Snake On A Pole – Christ On The Cross
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Numbers 21:8 Then Yahweh 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.”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… What is your initial reaction when a legless reptile appears on the TV screen or worse, in your yard or house? If you are anything like the majority of the population, you don’t like to see snakes. Even Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones himself in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” confessed to not liking snakes.
But snake fanciers will point out that these reptiles are a most beautiful part of God’s creation, with intricate designs on their skin, the operation of their eyes and their tongues to gain knowledge of their environment, the marvel of the constrictor’s jaws opening wide enough to swallow its prey whole. And that’s all fine and dandy, but for most people, it seems, snakes are a source of revulsion almost beyond any other creature.
There is one time, however, when everyone “likes” snakes. That is, of course, when one is bitten by a poisonous snake and needs to be saved from its venom. At that point the snake is utterly essential for the saving of life, for the treatment for such a bite is a serum made from the snake’s own venom.
That is quite similar to what our Lord shows us in today’s Old Testament reading. The children of Israel had to look to a snake that God would provide through His servant Moses in order to be freed from the deadly consequences of the serpents that had been sent to afflict them. The very cause of their affliction would have to be lifted up before them and become their cure!
Of course, we must understand why it was that these serpents were turned loose on God’s people in the first place. Israel had been turned away by the people of Edom when they wanted to travel through their land, and Moses, having no commission from the Lord to go to war with Edom instead led His people along another route. This caused the Children of Israel to become unhappy with Moses because they had seen time and again how every army that had opposed them had been utterly destroyed. And they now assumed that they had the power and ability to destroy whomever got in their way.
The Edomites, though, were the descendants of Abraham and Isaac just like Israel was, and it was the Lord’s desire to give them every opportunity to return to Him and to show kindness to His people. He later even forbade Israel to take any of their land or in any way to provoke them. But Israel, in its displeasure, once again began to grumble and complain against Moses and against God therefore despising – again – the Bread from Heaven.
And this was too much. God’s people were repeating the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden, namely doubting God’s Word spoken through His servant and despising the wholesome food He had given them, choosing instead a variety of their own. Now God would show His erring people the very nature of their sin and would remind them of the only way they would overcome its effects. He sent them serpents to remind them whose voice they chose to hear instead of His, and many of the people died showing again that the penalty for sin is death.
And the people saw by this they had indeed sinned, and so they looked to the Lord to show His mercy as He had in the day of the first serpent. They then turned to God’s servant, Moses, and begged to hear of grace.
Notice that Moses did not scold the people for their repeated grumbling and rejection of God’s grace. He recognized that they were truly repentant, and that they relied on the Lord’s mercy as the only remedy for their woes. It was a recognition that moved Moses immediately to prayer for the people that their sin might be taken away and their lives spared.
In our Gospel lesson for today our Lord Jesus says, “Ask and you will receive.” And so it is that when Moses “asked” in prayer for God to help, God did not do it in the way Israel would have designed it – not just “instant relief,” not a simple “taking away” of the serpents so that the people could “move on.” The remedy consisted of putting the very thing that tormented them up on a pole for them to look at in order to remind them that the only real treatment for the ancient serpent’s fangs is the antivenin that God Himself provides.
That is our situation exactly. Our problem is that we were born in the death that Satan’s venom brings and have continually plunged ourselves heart-first onto his fangs. Our whole being is consumed by sin and death.
And what is the cure? The cure is the antivenin created as God the Son extracted all our sin onto Himself, suffering the punishment of death that our sin deserved, drinking to the dregs the cup of God’s wrath, and converting it for us into the cup of His blessing. Such a serum does not immediately remove the serpent from our midst, but it does give us life and allows us to move ahead in God’s blessing.
As Isaiah wrote in his 53rd chapter, our estimate of Jesus on the cross was that He was “stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted” as though He were the serpent, as though He were the agent of sin and death. And that is exactly what He became for us, as St. Paul writes: “He who knew no sin became sin for us, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ.” To His Father, Jesus became all sinners rolled into one so that His beloved Son might taste death as the Second Adam and remove its sting from all the sons and daughters of the First Adam.
The remedies of this world try to remove the sting of sin by looking away from it, by minimizing God’s commands and proclaiming sinners to be “not so bad,” or by looking only to the displays of Jesus’ love and glory. But God makes His remedy look every bit as inglorious as the curse He comes to remove.
Indeed, He becomes the curse for us, as St. Paul writes in Galatians 3:13: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” God hangs the brazen serpent on a pole in the wilderness to undo the physical sting of the serpent’s bites. And He hangs His Son – made sin for you – on the Pole of the cross outside Jerusalem in order to destroy the sting of death for you by absorbing all the punishment your sin deserves. And now He bids you to look always to that pole, to that cross, to find there the crushing of the old Serpent’s head.
In John 3 the Gospel writer proclaims: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up, so that all believing in Him should have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him.”
The lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness was actually a sign of God’s salvation and love; it literally showed what must happen to the Messiah. He must become the problem, He must take the problem upon Himself, and He must solve that problem Himself so that looking to Him as the very image of that problem would provide salvation for all who believe.
The very thing that you least want to see has become the only thing that can save you. By nature you do not want to see the Son of God. By nature you do not want to see that He is an almighty God who has both the power and the right to judge you. By nature you do not want to see your own sinfulness, for it condemns you. By nature you do not want to see God the Son on the cross, because you know that it is your sin that caused such an awful thing to be done. By nature you do not want to see His blood flowing from that cross, much less taste it and be told that this is now your essential drink.
Yet, as the people of God learned after leaving Mount Hor, when the last thing they wanted to see was another snake – a snake that was attached to God’s Word and promise – it was at the very same time the only thing that could save them.
And so it is with you. For the only cure for your sin and guilt – the only thing that allows you to stand without terror before the mighty Judge – is that His blood has indeed flowed into your mouth and heart from His cross. By faith you look to the righteous God who, as a Man was made sin for you and who took away your sin.
It is that wretched scene on Calvary to which you must look. And when you do, there you see not your judgment but God’s declaration of “not guilty,” the declaration that you are clean, that you are whole, that you are forgiven by that same blood that is now your true food in the Holy Supper along with the body that is indeed the Living Bread from heaven.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.