150315 Numbers 21:4-9

Last Updated on Monday, 16 March 2015 Written by Pastor Pagels

Text: Numbers 21:4-9
Theme: A Story About Sin, Snakes And Salvation

"What's that on your arm, grandpa?" a young boy asks as he jumps up onto his grandfather's lap. "Oh, you must be imagining things," the old man replies, pulling down his robe and trying to quickly change the subject. But the boy persists. "No, I know I saw something." And he pushes up on his grandpa's sleeve to expose his right forearm.

Embedded in the dark, wrinkled skin he sees two small marks. They are circular and identical, less than an inch apart. "What happened?" asks the boy, not knowing that his questions are bringing up some not so pleasant memories for his grandfather.

The old man pauses and then says: "I suppose you are old enough now. I want you to listen very carefully because what I am about to tell you is not just a story about me. It's a story about our people, and ultimately it is a story about God's plan to save all people."

And I invite all of you to listen too. Listen to this amazing, true story...


It happened when I was a young man, not a whole lot older than you are now, just before Joshua led our people into Canaan to take possession of the Promised Land. Our forty years of wandering in the wilderness were almost over, and we were eager to settle down in a land we could call our own.

But the neighboring peoples who were already living in the land didn't share our enthusiasm. Instead of allowing us passage through their territory, the Edomites came out with all their armies to oppose us. We weren't afraid. With God on our side we were ready to fight, but instead of leading us into battle Moses led us back out into the wilderness.

I wasn't happy. No one was happy. We were sick of wandering in the desert. We were tired of constantly moving from place to place. Our patience was running out and we let Moses know it: We asked him: "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" (5)!

Looking back I wish I never would have uttered those rebellious words, and not just because of what happened next. God responded to our grumbling and complaining by sending venomous snakes into our camp. I don't know how many snakes there were. I don't know how many people died from their poison. But I can tell you that there were lots and lots of both.

Before I continue with the story, there are some important lessons to be learned from this tragedy. Unfortunately this wasn't the first time God's people rebelled against God. Right after the Exodus, after we left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, when Moses was receiving the law from the Lord on Mt. Sinai, the people grew impatient and convinced Aaron to make them a golden calf. Some people worshiped the calf, and some of them even engaged in the sexual sins that so often go along with idolatry. The Lord's anger burned against us, and as a result three thousand people were put to death in a single day.

It might be tempting to think that in this case the punishment fit the crime. Idolatry and sexual immorality are capital offenses, and the guilty parties got what they deserved. But death was also the consequence for the people who were bitten by the poisonous snakes. And what was their crime? They hadn't worshiped idols. They hadn't degraded their bodies. They were guilty of...complaining. They complained about the food they didn't have. They complained about the food they did have. They grumbled against God for not carrying out his plans, or for not carrying out his plans fast enough. And many of them lost their lives because of it.

God used the poisonous snakes to teach his people a lesson, and God has preserved this account in the Bible to teach you and me that grumbling and complaining is never acceptable. Even if you think you have a good reason for it, even if you try to rename it. You can call it venting or decompressing or whatever you want, but it is still sin. And the wages of every sin, including this sin, is death.

Complaining about work, complaining about school, complaining about your parents, complaining about your kids, complaining about your husband, complaining about your wife, complaining that God doesn't listen to you, complaining that God doesn't seem to love you, have I covered everyone in the room by now? We are all guilty, and our guilt goes all the way back to the world's first human interaction with a snake.

In the Garden of Eden the serpent suggested that God was keeping something from Adam and Eve. They deserved better. They deserved more. They had every right to be like God. And when the devil convinced Adam and Eve to do something about their dissatisfaction, they brought sin and death into the world.

Speaking of death, you probably noticed that I'm not dead. I'm happy to report that I am very much alive, even though I was bitten by one of those snakes, even though the marks on my arm are a constant reminder that I shouldn't be alive. To explain how my life was spared, to explain how I escaped death in the wilderness, we need to go back to the account in Numbers.

