Text: John 3:14 / Numbers 21:4-9
Date: Lent IV + 3/22/08
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
“Take the snakes away,” the people said. “Lord, take the snakes away,” prayed Moses on behalf of the people. But the Lord didn’t take the snakes away. Instead He gave them the antidote for the deathly venom, if they would only look and receive and believe and be saved. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. But why go to all that trouble? Why not just take the snakes away?
‘Been bitten, lately?
It was as a result of the complaining and spurning of God’s grace that God sent the venomous snakes among His people out there in the wilderness. The judgment and threatened condemnation of God’s Law means to send us scurrying back to God’s mercy and grace. The people came back to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
But He didn’t take the snakes away! Instead of taking the danger away, God provided a means of deliverance from the results of the danger. The people were still being bitten. But now, if they looked at the bronze snake on a stick, they were delivered from the poisonous power of the venomous snakes.
Our Lord Jesus Christ says all that happened to show God’s plan of salvation from the bite of Satan and the venom of sin and death, namely, that as Moses fashioned the image of the very thing that was killing the people, a snake, so did God fashion Himself in the form of a man and, on the cross, the sinful man deserving of death. Furthermore, this strange incident in Numbers 21 happened to show that God’s salvation is always and alone by means of faith. It wasn’t just the look at the bronze serpent that saved them, it was the looking in faith on the ground of God’s command and promise that saved them. So it is not just the look at the crucified Christ that saves. As the hymn gently taunts us:
Do we pass that cross unheading,
Breathing no repentant vow,
Though we see You wounded, bleeding,
See Your thorn-encircled brow?
It is, rather, the look in faith on the ground of God’s command and promise that saves:
Yet Your sinless death has brought us
Life eternal, peace, and rest;
Only what Your grace has taught us
Calms the sinner’s deep distress. [LSB 423:2]
“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).
‘Been bitten, lately?
The snakes are still out there, or, as the old King James Bible saith: sin still doth so easily beset us (Heb. 12:1). Surely the bite of a heart attack, whether major or mild, or the diagnosis of cancer is an unmistakable “wake up call” that sends us scurrying back to nothing but the grace and mercy of God. But then why not also all the other bites of sin and death we experience every day—the sin and death that is the unkind word, the unfair critical comment, the proud judgment, the complaining and frustration that causes division and anger in marriage and family and between friends.
God didn’t take the snakes away. We would prefer that God would have sent His Son to take away the snakes—the suffering of life in this world; a triumphant Savior who, if you believe in him, will take away all pain and loss and make life joyful and pleasant. But instead, God sent His Son and hung Him on a Cross. Like the Israelites, we’re still being bitten by the snakes, and our only deliverance is to look at His crucified Son. And in the looking of faith we are delivered from the deadly power of sin.
Like the brazen serpent Moses fashioned had the form of a real serpent, but was without poison, and altogether harmless, so God sent His Son in the form of sinful flesh, and yet without sin. As St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3); and to the Corinthians, “[God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). And St. Peter chimes in, saying, “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:22-24).
Also, as Moses lifted up the serpent on a pole as the triumphant exhibition of the death of the poisonous serpents, so also was the lifting up of Christ upon the cross a sign of public triumph over the evil principalities and powers. What appeared to the world to be the greatest of injustices and tragedies, the crucifixion of Jesus, St. Paul describes with the triumphant words, “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). Faith in the promise of God sees the otherwise cruel instrument of the execution of criminals now as a symbol of triumph.
Then, finally, just as the Israelites had to turn their eyes to the brazen serpent in believing obedience to the Word of the Lord in order to be cured of the bite of the poisonous serpents, so must we look with faith at the Son of man lifted up upon the cross, if we would be delivered from the bite of the old serpent, from sin, death, the devil, and hell.
The snakes are still there. No self-help program will take them away. Even God, in His wisdom, has allowed the snakes to remain because the answer to our plight is not in taking away the bite of sin, but in taking away its power. The Christian faith and life will never look like a triumphant, pain-free march to the Promised Land as we define triumph and glory. The kingdom of God remains hidden to all but the eye of faith, which alone sees the glory of the Cross of Christ and suffering turned on its head. Lift up your eyes, therefore, in repentance and faith and see like you’ve never seen before. God is delivering you in the midst of your suffering. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the crucified one, He is our hope, our salvation, our redeemer.