Numbers 21:4-9 – Looking for Life

Last weekend, Mary and I went down to Clear Lake, WA for me to preach at Community Covenant Church of Clear Lake. I had met the pastor there back in December at a gathering of local Covenant, and he sent out a general request for people to fill his pulpit during the month of March while he took some time off preaching. I responded, asked him what text he had planned on preaching from before he decided to take time off, and he said Numbers 21:4-9, the story of the brazen serpent in the wilderness.

What follows is not the full manuscript. I’m still working out what feels most comfortable for me in sermon preparation, and while it worked for a while for me to write a full manuscript and then condense it into an outline, this time I just did a detailed outline.

Numbers 21:4-9 – “Looking for Life”

Introduction: Snakes and humans have always had a strained relationship. Snakes are always portrayed in movies and popular culture as villains. Today we’re going to talk about one snake that wasn’t a villain. We’re going to go through this passage, and then I’ll close with three areas of application.

“From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.”

verse 4 and Background: The Israelites have come out of Egypt, met God at Sinai, sent scouts into the land, didn’t trust God, and were condemned to wander. They wander, Moses and Aaron make a big mistake and are condemned in ch. 20, Miriam and Aaron die (20:22-29), and they finally start to move toward the promised land. Then they are told by the Edomites that they can’t pass through, and they have to go toward the Red Sea. After wandering in the desert for 40 years, they’re finally starting to move. Now they’re backtracking (20:14-21), and they’re starting to grumble. Again.
The word “Impatient” literally means “short.”

“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 detest this miserable food.’”

verse 5: Israelites had previously complained (in 14:2ff, 20:3-5). They had also previously complained about the manna (Num 11). This is the last time they did it.
1. Grumbling is a sign of the passive, inactive bystander. Active people are too busy to grumble. (R. Bewes)
2. Grumbling affects the way we see reality. When we grumble, we aren’t seeing things clearly. The Israelites said “there is no food,” but clearly there was food every day. It was miraculous food that God provided them with day after day, but they couldn’t see it for what it was because they had already decided to grumble and feel sorry for themselves.

“Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”

verse 6: Some translations say “poisonous,” and other more literal translations say “fiery.” Some commentators think that this is referring to literal fire, but most believe that “fiery” is a reference to the effect of the venom.
The grumbling does not lead to provision of food and water, as it had previously, and we don’t hear about Moses interceding with God. What we hear about is judgment for their grumbling.

“The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people.”

verse 7: The people, realizing their sin, ask Moses to pray for the Lord to take away the snakes. The Israelites are actually beginning to show some humility and responsibility.

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

verse 8: God didn’t take away the threat, like the Israelites asked him to, and like he did earlier (Num. 11:1-3, with the fire consuming the edges of the camp, and 12:10, with Miriam’s leprosy).
Why? Maybe because in previous episodes, the Israelite repentance has been short-lived. The Israelites have been complaining since leaving Egypt, and every time that God has provided for them, they just went back to complaining.
This time, he doesn’t take away the threat, he provides a mode of healing. There seem to be echoes here of 2 Corinthians 12, where Paul asks God three times to take away his “thorn in the flesh.” Instead of taking it away, God tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
How many times do we ask for the same thing? We want God to take away the thing that gives us pain. Sometimes he does. But sometimes he has a different purpose, and we have to trust him. Joni Eareckson Tada broke her neck in a diving accident when she was 17 and was paralyzed from the chest down. At first, she hated her disability, she hated her wheelchair. But eventually, she came to believe that it was part of God’s plan for her. She has used her disability to become an advocate for others with disabilities. In one of her books she prays, “I know I wouldn’t know you … I wouldn’t love and trust you … were it not for this wheelchair.” We so often pray for God to just take away the things that threaten us and make us afraid. Sometimes God does take those things away, but other times he doesn’t take the danger away but instead provides a way to handle suffering.

