The readings for today contain some of my favorite texts from the Bible. We have Numbers, John, and Ephesians, and these three texts provide a good example of how we go about interpreting the Bible (Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21).
What we see in these texts is Jesus in the Gospel of John interpreting the event in Numbers and then Paul in his letter to the Ephesians interpreting Jesus in the Gospels.
This follows our standard model for interpreting the Bible. The New Testament interprets the Old, and then within the New we use Paul’s epistles to help provide context to the words and actions of Jesus in the Gospels. That is to say, while the Gospels talk about what Jesus said and did, the epistles talk about “why” and “what for.” In addition, we look at all things through our understanding of justification by grace through faith for the sake of Christ; this is our confession by which we view the Bible. So, with this in mind, let’s look at these texts for today more closely.
In Numbers you have what appears to be an odd event. The people of Israel are being led through the desert by Moses after the Lord has freed them from their slavery in Egypt. And the Lord has been feeding the people as they’ve been in the desert. Initially, he sent them manna, but they complained about that, because they wanted meat as well. Despite their ungratefulness, the gracious Lord gave them the meat they asked for by sending them quail for them to gather up to eat.
However, the people eventually grew ungrateful for this as well. The text for today from Numbers says that the people grew impatient and said, “… we loathe this worthless food.” The Lord was giving them bread and meat to eat, but they didn’t like it. They weren’t happy, they called the things the Lord was providing them “worthless.”
So, in Numbers the people are showing their sinful nature in rebelling against the Lord and being ungrateful for His gifts. So, the Lord rebuked them by sending them the death that their sins deserved; He “sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” It’s as if He’s saying, “Since you won’t receive my grace and mercy I have been giving you, you shall receive the judgement your sins deserve instead. I have been redeeming you from this judgement, but since you do not want my grace, I will show you what your judgment is instead.” And then the Lord sends death in the form of serpents, harkening back to death’s original entrance into the world through the serpent, Satan, in the Garden of Eden.
These serpents, and the death they bring, cause the people to repent. They come to Moses and acknowledge their sins and seek the Lord’s mercy. So, the Lord tells Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” Then, “Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”
So, the serpents sent by the Lord bring death, which is the consequence of sin, but the Lord also provides salvation from this condemnation. The pole is a symbol of death, since it has the image of the serpent on it, but it is also the means of salvation of the people.
By itself, this seems like an odd little event in the life of Israel. It’s only 6 verses in total. But, we see here one of our principles we use when interpreting the Bible. We let Scripture interpret Scripture, by interpreting the Old Testament in light of the New.
In fact, for this event, we see Jesus explicitly interpreting it in the text from John’s Gospel today. The Pharisee Nicodemus has come in the night to meet with Jesus. He seems to be intrigued by Jesus, but he is not quite ready to be identified as a disciple, so he comes in the night when his fellow members of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish ruling council – won’t see him.
And as they are speaking, Jesus refers back to the event we just talked about. Jesus says, “… 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.” Those 6 verses in Numbers are now explained by Jesus in the Gospel of John, and we see another principle of interpretation in effect. We see that all Scripture is centered in Jesus Christ, and that the event in Numbers was pointing to Christ’s work on the cross. For Christ was raised up on the cross, the symbol of death, and whoever looks to him in faith will live. His raised cross is a victory over the serpent Satan, for on the cross and subsequent empty tomb Christ defeated sin, death, and the devil. And this was foreshadowed by the event in Numbers. So, what was unclear in the Old Testament is made clear in the New.
And then, Jesus explains why he must be lifted up, and we have perhaps one of the most quoted verses from the Bible, John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is a great verse, but let’s not forget the context in which it is found.
What preceded it was Jesus’ explanation of the bronze serpent on a pole in Numbers as pointing to his work on the cross for our salvation. Then, what follows it is an explanation of why this salvation is needed.
Jesus explains, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Taken by itself, we could twist this verse to support any number of false beliefs, even leading us to no longer call sin “sin,” since, after all, God is love and Jesus does not condemn (so people say).
