The following walks through portions of the Old Testament book of Numbers, chapter 21. I pray it will help shed a little light on a seemingly strange verse of the Bible found just two verses before what is probably the most famous of all Bible verses. John 3:16 is the famous one. John 3:14 is not so famous and just a little bit strange.
Blessings on the rest of your week!
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14)
...For some context, we need to turn back to chapter 21 of the Old Testament book of Numbers. The story begins with the children of Israel wandering through the desert for 40 years. Here's why.
God told Moses to send a group of spies to scout the land he promised to give them. When the spies came back, 10 of them tried to encourage the people not to attack because the people living there were too strong. Only 2 trusted God’s promise to give this Promised Land to his people. In the end, the whole nation doubted God’s ability to give them the Land. That’s why God decided to make them wander in the desert for 40 years. 40 years would be just enough time for everyone who doubted him to die. Not one who doubted would enter the Promised Land.
Toward the end of that 40 years, we find ourselves in Numbers chapter 21. “They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
On the outside, the people’s complaint may seem logical. They recognize the food they had been given from God—the food they called Manna which miraculously appeared on the ground each morning. But if you had to eat the same thing for 40 years, you’d probably get sick of it too. The complaint seems logical, but then you really think it through. Their God was providing them with food (and water! i.e. Numbers 20) in the middle of the desert!
Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came 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. At first glance the punishment might seem a little harsh. Venomous snakes? Really? Why couldn’t God just tell them they were wrong? Well he had—multiple times. Something wasn’t getting through. But now, the people recognized that they were getting what they deserved. They came to Moses and admitted they were wrong.
And what does God do? He saves them. And he does it in a strange way. He takes their punishment, and turns it into a symbol of their salvation. 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.
Talk about a strange solution to an even stranger situation. But, strange as it is, it’s also really beautiful isn’t it? Whenever any one of those Israelites looked at that snake, what were they forced to remember? They were forced to remember both the punishment for their sin (the venomous snakes) as well as God’s saving power. That bronze snake turned their punishment into the symbol of his saving love. The picture here is kind of like the banner a Medieval army would carry in front of them to identify who they were and what nation they fought for. Those banners communicated a message. And so did this. God wanted the people to see what they deserved very clearly, so they would better appreciate his saving love.
God doesn't send venomous snakes among us to lead us to depend on him. But he has shown us how illogical our sin is. He’s shown us how we are often just like those complaining Israelites. We point our finger at everyone and everything else, when the problem is really with us. I know this happens to me when I grumble and complain about a situation God has placed me in, or the people God has placed around me. I get home from a long day at work and I am disappointed at how little I accomplished that day, and I start to grumble and complain about the seemingly insignificant tasks that got in my way and kept me from accomplishing the tasks I thought were more important. I start to complain about the unexpected distractions that kept me from doing what I wanted to get done that day. And then I get home and I want to relax and do the things that I want to do, but my kids aren’t in bed yet, and I need to help with that. Then, once they’re FINALLY in bed and I can get some time to myself, then my 3 year old son needs a cup of “fresh water” and my two princesses need their blankets straightened...
I’m quick to point the finger and direct the blame at anyone or anything in my life as long as it’s not myself. When you stop to think about it, what I’m really doing is grumbling and complaining against God. “Lord you’ve put me in an impossible situation! Lord, there’s too much work to do and too little time! You call these ‘blessings’ Lord? They seem more like burdens!” My grumbling and complaining isn’t logical. Perhaps I didn’t get enough done at work because I was the problem, and wasn’t diligent enough. Perhaps my analysis of the day’s value is off, because while I may not have finished some paperwork, I did have the privilege of giving spiritual guidance to 2 people I know well and one I met for the first time at lunch. What a blessing! And what better way to serve others than to serve my own flesh and blood—the family God himself has blessed me with. The problem isn’t with God, or anyone else for that matter, but with me. Can you relate?
The scary part is when we consider what we deserve for all this grumbling and complaining against God and others. Worse than venomous snakes, we deserve eternal separation from holiness. Last week we talked about how anything that isn’t holy cannot get into heaven. That means, we can’t get into heaven on our own. We deserve eternal separation from holiness—hell. And if we’re not careful, we’ll complain about that too. “What kind of God would...”
But when we acknowledge our guilt and turn to God for forgiveness, he points us to something just as strange as a snake on a pole—but also just as beautiful. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14) God takes the punishment that we deserve and he turns it into the symbol of our salvation. Just like the Israelites deserved to die from the venom of those snakes, we deserve to suffer the cross—to suffer the most unthinkable torture imaginable—hell itself. But instead, God took our punishment and he gave it to his Son. Now he holds up that cross and tells us to LOOK! It would have been hard for the Israelites to look at this symbol of salvation because on it they saw the very thing they deserved. It’s no different for us. It’s difficult for us to look at the cross, because on that cross we see what we deserve. And yet, as difficult as it is to look at that cross, when we do look, that’s when we see our Savior!
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-16) That’s why the cross is beautiful. It is a symbol that incorporates both law and gospel. It reminds us of our sin and it reminds us of what we deserve on account of it. But it also reminds us of what Jesus did to cleanse us from that sin. It’s the beautiful symbol that shows us our Savior. Jesus suffered hell on the cross so that we would never have to. And now this cross, this symbol of our salvation, is hung in churches, stamped on books, hung from our necks and inked on our bodies. It is placed before our eyes as a constant reminder that God has forgiven all our illogical sins because he loves us with a love that doesn’t make any sense at all.