************ Sermon on Numbers 21:4-9 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on May 10, 2015
"The Son of Man and the Bronze Snake"
I Israel's Sin
A Israel had been wandering in the desert now for almost forty years. Almost all of those who had come out of Egypt with Moses and Aaron were dead. This was an entirely new generation. Israel was on the verge of entering the Promised Land. Between them and Canaan was their brothers the Edomites. The Edomites, if you remember, were the descendants of Esau whereas the Israelites were the descendants of Jacob. Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom saying:
(Num 20:17) Please let us pass through your country. We will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the king's highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory.But Edom answered:
(Num 20:18) You may not pass through here; if you try, we will march out and attack you with the sword.Again Moses requested permission to pass through Edom (Num 20:19). Edom again replied, "You may not pass through" (Num 20:20). Scripture then tells us that Edom came out against Israel with a large and powerful army (Num 20:20-21).
Because of Edom's response, Israel was forced to take a detour on the way to the Promised Land. This detour meant a couple of hundred extra miles for the people of Israel. It wasn't a matter of taking another road -- for there was no other road. Israel was forced to travel through desert -- with loose sandy soil, drifts of granite, terrible sandstorms, little water, and little or no vegetation. Israel was forced to take the detour, on foot, with all of the women and children and with all their flocks and herds.
B In light of this it is little wonder that our Scripture reading tells us the people "grew impatient on the way" (Num 21:4). In their impatience they "spoke against God and against Moses," and said,
(Num 21:5) "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!"The miserable food they were complaining about was the manna God sent down every day from heaven.
Israel knew better than to complain. After all, the people had witnessed the might and power of God numerous times; over and over again they had seen and heard how God miraculously saved and protected and cared for His people:
-God sent the ten plagues on Egypt
-at the Red Sea God led Israel through the Sea on dry ground and drowned the obstinate pharaoh and his whole army
-at Mt. Sinai they witnessed thunder, shaking, and lightning when God spoke to them
-when the people wanted meat, God sent them quail
-in jars and sacks was the water God had provided them from a rock
-God gave them victory over the Canaanites at Hormah
In spite of all this, Israel turned her back on God and His servant Moses. The people conveniently forgot all that the Lord had done for them and began to complain against Him. In a moment of disgust they threw away all the privileges of being God's people.
II Punishment and Confession
A The people of Israel were punished by the Lord for their rebellion. We are told "the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died" (Num 21:6).
As we see all too often, the regrets and the sorrow come after the punishment. So the people came to Moses and said,
(Num 21:7) "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.
Moses prayed for the people. He acted as an intercessor. Moses interceded for Israel before God's throne and asked God to forgive and to save.
B In Moses we see our great Intercessor, Jesus Christ. When we sin it is Christ Who pleads for us before His Father's throne:
(Heb 7:24-25) ... because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. (25) Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
A God heard and answered the prayer of Moses. The Lord said to Moses:
(Num 21:8) "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.
B It needs to be understood that the people of Israel were not saved by the image of the snake. The image did not have any magical or superstitious powers. The power of salvation rested not in the snake but in God.
In spite of this, there were some Israelites who thought the bronze snake had magical powers. We read that King Hezekiah
(2 Ki 18:4) ... broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)In the wilderness it was God Who saved the children of Israel and He did so by grace through faith.
C What, then, was the bronze snake? The bronze snake on a pole was but a symbol of salvation. This is confirmed by the apocryphal book of Wisdom (16:6-7) which says the bronze serpent is
a symbol of salvation; for he that turned himself toward it was not saved by the thing that he saw, but by You, who art the Savior of all.
It is ironic that God used a snake as a symbol of salvation. It was snakes that were killing the people. It was Satan disguised as a snake that led mankind into sin. And, throughout Scripture snakes are something vile and despicable (Lev 11:41-42). Yet, God used a bronze snake on a pole as a symbol of salvation.
D This morning we witnessed two baptisms. As all of you know, baptism does not save. We are saved not by the water of baptism but only by the blood of Christ.
This morning we are also celebrating the Lord's Supper. Throughout the history of the church there have been those who treat the sacrament as having saving powers -- they think the simple act of eating and drinking is able to save. But the Lord's Supper does not save and does not have the power to save. Like the snake, it is but a sign or a symbol of salvation. We are saved not by eating and drinking but only by God's grace in Christ and through faith in Christ.
IV The Snake and Jesus
A One would expect very little attention to be paid by the New Testament Church to the story of the bronze snake in Numbers 21. This story, however, cannot be dismissed so readily because Jesus uses it to teach Nicodemus in John 3.
(Jn 3:14-15) Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, (15) that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
B We are taught here that the bronze snake, as a symbol of salvation, pointed forward to Jesus Christ. We can highlight two similarities:
-First, the snake was lifted up on a pole. In the same way Christ was lifted up on the cross.
-Second, the Israelites had to turn their eyes to the bronze snake in belief in order to be cured of the poisonous bite. In the same way, we must look with faith at the Son of Man lifted up upon the cross if we would be delivered from sin, death, and Satan.
We have to understand, congregation, that our condition is like that of the Israelites in Numbers 21. Just like the Israelites rebelled against God, so have we rebelled against God. Just like the Israelites were bitten by and dying from poisonous snakes, so are we bitten by and dying from the poison of sin. And, just as Israel was totally helpless to do anything about the deadly poison, so are we totally helpless to do anything about sin. Only the Son of Man lifted up upon the cross is able to save us. Only when we look with faith to Jesus are we delivered.
This morning we had two baptisms. This morning we celebrate the Lord's Supper. Lying at the heart of both sacraments is the teaching of Jesus to Nicodemus: that Jesus must be lifted up on the cross to suffer and die; and, anyone who looks to Him in faith will live forever.
(Jn 3:14-15) Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, (15) that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.Both sacraments focus our faith on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the only ground of our salvation.
All of us are dying and none of us have the cure. But, as the serpent reminds us, as baptism and the Lord's Supper reminds us, God gave us Jesus on the cross. Now, all that we have to do is look up to Him in faith and live!
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