When the people saw what was happening, when they saw their friends and family members dying, they recognized that their sinful attitude was the cause. Because I was guilty too I repented along with everyone else, and we asked Moses to ask God to take the snakes away.

Moses must have personally forgiven us for what we said about him because he immediately went to the Lord, and God in his grace gave Moses specific instructions about what he should do. He told Moses: "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live" (8).

Moses went to work right away, hammering and pounding and chiseling. And when he was finished he lifted up a pole and set it in place. At the top was a bronze snake. It resembled the deadly snakes that had invaded our camp, except for one important difference. This snake wouldn't take lives. It would save them.

Moses assured us that the snake wasn't there to remind us of our sins or to punish us for our sins. He placed it there for our protection. He told us that if we trusted in God the snakes wouldn't harm us. He told us that if we were bitten by a snake we should look up at this bronze snake, and we would live.

I wasn't sure what to think about Moses' instructions, but I was in no position to argue. Eventually I went back to my tent and tried to get some sleep. And as I drifted off I wondered if I was really safe, if I would make it through another night, if I would live to see another day.

And then some time in the middle of the night it happened. I felt a sharp pain, and immediately I knew that it wasn't a dream. I sat up and looked down at my arm, and there were the two marks left by the fangs. A snake had slithered into my tent and bit me in my sleep. I was paralyzed by fear. I remember thinking that I was too young to die, but then I remembered something else. I remembered Moses' words. I remembered God's promise. And I ran to the pole as fast as my legs could carry me.

Even though it was still dark, I was able to make out the form of the bronze snake. And then I wasn't afraid anymore. This snake actually put my mind at ease. The pain started to subside. My heart stopped pounding. My breathing became easier. I realized that I wasn't going to die. I was saved, and I have the marks to prove it.

This is my story, but as I said before it is not exclusive to me. It is the story of my people, a story that Hebrew fathers have been telling their children for generations. In fact, looking ahead I can picture another father, a man named Joseph from Nazareth telling the same story to his son.

The boy hangs on every word and remembers every detail. He understands the deadly consequences of sin. Better than anyone else he appreciates the enormity of God's grace. He treasures this story in his heart right up to the day when he brings it into another conversation.

This time there are two grown men. One has come to see the other at night. He is scared and confused, and he hopes that the other man will be able to help him understand. The teacher speaks to him about water and the Spirit and being born again, but that only makes the confused man more confused. So the teacher decides to change his approach. He uses an illustration from the Old Testament to summarize God's entire plan of salvation. Jesus looks Nicodemus in the eye and says:

"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).

Under normal circumstances it would be an insult to be compared to a snake, but Jesus wasn't offended by the idea. In fact, he compared himself to the bronze snake, and the similarities are striking...

The bronze snake was lifted up on a pole. Jesus was lifted up on a cross.

When the people were bitten by poisonous snakes, God's solution was simple: Look to the bronze snake in faith, and you will live. When people today are bitten by the ancient serpent called Satan, when he tempts us to sin and we fall into sin, God's solution is just as simple: Look to Jesus in faith, look to God for forgiveness, and you will live.

In the desert there was only one remedy for the people who were bitten by snakes. No special ointments or treatments, no ancient rites or rituals could save them. Their only hope was to trust in God. In our lives there is only one remedy that can take away our sin. No amount of prayers or promises, no resolutions to do better or try harder will ever be able to help us. Our only hope is Jesus.

There is one more similarity between the bronze serpent and Jesus. Both remedies work every time. There are no exceptions. There are no exclusions. Every person who looked at the bronze snake and looked to God in faith lived. And we have Jesus' promise that whoever looks to him and believes in him will have eternal life.

I am reminded of God's grace every time I see those marks on my arm. You are reminded of that same love every time you see those two lines that intersect like this to form a cross. On the cross Jesus died to take away your sins, to forgive your sins of grumbling and complaining and every other sin in your life. And because Jesus rose from the dead, death will not be the end for us either. Because of Jesus our story is not just a story about sin and snakes and death. Thanks to Jesus it is a story of salvation. Amen.

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