t was “totally undeserved” Raymond Brown Eloquently puts it like this
Snakes On A Plain: A preview…(Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21)
Hopefully that short video clip got your attention… It was probably packed with good reasons why you wouldn’t want to watch the movie ‘snakes on a plane’… it’s definitely a B grade movie, in fact someone said, ”It’s so bad that it’s good.” Another reviewer said that “from the title and the trailer you know exactly what you are going to get…snakes on a plane, don’t come to this movie looking for good dialogue, character development, insight on the issues perplexing society today, the producers have just bought together two things people are afraid of Snakes and flying and are inviting you to relax sit back and enjoy the fright.
I know it may be a bit silly but I couldn’t help but think of this movie preview as I reflected on the passage from Numbers we are looking at today. They have things in common… In the movie it’s snakes on a plane, 30000 feet in the air flying between Hawaii and LA. In Numbers, it’s snakes on a plain as the people of Israel in their exodus journey march around Edom on their way to the Promised Land. In both People are being terrorised and killed by snakes. In both The people turn to someone to save them. In the movie it’s Samuel L Jackson, who mobilises the assets of the FBI. In the scriptures they turn to Moses, who prays, and receives an answer. In both people are saved, I’m not going to do a spoiler for the movie, who knows you might want to watch it, in scripture God invites them to look to a copper snake statue on a pole: A statue that Jesus uses, in a conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus, to convey the nature of his mission. “ 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.” We are going to focus on that not the movie.
We are working our way through the E100 essential Jesus Bible challenge. We started with five readings from New Testament writers that expressed what they understood about Jesus (We chose Hebrews 1:1-4 for our service) then last week we looked at five passages that showed why humanity needed a saviour (We looked at Isaiah 59). This week the readings focus on significant symbols in the Old Testament; The Passover lamb, the manna from heaven, the temple, the Jonah story and the bronze or copper snake. Whitney Kuniholm says “just like movie trailers promote a coming attraction, and give us a pretty good idea of what’s coming, these passages give us fascinating previews of what is coming in the scripture.” They are called biblical Types… a person, or event or thing in the Old Testament that points toward Jesus Christ in the New Testament. It can be overdone, people try and view the whole Old testament that way, but the ones that are in the Bible reading challenge this week are there because they are ones that Jesus uses of himself to communicate the truth of who he is to people steeped in the scriptures of the Old Testament. I’ve chosen snakes on a plain out of those five. (Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21)
So let’s look at the narrative in numbers…The People of Israel had just won a military victory over one of the Canaanite kings, and instead of this heralding the beginning of their occupation of the land God had promised them, they embark on a long arduous detour round the nation of Edom. They move through territory that Millennia later Lawrence of Arabia would pass through and describe as ‘sinister, full of forbidding and actively evil, with only salt water, barren palms and bush’s which served neither for grazing or firewood. That it was snake devoted: the valley floor simply creeping with horn vipers, puff adders, cobra and black snakes. The people of Israel in this environment begin to grumble and complain, it’s like a broken record, they ask” why did we leave Egypt?”, they complain about the food God has provided, the manna from heaven, it’s not as good as the fluffy white bread and bottled water you could whip down the dairy for. We talked about sin last week and find here that in their hardship they turn against God and are ungrateful for all that God had done for them. R Dennis Cole sums it up like this “When a person’s heart is intent on rebellion and beset by discomfort, even the best of Gifts from the Lord can lose their savour; nothing will fully satisfy until the heart is made right.”
So the Lord sends snakes, from Lawrence’s description they didn’t have to come far. While it challenges us to consider God’s role in natural disasters, Lawrence had talked of the need to walk carefully with a stick bashing every bush in this land and you can imagine a group of grumpy disillusioned Israelites simply stomping and trudging through the same land easily falling victim to snake attack. It sobers them up real quick they realise what they have done and go to Moses who they had just being maligning and ask him to intercede on their behalf. We often think of disasters and difficulties being God’s judgement rather than being a time when God wakes us up to our need for him.
Moses prays and God answers, he tells Moses to make a snake statue out of copper and place it on a pole and all who look at the snake would be healed, and that is what happens. Jesus uses this symbol to talk about his own mission and his being lifted up, which refers to his crucifixion, and Raymond Brown sees many dimensions of divine mercy in this incident that point us to Christ…
The first is that salvation and healing were ‘Uniquely provided” there could be no doubt it was Israel’s God who delivered them. While two snakes on a pole has become a symbol for healing and medicine in our culture, there is nothing intrinsic in that symbol itself that provided healing for snake poison. It had to be God.
It was an ‘expression of God’s Power’. There is much debate over why God told Moses to make a copper snake on a pole. The Egyptian’s used to wear copper snake jewellery to protect them against snakes, and the snake and pole were both symbols of Egyptian religion. John Currid calls it a scene of polemical beauty” that this symbol of Egyptian power should be used to show the omnipotence of YHWH alone. It’s interesting that the cross was a symbol of the power of Rome, to deal with rebellion and crush it totally, in Jesus being lifted it it becomes the symbol of God’s power to forgive and to free and to give life.
