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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:Look up to the victory provided by Yahweh and live
Text:Numbers 21:4-9 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Revelation of the Gospel

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Note:  all songs from the 2014 Book of Praise

Psalm 63

Psalm 79:3 (after the law)

Psalm 78:1,8,9,17

Hymn 84

Psalm 79:5

Reading: John 3:1-15

Text: Numbers 21:4-9

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Impatience and discontentment are common sins.  We don’t have to look at other people to see these things in action.  If we take any time to examine our own hearts, we know that at times we can be impatient – wishing that our circumstances would change and the sooner the better.  We may even become bitter at God because his timeline is not ours.  Closely related to impatience is discontent.  We are unhappy because we don’t have what we want when we want it.  If we’re thinking about God at all, we may be secretly wondering whether he really has our best interests at heart.  After all, if he did, wouldn’t he give us what we want?

The Scriptures teach us that most of our impatience and discontentment is sinful.  As we’ll see later, there is an impatience or discontentment that is holy.  But much of it in our lives is not holy -- it is not a fruit of the Holy Spirit.  Instead, it comes from our sinful human nature.  This problem of our impatience and discontentment is addressed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Our Saviour came to deal with this problem.  He has dealt with it in his life.  In his life, he was always perfectly patient and content.  He did that in our place, offering the obedience that’s expected from us.  On the cross, he suffered and died for all our sins of impatience and discontent.  Those sins were laid on him and he paid the debt we owe to God’s justice for these sins.  Today he gives us his Holy Spirit.  He works in our lives so that we can and do grow out of our impatience and discontent. 

The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God to do that.  He works through passages like the one we’re looking at this morning.  In this passage, we see the covenant people of God and they’re not in a good place physically or spiritually.  They have allowed impatience and discontent to rule their hearts.  Serious consequences follow, but also a powerful illustration of God’s great mercy towards sinful people.  It all vividly points to our Saviour Jesus Christ.

I preach to you God’s Word from Numbers 21:4-9.  I’ve summarized the message of our text with this theme:  Look up to the victory provided by Yahweh and live.

In our text we’ll consider the:

  1. Heinous sin of the Israelites
  2. Horrible punishment Yahweh sent
  3. Help through the mediator Yahweh heard

First we need to understand a bit about the context, especially what’s happened before Numbers 21.  The people of Israel were in the wilderness en route to the Promised Land.  Along the way, there were several notable instances when the people complained against God.  Several times they showed that they didn’t trust him to provide for them and protect them.  In chapters 13 and 14 this came to a head when the spies came back from the land of Canaan.  Most of the spies put fear in the hearts of the Israelites.  At that point, the Israelites were supposed to go into the land and conquer it.  But fear and mistrust of God held them back.  As a result, God promised that this entire generation would never enter the Promised Land – everyone except Caleb and Joshua.  For forty years, they would wander in the wilderness because of their lack of faith.  In our text, we’re getting close to the end of that forty years of wandering.  The previous generation has been dying out.  Numbers 20 describes the deaths of both Miriam and Aaron, the siblings of Moses.  Moses himself is getting way up in years.  Right before our text, Israel was attacked by a Canaanite king.  The LORD, Yahweh, gave Israel victory over this king – that was a foretaste of what was soon to come.  The Israelites could trust that Yahweh was going to make them conquer the enemies they would face in Canaan. 

In verse 4, we find the Israelites on the move.  They’re on their way to the Plains of Moab, right to the very border of the land of Canaan.  Verse 4 says that they set out from Mount Hor.  Mount Hor is thought to have been in the middle of the Sinai peninsula somewhere.  The exact route from there isn’t exactly clear.  They went “by the way to the Red Sea” could mean that they dipped all the way down near the Red Sea, or it could mean that they took a road that led to the Red Sea.  It’s not exactly clear, but it’s also not that important.  The point is that they were on their way, taking a route around the land of Edom (which they had been forbidden to travel through). 

As they were travelling, the people fell prey to the sins of impatience and discontent.  Verse 5 makes it personal.  Look at the way it’s worded here.  The people spoke against God and against Moses.   That drives home the fact that their impatience and discontent were directed against someone, against Yahweh and his servant Moses.  This wasn’t a kind of a vague impatience or discontent, no, there was a strong personal element here.  Whether we realize it or not, whenever we’re impatient or discontent, there is always a personal element.  We confess God’s sovereignty in our lives, his providence.  If you are impatient or discontent, it’s always directed against someone.  Most of the time, God is the target.  The bottom line is that we’re impatient with him, unhappy with how he’s doing things in our lives.

