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Author:Rev. Ted Gray
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Congregation:First United Reformed Church
 Oak Lawn, Illinois
 www.oaklawnurc.org/
 
Title:The Bronze Serpent and the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ
Text:Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-15 (View)
Occasion:Lord's Supper
Topic:Christ's Suffering
 
Preached:03/08/2015
Added:2015-06-12
Updated:2017-05-10
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


 

 
“The Bronze Serpent and the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ”
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-15      
 
The experience of the Israelites described in Numbers 21 seems, at first glance, to be so far removed from us. After all, they lived in the Old Testament times when the gospel was presented in types and shadows. We live in New Testament times where we see the types and shadows fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In the experience described in Numbers 21, for example, we clearly see that the bronze serpent on the pole was a shadow, or type, of Jesus, the One who would be lifted up on the cross of Calvary so that all who look to Him in faith will be saved.

The Israelites also lived in an entirely different location from us. Our congregation is blessed to live in the United States, and further blessed, here in the Midwest, to live in the “breadbasket of the world.”  Some of our older members grew up on the truck farms that produced row after row of vegetables. Further south from us, not much further south at that, we have the vast fields of corn and soy beans.

By contrast, Israel was going through a large and hostile desert. The route from Mount Hor to the Red Sea, as they skirted around Edom, includes some of the most arid and desolate areas of the desert. That is part of the reason why the people complained 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!” (5b).

But even though we have those obvious and great differences of both being separated geographically as well by time, we all have something in common. Each one of us has been bitten by the deadliest of serpents; we have within us the venom of sin:

     Psalm 51:5 “For I was conceived in iniquity and born in sin...”

     Isaiah 53:6 “All we like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”

     Romans 5:12 “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men.”

It is bad enough that we have been bitten by the serpent, bad enough that we have within us the venom of sin, but what is worse is that all of our sin, even when it is directed toward another human being, is ultimately against God. Did you notice that in Numbers 21:5? It says, They spoke against God and against Moses.
On one level they were complaining against Moses, but the real source of their complaint was with God. Their sin was against God more than it was against His servant, Moses. And here again, nothing has changed. Even though we are far removed from Old Testament Israel by geography and by time, when we sin our sin is ultimately against God.
 
That’s why David, in Psalm 51, lamenting his sin with Bathsheba which resulted in the death of her husband, cries out to the Lord, “Against You, You only, have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4a).  All of our sin is ultimately against God, even when others are hurt by it, devastated by its awful repercussions. God, being just and holy, must punish sin. We see that in verse 6, Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. That was their punishment for sinning against God. It wasn’t done because God is mean, but because as a just God He must punish sin. The wages of sin is death, and the Lord allowed these snakes in the camp to be the messengers of judgment, to inflict the venom of death.
 
But God is also merciful. He is just and holy and must punish sin, but He is also merciful and kind, and provides a way out from the wages of sin, from the fangs and the sting of the serpent. In verse 7 the people asked Moses to pray for them, and God very graciously provided a means of salvation from the attack of the snakes. He had Moses make a bronze serpent, place it on a pole in the camp, and then, as verse 9 says, When anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.
What can we learn from this unique Old Testament account? How does it apply to us today, as we are separated by time and geography? What application is there for us?  
No Human Cure
 
First, this teaches us that there is no human cure for the venom of sin. You notice that the Lord didn’t say to Moses, “Have the people mix together a potent to drink which will counteract the venom of the snakes. Have them carefully mix just this much of this ingredient and that much of that ingredient. Have them boil the ingredients together into a bitter medicine - and that will take away the effect of the venomous snake bites.”
 
Not at all. Instead the Lord commanded Moses to do something that humanly speaking wouldn’t make any sense at all. 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”(8).
 
The cure for the people wasn’t in themselves, what they did. The cure was in what God did as the people looked to the bronze serpent.
Still today, the cure for sin isn’t in something we do.  As the familiar hymn puts it:
 
             Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul;
             Not what my toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole.
             Not what I feel or do, can give me peace with God,           
             Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load.
 
             Thy grace alone, O God, to me can pardon speak.
             Thy power alone, O Son of God, can this sore bondage break.
             No other work save Thine, no other blood will do;
             No strength save that which is divine, can bear me safely through.
 
As  Psalm 49:7-8 says, “No man can redeem the life of another, or give to God a ransom for him - the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough.”

