Good Friday April 14, 1995 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses and said, “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!”
Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 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.” So Moses prayed for the people.
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.” 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, he lived.
IN THE NAME OF OUR CRUCIFIED LORD AND SAVIOR, DEAR FELLOW REDEEMED;
How many people here this Good Friday like snakes? How many of us would bend down and pick up that grass snake, harmless as it is, that has slithered across our path? Snakes just aren’t something that turns us on or that we want to look at too often.
And yet, in our text today, we find people looking at a snake. They were not looking with revulsion or dread, but with eagerness and anticipation. To the people of Israel at that time, the bronze serpent was a promise of help in some extremely serious trouble. Not only that, the bronze snake also pointed them ahead to an even better promise of help for some even more serious trouble. Come with me this Good Friday as we continue our series of sermons on the pictures that foreshadowed Christ in the Old Testament and look at:
Shadows of the Savior – The Bronze Snake
I. The poison still is fatal
II. The antidote still is effective
III. The look still is required
I. The poison still is fatal
So close and yet so far – that’s how the people of Israel must have felt on the day of our text. Four hundred thirty years earlier Jacob (Israel) and his family had left their homeland of Canaan and migrated to Egypt to stay alive during the famine. God had promised them that he would bring their descendants back to Canaan, that land flowing with milk and honey. But the Israelites forgot. Then along came the Exodus and the return to the Promised Land began under the leadership of Moses. But the journey did not go the way they expected. It led to travel through a hot and dusty desert, travel beset with many difficulties. Each time, though, when Moses called on the Lord, help was provided. Manna fell from heaven and continued to do so. Water came out of rocks, quails miraculously flew over their camp, and their clothing and shoes never wore out. Still Israel forgot. When they drew near Canaan the first time and sent the spies, their terrifying report spoke of walled cities and giant warriors so frightening that Israel again forgot the Lord and his mighty hand. To train them, God had them wander for forty years in the desert until every Israelite over the age of twenty had died, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, who had trusted the Lord.
Now they could almost see the land. Between them and the land flowing with milk and honey stood only the kingdom of Edom, the descendants of their relative, Esau. Moses diplomatically asked for permission to journey through, but Edom answered, “Don’t even think about it.” Rather than fight relatives, Moses led the Israelites back again into the desert, backtracking those long miles through difficult desert , to enter the promised land through a route. that went around the land of Edom.
So close and yet so far. Perhaps they were even thinking that they would never reach the land, that it was all a hoax, as they plodded again through some of the worst desert country to be found anywhere, with heat and wind that never seemed to cease. We can partially understand when it says “they became impatient on the way,” testy and tired because of the route. We can somewhat understand this reaction from people whose hopes appeared to be dashed to the ground. But we cannot agree with their conclusions. The Bible says, “They spoke against God and against Moses.” They still were forgetting. How often and how much did God have to do for them before they would trust him? He to whom they had promised love and loyalty, worship, and obedience, whose praises they had sung many a time when he had delivered them, now was criticized and spoken against. They defied his leadership, complained about the bread he gave them, and doubted his guidance.
Their punishment is recorded in few words in our text. “Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.” This was a new generation of Israelites, but they had the same sins and needed the same lessons. They needed to learn that God is not someone to trifle with. Venomous snakes bit them. The original says “fiery snakes.” This description might refer either to their copper color or to the burning wounds their bites caused. Travelers in that desert region tell us that, even today, large poisonous snakes, marked with deep red spots and stripes, are found there in abundance, and that the sand is marked with slithery lines where those snakes have crawled. Perhaps God had protected the Israelites from the snakes up to this point and now withdrew that protection. At any rate, the snakes entered the camp and bit the people. Wholesale death seemed the inevitable result.
So what are we thinking? “Serves them right. They got what they had coming.” Is that our reaction? Or, “What was the matter with them? Would they never learn?” Careful, my friends. We have walked in Israel’s shoes, or should we say sandals, more times than we realize or care to admit. Compared to Israel, we have it easy. Most of us have no real material needs, and yet we complain. We complain about the difficulty of making a living these days or about how our neighbor makes a better living than we do. We complain about the weakness that hits our bodies and the pain and suffering that go with it, meanwhile ignoring the blessed fact that we are still living and breathing. We complain about our roles in life because we think somebody else has something better. Like Israel of old, we forget. We forget what a God we have, how many times he has helped us in the past, and how all his promises hold true forever and ever. Like Israel of old, we make the mistake of lowering our eyes from the Great Giver to what he gives or doesn’t give, and, as a result, we grumble and groan. Rather than point the finger at Israel of old, let’s turn it around to point it at ourselves.