This is the view of many in the world today who wish to call their sin “good,” and put God’s stamp of approval on it. They take hold of this verse and then boldly declare that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, and thus their sins are not really sins, because Jesus loves them.
But, this is not what Jesus is really saying. He isn’t saying that God is accepting of sin. We see that in Numbers, when God judges sin with death by sending serpents to kill the sinful Israelites. And Jesus explains exactly why he did not come into the world to condemn it; it’s because the world is already condemned. He says, “Whoever believes in him [that is, Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” The point is that the world and we were already condemned.
This is because we are not neutral with respect to God. We are either His enemies or we are His people; we are either children of Satan or children of God. These are the only two states we can be in. We are born as God’s enemies, because we are descended from the fallen Adam and Eve, tainted with their sin, and born into a world that is also tainted with sin and fallen from the perfection in which God originally created it. We are born into a world crawling with fiery serpents who bring death and who are at odds with God, the Creator. If you doubt me, go read the comments sections for anything posted on the Internet.
We were, as Paul says to the Ephesians, “dead in the trespasses and sins.” We were condemned already, stricken by the Serpent Satan due to our inherited sin from Adam and Eve as well as our actual sins we committed. So, Jesus didn’t need to condemn the world, because the world and us had already condemned ourselves and subjected us all to decay and eternal death. Therefore, out of God’s grace and mercy, Jesus came to save the world from this condemnation by his being raised up on the cross, that whoever looks upon him would be saved.
So, Paul points out the “why” aspect of what Jesus came to do. That is, we were condemned already, dead in our trespasses, but “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him…” We were like the Israelites in the desert, being bitten and dying for our sins – condemned already, and unable to do anything about it to save ourselves – helpless. But, God sent us His Son to be raised up for us to look upon in faith and live.
And even our faith in Christ is a work of God in us. God creates faith in us through His Word in all its forms: written, spoken, sacramental. These are the gifts of the Lord to you as you sojourn in this wilderness of the present world, awaiting entry into the promised land.
This then leads us to Paul’s conclusion in Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
God has saved you by His grace, which you have received through faith in the Christ who was raised up on the cross for your salvation. God Himself has justified you in His sight. And this is not your own work, it is the work of God. It is to His glory alone that you are saved. And now that He has saved you, He works through you to sanctify you in the tasks for which He has prepared you.
So here was see the interplay and difference between justification and sanctification. Justification is a legal metaphor. It means that you were condemned already, but that God Himself has made you right – that is, justified you, in His sight by His own actions. Christ’s death and resurrection and the faith that trusts in this justifies you before God; the Lord has done everything for your salvation, raising up His Son for you and bringing you to look in faith upon him through His Holy Spirit.
So, I’m not here to tell you what you need to do to be saved. Instead, I’m here to tell you what God has already done for you to save you. It’s past tense; He’s already done it, Christ has been raised up for you. I’m here to proclaim to you that your gracious Lord God has already saved you by grace through faith for the sake of Christ, and that this is not your own work, but is the gift of God. And I know that this is assuredly true because He tells us that He has done this for you in the Scriptures. And you have received this promise personally when God re-birthed you anew into the image of Christ in your Baptism.
And what next, now that you are justified freely by God’s grace through faith? God again provides the answer. He says that you are “His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that you should walk in them.” This is sanctification; the Lord working through you for the benefit of His creation. God has given us His holy will – revealed clearly in the form of the Ten Commandments – and has called us to be His priests and a holy nation – the Church. So, as His people you are charged with going out into the world as His witnesses.
A witness is someone who has seen something and then testifies to what he has seen. You have seen the Lord’s salvation and He calls you to testify to what you have seen to others, and we do so by bearing the Gospel to the world. We go into the world as witnesses of the Christ who was raised up that we may live, and tell others that they too are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ, and that this is not their own work, but the very work of God.
The Lord has done it all for us, and for that we can be thankful, because we know our salvation is sure: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Amen.
(Image: By Esteban March (1610 – 1668) – Painter (Spanish)Born in Valencia. Dead in Valencia.Details of artist on Google Art Project – JQHkNudyhFiVgA at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22009608 “