7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.
8 And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.
9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.
This past Sunday evening my bride of many years and I attended an evening service at a UMC in Columbus, GA. It is one of the few UM churches that has an evening service. The service itself consists of singing many of the older hymn and anthems of the faith. The pastor is the sort whom you can trust your soul. A Bible believer. But this week the sermon was given by one of their lay pastors. His text came from chapter 3 of John. He did a noble job of it too. When he opened the service to questions, a dear lady asked a most interesting one.
During the course of the sermon the lay pastor touched on Moses and the serpent. For some reason it simulated great angst within her. Her question was most interesting. She asked why did Moses use the serpent? She reasoned why would God use the creature that tempted Eve to heal the people? That question lead into a neat discussion between both the pastor and the lay pastor in an attempt to give her an answer. But she failed to accept their answers and once again posed the same question. Another attempt was made by both of these fine brothers. For me, I could see that their answers were well intended and good. However, as good as they were, they missed her point.
I then made a response which seemed to settle her spirit and satisfied her quest for an answer. As I traveled home, I started to think more about this story. A story that took place so long ago in an unforgiving wilderness where seemingly only serpents dare tread and God’s chosen people. It is a true story and accurately reported by Moses. It is found in chapter 21 of the book of Numbers. It is only six verses long. But I think that this story also carries a powerful message to the American Christian church of all denominations. What I will attempt do is to draw a few parallels between those wilderness Jewish travelers and us. While things are not precisely the same, I think there are spiritual applications that can be applied nonetheless.
The story starts by saying that the “people spoke against God, and against Moses: ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?’” Now this is most interesting. Here they are really saying that there were tired of their journey. Now this journey had as it end goal the crossing of the Jordan river into the promised land. The crossing that river it symbolized the leaving of sorrow and troubles behind for a land that flowed with milk and honey, which by the way is a type of heaven. It had the promise of so much. The promise of no more nasty deserts to cross or wilderness to endure. It was a promise of everything beautiful.
I could only imagine the stories that adults would tell by the camp fires at night. Stories of how crops would grow. Stories of the abundance of water and the fish that would fill the streams. How the vineyards would grow some of the largest grapes that a human eye ever saw. Perhaps the children would also dream of a day that was not so hot, and place that has little or no danger where playing would be completely safe. They may have even composed songs about crossing the Jordan.
There is an interesting parallel here with the Church. The Christian Church has always used the symbolism of crossing the Jordan into our promised land of heaven. One of our gospel songs establishes the same hope that those wilderness Jews had.
1. On Jordan's stormy banks I stand
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan's fair and happy land
Where my possessions lie
2. All o'er those wide extended plains
Shines one eternal day
There God, the Son forever reigns
And scatters night away.
3. No chilling wind nor poisonous breath
Can reach that healthful shore
Where sickness, sorrow, pain and death
Are felt and feared no more
4. When shall I see that happy place
And be forever blessed
When shall I see my Father's face
And in His bosom rest
I am bound, I am bound, I am bound for the Promise Land
I am bound, I am bound, I am bound for the Promise Land
But for us, the type here is not a land of mountains, hills, or valleys. It is a land that has no night. And land that has no death. It is a glorious place heaven is. The music will be perfect. We will see new colors which are more beautiful then we have right now on earth. And no sorrow to boot. And sin, praise God, no more temptation to separated us from him. So in this sense the Christian Church certainly can fit with all of Israel’s hope and joy.
But wait! The question is not about their desire to reach the promised land, but “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” They wanted to know why they were bought here to die. After seeing all that God had done for them to liberate them from captivity in Egypt, they felt a let down. They felt that in this time of hardness, in this extremely harsh environment, that God had forsaken them to die. All their hopes of a place more like heaven were dashed to pieces on those wilderness rocks of despair. They felt like Moses and his staff had mislead them on purpose. They had proof of this nasty business for they said they had no food nor water. That was not true because the food itself was wonderfully provided by God himself from his heavenly table.
