The Old Testament Lesson for this Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent, is written in the fourth book of the Torah, Numbers. The text is Numbers 21:4-9 and is an interesting account concerning the grumbling and sinning of the Israelites as they journey through the wilderness, and the LORD’ response to their grumbling of sending the “fiery serpents” into their midst. Moses’ making of a bronze serpent and raising it up on a pole is directly referred to in the New Testament passage from John 3:14: “Just as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, so also the Son of Man must be lifted up.” This is an example of an explicit type in the Scriptures and is reference to the crucifixion of Christ who was lifted up on the tree of the cross. The question of why Jesus is a “snake” in this typological reference might at first seem complicated. However, if we think of Christ on the tree bearing the sins of all mankind and, “He who knew no sin became sin,” we can see the connection. When we look upon the cross, we see our sin. We also see the One who washes it away and gives life. To better demonstrate this I have included a sermon I preached a few years ago.
When we look upon the cross, we see our sin. We also see the One who washes it away and gives life.
21:4 וַיִּסְעוּ (vai-yis-U) root: נסע (naw-sah) Qal: “to set out; go up”
יַם־סוּף (yam-Suf) “sea of reeds; Red Sea.” סִוּף (soof) is Hebrew for reeds or rushes.
וַתִּקְצַר (vat-tik-Tzar) root: קצר (kaw-tsar) Qal: “to be impatient; to become impatient”
21:5 קָצָה (Ka-tzah) root: קוץ (koots) Qal: “to feel disgust; loath; hate; abhor”
הַקְּלֹקֵל (hak-ke-lo-Kel) This is a difficult word to decipher, however, in this context it appears to mean worthless or wretched.
*Note the Hebrew reads: “...and we loath in the wretched bread.” The people of Israel are complaining about the manna; God’s special provision for them.
21:6 וַיְשַׁלַּח (vay-shal-Lach) root: שׁלח (shaw-lakh) Piel: “to send; stretch out”
הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים (han-ne-cha-Shim has-se-ra-Fim) “fiery serpents” Because of the root סרף (saw-rawf), meaning “burning; to burn,” many have speculated these serpents are somehow connected to the Seraphim—heavenly beings. Some have also speculated that because of this they are flying serpents. Generally, the fiery reference is taken to mean their venom caused the sensation of burning as it went through the bloodstream.
וַיְנַשְּׁכוּ (vay-nash-she-Chu) root: נשׁך (naw-shak) Piel: “to bite”
21:7 הִתְפַּלֵּל (hit-pal-Lel) root: פלל (paw-lal) (2X) Hithpael: “to make intercession for; to intercede”
21:8 נֵס (Nes) “standard; pole; stake”
21:9 נְחַשׁ נְחֹשֶׁת (ne-Chash ne-Cho-shet) “bronze serpent”
וְהִבִּיט (ve-hib-Bit) root: נבט (naw-bat) Hiphil: “to look”
Title: Can You Recognize a Snake?
Text: Numbers 21:4-9
There is an old tale about a peasant who, while out hoeing his field during the early spring thaw, came across a snake. He raised his hoe to kill it, but the snake spoke to him and begged for mercy. “I am too frozen to do you any harm,” it said. “Please help me before I freeze to death.” The peasant took pity on the snake, picked it up, and placed it inside his shirt to warm it. As the warmth of the peasant’s body slowly brought the snake back to life it began to move around, until suddenly the snake bit the peasant. The peasant reached inside his shirt, grabbed the snake, and threw it on the ground. As the peasant began to die, he asked the snake, “Why did you bite me? I befriended you. I saved your life!” “Do not blame me,” said the snake. “You knew I was a snake when you picked me up!”
Can you recognize a snake? The people of Israel in our Old Testament lesson for today are traveling through the wilderness with Moses as their leader, but they are growing impatient —with Moses and with God— and they began to complain. They murmur against God and His prophet. In truth, they begin to reject God! They are sinners, and so God sends snakes into their midst. The snakes bite and the people die!
