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15. The Cure For Snake Bites (Num. 21:4-9)

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Does anyone here like snakes? I don’t, that’s for sure. Many people think that Africa is full of snakes but the truth is that, in all my trips to Africa, I have never seen one there. In 2009 I was in Lusaka, Zambia, at the home of some missionaries from Canada. When I was leaving their house to walk back to my room in the mission guest house, they said, “Be sure to walk in the middle of the laneway away from the bushes on either side. A few days ago we killed a cobra in our backyard!” That’s the closest I have come to a snake in Africa.

One time I was going to lead a team from our church on a short-term missions trip to Burkina Faso, West Africa. At one of the preparatory meetings with the team, one of the questions that was asked a couple of times was: “Are there snakes there?”

Some years ago, a young woman at our church encountered a snake in her apartment here in Canada. She came out of the shower and discovered a snake in her bedroom - that’s too close for comfort!

Well, in our passage today, the Israelites also encountered deadly snakes. The subject of our study is: “Faith – the cure for sin.” The theological principle that we learn from this passage is that salvation is by the grace of God alone through faith in Jesus Christ.

Consider the background to this story for a moment. Just before the Israelites were about to enter the promised land, Aaron had died because of his rebellion against God at the waters of Meribah (20:24) and the Israelites had been mourning his death for 30 days. Then they continued their journey toward Canaan and, as had happened many times before, “the people became impatient because of the journey” (21:4).

Impatience often causes us to complain against God. Complaints against God are the expression of discontent with God. Sometimes we might not even be aware of what we are doing, but...

I. Discontent Is Sin Against God (21:5)

The Israelites frequently expressed their discontent and complained against God. From a human perspective you can understand why. How would you feel if you had traipsed for 40 years in the scorching heat of a barren wilderness, if you had eaten the same food day after day, if your fathers and uncles etc. had all died along the way and you were left all alone to face the unknown future, if you didn't know where your next meal was coming from, if you were thirsty and there was no water in sight, and now one of your beloved leaders was dead?

But for all these years, God had proven himself faithful. Surely, they knew by now that he would bring them through, that he would provide for them and protect them. Even though this generation had not seen the Red Sea miracle, they had seen God’s faithful day-after-day provision for the last 20 years at least. How much more evidence did they need? Why did they still not trust him? I think the answer is because of discontent and discouragement.

So, once again the people spoke against God and against Moses. “Why have you led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread or water, and we detest this wretched food!” (21:5). It seems like this has become their “wilderness refrain.” In fact, they had used these or similar words of complaint at least nine times by now. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die here? ... We wish we had stayed in Egypt... There’s no food or water... We hate this detestable bread – it’s worthless and contemptible.”

These were direct accusations against God’s gracious provision all these years. They threw God’s grace and goodness back in his face. In fact, their complaint was completely untrue and their discontent was thoroughly unwarranted. They complained that they had “no water,” when in fact God had provided them with water over and over again. They complained that they had “no bread,” when in fact God had faithfully provided food every day.

Their real complaint was that they did not like the food – “this worthless bread” is how they described it. They considered God’s provision to be “worthless.” I wonder sometimes how often we consider God’s provision for us to be worthless. Oh, we may not actually use that word but in our attitudes and ingratitude isn’t that what we say to God? I sometimes wonder how often our complaints are unwittingly complaints directly against God. You may not mean it that way but ultimately that’s who you are complaining against, for “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). And yet, often we don't appreciate what God has given us, do we?

Like the Israelites, we think it should be better - not just bread but meat and all the trimmings; not just water but good, tasty drinks; not just a 3 bedroom home in the suburbs but an estate in the country; not just a middle management job but an executive position; not just able to meet the monthly rent but able to take exotic trips once in a while.

It’s so easy to become discontented with our lot in life. We seem to have very short memories when it comes to God’s provision, protection, and power. We seem to operate on such a short time line that, not long after one manifestation of God’s provision or protection, we expect another display of his power. And if that doesn’t happen, we become discouraged and discontented and start thinking bad thoughts about God. There’s no knowing how critical of God we can be when our hearts are filled with rebellion and discontent. And the root of discontent and rebellion is unbelief.

A critical spirit spreads like gangrene so that even God’s grace in Christ comes under attack. Nothing can satisfy the human heart until you are reconciled to God, until you have an intimate, saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ. And even then, we have to watch our hearts. Negativity, disunity, complaining, and accusations spring from our hearts so easily and so quickly. If you allow a root of bitterness to spring up (Heb. 12:15), it can destroy you. Only God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit can fully and eternally satisfy our hearts. And yet, so many people are complaining and critical. Why is that? Because of rebellion which is rooted in self-centeredness and, ultimately, in distrust of God.

