Those of us who have been on long trips know that they can wear on us. The longer the trip, the more likely that our patience will grow thin and the more likely it is that we will start complaining about everything. In the case of the reading from Numbers 21:4-9, it was the lack of food and water, and the nature of the food they had that caused the Israelites to complain. The Israelites, upon their escape from Egypt, were in the wilderness between Egypt and God’s promised land. They complained to Moses about the lack of food, water and all the amenities they remembered in Egypt. These memories were false. In reality, the Israelites had to make bricks without straw, while they longed for the food they never really had.
The Israelites were ungrateful. There are only so many ways that quail may be prepared, and although manna is very nice in its way, it presented little variation for the educated tastes of God’s chosen people. They were tired of manna and quail. They wanted something different. We are supposed to side with Moses and God in this matter, but we can also sympathize with the Israelites. If we were on a similar journey with obstacles and that never seemed to end, we would also complain.
Nothing is wrong with being discouraged, but discouragement can lead to something worse. The Israelites first murmured against God and against Moses, and then they began to complain about everything, especially the bread that came from God, and this became outright rebellion. Many Israelites died because of this faithless attitude.
The Israelites needed a sign from God. They needed a reminder that God still cared for them in spite of their wandering in the wilderness. Through the Israelites we see a God who is big enough to hear our prayers and act with mercy, even when we don’t think to bring God into the situation ourselves.
Like the Israelites, when we are tired we are tempted to complain to God and ask, “Why?” The Israelites’ memories were short. They forgot that they were God’s chosen people and the recipients of God’s promise. Something similar happens to us when we find ourselves in hard times with a difficult desert to pass through. We must not forget who God is and what He has done for us, because when we do, we suffer the consequences.
Mark Twain said, “Don’t complain and talk about your problems. Eighty percent of the people won’t care and the other twenty percent will think you deserve them.” But complaining is far worse than just ineffective. It is wrong. Complaining reveals that we are not thankful for the multitude of blessings that we have received. The way God sees complaining is illustrated by the poisonous snakes God sent among the Israelites when they complained. God freed them from slavery, took them across the Red Sea and fed them with manna from heaven, but they still complained.
The dead Israelites and the nasty biting snakes were more than enough to convince people that their demands went too far. They asked Moses to pray to God to take the snakes away from them. When Moses prayed, God told him to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. Anyone who was bitten could look at the bronze serpent and live.
The bronze snake had power because God gave it power. The Israelites were healed because by turning to the snake they were also turned in faith to God. They trusted God would continue to care for them. Consequently, they did what they were supposed to do-live in relationship with God.
When I was doing the research for this message, I found out how bronze is made. Bronze is an alloy that consists of about 90% copper and 10% tin. Starting out with added arsenic (which is a poison that can kill), as it is heated in the furnace, the fumes become toxic. When the furnace reaches a certain heat, the copper and the tin become a completely different material. The copper and tin can never be separated again, and bronze is a material that can’t be found naturally.
Copper represents Jesus as the divine Son of God, but that isn’t enough by itself. Tin represents Jesus as the Son of Man, who became sin for us. Jesus endured the furnace of affliction on the cross, and from that moment something changed forever as the ‘copper’ and the ‘tin’ came together. Something eternal happened, symbolized by the ‘bronze’ of Jesus on the cross. When people look to the cross they no longer die as a result of the snake bite of sin.
Jesus was also lifted up on a pole in the midst of the people. It was an offensive sight. It made no sense. The image of death proclaimed the gift of new life. The image of Jesus on a cross became His main purpose. Everything He said and did pointed to the cross and His victory over sin and death. His victory made us right with God and blessed us with new life.
In Jesus, we learn about the heart of God-a heart that is filled with justice and mercy. He calls for our obedience and lavishes us with the gift of forgiveness. From Jesus we receive the call to hold the same purposes at the centre of our lives. Everything we do, say and think becomes a chance for us to point to the cross and proclaim that in this symbol of death and destruction can be found the source of forgiveness, the gift of new life and the hope of eternity.
