(Hint for youth pastors: I love to have “memory makers” during our services. So we called a local pet store, and asked them to bring in some snakes for this. We had the pet store owner hold the big, 4 foot python up on stage behind me while I talked about this scene from Scripture, and 2 of my youth [with parental permission] held 2 other little corn snakes in the back. I spoke with all my youth leaders to get their ideas before I went ahead with this. Our assessment was to keep the snakes very contained, very controlled, and more so behind everything. But after the service we allowed the students to come in in small groups to pet, hold, and get pictures with the snakes. They loved it. It was a huge hit!)
“Snake!” That’s all I could muster from my mouth when I saw what had slithered off the bank. Some friends and I were fishing in a creek. We had walked upstream quite a ways to find the perfect spot. We stopped at a spot with short banks that led up to high walls. When I casted over towards the bank, I thought that I had hooked a stick. But when the stick started side-winding across the top of the water, I screamed, “Snake!” and we all started high-stepping through the three foot high creek to get to a spot to where we could get out of the water. Because the snake was on the other end of my line, I kept pressing my reel’s release button to let out more line so that I wouldn’t be just dragging the snake behind me. Finally, after finding a good spot to get out, I jumped up on the bank, took one step, and snapped my buddy’s pole I was borrowing. That was a day I’ll never forget, but Israel had an even more unforgettable day with snakes.
The nation of Israel starts to get it. In the last episode they came back around to the waters of Meribah for a second time, and now they are coming back towards the Red Sea for a second time (Numbers 21:4). They’re getting impatient and they begin to lash-out again towards God and Moses. Why has God brought us out into the wilderness to die when He told us He was going to save us? What kind of a God doesn’t give His children food or water? They were tired, sore, and furious. Because of their complaining, God judged them by sending fiery serpents which bit the people, and many of them died (21:6). Can you imagine this scene? As they’re walking and trash-talking God in the desert, serpents slither up to them and begin biting them. These don’t seem to be the little snakes that I normally envision, rather they seem to be quite large serpents that are judging, biting, and killing the 2-3 million Israelites. The text also says that these are fiery serpents. We’re not quite sure what this means exactly. Fiery is often a term used in biblical language for the judgment of God, but it could also be a type of snake that might have the capabilities of an ancient “fire-breathing dragon.” No matter what, it was a bad day!
The people finally humbled themselves before God and ask Moses to do something that they should have done themselves rather than trash-talk God…PRAY! So, Moses prays, and God gives Him very interesting instructions. God tells Moses to make a serpent and set it on a pole, and whoever looks to the serpent will live. What?! That just sounds whacked-out.
Through all of this, God is preparing His people for the coming of His Son. I sure love my parents, and I totally appreciate the way that they prepared me for my adult life. They motivated me to study hard, learn a lot, and be a good student. They trained me to be good with my money and not to spend it on everything I want. The lesson I appreciate from them most is the discipline they instilled in me to not put anything before the church of Jesus Christ. Ball games, homework, and friend’s parties always came in second place to Sundays and Wednesdays. God is doing the same with His people. He is preparing them to worship Christ.
Let me show you what I mean. Jesus told Nicodemus, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). God healed the Israelites of serpent-venom if they would look at the serpent on the pole. In the same way, if we believe in the death of Christ as He was lifted up on a cross to pay for our death-penalty from our sin, then we will be spiritually healed from the disease of death. Jesus literally became the curse for us, and we believe in His death and resurrection for our salvation. We look to Him, we follow Him as our Lord, and God saves us!
Too many teenagers today merely view Jesus and the gospel as their ticket to eternal life. Rather, Scripture presents Jesus and the gospel as center of our lives now. Just as Israel was to look at the serpent to be healed, we must continually look to Christ for forgiveness, and constantly be remembering the gospel. Why don’t we? Because the gospel reminds us how horrible we are. And in our self-esteem driven world, we don’t like that! Look to the Christ.