Look and Live!

Reading: Numbers 21.4-9
According to Greek mythology, the sea god Phorcys and his wife Ceto had three monstrous daughters known as the Gorgons. They were terrifying, dragonlike creatures, covered with golden scales and having snakes for hair. They had huge wings and round, ugly faces; their tongues were always hanging out, and they had large, tusklike teeth. They lived on the farthest side of the western ocean, and were shunned because their glance turned persons to stone.

It was said that two of the Gorgons were immortal. The third, Medusa, could be killed. This was in fact done by a galant hero, Perseus, with the help of Hermes and Athena.

Perhaps it is from that old myth that our saying comes - "if looks could kill…"

Of course, looking is an important part of life, and the increasing deterioration of eyesight is a major set-back. We began looking early in life. Looking led to exploring, and a whole new world was opened to us.

Our eyes are one of the gateways to our brain. They are an important part of our information highway. But not all looking is good for us. The investigation of the hot-plate on the stove can have serious consequences. Pornographic material should be avoided. At a practical level, young and old may need to be reminded, "Watch your step!"

Even though we may misuse it, however, sight is God's good gift. He intended it to be both enriching and rewarding.

Grumbling and Complaining

The Israelites were free - they were no longer slaves under harsh Egyptian task-masters - but they weren't yet in the promised land of Canaan. Step by step it seemed such a long way. Again and again they wondered if it was all worth it. Surely the beatings in Egypt were preferable to death in the desert. The water supply was sometimes unpredictable. The food was nutritious enough, but unvarying.

Yet in all the wanderings of the Exodus, the Lord had been with them. With the Lord's help they had successfully negotiated the crossing of the Red Sea. The bitter water had been made drinkable. Their food needs were being supplied with an ample and extraordinary supply of manna and quails. There have been various attempts to identify what this "manna" was. They certainly didn't know. "Manna" simply means "what is it?" This what-is-it food "was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey" (Ex. 16.31). You might think they were on a good thing.

"They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom" (Num. 21.4). Mount Hor is north-east of Kadesh. It was from Kadesh that Moses had sent twelve men to spy out the land. The people listened to the negative report of the ten, rejecting the positive report of Joshua and Caleb (chs 13-14).

Moses had sought passage through the land of Edom, but an army blocked their path. The community came to Mount Hor near the border of Edom. This was where Aaron - Moses' brother and the priest - died (20.14-29). They now had to travel south-east back to what we call the Gulf of Aqaba to get around Edom.

"But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, 'Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!' " (21.4b-5).

Just grumbling and complaining, and yet - divine judgment came upon them in the form of venomous snakes and many Israelites were dying. That seems rather harsh to us - we rate grumbling and complaining rather lightly!

Bronze snake on a pole

The people soon realised what they were doing. "We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us" v. 7). We remember the prodigal son who said, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you" (Lk. 15.21). To have turned away from trusting in the Lord isn't a little matter at all. The disaster that was happening was part of the Lord's call to turn back to him.

So the Lord told Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live" (Num. 21.8). The bronze snake wasn't an idol. Rather it was a representation of the punishment for their sin - but provided by God as a sign of forgiveness and healing. We read in 2 Kings 18 that King Hezekiah "He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it" (2 Kings 18.4). It has become a means of idolatrous worship.

God so loved the world …

The account of the bronze snake in the wilderness is given in John 3 as a powerful illustration of what God has done for us in Jesus - "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life" (Jn 3.14-15).

The reference is clearly to the coming crucifixion. Apart from John's gospel the verb "lifted up" is used elsewhere in the New Testament for exaltation. But the cross itself is Jesus' throne. His death is the victory over the powers of evil - encountered for the first time in Genesis 3 in the tempting serpent.

In dying on the cross, the Son of Man would be bearing the judgment of sins not his own. All who look to his death, believing, will be delivered from the judgment of sin and receive instead eternal life.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (v. 16).

Look and Live!

This gospel verse puts the grace of God in the context of the love of God. The grace of God was in his heart long before Moses interceded on behalf of the grumbling and complaining people. God is holy and just. He is the Judge of humankind and judges with complete fairness. But "God is love", as John says in his first letter (1 Jn 4.8) - love is his nature. His purpose from eternity has been to provide a way of salvation for humankind - a way that is consistent with both his holiness and his love. The way he dealt with his grumbling and complaining people in Moses' time looked forward to the gift of his one and only Son who would fulfil and complete the work of redemption.

Look and live! Does that sound too simple? It was the most the dying people could do! They were unable to make up for their unbelieving actions. All they could do was look. As they looked, they were healed.

Whoever believes in him… It seems too simple. Do a course in Biblical studies, theology, apologetics, church history… Well, yes, it is profound. You could profitably spend a life studying all the evidence, all the implications, the thoughts and reflections of the centuries... It is so profound that the keenest minds will never come to an end of it. Yet it is so simple that the humblest and most illiterate person can believe in him.

For us too the key is the look of faith - not our courses and qualifications, but the look of faith. We too "fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3.23) - whether we have deliberately tried to do the wrong thing or consciously attempted the right. We can't "make up" for our sins. All we can do is look to the one who is "lifted up" before us - the one whose life is given for our sins. As we look, our sins are forgiven and we begin the new kind of life that is "eternal life."

It's sadly possible to go through a life of uprightness and church attendance without ever having come to the point of looking up and commencing eternal life. It is God's invitation, and it is for us all - look up and live!

© Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill and Ayr Uniting Churches, 30 March 2003
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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