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Scripture Readings: Numbers 21:1-35; John 3:14-16Â â€¢ Text: Numbers 21:4-9
August 30, 2009
Have you ever asked yourself why the symbol of Mercury Drug Corporation, the biggest chain of drugstores in the Philippines, is Mercury, the Greek messenger god, conveyor of the dead, and protector of merchants, gamblers and thieves? How did this Greek god become an important symbol in the medical world?
There is confusion and error in associating Mercury with medicine. In his representation, Mercury carries a magic wand called caduceus, which is a herald’s staff entwined by two serpents in the form of a double helix, and with a pair of wings on the top. But the god Mercury and his staff were never connected with medicine in Greek mythology. Instead, it was the rod of Asclepius that was the symbol most commonly used by physicians since the 15th century. Asclepius was probably a skilled Greek physician who lived around 1200 B. C., but was later worshiped as the god of healing by the Greeks. His staff was made of a roughly-hewn knotty tree limb that has only one serpent coiled around it and sometimes had a dove on the top of the staff.
Some historians trace the origin of the rod of Asclepius back to the ancient Near East, particularly Babylonia, Egypt and Canaan. Archaeologists have discovered cult objects made of copper snakes on poles in Canaan that date back to 3000-1200 B. C., a period that includes the Exodus story. The Pharaohâ€™s crown had a cobra on its top because Egyptians worshiped the snake. But perhaps, the real origin of the rod with a serpent can be found in our text today.
In Chapter 20 of the Book of Numbers, we read about the death of Miriam and Aaron, two of the leaders of Israel who came out of Egypt. And after Moses disobeyed and dishonored God by strikingâ€”instead of speaking toâ€”the rock to give water to the thirsty people, he too would eventually die outside of the Promised Land. The first generation of Israelites were fading away with death of Miriam and Aaron and later, Moses.
Numbers Chapter 21 begins the story of the second generation. It has two main parts. The first part concerns Israelâ€™s series of military victories over the nations on the south and east of the Promised Land. The second is the story of how God saved the people from poisonous snakes in the desert by a bronze serpent on a pole. From these two sections of the chapter, we can discern important lessons in Israelâ€™s journey of faith to the Promised Land of Canaan.
This afternoon, we will dwell on the theme, â€œVictories of Faith at Lastâ€:
1. Victory over Enemies
2. Victory over Sin and Death
3. Victorious Journey of Faith
Victory over Enemies
Chapter 21 opens with an account of Israelâ€™s victory over the Canaanites led by the king of Arad. Note that Israel fought them only in response to their attack. Later in the chapter, the Israelites fought against Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan, who also provoked Israel into a defensive war.
Here, we see the first mention of Israelâ€™s vow to â€œdevote their cities to destruction.â€ The Hebrew verb used here means â€œto set apart (devoted) as an offering to the Lord (for destruction).â€ In Deuteronomy 20:16-18, God commands Israel to â€œsave alive nothing that breathes.â€ â€œDevoting their cities to destructionâ€ has significance in three ways. First, this means that the people acknowledge that God is the victor and that to him alone belong the spoils of war. The total destruction of the enemies’ cities is thus an act of devotion to God.
This is also a fulfillment of Godâ€™s promise to Abraham that after his descendants became sojourners in a foreign land for 400 years, they would â€œcome back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet completeâ€ (Gen 15:16). God waited patiently until his people came to the Amorite territory to exact vengeance on them for their sins. Because the Amorites were idolatrous and immoral unbelievers, God â€œdevoted them to destruction.â€
So let us not judge God that he is unjust and guilty of genocide, of killing â€œinnocentâ€ men, women and children. No one is â€œinnocentâ€ because all human beings are sinners (Rom 3:23). And since God is holy, the wages of sin is death–spiritual and physical–beginning from Adamâ€™s sin in the Garden of Eden all the way to the end of the world (Gen 2:16-17; Rom 6:23).
Third, God was protecting his people from becoming exposed to the â€œabominable practicesâ€ of the nations surrounding the Promised Land, including the Canaanites and the Amorites. These practices refer to idolatry as well as sexual immorality. God warned the people before they entered Canaan, â€œYou shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other godsâ€ (Deut 7:3-4).
This is also a warning against the church today, when we see most churches â€œintermarryingâ€ with the world and â€œserving the gods of this world.â€ What does this mean? In their quest to be grow numerically as a sign of success, churches have adopted the desires, thoughts and practices of this fallen world. Success in numbers and big budgets are the gods of churches today. Worship services have become entertainment, and preaching nothing more than moralisms, psychotherapy and humorous pep talk.
So Israel defeated their enemies and occupied their lands. But not only were they victorious over their enemies. They also had victory over sin and death.
