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"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)

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    Images of the Savior (40 -- The Serpent in the Wilderness)

    And the people came unto Moses and said, “We have sinned in that we have spoken against Yahweh and against you; pray to Yahweh that he might take the serpents away from us”; and Moses prayed for the people. And Yahweh said unto Moses, “Make for yourself a serpent, and place it upon an ensign-pole, and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks upon it, shall live”. And Moses made the brazen serpent, and placed it upon an ensign-pole; and it came to pass that, if a serpent bit any man, he would look upon the brazen serpent and live. – Numbers 21:7-9

    After the instructions concerning the ministry of the tabernacle were given to the sons of Levi in general and the priestly class in particular, which was marked out by divine appointment as comprising the family of Aaron alone, following the rebellion of Korah, and after provision was then made for the fabrication of the water of separation, through the ashes of a red heifer, which things were made necessary by the assault on the divine institution which Korah and those who were with him had waged in their deception, the text then turns once more to a historical account of the final stages of Israel's forty-year journey through the wilderness, before they enter the promised land; and in this account, we may discern several very notable types of the Savior, both in the second striking of the rock, in the opposition of Edom to the children of Israel, and most especially in the matter of the fiery serpents which God sent among the people, and the remedy he provided, through a brazen serpent lifted up as an ensign in the wilderness, upon which, if one even looked, he would be healed of his malady and live.

    In substantiation of which, let us first notice some particulars of the account of Moses' striking the rock, when God had commanded him to speak to it instead, and so to bring out from it a renewed supply of the water that it had given them from the first, when he struck it in Horeb (see Exodus 17:6). We may see, in this account, that the command of God was very clear to Moses, but that, being very angry with the people, who so vexed him that they led him into this grievous sin (cf. Psalm 106:32), he instead spoke haughtily to the people, arrogating the miracle of bringing forth water to himself and Aaron, and smote the rock again, and not just once, but twice; and thereafter, it gave forth an abundant supply of water; however God was displeased, and swore that Moses would not therefore lead his people into Canaan, nor even enter the land himself (Numbers 20:7-12; 27:12-14). Now, we most certainly realize that Moses was forgiven of this sin, and passed directly into the presence of the Lord when he died; and yet, the act had such typological significance that it was imperative that he be denied entrance into the land typical of God's eternal presence, so as to demonstrate that those who act in reality as he had acted in type, would never enter into God's presence, or find salvation at all.

    But we must speak of this more clearly: at the first account of Moses' striking the rock in Horeb, we observed that this Rock was a type of Christ, as Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 10:4; and so, although Christ was dry and barren to outward appearances, and had no exceptional or beautiful human form (Isaiah 53:2), just as this rock was very normal and apparently dry, yet when he was struck with the rod of divine justice, out from his body would flow forth the water of life and purification, which would ever follow and sustain his people through the wilderness. However, when the Son had once been smitten, and had but once offered up his body as a sacrifice, he then accomplished an eternal redemption, and will never again come under divine displeasure, nor yet again be smitten as a man of sorrows (cf. Hebrews 9:24-28); but instead, he has henceforth only to wait until his enemies should be made his footstool (Hebrews10:12-14). Now, since he has made satisfaction for our sins and has risen again, if we stumble or err we have but to speak to him, and to come before the throne of grace for mercy, and he will be our advocate, and sustain us with life (Hebrews 4:15-16; 1 John 2:1-2); and this is why, after having smitten the Rock once, God commands Moses only to speak to it the second time, when the people are in need of a season of refreshment. Therefore, when Moses rebelled in disbelief, and proudly smote it twice, declaring in his anger that he himself must needs bring out water, his sin was grievous enough to prevent his entering the promised land of rest.

    Only consider how great an error this is! If Christ has died for us, shall we put him to death again? Or shall we arrogate to ourselves in our pride and rebellion the capacity to bring forth the water of redemption by our own authority and efforts? So that, the sin of the papists is here utterly overturned, who think in their blasphemy to sacrifice again the Son of God, and by their own authority to smite him and bring out redemption for the people who blindly follow them. Let us be certain that they who hope in the sacrilege of the Romish mass will by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven! Only, we must not leave our application there alone; for if we think in our pride that we shall continue God's redemption, which he began in us through grace alone, by any works of the flesh, then we are in danger of crucifying the Son of God afresh, and trampling on his blood, and so falling from grace (Hebrews 10:29; cf. also Galatians 3:1-6; 5:4). Has Christ died for our sins, and is he risen again? Then let us fly at once to the throne of grace, and merely speaking to and pleading with the Rock of our salvation, let us trust that his once-for-all sacrifice is sufficient to refresh our parched and sin-sick hearts again with the gospel! For if we seek assurance in any other redemptive act, or hope for a merit other than that single, sufficient, and unrepeatable act of Christ on Golgotha to sustain us in our Christian walk and so bring us to heaven at last, we shall never enter heaven at all, but even as Moses, perish in the wilderness.

