(…continued) Death comes to us all, and, whether we are young or old, the amount of time we have left is uncertain. The only certainty is that no matter what we have or who we are, the day will come when we will lose it all and we will be no more. Believing in Jesus does not change the uncertainty about how much time we have left, nor does it change the certainty that we will die. Those troubles remain, just like the snakes in the story. We live every day in ‘the valley of the shadow of death.’ But we can look up to Jesus and find in him a promise that goes beyond death. That’s what Jesus meant when he spoke of looking up to the snake on the pole that was lifted up in the desert. By looking up to Jesus, we have that most wonderful and powerful of all promises, that promise of eternal life. And so it is that immediately after Jesus refered to that strange old snake story we read the best loved verse in the whole Bible, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Snakes, or serpents (as they are called in the older translations), appear 53 times in the Bible. The best known appearance of a serpent is in the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve, and there the serpent is purely evil. But that is not always the case. God, speaking out of the burning bush, convinces Moses of his power by turning his shepherd’s staff into a snake, and then back again. Later, in his appearance before Pharaoh, the Egyptian magicians do the same trick, making snakes appear out of nowhere. But then Moses’ snake devours the magician’s snakes, thus making that snake a positive symbol of God’s power.
In this story, the image is a mixture of positive and negative. The snakes are killing the people, and that’s bad; but then, the people are saved by looking to an image of a snake, and that’s good. The snake is a powerful image, because snakes are so despised by people. They are probably the most despised of all God‘s creatures. And that makes this positive use of a snake a deep and dark and yet profound image of salvation. Somehow, in the hands of God, evil and good, threat and promise, life and death, can sometimes be all mixed together. What we fear most, may sometimes be the source of a great blessing. God can make it so. Serious illness, always unpleasant and never on anyone’s wish list, has often prompted people to return to God. Financial difficulties probably lead to more prayer than does abounding wealth. And death, that most fearsome of all things, becomes in God’s hands merely the doorway into eternal life. God’s way is to take what is bad and use it to work toward an even greater good. The greatest example of that is what happened on that day we now call Good Friday. No one who loved Jesus would have called the Friday afternoon that Jesus was tortured and then crucified a good day. But the Easter resurrection and the promise of Jesus that by his death on that cross all our sins are forgiven, made good come out of what happened on that most evil of all days.
It is often the case that what the Old Testament hints at, the New Testament fulfills in an even greater way. In Numbers 21 the people are saved by looking up to a snake. They are saved, but in rather unappealing way. In the New Testament, we learn that we are saved by looking up to a cross, in another unpleasant story. But we look not primarily to the cross but to the man on the cross, Jesus, who told us himself that we will never find a better friend than what we have in him. “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” said Jesus, “and if you believe in me, you are my friends.” We would be lost without Jesus, but with Jesus we are quite safe, now and forever.
Genesis 3:1 — Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
John 3:14-15 — Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
John 3:16-17 — 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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Grant, almighty God, that since the dullness and harshness of our flesh is so great that it is needful for us in various ways to be afflicted, we may patiently bear your chastisement, and under a deep feeling of sorrow flee to your mercy displayed to us in Christ; and that, not depending upon the earthly blessings of this perishable life, but relying only upon your Word, we may go forward in the course of our calling; until at length we are gathered to that blessed rest which is laid up for us in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. –John Calvin
Blessed Lord Jesus, who knows the depths of loneliness and the dark hours of the absence of human sympathy and friendliness: help me to pass the weary hours of the night and the heavy hours of the day, as you did, and know that you are with me, as your Father was with you; lift up my heart to full communion with you; strengthen me for my duty; keep me constant to my trust, and let me know that however dark or desolate the hour, I am not alone, for you are with me; your rod and your staff are my comfort; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
—Old Army and Navy Service Book