Our Great Salvation, 3

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Saved by Looking

Numbers 21:8

To quote the Great Detective:

My dear Watson! You see everything yet observe nothing.

Most people are very good at seeing everything but seeing is not the same thing as understanding. There is a difference between looking at something and moving on and looking at something but stopping to linger and really study what you are looking at. The Lord gave Moses these admittedly strange instructions:

Make a bronze replica of one of these snakes and attach it to the top of a pole; anyone who is bitten shall live if he simply looks at it!” (Numbers 21:8 TLB)

Now, we know this has something to do with the Cross of Christ, and we’ll get into that in due course. Isaac Watts really understood what the Lord was getting at with His instructions to Moses. Dr Watts understood completely when the Cross of Christ became powerful in the life of a sinner:

 
When I survey the wondrous Cross,
On which the Prince of Glory died.

Just looking at or glancing at the Cross of Christ doesn’t do anybody any good. It must be surveyed; a sinner must stop, look, gaze at, try to understand what the Cross is all about before the Cross does him any good. You’ve watched surveyors at work. You’ve seen the equipment they use; the care they take as they do their work. The Cross deserves more than a passing glance! It needs to be surveyed, with care and thought. When a sinner does that, his life forever changes.

Let’s examine the context in which Moses was given this instruction and relate the snake on a pole to the Savior on a tree.

First the good, then the bad

It all started with a victory in battle.

Then the people of Israel vowed to the Lord that if he would help them conquer the king of Arad and his people, they would completely annihilate all the cities of that area. (Numbers 21:2 TLB)

It was a “token war.” The king of Arad had taken some Israelites captive and the Israelites asked God for help. God heard them and delivered the Canaanites into the hands of Israel. The nation experienced a great victory because they trusted their God. They often did not, but this time they time they did and the Lord honored them. We may well imagine that this act of God on behalf of His people was a great encouragement to them. Their faith was definitely an “up and down” proposition! Sometimes they had faith, usually they didn’t. Here they did, and God came through for them in glorious fashion. From here on in, the people of Israel would trust God with no reservation. Okay, I made that up. Actually, coming off the high of victory, the people would sink to the depths once again.

Then the people of Israel returned to Mount Hor, and from there continued southward along the road to the Red Sea in order to go around the land of Edom. The people were very discouraged… (Numbers 21:4 TLB)

You read that last sentence and you can’t help but shake your head! What did these people, who had just faced the enemy and won, have to be discouraged about? Well, as it happens, the people had to make a detour in their journey to the Promised Land thanks to the dreaded Edomites. They would not allow Israel to wander across their borders for any reason whatsoever. So each step they took around Edom seemed to take them further away from their objective. To the people, it must have seemed like they were going backward instead of forward. They had been so close; the end was virtually in sight and now they had to all the way around again. Once again, they had to pick up and wander around in the desert.

Moses was determined NOT to have problems with Edom, and his people became irritated with his leadership. In truth, their anger was really directed toward the Lord because Moses was simply obeying Him.

So, flushed with their recent victory in battle, the people’s confidence was now in themselves. They forgot that their victory was due to the Lord, not to their fighting skills. So, for the eighth time, the people began to complain.

Complain, complain

they began to murmur against God and to complain against Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness?” they whined. “There is nothing to eat here, and nothing to drink, and we hate this insipid manna.” (Numbers 21:5 TLB)

Their complaint? They hated this manna, and since the manna was a direct blessing from God, they were really complaining about His goodness. There are Christians like that, who would complain about the steak they are eating, preferring to have chicken, in spite of the fact they just “gave thanks” for the steak! It’s mind-boggling how easy and how natural it is for Christians to complain about anything that has to do with the things of God. We complain about the length of sermons; about the color of the church carpet, about the blandness of gospel music, we complain about the pews. Yes, we even complain about God Himself because we don’t understand Him. We could take a lesson from how God dealt with the complaining Israelites because, in many ways, our behavior is worse than theirs.

So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among them to punish them, and many of them were bitten and died. (Numbers 21:6 TLB)

Hands up all you Christians really love God’s grace! Yes, we are living under grace and when we act like petulant children God does not send poisonous snakes to teach us a lesson. Most of us would be dead. But there is a high price to pay for treating God like we often do, and that’s one lesson: sin brings judgment. There is no way to avoid it. And when we treat God with disdain, even though we probably won’t die, we will experience something unpleasant, even if it’s just a hardening of the heart to God’s presence.

God had never left His people during their march in the desert; He was still fighting their battles, He was still feeding them, and they were still complaining.

Something else we may learn from this story is that complaining is habit forming! The more you find fault with God or the things of God, the more faults you WILL find and the more outrageous your whining will become.

And another thing, these snakes were not supernatural, they were just natural, run-of-the-mill deadly snakes. In other words, God used naturally occurring things to exact judgment on His people. Could He have stopped the snakes? Of course He could have; He probably did many times in the past!  This time, He allowed the snakes to do what they would normally do. You see, this is what happens when you step away from and out of God’s hedge of protection: you open yourself up all kinds of hurt that He would have normally shielded your from.

On account of their sin, the people received something – not from heaven like the manna, bur from the desert: the bite of snakes. In the face of all the deaths, the people seemed to snap to their senses:

We have sinned, for we have spoken against Jehovah and against you. Pray to him to take away the snakes.” (Numbers 21:7 TLB)

The people admitted they were wrong. Did they change after this? No, they were still sinners; they would rebel again. But for now, it was enough for them to admit they were in the wrong; that God was the injured party. But how can God know they’re confession was genuine? Well, the people would have to give evidence of their faith in Him, so He established a way for them to prove their faith:

Make a bronze replica of one of these snakes and attach it to the top of a pole; anyone who is bitten shall live if he simply looks at it!” (Numbers 21:8 TLB)

Healing

Conservative Bible scholars see this incident is one of the great miracles of the Old Testament. This is surely among the most, if not THE most important miracle in the Bible for this reason:

And as Moses in the wilderness lifted up the bronze image of a serpent on a pole, even so I must be lifted up upon a pole, so that anyone who believes in me will have eternal life. (John 3:14, 15 TLB)

Somehow, in some way, that serpent on the pole represented the Cross of Christ and everything it stands for. The serpent of brass was a stunning type of Christ who, when He was hoisted high on the Cross, brought salvation to all who looked to Him as surely as those who looked at that serpent were healed. God gave the people a serpent of brass an agent of healing, to heal the poisonous bites inflicted by real snakes, and, as Isaiah 53 says, “…by His stripes we are healed.”

God gave them a cold, lifeless serpent of brass to also remind them of what He was able to do for them in the desert: protect them, care for them, and heal them.  The blessing of healing came from the power of God being released by the faith of the people. They looked IN FAITH at the serpent on the pole, God honored their evidence of faith, and He healed them.

In this incredible Old Testament type of salvation by faith in a Savior who died high on a Cross, the brass serpent was just that. What healed the individual was HIS own action of looking up at the symbol of his healing. Jesus Christ, who died upon the Cross, died for the sins of the world, but the only people who benefit from this ultimate sacrifice of the Son of God are those who look up to Him in faith.

For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that anyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life… (John 3:16 TLB)

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