Monday, July 23, 2012

Lifted Up That We Might Live (John 3:14-15)

Audio (Sound quality normalizes at 6:25 mark)

Back in April, my family and I were hiking the trails around Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky when suddenly I looked down and noticed a snake by the side of the trail. I took a picture of it, and then quickly left the scene. I showed the picture to one of the Rangers and asked if he could tell me what kind of snake it was. He said that there were two similar snakes in the area, one poisonous and one not, and the only way to tell the difference was to look for a distinctive shape on the underbelly of the snake. I said, “In other words, they’re all poisonous.” I’ve had the opportunity once in my life to look inside of the mouth of one of the world’s most deadly snakes – the African Black Mamba. It was during a presentation by some local herpetologists in Kenya. They held the mouth of the Mamba open so we could see its fangs and its tongue, and then they quickly returned it to its box. One bite from that snake can kill a man in under 20 minutes unless the anti-venom can be administered immediately. Recently I learned about Tim Friede, a herpetologist in Wisconsin, who is immune to the venom of the black mamba. By injecting himself with increasing doses of the venom over time, he has allowed his body to create its own anti-venom. Now, he is able to withstand the full venom dosage of a black mamba bite, and he hopes that soon he will be able to be involved in new medical developments that would prevent the deaths of thousands of people who die in Africa each year from black mamba bites.[1] When it comes to the most deadly snake bites, it seems that the only known cure is made from the very venom that will kill you.

The ancient Israelites, during their experience of wilderness wandering between the Red Sea crossing and their entrance into the Promised Land, had a rather unpleasant experience with snakes. It was recorded in Numbers 21. As they wandered through the desert, on several occasions the people resorted to grumbling and murmuring against God and against Moses. Their sin was dealt with in various ways as often as it happened, but in this particular instance, the Lord sent an infestation of what the Bible calls “fiery serpents” among the people, and their bite was lethal. It was not without positive effect. The people recognized their sin and repented and turned from their sin. Moses took their matter before the Lord and was given the instruction to make a figure of a serpent and erect it on a pole, so that all who had been bitten who would look upon it would be healed and live.

As a teacher of Israel, Nicodemus would have been well familiar with this passage. And so, in order to explain to Nicodemus how sinful human beings can be born again, reconciled to God, and have eternal life, the Lord Jesus calls this account to the mind of the teacher. Now, this was more than just an illustration or a parable. Jesus knew that the account of the serpents in the wilderness was a visual prophecy, if you will, a picture that would find its ultimate fulfillment in His mission of salvation. In Luke 24, we read that following His resurrection, Jesus taught His disciples and “He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (v45). Luke tells us that “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (v27). He was attempting to do that here with Nicodemus, as if to say, “Nicodemus, do you remember the story about the snakes in the wilderness? Well, that story was really about Me!” On the surface of it, it is hard to see the similarity, but Jesus says that it is there. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” As the serpent was lifted up so that those who had been bitten with the deadly venom of the serpents may have life; so Jesus would be lifted up, so that all who had been bitten with the deadly venom of sin might have life. So, we have here a reminder of the deadly poison of sin, and we are redirected toward the divine provision of salvation.

Consider the first of these:

I. We are reminded of the deadly poison of sin.

There are a lot of crazy things done in churches around the world. But I don’t know of anything crazier than what you find in some areas of the Appalachians where people are known to handle poisonous snakes as an act of worship. If you are visiting with us today, I want you to know that you will never witness that here at IBC. We had a bat in here some time ago, and it turned into a rather comic adventure that Jim Keathley can tell you about. I’m not proud of the fact, but I will acknowledge to you that I screamed like a little girl and ran away leaving Jim to fend for himself. So, no chance we’re going to be breaking out snakes any time soon. In May of this year, one preacher in West Virginia died from a timber rattler bite during one of these bizarre snake-handling services, ironically, the same way his father had died almost 20 years ago. But a few weeks after that senseless death, USA Today ran a story about the increasing popularity of snake-handling among a younger generation in the region. A 21-year old pastor that was interviewed for that piece said regarding the practice, “It is the closest thing to heaven on earth that you could get.”[2] I am not sure that the Israelites who experienced the outbreak of snakes in the wilderness would agree with that sentiment. They might say that it was nearer to being hell on earth. The Bible describes the snakes that tormented the people as “fiery serpents.” The “fieriness” of those serpents most likely describes the intense pain of their deadly bites. But more troubling than the presence or danger of these snakes is the source of them. The Israelites had not aimlessly wandered into snake territory. The Bible says that “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people” (Num 21:6). They were the active judgment of God against the people’s sin. The snakes bit the people, and they died very painful deaths. Those divinely appointed serpents brought upon the people a physical experience that paralleled the spiritual effects of sin in our lives.