“So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”

verse 9: Moses makes a bronze serpent, and people look at it and are healed. How could looking at a snake heal somebody? We live in the 21st century. We know about medicine, and we know that this is not the way it works – even if a snake on a pole is the symbol of medicine (the Rod of Asclepius).
But it isn’t the snake on the pole that saves people. It is the faith in the one behind it that saves. This isn’t some magic snake. The only reason it had power is that God chose it as his way of healing. God does this throughout Scripture. He asks people to do things they think are silly because he wants people to put their trust in him.
Looking is the same as believing and committing. When they looked at the snake, they believed that the Lord would heal them, and the Lord kept his promise.

2 Kings 18:4: The Israelites forgot this when King Hezekiah had to destroy the snake because the people were treating it like an idol: “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.” (“piece of brass”)
The Israelites forgot that God was behind the serpent, and thought that in itself the serpent was magical. This is a natural tendency that persists throughout history. People keep looking for a silver bullet. This is why relics were so important in the Middle Ages. This is why books like “The Secret” are popular even today. We do this because putting our trust in something magical, or even in our own efforts, is easy, but putting our trust in God is hard.

For those of us who live after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, even after all this the brazen serpent may still seem like it’s far away and we can’t relate to it. Thankfully for us, Jesus refers to this story and shows us how to relate to it.

John 3:14-15: “And just 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.”

Like the serpent, Jesus on the cross was the embodiment of both the curse and forgiveness of the curse. Snakes were the curse, and a snake was put up on a pole for all to see. Sin is our problem, and sin is put up on the cross for all to see. 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The cross is a visible sign of human failure, but also of God’s love. We look to an instrument of humiliation and death for a cure for our own humiliation and death.
Jesus’ being “lifted up” has a double meaning. First, he was literally lifted up from the ground. Second, he was exalted. Not afterwards, but while he was on the cross. This doesn’t make sense to the world. Deut. 21:23 says that anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.
Just like the serpent on a pole, there isn’t anything special about a man hanging on a cross. On the same day that Jesus died, two criminals were crucified with him. When Jews of that day looked at Jesus on the cross, they saw a blasphemer. When Romans of that day looked at Jesus on the cross, they saw a rebel and an insurrectionist. When non-Christians today look at Jesus on the cross, they see a good teacher, and they think it’s a shame that he had to die. But when Christians look at Jesus on the cross, they see something different. Just like the serpent on a pole, God decided that a man on a cross would be the means he would use to forgive and give life to people. It may seem silly to think that just looking and believing would give us life. But God works in the things we think are silly and foolish and humiliating.

3 applications:

Don’t grumble; look to God – Regardless of the cause of your suffering, grumbling is not the response that God wants from you. Phil 2:14 says “Do everything without complaining or arguing.” If you complain, you’re going to end up focused on yourself and will miss out on what God wants to show you in your circumstances. Also, grumbling becomes a lifestyle.

Look to God and not just the snake – Stay focused on God. Sometimes Christians get distracted by good things. In the Middle Ages, it was things like relics from saints. Today, it might be 7 steps to a happier life, or giving money or time to a ministry so God will bless us, or trying to get rid of sin on our own just by trying harder. These things aren’t bad, but if we look to them instead of the Cross, they’re not going to give us life. This is always a problem. John Calvin said the human heart is an idol factory. Every generation of God’s people has its own set of distractions that will pull it away from God. But we must look to the Cross.

Look to God in Jesus and believe – If you are not a Christian, I ask you to believe that he can forgive you and give you life, and accept that forgiveness and life from him. Even if you are a Christian, you may feel that there is some area of your life that God couldn’t possibly want to forgive you for. Or you may think that Jesus died on the cross for your sins, but this really doesn’t affect your life from day to day. I ask you to look to Jesus on the cross, and believe that he is there because he loves you and wants you to be with him. Believe that he, like that snake, was lifted up to give you life, and accept that life from him. Trust him with your life, and he will take away the poisonous snakebite of sin that affects us all.