“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16 is one of the best known and most beloved verses in the Bible. It is familiar to people of every faith and denomination within Christendom. It has been set it to music many times, and we have at least one of those in the hymnals that we use. Most of us can quote this verse more easily than we can name our representatives in Washington.
But unless you were listening to our earlier Bible reading, you might not be so quick to remember its context. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” The context of John 3:16 is an historical reference to the events of Numbers 21.
And thus, we have a Messianic statement about a couple of important things. First, the Lord Jesus declares that the history of Numbers 21 is true. He implicitly tells us the miracle involved in the healing of those people bitten by the snakes is history. And if that is not the case then not a single word from the lips of Christ Jesus can ever be trusted. Then secondly, Jesus gave us authority to use Numbers 21 as the basis of a gospel message. We can, because He did.
What is it that the Lord wants us to see? It is that we have venom from the serpent of sin corrupting our blood – our very souls. Our cell phones inform us every day that not only are we are surrounded by the effects of sin, we, and our neighbors, are infected by sin more vigorously than COVID. All that we need to do is to look at our own bodies and souls to see the effects of the poison of sin. And if you have never looked in humble faith to the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, then that poison within you will guarantee your death and that the second death will sweep you into the Lake of Fire some day.
As I say, this is one of the few officially-approved portraits of Christ. Without a doubt there are hundreds of other snap-shots of the Lord Jesus in the Old Testament, but this is one that even He recognized and authorized. And this means that it is important. Please listen to the history, the gospel application and what it means to your eternal destiny.
In the year that America’s War for Independence began, an English historian, Edward Gibbon, published one of the most important early histories of the world. It was called: “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Among other things, in it he described a very common political and social cycle. Dozens and dozens of nations have at some point enjoyed liberty and prosperity, but then they moved into complacency and then into apathy. From apathy they fell into dependence on others, and from that, a natural result was bondage. Gibbon could see it in the Roman Empire, and soon thereafter it was partially repeated in the British Empire. And right now, the United States of America is somewhere between complacency, apathy and dependence on government handouts, and therefore destruction and bondage are not far away. This is why we see China and other nations nipping at our heels.
Here in this scripture we see another picture of that cycle in which America is in rapid decline. It starts with God’s blessings, but then moves to dissatisfaction and complaint about those blessings. Then comes the Lord’s judgment, followed by humiliation, repentance and finally God’s gracious deliverance. To my way of thinking, nationally we are in the late dissatisfaction stage, standing at the brink of judgment.
Verse 4 speaks to America by revealing Israel’s heart of dissatisfaction.
“And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.” This cycle about which I’m talking begins with God’s unequivocal blessings. For nearly forty years Jehovah had been leading His people by the hand through the wilderness. Their every need had been supplied, and by that I mean – their every need – without exception. When enemy nations harassed them, and took some of them captive, God routed that enemy, and the captives were restored to their families. And although they were camping out in merciless deserts, they had all the food and water they needed. For nearly 12,000 mornings, Israel had harvested nutritious manna from the sand in front of their tents. And they had been blessed with quail for special occasions. Their goats were healthy enough to have given them milk for their morning manna porridge. They had good human leadership, but more importantly they had direct and clear Heavenly guidance. They were witnesses to a multitude of unmistakable miracles, such as the healing of leprosy. Their shoes, and we might assume the rest of their garments, were as good as they had been when their parents had first sewed them together. How gracious and merciful the Lord is! “He supplieth all our need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” “Know therefore that the LORD thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations.” “The LORD is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy.” Israel had certainly needed that MERCY. And they needed it still, because like all the rest of humanity they were rebellious and cantankerous.
As Numbers 20 was closing, Israel was standing on the threshold of the Promised Land. Their old High Priest, Aaron had died on top of Mount Hor, just south of the Dead Sea. After the funeral and thirty days of mourning, Israel was expecting to move north or northwest, but the Pillar of Cloud, God’s GPS guidance system, was telling them to follow it toward the east and south. They were headed back toward the Red Sea, back toward the wilderness, not the Promised Land. When the people saw it, their hearts exploded in disappointment and rage. “We thought that finally we’d get to put away our tents and put down some roots.”
But they had forgotten that the Lord had told them that they were all “dead men walking.” With only two exceptions, every man who had been alive thirty-five years earlier would be dead before their children could enter the Promised Land. We can only assume that there were still a few people of Aaron and Moses’ generation still living. They had about five more years of wandering before reaching home. So in their ignorance, despite God’s constant blessings… despite the declaration that the older generation would have to pass away… and despite the promise that their children would definitely receive God’s promise… they were displeased and dissatisfied with the Lord’s sovereignty in their lives.