What had the people done to deserve such a judgment as this? To quote Indiana Jones, “Why did it have to be snakes?” We often ask questions like that, but underlying those questions is a minimizing of what we might call the “sinfulness of sin.” Various sins have varying effects on others, but all sin has the same effect on us and the same offensiveness against the holiness of God. Because He is infinitely holy, our sin is infinitely heinous and infinitely deadly. So, when we read in the Bible about a particular calamity, or read about a seemingly senseless tragedy in the world, we need to resist the temptation of saying, “What had they done to deserve that?” Jesus talked about people who were slaughtered at the hand of Pilate and others who were killed when some towers fell upon them, but He said we must not think that they were worse sinners than any of the rest of us. He said the lesson we should take away from it is, “Unless you repent you will likewise perish.” If God were to only give us what we deserved, we would all be in miserable condition.

The sin of the Israelites that prompted the episode with the snakes was their continual murmuring against the Lord and against Moses, whom God had appointed as their leader. In Numbers 21:5, the Bible says that they spoke against God and Moses, saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.” Consider what they are saying. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?” Simple answer: Because you asked Me to! Because I love you! Because I have better plans for you than you can imagine! “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” Simple answer: I didn’t! I brought you out to take you into a land where you can have a better life than you have ever known! “There is no food and no water!” Really? Did God not bring water from a rock to quench your thirst and turn the bitter springs sweet for you? Did God not provide manna and quail to feed you along the way? But you didn’t like it and you complained about that, even as you are doing now! Notice they say, “There is no food,” but then they say, “we loathe this miserable food.” In other words, there is food, but it is not to our liking. That miserable food that they loathed was manna – a miraculous food that God made to appear on the ground every day for them. But because it wasn’t steak and potatoes, they complained about what God had provided. And when they complained about Moses, they were complaining that God had not given them a fit leader. And this was not the first time they had grumbled and murmured against Moses and the Lord. It had become habitual for them. Their sinful hearts were destroying them spiritually. Death was setting in, not as a result of being in the desert, but a result of being in rebellion. So the Lord sent the snakes, that they might experience physically the reality that was taking place in their souls. A painful process of death and decay brought about not by the deadly poison of snakes, but by the deadly poison of sin.

Now, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:6 that the things that happened to Israel in the wilderness serve as examples for us. He says that we must not “try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents.” Their sin in the wilderness is really a picture of our own sin. We grumble and complain against God and against one another, despising the Lord for our circumstances and refusing to acknowledge His goodness and grace. We chase after the lusts of our own flesh rather than enjoying what He has freely given. Every time we sin, we are saying, “I prefer my own desires, my own way, my own agenda, than that of the Lord.” And our sin manifests itself in rebellion against God and murmuring against the people God has placed in our lives. It is a deadly poison! It is destroying us from the inside out. It is the spiritual equivalent to dying a slow painful death of snake bite.

I am sure that the Israelites thought their grumbling and murmuring was no big deal. The snakes showed them differently. When they could see what their sin was doing to them, they were brought to repentance. They didn’t see their deeds as mere indiscretions or minor faults. They repented in Numbers 21:7, saying, “We have sinned because we have spoken against the Lord and against you [Moses]; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.” They recognized that God and God alone could remedy their situation.

In speaking to Nicodemus about this, Jesus was saying that all of humanity is afflicted with a condition just as severe as the Israelites in the wilderness. You may not see venomous snakes encircling your feet flashing their deadly fangs, but Jesus says that we are all in a similar state of peril because of the deadly poison of sin. What a nightmarish predicament! Has the reality of it set in? Has it brought you to a place of repentance? Has it brought to realize that the Lord, and He alone, can provide the solution you need for the deadly poison of sin?

