Hello everybody, and Happy Tuesday to you! Welcome into the most ridiculous, and yet profoundly titled episode of the Bible Reading Podcast. If the end of the world happens today, or a cure for coronavirus is announced, or World War 3 begins between the Bulgarians and the elite warriors of Burkina Faso, and you're wondering why in the world I'm not commenting on that in the intro...it's because I'm recording this episode early on Monday morning - I think it is the first time I've recorded two episodes in one day, but after 135 episodes, they all sort of run together in my mind.
Today's Bible readings consist of Numbers 21 (our SECOND straight day with Numbers as the focus passage!), plus: Psalms 60-61, Isaiah 10:5-34, and James 4. Our focus question of the day is not quite as outrageous as it sounds because Jesus HIMSELF makes the comparison between Him and the Bronze snake on a pole of Numbers 21 - so, let's go read that passage (warning if you are scared of snakes) and also Jesus' reference to that story in John 3, and then discuss what it all means.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Because I'm about to head out for a short road trip to Colorado, I'm going to be leaning into my preacher friends a little more over these next couple of episodes, and today that is great news for you, because our old friend Tim Keller is going to help us understand why Jesus is comparing Himself to the bronze snake, and this is an incredible message.
On every truck, plaque, uniform, building that has anything to do with medicine (hospitals, doctors, the medical) you will see an insignia with a serpent, usually coiled around a pole. It’s called the caduceus. It is the symbol of healing. It’s one of the very oldest symbols of healing we know. You’ve seen it thousands of times in your life. Do you know what it points to? Do you know what all of the medical facilities of this entire country are referring to? They’re referring to the incident which we’ve just read that is one of the most bizarre incidents anywhere in the Bible.
It’s a story, as we read, about an episode in the life of the children of Israel in which they began to really complain against God, to impute evil motives to God, to be very unhappy with the way in which God was treating them. God responds by sending into their midst a plague of poisonous serpents, snakes, that bite the Israelites. They begin to die. They pray. God hears the prayer, and he says to Moses, “Here’s how I’m going to cure them. Put a bronze serpent on a pole.”
(The poles in all of the symbols are really a cross without a little top piece. It’s a “T.” A cross without a top piece and one or two snakes entangled, intertwined, coiled around it.) “Put it up so anyone who looks at it will be healed of their disease.” If you look at that, if we didn’t have any other interpretation of that, it would really be a very confusing story. First of all, God looks vindictive. The people are bellyaching. They’re complaining. They’re unhappy with the manna he gave them. They’re unhappy with the desert situation. God sends these poisonous serpents, so he looks vindictive.
Secondly, he looks impulsive and indecisive, because he seems to change his mind. They pray, and then he says, “Okay. I’ll heal you.” Thirdly, he seems petty and idiosyncratic. This is God! Can’t he say, “You’re healed”? What’s with the bronze serpent? How weird to make them look on the very thing that was killing them in order to save them. If you read the whole thing, you say, “It seems to mean nothing. It doesn’t make much sense.”
Except that Jesus Christ points back, and because Jesus Christ said this and showed the meaning of it, that’s the reason why this symbol is emblazoned on all the medical technology and places of medicine and healing in the world. He said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Then he says the famous verse, “For God so loved the world …”
Whenever you see a hospital, whenever you see an EMS truck or something and you see the snake around the pole, do you think right away, “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”? You should, because that’s what it means. You say, “Well, okay. How does it mean it?”
What Jesus is saying, what Numbers is saying, what God is saying in the incident and, therefore, indirectly, of course, what every single one of those insignias is saying is there is only one disease that can really kill you. There is only one disease that really can kill you and that disease has one and only one remedy. Let’s look at the disease, which, of course, is sin, and let’s look at the remedy, which, of course, is the Son of Man lifted up.
God has to show them there is a provision. God says, “Put a bronze snake up on a pole.” What does that mean? If there had only been one snake and the snake was sort of slithering around and biting people and they were getting sick and then it was going away, everybody would be upset. What would they do? The only way anybody could rest and be at peace again would be if some hunter came in to find the snake. As the hunter was going in, everybody was scared. You had to watch where you were going and all that.
What if the hunter caught the snake, crushed the snake, and destroyed it? The only way to bring hope back to the camp … What would the hunter do? You know what they would do. You’d lift the snake up on the pole with which you killed it. You smack a snake, and then you lift it up. In fact, the smartest thing to do with a snake, as you know, is not to hold it like this but to put it up with pinchers. You would walk through the camp and say, “I got it!” To hold a snake up on a pole means it’s dead. It’s gone. It’s been destroyed. It’s been captured.
Everybody would look and say, “We have hope again.” What God is saying to the Israelites, not to us, by putting that up is, “I am the One who healeth thee. I am the One who can stop the snakes and heal you of the poison. I am the hunter. I have the power. I am the One who puts the snake up on the pole. Look to me, not to the snake so much. To look to the snake is to look to me. Look to me in my power. Look to me in my mercy and you’ll be healed.” That’s what they did.