If you don’t maintain an intimate, vibrant relationship with God through Jesus Christ, you will never be satisfied - you’ll always want more or something different. As St. Augustine said: “Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in Thee.” Or, as King Solomon observed, everything under the sun is futility without God. He tried to find satisfaction in wine, women, wealth, and music. “All that my eyes desired, I did not deny them… When I considered all that I had accomplished and what I had labored to achieve, I found everything to be futile and a pursuit of the wind. Here is nothing to be gained under the sun” (Eccl. 2:10ff.) He continues, “I observed all the work of God and concluded that a person is unable to discover the work that is done under the sun. Even though a person labors hard to explore it, he cannot find it; even if a wise person claims to know it, he is unable to discover it” (Eccl. 8:17). What then was Solomon’s conclusion? 13 When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is this: fear God and keep his commands, because this is for all humanity. 14 For God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl. 12:13-14).

Only when your heart is right with God and you live with an eternal perspective will you be fully satisfied. On previous occasions when the Israelites had complained, God had responded in grace and provided what they wanted. But this time, God did not provide them with what they wanted. Enough is enough. The time had come for punishment for their sin - their constant sinful words, actions, and attitudes; their constant complaining and discontent.

There comes a time when...

II. Ultimately, God judges sin (21:6)

“Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit them so that many Israelites died” (21:6). This time, God did not respond to their complaints with the provision of food and water but with immediate judgement in the form of poisonous snake bites. This would certainly get your attention, wouldn’t it? Deadly snake bites.

The black mamba is one of the world’s deadliest snakes. It is the longest species of venomous snakes in Africa. It is the second longest venomous snake in the world after the King Cobra. It is also one of the fastest moving snakes on earth, if not the fastest. The venom of the black mamba is one of the most rapid-acting. In severe cases, a bite from a black mamba can kill an adult human in as little as 20 minutes. In fact, a black mamba can kill an elephant.

Some time ago, my wife and I heard a missionary tell his life story. He grew up as a missionary kid in a remote village of Ivory Coast where they had deadly snakes. One day, when he and his little friends were out playing, one of the boys was bitten by a deadly snake. Being 100 miles from a hospital, there was nothing they could do. He told how he held his little seven year old friend in his arms, how the little boy’s arm, where he had been bitten, swelled up so much that the skin of his arm split. The pain was excruciating and all he could tell his little friend was, “It’s alright. Soon the pain will be over and you will be in heaven with Jesus.” He held him until he died and then he and his friends had to bury him. A deadly snake bite for which they had no cure.

Death is the last enemy for which we have no cure. But one day even death will be destroyed by Jesus Christ. When he returns in power and glory, death will be swallowed up in victory.

None of us knows when we will die. None of the passengers on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, knew that it would be shot down over eastern Ukraine and that all 283 passengers and 15 crew would be killed that day. None of the passengers on TransAsia Airways flight 222, flying from Taiwan to Penhu Island on July 23, 2014, knew that the plane would crash during the approach to land in bad weather at Magong Airport and that, of the 58 people on board, only 10 would survive. None of the passengers on Algerian Airlines flight 5017, flying from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, to Algiers, Algeria, on July 24, 2014, knew that it would crash near Gossi, Mali and that all 110 passengers and 6 crew would die that day.

None of us knows when we will die and none of us wants to die, do we? But all of us will die in due course, unless the Lord Jesus comes in our lifetime. That’s the Christian hope - the coming of the Lord while we are alive. Satan doesn’t want us to have hope in Christ. He doesn’t want anyone to trust Christ for salvation. Nor does He want Christians to have the joy of their salvation. He wants us to abandon our faith in Christ or, at the very least, to rob us of the joy of our salvation in Christ. And one of his primary methods of doing this is through discontent and discouragement.

Snake bites, then, are a picture of God’s judgement for sin. And the only recourse when we recognize that we have sinned is to repent and cast ourselves on the mercy of God.

III. Repentance Is The Only Escape From Judgement (21:7-9)

How quickly the Israelites recanted and confessed their sin. When they recognized that God was judging them, how quickly they changed their tune from complaining and discontent to repentance and confession. “The people then came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Intercede with the Lord so that he will take the snakes away from us” (21:7). The Israelites recognized that this was God’s judgement on them for their sinful complaints and discontent. The prospect of dying certainly got their attention.

