They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “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!”
Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 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.
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.” 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, they lived. Numbers 21:4-9 (NIV)
No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” John 3:13-15 (NIV)
Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:6-13 (NIV)
Temptation and snakes are themes that run throughout the Bible. The serpent tempted Eve, and we know how that story goes. Humankind has a sort of uneasy relationship with the reptilian world, but a sort of love-hate relationship with temptation. We know we shouldn’t give in to certain things…but we do, whether it is something as trivial as scarfing down that hot fudge sundae we know we really don’t need, or constantly whining and complaining and being surly and unkind, or even something devastating such as succumbing to desire for someone other than our spouse, or murdering someone. Even worse, we don’t actually have to do the deed to sin. We just have to want to do it in our minds and hearts, and that is sin. God sees our hearts and knows our motives no matter what our outward behavior might suggest. All of us are guilty and law-breakers according to God’s Law.
Temptation is everywhere and no one is immune. All sins are disobedience to God. The only differences are that some sins are more tempting than others, and some sins have deeper temporal consequences depending on the damage that gets done to others and in the greater society. What may be a temptation for one person is not a temptation at all for someone else, but we are all tempted and vulnerable to various and sundry forms of sin. The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) are an excellent place for us to start to examine our hearts and see our sins revealed to us and put out in the open.
Temptation and sin are written into the human condition, snakes or no snakes. The apostle Paul makes it clear that we cannot live according to God’s will in our own power. If we think we can live perfectly, upholding all Ten Commandments, all the time, we will fall flat on our faces. We do fall flat on our faces, all the time.
We can only be made whole and healed of our sinful nature by looking to Jesus and confessing our sins. As the Israelites were bitten by the snakes- the bites that maimed and killed them were the consequences of their sins- God tells Moses to set up a bronze serpent. Symbolically he is hanging up what has been made sin for them- so they may see their sins and have faith in God to look up, to confess their sins, and be healed of them. It was a free gift of mercy, a vision of Jesus. It was God making a way for His people to be forgiven and healed of sin by faith even though they had earned the consequence of death by sinning against Him.
Jesus has been lifted up upon the Cross for us to look up to Him, to ask His forgiveness and be healed, to be forgiven, and to be made new. We look up knowing that He is our source of life.
Do we believe that Jesus has taken on our sins, no matter how bad we might think they are?
Do we believe He gives us what we need to resist temptation and live in a way that honors Him?
Do we trust that He purifies our hearts and motives and that He will make us more like Him?
Do we believe that on Calvary He became our sin, and in doing so, He put sin and death to death forever?
We can only stand and be justified (made good) before God because of Jesus. We can’t make ourselves good no matter how hard we try. Apart from Him we fall. The good news is that no matter how many times we fall, or how many times we overestimate our own abilities, because of Jesus we stand. Because He was lifted up, because He put our sin to death, we stand in Him.