That brings us to the second reality here in this portion of John 3:

II. We are redirected toward the divine provision of salvation.

The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is one of the most well known personal interactions of the Lord Jesus with another person in the Bible. Another is found in Matthew 19 when Jesus spoke to a man we call “the rich young ruler.” After that young man walked away from Jesus grieving and unwilling to surrender himself to Jesus, the Lord said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” Have you ever seen a camel? Have you ever seen the eye of a needle? You look at that and say, “No way!” That’s what the disciples said to Jesus that day. They said, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus said, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” This is true not only of camels and needles and rich young rulers. It is true of every person. It is impossible for us to save ourselves from the deadly poison of sin. But with God all things are possible. There is salvation, but only one way, from only one source. If God provides salvation then His way is the only way. If He does not, then there is no way. But He has made salvation possible in His own way.

When the Israelites were plagued with deadly snakes, they repented and asked Moses to intercede with God for them and ask Him to take the snakes away. I suppose God could have done that—just make the snakes go away. But what would that do for those who had already been bitten? It would only help those who had not been bitten, while those who had already been bitten would still die. God did not do this. A great number of people were nearing death by the second, and many had already died. What could be done? God gave Moses instructions: “Make a fiery serpent” (that is, “Make a replica of the serpents,” which Moses made from bronze), “and set it on a standard” (a tall pole that all could see), “and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live” (Num 21:8). You have to admit, this prescription seems rather absurd, as I am sure it did to many of the Israelites. One says, “I’ve been bitten! I am dying! Help me!” And Moses is there to say, “See that bronze serpent on the pole? Look upon it, and you will be healed!” You can imagine that person saying, “No, seriously! I am dying here! I need real help!” But this was real help. However, it would not work for everyone. It would only work for the ones who knew they had been bitten, who knew that they were dying, who believed that God had spoken and would act through this way of saving of them. If they refused to acknowledge their condition, and refused to believe God’s promise, and refused to receive what God had provided through the bronze serpent, then they would die in their misery.

God did not tell them to mix up a salve for their wounds. He did not tell them to do a better job of avoiding snakes in the future. He did not advise them to form a snake-killing party to rid the community of snakes. He told them simply to recognize their own condition, and to look with faith toward the remedy that He had provided for their condition. And those who did were healed and lived. But there is a subtle implication that is easily missed in Numbers 21. It says, “It came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.” That suggests that some were not bitten, and among those who were, there were some who did not look to the bronze serpent. And they died. But those who looked by faith toward that twisted and impaled serpent were healed and lived! The snake brought death. And the image of the snake impaled upon the lofty pole brought life to those who believed God and looked to it in faith.

Jesus told Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” There are some who mistake Jesus’ words here about being “lifted up” to mean something figurative, like “lifted up in praise,” or “exalted in worship.” But this cannot be, for Jesus says that He must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Moses was not lifting up the serpent to worship and praise the serpent. The serpent was lifted as an image of the deadly poison that was killing the people. The replica of the snake was impaled as a figure of death being put to death. And that is what Jesus said MUST happen to Himself if we would have eternal life. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be impaled, pierced, run through and raised up on a standard for all to see.” And this occurred on the cross.

As the Israelites were dying from the deadly poison of serpents, so we all are dying from the deadly poison of sin. What hope or help do we have? Only what the Lord Himself will provide. And as the serpent lifted up represented the putting to death of death itself, so the Lord Jesus on His cross was taking upon Himself the sin of us all, receiving in His very being and body the venom, the sting, the poison, and the death that it brings. His death becomes for us the death of death itself. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 we read that God made Him who knew no sin (the Lord Jesus) to be sin on our behalf. So on the cross, the deadly poison of sin was being put to death in Him. And this was so that “we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” He took our sin into the valley of death and destroyed it, and rising from death, He covers us in His own perfect righteousness.