This story shows two aspects of the nature of sin. On the one hand, in the fact that the Israelites were bitten by serpents, Jesus means to tell us that sin is like the bite of a poisonous serpent. It causes terrible wounds on our souls. Sinners have an urgent need to be healed. With snake bites, time is critical if a life is to be saved. This calls forth the compassion and pity of God and the tender care of the Great Physician. On the other hand, in the fact that the serpents were sent to Israel as a punishment for their murmurings and rebelliousness, Jesus means to tell us that sin is a revolt against God and His good and perfect will.
The snake was a symbol of all that repelled the people of Israel. As such, the bronze serpent on top a pole was a dramatic, horrific symbol. Yet only those who would look at it would live. The serpent on the pole was a symbol both of God’s judgment against the Israelites’ sins and of His loving mercy for all those who repented. Like the cross, the bronze serpent was for all but effective only for those who truly believed in Him. In Jesus, God became the earthly material of flesh. From this earthly material He became the source of our problem (sin). Now, when we look upon this flesh, which had taken on sin to such a degree that He became sin on our behalf, we are healed.
The snake on a pole has the effect of Christ on the cross-visually horrible, but the only means of salvation. Moses kept the bronze figure as a reminder of the people’s sin and God’s provision. Eventually, however, in 2 Kings 18:1-4, Hezekiah destroyed the serpent because the people had turned it into an idol.
Even in the wilderness God responded to the needs of the Israelites. Their protests were answered and their cries were heard. There was a gift of healing where the pain experienced was the sharpest. Deliverance came in the very presence of the enemy. The death-dealing forces of chaos were nailed to the pole.
The bronze serpent was carried to Jerusalem and placed in the temple. The snakes were gradually domesticated. As I mentioned earlier, the pole was destroyed. It had to reappear in another godforsaken place, high on a hill overlooking the holy city. God himself took to the pole. Once for all, so that all those who know that they are dying in the wilderness called sin-filled lives can be healed.
By looking at the bronze serpent, the people lived. They were healed. They were saved. By believing in Jesus, who was lifted up on the cross, we receive eternal life. It isn’t magic. The cross isn’t a totem. Both the bronze serpent and the cross of Jesus are signs of healing. In both cases, the result is life. They bring healing, wholeness and life itself. When we lift our eyes to the cross, we see our salvation. In him, we are healed. In him, we find the source of patience in the midst of challenging times.
Times of trouble may be difficult to bear, but they are temporary. They call for trust that the God who provided in the past is more than able to get us through the times of trouble while we travel to the promised future. The cross reminds us that God is in charge and has a plan for our ultimate well-being. We can trust the God who has made a promise to us. Through the cross He guarantees that this promise will be fulfilled.
We may look down at ourselves and become hopelessly discouraged or choose to look up and live. If we are worried that like the Israelites our promises have been ropes of sand and we’re afraid that God will turn a deaf ear to us because our words of repentance seem hollow, we should remember this Proverb: “Years of repentance are necessary in order to blot out a sin in the eyes of men, but one tear of repentance suffices with God.” All we have to do is “look up and live.”
- Jeremiah, David: The Jeremiah Study Bible: New King James Version (Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing; 2013; p. 202)
- Philip, J. & Ogilvie, L.J.: The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Vol. 4: Numbers (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.’ 19897; pp. 215-218)
- Dr. Randy White, “The Bronze Serpent.” Retrieved from www.randywhiteministries.org
- Dr. Paul Chappell, “Stop Complaining.” Retrieved from email@example.com
- Pastor David J. Risendal, “Jesus: A Life of Purpose.” Retrieved from www.OneLittleWord.org
- “Look Up and Live.” Retrieved from Christianity.firstname.lastname@example.org
- Sarah Bane, “Numbers 21:4-9” Retrieved from email@example.com
- John C. Holbert, “Of Snakes and Things: Lectionary Reflections on Numbers 21:4-9.” Retrieved from www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/of-snakes-and-things-john-c/holbert
- Terrence E. Fretheim, “Commentary on Numbers 21:4-9.” Retrieved from www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=264
- “The Meaning Behind the Bronze Serpent.” Retrieved form firstname.lastname@example.org