Lent 4 • Numbers 21:4–9 • March 18, 2012
By Paul R. Raabe
Numbers 21:4–9 is the appointed Old Testament lesson for Lent 4 in series B, where it is paired with John 3:14–21 as the Gospel lesson. It is also appointed for Holy Cross Day (Sept. 14) with John 12:20–33 as the Gospel lesson. Both Gospel lessons appropriately correspond with the Numbers 21 text. John 3 explicitly refers to the bronze serpent episode, while John 12:32 records Jesus’s allusion to it: “when I am lifted up from the earth.” During their wilderness wandering, ancient Israel would often murmur against Yahweh and Moses (Exodus 14–17; Numbers 11, 14, 16, 20). Here is another instance: “Why have you (plural) brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread and no water, and our appetite (“our nephesh”) loathes the contemptible bread” (Num 21:5). Notice what they protested. They complained about God’s gospel action of deliverance from Egypt and God’s sustaining provision for them in the wilderness.
They would rather be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt than God’s own covenant people in the wilderness. God responded by sending poisonous serpents among the people. The snakes “repeatedly bit” (iterative Piel) the people and many died. Then the people confessed their sin and asked Moses to intercede for them. God heard his prayer and told Moses to make a fiery serpent (a seraph) and set it up on a pole. “When everyone who is bitten looks at it, he will live” (v. 8). God’s means of healing them did not operate like magic. It was of benefit only to those who confessed their sin and trusted in God’s promise by taking him at his word and looking up to the bronze snake.
In John 3:14–15 Jesus explicitly connects the bronze serpent with his cross, yet the antitype is even greater. The Son of Man is lifted up and exalted on the cross, and everyone who believes in him and his work has eternal life, not simply an extension of temporal life. It is fitting that the chapel at Concordia Seminary has a cross with a bronze serpent on it.
In countless ways, the Old Testament helps us understand the person and work of Christ and our present lives as his new covenant people. Our text in Numbers 21 offers another example.
In the Wilderness Look to the Cross
The Christian life resembles ancient Israel’s time in the wilderness. By Christ’s all-sufficient work, you have been redeemed from bondage to belong to God. You have been baptized. But you can find your subsequent life a difficult journey, a hard road. When the hard times come, Christians can become disenchanted and complain: “I wasn’t expecting to suffer and be persecuted.” Many turn back to the ways of the world, away from the path of Christ. Our text condemns such complaining for it amounts to murmuring against God and his gospel, as if slavery were better than true freedom.
Jesus did not sugar-coat the life of discipleship. Yes, hard times will come. But when they do, look in faith to the Son of Man lifted high on the cross. Apart from him there is only death. But with him there is life. Just as God provided life to dying Israelites by means of a bronze snake lifted up on a pole, so also by means of Jesus Christ and him crucified, God gives you eternal life, everlasting fellowship with your Maker. Follow Christ through the wilderness as he leads you to the new and greater Promised Land. And on your journey, come to the Lord’s Table and receive with thanksgiving his heavenly manna and his life-giving drink.