Moses and the bronze snake Numbers 20:4-9

We come this morning to the final story in our series about the nation of Israel wandering in the wilderness. It is particularly significant because it foreshadows the event at the heart of our salvation, Jesus’s death on the cross. But it begins, as so many other events we have seen, with
4 They travelled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go round Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’

Once again we find the Israelites grumbling and moaning about their food. They were dissatisfied with God’s provision for them. They had long forgotten about the miracles God had worked bringing them out of slavery in Egypt through the parting of the Red Sea. They were taking for granted God’s daily provision of manna, bread from heaven. They were on the point of taking possession of the Promised Land and they were conveniently forgetting that they would have been in the Promised Land almost 40 years earlier if they had trusted God then and not disobeyed him. Once again they are disobeying God, and this brings
God withdrew his blessing and protection from the people.
6 Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.
The desert was full of poisonous snakes and God had been keeping the Israelites safe. Now they would have to face the consequences of their disobedience. But perhaps they had been learning some lessons through the years after all. Because this time when God’s judgement falls they respond appropriately. Instead of moaning and complaining even more, this time the people come to true repentance.
They didn’t even need Moses to tell them what they were doing wrong. Instead they came to him.
7 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.’
At last we see some genuine repentance from the Israelites. They recognised what they were doing which was wrong – they confessed their sins. They asked for forgiveness. And they asked God for a fresh start. God in his grace granted them salvation, and this salvation came in a specific way.
So Moses prayed for the people.
8 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.’ 9 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, they lived.

The people had asked that God would take the snakes away – but he doesn’t do that. Instead God did something even more remarkable and wonderful and exciting. In his mercy God provides a route to miraculous healing which was available to all who were bitten and dying. It was to say the least unusual, a bronze snake held up on a pole. But it was a path to healing which involved obedience and faith. The miracle did not come automatically to everybody, but only to those who obeyed God and put their trust in him.
Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
I suspect that many of the Israelites were so set in their disobedience that they continued grumbling, and died because they did not claim the healing which God was offering. But those who did claim God’s promise by looking at the bronze snake, were all miraculously healed. God provided a way of salvation, by his grace which could not be earned or deserved, and those who put their trust in that salvation were healed.
Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
This remarkable story foreshadows the amazing salvation which God has provided for us in our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus told Nicodemus that this event in the Old Testament is a picture of the salvation which he himself was bringing. Instead of a bronze snake on a pole, Jesus himself would be lifted up on the cross. And all who put their trust in him will be saved.
John 3 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’
The bronze snake was a symbol of salvation. People looked at it and trusted in God and they were healed. So for us the cross of Christ is the symbol of salvation. As we look to it and put our trust in all that Jesus accomplished by dying in our place, so we are saved.
So this story of Israel in the wilderness has many parallels today.
In the world today we still see so much REBELLION against God
People grumbling and complaining – some say that is the favourite pastime of the English. People who proclaim their dissatisfaction with life, taking all the daily blessings God pours out on everybody for granted, ignoring God the Giver. Rebellion in so many acts of disobedience against God and his Laws, not just in “big sins” like breaking the 10 Commandments, murder and adultery and stealing and lying. Not even in multitudes of “little sins” of selfishness and pride and greed and lust, which are just as significant in God’s eyes. More than that, so many people refusing to give God the worship and honour and glory and thanksgiving of which he is worthy.
Just like the Israelites rebelled against God, our world is continuing to rebel against Him. In the desert the rebellious Israelites were left at the mercy of the poisonous snakes. At the appointed time, God’s JUDGMENT is going to fall on everybody. His blessing will be withdrawn and people will have to face the consequences of their sins. As Romans 6:23 tells us, For the wages of sin is death. “Work hard for sin all your life and your pension is death!” (Message)
In Romans chapter 1 the apostle Paul lists many of the ways the world continues to rebel against God.
Romans 1 28 … just as they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; (INVENTING NEW WAYS to sin)
they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practise them.
“God gave them over.” Human beings have given up on God so God gave up on them. Since they didn’t bother to acknowledge God … God let them run loose. (Message)
That’s the judgment every human being will face – a life without God.
But there is hope. The Israelites REPENTED and people today can also turn back to God. For the Israelites, confession and repentance came first, before the way of salvation was provided. For us, God has already provided the way back to God in the Lord Jesus Christ. The cross of Jesus already offers us all forgiveness and eternal life. So we can receive the completely free gift of SALVATION.
And Jesus tells us that the way we can receive that salvation is in some ways similar to the way the Israelites were rescued from the poisonous snakes.
John 3 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’
The Israelites looked up at the bronze snake as an expression of obedience and faith in God. In the same way we can look to Jesus dying on the cross in our place as an expression of our trust in him. And when we do that, we receive God’s gift of eternal life.
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,
Jesus talks about being “lifted up” three times in John’s gospel.
John 8 28 So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. 29 The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.
So the cross proves that Jesus is indeed the unique Son of God delivering God’s way of salvation. And the cross reveals Jesus’s glory.
John 12 23 Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. ….
27 ‘Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!’
Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.’

