“What a Wonderful Difference!” Numbers 21: 4-9

Are we much different?

Do you, like me, sometimes get frustrated with the Old Testament Israelites, particularly that group whom God brought out of Egypt? They had seen such great things! And yet over and over we hear complaints, even hear them communicating that they want to go back to Egypt. Over and over again they got caught up in the challenge of the moment (no food, no water, etc.), losing sight of God’s amazing deeds in the past his gracious promises regarding their future. Frustrating!

Are we much different?  After all, the complaints we hear from the Israelites, are spread out over 40 years. If I were to examine the last 40 years of my life, how many complaints would I see? How many times would I see myself failing to remember God’s amazing deeds in the past, or his gracious promises about the future? Ugh. Are we much different? I fear not.

When we meet the Israelites in Numbers 21, the 40 years of wandering are about done. If they’re paying attention to God’s promises, they would know that they are very soon going to be entering the promised land! The light at the end of the tunnel is getting bright!

And so they had approached Edom, asking for permission to travel through their country, but the Edomites had said, “No way,” even lining up for battle. So, the Israelites had to travel many miles to the south, then many miles to the east, before turning north, all in order to skirt Edom. And by the way, most of that is barren, hot desert! 

But! What was at the end of this journey? At the end of it was their promised land. Yes, going around Edom was a detour, but the “goal line” was in sight! 

Somewhere along the way, “the soul of the people grew short.” They speak angrily against Moses, and against God: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” (Nu 21:5b) It’s breathtaking, isn’t it? God has been faithful to them for 40 years, yet they’re still saying that they are going to die in the desert?! And, they detest this “miserable food?!” Oh yeah, that “miserable food” is the manna which God had provided for them for almost FORTY YEARS! And, to add insult to injury, the word translated “miserable” could be translated, “worthless,” or even “cursed.” Worthless? Cursed? Why, that food had sustained them for 40 years! How in the world could they be so thankless, particularly when their promised land was just a few weeks away?!  

Are we much different? I hope we are. But are we? Hmm.

So, the LORD unleashed some fiery serpents against the Israelites, and many of them died. As always, it was an act driven by a desire to save. Yes, God wanted to get his people to their earthly promised land. Even more, he wanted to get them to their heavenly home! So, he needed them to see their sinfulness, their need for forgiveness so he could heal them not only physically, but spiritually. 

And, it worked!  The people come to Moses with repentant hearts, asking him to ask God to take “the snake” away from them. (Yes, the Hebrew is a singular. Is that a bit of a reminder of the Garden of Eden, of the reality that the Israelites needed relief not just from these poisonous snakes, but ultimately from the snake, the devil? Maybe. I’d not push it too far.) 

God’s answer isn’t at all what they might have expected. God doesn’t take the snakes away. Rather, God has Moses build a model of the poisonous snakes, and hang it up on a pole in the middle of the camp. Then, when anyone was bitten, they were to look at that snake, and they would live!

Wow. Really? Can you imagine how the Israelites might have reacted when they heard this? “We’re to do … what?!” Can you imagine how the first person who was bitten after this must have felt as (s)he turned their gaze to this bronze snake? Might there have been some trepidation? Some worry? Some wondering? I’d guess!   

But then, can you imagine their relief when it worked? Oh wow! What amazing thankfulness must have flooded over them! It had worked! And why had it worked? It had worked because God had promised it would work! As he’d promised, God healed them when they looked at the snake on the pole!

Are we any different? Thank God, not really! Similar to how that snake was lifted up, so Jesus was “lifted up,” on the cross. And just as those who were snake-bitten were to look at the snake-lifted-up, so God urges us who are oh-so-Snake-bitten to “look at” Jesus, the one who was “lifted up.”

And, it works! As the promise of God caused the physical healing for the Israelites, so the promise of God works spiritual healing for you and for me. Yes, pastor, as you and I gaze at Jesus, we see our sins forgiven, we see our complaints and lack of faith paid for, we see our salvation accomplished. And in “seeing Jesus,” God heals us.  

Are we any different? Thank God, no, we’re not. Oh, we mourn that we have the same horrible sin-problem as those Israelites had. But we thank God that their God is our God, and that he’s a God who saves.

And so, dear fellow pastor, gaze with joy at Jesus, lifted up for you and for me and for all. Be assured, life is yours, because Jesus was lifted up.

But oh! There is a difference! While the Israelites’ healing was temporary, your healing is eternal!

Oh, what a wonderful difference that is!