In the case of the Israelites, they made that explicit.  Notice the quote from the people in verse 5:  “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?  For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.”  “Why have you…”  The “you” here is first of all directed to God, and secondarily to his representative Moses.  But you need to see that this is an accusing question directed against Yahweh first and foremost – Moses means nothing apart from being God’s servant and representative.  And everything said here is heinous – by the way, heinous means utterly wicked.  This is utterly wicked, heinous to the nth degree.  What the people are doing here is the most offensive thing you can imagine in the eyes of God, far worse than giving God the middle finger.  Let me explain how.  Let me expose the heinousness of these words so that we can learn from them.

The people acknowledge that God brought them out of Egypt.  Yes, there is no denying that.  But why did he bring them out of Egypt?  He told them that he was bringing them to the Promised Land.  Yet they say that his motivation was to kill them in this wilderness.  They accuse God of having it in for them.  The first way in which their words are heinous is that they accuse God of being evil and not loving his people, not being faithful to his Word. 

That’s bad enough, but they add insult to injury by refusing to acknowledge why they’re in the wilderness at that very moment.  Why aren’t they in the Promised Land?  It’s because they refused to trust God when the spies came back from their mission.  They’re in their current state of impatience and discontent because of the sin of their fathers, and perhaps some of this current generation too.  They’re blaming God, but they have no one to blame but themselves.  So not only do they accuse God, but there’s also a total lack of honesty and humility about their current circumstances.  That’s making their words even more heinous. 

Then they keep heaping on the heinousness with the next words, “For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.”  First, notice the contradiction in these words.  There is no food, and yet we loathe this food.  So which is it?  Do you have food or not?  There is dishonesty here.  It says “no water,” but since people can’t survive more than three days without water, there must have been some water.  Second, notice the way the people cast contempt on what God has provided.  “This worthless food” refers to manna, the food God provided in the wilderness.  They say they’re disgusted by it.  They call it “worthless” – basically they’re saying this is garbage food.  God has given us this garbage to eat and we’re sick of it.  They’re talking like spoiled and entitled children.  There’s no gratitude here, just whining and complaining.

The last element of the heinousness of this sin has to be seen in the fact that this is not the first time this happened with these people.  Perhaps some of them were of the older generation that actually complained against God in earlier years of the Exodus.  But even otherwise, you would think that the younger generation would have heard what happened when the people complained.  Back in Numbers 11, the people complained and God provided quail for them to eat, but there also came a great plague.  There were consequences to their discontent.  Hadn’t they heard about that?  Surely they must have.  Didn’t it register with them that complaining against God and being discontent is a very evil and dangerous thing to do?  It obviously didn’t and this is part of the sin here.  They knew about God and they knew that you should not mess with him and yet they high-handedly do it again, as if they just didn’t care. 

So let’s summarize.  This sin of impatience and discontent was heinous because it questioned God’s character, it showed a lack of humility and honesty on the part of the people.  This sin was heinous because the people insulted God’s provision of manna.  Finally, it was heinous because the people should have known better, given their knowledge of what happened in the past with them and their parents.  Their impatience and discontent are high-handed.  That means they were acting in wilful disobedience against God, not in ignorance.

Brother and sisters, isn’t much of our impatience and discontent just as heinous?  We have God’s Word, passages like this one.  In our heads, we know that God won’t be mocked and insulted, and yet we do it.  When we do it, we show our own lack of humility and honesty.  When we’re impatient and discontent, we think we deserve more, we deserve better.  We have a right to an easy and happy life and God should give it to us right now.  When he doesn’t, our approach puts God’s character into question.  We’re not on our way to the land of Canaan, but we are on a pilgrimage to a better Promised Land.  Here we’re still in the wilderness, so to speak.  Did God put us here just to make us miserable and kill us?  Our impatience and discontent bring us to question what God is like.  That’s a sin because God has revealed what he’s like in his Word.  God is not a liar.  He calls us to trust his Word and believe that he’s good and loving and faithful.

Where there’s heinous and high-handed sin, God takes note.  He might very well send some form of discipline or chastisement to wake up his people and get them to repent, to turn away from their sin and turn back to him.  That’s what happened in verse 6 of our text.  The people were travelling through the Sinai Peninsula.  There are at least three varieties of deadly venomous snakes in that part of the world.  From the description we have in our text, it would seem that the particular snake in question had a reddish colour.  For those interested in snakes, I think it was likely a Burton’s Carpet Viper.  This is a deadly snake – one source that I read said that this family of snakes causes more fatalities than all other snakes in the world.  Another source said that this particular species is “very nervous, irritable and [has an] aggressive disposition, [it is] quick to strike at the slightest provocation and does not try to escape.”  I don’t think you would want to encounter a snake like this species.  It’s seriously dangerous.

