The people of God have are wandering in the Sinai wilderness. Jews consider this time the honeymoon part of the relationship between Yahweh and his people. It is during this time when Mosaic Law was expanded to become the 613 Laws of Moses so diligently observed by the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. All these regulations laid out how the people of God could “get the attention of Yahweh and then be in the divine presence.”1 It detailed how to be in a long-term relationship with God.
Those who followed Moses out of Egyptian slavery were a miserable lot. They complained at every turn. By the time we get to chapter 14 in Numbers, God has had enough. He declares that He is going to purge the flock. That generation will not see the Promised Land. Chapter 14 is an interesting read. Moses does some serious negotiation with Yahweh, and makes Him modify His plans.
- By the time we get to our passage in chapter 21, the Jews have already been to Mt. Sinai. God provides them with food and water, during their entire journey. But they are sick of eating manna, and tired of all the desert walking. They complain to Moses. (v. 5)
- God does not take it well—this is the last straw. He sends poisonous snakes, and they kill many Israelites. God is working his plan of attrition, as outlined in chapter 14. (v. 6)
- But wait! There’s more! The people go to Moses. They repent. This softens God’s heart, and his divine grace shows through. He doesn’t eliminate the snakes, but provides a way for the people to save their lives. (vv. 7-9)
The main reason for the inclusion of this passage from Numbers is it’s connection with the Gospel lesson. But it is a good lesson to study all by itself.
God has chosen the people of Abraham to be his favorites. He has delivered them from slavery, and cares for them daily on their journey to a land he has promised to them. He loves them. But they are a contrary lot. They complain at every turn, and God’s compassion is continually tested. He decides to wait for the new generation of Israelites to mature, before they arrive at the Promised Land. More than once, he alters his plans, because of Moses’ intervention. In this passage, we see God’s love and grace in action. He knuckles under when His people are sorry, and they want to start anew. He doesn’t take away the scourge, but He provides a way for them to save their lives.
I find comfort and assurance in this story. God keeps changing his mind out of love for us.
1 “Reading the Old Testament”, Barry L. Bandstra, Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, chapter 4.
Paul’s letters always begin with a greeting, followed by a foundational theological statement. Our passage follows this statement. The passage also contains one of my most cherished Bible verses. (vv. 8-9)
- The first paragraph (vv. 2-3) are written in the past tense. They refer to the time before we knew Jesus, and claimed him as our savior. Paul says that, because of our sinful lives, we were “dead men walking”. (My phrase, not Paul’s) Paul paints a dark picture of life outside the grace of God.
- Verses 4 & 5 are the turning point. God snatches us up out of our dead and dreadful lives, and saves us. This He does by His “grace”2.
- Beginning with verse 6, and going to the end, this passage is all written in the present tense. Now that we are believers, not only are we alive with Christ, we are raised up with him, and get VIP seating alongside Jesus! (v. 6)
- Just to make things clear, Paul restates who and what saves us. It is God’s free gift to us, those who believe. We have nothing more to do with it than believe. We can’t brag about it, because it was a free gift. (vv. 8-9)
- God did all of this beforehand. Now, it is our job to respond to the free gift by doing his work on earth. (v. 10)
This passage makes it crystal clear to me where my salvation comes from. It is not from earning it through an accumulation of divine brownie points; it is a free gift. I can’t “work my way to heaven” or “get right with God” by doing good things. But I do those good things because of God’s grace, his undying love for me in spite of my failings.
Paul wrote this as a “before and after” situation. But to me, the need is ongoing. As humans, we are drawn to sin like moths to a flame. We are in continual need of God’s saving grace.
A pastor once told me that the word “salvation” means “God’s salvaging operation”. I recently read that some people somewhere in Scandinavia discovered an intact sailing ship from the 1700’s. They engaged the services of a salvage company, and carefully brought the ship off the bottom. They restored her to her former glory. It was a big salvage operation. God is like that in our lives. He continually plucks us up off the ocean floor, and restores us to life.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
In what ways have you caused yourself to sink to “the bottom of the ocean”? What can you do, to prevent this from happening again? (This is what we call repentance.) God has better things to do, than to be continually fishing us out of the water. Let’s fix that. But thanks be to God for His undying love and grace, and the gift of His son!
2 A pastor friend of mine defines grace as “God’s love, freely given”.
In the beginning of John chapter 3, we find the dialogue that was the meeting of Jesus with Nicodemus. Our passage today is Jesus’ teaching moment, which is the result of that encounter. We are not sure if Nicodemus heard these words or not. But they were spoken in response to the subject of their discussion—what (and/or who) saves us.
- Verses 14 & 15 are a direct reference to our Old Testament lesson for today. For the Israelites, their lives were spared, if they kept their eyes fixed upon the serpent of bronze. For us now our lives are spared, if we keep our eyes fixed upon the cross of Christ.
- Verses 16 & 17 show the love of God for us, giving us His son so that we inherit eternal life, rather than condemnation for our sinful lives.
- Verses 18 – 20 contrast light with darkness. Jesus is “the light” in the Gospel of John. Darkness, on the other hand, is life without The Light.
- As with our passage from Ephesians, deeds come after God’s saving grace. They are not the means for achieving His grace; they are our response.
It is easy for us to take the free gift, and walk away. True gratitude and love are expressed when we show our gratitude by doing God’s work in our surroundings.