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The Serpent on the Pole

First Baptist Church https://fbcbartow.org

Everyone has an opinion about life after death.  Just about everyone assumes there is something out there somewhere.  Few people stop long enough to think it through, and yet it’s the most crucial issue facing all of us.

In 2 Samuel 14:14 (NLT) a wise woman was sent to counsel King David in an attempt to persuade him to offer mercy to his banished son Absolom.  She said, “All of us must die eventually.  Our lives are like water spilled out on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again.  But [before then] God does not just sweep life away; instead, He devises ways to bring us back when we have been separated from Him.”

God is always devising ways so that people far from God could be brought into fellowship with Him.

I had the privilege of teaching here last year through the Four most Common Views around the world regarding life after death, concluding with the way Jesus taught – the Biblical Christian system, outlining how Only Believers and Followers of Jesus Go To Heaven.  We looked at how it is the most just system available and how it is really the only one that makes sense:

1. Everyone is welcome.

Romans 10:13 Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

2. Everyone gets in the same way

John 14:6 – Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.

3. Everyone can meet the requirement.

Martin Luther called John 3:16 “The heart of the Bible – the Gospel in miniature.”  It’s so simple a child can understand it; yet it condenses the deep and marvelous truths of redemption into these few incredibly powerful and pointed words:  “For…”

    “God”…The greatest Lover – He literally is love

    “So loved”…The greatest degree – absolutely

    “The world”…The greatest number

    “That He gave”…The greatest act

    “His one and only Son”…The greatest gift

    “That whoever”…The greatest invitation

    “Believes”…The greatest simplicity

    “In Him”…The greatest Person

    “Shall not perish”…The greatest deliverance

    “But”….The greatest difference

    “Have”….The greatest certainty

    “Eternal Life”…The greatest possession

I want to spend a few moments on John 3:16 with you this morning.  To do so properly, we need to look at this verse in context, and especially in the light of the 2 verses that precede it, v14-15.

John Chapter 3 is a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, who is here under the cover of night.  He’s a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, and a member of the Sanhedrin, but he sees Jesus as a teacher having come from God.  He recognizes no one could perform the signs Jesus is doing if God were not with Him, and he wants to understand what it is that Jesus is trying to teach us.

In John 3:3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again [or born again from above].”

Nicodemus does not understand, but he wants to, else why bother any further.  Jesus reaches in through all the Pharisee-corruption, hypocrisy, politics, and office-seeking legalism and basically asks Nicodemus, “Shouldn’t you who claim to represent God…know?  I’ll put it as plainly as I can.  I know what I’m talking about here, because I am God’s Son.”  Jesus continued:

John 3:14-17 – “14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him. 16 For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.“

In the Old Testament, every time the people of Israel would stray from Him, God would send a consequence upon them to get their attention.

One time in particular, the one Jesus is referring to here, occurs in Numbers 21:4-9 towards the tail-end of their 40 year Exodus in the wilderness.  God had just delivered the Israelites from the Canaanites, but then, like immediately, they turned right around and began to grumble:  They became impatient and spoke against not just Moses this time, but God and Moses.

Side NoteGrumbling is faithless complaining in an annoyed or bad-tempered way.

It’s weaponized fear.  Instead of developing deeper friendship with God and bringing everyone else you can with you, it’s like the opposite of that – it’s allowing your fear of not getting your own way develop and bringing everyone else you can with you – towards plans for your life apart from God’s plans for your life, forfeiting your best interests and hope for your immediate future.

And as an added-Bonus Side NoteYou can always recognize fear by self-protection and self-promotion.

Faith is trust plus actionacting out your surrender to the Lord (don’t try harder, surrender more) and promoting God’s goodness while anticipating His goodness actually showing up because you know that He is faithful to do what He said He will do when we’re faithful to do what He’s told us to do.

Back to Numbers 21.  The Israelites were grumbling in a big way this time, and about their food!  (And this was way past just being “hangry”.)  So God sent a big consequence upon them.  He sent some little red snakes to bite them.  Scripture literally calls them “fiery”, probably because of how it felt to get bit, but it could mean color, too – “red” snakes.  Regardless, every time a little “fiery” snake bit someone, they’d die!

They said to Moses (Adapted from Jay Carty), ‘Oh, Moses, this is the heaviest consequence God has ever laid upon us!  Go pray like crazy and ask God to lighten up!  So Moses prayed – pray, pray, pray – pray, pray, pray.  “Yes Lord.  Really?  Ok, I’ll tell them.”

“People!  I’ve got some good news, and I’ve got some bad news.  First the bad news – God’s not getting rid of the snakes.  I know we asked Him to, but every time He gets rid of a consequence, we stop trusting Him.  He’s gonna’ keep the snakes ‘cause the snakes are gonna’ drive us to Him.”

“So, here’s the good news:  He told me to make a bronze pole and to put a snake on it made of gold.  And then, anytime anyone is bitten by a snake, if you look at the snake on the pole, you won’t die.  He’s given us a really good snake-bite kit, but He’s not getting rid of the snakes.”

Here are 4 Probable Responses:

The first guy was bitten by a snake – “Oohh, Ahhh, Owww!  A snake got me!  Let’s see – everyone who gets bit by a snake, they die.  God wants me to look at the snake on the pole, but I don’t want to do what God tells me to do.  I really don’t.  That’s why we’re in the desert in the first place.  I think that I can well up the powers that are within me, and I can drive the venom from my system.”  He died.

