Key Observation: Nearly 1,500 years before Jesus, by holding up this snake on a stick, Moses was prophetically pointing toward a Messiah who would be lifted up for the sake of healing a hurting world.
- Take some time to read Numbers 21:4–9.
- Explain this scene in your own words.
- What provoked God to send the snakes and how did the snakes provoke the people?
- How were people healed of their snake bites?
- How does this scene fit (or does it?) with your understanding of a good and holy God who wants the best for his people?
Spoiler alert: This story draws a straight line from Moses to the central purpose of Christ. That’s why we’re taking time with it now. Let’s start with the fact that God knows something about snakes that the Israelites don’t. With snakes, the very thing that can kill you is the thing that can make you well. In fact, in the Midwest, snakes are farmed for the specific purpose of harvesting their venom to make antivenin (the stuff that reverses the effects of a deadly snake bite). Insert that fact into the story you’ve just read, and now God is making a profound prophetic statement about redemption. When the whiny, contentious, rebellious, snake-bitten people of God gazed upon the bronze snake, they were reminded that sin has consequences and that only when they acknowledged their own sin would they be healed.
This points us toward the cross where we find Jesus, our sacrificial lamb, carrying our sins for us. Nearly fifteen hundred years before Jesus, by holding up this snake on a stick, Moses was prophetically pointing toward a Messiah who would be lifted up for the sake of healing a hurting world. By gazing on Christ, we find our healing. The cross is how we get from shame to grace.
Let me say that again another way: we cannot get from shame to grace without going through the cross.
In the transfiguration story of Luke 9, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are brought together into one scene as a testament to the continuity of the Bible from cover to cover. The message of the whole Bible is a message of restoration. But we are forgetful people. As this story of the snakes was passed from generation to generation, its healing point got lost. The snake on a stick that used to be a testament to the miraculous power of God was reduced to mascot status, or idol status, for the Israelites. It should not surprise us to find out that eventually they named it and began to worship it. Once the point was lost, God ordered the king of Israel to smash the serpent. But Jesus, who sees the big picture, will draw on this story multiple times to help a Jewish world hear that God did not come to condemn the world but to save it. Let’s keep reading.
- Read John 3:14–15, then John 12:31–33.
- What connects these two passages? What is the spiritual principle at work here?
In John 3, Jesus was talking to a religious leader who had come to him at night to ask some questions. The guy was awestruck by Jesus’ miracles, and he said that clearly God must be with him. Jesus responded, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV).
This stopped the guy in his tracks. How can a full-grown man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again? What Jesus wanted the man to hear is that sometimes the old has to die completely so the new can live. As part of the lesson, he drew on that old story of the snake in the desert in order to connect this man’s sin to the work God was about to do in the world. He wanted this man to hear that God is not destructive but redemptive.
I imagine Jesus passionately sharing this truth with the hope that the man would remember it when he saw him nailed to a cross one day. This Jesus is a sign that God did not come to condemn us but to save us. As with the snakes in the desert, the story of the cross doesn’t end with death but with life. Restoration. Redemption.
- Read Luke 9:30 again.
There is Jesus with Moses and Elijah, standing on a mountain together to bear witness to the fact that God’s grand redemptive plan will be carried out on earth. No amount of disobedience and no display of collective amnesia will stop God from doing what he will do. God has a plan, has had a plan from the beginning, and has not only a plan but the power to see it through.
“I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). What a glorious story and what a powerful promise.
My friends, when we are redeemed, even the worst of what we have done is redeemed along with our lives. God works through the Story, and God works through our stories. He intends to use all of it for his glory! Just as the snake that was killed was lifted up and made into a sign of healing, so our stories, too, can be signs of hope and redemption for others. As with Moses and the snake, we may not understand the full impact of our stories for years but be encouraged: look to Jesus and find your healing.
Remember it is not the intention of Jesus to let you stop at the point of your own healing. “Proclaim the kingdom,” he commissioned. As powerful and grace-filled as your own healing story is, it is not fully redeemed until you go back down the mountain and share the good news with others.
Listening to the Word
Think of a story from your life that God has redeemed. Take ten minutes to write an outline of that story, then rehearse it. Ask God to give you at least one opportunity this week to share that story of God’s redemptive grace and power.
There’s no substitute for the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit in your life. Maybe you’ve grown dissatisfied with the weak distractions offered both by our culture and, oftentimes, our churches. When it all sinks in, spirituality and ministry without the Holy Spirit is hollow.
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