“God’s Remedy for Sin: Faith in Christ”

(Numbers 21:4-9 – March 24, 2019)

Numbers 21:4-9 – Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged 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 our soul loathes this worthless bread.” So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died. Therefore 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. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

Dear Redeemed in Christ Jesus:

Setbacks in life can be frustrating. They can bring out the worst in people. One otherwise calm man was nearly home from work one day, looking forward to relaxing. Then he saw a sign for a road detour that would lead him in a wide circle, miles from home. As he sat in a long line of traffic, all he could think of were the long hours he already spent on the road, the little he got to see his family, the irritation of rude drivers, and how nothing seemed to go right in life. He began to complain, louder and louder. He got so worked up into a road rage that when he got a chance, he buried the pedal, crashed his car, and paralyzed himself for life.

Setbacks can be hard to accept. Setbacks can bring the worst out of people. They can bring out the sin within. And sometimes we have to live the rest of our lives with the results of sin.

In our text, the Israelites react badly to a setback. They complain against God. Then they have to face the results of their sin. But in this account, we see a picture of “God’s Remedy for Sin: Faith in Christ.” Let us 1) Recognize the problem and 2) Trust in the Cure.

1) Recognize the problem

The Israelites had been traveling through the wilderness forty years already. Now, as they approached the Promised Land, the rulers of Canaan were not about to let them invade their land. Before our text, we read about a battle begun by the Canaanite king of Arad. But the Lord answered Israel’s prayer, giving them victory (Numbers 21:1-3). This greatly encouraged them.

There are times like this when it is easy to believe that God is on our side, because everything seems to be going so well. But it sure does not take long for sinners to change face toward God, especially when all they can see is a frustrating setback.

There was a short way to get where God was leading them. If they could just pass through the land of Edom, they would be there in no time. But Edom’s king would not let them through. They were forced to make a wide detour, miles and miles out of their way. The difficulty of travel in desert terrain made them impatient. They quickly forgot God’s faithfulness to His promises. They forgot His many blessings. All along the journey, had not God miraculously provided food, and caused water to gush from rocks for them? Had not God kept their clothes from wearing out these forty years in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:3-4, 15-16)? But now, all they could see was an endless, hopeless desert existence. Their complaining grew into road rage against God and against Moses. They said: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.”

This apparent setback was hard to accept. It brought out the worst in the people. It brought out the sin within. Now they had to live with the results of their sin. It says: So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.”

What is our attitude when we face setbacks in life? When things do not go as we would like, are we always ready to say, “God will still provide as He always has”? Or do we complain, even about such basic provisions from God as food, clothing, and shelter? Maybe we have grumbled: “Do I have to eat this again?” Or we have complained: “Can’t I wear the kind of clothes everyone else wears?” Or we feel sorry for ourselves when a pipe is leaking in our home, or something needs fixing on our car. Sometimes, all we see are things to complain about – rather than just being thankful to God for all the basic necessities He provides day after day.

How quickly we can change face toward God! Like the Israelites, it is easy to think God is leading us in triumphant procession when there are no enemies to bother us, when our health is fine, when we have plenty money. But when things do not go as we want, how quickly we think God must be against us! We thought we had perfect plans; but now, nothing seems to be going our way. We had great dreams for our lives; but now, we find ourselves plodding through a dry and dreary wilderness, unsatisfied by our daily surroundings. At times we react to setbacks as if God does not care. We live before God with a countenance that says: “I’m unhappy, I’m frustrated, I’m pitying myself; because I’m not sure You are working all things for my good.”

Besides complaining and self-pity, setbacks can also bring out our temper. When another driver cuts us off or drives too slowly in front of us, are the words on our lips prayers of blessing for them? Or have we reacted with road rage? Too often, when our setbacks are caused by others, out of our hearts proceed evil thoughts and actions (Matthew 15:19).

If we had been among the Israelites, facing a setback, would we have reacted better? I am afraid the results are already in. Too often, we have reacted to life’s hardships with bitterness toward others, even toward God. Our attitudes and actions show that the same sin lurks in us.

And then we see something like snakes. Snakes are good at hiding. We may not always see the slithery creatures lurking about; but when provoked, they are there and ready to strike. Our sinful nature is like a snake pit. We may be able to hide sin for a time. We may not always see the slithery creatures of sin lurking about; but when provoked, sin is there and ready to strike.

There was no accident about the Lord’s punishment in our text, when He sent fiery serpents among the people.” The punishment fit the crime. It showed them the frightening danger of their sinful nature, now slithering out of their hearts and striking in grumbling and unbelief. The venomous effects of their sin was taking over and killing them.