And in this they were just like everyone else in God’s creation. Just like the majority of Americans. Do you ever get that way? If you do, beware, because trouble looms just over the horizon. That attitude is the fruit of unbelief; it is disbelief that the Lord is wise and caring. Israel looked at the Lord’s rules and directions, and in their self-righteous wisdom they despised their God. “Jehovah, we’re not interested in your opinions any longer; just them keep to yourself. We don’t care if you did say that abortion and homosexuality are sins, we no longer agree. And we have decided that instead of self-restraint and hard work, we going to gamble, steal and beg in order to possess things that we don’t really need. Maybe you created all things, and maybe you didn’t, but we don’t think that gives you any authority over us. We are now in control of our own destiny.” Israel and the world are saying, “Thanks for your assistance God, but we don’t want or need you now.”
And in the case of Israel, they became complainers against the Lord.
“And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.” Whenever you have a problem with Jehovah, it is not the Lord who is wrong; it is you. When you have a problem with the commands of the Lord, it’s not because His law is bad. Humans pass bad laws all of the time; but it is impossible for our omniscient God to goof up like that. “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.” “The Law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.” The problems that we and our neighbors have with God’s law are problems with our own innate lawlessness. As long as you and I live upon this planet naturally, we shall do so as sinners. No matter how good we may think that we have become, we remain at heart rebels against God. The problem is to be found in the kind of hearts that we have inherited from our parents. That is what the Bible says.
Despite the universality of this rebellious attitude, no man can complain and not go unheard by the Lord. Israel was ready to eat up that old fundamentalist, Moses, and the Lord heard it. “We hate you Moses; we hate your manna; we hate your leadership; even the sound of your voice. We wish that YOU were buried up there on Mt. Hor, instead of your brother. Aaron was far more understanding and conciliatory towards us than you have been. He would have taken us into the Promised Land, but not you; oh, not you.” Those prophets and preachers who declare the Truth, have a habit of getting under people’s skin. Usually when they do, people just stop listening as they hide from the facts against them. But once in a while they take more direct action. In either case, be sure your sin will find you out and destroy you one way another.
As the Lord clearly says, the complaints and rebellion weren’t really against the prophet and his message. They were actually against the One who commissioned that prophet. And the God who hears every uttered murmur; the God who hears the unspoken words of the heart… The God who can see even the glint of disrespect in the flash of an eye, will hold every rebel fully accountable.
And sooner or later disaster will come – it is guaranteed.
“And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.” Dissatisfaction and criticism about little things and innocent things, can lead to really big problems. Disappointment is such a little thing, especially since it is often nothing but a short delay. For Israel to be lead back into the wilderness where God would continue to miraculously meet their every need, should have been considered as a small, temporary thing. But these snakes, their fangs and their bites; the venom, the pain and death were not little things.
Don’t be confused or distracted by the word “fiery.” Don’t let your imagination tell you that these reptiles were on fire. Don’t picture three-foot-long, slender, slithering, moving, attacking incendiaries. Don’t visualize little trails of smoke and perhaps people with fire extinguishers defending themselves. Although God could certainly create a flaming snake, that is not what He did. The word translated “fiery” is the rare Hebrew word “saraph” ( saw-rawf’ ). It is transliterated “seraphim,” the bright and glorious angelic creatures who serve and glorify the Lord. The adjective “fiery” was applied to these serpents, most likely, because of their color, or less likely because their bite ignited what was felt like fire in its victim. I am told there is a relatively common venomous snake in Arabia that is a beautiful golden color. (By the way, we might justly assume that the Lord had protected Israel from these serpents until this time.) Or it could have been that these were a new variety of serpent, directly created for this purpose.
Once again, Israel’s rebellion and complaining were SINS against God. They always are. Sin is no illusion; it’s not the verbal jousting of manipulated morals. Sin is as real as rat poison in the pantry; ingest it, and you will die. Sin is no illusion, and neither is the judgment which follows that sin. It may or may not come in the form of AIDS, Syphilis, an armed intruder in your house, or war. It may, or may not, rot your lungs or liver, or rip your heart in half. But sin will kill you and thrust you in chains before the judgment of an angry God. The wages of sin is always, and ever will be, death – physical and soon thereafter eternal death. “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.”
God could have judged these sinners in an infinite variety of ways. He could have sent lightening bolts from heaven and picked off every mouthy rebel individually. Or He could have ordained a hail storm with its arrows to pierce every tent and kill every single Israelite. They could have been struck down in a nearly painless fashion. Or the ground could have opened up and swallowed them. In fact, it was in the living memory of every one of those rebellious Israelites that Jehovah had already proven His ability to use all of these means.
But in this case He sent something new – a swarm of reptilian exterminators. When the Israelite was bitten, the pain was intense, and death was sure. Was this an hemotoxic poison – a poison of the blood? Could it be felt and even seen moving up the veins in their legs toward their hearts? Could the victim spreading feel the fever; see the swelling; did he scream in pain and fear? Or was this a neurotoxin? Did the victim’s muscles begin to convulse as his nervous system went into hysteria? Did he immediately fall into a coma and die without consciousness? Whichever, sin is not something with which to play. “At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder.” “The wicked shall be cast into hell and all nations that forget God.”
