Numbers 21 & John 3:14-16

During a recent prayer meeting, we prayed for various people who have not yet believed in Jesus. That got me to thinking about how we need to prepare ourselves to present the gospel. We know who to talk to you, but do we know what to say? Thankfully, the Bible has recorded examples from conversations Jesus had with people. In His meeting with Nicodemus, Jesus knew that the man was familiar with the Old Testament, so He used a story from the Book of Numbers to lead this man to believe in Him. What story was it? Turn to Numbers 21.

  1. The Bronze Serpent (Numbers 21:4-9)

    The incident recorded here is a record of both the ungrateful disbelief of the Israelites and the mercy of God. As we read through the narrative, look for both.

    a. The people sinned against God (4-5).

    The people had just had some difficult situations. First, some of their people were captured by a Canaanite king. After asking God for help, they were able to defeat the enemy and rescue the captives. Second, their journey around Edom was difficult. They became discouraged and lashed out against God. “Did you bring us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? We don’t have food or water and we hate the manna you have provided.”

    “Trying as their situation was, their encouragements far exceeded their discouragements; and so will it ever be found by the faithful, that in every condition of Providence they have more cause for thankfulness than for complaint” (Bush 311). Just a short time earlier, they had seen God give them the victory over their enemies and their captives were rescued. Couldn’t they rejoice in what God did, thank Him, and continue to trust in His provision for them in this wilderness area?

    The sin of the people here was complaining. It wasn’t just a mild case of discouragement with a plea for help. This was an anger against God which evidence their lack of faith. They boldly proclaimed their lack of faith in God. “You are not keeping your promise! You are trying to kill us! We don’t like what you have done!” In other words, they did not trust God or what he was doing.

    In the New Testament, Christians are instructed to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). When a believer is discouraged, disappointed, or is hurting, there is a temptation to do as the unbelieving Israelites did. But instead of giving in to this temptation, we who know and love the Lord should trust Him to provide for our need.

    b. God judged their sin (6).

    Their sinful reaction to their circumstances was noticed by God. He saw that they were not trusting Him and were rejecting His plan for their lives. So, He chose to punish their sinful attitude and words by sending poisonous snakes into the camp. Many of the complainers were bitten by these poisonous snakes and died. They had rejected God’s influence over their lives and so had His hand of protection removed from them.

    c. God provided a solution (7-8).

    After seeing the terrible punishment for their sin, the remaining people repented of their sin. What is repentance? Repentance is changing your mind about your sin so that it matched what God thinks about it. The people recognized that God was right, that they were wrong, and admitted it to Moses.

    This would be a good time to remind ourselves about God’s mercy. Solomon wisely said, “He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy” (Prov. 28:13). Although they had sinned against God, their confession and repentance led them to seek God’s mercy.

    But the snakes were still in the camp. The people needed help. So, they asked Moses to pray that the Lord would remove the serpents from the camp. The Lord must have accepted their repentance, because when Moses prayed for them, He provided a solution to their problem. The Lord instructed Moses to make a replica of the fiery serpents and put it on a pole. He promised that everyone who had been bitten would live if they would look at it.

    Note that God did not promise to remove the snakes, or the pain, but He did promise that they would live.

    d. The people who looked did not die (9).

    Moses did as God prescribed. He made a bronze serpent and placed it on a pole just as God had instructed. The people who were bitten were to simply look at the bronze serpent to escape death. And that is exactly what happened. Every person who had been bitten by a snake lived after he looked at the bronze serpent.

    Was this a magical snake? No, the bronze serpent was not magical. It was God who healed the people when they believed His promise and looked at the snake. It was a “look of faith” (Merrill 239). This antidote was the opposite of the sin. The people had looked at their circumstances and stopped trusting the Lord. Now they had to make the choice to look where instructed and to trust the Lord for their deliverance.

    “I can well imagine some of the folk saying that this was just nonsense. They would want something else, something more tangible than just turning around to look at a serpent of brass. But, of course, if a man would not turn to look at the serpent of brass, he would die” (McGee 506).

    Summary: The people sinned by complaining against the Lord instead of trusting Him. When God punished them for their sin, many died. But when the remaining people chose to repent and to believe God, they were saved from imminent death. God chose to be merciful to these people.

    We could end the message at this point and purpose in our hearts to be more thankful. But if we stopped here, we would miss the point that Jesus made to Nicodemus. This event in the lives of the Israelites is an example of what God has done for us through His Son, Jesus. In fact, Jesus Himself refers to the bronze serpent when explaining His death to Nicodemus in John 3.

  2. The Son of Man (John 3:14-16)

    If you were talking to a Jewish man who knew the Bible well, what illustrations would you use from the Old Testament? When Jesus spoke to religious Nicodemus, He compared His coming death on the cross to the bronze serpent from Numbers 21. Let’s see how the bronze serpent helps us to better understand Jesus’ death on the cross.

    Jesus told Nicodemus that just as Moses lifted the bronze serpent on a pole, so the Son of Man would be lifted up. Who is this Son of Man? In Daniel 7:13-14, the Son of Man was the One to whom God the Father gave dominion over all the earth. Nicodemus would have the idea that the Son of Man would come as a conqueror instead of someone lifted up on a cross. So why the change of plans? It wasn’t a change of plans, but a detour that would take place before that prophecy would take place. And we should all be glad as it made a big difference for all of us.