It was a ‘sign of God’s Wisdom’, the Lord chose this unusual means by which the people would be saved. It seems ridiculous and absurd but as John Calvin points out “that absurdity made the grace of God even more conspicuous”. It wasn’t their own cleverness or ability, they were totally indebted to the goodness and grace of God. Likewise Paul talks of the foolishness of God shaming the wise, that God should save us from sin and give us new life through a man dying on a cross. It does not make sense except in the grace of God.
“Their Salvation did not come from devotion, moral achievement or spiritual excellence. The vivid story is an uncomplicated parable of God’s astonishing grace. He presents his gift of salvation to undeserving rebels who have despised his provision, spurned his mercy, rejected his word and slandered his name.”
Not that we love God, says John, but that God first loved us and sent his son to be a sacrifice for our sins. “Blessed are the poor of spirit” said Jesus “for theirs is the kingdom of God.”
It was “urgently necessary”. It was a matter of life and death for the people of Israel. You can image it getting more and more out of hand as panic set in and people ran this way and that in a landscape creeping with snakes. Often its only in our dire need that we are open to God’s voice. It’s why many people turn to Christ in time of need. But we can forget that as we saw last week we are in a dire situation because of sin, it is a life and death situation, the wages of sin is death. Diabetes is an insidious disease, and I don’t often talk about my wrestle with it, but it is easy because the symptoms and the damage it does take time to have an impact, that you can think you are don’t have to make lifestyle changes or you are free to give them up, or as I euphemistically call it ‘go on a holiday from Diabetes for a while, but you can’t, because while you don’t feel it right off the damage is being done. Sin is kind of like that its consequences are not always so obvious, but it leads to death… God’s salvation is urgently necessary.
God’s grace had to be “earnestly sought”. In the story that is a two-step process. Firstly in verse 7 they repented of their sin, they realised they had done wrong and they came to Moses and confessed it. Secondly to be saved they needed to look at the copper snake. The word for look here is more than a glance it has the same idea as believe in John chapter 3. It means to look to something putting our trust in that.
It was “Graciously mediated”, Moses who had every reason to be angry with the people didn’t go off, like he had in the past, it tells us that he willing prayed for the people. AS we saw last week as we looked at the beginning of the book of Hebrews in Christ we have a better mediator than Moses, who not only prays for us, but willing gave himself as a sacrifice for us.
It was “divinely guaranteed” as we’ve said before the efficacy of this miracle wasn’t in sign or the symbol, but rather in the promise of God, God’s word. God spoke and said that if people looked to the statue they would be healed. For our resting image today we’ve been using a statue called the serpentine cross the serpentine cross statue on Mt Nebo by Italian artist Giovanni Fantonion Mt Nebo made by Italian Artist Giovanni Fantoni, no one has been healed bey looking at this symbol, as Raymond brown says the Reason for healing lay in the command from God and the promise of deliverance. We have Jesus word that those who look to him will have eternal life in him.
In the narrative God’s grace was “widely available” there was no preferential treatment the promise of salvation was to all ‘anyone who looked at the snake would be healed.” Jesus also says that it was for all who would believe in him that it was open to all people regardless of race, gender, achievements, status or experience. It is a universal offer.
But it also has to be “personally appropriated” they still had to look with faith at the copper snake. The simplicity of this may really have been a barrier to people doing this. Naaman the leper is an example of how people can be affronted by the simplicity of God’s grace. He was told to go and wash in the Jordan river seven times, and almost missed out on God’s gracious healing because he actually thought it was beneath him to do something so silly and ordinary. People respond in the same way to Jesus salvation on the cross, it seems so paradoxical to think as Gordon Wenham puts it ‘Men dying in sin are saved by a man suspended on a cross.” But we have to accept the gracious gift that God offers to us.” Salvation is a gift we have to accept.
Finally it was “Immediately effective” the moment they looked at the snake with faith it tells us that they became well. There was no delay between looking and living. It’s interesting to note that this is the last time in the scriptures that the people of Israel grumbled about the food or expressed a desire to go back to Egypt, in understanding the seriousness of their sin and encountering the grace of God they changed their ways. So the same is with Christ, John 6:40 says “everyone who looks at the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life.”… there is no delay between the Looking and living.
‘Snakes on a plane’ is not a movie I can recommend… I’ve seen it. I’ll never gt that time back again…I can recommend Snakes on the plain because it gives us not only a picture of God’s grace and mercy to his rebellious people in their desert wanderings, it give us a wonderful rich preview of the grace of God shown to all in Jesus Christ. But more than that I want to finish with the recommendation of Raymond Brown whose analysis we’ve been following… he finishes by simply echoing John the Baptist …. saying that we should look to Jesus “Behold the lamb of God. Who takes away the sins of the world”.