and God answers.
If God was like us, He might make them sweat longer. A perverse god might replace their daily manna and quail with snake meat just to rub it in. But our God isn’t like that. Immediately, He tells Moses to forge a bronze serpent and put it on a pole for anyone snake-bitten to look at. Instead of dying, that person will live.
The serpent is lifted up for life! Something that looks like death will give life. Of course, the bronze serpent isn’t the one saving them. It is no idol, no object of worship, no superstitious talisman or good luck charm. The Israelites are delivered from death when they look upon it because they trust God’s power to heal them and obey His command. God alone deserves to be worshiped.
Keep in mind that God doesn’t let them completely off the hook. He doesn’t make the snakes disappear. They are still there, and they are still biting people. Sin has consequences. It causes suffering. For them and for us. But with God’s mercy, sin does not have to cause death—not even when you have complained against God’s chosen representative and God Himself.
Of all the sins of human beings, complaining may be the least condemned and most performed. We all complain. No one has everything he or she wants all the time. Have you ever tried to not complain for a week? It’s nearly impossible.
Like the Israelites of old, we complain about how God doesn’t give us all we want. We show a lack of trust in Him. In short, we sin. And our sin, too, causes suffering, much of it self-inflicted, but God does not desire that to result in our eternal death. Instead, He sends something that looks like death to give life. He sends His only Son to die on the cross to give us new life and eternal life in heaven. Not the death we deserved. Not even eternal suffering.
The Early Church Fathers, the pastors and teachers of the faith in the centuries after Jesus’ earthly ministry, taught that the pole the snake was put on was in the shape of the cross. In Christ, that serpent—the symbol of the devil—is replaced with the Man who is God. What a brilliant image for then and for now! The snake they looked at gave short-term deliverance, but looking at Jesus with eyes of faith gives life that cannot and will not end. The Lord is lifted up for life!
This account shows us our sinful natures, the consequences of sin, and God’s ever-patient willingness to help us in all our troubles. He asks only that we look to and trust Him for deliverance.
[Jesus said:] “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.
The Lord is lifted up for life! Something that looks like death is giving us life! As we look upon the cross and see our God, we are looking upon our sin and its consequences. Christ takes the burden of our sin, the corruption of our sin, the filth and darkness of our sin, and places it on Himself and carries it to the cross. Surely, He has borne our grief and carried our sorrow! Christ becomes sin for us. He lifts the burden of our sin and places it upon Himself. As He hangs on the tree, as we lift up our eyes, as we gaze upon this terrible sight, we see our sins. We see the sacrifice for our sins. We see, we believe, and we are saved. We will not perish; eternal life is ours!
The Israelites looked on the tree and the serpent and they were saved. They continued in their wilderness wanderings until the day they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land of Canaan. They still struggled with sin, they still murmured and grumbled, they still flirted with the darkness, but the grace and mercy of God continued to be poured out on them, and the gates of the Jordan River parted in front of them as they entered the Promised Land.
As we look upon the tree—the tree of the cross—and when we recognize our sin—we see Jesus, our Savior. We are saved, not by our own thoughts, words, or deeds, but by the precious, cleansing blood of the all-availing sacrifice and, therefore, we enter the Promised Land of everlasting life. Yes, we still struggle with sin. We still murmur and grumble. We still flirt with the darkness, but the grace and mercy of God continues to be poured out upon us.
The blood of the all-availing sacrifice is visited upon us day after day. We repent, we confess, and God who is faithful and just forgives our sin and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. We see it at the baptismal font, we taste it at the altar, we hear it in the words of Absolution.
So, the Lord preserves and strengthens His chosen people. And one day we will enter the Promised Land of our Sabbath rest. For the Son of God has parted the gates of Heaven to receive His people.
Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.