Sunday, March 14, Fourth Sunday in Lent

Reader: “For this is how God loved the world:” 

Response: “He gave his one and only Son.”

Scripture:  Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21   (I just noticed this John reference is also today’s date. 3/14/21!)

Then the people of Israel set out from Mount Hor, taking the road to the Red Sea to go around the land of Edom. But the people grew impatient with the long journey, and they began to speak against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness?” they complained. “There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!”

So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many were bitten and died. Then the people came to Moses and cried out, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.” So Moses prayed for the people.

Then the Lord told him, “Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” So Moses made a snake out of bronze and attached it to a pole. Then anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed!

John 3:14-21

And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent him into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.

“There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.”

Reader: The word of the Lord.

Response: Thanks be to God.

Some thoughts:  

The “serpent in the wilderness event” is one of the more curious occurrences for the Israelites in their desert wanderings. People have often read the account wondering what in the world was going on. The children of God had been bitten by terrifying snakes and yet God had Moses make a replica of a serpent on a pole. If the people would just look at this ugly image of the reptile, they would be healed? That doesn’t make much sense, yet it does if we do a little biblical work. 

The people had been in rebellion against God again. What a surprise! They complained about the “horrible manna” and that they had nothing to eat or drink. In a nutshell they were rejecting God’s provision. The Lord was teaching them to trust him day by day. They had to exercise faith each day. Yesterday’s faith doesn’t carry over to today. They needed to trust God now. That principle applies to us who read this as well. 

But the serpent on the pole, what’s with that? What we have here is Old Testament typology. What we mean by typology is an interpretation of First Testament events which prefigure a New Testament event in which Christ, in his Incarnation, fulfills the Old Testament event. These two passages from Numbers and John give us a perfect illustration. It is the case of a type in which the antitype ends in fulfilment with Christ.

Let’s walk through this a little further. The image of the serpent on the pole prefigures Christ upon the cross. But why a snake? Go back to the Garden of Eden. The snake in effect “bit” Adam, for he also tasted the fruit of the forbidden tree with the result being his physical and spiritual death. “So all the days Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years, and he died.” Gen.5:5. The serpent on the pole was motionless signaling that its power to bring death had ended. The serpent was dead, and powerless to inflict more death. The dead Christ on the cross (Jn.3:14-15) signaled the end of the power of death, hence the victorious words of victory proclaimed to the lifeless serpent on the pole, “O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?” The serpent in the Garden, the devil, was crushed and mortally wounded. “Serpent on the pole. You are without breath, motionless, powerless, dead even though you have the shape of a serpent.” The devil is defeated. Look to the Savior.

As the Israelites, bitten by the serpent, (as sinners, we have all been bitten by the serpent), looked to the pole, they saw a creature who had no more power to inflict the sting of death. These children of God were in effect looking to the victorious Christ, the one who had defeated the old head-crushed serpent in the Garden of Eden. How do we know this? Jesus himself drew upon this Old Testament “Christ story” in helping Nicodemus connect the dots between the Testaments. The Old Testament is filled with such Christ stories. Looking at the serpent on the pole brought healing in the form of life and recovery from the snake bite to those Israelites in the First Testament. 

Looking to Christ, the one lifted up on the cross, brings spiritual healing and eternal life to all people who look to the Savior. It is interesting that the symbol for the medical profession is a serpent on the pole. I wonder how many people know the story and what it represents?

The sad thing is that by King Hezekiah’s time, some 700 years later, the Israelites, now in Jerusalem, were worshiping the bronze serpent on the pole and offering sacrifices to it. Under Hezekiah’s reforms, the serpent image was broken up along with the Asherah poles. Ignorance of true history is devastating. Rather than being reminded that the serpent had been defeated and was the path to healing, it was worshiped as something that had power. Hezekiah turned the nation to again embrace Yahweh. 

This season of Lent causes us to again reflect on Jesus’ own journey to this life-giving cross which goes through “the valley of the shadow of death.” Note it is a “shadow,” not the end.

Music: “God So Loved the World” Te Deum Chamber Choir (A classic beautifully sung.)


O God our Father, help us to nail to the cross of thy dear Son the whole body of our death, the wrong desires of the heart, the sinful devisings of the mind, the corrupt apprehensions of the eyes, the cruel words of the tongue, the ill employment of hands and feet; that the old man being crucified and done away, the new man may live and grow into the glorious likeness of the same thy Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.   ―Eric Milner-White, 1884-1964