Yahweh sent either the Burton’s Carpet Viper or a snake like it against his people.  In verse 6, the ESV says that the LORD sent these serpents “among” the people.  That can also be translated, “against.”  The people complained against him, and he sent these serpents against the people.  The snakes bit the people and many of them died.  This horrible punishment is noteworthy for several reasons.

First, this punishment obviously comes from God.  There were hundreds of thousands of Israelites, probably well over a million.  Do you know how many vipers it would take to bite all these Israelites?  There must have been thousands and thousands of them.  When do you ever see thousands and thousands of poisonous snakes in the wild in one spot?  God obviously orchestrated this punishment.  This was no accident or fluke of nature.  God was clearly behind it. 

Second, we need to notice the intensity of this punishment.  They’re described as “fiery” serpents and that’s probably a reference to their bite.  Their bite is not only deadly, but painful.  If it was a Burton’s Carpet Viper, the bite does not lead to a quick and easy death.  Today you can receive an antivenom and probably survive, but in ancient times, it was just a matter of time and the time was awful.

Next, we need to remember that God’s choice of the serpent here was not random.  We’ve heard about snakes before in the Bible, back in Genesis.  The snake was used by Satan in the Garden of Eden to bring about rebellion against God.  There is sin in the world because Adam and Eve listened to the snake that had been hijacked by Satan.  In our text, the snake is used by the Creator to bring about a curse and punishment on those who rebelled against him.  It’s as if God is saying, “You listened to the serpent, you haven’t learned to hate the sin that he introduced, so he’s going to come again, this time at my bidding.  I’m sending him to teach you a lesson.”  The serpent represents the curse of God on sin, a curse that has been there since the Garden of Eden, and a curse that the people have forgotten.

The final thing here in verse 6 is related to that.  To put it in the words of Paul, “the wages of sin is death.”  If you commit high-handed sin against God and don’t repent from it, the painful death that comes from a snake-bite is just a small foretaste of what awaits in the hereafter.  If you sin against the holy God, whether through impatience or discontent or any other sin for that matter, and don’t turn from it, God will judge and punish.  God is just and he does not tolerate high-handed heinous sin that slaps him in the face.  If you go on in that sin and don’t turn from it, a holy God will surely give you what you deserve forever in hell.  If you would be afraid of snakes and being bitten by a snake, how much more should you be afraid of the eternal wrath of God!  That reminded the Israelites and it reminds us of how seriously we need to take sin.  You can’t think light thoughts of your impatience and discontent and just write it off as trifling or insignificant, no big deal.  All sin is serious, and our text teaches us that this sin of discontent is especially offensive to God.  Loved ones, we have to take our sin seriously so that we do what God calls us to do with it:  hate it and flee from it.

In our text, Yahweh finally got the attention of his people.  The chastisement, this discipline, had the desired effect.  In verse 7, we read about how the people began coming to their senses.  They recognized the heart of the problem:  they sinned.  They sinned by speaking against Yahweh and his representative Moses.  That was the beginning of the solution.  There was honesty and confession.  For there to be reconciliation with God, there always has to be honesty and confession.  That’s true for each one of us too.  There’s no healing the breach with God apart from acknowledging our sin and our need for his forgiveness.

Further in verse 7, the people appeal to Moses to intercede for them before Yahweh.  They ask him to pray for them so that he would take away the snakes.  Why did they go to Moses and ask him to do this?  Simply because Moses was a mediator.  He was someone who went between God and the people.  As mentioned before, he represented God before the people.  But at certain times he also represented the people before God.  In this role, Moses pointed ahead to our Saviour Jesus.  Christ is the most excellent Mediator we could ever hope for.  Moses was still a sinful man.  In the chapter before this, Moses struck the rock when he was just commanded to speak to it.  He disobeyed God and therefore couldn’t enter the Promised Land.  But Jesus is a far better Mediator, going between God and sinful people, bringing about reconciliation and healing in our relationship with him.  As the people went to Moses for help, so we must go to Christ for help with our sin.  We will never be turned away.   

Moses did as the people asked.  He prayed on behalf of the people.  Exactly what he prayed or how he prayed, Scripture doesn’t say.

What’s important is that God heard the mediator Moses and gave help.  Here you have to see the amazing grace of God.  He didn’t owe it to anyone to give help.  They hadn’t earned it, not even with their repentance.  No, this is grace through and through.  Yahweh gave instructions to Moses so that the people would have a way out of the punishment.  He didn’t take away the snakes, but he did give a way to escape death if you were bitten.  Moses was to make a fiery serpent and put it up on a pole.  Then everyone who would be bitten had a way of escape from death.  They could look at the serpent Moses made and live. 

So this is exactly what Moses did.  Verse 9 adds the detail that the serpent was constructed out or bronze or copper (the Hebrew word can indicate either).  This bronze serpent worked as God promised.  If people were bitten by the vipers, they could look at the bronze serpent and their lives would be spared.    