What he was saying was, “I am the One who heals you. Have hope in me.” But Jesus goes further and says, “Let me tell you what it really meant. As the snake in the wilderness was lifted up, so I will be lifted up.” The first thing it means is Jesus will die. A lifted-up snake was a dead snake. A lifted-up snake was a crushed snake. A lifted-up snake was a snake that had been smitten. For Jesus Christ to be lifted up did not just simply mean he went up the steps or something.
He says, “As the snake in the wilderness was lifted up, I will be lifted up,” which means, “I will die. I will be smitten. I will be crushed.” But it goes beyond that. He doesn’t just say, “I’m going to die.” Here’s what he says. He’s not just saying he will die, but he says, “I will die as the Serpent.” What is the Serpent? The Serpent is the sin. The Serpent is Satan. The Serpent is not just Satan. It represents the whole thing. It represents the evil that fell into our hearts. It represents the seed of the Serpent in us.
It represents the mistrust of God, the rebelliousness, and the thirst. It represents all the things sin is and all the things sin deserves. Therefore, when Jesus says, “I will be lifted up as the Serpent, I will be struck, I will be destroyed, I will die, but I won’t just die. I will die as the Serpent. I will die in the place of the Serpent …” You notice in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul does not say, “God made Jesus Christ sinful.” Of course, he couldn’t have made Jesus Christ sinful.
If Jesus Christ had been sinful, if he had become selfish and wicked and as picky as we are, he would never have gone to the cross. He never would have loved us to the end. What it says is, “God made him sin who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” It doesn’t say he made him sinful. He made him sin. It doesn’t mean he made him a Serpent. He made him as a Serpent. He treated him as the Serpent should be treated. He treated him as sin should be treated.
Now you know why, when Jesus was on the cross, and what he meant when he said, “I thirst.” Do you remember that? “I thirst.” It wasn’t just a physical thirst. He was taking upon himself hell. Do you know what hell is? Do you remember the parable of Lazarus and the rich man? Do you remember the place where the rich man goes to hell? It says he was burning up with thirst, and he prayed to Father Abraham, “I see Lazarus up there in heaven. Could he come and cool my tongue?” He prays the prayer of thirst.
It’s not because of fire. Don’t you see? Hell is a place where you are finally cast away from God. The thirst that begins here (the picky, picky, picky that begins here) has now become a raging fire. That’s all. Your conscience that is bothered here becomes a roaring lion. Your inability to find love here becomes an absolute, raging forest fire. That’s what hell is. It’s the insatiability of spiritual thirst. A tremendous emptiness that makes you unhappy with everything here, but it’s nothing compared to what will happen when you finally get your way.
What sin wants is to get away from God so you can be completely your own boss. When that finally happens, that little teeny bit of thirst will become a raging fire. That is what fell on Jesus. Jesus Christ took exactly what we would have experienced in hell forever. He got the fever. He got the convulsions. He got the raging thirst. He got the unquenchable fire. He said, “I thirst.” It all fell on him. Why? Because, of course, it says in Isaiah, “… with his stripes we are healed.” He heals all our sins, and he carries all our diseases.
C. You just look. As the snake in the desert was lifted up, so the Son of Man will be lifted up. How do you get saved by the snake? You just look. You don’t walk up to it and sort of rub it three times. You don’t go over to it and bow down three times. You don’t pray a sinner’s prayer in front of it. All you do is look.
Years ago, there was a guy named Charles Spurgeon who became a great Baptist preacher, but he was under agony in his soul. He was pretty sure he was a sinful person. He didn’t know how God could accept him. He went, because of a snowstorm, into a tiny, little primitive Methodist chapel, and the minister couldn’t get there because of the snowstorm.
Some poor deacon got up and had to preach. There were only four people present. He opened his text up, and he’d never preached a sermon before. The text was from Isaiah 45. It said, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am [a righteous] God [and a Savior] and there is none else.”
He got up and said, “Do you see what this is saying? You don’t do anything in order to be saved. You just have to look. You don’t say, ‘Oh, I need to work up to you in love.’ To look is to admit you have no loyalty in love. You don’t have to walk over to God. You don’t have to jump hoops to God. All you have to do is look. You have to admit he’s done everything necessary for you. You just have to look and see that he has saved you.” Spurgeon began to say, “Wait a minute! I don’t have to do? I just have to look? I just have to believe? I just have to receive?”
Because there were only four people in the service, finally the deacon looked down and he saw only one visitor. He said, “Young man, you look miserable, and you’re going to stay miserable until you obey my text.” At that point, Spurgeon suddenly realized he had been running and jumping and somersaulting, and all God wanted him to do was look and to admit he couldn’t save himself. That’s how sin is remedied.
Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013).
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