Text: Numbers 21:4-9
“Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:24, English Standard Version) With these words, our Lord encourages us to pray to our God and Father, promising that He will hear and answer. This is fitting encouragement because this Sunday, today, is the day that we start to pull away from the celebration of our Lord’s Easter toward His Ascension, which is Thursday. When our Lord ascended to the right of the Father, the disciples were left behind to continue His ministry, but with this promise – they can pray in whatever need and know that their prayers will be answered. So will ours. The Latin title for today is Rogate. It means, “ask.”
In the Old Testament reading, we see an example where God’s people have their prayer answered. In the wilderness wandering, the people sinned by grumbling against the Lord and Moses. As discipline, the Lord sent serpents to bring His people to repentance. When they realized their sin, the Lord answered their prayer with the bronze serpent. The serpent was placed on the pole so that the people might look to it and live. Christ, who is the true “serpent on the pole,” was lifted up for us on the cross. He bids us look to Him and live.
The events in our text take place during the wilderness wandering. It seems that some time has passed since the people left Egypt. They’ve already sent spies into the Promised Land and refused to enter. Moses’ siblings, Aaron and Miriam, have both died. By now, the Lord has continued to provide for His people with the manna from heaven, with quail, and with water from the rock. Just before our text, the Lord granted victory to His people over some Canaanites who had been running raids and taking Israelites captive. However, the Holy Spirit speaks by Moses, “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient along the way.” (Numbers 21:4) You’re right, if you think by now that God’s people continually grow impatient and doubt His provision in the Old Testament.
The text says, “The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” (v. 5) Remember, this is after the manna, after the quail, after the water from the rock. God had been with His people all the way up to this point. He fed them; defended them. How do His own people repay Him? By questioning Him and loathing Him. When you loathe something, you hate it with the very core of your being. That’s how the people felt about God and about His servant Moses. In short, they fell into unbelief. The lack of faith in their hearts led to their words, actions, and general attitude. The Lord disciplined His people for their sin by sending “fiery serpents,” it says. The snakes bit the people and many died. (v. 6)
This is a pattern we do see among God’s people of old: periods of unbelief resulting in contempt for the Lord’s Word, doubts about His provision, loathing what He gives, and other forms of sinful living. This was a pattern in days of old, but surely it’s not the case now is it? Let’s not move on so quickly. Many of us, by God’s grace, have – contrary to the world – been strengthened in the faith through this pandemic. This current strength in our faith isn’t always the case. You see, we, too, have doubted God’s Word. How often have we read something challenging in Scripture and, rather than say “amen,” we put it in the lowest filing cabinet of our minds. How often have we read Scripture and disliked what it said? How often have we done the opposite of what the Lord commands, and liked it?
We have doubted the Lord’s provision. In Bible study this week we talked about the Lord’s Supper, how it is our true daily bread and nourishment in this life. Have we always thought thus? Have we always treated the Sacrament as a treasure, or do we see it as a burden – what, with all the setup and take down and having to be faithful in our practice? We all go through periods where we think like this; maybe you are in one now. The Lord doesn’t always send serpents, but we receive the same discipline for our sin: death. The patterns we see in God’s people of old continue in us, His people now. And we receive, rightly, the punishment for our sins in death.
Just as we see patterns in God’s people of old that continue now, so we see that our Lord acts now as He did then. The people learned from the serpents that they had sinned and they were brought to repentance. They asked Moses to pray to the Lord on their behalf, that they might be forgiven. The Lord heard and answered their prayer. He said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it shall live.” (v. 8) So, Moses did. He made a serpent and put it up on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten by a serpent, they could look at the bronze serpent and be healed. When they were bitten and brought to repentance, they would look to the serpent trusting in God’s promise of healing and, by faith, receive the same.
The bronze serpent comes up later in our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus. He said, “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.” (Jn. 3:14-15) The bronze serpent of old, which took away death caused by serpent, pointed ahead to the true “bronze serpent,” our Lord Jesus. He was lifted up on the cross to take away the eternal death of sin. He was lifted up so that our doubts, mistrust, and contempt for the Lord might be forgiven. Apart from His lifting up we would be, in the words of King David, like those who go down to the pit. But, in fact, Christ was lifted up for us.
In days of old, those who looked to the serpent were healed. They were healed not by magic, but by faith – faith is what led them to look at it in the first place. It is the same with Jesus. When we are brought to repentance through the knowledge of our sins, when we are aware of what punishment deservedly awaits us, He bids us look to Him and live. The bronze serpent cured the people of illness, but those who look to Christ receive eternal healing in the forgiveness of their sins. There’s a hymn we sometimes sing that ties this all together well. It goes:
The Law reveals the guilt of sin
And makes us conscience-stricken;
But then the Gospel enters in
The sinful soul to quicken.
Come to the cross, trust Christ, and live;
The Law no peace can ever give,
No comfort and no blessing.“Salvation Unto Us Has Come,” Lutheran Service Book #555
May the Lord grant that we, being brought by the Spirit to know and lament our sins, might by the same Spirit to look to Christ, who bore our sins for us. May we learn ever to look to Him and live. Amen.