Not only does the cross reveal Jesus’s glory, but it is also the time and place when Jesus defeated the devil.

John 12 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

On the cross Jesus’s glory is revealed and the devil is driven out. This is why the cross of Jesus is the focus of our Christian faith.
John 3 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’
16 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.

This is the way God loved the world – through the Son of Man being lifted up, through the sacrificial death of his Son Jesus Christ. We don’t need to understand how the cross saves us, any more than the Israelites needed to understand how looking at the bronze snake could bring them healing. We just need to put our trust in God and receive for ourselves his promise of salvation.
People can have different attitudes to the cross of Christ, just as I suspect the Israelites had a variety of different attitudes to the bronze snake on the pole. All they needed to do was look at the bronze snake and they would be healed. All people need to do is look at the cross and they can find salvation. But too often they don’t.
Some of the Israelites probably looked at the bronze snake and just laughed. How can anybody believe that looking at a bronze snake will help them? And there are many people today who just laugh at Jesus dying on the cross. To them it seems foolish to think that Jesus’s death could bring them forgiveness and eternal life. People who laugh at the cross have no faith at all. But Paul explained to the Corinthians that this is how many people view the cross of Christ.
1 Corinthians 1 18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. … 20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Then there were probably other Israelites who knew about the snake on the pole but instead of looking at the bronze snake were looking directly at Moses expecting him to save them. Their faith was not in God but in Moses. And there are some people today whose faith is misplaced. They aren’t actually trusting in God. They are trusting in their church, or trusting in the preacher, or trusting in particular rituals or styles of worship, instead of trusting in God.
I suspect there were many Israelites busy madly trying to fight off all the snakes. They realised there was a problem but were desperately trying to find human solutions to the snake crisis instead of accepting the salvation God was offering. Just as there were probably other Israelites lying back in their tents or staring into space trying to find their own ways to be healed. Just as today there are so many people trying to find their own ways back to God but refusing to put their trust in Jesus who is the way the truth and the life and the only way to the Father.
And then there would have been the Israelites who were pretending that the whole “snake problem” didn’t really exist. Just as there are people today who think that sin is just an illusion and a misunderstanding and that everything is OK and everybody will be alright in the end.
I am sure there were some Israelites racing around trying to help those who had been bitten by the snakes, who were too busy to look at the bronze snake for themselves. Perhaps they thought that if they did enough good deeds they would be immune to snakebites. Just as today many people think that they will be saved by doing good deeds and loving their neighbours and they won’t need a Saviour. Struggling to get through by themselves without God’s help.
I hope we are not like any of those groups of Israelites. I hope we are not laughing at the cross, or putting our trust in churches or preachers instead of in Jesus. I hope we realise the seriousness of the problem of sin, and aren’t trying to find solutions for ourselves. And I do hope nobody is relying on doing good deeds to save them – because that won’t work. I hope we are all among those who have received for ourselves the salvation God promises in the way that he has appointed.
Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
I am sure that those Israelites who had been miraculously healed from the poisonous snake bites were rushing around the camp trying to get all their family and friends to look at the bronze snake too, so that everybody would enjoy the miraculous blessings they had received from God. They would be a picture of true Christians who have found salvation by putting their trust in Jesus and his death on the cross for us. We who have received God’s gift of eternal life should be devoting our lives to pointing other people to Jesus, so that they can believe in him too.
John 3 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’
God has provided such an amazing salvation through our wonderful Saviour. We have good news to share! We dare not keep it to ourselves!

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