Snakes on a Pole
Now that our Essentials series has finished, we’re turning our attention towards Easter and the journey to the cross.
Next Sunday is Palm Sunday and Paul is due to be back. After that it’s Easter Sunday so Easter is almost upon us, which means that today we’re going to look at the crucifixion of Jesus.
But we’re not going to look at the crucifixion from one of the gospels - we’re going to look at the crucifixion as it is detailed in Numbers chapter 21.
Now, you might be thinking, what’s this got to do with the crucifixion? And this passage isn’t even a crucifixion - there’s no crucifixion detailed in Numbers 21.
And you would be right to think the latter - Numbers 21 does not detail a crucifixion…but this passage in Numbers 21 has a LOT to do with the crucifixion of Jesus… it is a foreshadow of the crucifixion - a foreshadow that took place hundreds of years before the actual event and it just shows the rich history of the bible and how so much of the Old Testament points forward to Jesus Christ.
So, before we look at the passage, I would like us to think of drugs… not narcotics, but medication.
And I want you to think of all the different diseases that are out there, and all the different sicknesses that we can pick up.
Take, for example, bacterial infections....chest infections, ear infections, throat infections… pick an infection.
Now, how are bacterial infections treated?
Well, what we do is we take antibiotics and the antibiotics kill the infection in our body and we get better. And when you think about it, that’s pretty amazing stuff - that scientists have discovered, or in this case, stumbled upon, a drug that can kill bacterial infections. This is groundbreaking stuff right here....so much so, this discover won a Nobel prize.
Now, today it’s so commonplace that I think the marvel has gone out of it slightly.
But, what would be better than a drug that could kill bacterial infections?
What about having bacterial infections AT ALL!
Wouldn’t that be MUCH better than having to take antibiotics? Wouldn’t it be better not to have any infection in the first place rather than to rely on drugs or medication to make us feel better.
Well, at the minute we’re stuck with taking this groundbreaking medicine because bacterial infections aren’t going anywhere soon.
Now, keep that thought in the back of your head when we look at the passage in Numbers.
Let’s read it again...
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.
7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
So the Children of Israel were slaves in Egypt. They were put under immense torture and suffering and they cried out to God and God heard their cry and delivered them from Egypt through his servant Moses.
He led them through the Red Sea and he fed them in a place of desolation and wilderness - where there WAS no food - by giving them Manna and quail to eat. Hardly a banquet, but they were being provided for in a miraculous way every single day.
But, being sinful humans, the Israelites got fed up with this and they complained ABOUT Moses, their leader, and against God.
So God has enough of this. And he sends snakes - firey serpents as one translation puts it - venomous snakes - as a punishment for their complaining. So what God is doing is he is condemning their sin and their complaining and grumbling against God and Moses. He’s sending judgement and condemning them to death because of their sin.
Of course, they realise that they’ve overstepped the mark and they come running back to Moses - we’re sorry. We’ve sinned, please help us. In fact, the words they use are this...
7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
But that’s not what God does. He doesn’t take the snakes away. That would be a much easier thing to do, you’d think, but God doesn’t do it.
Instead, he provides a way out - he provides a way for the punishment and condemnation of their sin to be quashed.
And he tells Moses to put up a bronze serpent on a pole and mount lift it up for all to see, and anyone who has been bitten and looks at the pole will live.
So rather than take away the thing that kills them, instead they have to look at the image of the very thing that kills them in order to live.
And it required faith and humility to do that.
Now, let’s go to the other passage we read and let’s read it again...
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
The event in Numbers was a foreshadowing of what was to happen to Jesus, and Jesus points it out when he has this chat with Nicodemus.
But how does that event in Numbers relate to the crucifixion?
Well, let’s compare and contrast the two events...
First of all...At the cross, Jesus was lifted up for all to see. He was raised up from the ground on a pole and it was for the same reason why the bronze serpent was lifted up.
Because the serpent provided a way out for the death that the snake bites caused. Without the bronze serpent they had no hope in their hopeless state.
And Jesus provides a way out for the death that sin causes us. And without the crucifixion of Jesus, we have no hope in our hopeless state.
So in Numbers, the snake was the means of salvation and hope in the midst of hopelessness and despair.
And in the same way, the Jesus’ death on the cross IS the means of salvation and hope in the midst of hopelessness and despair.
Secondly, in the story in Numbers, the thing that saved them was the image of the very thing that was killing them.
With us, it’s our sin that is killing us and sending us to Hell, and Jesus, who knew no sin became sin on the cross. He became the very thing that was killing us…but he also is the very thing that saves us, because Jesus didn’t just become sin, he defeated sin through his death and resurrection.
Thirdly, and here’s where we need to go outside of the Numbers story…because the bronze serpent is mentioned later on in the bible.
After the Children of Israel arrive in Canaan and they settle, they get restless again and they look around and see that other nations have a king. So they say to Samuel - hey Samuel, everyone else has a king; we want one too. God says to Samuel, ‘that’s not a good idea’, but they insist that they want a king, because THEY KNOW BEST, and God gives them want they want.
They have a series of kings, and the whole nation goes to pot because their leaders are NOT following God’s laws…in fact they’ve no interest in God at all and most of them are allowing the nation of Israel to worship other gods if they want to.
One such thing they worshiped was....guess what… a bronze serpent on a pole.
