The Cure (Part 4 of 5)
In Numbers 21 the children of Israel once again incur God’s wrath by speaking out against He and His servant Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” (v.5). Their complaint: “For there is no food…and we loathe this worthless food”! Israel cries out immature, ungrateful children not because they weren’t provided for by God, but (due to their impatience with God’s direction, v.4) what God had given them wasn’t good enough in their eyes.
In short, what God provided and what God instructed wasn’t “good enough”, according to Israel. That should sound familiar.
In Genesis 2.16b-17, God addresses the man in the Garden of Eden with these words:
“You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Adam and Eve were fully (and abundantly) provided with all good things, with one direction: Don’t eat of ONE SPECIFIC tree. In Genesis 3, the serpent’s original temptation was a successful attempt to convince Eve & Adam that what God had given them wasn’t enough, and His instructions were to their detriment rather than their benefit:
“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Gen. 3.4-5)
In short, the serpent won. The man and woman were cast out from the Garden and prevented from returning by a “cherubim and a flaming sword” (3.24), and yet before doing so God makes a promise concerning the serpent that would shape all human history going forward:
“…he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen. 3.15).
In Numbers 21, God gives us a powerful glimpse of how He would defeat Satan, the accursed serpent of Genesis 3.
Israel has sinned against the LORD (which sadly isn’t an unusual occurrence in Numbers or the rest of scripture), and to punish them: “… the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” (Num. 21.6) In the following verse, the people confess their sinfulness to Moses and beg for his intercession to God on their behalf. When Moses prays to God on their behalf, God instructs Moses to build something most unusual (Num. 21.8):
“…Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole,
and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live."
Moses obeys God’s instructions and builds a “bronze serpent”, setting it on a pole (v.9). All those who looked upon the serpent LIVED! The punishment for their sins was taken away when they responded in faith to God’s gracious solution to their sin!
That too should sound familiar.
In John 3, the Pharisee Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night” with some questions concerning His teachings and His origin. Jesus in v.14-15 references the very event in Numbers 21 to describe His purpose for descending from Heaven to Earth:
“And 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.”
In short, God’s ultimate solution to sin was the “lifted up”, crucified, Christ!
Let’s think more about how this was accomplished, using our key passage (Num. 21.8) as a lens to look forward and see what Jesus’ death on the cross means for us.
A Fiery Serpent Lifted Up
First, notice that the cause of Israel’s punishment is “lifted up”: a representation of the problem is what is used as the focus of God’s healing power.
Jesus came to this earth to be exactly this: a representation and a bearer of sin. The Messiah is described throughout scripture as being the one who would take our sins upon Himself (Isaiah 53.5-6, for example), and as we saw in yesterday’s class how that idea is reinforced in the Day of Atonement ceremony. Note how Paul describes the reconciliation we have in Jesus in exactly these terms: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5.21). Similarly, in Galatians 3.13 Paul puts it this way: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’—”.
Jesus was “lifted up” on a cross just as the “bronze serpent” was lifted on a pole, and ultimately it was for the same purpose: to be the focus of God’s healing and forgiveness for all who would turn and look upon Him in faith. But to understand why such a solution is needed, one must recognize the problem that requires such drastic measures.
Everyone Was Bitten
The fiery serpents of Numbers 21 were biting the wicked Israelites, and as a result “many people of Israel died” (v.6).
The sting of sin and its consequence of death is one that is felt and experienced by all. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, states that “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15.56-57). Similarly, Paul would also tell the Roman Christians that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 6.23).
Notice that in both passages the problem (sin) and the solution (Christ) are presented to us. The problem of sin is just as universal now as it was in the Garden: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3.23 CSB). And just as now we are called to look for healing in Christ (“to be received by faith” (Rom. 3.25), the Israelites were called to look to the bronze serpent for healing in Num. 21.
“When He Sees It, Shall Live”
In Numbers 21, when any serpent-bitten Israelite looked upon the bronze serpent, that person would live! There are two key things we can see from this.
First, merely looking at bronze representations of snakes is of no medicinal value and earns nothing. There was no magic healing ray, or aura, or anything of the sort, nor was there any sense that any Israelite was earning the right to be healed. In truth, the only thing the Israelites had rightfully earned was the punishment they were currently experiencing. Absolutely 100% of the power to heal was graciously given by God, and absolutely 0% of their healing was earned by their obedient actions. The same is true today with Christ. We have been called to respond with obedient faith to the Gospel call of Christ (2 Th. 1.8, and many others), and any actions that are required by our Lord in that regard do not earn our forgiveness nor our hope in the Resurrection.
Secondly, all who looked to the serpent were healed. There was not a single Israelite present that awful day that exited their tent, looked to the bronze serpent, and was not healed! All who responded in faithful obedience to God’s instructions were healed. Today, there is NOONE who walks the earth whose sin is beyond God’s capability and willingness to forgive, if they return to Him in repentant, obedient, trusting faith in Christ: “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7.25)