Victory over Sin and Death
In the verses following their victory over the Canaanites, we read again a familiar refrain: Israel grumbling against God and against Moses because of their hardship, lack of water, and the manna that they â€œloathed.â€
In Numbers 20:14-21, we read that the most direct route towards Canaan from Kadesh-barnea was the land of Edom. But the king of Edom did not let Israel pass through their territory, and instead made a show of force, threatening to attack them if they entered his land. Israel, because of their lack of faith, did not challenge the Edomites. So they had to go around the land of Edom, taking the long â€œscenic route.â€ As a result, the people became impatient, thinking that they were going around in circles in the desert. Then they grumbled, “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 foodâ€ (Num 21:5).
A new day of victories of faith may have dawned, but old sinful tendencies are not completely discarded. Of course God was angry, and he punished the people, this time by poisonous snakes, which abounded in the desert. In 1914, the British military officer popularly known as â€œLawrence of Arabiaâ€ was commissioned to do an archaeological survey of the Negev desert, a part of Israelâ€™s wanderings in the wilderness. In his memoirs, Lawrence wrote:
This is a place of hopelessness and sadness deeper than all the open desert we had crossed. There was something sinister, something actively evil in this snake-devoted land, proliferant of salt water and barren palms and bushes which neither serve for grazing nor for firewood.
He described all kinds of hooded vipers and cobras in such great numbers that even the bravest of his men feared walking at night.
Many Israelites died of snake bites, so they repented of their sin and asked Moses to pray for them. God then instructed him to make a bronze or fiery serpent, set it on top of a pole, and anyone who looks at it after being bitten by a poisonous snake would not die.
Why did God choose a bronze serpent as an antidote against a snake bite?
God again uses irony here. There are also plenty of snakes in Egypt, and one of their gods is a snake. Egyptians also thought that snakes were a source of great power and as a symbol of sovereignty, royalty and deity. Because the people questioned Godâ€™s plan to bring them out of Egypt into the wilderness, God seemed to be telling them: Since you wanted to return to a place full of snakes and where people worship snakes, I will send you plenty of snakes!
As well, the serpent represented Satan, the devil. It was Satan in the form of a serpent who caused sin to enter into the world by tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. All the way to the book of Revelation, Satan is described as â€œthe great dragonâ€¦ that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole worldâ€ (Rev 12:9; cf Rev 20:2).
Already in the garden, God vowed that Satanâ€™s head would be crushed by Christ, the descendant of Eve. But not before the serpent wounds Eveâ€™s Seed, so that on the cross, it looked as if Satan was victorious over Christ (Gen 3:15). Yet, Christâ€™s death also signified the defeat of Satan and sin. As Christ was lifted up on the cross, all those who would look in faith to him crucified would be freed from the power of Satan, sin and death (Col 2:14-15; Heb 2:14).
In Egypt, a pole with a serpent transfixed on it represented the power of the serpent-god. But in the wilderness, Godâ€™s bronze serpent represented a contrary idea. A serpent on a pole which every snakebitten Israelite could see represented salvation from certain death! The bronze serpent fixed on a pole thus represented their defeated enemies, Satan and Egypt. Having faith in Godâ€™s promise of salvation, anyone who looked on the bronze serpent, representing the defeated Satan, would be released from the curse of sin and death, and would be healed from the deadly snakebite.
To be sure, by merely looking at the serpent on the pole, an Israelite would be healed of his snake bite. But this serpent on a pole has no magical power of its own, as the Egyptians so believed. As so often happens, centuries later the Israelites also turned it into an idol, so King Hezekiah had to destroy it (2 Kings 18:4). The power behind the bronze serpent lay in Godâ€™s power over Satan, sin and death. This power was made available to them through faith in Godâ€™s word: Just look up intently to the brazen serpent, and you would be saved! This also means that they were forgiven of their sin.
Wherein lies Godâ€™s power of healing and forgiveness?
Jesus, in his conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus, has the answer: â€œAnd 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 lifeâ€ (John 3:14-15). He tells Nicodemus that the bronze serpent on a pole represents him. To save his people from sin and give them eternal life, Christ had to be lifted up. The problem of Nicodemus, how he could inherit the kingdom of God and have eternal life, can only be solved by faith in Jesus. The new spiritual life that results from looking to Jesus lifted high on the cross by faith corresponds to the new physical life given to mortally snakebitten Israelites in the desert who by faith fixed their eyes on the bronze serpent. This was fulfilled in three ways:
First, he was lifted up on the cross to die in our place, because Satan the ancient serpent has made us sin. This is why Jesus says in John 12:32, â€œAnd I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.â€ Through his death on the cross, and by faith in Christ, believers will be drawn near to the Father.
