Friday, June 15, 2012

The bronze serpent: The lifted-up one

When he saw movement by the sleeping baby, he instinctively tried to crush it with his foot. But when he missed the head, the serpent twisted beneath his sandal and bit him in the heel. He screamed with pain and stomped with his other foot, grinding the creature's skull into the ground.

He looked down at his foot. Already it had swollen substantially and he could feel the burning sensation spreading up his leg. He knew he didn't have much time. He had to get outside. But when he tried to put weight on his foot, white-hot pain threw him to the ground.

He crawled. He knew what had to be done. He had seen so many die from these bites. Family. Friends. Strangers. But there was another snake. A snake that would heal. But he had to see it. He had to get outside.

He pulled. He dragged himself along the ground. His whole leg was swollen now. He was sweating with pain and exertion and fear. Keep going, he thought. To the door. Through the door. Pulling. Sliding. A little farther. There!

He rolled on to his back and craned his head. High above the camp he saw the brilliant fiery serpent shining in the desert sun. He stared it for a while, just to be certain, and then lay back and closed his eyes. His breathing slowed. He sighed. He would live.

In Numbers 21, the people complain to God and to Moses. They complain that they've been brought into the wilderness to die. They complain that there is no water. They complain that there is no bread. They complain that the manna, the miraculous daily provision from heaven, was loathsome to them. God responds by sending venomous snakes amongst the people. Many of them to die.

When the people recognize their sin, they return to Moses. They confess that they should never have spoken against Jehovah or against him. They plead with him to pray to God on their behalf that God might take away the snakes. But instead of removing the snakes, God gives Moses some bizarre instructions. Moses is told to fashion a snake out of bronze, to put it on a pole in the camp, and that whoever it bitten has only to look to the snake and they will live.

It is worth repeating that God does not take away the curse or its effects. The snakes are not removed and the dying people are not instantaneously healed. The damage in not undone. Instead, God provides a way of deliverance from certain death. A deliverance that was available to every man, woman and child in the camp who was willing to receive it. And the symbol God uses to bring about that deliverance is, paradoxically, the very things that was killing them.

Jesus would tell Nicodemus many years later that “just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” The world lies under a curse because of our rebellion, a curse that leads not just to physical but to spiritual death. Yet our sin and its effects are not taken away by the cross. Instead, God provides a way of deliverance, one that promises eternal life to dying sinners. And He does so using the very thing that is killing each one of us.

Paul writes, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us.” Jesus became sin and he was lifted up. For us. We have only to look and live.

(Numbers 21; John 3)