The Bronze Serpent

The message form this past Sunday, while long and detailed, was a great passage to study. I would have gone in a different direction, but hey, he was our guest preacher. The passage came from Numbers 21:4-9.

The people grumbled again, after 38 years of wandering, which only proved that they were still not ready to enter the promised land. God provided for them but they did not appreciate it (they actually loathed God’s provision of manna, Numbers 21:5).

There is something else about this manna: Wiersbe writes, “According to John 6, the manna was much more than daily food for Israel: it was a type of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the “Bread of Life” (John 6:32–40). The manna came only to Israel, but Jesus came to be the Savior of the world. All the manna could do was sustain life, but Jesus Christ gives life. When the Jews despised the manna, they were actually rejecting the Son of God. Once more, God had tested His people, and they had failed the test (Deuteronomy 8:15–16).”

Enter the fiery serpents, which bit people and they died (Numbers 21:6). So, what’s up with such a strange story?

God was teaching the people something about faith. It is fairly illogical to think that looking at a bronze image could heal anyone from a snakebite, but that is exactly what God told them to do. It took an act of faith in God’s plan for anyone to be healed, and the serpent on the pole was a reminder of their sin, which brought about their suffering.

Faith was also put into action because in such a large crowd, the whole camp of Israel, it likely took a huge amount of effort to position oneself to even SEE the serpent on the pole. I don’t imagine that it took a casual glance, but rather it took a lot of effort to be in the right position to see it.

While the people did get healed when they looked at the serpent, the serpent on the pole eventually became a problem. Who needs God when you can get healing with this magical serpent? The people kept it for many years and when the Israelites were in the Promised Land, the serpent became an object of worship that needed to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4). The lesson here reminds us how easy it is for people to take the good things of God and twist them into something bad. Don’t be that guy who worships the creation rather than the creator.

This passage directly points toward John 3:14-15, where Jesus tells us that this bronze serpent was a foreshadowing of himself. It is actually an illustration of the vicarious death of Christ on the cross and the necessity of personal faith in him for salvation.

The serpent was a symbol of sin and judgment, and when it was lifted up and put on a pole (or tree), it became a symbol of a curse (Galatians 3:13). Paul is teaching the Galatian Christians that Jesus became a curse for us, even though he was a man without sin (the spotless Lamb of God). Paul clearly taught the Corinthians, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The observation that I have on this passage in Numbers 21:4-9 is that God did not remove the snakes, but provided a remedy; way of healing and life in the midst of the snakes. I imagine that the venom remained in their bodies but did not lead to death. Romans 6:23 tells us that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We remain sinners but have received new life in Christ.

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What is the Gospel?

There is talk about the actual definition of the gospel.

Briefly, the true gospel is the good news that God saves sinners. Man is by nature and by choice sinful, and is separated from God with no hope of fixing his situation or standing before God. But God, by his power, provided for our redemption in the death, burial and resurrection of the Savior, Jesus Christ.

The word “gospel” literally means “good news.” To truly appreciate how good this news is, we must first understand the bad news.

  1. As a result of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:6), every part of man—his mind, will, emotions and flesh—have been corrupted by sin.
  2. Because of our sinful nature, we do not and cannot seek God. We have no desire to come to God and, in fact, our mind is hostile toward God (Romans 8:7).
  3. God has declared that our sin dooms us to an eternity in hell, separated from God.

It is in hell that man pays the penalty of sin against a holy and righteous God. This would be bad enough news if there were no remedy.

But God, in His mercy, has provided the perfect remedy, a substitute for us—Jesus Christ—who came to pay the penalty for our sin by His sacrifice on the cross. This is the essence of the gospel that Paul preached to the Corinthians.

  1. In 1 Corinthians 15, he explains the two elements of the gospel, the death and resurrection of Christ.
    1. Jesus died for us, the proof being that he was buried (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
    2. Jesus rose from the dead, the proof being the post-resurrection appearances (1 Corinthians 15:5-8)
  2. Anything added to this “first creed” of the church is not defined as the gospel:
    1. Not the plan of salvation
    2. Not liberation theology
    3. Not a social gospel
    4. Not justification, sanctification or glorification
    5. Not bearing fruit or good works or evangelism
    6. Not what one believes about the virgin birth or the end times
    7. Not humanitarian causes done in Jesus’ name
    8. Not even letting your light shine before men
  3. For us, our old nature died with Christ on the cross and was buried with Him. Then we were resurrected with Him to a new life (Romans 6:4-8).
  4. Paul tells us to “hold firmly” to this true gospel, the only one that saves.
    1. Believing in any other gospel is to believe in vain (Romans 1:16-17, Galatians 1:6).
    2. Paul declares that the true gospel is the “power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” He means that salvation is not achieved by human effort, but by the grace of God through the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Because of the gospel, those who believe in Christ (Romans 10:9) are not just saved from hell. We are given a completely new nature (2 Corinthians 5:17) with a changed heart and a new desire, will, and attitude that are demonstrated through good works. This is the fruit the Holy Spirit produces in us by His power (Galatians 5:22-23). Works do not bring salvation, but they are the proof of it (Ephesians 2:10). Those who are saved by the power of God will always show the evidence of salvation by a changed life.

