Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.
There is nothing creepier than a snake. I have had my share of encounters with snakes. I sat on a Copperhead when I was a kid. I have walked up on Rattlesnakes. Been faced with some pretty angry creepy crawlers. But I have never been bitten by a snake. I can’t imagine that. Once, when teaching VBS at a Church I asked a group of young kids what the definition of sin is – one smart boy answered, “Playing with snakes!” That’s some good theology.
Snakes have a really bad reputation in scripture as well. I guess because Satan appears to Eve as a snake. From then on, serpents were symbols of satanic activity. Then comes Numbers 21. You will remember that Israel was travelling through the desert – led by God. It always amazes me that when God had rescued them and led them by some pretty cool miracles Israel still rebelled. In Numbers 21 has a great military win for Israel as they fought against the Canaanite King of Arad and won. They should have been on cloud nine – instead, they grew impatient with the journey. How often does that happen with us? God is taking us somewhere and usually it is not about where we’re going as much as the journey is to shape us – and that takes time.
It is easy to grow impatient with God’s timing. He is looking at our inward parts and we are looking at the road. And we get tired of the road. The journey is not about the destination most of the time. Not God’s journey. He is trying to do something in us, and we want it done now. That is why most of the time we short-change ourselves and rush through things. Wesley said, “Give your soul time and means to grow.”
But when Israel grew impatient, they began to complain against God. Be careful what you say in your frustration. Don’t let your heart get bitter or rebellious because you are in a hurry to get to where God is taking you. Israel complained and accused God. And that did not end well for them.
Numbers 21 says, Then they set out from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to bypass the land of Edom, but the people became impatient because of the journey. 5 The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why have you led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread or water, and we detest this wretched food!” Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit them so that many Israelites died.
God was leading. God was protecting. God was providing. But that was not enough for us – I mean them. He was performing miracles – but they were so self-absorbed they couldn’t see what He was doing right in front of them. So, He lifted His hand of protection. And the serpents came.
Here is the interesting thing about God. Even in our failure He is merciful.
The people then came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Intercede with the Lord so that He will take the snakes away from us.” And Moses interceded for the people.
What happens next is interesting, but it gives us insight into God. The snakes weren’t taken away. Instead, He gave them an avenue of healing.
8 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake image and mount it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will recover.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten, and he looked at the bronze snake, he recovered.
It is interesting – God wants to help them. He wants to draw them to Himself. But they have to come by faith. All they have to do is trust God’s instruction and trust His hand. Look. Look to His remedy and be healed. There were some I am sure that refused. Some surely had pride and self-sufficiency. “I ain’t doing it.” But anyone who looked was healed. Faith is the key.
But there is a second part to this. Why was the remedy looking at a snake? It was a snake that made them sick. Why do they have to look at one to be healed?
Because there is no getting past your sin til you face it. It is the same reason why John said, “If we confess our sin He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Without facing it you can’t put it behind you. You can’t see the real need for the grace. The snake on the pole reminded them of their rebellion against God. It was a signpost that read – Hey – these people sinned against God. Until you face that in your heart you will not truly see the need for grace, nor receive it.
So when Nicodemus comes to Jesus in John 3 why does Jesus compare Himself to the serpent? It is not about snakes – it is about sin. Facing our sin. Understanding the lengths to which God has redeemed us. What happened to Jesus is inescapably our problem.
Nicodemus came by night. Because to follow Jesus in this early day of His ministry meant being rejected by the leaders. Nicodemus was a big shot. He was somebody. A member of the Sanhedrin. A pharisee who was important and influential. But he had an internal need. He needed to know. And Jesus gives him several very important things for us – you must be born again. For God so loved the world. And of course – our text. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. Eternal life is provided because of God’s love. It works itself into us through our being born again – born of the Spirit. Why? Because we have sinned. Isaiah 53 – the place where we first fully understand the Messiah as a suffering servant says, But He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds.
It only those who believe that – who trust that – who are healed. You will have to look to Jesus for the remedy. But in so doing, you have to confess something. To look at the cross is to see our own sin. This is because of us. This is our remedy. This is our cross He takes up. And our eternal life is purchased there.
Confession is not easy. Not a real hard look on the inside. Not a coming to grips with who and what you are. Let me give you a couple of helps on the way.
- Confession is admitting what God already knows. Don’t think He is offended when you discover the bad news. He already knows. Maybe you should focus on learning what He knows or thinks about you.
- Confession’s ultimate hurdle is pride. Humility is about breaking your heart and opening it up to grace. Don’t fight against God’s humbling you as if He is trying to beat you down. He is trying to lift you up. But you will have to open your eyes and your heart and see the reality of your own sin.
- Confession happens at the cross. It is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance, the Old Testament says. That kindness- in the sense of His love for us- is in Jesus, so don’t look past the cross – look to it. Embrace it. Let it define you. Your sin doesn’t define you – that too often happens. The cross defines you. This is who you are. A sinner for whom Jesus died. Confess it. Embrace it. Receive it.