    The second lesson we will learn is that of the opposition of the Edomites, the children of Israel's brother Esau, and Israel's refusal to avenge themselves at that time; but we must also remember that God did not simply overlook Edom's wickedness, but promised that he would one day trample all that nation beneath Israel's feet (Ezekiel 25:12-14; Amos 1:11-12). Let us be reminded by this circumstance of how the Son of God, when he walked on this earth, was despised and rejected by his own brothers and his own people, and of how he was meek and did not avenge himself, but submitted to their reproaches (John 4:44; 7:1-5; 1 Peter 2:23); but one day, God will put all his enemies beneath his throne, and his conquest of them will be fierce and cruel (Psalm 2:6-9; Proverbs 1:24-33)! And in the same way, we may derive this application for ourselves, that when we are persecuted, we must not at all resist, but love and pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48); for in this way, God will give us victory over all the world, for we will have been faithful unto death (Revelation 12:11), and he will finally crush the serpent beneath our feet (Romans 16:20). But for now, we must hurry to observe our chief lesson, in the next account before us, of the brazen serpent lifted up in the wilderness.

    In this account, we must notice, first of all, just what the fiery serpents represent: and in order to do so, we must note these circumstances, first, that they were a result of the people's sin and grumbling; second, that they were sent by the Lord as a punishment; third, that they were in the form of the first tempter of mankind (see Genesis 3:1); and fourth, that the consequence of their bite was a fiery death. Putting all this together, we may discern that this terrible plague showed forth in picture form the entire extent of man's depraved condition; for, having listened to the serpent in the Garden, he was bitten, as it were, with the deadly venom of sin and rebellion, and the end of that sin, which sprang from the poisonous lies of the serpent, was death, eternal judgment in a fiery hell, and the wrath and punishment of God himself.

    But then, even though the people were enticed by the venom of the serpent into sin, and made to feel its horrible effects of death and the fire of God's wrath, yet God himself prepared a remedy, in the lifting up of the brazen serpent in the wilderness; and we must observe about this, that it was a most unusual and unexpected form of deliverance, which God alone could have devised; for the people must have expected the lifting up of some great enemy of the serpent, so that they might look in hope to that image as a sign of a deliverer's coming to crush his head; but instead, the very grotesque ugliness of the serpent himself, who had caused all the problem, was lifted up on the pole.

    And finally, we must notice the effect of the deliverance that God wrought in this unusual way: first, it was so effective as not to demand any supplication or gift or any other inducement, but immediately healed every man whatsoever that simply looked upon it as the image of his own sin and guilt hanging on the pole. Second, it was lifted up as an image of shame and cruelty, to be derided, as it were, as a thing of evil, which had caused so much suffering. And third, although it was lifted up in ignominy, yet it was also lifted up as a banner and ensign of victory: for that very pole upon which it hanged is referred to in Moses' account by a word which signifies “ensign,” or “standard”.

    Now that we have noticed all these things, it must be eminently clear how excellent a type this was of the redemptive work of Jesus the Messiah; even as Jesus himself proclaimed to Nicodemus at the beginning of his ministry that he must be lifted up as the serpent in the wilderness, so that everyone who should look upon him in faith might not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:14-15). For the Jews expected a Messiah who should come as a deliverer looking altogether different from the serpent who had destroyed them; but instead, he came to become sin, and to be lifted up as the very form of evil, and to hang in that condition upon the cross, where the whole world might look upon him in derision, and where God himself might pour out his fiery wrath upon him as though he were sin indeed, and the image of the serpent himself. But then, that cross where he was lifted up in shame became an ensign of eternal victory and salvation, and to this day it is lifted up all over the world as the one standard by which men might be saved, if they merely look at the One who was hanging upon it in the image of their own iniquity (for he had in fact taken their iniquity upon himself), and full of the fiery pangs that their sin had called down from the God of righteous judgment.

    O believer, how sweetly strange and terribly comforting is this paradox of divine grace! When we had been bitten by the serpent and cast into sin, and were expecting only the pangs of eternal fury from the hand of the righteous God whom we had offended, then it was that we looked up and saw our sin, in all its grotesque ugliness, and full of the fire of divine vengeance, hanging upon a cross of shame; and no sooner had we seen that horrific sight, than the misery of our tortured consciences was quieted, the terror of the wrathful God was quelled in our hearts, and we who had been dead sprang up again to life. The cross of shame has become our ensign, and the place of defeat has become the standard of victory and eternal life. The serpent who tormented us was defeated in the very place where he was most clearly shown: for never had the venom of the serpent been more fully gathered up into the bitter vial of its wrath-bearing deception and rebellion than on the cross of Calvary, where Christ was made sin and suffered the effects of sin; and yet in that display of the serpent, the serpent was crushed: for the Christ who became sin won eternal salvation for all who look upon him, and put to death sin and wrath forevermore. Ah, let us look to our Savior, and see him hanging beneath the curse of God as our sin; for in that sight is our life and hope, and that horrible display of a cruel death is our only boast both now and forever, amen.

    Sinner, look and live!

    Posted by Nathan on January 10, 2009 10:30 PM

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