Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, May 25, 2018
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God's Cure for the Disease of Sin

Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21

The Old Testament has its fair share of strange and mysterious stories, and the bronze serpent certainly belongs on that list. For one thing, it’s strange to find a story in the account of the Exodus about God telling people to make a graven image of something when the Ten Commandments, given during the Exodus, specifically said, “Don’t make any graven images.” And there are some other mysterious elements to the story.

It happens late in the story of the Exodus, near the end. God has already provided for these people numerous times. He has given them water from the rock, manna from the sky, and protected them from numerous enemies. And yet, Israel continues to grumble and complain.

At this point, they have already been turned away from the Promised Land and told they could not go in for forty years. There have been other setbacks as well. They wanted to pass through the land of Edom on their way to the Promised Land, and the Edomites, their own relatives, told them to get lost. And they are grieving at this point: Miriam and Aaron, two of their most important leaders, have died. And they are growing impatient with the whole experience.

They pick up again with the same old complaints: “You brought us out here to die. There’s no water. There’s no good food. We hate manna, etc.”

So God sends “venomous snakes” among them, or something like that. There’s a mystery here, too. Some Bible translations render it as “fiery serpents” or “winged serpents.” “Fiery” could just mean venomous. “Winged” could mean fast.

But there is another, stranger possibility. The Hebrew word here is SERAPHIM, that’s the same word used to describe the winged creatures that hover around God’s throne in the vision the prophet Isaiah experiences in chapter 6 of his book. That’s a pretty weird possibility. The job of the seraphim is to bring glory to God. Perhaps the meaning here is that these venomous serpents are sent by God to bring him glory by vindicating him against the complaints of the Israelites. I don’t know, but it’s weird.

Snakes were a powerful symbol in the ancient Near East world. Some of the symbolism is obvious, like death. But they also represented wisdom because of their unblinking eyes. They represented the powers of chaos. They also, rather

paradoxically, were sometimes used as symbols of good health, fertility, and even immortality. So the whole thing is weird and hard to understand.

But the people do understand that they are being bitten and dying, so they repent. They plead with Moses, “Ask God to take them away!”

But God does not. Instead, he tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it up on a pole. Those who look at it will be healed. It was sometimes believed in ancient Near East mythology that the image of a thing could protect from the actual thing. So maybe that’s the point here. Instead of God removing the cause of death, God provides a means of healing. God is a healer of ills rather than just a remover of ills.

The story is what Bible scholars call a “type,” that is a story in the Old Testament that points to Christ and can only be really understood in the light of Christ.

In John three, as Jesus speaks to Nicodemus, he relates this story to himself. “The Son of Man must be lifted up.” The same verb is applied to Christ two other times in the New Testament. One is John 8:28, where Jesus talks about how he will be lifted up on the cross. The other is Acts 2:33, where Peter talks about Christ being lifted up to the place of highest honor in heaven at his Ascension. The two events are linked. There is no glory without the cross, no honor without sacrifice.

God’s answer to the “sickness” of sin is to send his own Son in the image of sinful humanity. Just as the image of the serpent takes away the sickness of the snake bites, so God coming in the image of sinful and mortal man takes away the sickness of sin and death.

As the serpent was hung on a pole, so Jesus was hung on a cross. He became a curse, for the Old Testament had said “Anyone hung on a tree is cursed by God.” (Deuteronomy 21:23). Christ became the curse in order to set humanity free from the curse. Jesus had to die to bring about this cure. As Hebrews 9:22 says, “There is no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood.” For “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23).

That is the awful reality of sin. Because of our sin, our rebellion against God, we deserve death. Christ took the death that we deserve, and only in that way could we be set free from the curse of sin and death.

Compare the awful reality of sin with the wonderful, gracious love of God in the verses that follow:

“For God so loved the world.” This reminds us that salvation has its beginning with God. As much as we human beings might long for God, the initiative in salvation lies with God. If we are hungry for God, it is only because God has put that hunger inside his creatures. And without the love of God, we have no hope for salvation.

“He gave his only begotten son.” The Greek word there is MONOGENES, and it is the same word that the first century Hebrews used to talk about Isaac, the son of the promise born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. In that way they emphasized the immensity of the (almost) sacrifice of Isaac, which again, was another type of Christ found in the Old Testament. We only really understand Abraham offering Isaac when we see it fulfilled in Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, whom he did not withhold.

“So that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have the everlasting life of the world to come.” To believe in Christ begins with us acknowledging our own sin and then looking to him for the cure.

“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save it. So there is no judgment for those who trust him. But those who do not are already condemned.”

Augustine, the early Church bishop of Hippo said this, “God loves each of us as if there was only one of us to love.” Love rejected is a judgment on the one who is loved. It is not Jesus, in the end, who is on trial. It’s us. We’re on trial for what we do with him. In the end, God condemns no one. Those who reject God and his love condemn themselves. God has provided the cure for our sin. We condemn ourselves if we hate and reject God’s gift.

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