SERIES: Lessons in the Wilderness
©November 18, 2001 by Rev. Bruce Goettsche
As we approach this Thanksgiving Day we probably feel more grateful than usual. Over the past couple of months we have come to appreciate the wonders of our freedom as citizens of the United States of America. We have a greater appreciation for those who serve: soldiers, policemen, firemen, rescue workers, medical personnel, and government officials. We have even come to cherish our families and more greatly appreciate the fact that we live in rural America.
But even though we feel grateful I want to remind you this morning of our greatest blessing. And to do so, we turn to one of the greatest texts in all the Bible.
The Hebrews are nearing the end of their wilderness wanderings. They were beginning to march toward the Promised land but then they were refused passage through Edom. So they had to take a detour. As soon as the group began to back track they started complaining. For 40 years they had been marching in circles. They sensed that same futility continuing.
Or course, complaining is not the best way to handle frustration. But whenever Israel became frustrated they complained against Moses and against the Lord. Before we become too judgmental, let’s admit that we often do the same thing.
We’re not much different that the Israelites
The Lord took offense at the complaining for it showed a lack of respect and a lack of faith. These people were happy to sing God’s praises as long as God was doing what they wanted Him to do. They had the nature of their relationship confused. God is the one who calls the shots, not man.
6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. (Numbers 21:4-9)
In order to see the significance of this incident and to understand why this story is appropriate for Thanksgiving, we need to turn to John chapter 3. John 3 is the very popular account of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be reborn. In the midst of this discussion, Jesus says,
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:14-16)
Did you get that? Jesus was referring back to this account in Numbers 21! He says that the snake on the pole is a picture or illustration of what Christ does for us through the cross. There are several things this experience with the snakes teaches us about salvation.
The Universal Need. These people had grumbled against God and now they were dying. They were helpless to do anything to remove the problem. In the same way, you and I are dying because of our sin. We are helpless to overcome the sin that controls our life. We are headed for judgment and destruction. We need help that comes from outside our lives.
Notice, it wasn’t just that the serpents were in the camp . . . they had actually been bitten by them. In the same way, sin is not just in the world, it is in us. We don’t need a Savior simply because of a spoiled society, we need a Savior because of our stained hearts. When you and I read this story we quickly identify with Moses. We are quick to condemn the foolishness of the Israelites. However, if we really want to be saved, we have to identify with the people who were snake bitten. Salvation begins with recognizing that we have a problem that we can’t solve. Salvation is not something given to good people; salvation is extended to those who in their sin turn to the Lord.
God’s Grace and Love In the time of need, God could have turned away from Israel. Instead, out of His mercy, love, and grace, God provides a means of salvation. And the same is true for us. Paul writes,
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
When we had spurned Him, when we were suffering from the consequences that we brought on ourselves, God provided a Savior. God does not have to save us. He is under no obligation to extend grace to us. Yet He does. Our salvation is in His hands.
The Serpent Had to Be Raised Up This bronze serpent could save no one while it was in Moses’ hand. It couldn’t be simply laid on the ground. It had to be raised up. Surely this was a picture of the coming Savior. It was not enough for Jesus to live on earth. It was not enough for His teaching to be profound or His miracles to be powerful. Jesus could save us only by being raised on the cross to die.
His death paid for our sin. His perfect life and sacrificial death satisfied the demands of the law. Without the cross there is no eternal life.
Faith was Required The way of salvation that God provided for these Israelites required faith. They had to look to, gaze on, and trust the promise of God. It must have seemed somewhat illogical to these people. How could they be helped by simply looking at a bronze snake? But those who trusted God and did what He told them, were saved. Those who did not trust God died.
We are told that we must trust Jesus Christ to be saved. Those who are unwilling to turn to Christ, will die in their sins. For some, it is difficult to understand. They think it is “too easy”. They are looking for a catch of some kind. But there is none. We are asked to believe. To believe that God has provided what we need and He has provided it through Christ.
