Old Testament: Numbers 21:4-9 (Lent 4: Series B)

Reading Time: 4 mins

By looking to Him in faith we receive healing and eternal life through the salvation He bore for us on the cross and secured in His resurrection.

It is called a caduceus and is the image used by first responders in almost every city in America. You will often see it on the side of emergency vehicles or even inside elevators and perhaps on medical jewelry around people’s wrists. You may observe several variations of the caduceus, but more often than not, they can be confused with the so called “Rod of Asclepius” which bears a similarity. One thing is for certain, when we see this image, we know help is on its way. This ubiquitous symbol tells everyone who sees it that the rescue they need is right where they are going to be.

From the beginning of the wilderness wandering, the books from Exodus to Numbers record constant complaining by the Israelites against Moses and Aaron. The people did not like the bitter water of Marah (Exodus 15:22–25), so the Lord showed Moses how to sweeten it. They grumbled about the lack of food (Exodus 16:2–3), so the Lord gave them manna. They griped that they were thirsty (Exodus 17:3), so Moses struck the rock at the Lord’s command and water gushed forth (Numbers 20:1–13). When they left Sinai, they again asked for meat to eat (Numbers 11:4–6), and a wind from the Lord brought quail, but the birds were accompanied by a plague. Then in Numbers 14, after reaching the Promised Land (the first time), the people rebelled at the prospect of invading Canaan.

Our text for today records the final complaint of the people. It culminates the entire series because, for the first time, the people “spoke against God and against Moses.” Like the other complaint stories, this one continues to hold forth God’s grace for salvation. So why this text and not all the others? Well, other biblical writers viewed God’s merciful gift in these verses as a prototype of God’s ultimate provision for the survival and salvation of the people of God, which we see fullest in Christ the Messiah.

Three times in the Gospel of John (3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34) Jesus Himself refers to being lifted up in the same way as the serpent in Numbers 21. He then proceeds to interpret that action as fulfilled in His crucifixion for rebellious sinners such as you and me, who were poisoned by original sin (Genesis 3) since the fall. Here in the wilderness of our sinful rebellion, we see in this crucified Christ a caduceus of sorts, an image which draws our attention to the spiritual first responder for sin. Jesus is the one who was hung on a cursed tree for our sins (Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13). By looking to Him in faith we receive healing and eternal life through the salvation He bore for us on the cross and secured in His resurrection. Additionally, there are even more promises to all who look on this Jesus hanging on the tree. First, He “will give them eternal life” (John 3:14). Then, He will give you the ability to recognize how “He is” the salvation of God (John 8:28). Next, He is the “light of life” (John 12:34). Finally, by this action, He has “drawn all people to Himself” (John 12:32).

Here in the wilderness of our sinful rebellion, we see in this crucified Christ a caduceus of sorts, an image which draws our attention to the spiritual first responder for sin.

We see these promises literally fulfilled clearest at the moment when Jesus was lifted up and crucified in the Gospel of John. There, He literally creates this little community of forgiven people, drawing them together as a family (mother and child) in Himself, gathered around His life saving work of atonement on the cross (John 19:26).

Here in Lent, the image of the caduceus becomes a powerful, contemporary symbol which is transformed by our text from Numbers and, subsequently, by the work of Christ in fulfilling salvation for us. Every time we see a caduceus, we now have a moment to pause and pray for those they are trying to save, while also giving thanks to God for saving us through Christ who was lifted up for the salvation of the entire world. An authoritative preaching of the text through this contemporary image can help to influence this way of seeing the popular symbol out in the world. It becomes a moment to stop and consider God’s working in the world through the lifesaving efforts of others, while also reminding us of the life saving work of Christ on the cross, which is now transformed by a vision of God’s work in the world.

For preaching this text using the caduceus, we need to employ an “Imagistic Structure” focusing on a “Central Image” where:

“The image serves as a lens through which one views the textual exposition, the theological confession, the evangelical proclamation, and the hearer interpretation of the sermon. Having a single image lends coherence to the sermon.”[1]

With a “single focus,” the image remains the same throughout the sermon. Our single focus will be on the caduceus as it relates to the bronze serpent which Christ uses to point to His own work on the cross for us. This image is focal and unchanging to the devotional contemplation.

“From this single focus, the sermon can reinforce one theme in a first encounter with the image which will establish the Gospel focus and then, as the image is applied again and again in the sermon, it locates that theme in relation to the text and then, later, in relation to the hearers. By focusing on one part of the image (that which is lifted up on a tree), which remains in the fore of the minds of the hearers, a fresh approach is then created for the listeners through the image on display. As the preacher, you are “changing how the image is seen, and the hearers are able to track the basic development of a larger theme in the sermon. Each stage of development (for example, moving from a misconception to a clearer vision, or moving from application in terms of one’s relationship to God to application in terms of one’s relationship to others) is captured by preaching the image through a different perspective.”[2]


Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Numbers 21:4-9.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Numbers 21:4-9.

Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!


[1] https://concordiatheology.org/sermon-structs/dynamic/imagistic-structures/central-image/

[2] https://concordiatheology.org/sermon-structs/dynamic/imagistic-structures/central-image/