Numbers 21:4-9 in the Old Testament speaks of divine judgment upon the Israelites for grumbling against God’s gracious provision. Rather than being thankful to God for delivering them from slavery and providing manna for them day after day during the Exodus, the Israelites showed by their attitude that they rejected God’s loving provision. So God sent venomous snakes throughout their camp, for which there was no cure except to look upon a brass figure of the very snake that was killing them. If bitten they could still be saved from the venom just by looking up at that brass symbol upon the pole. Those who did were healed. But to refuse meant certain death.

At first blush it might seem odd that Jesus chose this Old Testament story as a segue to one of the best-loved passages of the Bible (Jn. 3:16). But a further examination may suggest that Num. 21:4-9 can’t be properly understood without the insight Jesus provides in Jn. 3:14-17. Both passages declare that people are destined to perish if they remain in disbelief. Both passages reveal that in His love and mercy, God provided a means for sinners to be saved.

In Jn. 3:14, Jesus made the startling revelation that He himself would be lifted up for all to see. Like the brass figure in Num. 21:4-9, Jesus reveals that by looking upon Him in faith we too can be saved. In a demonstration of God’s unfathomable love, Jesus thus reveals he had been sent by the Father in order to be lifted up on a cross so that anyone that looks to Him in faith would receive the gift of eternal life.

All of this effort to save sinners was motivated by God’s great love for the lost. Jesus reveals the nature of God’s heart toward us in Jn. 3:17; a heart of love and not of condemnation. We can thus conclude that the LORD didn’t send venomous serpents into the Israelite camp to destroy them but rather to provide a picture of the divine deliverance available if they would look upon the brass symbol Moses placed in their camp. Even though the serpent symbolized judgment, the opportunity to be healed clearly demonstrates that God’s grace was available to every Israelite. Likewise, God sent his Son to earth not to condemn the lost but so the world might be saved through Him.

In a real sense, the cross pictures the arms of God lovingly extended toward us, waiting to embrace us into eternal communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But the burden to choose is still ours, just as it was in Num. 21:4-9. Each of us has a choice to look up with eyes of faith and receive eternal life, or turn our eyes and walk away. God is waiting for all to look up!

May you be among those that look up and believe, who receive the gift of salvation, and who are welcomed into the eternal community of our loving God!

Dave Korinek

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