Based on Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-21
By Gordon Barbosa, Lay Leader
I pity the poor snake, or if you prefer serpent or seraphim. If a serpent or snake is mentioned in the Bible it is never related to anything good – accept at the beginning of Genesis when God called everything “very good.”
But our reading from Numbers today tells us about some really, nasty snakes – snakes that left your skin burning after being bitten. They were fiery snakes of death!
This story takes place after God frees the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, but before they receive the promised land. Once again, they are complaining like children and rebelling against God and Moses. The farther Israel moved away from Egypt, the more nostalgic it became for the old brick-demanding empire. They didn’t remember the burden of abuse by the Egyptians, just the guaranteed food supply that the empire gave to cheap labor.
Characteristically, the Israelites quarreled, accused God of forgetting them, and accused Moses of poor, failed leadership.
Very often, the protests of the people produce good results from God. Yahweh can be impacted by complaint, and so responds with good gifts; but not this time! We are not told why God does not respond with help. Maybe it’s because of what happened in verse 3 of the chapter where “The Lord listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns; so the place was called Hormah.” God just gave Israel a major victory and soon after they begin to denounce Moses and Yahweh. So this time He gives no good gifts in response to need and complaint, but instead delivers a devastating punishment for the complainers. The wilderness is peopled by poisonous snakes, serpents, and creeping things. These are now dispatched by God in a ruthless, lethal response to complaint.
Soon those who were “impatient” have realized they must come to terms with God’s sovereign rule and that protest against that rule is not only pointless, but self-destructive. Israel submits and Moses, who had been a target of their accusation, acts as an intercessor on behalf of the people. And, as is characteristic with Mosaic prayer addressed to Yahweh, God responds favorably.
God tells Moses to fashion a bronze snake on a pole so that the people who’ve been bitten can look upon it and live.
In our Gospel reading today, during his discussion with Nicodemus, Jesus connects the “lifting up” of the Son of Man with the story of Moses raising up the serpent. What connects the two instances of “lifting up” is that both serve to save God’s people. The bronze serpent saves those who look on it after having been bitten by a poisonous serpent; and Jesus likewise saves humanity by virtue of being lifted up (John 3:15).
Some interpreters of John believe that the original text ended here at verse 15. It is probably safe to assume that early Christian readers of John would assume that “lifting up” has to do with the elevation and exaltation of Jesus at his resurrection. And it does. However, these last few verses of John chapter 3 also understands the elevation of Jesus to begin at his crucifixion.
It is here at verse 16 that humanity can look up at Jesus and begin to live again. “…, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The central theological assertion being made in this passage is that God “loved the world.” God acts in order to save the world, to send it light, to rescue it from itself!
But there’s another important message here. God’s action is simultaneously an action of salvation and an action of judgment, but the language about judgment here warrants careful reading. Jesus says that those who do not believe “are condemned already.” Condemnation does not simply wait out in the future to punish those who have turned their backs to God; it exists in the present—they “are condemned already.”
In a sermon by Gary Kindley, he reminds us that if our own sin was as obvious as a snakebite, comprehending our need for salvation would be easier. Scripture says that we are guilty of sin. It does not say, however, that we are to spend our lives feeling guilty, but living as forgiven people.
God does not remove evil from the world, but He offers a solution to the crisis of evil, a means of salvation. God did not save the Israelites by taking the serpents away. The Israelites were saved by faith in God’s ability to save them. Some people face enormous hardship in life. It is faith that sees them through such struggles.
It is said that when Abraham Lincoln was seven years old, his family was forced out of their home on a legal technicality, and he had to work to help support them. At age nine, his mother died. At twenty‐three, he went into debt to become a partner in a small store. At twenty‐six, his business partner died, leaving him a huge debt that took years to repay. At thirty‐seven, on his third try, he was elected to Congress, but two years later, he lost re‐election. At forty‐one, his four‐year‐old son died.
At forty‐five, he ran for the Senate and lost. At forty‐seven, he failed as the vice‐presidential candidate. At forty‐nine, he ran for the Senate again, and lost. At fifty‐one, he was elected president of the United States and became one of our greatest leaders.
When someone asked Lincoln what enabled him to endure life’s hardships, he replied, “Faith in God.”
The message of today’s Gospel passage is that God offers grace to a world deserving of condemnation. Though the world did not believe in God, God believed in the world. That is still the message today. Undeserved grace is the foundation of salvation.
Diana Hunter is our Senior Pastor;