This is God’s divinely provided means of salvation. And it is the only hope of salvation we have. Jesus said that He must be raised up as the serpent in the wilderness. There simply is no other way. This had to happen for us to be saved. And having happened, there is no other way to be saved. But this does not mean that all will be saved. With the Israelites, the exalted serpent would only save those who knew that they were dying from snakebite, and who believed and trusted in God to save them, and who looked upon the serpent as His divinely provided means of salvation. So with us, Christ will save all who recognize that they have been infected with the deadly poison of sin, who have realized that they cannot save themselves by their own effort, but who believe that God has provided Christ as the means of salvation, and look to Christ crucified by faith.

What do you see when you look at the cross? If you see there God’s one and only remedy for your terminal condition, then you can be saved. If you see Christ taking your sin upon Himself and putting it away forever so that you can be forgiven and have life, then you will be saved! The deadly poison of sin can only be remedied by the divine provision of salvation. And that provision is found in Christ and in Him alone. Jesus took the venom, to provide you with the anti-venom. Look to Him with the eyes of faith, and find in Him eternal life!

A young Charles Spurgeon walked the snowy streets of Colchester, 60 miles northeast of London, one Sunday morning on his way to church. When the snow became so heavy and the air so cold that he could go no further, he ducked down a side street and entered the first church he came to, where only a small handful of people had gathered for worship. Even the pastor had been snowed in and was unable to be there, so at a certain point in the service, one of the laymen ascended into the pulpit and began to preach. Spurgeon’s recollection of the man is not flattering. He speaks of him as “a very thin-looking man, a shoemaker or tailor or something of that sort, … this man was really unintelligent. … He did not even pronounce the words correctly.”[3] But as this unimpressive man read his text on that snowy Sunday morning, Spurgeon said, “Now there’s a glimpse of hope for me in that text.” And what was that text? Isaiah 45:22, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” Spurgeon recalls that as the man preached, he seemed to look at him straight in the eyes and said, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.”

Spurgeon said, “I saw at once the way of salvation. … It was similar to when the brazen serpent was lifted up, and the people only looked and were healed; so it was with me. … That instant I could have sung with the most enthusiastic of them about the precious blood of Christ and the simple faith that looks alone to Him. … Between half-past ten o’clock, when I entered that chapel, and half-past twelve o’clock, when I was back again at home, what a change had taken place in me! I had passed from darkness into marvelous light, from death to life. Simply by looking to Jesus, I had been delivered from despair. … Yes, I had looked to Jesus as I was, and I had found in Him my Savior. … I looked and lived and leaped in joyful liberty as I beheld my sin punished upon the great substitute and put away forever. I looked unto Him as He bled upon that tree. … Looking unto Him, the bruises that my soul had suffered were healed; the gaping wounds were cured; the broken bones rejoiced; the rags that had covered me were all removed; my spirit was white as the spotless snows of the farr-off North. … I was saved, washed, cleansed, forgiven through Him who hung on the tree.”

Charles Spurgeon went on to be the greatest preacher, pastor, and theologian of his generation. But he often reflected on that snowy day when he looked and lived. He said, “My soul can never forget that day. Dying, all but dead, diseased, pained, chained, scourged, bound in fetters of iron, in darkness and the shadow of death, Jesus appeared to me. My eyes looked to Him. The disease was healed, the pains removed, chains were snapped, prison doors were opened, and darkness gave place to life. What delight filled my soul!”[4] He said, “I sometimes think I might have been in darkness and despair until now if it had not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm on Sunday morning.”[5]

It is far from being a snowy morning in Greensboro, but the same promise that Spurgeon heard that Sunday morning in Colchester is still true today. Look to Jesus, lifted up on the cross for you, for your sin, and for your salvation. Cast yourself fully upon Him and be saved. "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.”

[1] “Rubber Band Man” (Season 1, Episode 7), Stan Lee’s Superhumans. History Channel. September 23, 2010.
[2] Accessed July 19, 2012.
[3] Charles Spurgeon, My Conversion (Springdale, Penn.: Whitaker House, 1996), 35-36. Subsequent quotes herein can be found on pp 35-41 of the same work.
[4] Ibid, 9.
[5] Ibid, 35. 

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