From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that He take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:9-15
What I love about Israel’s time in the wilderness is that we get a picture of what the Christian life is like. Israel’s story is our story, and their experience is our experience. Just like Israel, Christians have been rescued, redeemed, and re-created, but we are not home yet. Our lives are spent wandering around this broken, fallen world as “aliens & strangers” awaiting our true home. Until we get there, we still have sin’s influence (indwelling sin) seeking to recapture and enslave us again. So, the Christian life is hard. Every day is a fight for faith. We live in a place where things are not the way they should be, and yet we long for them to be the way they ought to be. So, the normal Christian life is a struggle to trust and believe in the reality of who God is, and all that He has done to save us.
Have you ever wondered why God didn’t immediately glorify us when we trusted in Jesus? Instead, He leaves us in the wilderness to deal with indwelling sin – why? The writer of Deuteronomy tells us why God had Israel wander in the wilderness for 40 years, “And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that He might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. And He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Deut. 8:2-3)
God led Israel in the wilderness to humble them and to test them, not because He didn’t know what was in their hearts, but so that Israel could discover what was in their hearts. He did this so they could see how sinful their hearts were and how dependent they really were on God for everything. But sometimes, just being told that the human heart is poisoned with sin is not enough. We have to see and feel it, and in Numbers 21:4-9, we see and feel it!
Israel has been wandering in the wilderness for over 30 years. They are tired and worn out. They’ve been eating the same manna every day, and they long for something different. Who God is and what God has done for them is not good enough anymore, so they grumble against God and Moses in verse 5, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” For over 30 years, Israel has grumbled and complained against God, and yet every time God has been gracious and merciful to provide Israel with what they need. But they still doubt God and grumble, believing God and His provisions are not enough. So, in verse 6, because Israel keeps turning away from God seeking satisfaction in other things, God sends poisonous serpents into Israel to make their sin more real to them, and it works! The people realize how poisonous their sin is, and how it deserves death. Verse 7 says, “The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that He take away the serpents from us.'”
Israel realizes trying to find life in things other than God is not just poisonous but is actually killing and destroying them. So, they cry out to Moses to intercede for them, and he does. God has mercy on them. How? By way of a bronze serpent. Why a bronze serpent? Because Israel needs a substitute serpent, death, or poison to be healed. Verse 9 says, “All who looked upon the substitute serpent lived.”
In John 3:9-15, we find out that Jesus is what that substitute serpent pointed to! Jesus becomes the curse in order to heal us. John 3:14-15 says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Jesus takes the place of the poisoned person. Jesus becomes our sin. He becomes our curse. He becomes the serpent and suffers the penalty for what our sin deserves. When we look at “the Son of Man lifted up” on the cross and trust that He took our place, suffering what we deserved, we find healing for our sin-sick souls. We find the peace and satisfaction that our hearts long for. We find life from the One who gave up His life for us. Look to Jesus and live!