Serpents and the Cross: Preaching Lent 4B

I’m preaching this Sunday on the passages in the Revised Common Lectionary. I’ll try to update this post throughout the week with some thoughts and observations that I have. Consider all of the notes here brainstorming more than ideas that I’m fully committed to. Feel free to post your own thoughts in the comments!

The texts this week are: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21.

What does it mean to be lifted up?

The first thing I noticed about these passages is the connecting point of being “lifted up”. The connection between the passages from Numbers and John is obvious, because Jesus says it explicitly: He is like the bronze serpent (or rather, the bronze serpent points to him). Everyone who looks upon Jesus will receive eternal life. But I’m also thinking about how this relates to the Ephesians 2 passage, especially verse 6: “…and raise us up with him…”.

John’s use of the phrase “lifted up” is interesting. The Greek word is “ups-o-o” (it’s hard to transliterate into English, so just go with it…). Throughout the New Testament, and the Greek translation of the Old, the word is used to refer to Jesus or God being raised up, seated in heaven, or exalted, or to God bestowing honor upon human beings (“Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up.”  In fact, in most places in the Bible, the English translations usually render “ups-o-o” as “exalted.” More often than not in the New Testament, it’s used to refer to Jesus’ resurrection and/or ascension. John, however, only uses “ups-o-o” to refer to the crucifixion, to Jesus being ‘lifted up’ on the cross. For John, the exaltation of Jesus begins with the cross. What if we read Ephesians 2:6 through this lens? We are raised up with Jesus, and that begins with the cross. When we allow ourselves to be crucified, those who look upon us will receive eternal life because it will be as though they were looking at Jesus.

Is God Overreacting a Bit?

It also seems like it would be tempting when reading Numbers 21 to think that God is overreacting to the Israelite’s complaints. The people speak against God and Moses. God responds by sending fiery serpents among the people. Sounds a bit harsh. As I was working with the Hebrew text, I noticed something. The preposition is the same in both actions (even though we translate them differently in English). The people speak against God and Moses. God sends fiery serpents against the people. (this is usually translated “among the people”). Perhaps rather than questioning the justice of God’s decision, we would do better to begin with the assumption that God is just, and that this punishment fits the crime. Perhaps the bite of a fiery serpent really is the equivalent of being spoken against. The potential lesson: our words are powerful, and can do more damage than we think.

What do you think? What strikes you in these passages? If you were (or are) preaching any of these passages, what would you focus on? (I’ll try to keep updating this through the week…)

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6 comments

  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts here; you made a lot of good points. When I saw what you were going to do in this post, I printed off the Scripture and did a quick manuscript study of it before I read your ideas: I wanted to see what jumped out at me without being influenced by your observations. Here’s what I noticed:

    The first thing I noticed in the Numbers passage was that the Israelites grew impatient and started complaining: they didn’t accurately remember what God had already done for them in bringing them out of Egypt. But how often do we fear, like they did, that God has brought us through one struggle only to leave us stranded in another one? Our perspectives and our memories get skewed by our current circumstances. They weren’t thankful and their bad attitudes and complaints spread among the people. Words are definitely powerful, and negative ones spoken by sharp, complaining, ungrateful tongues can definitely be poisonous; I think the punishment accurately fit the crime.

    It also struck me that the Israelites were looking for satisfaction/fulfillment in the wrong kind of food: I think of Scripture like “Man does not live on bread alone” and “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.” This goes well with the idea of having to look at the snake that was lifted up: it forced the people to lift their eyes from their problems to the snake on the pole, which would inevitably remind them that God provided that as a way for them to live. It caused them to remember God, to avoid death, and to live.

    The verses from Psalm 107 affirm these principles as well: God is worthy of our praise because of His character (He is good) and because of His enduring love for us. He redeems us from ‘the hand of the foe’, which in my mind could allude to any enemies: an opposing army, Satan (often personified as a snake, interestingly enough), the snakes from the Numbers passage, ourselves (it’s said we’re often our own worst enemies). For me, the unifying themes of all the passages are the contrast between death and life, who God is and what He’s done for us to make it possible to pass from death to life, and how we should respond: in thanksgiving and worship.

    Anyway, I’ll stop there for now, but I’d be happy to share thoughts on the other passages too if you want. I’m interested to hear what others have to say, too. Happy sermon writing!