Now before we go farther, let me pause here to add another aspect to this discourse. What I will say has nothing to do with modern theology. Nor do I take aim at liberal theology. No! I am speaking of conservative theology and mainly the two systems of theology that have divided American Christianity and even the world wide Church. That is, Calvinism and Arminianism. Now I am on the Arminian side of this issue and I have no problem with the Wesleyan Arminian position. But after admitting this however, there is a larger point to be made with both views. Before the turn of the twentieth century both groups understood the problem of sin within the Christian body. Both preached against living in sin and the fact that in some sense of the word, victory could be had over it completely. In short, for them, the idea of a “sinning saint” would have been a terrible heresy.
Today the Calvinists teach that it is “grace plus nothing and you are saved.” The Arminian position teaches it is “faith plus nothing and you are saved.” In the process of teaching our twist on truth, we discover we are wrong because Paul says we are “saved by grace through faith ... and it is a gift of God.” We before seem to ignore that it takes both grace and faith to save us. In our generation we seem content to stop at either grace or faith in the work of salvation. But Paul adds that we are to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.” And James no less supports this idea by saying, you know, I will show you a man’s faith by his works. Works, while they cannot save, are certainly important no matter how you cut it. The great mistake of the modern American Church is that somehow, when a person becomes born again, that magically we know what is right and wrong, and therefore we need not worry about the “do’s” and “dont’s” of the faith. Sadly many American missionaries are propagating this concept throughout the world.
While works alone can not save any one, without them we can not prove we are saved to the world. If we say we live it, then works are a part of it. Paul says that the law is our schoolmaster. It taught us that works don’t and can’t save. But wait, here in the United States just about eveyone has gone to school. And why go to school? To learn! And what pray tell do we learn? Supposedly to learning how to read, write, do math, do science, and learn history will give us a better future. Is this not a good thing? Yes! Therefore the law itself was a good thing. It points people to their need of salvation. It also helped them to become moral citizens. Schools are beneficial in many positive ways. But our emphases on Grace or Faith only, seems to have skewed what the “schoolmaster” was doing. Paul does not condemn the law. What did the law do? It taught us that we need God’s help to be saved. It teaches us how sin can separate us from the love and grace of God. It also lays out a standard that defines Christian living. It teaches what God expects from his saints. Without the law can we even define what the actions of a Christian should be beyond his testimony that he has been saved? This schoolmaster is important in many ways even after we are saved. Grace and faith is the beginning. Without that, the law can only make a moral society but never a Christian society.
Remember the rich young ruler who came to our Lord and asked what more he needed to do to get to the kingdom of God? Our Lord then quizzed him on the law. This young man’s answer was amazing. He said that he kept all the laws which our Lord required. Mark says that Jesus “loved him.” Note the fact that Jesus did not say to this fine young man, “you can’t keep the law, no one can!” But what seemed to be the case was that our Lord accepted the answer that this young man did so perfectly. But he did lack the one thing that would seal the deal. It was to believe on him and follow him totally. After all, Luke says in his book to the Hebrews that “without faith it is impossible to please God.”
Then too we see another, a Pharisee no less, named Nicodemus who visited the Lord at night. He asked an extremely important question. And our Lord proceeded to answer it. Now this Pharisee should have known the answer since he knew the law. In the process of this discussion our Lord proclaims, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Now most modern scholars who write commentaries, and reference Bible notes seem to agree that this “born of water” carries the idea of Christian baptism. While that might be an answer, I am not sure that Nicodemus would understand it in those terms. You see, the law, or the schoolmaster spoke to the use of water many times over in the law found in the Old Testament. From sprinkling their priests for their office to serve, as was Jesus sprinkled in the Jordan by John, to the many washings which included their hands, water played an important role in the every day life of a Jew. Water symbolized purification and being clean by the Spirit of God. After all, a dirty heart, sin in a life would hardly allow anyone to get into a sinless heaven to be with the Lord forever. God requires a clean heart. This water then should have taught this Pharisee that water could only make the outside clean, but not the soul. But he needed one more washing. That was washing of the saving power of the Holy Spirit. And that could only be achieved by the new birth - faith. The Pharisees seemed to lose why the law required the use of so much water. Instead they thought the more they washed the better they would be. Saving power was not in the water itself. But note, that our Lord did not condemn the use of water for the reason it was given, but instead used it as a platform to open the eyes of this visitor to the connection that the Pharisees totally missed. Even today, students may have a hard time getting it even though the schoolmaster is a good teacher. Or maybe it was this part of the law that drew Nicodemus to Christ. In that, this Pharisee payed attention to his schoolmaster and acted wisely. He like the women at the well would never thirst again if he acted by faith.