    Now, what do we see in John 3:14-16?

    a. All have sinned against God.

    In both verses 15 and 16, Jesus tells Nicodemus that people were going to perish. Why was this? They were going to perish because they, like the complaining Israelites, were sinners. We see this clearly in other places in the New Testament.

    Romans 3:10 – “There is none righteous, no, not one.”
    Romans 3:23 – “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

    The truth is that all people have both inherited a sinful nature from Adam and have chosen to sin against God. In another passage, the Bible continues the description of our sinful disposition.

    Ephesians 2:1-3 – “And you … who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.”

    These biblical statements are not very flattering, but they make it clear that we humans fall quite short of God’s righteous character. We are sinners by nature and by choice. But what of it? What is the result of our sin against God?

    b. God will judge everyone’s sin.

    Look again at the ending of verses 15 and 16. The word perish is mentioned in both verses. What does this word mean? The original word means “to destroy (an inanimate object), to kill (by taking a life), cause to lose (especially a life); to die or perish” (Mounce). The idea here is that sinful people are headed to destruction for their sin.

    But where will this destruction come from? The destruction will come from God Himself. You see, God has determined that “the wages of sin” is death. This death is not only the physical ending of life but also includes the eternal torment of the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:11-15). This was originally planned for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41), but it will be shared by all those who refuse to repent and believe Jesus.

    Take a moment and consider the seriousness of these thoughts. We have seen in the Bible that our sinfulness is offensive to God and will be judged by Him some day. Does that bother you? It should bother all of us. If, at this point, you are still holding on to your personal goodness, try comparing yourself to Jesus, the perfect Son of God. He never sinned at all. When accused and condemned to die, he forgave his enemies. This is the standard that God requires … and none of us has ever or can ever live up to that perfect standard. We are guilty and deserving of God’s judgment.

    If we are indeed sinful people who have displeased God with our thoughts, words, and actions, and if we are already judged by God and deserving of the lake of fire, what hope do we have?

    c. God provided a solution.

    Thankfully, God was willing to provide the solution for sinful people. Remember how the Lord provided the bronze serpent for the Israelites. It was placed on a pole for all to see and was their only hope. In a similar way, God allowed Jesus to be falsely accused, sentenced to death, and hung on a wooden cross for all to see. There on that cross, Jesus took the punishment for all of our sins on Himself. He became sin for us even though He never sinned. He took our place. This was God’s solution.

    d. All who believe will not perish.

    When the snake-bitten Israelites heard of God’s solution for their pain, they had the opportunity to look and live. In a similar way, God has promised that those who believe Jesus will not perish. Instead, they will have eternal life.

    Now what does it mean to believe in Jesus? I would imagine that there are many people who believe in Jesus in one way or another. They believe that Jesus was a historical person. They believe that He was a good man who cared for peoplek. But is this what believing in Jesus means? No, the Bible tells us that even the demons believe in God and tremble (James 2:19).

    What is true faith? “A chair is often used to help illustrate this. Intellectual assent is recognizing that a chair is a chair and agreeing that it is designed to support a person who sits on it. Trust is actually sitting in the chair. …  We must personally and fully rely on the death of Christ as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. We must ‘sit in the chair’ of the salvation that Jesus Christ has provided. This is saving faith.”(Gotquestions)

Conclusion

We are left with two questions.

First, why would God be merciful to such sinful people? The complaining Israelites had rejected God and had become ungrateful for all that He had done for them. They didn’t deserve God’s mercy. We, sinful people, were no different. We were lying, proud, lustful, and selfish. We were rejecting God and his ways and walking away from Him. But He still chose to provide us the solution we needed. Why be merciful to such sinful people?

John 3:16 gives us the answer. God loved the world. His love is like none other. While we were sinners, God loved us and sent Jesus to take our place—not because we were worthy but just because He wanted to. To us, God’s love doesn’t make sense. We are used to loving people who love us back. To love one’s enemy doesn’t make sense. But that is where we are different than God. Whether we understand it or not, God loved us.

Second, what are you going to do about it? You must realize by now that you are a sinner who does not deserve God’s mercy. You also realize that you are deserving of God’s judgment. You know that God provided the solution by sending Jesus to die on the cross for your sins. Now will you accept that solution by turning from your sin and trusting completely in Jesus?

Bibliography

Bush, George, Notes on Numbers, Minneapolis: James & Klock, 1976, orig. 1858, pp. 310-19.

McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol 1, Genesis through Deuteronomy, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1981, pp. 506-07.

Merrill, Eugene H., “Numbers,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary Old Testament, USA: SP Publications, 1989, p. 239.

“Question: What does it mean that Jesus is the Son of Man?” as viewed at https://printer.gotquestions.net/GeneratePF?articleId=1616 on 9/24/2022.

“ἀπόλλυμι” as viewed at https://www.billmounce.com/greek-dictionary/apollymi?page=1 on 9/24/2022.

“What is the definition of faith?” as viewed at https://printer.gotquestions.net/GeneratePF?articleId=3289 on 9/24/2022.

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