God’s judgement can only be assuaged by repentance. That’s why the people responded as they did. They knew that they had sinned and needed to get right with God. The only cure for “snake bites” is repentance and confession of sin, which is exactly what the people did. They said, “We have sinned,” and they named the sin - “speaking against the Lord and against you (Moses) (21:7a). And they begged Moses to intercede for them with God again to “take the snakes away from us. So Moses interceded for the people” (21:7b). We don't know what Moses said, but we do know that...

Once more, God responded in grace. God’s gracious response was to provide a substitute in the form of a brass serpent on a pole. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake image and mount it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will recover” (21:8).

Why did it have to be set up on a pole? Because it was a sign for everyone to see and because it was available for everyone. All they had to do was look at it and they would be healed. Anyone who looked at it with understanding and belief (that’s the connotation) would live and not die. “So Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten, and he looked at the bronze snake, he recovered” (21:9).

The cure for “snake bites” is a look of faith. The cause of death becomes the source of life. This was not some sort of mid-eastern magic or ritual. This was a test of faith. Were they willing to look at a symbol of the cause of their death in order to have healing, forgiveness, and life? This could only be a look of faith for it would take faith to look at a brass serpent in the expectation that they would be healed, wouldn’t it? Just as the sacrifice of innocent animals in the O.T. was sufficient for sinful people to live, so here, those who were dying because of snake bites could be restored to life by looking at the image of a dead snake. The only pre-requisite was that they must identify with the substitute. In the case of an innocent animal, they identified with it by a touch of faith - laying their hand on the animal’s head. Here they must identify with the brass snake by a look of faith.

The question is: How would the Israelites have viewed this remedy? How would they have understood it? Would they intuitively connect it with the garden of Eden, where sin came through the “bite” of the serpent and death through sin? Would they have understand that the brass serpent was symbolic of what they were and what they deserved? Would they understand that, instead of killing them, a look of faith at the brass serpent would heal them? Would they understand that when the brass serpent was raised up on a pole, its activity was dead, its bite was impossible, its poison impotent, and that they were free from its tyranny?

The question is: Would the Israelites see in the symbol a reflection of the reality to which the symbol pointed? That either they would die or a substitute must take their place, that what was causing their death must itself be put to death in order for them to live, that death was the consequence of their sin - unless God provided a way of escape. The way of escape was through God’s provision of a substitute sacrifice that atoned for their sin, and their acceptance of that substitute sacrifice indicated by a look of faith, without which they would die.

So, the gospel of God’s grace to them was that the death of their sin must be put on public display and they must trust in God’s word that their look of faith would give them life. To look in faith at the symbol of what was causing their death is a “paradoxical act of faith in a God who controls all power over life or death” (R. Dennis Cole, Numbers, 350). This, of course, is an illustration of the death of Christ by which people who are dying spiritually can be saved, healed by the death of a Substitute on the cross. This brass serpent looks forward to the one final sacrificial Substitute in the death of Jesus Christ.

God said that “the wages of sin is death” but God also said that “the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Jesus took on himself our sin and died our death to satisfy the holy demands of God against our sin, so that by faith in him we would not have to die eternally, but have the present possession of eternal life. In fact, in speaking with Nicodemus, Jesus himself refers to this passage in Num. 21 as analogous to his own death. He said, 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Anyone who believes in him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. 19 This is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil” (Jn. 3:14-19).

In explaining the nature and necessity of new birth, Jesus reminds Nicodemus of the O.T. experience of the brass serpent. The analogy is as follows...

1. Sin is like a venomous snake bite - it will kill you. It courses through your entire body so that no part of it escapes the deadly venom. We are tainted by sin in every part of our being. Of course, the analogy of the snake bite goes back even further to Genesis 3, where sin was introduced to our original parents by Satan through the serpent. And thus, the disease of sin spread through the entire human race – i.e. sin permanently corrupted all the human race; it was permanently engraved on our spiritual DNA. Thus, like the Israelites, we need healing from the disease of sin. As with the venomous snake bite, there is no time to be wasted to save your life. Thus, God, at just the right time, provided his Son to be our Saviour, so that by his death we can live.

So first, the analogy is that sin is like a venomous snake bite. Second, the analogy is that...

