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THE CASE OF THE VICIOUS VIPERS
Intro: The events in this passage occur very near the end of Israel’s 40 year journey through the wilderness. God delivered the children of Israel from Egypt 40 years earlier. It took them 2 years to reach the Jordan River. During that time, the Lord gave them His Law, and taught them about worshiping Him. When they arrived at Jordan, they refused to cross over the river into the Promised Land. Because of their lack of faith and rebellion against God, the Lord sentenced the entire nation to wander in the wilderness until every member of that rebellious generation, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, died. It took 38 years for them all the die.
During that 38 year period, God was faithful to walk with Israel, to feed them with Manna everyday, to lead them from place to place, and to protect them from their enemies. God had been faithful to His people.
The Israelites had grown sick and tired of wandering through the wilderness. They were tired of God’s plan. They were tired of the Manna. They were tired of their leader Moses. They were just sick and tired of everything.
In this text, we are told that “they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom,” v. 4. The Israelites were forced to go this way because the Edomites would not grant them permission to cross their land. This forced Israel to walk through a terribly harsh desert area. It was mountainous, rough, and desolate. The people didn’t like it. Verse 4 says “the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.” The word “discouraged,” had the idea of something “being shortened.” Their tempers are short, they are frustrated, and they are out of patience with the whole process of getting to Canaan.
Their frustration over the path they were being forced to walk, brought to the surface other complaints they had in their hearts. In verse 5 they voice several complaints.
• They complain that God and Moses brought them out of Egypt just to have them die in the wilderness.
• They complain about the lack of food.
• They complain about the lack of water.
• They complain about the Manna God was sending them every day. (Manna, if you remember, was a miracle meal. It fell on their camp at night. It was plentiful. It was free. It was tasty. It was nutritious. It was a gracious gift from God to feed His hungry people. A mathematician has calculated that it would have taken 240 boxcar loads of Manna every day to feed a nation the size of Israel. The amount and quality of the Manna illustrates the grace, power, and generosity of Almighty God.)
But, despite God’s grace in delivering them from Egypt, despite His generosity in feeding them, and despite His guidance in leading them, they began to murmur and complain. They complained about the leader God gave, and they also lodged their complaint against the Lord.
In response to their complaints, God sent judgment upon Israel in the form of “fiery serpents.” Yet, along with the punishment came the pardon, and this is the magnificent truth that I want you to see today.
This passage is a harsh look at the consequences of sin, but it also illustrates the love and grace of God for the lost. This passage, though ancient, is a vivid illustration of what Jesus did for sinners on the cross. When speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus used this event as an illustration of His Own death for sinners on the cross at Calvary, John 3:14-15.
For Israel this situation quickly degenerated into a hopeless situation. They were being bitten by vicious vipers and many people were dying. There was no treatment for the snake bites. There was no escape from the snakes. They were trapped in hopeless circumstances from which they could not escape.
I would like for us to consider the facts of yet another hopeless case. This passage teaches us, once again, that there is Hope For The Hard Cases. Today, we will consider The Case Of The Vicious Vipers.
This passage will teach us there is hope for those trapped in the grip of sin. There is salvation for those who are perishing. There is hope for the hopeless.
I. V. 4-5 ISRAEL’S SIN
In this event Israel was guilty of several terrible sins against God.
A. They Rejected God’s Person – Verse 5 says, “And the people spake against God.” Because they did this, the Lord judged them harshly. Don’t get the idea here that God is a little too sensitive. Don’t think for a moment that God is trigger happy, and just waiting to judge the guilty too quickly and too harshly. God does not wear his feelings on his shoulders.
One thing the people of Israel knew how to do, and knew how to do well, was gripe and complain. That is about all they had done for thirty-eight years. Just listen to the record of their wretched whining found just in the book of Numbers:
• “And when the people complained, it displeased the LORD,” Num. 11:1a.
• “And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron: and the whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness,” Num. 14:2!
• “But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of the LORD,” Num. 16:41.
• “And the children of Israel spake unto Moses, saying, Behold, we die, we perish, we all perish,” Num. 17:12.
Up till now Israel had been guilty of speaking against their leaders. In this passage we are told they “spake against God.” Instead of talking about other people, they now turn their anger toward their God.
Can you imagine the audacity and the arrogance it took for these puny humans to speak against God? Before God chose them, and before God saved them by His grace, they were nobodies. They were nothing but common slaves in the land of Egypt. Now, they dare to speak against God.
B. They Rejected God’s Promise – Here is what they said to God, “Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” God had promised the nation of Israel that he would bring them into the Promised Land. They had His word on it. Yet, they looked God straight in the eye and said impudently, arrogantly, blasphemously, “We don’t believe You.” In effect, they called God a liar.
You remember this: every time you doubt the Word of God, you discredit the worth of God. Remember what Paul said? He said, “Let God be true; but every man a liar,” Rom. 3:4.
Just so you know, God holds His Word in high esteem! The Psalmist said this, “I will worship toward thy holy temple, and praise thy name for thy lovingkindness and for thy truth: for thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name,” Psa. 138:2. He expects us to read, honor, obey, and make His Word the standard of our lives.
C. They Rejected God’s Provision – To add insult to injury, they said, “for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.” God provided them with bread every day. When they needed water, He gave it to them. They lied, and they did not appreciate the things they had received from the hand of the Lord.
Two words in this verse are worth noting.
• The word “loatheth,” means “to be disgusted by.” God graciously gave them the Manna from Heaven every day. He used it to keep them fed and healthy. Yet, they looked at God’s gracious provision and they said “that stuff is disgusting.”
