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John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

Good Friday 2007 (April 6)

Snakes on a Pole

The people of Israel were in their fortieth and final year of wandering in the desert between Egypt and the Promised Land. It was a journey that should have only taken a few weeks, yet it took them forty years. God was punishing them for not trusting him enough to enter the Promised Land after the spies had scouted it out. But God also was using the time to slowly, painstakingly mold Israel into people who would love and obey him and treat each other well. God also was teaching the people how dependent they were on him—for their daily sustenance, for protection in the desert, and for military victories over their enemies.

You would think that by their fortieth year in God's school of hard knocks, some of the arrogance of the people would have drained away. You'd think after all the ways they'd seen God be so faithful to them, keeping them alive and providing for their needs, that they'd have learned gratitude. You'd think that after all the times he had to punish them for their attitude, their rebellion, their idolatry, and goodness knows what else, they'd have figured out maybe they should at least fear God. You'd think.

But here are the people, coming off a big military victory God had won for them over the Canaanites. They're heading around Edom territory to avoid some trouble. And like a broken record, Scripture records:

The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.

What was the people's sin? For one, not acknowledging their standing relative to God—thinking they had some measure of control over their situation. Remember, this was in their fortieth year in the wilderness. Can you believe that after all this time they still did not realize how helpless and dependent on God they were? God had been working with them for forty years. They were in the formidably inhospitable environment of the desert. They could not find food for themselves. They could not procure water for themselves. They had proof day after day of their helplessness.

But somehow, after all this time… After all God's proving to them his ability to provide. After all his demonstrations of power, his punishments of their bad behavior. After all the ways he had protected them from their enemies. Somehow, after forty years, they still thought they had status to complain. That they had some control. Some say in the situation. That they and God were peers, or that they could command him to do what they wanted. That they knew better than him. In their fortieth year under his discipline, this is what they still thought. The complaint they made—Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food—was the same one they had uttered only a few days into their journey. Had they matured so little in forty years? Apparently, yes.

The other deep sin was ingratitude. At the end of their journey, they were blaming God for their deliverance and for his sustenance over forty years. They were resentful of his judgment in making them wander for so long, and also for giving them his Law and discipline that he was imposing to make them his people, an example to the rest of the world. They were objecting to, and tired of, his whole plan for them. It all came out in this complaint.

I don't know about you, but when I meditate on the actions of the people in this story I feel a great sense of conviction. I struggle with wanting to be in control in my life, rather than realizing my position relative to the God I serve. I also complain to God about my circumstances and my struggles, or about what God has—or rather hasn't—given me. Too often I am ungrateful for what God has done for me, for how he sustains me. I chafe under his instruction and I wince at the requirements of his Law. Enough of this journey. I should have arrived by now. I'm helpless, of course, like the people of Israel. Like them, I don't want to admit it.

What did God do with the people this time? He taught them a lesson about their helplessness and their dependence on him. He sent poisonous snakes against them, for which they had no defense.

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Look very carefully at what God provided as the cure for the deadly snakebites. Only one thing is required: to look at the thing that God provided, believing that doing so would heal them and allow them to live. The cure is to obey God, to do what he said, to believe in him and his power.

The people were helpless against the snakes. Of course, they were always helpless, but they did not want to acknowledge that. God had to show them that they were. Which people lived? The ones who admitted their need, accepted what God offered them and believed it would be effective.

Is it any wonder Jesus uses this story in his night talk with Nicodemus to explain how God is working out eternal life for the world? Jesus says, “ And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

The concept is the same as with the bronze serpent. In fact, God's way of offering life is always the same.

God chooses a way to save us. This way involves us having to acknowledge both who God is and, with humility, who we are. What a painful and difficult thing that is for us to do! We have to admit we are not in control of our lives. We have no standing to demand things of God. We are helpless before him and completely dependent on him. We have disobeyed the way he wants us to live. When we realize this reality and acknowledge it before him, we've taken the first step.

The second step is to accept what God offers us as the way out, the way to live. We might not understand why God chose the path with Jesus that he did. If it were up to us, we would have done it in a different way, a way that does not seem so strange, maybe. Or a way that doesn't require us to think so deeply about sin, or feel so terrible inside that Jesus' death was necessary because of us. There's something so disturbing about the cross, something that forces us into humility and shame when we think about it deeply, that it makes us want to go hide, to turn away. No, we probably wouldn't have provided salvation in this way, if it were up to us.

But it isn't up to us. The people of Israel most likely thought the bronze snake thing was a little weird, a little stupid. “We're supposed to do what ?” they probably said to Moses. But to be cured, to live, they had to accept this was what God had chosen. They had to choose God's solution in spite of how distasteful it may have been to them. It was another step of humility. To live, you had to take it. There was no other way. So too, with what God provided with Jesus. Take it or leave it, but to live, to have eternal life this time, you have to get to that place where you say, “I may not understand, I may feel foolish or ashamed, but I have to take it.”

The third and final step is to believe that what God has provided will be effective. The Israelites probably felt kind of silly looking up at that snake. But they were dying, dying of the snake bites, and they only had one hope—that the thing God said would work, would work. So each of them who were saved had to get to the point where they believed God. It is the same with us. We have to get to a place where we believe God. We may not understand Jesus' passion fully. We may still have questions or be puzzled. But to be saved, we have to believe that what God has provided as the way for us to live is effective and has the power to do what he says it does.

The bronze serpent incident was strange and humiliating. The cross of Christ is strange and humiliating, and terrible and shameful and a host of other unpleasant things. But it is the way God has chosen to provide eternal life. And like the people who had to believe in God's provision of the snake, we have a choice to make. Are we going to believe in what God has given us as the solution, or not?


And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

—John 3:14–16