Now I want you to notice some things about this bronze serpent.  First, we’re not told here or anywhere else in the Bible whether there’s meaning attached to it being made of bronze or copper.  There are several theories.  Some scholars think that the reddish hue reflected the colour of the snake or maybe the snake bite.  Others think it pointed to the blood needed for atonement.  Still others argue that it was bronze or copper just because the sun would glint off of it and easily catch the eye.  Again, Scripture doesn’t say, so any of those answers could be right, maybe all of them.  They’re certainly not mutually exclusive.     

A second thing to note is that the bronze/copper serpent was dead and lifted up on a pole.  That pointed to the fact that the serpent had been killed.  God had victory over the serpent.  Moreover, the pole or standard is also important here.  This pole or standard is what an army carries.  Ancient armies would have a standard bearing a flag or some figure.  In this case, the standard bears the conquered enemy.  The serpent is lifted up on this pole to announce that it’s been defeated by God.  Its poison had been made harmless by God.  The people brought this on themselves, but God graciously gave them a way out.    

In John 3, we learn that this foreshadowed the death of Christ on the cross.  Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.  He put the serpent up in a public place and whoever looked up at it would live.  This was the help that God gave so that the punishment would be turned away.  Similarly, the Son of Man, Jesus, would be lifted up on the cross.  He would be put up on the cross in a public place.  At Golgotha, God announced victory over the serpent and his poison, over Satan and sin.  God announced victory over our sins of discontent and impatience.  Through the suffering and death of Jesus, the punishment we deserve was turned away.       

Now there are some important words in both John 3:15 and Numbers 21:9.  In Numbers 21, it’s the words, “he would look,” and in John 3, it’s the words, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  In Moses’ day, the help was not unconditional.  It was not universally applied.  It wasn’t like just anyone would get healed from the snake bite.  There was only one particular kind of person who received healing – it was the person who looked up to the defeated snake.  The healing was available, but people had to look up to the bronze serpent.  If you didn’t trust God’s Word and look, you would die.  It didn’t matter that you were part of God’s covenant people.  All of God’s covenant people had to do the same thing to live:  they all had to look in faith to the victory God provided.  The same is true with who the bronze serpent pointed ahead towards.  If you don’t look to Jesus Christ with faith, you will not be helped.  You will not have eternal life.  Again, being part of God’s covenant people is not a substitute for looking to the victory God provides in Christ.  Every single one of us needs to look to Jesus to be saved from death.  You need to do that.  After all, you see your sins, don’t you?  You see your sins, including your sins of discontent and impatience.  You hate those sins because you see how heinous they are.  You see how you need rescue and help from those sins.  Without rescue and help, there are horrible consequences.  So you look up to the victory God provides you in Jesus and then you can be assured of eternal life.              

Doing that brings us from a sinful and wrong impatience and discontent to a holy impatience and discontent.  There is a good impatience.  It’s the impatience that says, “I can’t wait to be done with sin.  I can’t wait to be glorified and sinless, living forever in God’s presence.”  There is a godly discontent.  It’s the discontent that says, “I’m not happy with the status quo in my spiritual life.  I’m not content to be this spiritually immature.  I want to grow.  I want to see my sins die more and more.  I want to always reflect Christ.  I want to always live in union with Christ.”  As we look up in faith to Jesus, the Holy Spirit increasingly substitutes this holy impatience and discontent in the place of what’s sinful.  He shapes our hearts (what we love) and our wills (what we want), so that we conform better to the image of Christ.  But it all starts with looking up to the victory God has provided so that we may live.  Brothers and sisters, hear the call of the gospel again, look up, and fix your eyes on Jesus today and always.  AMEN.


O Yahweh, our God,

We thank you for your Word and its proclamation again this morning.  Your Word exposes our sin.  We confess to you our sinful impatience and discontent.  There are so many times when we do not trust you and your provision for our lives.  We murmur and complain, and we have to admit that it’s you we really complain against.  We do this even though you have lavished us with so many gifts and blessings.  This is so evil.  Father, we know that our sin deserves horrible punishment, far worse than what the Israelites received in the desert with those snakes.  So, O God, we thank you from our hearts that you have provided help and victory through Jesus Christ.  Father, we look up to that victory in Jesus and we know that we will eternally live through him.  We thank you for Jesus and his suffering and death on the cross.  We pray that your Holy Spirit would help us to always look to him in faith.  We also ask for the help of your Spirit in creating in us more and more a holy discontent and impatience.  Help us to hate all our sin and want to be done with it.  Help us to look forward to the day when we will be finished with sin, when we’ll be glorified and always content in you.  Father, please continue your work in our hearts.  Please continue to shape us and renovate us increasingly in the image of Christ our Saviour and Lord.  

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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