ESV Numbers 21:4 From Mount Hor athey set out by the way to the Red Sea, bto go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people aspoke against God and against Moses, b “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and cwe loathe this worthless food.” 6 a Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and bthey bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 a And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. bPray 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 aMoses made a bronze1 serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
Did you notice the title for today’s sermon? It’s “Snakebitten”!
In our way of speaking, that expression can mean a couple of things. It can mean just what the word says—that someone was literally bitten by a snake. Also, the word can mean that someone has had what we might call a run of bad luck.
For example, to describe a baseball player who’s in a batting slump, we might say that he’s “snakebitten.” This simply means that the player is doing poorly at the plate and we’re jokingly suggesting that the reason for his batting slump is because he was bitten by the “snake” that causes bad luck! Of course, there is no such thing as a “bad luck snake.” It’s merely a figure of speech.
If we had been with the Israelites who are described in today’s Old Testament Reading, they would probably have told us that they were “snakebitten” in both ways that I just described!
First of all, they would have said they were “out of luck.” They would have blamed both God and Moses for leading them out of Egypt into a desert wilderness and then abandoning them.
For over four hundred years, the Israelites had been in Egypt. While there, a score of generations had died in slavery. Once freed from slavery, another generation had, by and large, died on the journey to get to this point. And now, the Israelites were ever so close to entering and possessing the Promised Land for which they had hoped for so long. But the king of Edom had seemingly clobbered their plan. He had just forbidden them to pass through his land to get to their destination!
Frustrated and exasperated, the Israelites resorted to a “trick” with which each of us is also intimately familiar. In their disappointment that God did not make things go according to their plan, they became impatient with him! Their impatience turned into complaints, and their complaints turned into self-pity. And, sadly, all of that then turned into rebellion.
Of course, even those with a cursory understanding of Scripture know that God does not and will not tolerate rebellion. Sometimes, he acts right away, and sometimes, he doesn’t, but he always addresses it! Count on that. In this case, God moved quickly! Immediately, he sent poisonous snakes to punish the people for their open rebellion. So, sure enough, the Israelites were snakebitten in the other way too, and many of them died.
By sending the snakes, God showed three things to the Israelites. First, he showed his just anger with them for their rejection of his grace and protection given to them for the past forty years and even before that.
Second, he wanted to show them (again!) that their own rebellious action was the direct cause of their problems. Remember, it was their rebellion forty years earlier that caused them to have to wander in the desert and not be able to proceed immediately from Egypt to the Promised Land!
And third, God brought the deadly snakes among them in an effort to show them their sin and lead them to repentance. He wanted to show them (again!) that their rebellion, their rejection of him, would lead to his rejection of them and their subsequent death apart from him in hell.
By now, you might be saying, “Well, that’s a good story, but how does that affect me . . . in my life . . . right now? After all, that was several thousand years ago. What does it have to do with me at all?”
Friends, we can all take a lesson from our forefathers in this story. We, too, often become impatient with God’s timing, don’t we? We, too, want to take matters into our own hands without first seeking God’s direction through his Word and going to him in prayer. And we, too—even if we do seek God’s direction for our lives—often find ourselves ignoring his promises and striking out on our own. Here, you see, here is where we all enter this story. Just like the Israelites, we, too, go against God and his direction and leadership for our lives. We become impatient when we are ill and want to get well immediately. We ignore his word when we insist on getting our own way. We complain about the lot he gives us when we see how our expenses keep going up and up, just to name a few examples of how we so often are just like the Israelites and start to grumble and complain to God.
In the 1970s, there was a British/American rock band called Fleetwood Mac. One of their biggest hits was “Go Your Own Way.” I seriously doubt that they had any biblical concepts even remotely in mind when they recorded it, but that title, “Go Your Own Way,” describes our human condition to a T. It describes the honest truth about our desire to “go our own way” rather than follow God’s clear direction and fully trust his promises.