  2. Evan Sheppard · · Reply

    I’m struck by the theme of rebellion throughout these passages. I find that concept very powerful- where we see ourselves as rebel soldiers who have taken up arms against the Lord. The Lord redeems us and makes us able to dedicate ourselves daily to leaving behind our old rebel ways and never again taking up arms against Him.

    Certainly that paradigm is most clearly stated in the psalm. But in the numbers passage God’s action of sending snakes against them follows if we consider the israelites to be rebelling against his provision. And if we consider them as one body rather than as individuals the snakes against them is a bit more akin to old-style schoolhouse corporal punishment of a rebelleous child. Idk, I just didn’t think that he over-reacted when he sent the snakes. He wiped out whole people groups for the israelites later on…

    I’m moved and inspired by God being responsible for my ability to see that I am a rebel and to make me desire light over darkness. And I always have farther to go with that.

    Well those are my thoughts, though they’re certainly not cohesive. Looking forward to sunday Chris!

    1. Evan Sheppard · · Reply

      Oops, sorry Mike, I got confused with yours and Chris’s blog. I’m pretty new to upper room.

      1. Thanks Evan. I’ve heard about you, and I think I saw you last Sunday, but didn’t make it over to meet you. Hopefully this week!

  3. A couple random thoughts…

    God afflicted the people because they weren’t grateful for what God had provided. The solution for the people was to look their affliction straight in the eye and recognize God in it. We often look upon our afflictions as a punishment for wrongdoing rather than God’s gracious discipline designed to conform us more and more to the image of Christ.

    We have been lifted up in Christ, through His vicarious humanity and our union with Him through the Spirit, in both His crucifixion and His exaltation. In Him humanity is in the heavenlies.

    1. I hope my comments are not too long, but I also am dealing with the lectionary readings from the Gospel and the Numbers passage this week, mainly because Jesus makes a direct connection between the passages in John 3:14, and I would like to know what others think.

      The connection I see in these two passages is that they both deal with grace and judgment. In the Numbers passage, when the people complain against Moses and God, God withdraws divine protection from them and suddenly poisonous snakes infiltrate the camp. (Because the biblical writers see God as ultimately in control of everything that happens, they often attribute whatever happens to a positive act of God, ie., the venomous snakes.) So God gives them a taste of what life would really be like without God’s protection. God gives them what they deserve and what they are really crying out for when they speak against Moses and God. The problem, I think, is that they cried out against God and God’s servant rather than bringing their legitimate concerns to God and crying out in trust and obedience.
      Now finally they do cry out to God, asking for the snakes to be removed. Instead of simply removing the snakes, however, God provides a way to be healed of the snakes’ deadly bite, which is a bronze symbol fashioned like a serpent. Moses puts it on a pole and raises it high so that when anyone is bitten, he can look at the bronze serpent and live. The instrument of healing thus also becomes a symbol of the judgment and death that the people deserved but for which God, in God’s grace and mercy, has provided healing. To receive the healing, the people have only to look up to the bronze snake, which I believe is the same as putting one’s trust, not in the bronze serpent, but in the God who provided the healing.

      The connection with the John passage are many, and many of them are obvious. Like the Israelites, we live in a world system (kosmos) that has been infiltrated with sin and rebellion against God. Even if we do not directly bring every penalty upon ourselves — the people who were bitten may not have been the same ones who complained in Numbers — we still suffer the consequences for living in a world in rebellion against God. And that consequence is spiritual death, more insidious than the physical death the Israelites were facing.
      In Jesus Christ, God loved us so much that God, in God’s grace, provided a way of healing and life. God did this by lifting up, exalting, his son on the cross (but also in his resurrection and ascension). So the cross, the symbol of death and judgment (like the serpents in the Numbers passage) becomes a symbol of exaltation and healing and life for those who look to it in faith.
      It is hard to believe, but instead of accepting the truth and looking to the cross in faith, many choose to continue in their spiritual darkness, which is death, and continue in their evil pursuits. So what God has provided for healing becomes, instead, a symbol of self-judgment and condemnation. That, I believe, is why Jesus (or John) says in verse 18 that those who believe in him are not condemned but those who refuse to look to Christ and his cross are condemned already. In love and grace, God has provided a way to eternal life, but people’s response have made it, for them, a symbol of judgment and condemnation.

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