Every so often I think of the event chronicled in Numbers 21:5-9 where what the bible calls ‘fiery serpents’ invaded the camp of Israel and began biting the people. Whatever kind of snakes they were – they were poisonous, and to be bitten was essentially a death sentence. There are few passages of scripture that present a more terrifying visual than this. What must have it been like? Young and old alike either dying or scrambling about for fear of what could strike them at any moment. Then in the middle of this chaos God instructed Moses to make an image of one of the snakes and set it on a pole for the people to see. Scripture then tells us that whenever anyone would look at the image of the serpent, they would live.
If there was healing power available just by looking at the image of the snake, why wouldn’t everyone immediately look at it? Maybe it would help to think about some practical considerations for those involved. First of all, most of the people in the camp before that moment were fed up with both Moses and God. Verse 5 tells us “…And the people spoke against God , and against Moses, Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”. Repentance came quickly after snakes entered the camp, but did the people really believe that some snake on a pole that Moses lifted up could really do something for them? Not only that, but when snakes are all around you, what is a greater priority - running from the snakes and sucking blood out of your wounds, or making the effort to wade through a million people to look at a snake on a pole? The conclusion of the matter is simple, the only people who turned to look at the snake were those who believed that there was a power available there to deliver them from such dreadful circumstances. Those who did not believe wouldn’t have taken the effort or risk to get to the image, but more likely would have tried to manage the situation with their own power and understanding.
Why is such a terrifying account given to us in the scriptures? Jesus used this very passage to explain our need for salvation saying, “…as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” –John 3:15 Scripture tells us in 1 Cor. 10 that the things that happened to the Israelites were for us as examples. All of those poisonous snakes, the chaos in the camp, the fear and unbelief, represents us in our condition without a Savior! The snake on the pole represents our Lord who was literally lifted up for our sakes on the cross, bearing our sin.
Things are not so different today as they were then, as all of us are surrounded by circumstances that are greater than we are. It is easy in the middle of our condition to scramble about in a vain attempt to deliver ourselves, but we have a God who has made His power available to us through faith. To keep our eyes on Jesus means to be constantly aware of our great need for Him, and to believe that He has made His power available to us through Him. 1st John 5:4 tells us, “…this is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith.”
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