Second, he was “lifted up” from the grave so we too will have victory over sin and death. This is why Paul exclaims in joy at the resurrection of Christ, â€œO death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?â€ (1 Cor 15:55) Christ was the firstfruits of the resurrection from the dead, and believers will follow his resurrection when he returns from heaven, â€œBut in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleepâ€¦ Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christâ€ (1 Cor 15:20, 23).
Third, in his ascension to heaven, Christ â€œwas lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sightâ€ (Acts 1:9), which brought him back to heaven where he now sits at the right hand of the Father. Isaiah also prophesied that Christ the Servant â€œshall be high and lifted up, and shall be exaltedâ€ (Isa 52:13). From his privileged relationship with his Father in heaven, he brings all our prayers and thanksgiving to Godâ€™s throne of mercy, â€œChrist Jesus is the one who diedâ€”more than that, who was raisedâ€”who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for usâ€ (Rom 8:34).
With faith, the people had victory over their enemies. They also had victory over sin and death. Those who did not look with faith on the bronze serpent died in the desert because they were not fit for the Promised Land. And this faith carried them through their pilgrimage to the Promised Land of Canaan.
Victorious Journey of Faith
The second generation of Israelites in the wilderness was different from the first generation. While the first generation’s march to the Promised Land was frequently marked by unbelief, the second generation obeyed Godâ€™s commandments because they had faith in Godâ€™s promises. But they too were not completely immune from Satanâ€™s temptations, for as we read earlier, they also sinned in their grumbling just as the first generation did.
The differences between these two generations are evident in the lives of Israelâ€™s second generation pilgrims as they journeyed through the wilderness. Moreover, we too are to continue in our pilgrimage to our promised heavenly city showing the following characteristic traits of faithful people of God:
First, we are to acknowledge that we are sinners and continually repent of our sin. Like the Israelites, we are to come to God in true repentance, â€œWe have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from usâ€ (Num 21:7). We are to pray in brokenness, â€œForgive us our trespassesâ€¦ and deliver us from the evil one.â€
Why is this so? In our earthly journey, we are continually immersed, contaminated and beset by sin and temptations in this fallen world. No one is immune from sin, as Luther put it, a Christian is â€œat the same time sinner and justified.â€ Always ask for forgiveness from sin.
But repentance is not only recognizing our sins. It is also turning away from sin and turning to Christ, just as Paul says in Ephesians 4:22-24: putting off our old corrupt and deceitful ways, and putting on the new self, which is the righteousness and holiness of Christ.
Repentance is turning from dissatisfaction, covetousness and grumbling about lifeâ€™s being unfair and full of hardship, frustration and disappointment, and then turning to Godâ€™s promises of comfort in life and in death.
Second, we are to persevere in our long and circuitous journey to our Promised Land. The Israelites were impatient, because they were literally going around in circles in their wanderings towards Canaan. But God teaches us to persevere, because in this world, we will be snakebitten by many tribulations and sufferings. Through our lack of food and water, our longing for a land of milk and honey, and the temptations of the ancient serpent, we are to persevere in faith, because Godâ€™s promise to bring us into our heavenly city is sure.
We may be tempted to say with the psalmist and the martyrs in heaven, â€œHow long, O Lord?â€ but God has a sure plan for all of his beloved.
Third, we are to be joyful in all circumstances, good and bad. The Israelites started with a victory song after they crossed the Red Sea, but besieged by suffering, sin and rebellion, they forgot to sing. Here, as they started tasting victories in their battles against their enemies, they again discovered that singing is good for their souls (Num 21:17-18, 27-30).
As God continues to blessed us with his mercy and grace and delivers us from temptations and evil, we are to praise him with thankful hearts, â€œsinging and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christâ€ (Eph 5:19-20). Paul reminds us that we are to be joyful Christians, in whatever situation we are in, â€œRejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for youâ€ (1 Thess 5:16-18). A joyful frame of mind is befitting of those who trust in a merciful God who protects us from Satanâ€™s evil schemes.
Beloved friends, how much faith is involved in looking at a bronze serpent on a pole for salvation from certain death, when you know you have been mortally wounded by a poisonous snake? A whole lot. In the same way, those of you who have been mortally wounded by Satanâ€™s deceitful seduction are to fix your gaze entirely upon your only Savior, Christ the Redeemer.
And to those of you who believe and trust in him, he will surely lead you through your wanderings in this poisonous wilderness when you fix your gaze intently on the Founder and Perfecter of your faith all the way to the Promised Land.
â€œLooking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of Godâ€ (Heb 12:2).