Numbers 21:4-9 (The Old Testament reading for Easter 6 in the Historic, One-Year, Lectionary)
4 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 on the way. 5 And 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." 6 Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." 9 So Moses made a bronze1 serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
In the name of + Jesus.
The message of Scripture, beginning to end, is really quite clear. Sin brings punishment—the wrath of God—and ends in death. But faith in God’s promise brings life. That’s it; the entire message of Scripture, which finds its fulfillment in Christ. His death is the punishment poured out by the Father on all sin. But at the same time, His death promises to bring life to all sinners. Sin kills because God’s Law demands it. But faith brings life because the Grace of God promises it. Command and Promise. Sin and Grace. Law and Gospel. And all is seen in Jesus.
The events described in Numbers are but one example of this. The people spoke against the LORD, and in their speaking against the prophet of the LORD (Moses), they were only showing their obstinacy, for Moses had only spoken what the LORD Himself had given Moses to speak. What did they think would happen? God would just take it? Suffer the thankless and brazen complaints of a people He had led out of a 400-year bondage to Egypt? They should have known what would happen. No longer did the fear God. No longer did they love God. No longer did they trust God to keep His Word.
And then He kept his Word. He punished sin with His wrath. The LORD Himself sent fiery serpents to kill the people. This wasn’t simply the unfortunate consequence of a foolish and thoughtless decision. This was the direct judgment of God on sin. And it was the punishment He had promised. Like he always does, the LORD kept His Word.
And because God’s Word does what He intends it to do, this punishment, based in God’s Law, produced in those who were spared a broken heart, and a contrite spirit. “We have sinned,” was the Spirit-given confession now on the lips of those people, “for we have spoken against the LORD and against you.”
And although these sinners were no less guilty of having spoken against God, and deserved only temporal and eternal punishment, the LORD, who is faithful and just, provided the means by which their sins would be forgiven. From the snakes that were sent to kill them, the LORD told Moses to take one of the fiery serpents, and set it on a pole. That which was the death of them, would become the life of them. The very thing that was sent by the LORD for punishment, when they looked at it, would bring them life. And believing the promise—once again having faith in the promise—those who looked on the serpent hanging on a pole would not die, but would live.
We have not feared the wrath of the LORD, and for this reason, we have sinned. We have not loved the LORD, and so we chase after the fleeting things of this world which promise so much but always leave us empty. We have not trusted the LORD, and so we believe the wisdom of the world, rather than standing on the foundation of the Scriptures.
But in Christ, we shall not die for our sins. In Christ, who was sent for punishment and has endured the Father’s wrath, we have the forgiveness of sins. As we fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, we see that the LORD has not changed. In Christ, we see that the LORD keeps His word; that the LORD keeps all of His Word. He carries our His promise to punish sin, and we see that on the cross. But if our sin is paid for on the cross, than that is the very same place, where we must look, to see our life.
Make no mistake. Scripture is clear. Sin brings punishment—the wrath of God—and always ends in death. But faith in God’s promise—faith in the Christ who was hung on a tree—will always bring life.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Gracious Lord, send Your Holy Spirit to deepen our faith in Christ, that we live by daily repentance and faith in Your Son. Amen (TLSB, p. 249).