Did they recognize the snakes? Did they know what these snakes represented? Did they have any idea why the snakes showed up? Oh, I think so —sin— their sin brought the snakes. Their sin was the poison. Their sin led to their death. They preferred the darkness. They thought the darkness was a better walk. They thought the darkness of their souls would save them. When they deserted God for the darkness of sin, the LORD sent the snakes... and they knew why!
Can you recognize a snake? Do you know what these snakes represent? Do you recognize the snake of your own sin? We reject the light for the dark. The dark looks so exciting, sin seems so mysterious! We reject the light for the dark. The light is so boring, there must be more to life than the light. Or perhaps we convince ourselves this will be just a brief journey into the dark, a mere flirtation with sin. “I can handle it. It will never best me.” We pick it up. We hold it close... and are shocked when we are bitten, hooked, addicted, coerced by its poison.
Can you recognize a snake? You knew it was a snake when you picked it up! You knew it was wrong when you did it. You knew it was sin.
The Israelites died from the snake bite of their sins. Their rejection of the LORD led to their death. It led to eternal darkness. They embraced the darkness and they were overcome, for sin always overcomes the sinner. Their sin, our sin, the poison of sin opens the gates of Hell and ushers us in. “For the wages of sin is death...”
However, the Israelites repent of their sin. Even as the poison crawls through their bodies and their systems begin to shut down, they crawl to Moses pleading with him to beg the forgiveness of the LORD on their behalf. And, the LORD God is gracious and merciful and provides a tree upon which to hang a snake! Do the Israelites recognize this snake? I think so... it is the snake of their sin, hanging on a tree. It shows them that on a tree the LORD will remove their sin and they will have life! As they look at the snake on the tree, as they see their sin, the LORD is faithful and just and forgives their sins and cleanses them from all unrighteousness. The snake on the tree is their sin being removed. They are being atoned for.
And, the LORD God is gracious and merciful and provides a tree upon which to hang a snake!
Do you recognize a snake? “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” How can John compare the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, our LORD and Savior, with a snake? Do you recognize a snake? Do you recognize your own sin? As we look upon the cross and see our God, we are looking upon our sin. Christ has taken the burden of our sin, the corruption of our sin, the filth and darkness of our sin, and placed it on Himself and carried it to the cross. Surely, He has borne our grief and carried our sorrow! Christ became sin for us. He has lifted the burden of our sin and placed it upon Himself. As He hangs on the tree, as we lift up our eyes, as we gaze upon this terrible sight, we see our sins. We see the sacrifice for our sins. We see, we believe, and we are saved. Eternal life is ours!
The Israelites looked on the tree and the snake and they were saved. They continued on in their wilderness wanderings until the day they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land of Canaan. They still struggled with sin, they still murmured and grumbled, they still flirted with the darkness, but the grace and mercy of God continued to be poured out on them, and the gates of the Jordan River parted in front of them as they entered the Promised Land.
As we look upon the tree —the tree of the cross— and when recognize the snake —the snake of our sin— we see Jesus, our Savior. We are saved, not by our own thoughts, words, or deeds, but by the precious, cleansing blood of the all-availing sacrifice and, therefore, we enter the Promised Land of everlasting life. Yes, we still struggle with sin. We still murmur and grumble. We still flirt with the darkness, but the grace and mercy of God continues to be poured out upon us.
The blood of the all-availing sacrifice is visited upon us day after day. We repent, we confess, and God who is faithful and just forgives our sin and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. We see it at the Baptismal Font, we taste it at the Altar, we hear it in the words: “I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” So, the LORD preserves and strengthens His chosen people. And one day we will enter the Promised Land of our Sabbath rest. For the Son of God has parted the gates of Heaven to receive His people. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Numbers 21:4-9.
Text Week-Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Numbers 21:4-9.
Lectionary Podcast- Rev. Prof. Ryan Tietz of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Numbers 21:4-9.