2. Sin demands God’s punishment. Because the Israelites sinned by complaining against God, they were punished. God does not overlook or excuse or water down sin. Sin is sin and God is holy – he cannot tolerate sin. God said, The person who sins is the one who will die” (Ezek. 18:20). Sin is rebellion against God, disobedience. Sin blinds us and binds us so that we cannot please God, cannot accept the truth of God about ourselves. Sin separates us from God. This was true of Nicodemus, who approached Jesus at night - a reflection of the darkness of his soul. He needed new birth. He needed his spiritual eyes opened.

The analogy then is, first, that sin is like a venomous snake bite; second, that sin demands God’s punishment. And third...

3. God has provided a way of escape. In our place, God offered his Son, the only perfect substitute, the sinless One who died for sinners like us. By looking to Christ by faith, we can be cleansed from sin, just as the Israelites could be healed by looking at the brass serpent. Jesus also said, “‘ 32 As for me, if I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.’ 33 He said this to indicate what kind of death he was about to die” (Jn.12:32-33).

Remember our thesis: Salvation is by the grace of God alone through faith in Jesus Christ. Our sin was laid on Jesus. He bore our sins in his own body on the cross. He took our curse and bore the punishment of God for our sins in our place. He died our death so that we could live his life. And by identifying with him on the cross (i.e. by analogously looking at the brass serpent on the pole), we are healed! This is incredibly good news.

And yet for some it is so hard to accept. They ask…

(a) How could someone else pay the penalty for my sin?

(b) Isn't that cruel of God to hold a sinless person responsible for other people’s sins?

(c) How can I trust Christ’s atoning sacrifice for my eternal salvation? Can’t I earn God’s favor for myself? How do I know it’s true?

Here are the answers...

(a) Our substitute had to be perfectly acceptable to God. Obviously, God could not accept a sinner to substitute for other sinners – that would be like a murderer on death row substituting for another murderer on death row. Each must pay his own penalty. But there was one person who was suitable and acceptable as our substitute – Jesus, God’s holy, sinless Son.

(b) God did not cruelly lay our sins on Jesus. Rather, Jesus willingly agreed to take them and pay the penalty for them. He and his Father were in eternal agreement as to his taking our place on the cross.

(c) Trusting God’s provision for our salvation is so hard for people to accept. But that’s the nature of faith - not blind, unthinking faith but faith in the God who has revealed himself to us in creation, in our conscience, in history, in the person of his Son, and in his Word. When you consider all that God has revealed to us about himself, is it really that hard to trust him?

Final Remarks

Two things set this event in our passage apart. First, the very quick response of the people, whose unqualified repentance was accompanied by an unqualified confession. Second, the means of their salvation: (a) It was a simple remedy - to look in faith – which anyone of any age or condition could do. (b) It had an immediate effect. (c) It was a complete remedy - nothing to add, no other conditions, nothing else to do, the only and all-sufficient remedy.

And so it was, that “whenever someone was bitten, and he looked at the bronze snake, he recovered (21:9). God always keeps his word. God does what he says. If you don't look to Christ in faith, you will die in eternal separation from God. If you do look to Christ in faith, you will live in eternal fellowship with God in heaven.

In this event, we see a picture of our salvation, that in the death of Christ...

1. He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it away by nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14).

2. “What the law could not do since it was weakened by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh as a sin offering” (Rom. 8:3).

3. (God) made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

4. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree; so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).

Remember the primary theological principle of our study: Salvation is by the grace of God alone through faith in Jesus Christ alone. And your faith can be expressed in something as simple and easy as a look to Him. Will you do that today? As the old hymn says:

There is life for a look at the Crucified One,
There is life at this moment for thee;
Then look, sinner, look unto Him and be saved,
Unto Him who was nailed to the tree.

Look! look! look and live!
There is life for a look at the Crucified One,
There is life at this moment for thee.

Oh, why was He there as the Bearer of sin,

If on Jesus thy guilt was not laid?
Oh, why from His side flowed the sin-cleansing blood,
If His dying thy debt has not paid?

It is not thy tears of repentance or prayers,
But the blood, that atones for the soul;
On Him, then, who shed it, thou mayest at once
Thy weight of iniquities roll.

Then doubt not thy welcome, since God has declared
There remaineth no more to be done;
That once in the end of the world He appeared,
And completed the work He begun.

Then take with rejoicing from Jesus at once
The life everlasting He gives;
And know with assurance, thou never canst die
Since Jesus, thy Righteousness, lives.

Related Topics: Christian Life

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