The Way of Salvation was the Same for Everyone. It didn’t matter who you were. If you were bitten by a snake, you could only be saved by trusting God’s promise through the snake. It didn’t matter who you were: religious leader or outcast; deeply religious or practically pagan; rich or poor; male or female; popular or unpopular. The way of salvation was the same for every person.
There is only one way of salvation. It is not popular in our society, but the Bible tells us that there is “no other name under Heaven, given to men, by which we must be saved”. (Acts 4:12) You can’t find forgiveness and eternal life
The only way to eternal life is through Jesus. His sacrifice is our only hope.
There is one additional time when this particular bronze serpent is referred to in the the Bible.
4 He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan. ) (2 Kings 18:4)
This account refers to some house cleaning that King Hezekiah did. This was hundreds of years after the occasion mentioned in Numbers 21. Do you see what had happened? The people of Israel had been saved after looking at the bronze snake on the pole. So what did they do? Did they bow before the Father and thank Him for His mercy? No. They took the snake and made an idol out of it!
How ungrateful these people were. Rather than bowing before the Lord, they bowed before the snake. Is it possible that we do the same thing? Is it possible that at Thanksgiving we have a tendency to the exalt the blessings rather than the one who blesses?
I remember one Easter I was asked to say the blessing at our church’s Easter Breakfast. I was a fairly young man at the time and considered it quite and opportunity. And when it came time to pray I waxed eloquent.
A little later a friend of the family came up to me and said, “Hey, I appreciated your prayer. I thought it was a little strange however that you never mentioned the food.” I had been sent to say grace and even though I did pray, I neglected to do my job.
That can happen to us this Thanksgiving. We can be so focused on the material things that we have been given that we forget to thank the one who has given us life and has given us new life. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t enumerate our material blessings. We should. But we should also be conscious of our spiritual blessings. We must never forget that we are sinners who have been saved by undeserved gift. We can be grateful for all kinds of things, but if we aren’t grateful for the one who gives us all these things to richly enjoy, we have missed the point.
Let me wrap this up with some simple principles. First, those who are looking for a way to get to Heaven need look no further than Jesus.
· If you are looking for forgiveness, it is found in Christ
· If you need a new beginning, it is found in Christ
· If you are looking for an answer to life’s problems, it is found in Christ
Everything else is meaningless when compared with Christ. When Jesus went to the cross He went there as our substitute. He was the antidote to our sin.
You may be moved by the swell of patriotism in our country. You may be filled with a sense of how fortunate you are to be living in the United States of America. But if you don’t look to Jesus, you will still die in your sin. America can’t save you. Patriotism will not recommend you to the Father. Only Jesus can help.
Jesus’ invitation was quite simple to Nicodemus. “Whoever would believe in him would not perish but have everlasting life.” So, let me ask you, “do you believe in Him?” I’m not asking about intellectual knowledge. I’m not asking what you think about Jesus, or how you feel about Jesus. I’m asking if you are willing to trust Him with the rest of your life? If you haven’t already done so, why not make this Thanksgiving the most blessed Thanksgiving of all? Receive the most profound blessing God can offer . . . the gift of eternal life through His Son.
You can begin with a simple prayer. Understand, that the words themselves are not what is important, it is the attitude of the heart. But if you need help, here’s a guide:
Father, I come to you and admit that I am like the Israelites. I am dying from sin. Lord, I believe you when you promise that Christ has paid for my salvation. I claim the power of His resurrection in my own life. I receive Him now as my Savior and also as my King. Cleanse me of my sin and place your Spirit in me. Begin the process of transforming me. Thank you for your love.
Second, every believer has the responsibility to do as Moses. He had to lift up the serpent so that others could be saved. In like manner, you and I must lift up the Savior. We must seek to raise Him up by our words and by our example. It is our job to point people to the only way of salvation. As you talk about your blessings this week, make sure you use these opportunities to life of Jesus so that others might see and live.
And finally, as you approach the table of the Lord this morning, and as you sit around your family’s table at Thanksgiving, thank God for the many material blessings of your life. But please make sure that you also express your gratitude for the salvation that makes that life worth living.
©November 18, 2001 by Rev. Bruce Goettsche, LaHarpe, IL. 61450 www.unionchurch.com