We see this in 2 Kings 18, when Hezekiah comes to power. He’s a good king and he tries to bring the nation back into favour with God. So he destroys all the shrines and idols that the nation was worshipping...
4 He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).
So let’s think about what happened here...
The Israelites were bitten by firey snakes which killed them. God provided a way out. He didn’t take away the cause of their death, but instead provided a means of salvation and hope in the midst of death. And as you read this story, the HOPE is that these guys will fall on their knees and worship God for saving them.
BUT NO - that’s NOT what happened!
These guys are so incompetent that instead they worship the bronze snake, as if the bronze snake had anything to do with their salvation....as if the bronze snake was somehow magical.
It was GOD who saved them. The bronze snake was a means for salvation, but it was God who was doing the saving. But they didn’t get it and instead they worshipped the bronze serpent and even gave it a name!
But when it comes to Jesus’ death on the cross - it’s as if God knew that we still wouldn’t ‘get it’ so he sent his one and only Son to be the person who would be lifted up for our salvation so that if we decided to worship the one on the cross we’d still be worshiping God.
It’s like God is saying, ‘I’m giving this to you on a plate…Go ahead, worship the one on the cross…in fact, that’s the right thing to do, because the one on the cross isn’t any human, he is God incarnate, dying for your salvation. So please, go ahead and worship him.’
But here’s where the similarities end...
Because in the story in Numbers, the people sinned…God sent condemnation in the form of death by venomous snakes…and then came salvation in the form of a bronze serpent lifted up on a pole.
That’s the order...
Offer of salvation
In the story of the crucifixion the order is swapped around...
People have sinned, but God sends a saviour FIRST and condemnation comes second for those who don’t believe. It’s there in black and white in John 3:16-18...
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
So verse 16 tells us that we are perishing because of our sin, but God loved the world so much that he didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn us and send us straight to hell…
No, instead he sent his Son into the world that we might be saved through him - through Jesus being lifted up on a pole, and anyone who looks on him and trusts in him and believes in him will NOT perish but have everlasting life.
So the order is this...
Offer of salvation
The condemnation comes after the offer of salvation, and it’s there in verse 18…Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does NOT believe in him is condemned already…in other words, those who don’t look up to Jesus and believe in him as their Lord and saviour will die and perish, just like those who didn’t humble themselves and look at the bronze serpent.
Back to our antibiotics…what would be better is if there were no bacterial infections so that we wouldn’t need antibiotics.
I would say, ‘yes, that would be better.’
So why didn’t God just remove the snakes from the camp rather than keep them there and instead put up a serpent?
And when it comes to us...
Why doesn’t God just remove sin from the world rather than having Jesus come to die on a cross and we still have the effects of sin?
There are many reasons or thoughts about that, but here’s one...
If God simply waved his hand and removed sin, then would we REALLY love him? Would we REALLY trust in him and have faith in him?
Cos, let’s remember - like the Israelites, we so easily forget that we have been delivered.
You see, by sending a saviour in the midst of sin and death and hopelessness means that, for those who believe in Jesus and put their trust in him, they are clinging on to this hope that Jesus saves them. They are fixing their eyes on the cross for their salvation in dependance and in humility.
And the other thing is that God can’t remove sin without someone paying the price for sin. And either that someone is US, if we don’t believe, or it’s Jesus for those who DO believe.
But the time is coming when Jesus will return and there will be an end to sin once and for all - and there will be a new heaven and a new earth that is sinless. And that time is coming soon - maybe some of us here won’t actually die before Jesus comes again and they’ll see it for themselves. Won’t that be amazing.
But for those who don’t believe, if they’re still around on that day then that day is too late for them.
Thanks to Jesus’ death and resurrection - thanks to the cross we have salvation and hope in the midst of hopelessness and despair.
And thanks to his death we are not condemned for the sin in our lives.
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
And so for those of us who are in Christ - who are disciples of Jesus - followers of him... when we sin, we have got to remember that we are no longer condemned for our sin. And we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus who has saved us from the punishment and the condemnation that we deserve. Jesus stands in our place condemned instead of us.
I want you all to remember that when it comes to the Lord’s supper on Good Friday, that if you can say that you are trusting in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins you ARE NOT CONDEMNED. Jesus was condemned FOR YOU.
And he commands us to remember that fact, by taking the Lord’s Supper - so think about what that means when you DON’T take it.
I’ve heard too many people tell me they aren’t good enough to take communion. If you are committing sin and you are unrepentant of it then don’t take it, but if you have confessed your sin before Jesus and are trusting in him for your salvation you NEED TO take it.
Because it helps us to remember that Jesus was lifted up on a cross as a means for our salvation and by taking communion we are spiritually looking up at that cross remembering that Jesus’ death was our means of salvation in the midst of hopelessness and despair. When there was no hope of salvation, God stepped in and provided a cure for sin.
So we need to be remembering this, cos like the Israelites, we forget that we have been delivered… So use the next couple of weeks to prepare yourselves for this…but don’t neglect the command of Jesus to remember what he did to save you.
It is a privilege to take the Lord’s Supper as a Christian. It is a privilege to take the Lord’s Supper KNOWING that we’re sinners - knowing that we’re NOT good enough, but knowing that Jesus WAS and IS good enough...
It’s why we look to the cross.
And every day, let’s give thanks that God didn’t leave us in the camp to die, but he provided a way out for us through his grace and love, and whoever believes in Jesus and looks to the cross in humility and faith, trusting in Jesus, will be saved.