Is God Good All the Time?

Last week in my Wednesday class we discussed the topic of being ransomed by God, out of Hebrews 9:11-28. To fully appreciate the work of Christ on the cross, we must understand the concepts of: satisfaction for sin, substitution for sin, propitiation, redemption, reconciliation, God’s love and holiness over against our human sinfulness that brings God justice and wrath.

God is love, yet cannot be in the presence of or condone our sin; so the wrath of God is consistent with his justice. This is the problem of forgiveness. God loves us and desires to forgive, but He cannot just let our sin go unpunished, which brings in God’s justice.

On the cross, God drew mankind to himself. Hebrews 7:25 states, “He (Christ) is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him” (NASB). The teaching of this verse is that Christ saves us to forever, not just in length of time, but in the concept of wholeness, perhaps meaning “completely” or “totally” or “fully.” Forever here can also refer to the function of Christ as the High Priest forever, as the writer leads toward in Hebrews 7:26. There is no longer a need for repeated sacrifices, Christ died once for all (Hebrews 7:27, 9:12, 26, 10:2, 10, 1 Peter 3:18).

But today, the question is, Christ saves us from what forever? I believe He saves us from being “cut off” from the kindness of God. Check out Romans 11:22 where the Bible says, “Behold the kindness [or goodness] and severity of God” (NASB). Paul goes on to identify in the very next phrase the people who are “cut off” from God’s kindness (“those who fell” or “disobeyed” – those who are not in Christ), and those who continue in God’s kindness (“to you” – those who are in Christ). He states point blank that there are two options, either to experience God’s kindness or to be cut off. Being cut off from God’s kindness is a very severe thing (Paul uses the imperative word behold).

In Zambia there is a popular saying that, “God is good, all the time” and “all the time, God is good.” I have come to realize that this is only a partial truth; God is good all the time … to those who come to Him by Christ. Those who refuse Christ are “cut off” from God’s goodness, (which btw, to be “cut off” from the goodness of God is the biblical definition of hell). Hell is not Dante’s version of a sadomasochist Creator who tortures sinners. Biblical hell is a prison where lawbreakers are cut off from the Creator’s goodness. Once goodness is removed, only evil remains.

So, where do you stand? Are you in or out? Are you experiencing God’s kindness or are you cut off?

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Paul and the Death of Christ

For Paul, the cross stood at the center of the Christian faith, and it had a certain self-evidencing power. It was something to show men in its stark simplicity.

  1. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void. (1 Corinthians 1:17)
  2. And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1)
  3. You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed [as] crucified? (Galatians 3:1)

It was not something to argue about, but something to be shown to men: The story tore down the barriers of separation. It is clear that Paul understood that Christ died “on behalf of” men, and not “instead of” men. The Greek preposition is huper, and not anti.

  1. Who died for us, that whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him. (1 Thessalonians 5:10)
  2. For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. (1 Corinthians 8:11)
  3. For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. (Romans 14:15)
  4. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; (Ephesians 5:25)

Reconciliation: the gulf is bridged, enmity is taken away.

  1. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Romans 5:10)
  2. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:13)
  3. And through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, [I say], whether things on earth or things in heaven. (Colossians 1:20)
  4. This does not in itself imply or necessitate a substitutionary, or even a sacrificial view of the death of Christ. Paul could argue that this was a compelling demonstration of the love of God that men are now compelled to see God as the lover of men’s souls and not Law-giver, Task-master and Judge they had always believed Him to be.
  5. For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; (2 Corinthians 5:14)

Redemption: the word Savior implies something from which man had to be saved.

