Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.
I love this text, John 3:16 is rightfully well remembered, yet so often we forget these wonderful texts surrounding it. The hiding of sin in the darkness and that fear of the light, that when we come into the light in Christ, confessing the truth of who we are, the darkness is taken away and all that is left is of God. That wonderful encouragement to have your conscience healed before God in Confession and Absolution. And then also this little verse, ‘just as the snake in the desert’.
When I say snake in the desert, you might think of when you found a brown snake, the fear and threat you felt; or you might think of Jesus tempted in the desert; even the serpent tempting Eve in the Garden (Mark 2:13; Genesis 3). And yet we heard today, this bronze snake lifted by Moses for the salvation of the Israelites (Numbers 21:4-9). The reason I love this text is that it helps open our eyes as Christians. It demonstrates that the Old Testament is always pointing to Christ Jesus. It is His story; it is our story. The Father Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, but God provided; the Father so loved the world He provided His only begotten Son (Genesis 22:2, 14). King David dancing almost naked down the street as the Ark of the Covenant entered the city; Christ humiliated on His way to the cross of God’s glorious victory (2 Samuel 6:14, 21-22). The snake on a stick (Numbers 21:4-9), the serpent on a tree (Genesis 3), Jesus lifted up on wood (Deuteronomy 21:23). Jesus is the fulfillment, the revelation of God’s ancient Word. And for all time that ancient history of God’s people, the Old Testament points to Him. Give thanks to God for He is good; His love endures forever (Psalm 107:1).
Our God, God Almighty, is not a changing God (Malachi 3:6). He has been with His people all through the ages, He is with us now. It’s just as we prayed earlier, ‘the redeemed of the Lord tell their story, those He redeemed from the hands of the enemy. They cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and He saved them from their distress. He sent out His word and healed them; He rescued them from the grave!’ (Psalm 107; Ephesians 2:1-10). This is the way He has always worked! He speaks and according to His Word things happen. And He shows His love to you in that He spoke generations ago and had His word written and preserved that you too might hear from Him and pass it on. That He might reveal Himself to you and through you. That we might be able to look back on our history, on the life of God’s people; as they too lived through pandemic, exile, war, and persecution.
Not just that we are united in greater and lesser suffering, not just that we serve the same God, that we share in His name on us all, but also that God works in the same way He always has. That we might hear how He strengthened His people in patience, in trust, in love, to do those works He had prepared for them to do (Ephesians 2:10). To know that the goal is Christ, yet He may give us a foretaste of what is to come, according to the word of His promise. That, just as we prayed, He sends out His word to heal us. That according to His promise, His sure and certain Word, we might be healed. But where is that word?
In the desert, trudging and suffering the Israelites grumbled and rejected God’s promise. So, God sent venomous snakes to attack; then the people in need turned to Moses for help from the Lord. They cried out just as we prayed. And the Lord told Moses to make a bronze snake raised on a stick, that the people might look at it to be save from the snakes. There are reasons and connections as to why it’s a bronze snake on a pole, like how the snake on a stick is a symbol of medicine; yet just to know that God tied His word of promise to this real image to save His people. But also, another thing, they look up to a snake to be saved from snakes.
And just the same, the Son of Man must be lifted up. Yes, so much more happens at His crucifixion yet this remains true. Those who look up to Jesus on the cross are saved, according to the Word. If the Israelites were saved from snakes by looking up to a snake, what are we saved from by looking to Jesus? We are saved from death, the wages of our sins; those failures we fight against in the New Life of Christ (Romans 6:23). We are saved from our fallen humanity, our inclination to sin, to serve ourselves, to rely only on created things, to envy what is not ours (Hebrews 2:14). When, trusting in God’s Word, we look to the crucifix, Jesus on that cross, we may have eternal life. He was lifted up for your salvation. The Word of God came to heal you. And in His mercy, He shows you this again today.
Have you ever wondered why there is a cross marked on the bread for Holy Communion? Why the pastor lifts the bread for the Words of Institution? It is the snake in the desert; it is Jesus lifted for your healing to everlasting life. Our Heavenly Father has tied His Word of promise, the promise of renewal, taking away of sin and guilt, everlasting life, and full common union with Christ Jesus, God and Man reconciled, He has tied His Word of promise to the bread and wine of Holy Communion. It is a mystery that today we have only scratched the surface of the connections God is making, the depth of the reasons He has revealed; and yet He sends His Word that the Spirit may open our eyes, to see Christ’s everlasting life for us from the cross in this Holy Meal. To see with Simeon as we sing with Him, ‘my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light to reveal you to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.’ (Luke 2:30-32).
And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now unto the final revelation. Amen.
Pastor Joseph Graham.