No Self Reformation

Second, this incident in Israel reminds us that self reformation cannot save us. Just as the Lord did not give them a formula for a remedy that they could mix together into a medicinal potent, so also God didn’t lay down the ground work for self reformation.  He didn’t say to Moses, “Tell the people if they promise not to grumble any more, I will remove the snakes.”
 
There are at least two reason why. First, self reformation can never measure up to God’s standard of righteousness. Consider the rich young ruler who came to Jesus and asked, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus recited to him a number of commandments. On hearing them, the ruler replied, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.” (Luke 18:18, 21).
 
Yet his self righteousness could never measure up to God’s standard.  He may have kept some of the commandments outwardly, but not inwardly. He, like us, may have been restrained from the actual deed of murder, but not from seething hatred within. He may have been spared from the act of adultery, yet lusted in his heart. As Romans 3:20 says, No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.   
A second reason why self reformation cannot save us is that even if you “turned over a new leaf,” even if you were able to turn completely from your sinful conduct of the past and live a perfect life in the future, it wouldn’t be enough to save you. 
 
The late Dr. James Montgomery Boice, in his Commentary on the Gospel of John, illustrates it this way: Suppose you owned a small store and you had a customer to whom you had extended credit.  Suppose that over time this man fell behind in his bill. If he promised to pay the debt you would probably give him a little more time. Then, one day suppose he came in, bought his food and said, “I’ll pay you cash. From now on I don’t need credit.  I’ll pay with cash every time.”   

You would be delighted, Boice points out, but you would also ask about the overdue bill. “When will you pay for the things you bought on credit?” you ask. But the customer replies, “Oh, you don’t understand. I am going to pay with cash from now on. Certainly you won’t hold that old unpaid account against  me? I am turning over a new leaf.”  (Vol. 1, pg. 193).
 
Even if you and I could leave this building this morning and live a perfect life, our self reformation still would not be sufficient to save us.  Ecclesiastes 3:15 points out that God will call the past into account.  The old debt needs to be paid, and there is no way that you and I can pay it.

The Only Remedy

The third lesson learned from this account in Numbers 21 is that since there is no human solution to the venom of sin, we must trust God’s remedy alone for salvation. His remedy is to look with saving faith to Jesus Christ alone for our salvation. That is what Jesus Himself taught Nicodemus in John chapter 3.  He related this account of the bronze serpent directly to Himself as He said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15).
 
That is, after all, the story of the entire Bible right from the beginning. Adam and Eve sinned. They realized their nakedness before God. They tried to hide from God in the Garden. God sought them out. And then we read of the first shedding of blood. God made clothes for Adam and Eve from the skins of animals. There already was a shadow, a type, of what was to come: the sacrifice of the Lamb of God so that we can be saved, clothed in His righteousness.
 
There is no other way to be saved from the venom of sin, except through faith in the shed blood of the Lamb. Acts 4:12, “There is no other name under heaven by which man can be saved.” As Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6).
 
As we take the Lord’s Supper this morning, thousands of miles from the desert Israel passed through, thousands of years after their sinful complaints, we are yet reminded of the same truth: We have all been bitten by the serpent of sin; the venom of sin is within us, yet there is a remedy. The remedy is not of our doing. The remedy for sin is found only through faith in Jesus Christ.   And that remedy is given to everyone who looks to the Lord in faith. That is the third application from this Old Testament account.

Anyone, Whoever

Did you notice how the remedy was foreshadowed in Numbers 21:8-9?  It says, 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.  
The Lord said, “Anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” Anyone – priest, Levite, woodworker, women, children. Anyone who looked to the serpent on the pole was spared.
 
In the New Testament the same truth rings out. As Jesus concluded his remarks to Nicodemus, in John 3, He made a statement that most everyone in this room knows by heart, “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.” Who are the “whoevers” in the New Testament who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for their salvation?
 
One was a Samaritan woman, the woman who had five husbands and was living with another  man when she met Jesus at the well.  Included among the “whoevers” who looked in saving faith to Jesus Christ were tax collectors, like Matthew and Zacchaeus, who scammed so many people. Among the “whoevers” was a self righteous Pharisee who had gloated over the stoning of Stephen before having his life transformed on the road to Damascus. Yes, even a thief – the notorious thief on the cross – looked to Jesus with saving faith and was spared from the lethal venom of sin.
 