So what have we learned? What is our Lord teaching us by these two examples? Is Christ teaching us how useless the schoolmaster is? That the school master is a deceiver and should not be listened too? No! What is to be understood is that the schoolmaster is saying “folks you can not get to heaven by your own power and strength no matter how good you are.” But that being said, in neither case, did Jesus condemn them for successfully doing their legal requirement, but that was not enough. That was good, but no where good enough. Take note, they came close, but yet so far away.
But what of works after you are saved? Now we can pick up the idea of a “sinning saint.” The problem with that is that today we believe we are free form the law. The schoolmaster will show us what holy living is, and what good really means. Is this not what Paul meant when he said “work out your own salvation?” And also is this not what is meant when James says I will show you a man’s faith by his works? Jesus Christ never condemns people for trying to keep the moral laws. They are meant for the good of every man and society. But without the Spirit, we have little power to keep the law much less see God.
Therefore with this being said, lets consider those wilderness Jews again. God called them out of their slavery in Egypt which was a picture of sin and bondage. Moses is a type of a savior in that he is rescuing them from the wicked task master Pharaoh which is a type of the Devil who owned them. God gave Moses the law to help the people as they traveled. Those laws dealt with many aspects of their lives and preserved them from many sicknesses and helped them in their relation to others. Indeed all this adds up to making the Jews different from those whom they came into contact with.
Jesus came to rescue us from the captivity of Satan, who has enslaved us to his hellish work. Once we accept Christ through faith, we are set free. And like the man who was delivered from the demons and his graveyard home wanted to follow Jesus, so should we. We begin our wilderness journey knowing that the Good Shepherd knows the way and will lead us by the still water. But along the way there will be trials and great temptations. And many times the path is hard. I mean really hard. Moses gave the law as their guide to live and find heaven. We have that law in our Book the Bible. It too is our road map to heaven. It tells us how to live holy, what to do to be a witness of his saving grace as we make our way through our wilderness journey. A Christian uses the law as a road map to heaven. To know the demands of a loving God and how to enjoy his grace. However, today, just like the wilderness Jews, the Church has rebelled against Jesus just like they did to Moses.
You say, how is that so? Why we are saved by grace is the reply. That is a true statement. Particularly if we say it is through faith too. But what would you think of a Christian who wife hops? What of a Christian who either drinks socially or is addicted to it? What of a Christian who tells dirty jokes? What of a Christian who continually enrolls in college so as not to have to pay back his loan? What about a Christian who continually drives well over the speed limit? What of the Christian who uses foul language nonstop? What of a Christian who lives with a woman that he is not married to? People have an I don’t care attitude about covering their bodies. If there is a dress standard Christians recoil saying “that if God does not accept me the way I am I want nothing to do with him.” Yet they claim salvation by grace or faith alone. My dear reader, all this and more is going on in both the evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal church movements today. Our churches have almost the same percentage of sinful problems as does the world. Yet we claim we are saved by grace plus nothing or by faith alone! That we are free from the law because of the grace wherein we stand. The point is that while there may not be outright rebellion per say, the American Church looks, and acts, and sounds no different then the world that we are supposed to be saved from. The point is, that the Holy Spirit will help us to live within the law. Is that help not grace too? Like the wilderness Jews, this willful rebellion against the standards of God will receive His punishment!
