Lent Devotion for February 28
"Serpent on a Pole"
Reader: "Everyone who believes in Him…”
Response: “…will have eternal life.”
SCRIPTURE: Numbers 21:4–9
4 Then the people of Israel set out from Mount Hor, taking the road to the Red Sea to go around the land of Edom. But the people grew impatient with the long journey, 5 and they began to speak against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness?” they complained. “There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!”
6 So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many were bitten and died. 7 Then the people came to Moses and cried out, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8 Then the Lord told him, “Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” 9 So Moses made a snake out of bronze and attached it to a pole. Then anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed!
Reader: "The word of the Lord.”
Response: “Thanks be to God.”
This is one of the more unusual passages. Why in the world did God tell Moses to make a bronze replica of a poisonous snake? Here we have a complaining, ungrateful people railing against God and Moses. God had miraculously provided water and daily food. A lack of gratitude and hard hearts led the people to rebel. They happened to be in a region of the world where there are many poisonous snakes, even today. God brought judgment in the form of allowing the local serpent population to go into action! With the deaths of many, the people repented and came back to Moses and asked that he pray for deliverance. As a result of Moses’ prayer and obedience, he erected a bronze snake on a pole. If the people would look to the snake on the pole, they would be healed. But why a snake on a pole? The snake represented their rebellion and sin. The bronze serpent was a reminder of their sin and rebellion. Looking to the pole indicated acknowledgment of their sin, repentance, and trust in God again. And God granted healing to those who looked.
By Hezekiah’s day some 700 years later, the bronze snake had become an idol of worship, and was treated as magic! (2 Kings 18:4). In another 700 years, we arrive at John’s gospel. In this pericope, Jesus is involved in a discussion with Nicodemus, one of the Jewish leaders who certainly knew the story about the bronze snake on the pole. In explaining the way of salvation, Jesus identified himself with the sin symbol of the serpent on the pole. He would be lifted up as the serpent was in the desert carrying all the sin of the people. He explained to Nicodemus that all who turned to Him in belief would be healed of the plague of sin. The role of the serpent on the pole was not to condemn the sinful people, but to bring healing to them. (The serpent on the pole is the symbol of medicine today.) Jesus, being lifted up on the cross, was not meant to condemn people, but to bring healing and forgiveness of sin. Nicodemus understood new birth. After Jesus’ crucifixion and death, along with Joseph of Arimathea, he helped take Jesus’ body to its burial place in Joseph’s tomb. The truth of the serpent on the pole is not a magical healing power, but rather it points to God’s gracious forgiveness to all who repent. The power of the cross is not the cross, but in the transaction of God leading to an eternal life of which the cross plays an earthly part. (In true confession, today’s commentary is a repeat from last year’s devotional. It fit perfectly with the Numbers passage. This was the first and only time we repeated material! Forgive me!)
“The Old Rugged Cross” by Alan Jackson ( Watch on YouTube)
Eternal Father, Thou art good beyond all thought, but I am vile, wretched, miserable, blind; my lips are ready to confess, but my heart is slow to feel, and my ways reluctant to amend. I bring my soul to thee; break it, wound it, bend it, mold it. Unmask to me sin’s deformity, that I may hate it, abhor it, flee from it. My faculties have been a weapon of revolt against thee; as a rebel, I have misused my strength and served the foul adversary of thy kingdom. Give me the grace to bewail my insensate folly. Grant me to know that the way of transgressors is hard, those evil paths are wretched paths, that to depart from thee is to lose all good. All these sins I mourn, lament, and for them cry pardon. Work in me more profound and abiding repentance. Grant that through the tears of repentance I may see more clearly the brightness and glories of the saving cross.
- From The Valley of Vision, p.70