The Israelites in the wilderness had rejected God and had determined to go their own way—apart from God. Adam and Eve rejected God and sought to go their own way. And you . . . me . . . well, it’s our song too, isn’t it? We are— aren’t we?—constantly rebelling against God and his call to trust in him above all else.
We said earlier that God had sent the snakes among the Israelites in order to bring them back to repentance and faith in him. That was his ultimate goal, as it always is. God’s goal wasn’t to condemn them, but to save them. And his love for them was behind it all! It’s incredible, when you think about it. He continued to love them in spite of their open rebellion!
To this very day, God continues to use adversity and the various problems that we have to draw us back to him or keep us by his side. And, by the way, many, not all, but many of those problems we actually bring upon ourselves—just as did the Israelites. But God will see us through them.
As we saw, God had a solution for the rebel Israelites. They who were dying from the snakebites were to look at the bronze snake that he had directed Moses to lift up on a pole. Those who looked at the bronze snake, not as a god, but as a symbol of God’s promise and protection, were saved. Those who were dying were given life! Their faith in God—that he still loved them in spite of their rebellion—healed them and saved their lives.
Out of that same love, God has also provided a solution for us and the rebellion each of us has toward him. God sent Jesus into the world to be lifted up onto a different kind of pole. In today’s Gospel, John recorded Jesus’ own words regarding what would happen to him: “And 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” (Jn 3:14–15).
Jesus was lifted up on a cross to suffer the punishment, the condemnation, the eternal death that each of us should have received for our own rebellion. We, who were “snakebitten” with sin—our own sin—and were dying from those wounds, are now saved from an eternal death in hell just as surely as the Israelites were saved from death in the desert. When we do not seek God’s direction for our own lives, but want to go against God and go our own way. When we become impatient in illness; when we complain and grumble against God for what is happening in our lives, God has been lifted up high in the air on a cross for us to behold in faith. For there on that cross he paid for your sins and earned forgiveness for you.
The simple act of a snakebitten person looking at a bronze snake raised up on a pole caused the “snakebitten,” dying rebels to be healed and live. They would live and be admitted into the Promised Land, where they would be safe from the Egyptians, who saw their worth only as slaves.
Likewise—but on a far grander scale and with eternal implications—the simple act of looking up at Jesus raised up on the “pole” of the cross for our sins causes us who are dying from sin to be healed and live. In Christ Jesus, through faith in his promise to forgive us of all our sins through his death and resurrection from the dead three days later, we are healed and will live with him forever in the promised land of heaven! Our Father in heaven sees us as valuable and precious—worthy of his own precious Son’s life.
The Israelites in the desert repented of their sins and received forgiveness and life. We, too, recognize our sin—our sinful desire to “go our own way.” Led by the Holy Spirit, we repent and daily return to our baptismal faith, where we live in God’s forgiveness and live out the new forgiven life.
Two things we’ve discussed today go beyond human reason: the bronze serpent lifted up in the desert and Jesus’ being lifted up on his blessed cross. Neither action makes sense. But that’s the whole point! Jesus forgives your sins and gives you eternal life solely by grace through faith in the unlikely, improbable, but totally true fact of his death on the cross in your place! God would have us look at him alone for life and salvation. There,
By His Grace in the Cross of Christ, God Saves His Snakebitten People.
We’ve been talking today about raising up things onto “poles.” Moses raised up the bronze serpent. Jesus was raised up on the cross for us. But the story isn’t quite yet completed. There’s another thing yet to be “raised up.” Actually, we should say there’s another person yet to be “raised up.” You and I and all believers in Christ are that person.
Paul told us in today’s Epistle how this will be: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:4–7).
Dear Christians, all of you “snakebitten” people who were dying in your sins: Now by God’s grace through faith in his one and only Son, you will be “raised up” from the dead on the Last Day. You’ll not only be raised from the dead, but as God promises, you will also be raised up to heaven, where you will live with him forever! Thanks be to God! Amen.