As the pain intensified and death spread, the people screamed out in prayer for God’s help.
“Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.” How reminiscent their plea was of something that the Lord Jesus later said. There were two men whom Christ Jesus knew quite well, and they both died. The more secular one, immediately awoke in torment, because he had not sought salvation through Christ. “He cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.” Abraham essentially answered: “Sorry, it’s too late now, because God’s judgment has fallen on you.”
There are two schools of thought about people’s attitudes once they enter Hell. Some believe that those who die as rebels against God, will be rebellious throughout eternity. But there are others who think that the Lake of Fire will be filled with people filled with remorse and regret that they never repented of their sin and rebellion against the Lord. Perhaps both opinions are correct and Hell will hold both kinds of people. But in either case there will not even be a drop of water to cool their tormented souls or tongues.
But there is some really good news: As long as there is life in these dying bodies of ours there is hope of salvation. Once death comes, eternity is finalized. But if we are still breathing there is still the possibility and responsibility for repentance and faith.
And as Israel cried out for help, the Lord showed them His plan of redemption.
“And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” Please notice what God’s plan of salvation did NOT contain. It did not involve the eradication of the snake population. There will be snakes in this world until the beginning of the Millennium and maybe even then. If every unbitten son of Jacob had killed twelve serpents to protect his family, there would still have been more. That was the will of God. Sin will never be legislated away, prayed away, preached away or wished away. Sin is an ingredient of every human heart. It is more a part of us than our eyes or our tongues. As long as sinful men exist upon this planet so will sin and the temptation to sin. It isn’t that God can’t vaporize the snakes of this earth – He can – but that is not His sovereign plan.
So there was no government-sponsored safe-snake-bite campaign. There were no warning mail-outs and media blitz’s, there were no celebrity marches or snakeathons. There was no CDC counter-attack with a diligent search for antitoxins and vaccinations. There were no miracle salves or patent medicine tonics for sin snake-bite. The people weren’t taken to hospitals or to baptistries to wash away their bites. There were no Christian snake-like talismans to hang about their necks. It was useless to make the sign of the snake across their chests.
“Utter foolishness,” said world at the plan Moses received and relayed to the people. “The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness, but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” You’re just an old foggy to tell me that I can’t play with this snake of sin. You’re insane to think that repentance and faith will heal me of my terminal disease.
But, the fact is that there is nothing but the plan of God to meet the needs of sinners on earth.
And what was that provision?
“Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” What was the provision? It was the most repulsive thing that a snake-bit man could imagine. The way that God dealt with sin, was to take it into His own bosom. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” “God sent his own Son, in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin to condemn sin in the flesh.” “He hath made Christ to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” “His own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.”
God’s plan for the salvation of Israel was the substitution of one Snake for the rest of the snakes. Or maybe it would be more correct to say: it was the substitution of one Snake for the victims of snakes. And that metallic serpent was put on tall, tall pole to be raised up over camp. I have no authority to say this, but I imagine the top pole in the same general shape as stake upon which Christ Jesus died – with a cross beam near the top. It raised way up high enough that it was possible for every snake-bitten soul in Israel to see it. The youngest child could see it, and the old man upon his death bed could see it too, if he wanted to look.
Looking is one easiest things a normal, natural body can do. “Just look,” said Moses. “Get everyone to simply look at that serpent.” But the snakes were still biting; the pain was still real, the screams were still distracting. It would have been natural to be looking at the ground around them, watching for the serpents. Even the man, or men, holding the poll were at great risk of snake-bite. “Don’t try stomping on the snakes; don’t use your feet.” “Don’t try to use your brains to come up with an antitoxin. There isn’t one for these serpents.” The solution to the deadly problem was ridiculous: “Look to the brazen serpent. Look to the Lamb of God.”
Isaiah, the Old Testament evangelist, preached on behalf of God – “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.” “Look and live, O sinner live, look and live, look to Jesus now and live.” “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
Every single one of us are at this moment dying – the venom of sin is in our veins. Maybe by the end of this day, perhaps by end of this month, or year you or I will be dead. “The wages of sin is death” – “and after this the judgment.” But the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, has come and taken up His position on that pole. Every single soul in Israel could have been saved, but sadly only those who looked were actually delivered.
Do you feel the Holy Spirit drawing your eyes to Christ? Then look. It doesn’t matter how near death your sin has taken you, you can look right now. Please humbly, and in faith, look to Christ this morning; look before it is eternally too late. Acknowledge and repent of your sin. Put your trust for eternal life on the work which Christ Jesus did on the cross. Repent of your sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.