  1. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; (Philippians 3:20)
  2. In order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:5)
    1. God sent Jesus to rescue from the bondage of the law
    2. God did it to save men from the penalty under the law
  3. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, (Ephesians 1:7)
  4. In whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:14)
  5. Having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us [and] which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Colossians 2:14)

Paul connects the death of Christ with sin:

  1. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, (1 Corinthians 15:3)
  2. Who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, (Galatians 1:4)
  3. [He] who was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification. (Romans 4:25)
  4. For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (Romans 5:6)
  5. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

Paul connects the death of Christ with sacrifice:

  1. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the [life] which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me. (Galatians 2:20)
  2. And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor. (Ephesians 5:2)
  3. Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are [in fact] unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:7)
    1. Deliverance from bondage of Egypt – general
    2. Deliverance from bondage of sin – specific
  4. And you shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood which is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and the two doorposts; and none of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning. For the LORD will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to come in to your houses to smite [you.] (Exodus 12:22-23)
  5. That you shall say, “It is a Passover sacrifice to the LORD who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.” And the people bowed low and worshiped. (Exodus 12:27)

Paul stresses the cost of salvation: what ought to have happened to us, happened to Jesus.

  1. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us–for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE”– (Galatians 3:13)
  2. He made Him who knew no sin [to be] sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

The pictures in light of the sacrifice of the cross:

  1. Justification – courts
  2. Reconciliation – friendships
  3. Redemption – slavery
  4. Adoption – family
  5. Propitiation – sacrifice
  6. Reckon, impute – accounting

This material is from William Barclay, the Mind of St. Paul, 1975.

A Picture of Grace

These are notes for my Bible study class on Sunday mornings at 9:45, a book called Downpour by James MacDonald. Today we will look at what Jesus was doing on the cross.

What was Jesus Doing on the Cross?

The cross is the signature symbol of the central event in human history. It was a symbol of execution until the second century when Constantine saw a vision of it and banned it as an instrument of execution. Today people are often casual about it and can wear it as a piece of jewelry, without understanding the meaning of the symbol.

He was substituting:

Between two robbers, thieves or better translated, revolutionaries, Jesus took the place of mankind, just as He did for Barabbas (Matthew 27:26). Jesus paid the penalty for us; He took the death that we all deserve (Romans 6:23, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Romans 5:8).

He was scandalizing:

The cross is an outrageous offense that evokes intense reactions from those who are not saved. Look across America at the intense, irrational hatred of Jesus. Why all the illogical animosity toward Jesus Christ? Would people react the same way to Krishna, or Mohammed, a Hindu or the Buddha?

There is an army of darkness that has it’s sights on Christianity. To really live for Christ, we are going to experience this scandalizing hatred (John 7:7, 15:18).

He was suffering:

First century executions were not like today. They wanted to torture and completely humiliate the criminal. For Jesus, the pain was a lesser issue; it was the separation and abandonment that Jesus experienced that caused His suffering (Matthew 27:46).  He was forsaken by the Father and surrounded by darkness.

He was satisfying:

The curtain of the temple was torn in two (Matthew 27:51). The temple represented God’s presence. He lived in the Holy of Holies. The curtain represented that which separates man from God. It was torn from top to bottom, as if God was ripping it apart, saying “the way is now open, come into My presence, the wrath is diverted, My Son paid your penalty.” The debt is satisfied.

Why doesn’t God do something about sin? He did! It is finished (John 19:30).

Four Pictures of Grace.

Grace is undeserved, unmerited, unlearned; and received as a gift. It is not justice (getting what you deserve) or mercy (not getting what you deserve) because grace is getting something that you do not deserve.

Grace that redeems – the penalty is gone:

There was nothing special about any of us; God chose to set His love on us (Colossians 1:14). It is a picture of payment to God; not to come and get us but to pay a price to get us back.

Grace that releases – the power is gone:

Redemption without release is like a mountain climber who stays at base camp. It is not just that we have a home in heaven, but that we can be released from the power of sin here and now. No longer will we be slaves to sin; we have been set free. We have the power to say no to sin. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is available to us today (Romans 6:13, 14).

Grace that reconciles – the prejudice is gone:

Grace causes us to reconcile with every class, race and culture. The walls of separation are broken down (Ephesians 2:14). There are no barriers. The people of God should be the most diverse place on the planet because Christ makes us one, united in spirit. Not only is the wall broken down, but hostility is gone (Ephesians 2:15-16). We must hate every form of prejudice in our society.

Grace that removes – the past is gone:

All sins are wiped away because of the cross (Luke 23:42, 10:33-35, 15:11-31, Matthew 20:8-15). So, where is my debt? It is cancelled (Colossians 2:14). Sometimes the greatest barrier is the way we see ourselves: we don’t feel worthy of God’s love; maybe too ashamed for what we have done or what we were.

Not until we grasp the gravity of our sin problem can we grasp the amazing solution that God has provided by grace. He has redeemed us, released us, reconciled us and removed the shame from us.