No matter who you are, no matter what is in your past, if you look to Jesus Christ in saving faith He will save you from your sins. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” 

Guarding Our Conduct

However, having looked to Jesus in saving faith, we must guard our conduct, lest we idolize the blessings He gives us.
 
As we read through the formulary for the Lord’s Supper, we will be reminded that when we take the elements of juice and bread, they become a part of us.  They represent Christ being within us, and because He is in us, our conduct must reflect that. As Paul explained to King Agrippa, “I preached that they (the people to whom he preached) should repent and turn to God – and prove their repentance by their deeds.” (Acts 26:20b).
 
Israel serves as an example for us, but they serve as a negative example. The account of this bronze serpent is brought up again, hundreds of years later. Israel had gone into captivity because of her sin, and Judah was following after Israel’s bad example. The nation of Judah had  suffered under the evil reign of King Ahaz. He is described in 2 Kings 16 as one who did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He walked in the ways of the kings of Israel and even sacrificed his son in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites. He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the high places, on the hilltops and under every spreading tree. (2 Kings 16:2b-4).
 
But after wicked King Ahaz died, God blessed Judah with a godly king, King Hezekiah. He  removed the high places where Baal and other false gods were worshipped. He cut down the Asherah poles and smashed the stones that were also used in the worship to false gods.
 
And then, 2 Kings 18:4 describes how he broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. The people had taken the very thing that God gave them as a type or shadow of Christ, and they worshipped the serpent instead of the Messiah. They made an idol out of the means of grace.
 
Here again, although we are separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles from where Israel crossed the desert, the means of God’s grace is still idolized. We have a statement about that in the Heidelberg Catechism, which calls the Mass idolatry (Q&A 80).  Some churches have removed that statement from the catechism, or at least noted that they don’t fully agree with it. But any church – or any person – who believes the bread and the wine in the sacrament turns into the actual body and blood of Jesus is idolizing the means of grace God has given. As Hebrews 7:27 says, Unlike the other high priests, He (Jesus) does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when He offered Himself.
 
But it’s not just people in the Roman Catholic Church who idolize the sacrament. There are millions of people who believe they are saved because they took the Lord’s Supper, or because they were baptized, or because they went forward at an alter call and said “the sinners prayer.”   So many of them, I fear, are idolizing the good things God has given. They worship the means of grace, and not the Giver of those means.
 
Our culture today is so far from Christ. Our nation has repudiated, for the most part, the teachings of Christianity.  Yet what is one of the most poplar items of jewelry, from a low level K-Mart or Walmart, right up to the costly jewelry worn by the starlets and actress, the “leading ladies” of our culture?  It is the cross.
You see, we have become, at least in some ways, a society like Israel of old. There are those who will give token worship to the cross, but no true worship to the Christ who offered Himself on the cross. 
 
The cross is the central focal point of all history, but it doesn’t save us. Only Christ does. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper portray what Christ has done for us, but they don’t save us.  Only faith in Christ does.
 
And that leads us to the obvious question: As we take the Lord’s Supper, is your faith and is my faith truly placed in Christ?  Or do we trust the sacrament to save us?  Do we think, deep down, that somehow we will be saved because we took the Lord’s Supper, or that we will be saved because of our baptism? Or maybe, like that rich young ruler, do we believe that we have kept God’s commandments good enough – maybe not perfectly but good enough – to be saved?
As we take the Lord’s Supper together, truly focus with saving faith on Christ alone, rejoicing that just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.  Amen.  

 

- Bulletin Outline -

 

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live...”   “....Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.”  - Numbers 21:8.... John 3:14-15

 
“The Bronze Serpent and the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ”
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-15      
 
I. The experience of the Israelites described in Numbers 21 also describes our condition: Each one of us has been bitten by the deadliest of serpents; we have
    within us the venom of sin (Psalm 51:5; Isaiah 53:6; Romans 5:12)
 
II. To be saved each one needs to look in faith to the One God has “lifted up” (John 3:14-15). This teaches us:
     1) There is no human cure for the venom of sin (Psalm 49:7-8)
 

      2) Self reformation cannot save us (Luke 18:18-21)

 

      3) The only remedy is to look in faith to Jesus Christ (John 3:14-15)

 

      4) Having looked to Jesus in faith, we must guard our conduct, lest we idolize the blessings God gives us (2 Kings 18:4)

 

 

 

03/08/2015- a.m.

 

 




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 03/0, Rev. Ted Gray

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