Brazen serpent

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Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:13-16

What is faith?

Often people consider faith to be a special quality that the religious happen to possess.  It’s like some magic elixir.  Apparently some people have lots of faith coursing through their veins, others have very little.

But how does Jesus think of faith?

When Jesus wanted to explain faith to a Bible scholar, He retold the story of the brazen serpent.  It’s an odd story, but let me give you the details:

The Israelites have been wandering through the wilderness and they’ve been doing what they do so well – grumbling:

the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. (Numbers 21:4-5)

How seriously do we consider grumbling?  As the characteristic sin of the Israelites in the wilderness, it provokes the LORD’s anger more than any other sin.  God wants our hearts, and He takes discontentment as a personal affront.  He sends judgement:

And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. (v6)

Here God’s people are handed over to diabolical powers.  Serpents remind us of that ancient serpent from Genesis 3, the devil.  The people are given over to Satan in judgement.

But judgement is not God’s final word.  Judgement is the context for the LORD to reveal His salvation:

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.  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.  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. (v7-9)

The people are saved by simply looking at the bronze serpent.  The very thing that caused them harm is their salvation if only they look.

It seems such a strange story.  Why would Jesus be so keen to draw attention to it?

Here’s what He says:

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:  That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.  (John 3:14-15)

Numbers is our story.  We are the faithless grumblers.  We too are sick with sin, awaiting death.  There’s only one cure – behold the One lifted up.  He became the very thing that afflicted us – He became sin (2 Corinthians 5:21).  And now, what must we do to be saved?


That’s it.  Just behold.  We are simply to “look and live” (Numbers 21:9).

Don’t ignore the snake bites.  Don’t try to reason with God.  Don’t try to suck out the poison.  Don’t offer up some sacrifice of your own devising.  Don’t turn to some voodoo spell.  Don’t ask Moses to save you.  Just look to the One lifted up.

So what is faith?

Faith is not a quality you find within yourself.  Faith is looking away from yourself.  Faith is not a thing you conjure up.  Faith is beholding something else (Someone else!).  Faith is looking to Jesus.

Many people say they would like to have faith, or they would like to have more faith.  But the answer is not to have “more faith”.  It’s to have “more Christ!”  When we behold Him, that is faith.  Therefore the life of faith, is the life of setting Christ before our eyes and saying to our souls: Behold!  Behold the Lamb of God!  Behold the Lord of Glory lifted up for you!  On the cross, He became our sin, so that we might become His righteousness.

If you want to have faith, don’t look to yourself, don’t look to Moses (through some regime of law keeping), just look to Jesus.

Why? Because,

whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  (John 3:15-16)

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