The rebellion parallel between the wilderness Jews and the Church is remarkable when you think about it. They had heavenly manna to strengthen them. We have the Holy Spirit for our help. They had devout Godly leadership. We have a Captain too, whose name is Jesus. They were wandering and searching for the Jordan to cross over into their promised land. We too look to cross over Jordan into Heaven above. Frankly, there is little difference between us and them when rebellion is the order of the day. And when this happens, God is left with but one choice. Pun....!
So for the wilderness Jews, he drew serpents to their desert tents. Hissing and coiling and striking and bitting they did their job. One after the other fell to their death. Death is after all the end of any rebellious person in the Church. God does not tolerate insurrection among his people either before or after his death. O the sting of that bite and then the death. Those who live obediently to Christ surely can sing “O death where is your sting and victory!” But we are not obedient. We have broken the laws of morality in the American Church in the name of love. Many wilderness Jews died that day and today God is allowing many American Churches to gradually grow weak, and finally close. Just ask any United Methodist pastor about the dying attendance in his denomination. For that matter most mainline churches are closing too. Next will be the rest if they don’t soon repent. If love does not have a reproving factor, it cannot be love.
But God had mercy on those wilderness Jews when they called in repentance to him. God ordered a serpent to be made and hanged on a pole. That if any looked upon it, they would live. But they had to make their way to the point where they could see it. Some where carried to a good location. Some crawled barely making it. By faith, they looked and saw the serpent that God had Moses to graciously prepared for them, they lived. Without the work of crawling, or carrying, their hope of salvation would have failed them. God can’t believe for anyone though he does help. So too the Church needs to humble themselves and get back to God. Repent and live. Stop this nonsense and pretense that as long as there is love you can overlook sin. After all, the Church reasons, “you got to hate the sin and love the sinner.” The problem is, all to many American Churches assume that everyone knows what is right and wrong and therefore they don’t need to teach the “do’s” and “dont’s” for fear of offending them away from the Savior. After all, that has nothing to do with getting them saved. Really?
Remember now the lady in our evening service wondered why God used the serpent since it was used by Satan to deceived Eve? Why would God make people look to a serpent hanging as if crucified on a pole to get healed? After all, the serpent is also considered a symbol of evil in the scriptures. Why not something else? Why not a teddy bear?
It occurred to me that God told Eve that there would be one coming that would crush the head of the serpent. That would be our Lord. Now our Lord “hanged” on a cross. It was not an attractive sight for the faint hearted to see. It was a brutal death. Once he was dead, he was buried and rose the third day. In this, he destroyed Satan’s power. It was almost like killing Satan himself on the cross so sure was Christ victory over him. As Moses hung that brass serpent on that pole, there was no life in it. And that pole (symbolic of the cross) was a sign of how the old devil, the serpent, was going to be defeated. So those people saw both the serpent and Christ in sort of a mortal battle and the cross was the final point of the conflict. The power of Christ who gave himself on that cross for us handily defeated the devil. He came to heal us of our sins just like looking at the serpent would make them well again. This all happened physically to them that day and the understanding of God’s promise to Adam and Eve was still standing true and powerful and closer to being fulfilled. Therefore, the use of the serpent was the perfect thing to use for a rebellious group of followers. It showed both his grace, it inspired faith, and their looking at it was their part. God neither can look or believe for us. And we should be reminded that the Cross was the final fatal blow to the Devil that old nasty slimy serpent.
The American Church has no excuse for the sinful living within their membership. And as Churches close and wickedness increases, it seems to me that we have our own “correct theology” to blame. What do we really mean by it is this? Is it by Grace plus nothing and you are saved, or is by faith alone and you are saved. And like Christ, neither Paul or James belittled good works but instead showed their benefits for the Christian faith. Therefore both before and after we are saved, the works or moral codes of God are to be a gracious gift from Him who loved us first. The modern American Church today seems to have an unholy fear of them. They are nothing more then a help to grow in grace or to become holy. With out them, the Church itself will be as lawless and wicked as the world. Therefore they are not a curse to the honest Calvinist, or Arminian even though works in and of themselves can not save. If you think that you can not help but to sin in word and deed, and you can’t help but to sin, or a sinning saint, then from what are you saved my friend? If this is your doctrine you might want to take another look at the Cross.