What’s the problem? Isn’t it the bite of sin that sends its poison through our whole system? We’ve been bitten, and we don’t even know or want to know it. Let all of us look at ourselves today. Can’t we feel sin’s poison going through our systems, affecting our minds and what they thought this past week, our mouths and what they said, our hands and what they did? We need to feel that poison, and even more so, to realize we’re dead people because of it.
II. The antidote still is effective
The people of Israel realized their sin that day out in the desert. As all around them their friends and relatives were dying, they came to their senses. Humbly, penitently they came to Moses and confessed, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you.” Earnestly, confidently they asked, “Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” Moses, faithful leader that he was, did just that. And God, faithful loving Father that he always is, answered. Up on a pole in the middle of their camp went that snake made out of bronze. That bronze snake itself was not some miraculous cure. It was a sign of God’s promise that he would heal them. Without God’s promise, that snake was ridiculous, just some inanimate object. But because of God’s promise it was a beautiful sign, a sign that he would hear and heal. Later, Israel carried that bronze snake around for about eight centuries, wherever they went, polishing it, preserving it, even worshiping it till God had to command King Hezekiah to destroy it. But the day of our text it was a sign and a symbol of God’s promise of help and healing.
See any shadows of the Savior? Let us now go now some 1,500 years later to Jerusalem. Jesus was sitting with Nicodemus, who had come to him by night and was inquiring about his teachings. Jesus told him, “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.” [John 3:14-15]
Did you hear that? Jesus said that bronze snake in the desert was a shadow of him – in several ways. First, consider that the bronze snake looked like a real snake but was without poison. So Christ became like us, took on our human nature, but without its poison of sin. Secondly, consider that the snake was not made of precious silver or gold but of common metals. So Christ left his golden throne of heaven and came to this earth to share in our ordinary human flesh and blood. Thirdly, consider that the snake brought the Israelites healing through God’s promises. Christ has brought us healing through hanging on the pole of that cross. With his perfect suffering and death he has paid for all sin and provided the only antidote that relieves sin’s poison. With his perfect payment for sin he has canceled the sure death in hell to which sin’s poison condemned us. Fourthly, just as the snake on the pole was the only remedy for Israelites who were fatally bitten, so Christ on the cross is the only remedy for souls bitten by sin.
Look at the cross this Good Friday! That’s what Lent is all about, time to look at the cross. What does it really mean to me? Is it something like what Israel later made out of that bronze snake? Do I polish it, wear it, put it up on the bedroom wall and that’s about all? Or do I think it guarantees me no more pain, no more problems, no more burdens – just success and happiness in this world? No, my friends, look at the cross again. By itself it’s nothing, just like that bronze snake. But because of what our God has done on it, because of his payment for all sins, it promises me the ultimate. It tells me that I don’t have to be afraid; that my sins are gone; that God is my Father; that heaven is my home; that though things may not always go the way I want them to go in this world, they will go the way he wants, and his ways will be right. That cross, thank God, tells me that the antidote is still effective.
III. The look still is required
Can we picture the scene in Israel’s camp that day? Up on that pole in the center of that camp was the bronze snake. No matter who was bitten or how far the poison had entered his system, if that person looked – not at himself, not at his burning sores, but at that snake – he recovered. Some may have scoffed, but anyone who looked at that bronze snake lived.
That look is still necessary. And that’s why we are here today. We sing it, and confidently by the working of God’s Spirit, we believe it. “I am trusting you, Lord Jesus, trusting only you, trusting you for full salvation, free and true.” Good Friday is looking time, time to look again at Jesus on that cross. By that I mean much more than just a casual glance. We need to look and believe, “This is God’s Son and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.” We need to look and believe, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Just as with Israel that day, we all need to look for ourselves. Paul said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). He didn’t say, “Let your parents, your spouse, your children, or your pastor believe, and you will be saved.” No, the look of faith is individual, and it is still effective. Good Friday is also praying time, time to pray again to our gracious God, for he only can cause each one of us to look up to Jesus, our Lamb of Calvary and Savior divine.