Snakes on a Plain (and a pole)



This is a lesson I am to teach May 1.  I don’t get to pick my subjects.  The book we are using right now is written by Ed Stetzer for Lifeway, and I like his material.   The book’s theme is the Israelite experience, and the passage is an odd one, and one of the more challenging. 

I hate snakes.  Spiders and bugs do not bother me, even really big ones, but snakes are a totally different matter.  I think we all have a “scared to death by a snake” story.  One was living in the foundation of my house and came out when I was gardening.  I would often find skins in the yard.  I had a student give a speech on his yellow python once—it was in his gym bag and brought it out as a visual aid. I am reminded of Emily Dickson's line about her reaction to a "narrow fellow in the grass"--"zero to the bone."

What is even stranger about this lesson is that one might think that Jesus is comparing  himself to a snake.  Metaphors only have one point of connection and there is only one way in this story that Jesus is comparing himself to a snake. 

What is the first  mention of snake in the Bible?  That is obvious, but the second reference is that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent.  That is relevant to this lesson.

Numbers 21:4-9. 
Why were the Israelites in this situation?  This is not a story without context.  This is after the refusal to go into the promised land.  This is after some military victors.  Look at the first three verses. 
Why where the Israelites punished?
What was their reaction to the punishment?
What is the remedy really about?

The result is very matter of fact:  They looked, and lived.  This was the result of obedience even when it seems unreasonable. This may seem like idolatry, but they aren’t worshiping it.  The snakes  

II Kings 18:4

For some reasons, the people of Israel kept the image on the pole for 700 years.  Mankind is very good at losing spiritual significance and replacing with objects alone. 

John 3:  The meaning of the story

The fact that he is talking to Nicodemus is the key.  Here is a Jewish man, a Pharisee, proud of his heritage, who is being told to be born again because the first birth was what he needed to be right with God.  Then Jesus brings up the story of the snakes, not one to be proud of as a Jew, a time when they were disobedient, impatient, complaining, and accusing of God. 

Just as the Israelites were to look upon the image of the thing that caused them pain, Nicodemus was told that those who looked at Jesus, who became sin for us even though he didn’t know sin would have eternal life.
Believe:  not about credentials, pedigree, or lifestyle. 

Eternal life is defined in John 17:3.  It is not length of life, but quality.

The term “lifted up” is usually taken to mean the cross, but that is not necessarily the only meaning.  We are to look at Christ on the cross as the sin bearer.  But “lifted up” means exalted. Notice that he says “the Son of Man,” a title from Daniel referring to the Jewish Messiah.

Conclusion:   The sin that they committed was not fleshly one, but impatience.  We don’t think of that as serious, but it could be greatly serious.  In this case, it showed a lack of trust with what God was doing with them.  Sin is serious and like poison infects everything.  We cannot solve our sin problem, and the solution may seem foolishness (and Paul admitted that the cross seemed crazy to the unbelievers) but it is the one that works short term and long term (eternally).

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