1. Some refused to follow God’s instructions, followed their own thinking, and died.

The people were saved not by doing anything, but by simply looking to the gold serpent.  They had to trust that something that seemed to be as foolish as looking at a serpent on a pole was enough to save them.  I think it’s likely that some in Israel perished because they thought it was too simple, too foolish to simply look and live.

Just the book of Proverbs warns 3 different times that, “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.”

The second guy was bitten by a snake – “Oohh, Ahhh, Owww!  A snake got me!  Let’s see – everyone who gets bit by a snake, they die.  God wants me to look at the snake on the pole, but that’s so narrow to think there’s only one way to solve the problem of a snake bite.  There must be multiple ways to solve the problem of a snake bite.  I think I’ll invest in this other religion’s snake-bite kit and see how that works.”  He died.

2. Some thought that there must be other options to being healed from the snake’s venom (“There’s no way that God’s instructions are THE ONLY way to be saved.”) and died.

The third guy says, “Yikes!  There are a lot of snakes around here,” so he tries to get away for a while, and gets quite a bit away and over some hills, and then…a snake bites him – ‘cause there’s snakes out there, too!  “Oohh, Ahhh, Owww!  A snake got me!”  And he turned to look for the snake on the pole, but there was a hill between him and camp.  He couldn’t see it, and…he died.

3. Some thought they could run away from the situation and died.

But then there was the fourth person who was bitten by a snake – “Oohh, Ahhh, Owww!  A snake got me!  Let’s see – everyone who gets bit by a snake, they die.  God wants me to look at the snake on the pole.”  He looked at the snake on the pole, and he didn’t die.  He did it the way God said to do it.

4. Some, after being bit by the snakes, did as God told them and immediately looked upon the golden serpent.  They didn’t die.

John 3:14-17 – “14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him. 16 For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.

BTW Moses was the first to use the symbol of the snake on a pole.  Later, the serpent-entwined rod became associated with the Greek god of healing and medicine as “the Rod of Asclepius”.  The symbol has continued to be used in modern times, where it continues to be associated with medicine and health care.  Even if insurance gets more complicated, God is always shining through and wooing us, even in the healthcare industry! 

There was no healing power in the bronze and gold image.  Clearly the healing was from God.  And any individual who trusted God enough to seek out what must have seemed to them a ridiculous remedy actually was healed.  Jesus gave us a real-life illustration physically of what He does spiritually.

Healings always demonstrate Jesus’ compassion, bear witness to the truth of Jesus’ claims about Himself, demonstrate that God’s Kingdom has arrived, show that Jesus is the One who was promised by God, illustrate in the physical what Jesus does in the spiritual, and serve to bring people to conviction and repentance.

That’s why we’re told to pray for sick and oppressed people so they can get well.  Mark 16:17-18 tells us that signs and wonders will follow those of us who believe!  We validate God’s love and salvation available to everyone!

When we pray for others (with them) and depend on our Heavenly Father on their behalf, we sort of open a window for them so that they can see God and the Holy Spirit a little more clearly.

Ironically 2 Kings 18:4 tells us about when King Hezekiah had to break the snake Moses had made into pieces because the Israelites had been burning incense to it!  They had begun worshipping the symbolic image instead of God.  So God had it destroyed so people might look back to Him, and He would receive them, and they could have restored relationship with Him.

Later on Isaiah would write the words of Isaiah 45:22 – “Turn to Me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.“

Charles Spurgeon surrendered his life to Jesus after hearing a message on Isaiah 45:22 connected with Numbers 21 and John 3:14-16.  Spurgeon was so impressed by this picture of the Gospel and salvation connected to the account of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, with the people looking and living, that he chose an engraving of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness as a logo for his publications.

Faith in Jesus is the only means of salvation.

John 3:18-21 – 18 Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict:  Light has come into the world [Jesus, the light of the world, who was raised up for everyone, just like the snake was raised on the poll for the Israelites], but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. [A friend said a good message title for this verse would be, “When the Lights Come On, the Roaches Scatter”] 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

This is one of the reasons we have invitations – opportunities for us to make public, in the light, the choice to follow Jesus and to become part of the body of Christ.  No one is secretly part of a church – if it’s a secret, you’re not.  Following Jesus is personal, but He never intended for it to be private.  It’s a team sport, an all-skate.

God created us to be with Him.  He made you on purpose and with a purpose!

Our sins separate us from God.  Our plans for our lives apart from God’s plans for our lives take us apart from God.

Sins cannot be removed by good deeds.  Good deeds apart from Jesus are just white frosting on an already-burnt cake.  There’s nothing we can do to “un-burn” it.  Similarly, we can’t “un-sin.”

Paying the price for sin, Jesus died and rose again.  That’s Grace!  He died for you, but you must believe Him and receive Him – what He actually says about life, Himself, and what He actually promises to do.  God’s grace is free, but it’s not automatic.  You must look to Him and receive Him.

    John 1:12 – “Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God”

    Everyone who trusts in Him alone has eternal life.

      Life with Jesus starts now and lasts forever.  Not just when you die, not after you clean up your life – NOW!

      Q: Where do you think you are right now in your spiritual development:  Not born-again yet?  New-re-born baby?  Terrible Twos?  Toddler?  Adolescent?  Don’t know?

      Q: What is God showing you is the next step for you in your spiritual development?  Actually trust Him?  Renounce alternatives?  Remove a distraction?  Tell someone else?

      4 Things God Doesn’t Know:

      1. A sin He doesn’t hate

      2. A sinner He doesn’t love

      3. A plan any better than the one He gave us

      4. A time any better than now