“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 (NIV)
The children of Israel were in big trouble. They had been traveling in the wilderness for decades, and frankly, they were sick of it. It’s not that they were lacking for food or clothing or shelter; God had graciously provided plenty of manna every day, plenty of water for themselves and their flocks and herds, and the shoes and clothing that they had when they had left Egypt had been miraculously preserved, so they were just like new, even though they were nearly 40 years old.
But the people were still dissatisfied. Even though they were finally headed to the Promised Land, it was taking too much time. They were having to take the long way around instead of the direct route, and they were getting impatient. They weren’t satisfied with what they had; they wanted more. They wanted what the people around them had. They wanted to eat whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it. They wanted to live in permanent homes instead of in tents. And they weren’t sure that they were ever going to get to the Promised Land where they had been promised milk and honey and all kinds of other wonderful things. And so they blasted Moses with their discontent: “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!” (Numbers 21:5 NIV)
God’s response was immediate. He sent venomous snakes among the people, thousands of them, and they started biting the people, and the people were dying right and left. The leaders came to Moses, repenting of their harsh words: “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us!” (verse 7) And so Moses prayed.
But God didn’t take the snakes away. Instead, He instructed Moses to make a bronze model of one of the snakes, and put it up on a pole so that it could be easily seen from anywhere in the camp. And He told Moses, “Anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” (verse 8) I think it’s fascinating that God’s solution wasn’t to get rid of the snakes as Moses asked on the peoples’ behalf. The snakes were still there, and they were still biting people as a punishment for their rebellion. But the bite no longer had to be fatal. If the person simply turned their eyes to the bronze serpent up on that pole, they would live. If they wouldn’t accept God’s solution to their problem, they would die. It was that simple. And I’m sure that there were some people who absolutely refused to look to the serpent when they were bitten because it wasn’t the solution that they wanted. They wanted God to get rid of the snakes so that they wouldn’t be bitten in the first place. Those people died.
Jesus points to a powerful parallel between those times and His times. The people were still being poisoned and killed, physically as well as spiritually; not by snakes this time, but by the powerful poison of sin. And the sin was reaching into every area of their society. All over the place, people were mistreating others; marriages were being broken apart by unfaithfulness; revenge was taking the lives and property of individuals and families; business practices were increasingly shady; and even the religious leaders were less than godly. And this physical and relational suffering wasn’t even the worst part of it. Many understood that because of this sinfulness, the people had ended up separating themselves from the very God that they worshiped and wanted to serve.
Most of the people had just given up on things every getting better, just throwing up their hands in despair. Others cried out to the Lord, because they could see that things had gotten bad enough that only God could fix them.
But what the people hadn’t really understood yet was that God had heard their cry, and that His solution to the problem was standing right in front of them! Just as Moses had lifted up the serpent on a pole, so Jesus was going to be lifted up on a cross. And just as the people looking up to the serpent in faith that God would use it to heal them were in fact healed, so those who look up to Jesus in faith that God would use Him to forgive their sins, would in fact be forgiven.
Since the day of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, billions of people have looked to Him for forgiveness. And all who have looked to Him have been saved, their sins forgiven and a new destiny written for them. But once again, God’s solution is kind of counterintuitive. God doesn’t remove the temptation that causes people to sin. Nor does He take away our free will so that we can’t sin. But God has graciously provided a cure that is powerful and effective, that will in fact save us any time we find the poison of sin coursing through our spirits.
Just as in Moses’ day, some people over the last 2000 years have rejected God’s solution. To some it just seems too simple to be effective. Others reject it because it puts them too much in God’s debt; they want to work themselves out of the poisoning on their own. And still others focus on the existence of sin, and use that to say that since God allows that kind of stuff in the world, He either doesn’t love us, or He’s not powerful enough to fix the problem. All of those attitudes will prove fatal to our souls in the end.
The fact is, for twenty centuries God’s love for us, and His power to change hearts, and homes, and whole communities has been clearly visible whenever we look up to our crucified Lord, and in faith trust in Him to free us from the poison of sin. “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.”