Every sinner must face up to the venomous effects of sin. With the fall into sin came the bite of “that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan” (Revelation 12:9). Our sinful nature is under a spell. It wants to be allied with Satan. It is an enemy in us that wars against God’s Spirit in us. “The sting of death is sin” (1 Corinthians 15:56). Our sinful nature would bring us eternal death, if it were not for God’s loving remedy to save us from ourselves.

2) Trust in the Cure

We recognize our problem. Let us trust God’s cure. Our text points to it. The people came to Moses and confessed: “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.

It was not the first time Moses had interceded for God’s people. He had often stood between these sinful people and God, appealing to the Lord’s own covenant promise to bring them to the Promised Land. And this was not the first time the Lord delivered them. The Lord had shown Himself to be “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).

He told Moses: “‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”

The dying people asked the Lord to take away the snakes, but He did an ironic thing. He took the symbol of their sin and suffering, and turned it into a symbol of deliverance! He took the agent of death, and made it the agent of healing – like a vaccine! The serpent on the pole was held before their eyes as a healing symbol – a symbol of God’s promise. By looking at it, they acknowledged that their sin had caused such great suffering and death. But as they looked in faith to God’s cure, His promise came true. Anyone who was bitten could look at it and live.

Jesus compared the snake on the pole to His own death on the cross to save sinners. He said: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14).

As Jesus hung on the cross, it was not just a symbol of deliverance. He is our deliverance. We were bitten by the deadly sting of Satan, carrying the venom of a sinful nature, doomed to eternal death. But in love, God sent His Son to save us by His death for us. As Jesus hung on the cross like that serpent on the pole, God was holding before our eyes the picture of our sin and serpent-bitten misery. On the cross, we see the horrible suffering, death, and condemnation caused by all our grumbling, complaining, and unfaithfulness to God. God made Him who had no sin to be the image of our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21), punishing His Son to set us free us from sin and death. As we look in faith to Jesus, God restores us and gives us eternal life again!

God’s cure for sin is simple. The Israelites needed only to look with faith in God’s promise to the bronze snake lifted up on the pole. And we need only to look with faith in God’s promise to the Son of God, lifted up on the cross to save us.

Nonetheless, many of the Israelites still died. To those who were perishing in unbelief, it must have seemed foolish to use their precious moments in the throes death to look at yet another snake on a pole! So also: the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

So let us not look to our own remedies for sin. As the snakes slithered around striking the Israelites, no one could save himself by pleading his own righteousness. If anyone cried out: “But God, I’ve lived too good a life to deserve this!” or “Look God, I’ve lived a better life than many; I’m not as badly bitten!” it would not help; the venom still brought death. Nor did anyone save himself by self-help and self-improvement courses. If someone tried to drive a hundred serpents out of his life, there were plenty more to strike; and the venom still brought death.

God’s cure for sin is simple. We are not saved by pleading our own righteousness, or by comparing ourselves to worse sinners, or by self-improvement. There is no cure for the deadly bite of sin but salvation by God’s gift of grace alone, through faith in His Son (Ephesians 2:8-9).

And God’s cure is complete. Every Israelite who looked to the bronze serpent recovered at once and lived. Everyone who looks to Jesus’ redeeming death is already forgiven, is saved from death and that serpent the devil, and has eternal life as a redeemed child of God in Jesus.

God did not immediately remove the snakes. As His people looked to His cure, they still stood for a time among venomous snakes. They were completely cured; yet the fear of the snakes around them helped them fix their eyes all the more on God’s promised deliverance.  God would continue to use difficulties in their journey this way, to strengthen their faith in His promises. Until one day, their desert wanderings and trials would end in Promised Land victory.

God may not immediately remove all the effects of sin, this side of heaven. We may have to live with sin’s earthly consequences for a time. But as we look to God’s cure in Jesus, we know He has forgiven our sin. We have eternal life. He will not let harm come to us. Through loving discipline He is leading us to live in holy fear, hating sin and temptation as a venomous enemy. He is leading us to look all the more to the fulfillment of His gracious promises in Jesus.

One day, our desert wanderings here will end in God’s Promised Land victory. He will make all things new, and give us perfectly healthy bodies. He will wipe every tear from our eyes, for every effect of sin will be forever gone, including death (Revelation 21:3-5). He will fill us with joy and eternal pleasures in His presence (Psalm 16:11). So let us trust God’s cure for sin: His gracious, complete, and lasting cure, through faith in His Son our Savior!

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.