• The word “light” means “worthless”. They said that the Manna was “worthless!” Manna was far from worthless. While they were in the wilderness this bread was not only their strength, their sustenance, it was their very salvation. Without it, they would have starved to death! Yet, the one thing that gave them life, they renounced.
D. They Rejected God’s Prophet – Not only did they speak against God, they spoke “against Moses.” If a man rejects God, he’ll reject God’s man. If you fall out with God, you will eventually fall out with the man of God. If you are going to live for God, the world is going to turn on you; people are going to reject you.
If you love Jesus, and you live for Jesus, you will be loathed by the world. The Lord Jesus Himself said, “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you,” John 15:18-19.
Paul adds this truth: “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution,” 2 Tim. 3:12.
So here is a nation for whom God has provided everything necessary for them to be happy, healthy, and holy. What should have been the sweet smell of God’s goodness had turned into a stench in their nostrils. That for which they should have praised Him resulted in them turing their backs on Him. They despised Him for His grace. They hated Him for His generosity. They criticized Him for His guidance.
This is what the lost world does every day. The world, the breathes God’s air, eats His food, drinks His water, and enjoys His world, despises God’s Word, they reject His authority, and they refuse to bow to His will. They shake their puny fists toward Heaven and boast of their sin and voice their defiance of God. Every day, in every way, the lost world proves that they are wicked, depraved sinners, who deserve the judgment that God sends their way, Eph. 2:1-3.
The sin of Israel wasn’t unique to Israel. It happens every day in our world. What makes their sin so bad is the fact that they knew God. They were in a relationship with Him. They had His Word. They had His presence. They had His promises, and had seen Him fulfill those promises time and again. Yet, they turned on Him, and rejected Him out of hand. That is a terrible tragedy, and it happens far too often. But, when it does, there will always be a price to pay.
I. Israel’s Sin
II. V. 6 ISRAEL’S SENTENCE
Because of Israel’s rebellion, God sends judgment upon them in the form of “fiery serpents.”
A. The Serpents Were Deserved – The serpent, as you know, is a symbol of sin. Satan disguised himself as a serpent in the Garden of Eden. Throughout the Bible the serpent is a symbol of sin, evil, rebellion against God. It is fitting that the Lord should send serpents among the people.
Sin is like a serpent. Sin holds tremendous power over us. It is always there, in the depths of our fallen natures, waiting like a cobra to strike us and fill us with its deadly venom. If sin is allowed to sink its fangs in your life, it will coil itself around you until it has choked the life right out of you. It will not stop until it has destroyed you and everything you love.
B. The Serpents Were Dreadful – They are called fiery serpents. I believe they were called fiery because of the intense pain that they could inflict on their victims. These were most likely a type of viper found in the Middle East. The bite of these vipers is said to be immensely painful.
Research on that type of viper reveals the following symptoms from the viper’s bite:
• Injection of venom initiates a fiery pain at the site of the bite.
• Swelling begins right away.
• Discoloration at the sight of the bite varies from white to flaming reds, purples, and dark blues.
• Victims would experience nausea, vomiting, excruciating stomach pains and cramping.
• Victims begin to experience extreme thirst
• The liver and kidneys are damaged from filtering toxins resulting in extreme tenderness in the lower abdominal area, and many times diarrhea sets in.
• Hemorrhaging occurs in the form of nosebleeds, or bleeding from the mouth or the eyes.
• The viper’s venom is a hemotoxin, it destroys blood cells and causing bleeding where capillaries are close to the surface. A person usually bleeds to death internally.
• Quick deaths from a viper’s bite are unusual. Generally the suffering is prolonged for one or two days.
What is the point? The point is, God is trying to teach us here that suffering follows sin just as surely as night follows day. The devil has tried to sell us on the idea that it’s hard to be a Christian. Well Jesus said, “My yoke is easy, and My burden is light,” Matt. 11:30.
Friend, it is not the way of the Christian that is hard. Pro. 13:15 tells us, “The way of the transgressor is hard.” As hard as it is to say, lost sinners get exactly what they deserve from the hand of God, Ill. Psa. 9:17; Matt. 7:21-23; Rev. 20:11-15! So do the saints of God who wander off into sins playground, Rev. 3:19.
C. The Serpents Were Deadly – We are told that “much people of Israel died.” But that’s just like sin isn’t it? Sin thrills, Heb. 11:25b, then sin kills. The Bible says, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die,” Eze. 18:20. It also says, “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death,” James 1:14-15. And, “For the wages of sin is death…,” Rom. 6:23a.
The same serpent that inflicts death is the same serpent that will tell you that God does not punish sin. But, there is still a fiery, fatal, fearful punishment for those who die in their sin.
Now somebody says, “Oh, you’re talking about Hell.” Isn’t it interesting that while the vast majority of Americans no longer believe in hell, and they get upset when a preacher preaches about Hell, everybody talks about hell, and uses it as a byword? I want to make this matter as easy to understand as possible.
The Bible says that sin is a debt, and when a person has a debt, either the debt is paid, or the debtor is punished. Either your sin was paid for by Jesus Christ when He died on the cross, or your sin debt will be punished in the fire of Hell. Defiant sinners always face the judgment of deadly serpents.
There is a real place called Hell and all those who reject Jesus Christ will spend eternity there. 1 Thes. 1:8-9 says, “In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.”
Listen again to verse 6, “And many of the people of Israel died.” Now that’s putting it mildly. People are dropping like flies, an dying all over the camp of Israel.
• Keep in mind that we are talking about two to four million people in a twelve square mile area. Poisonous serpents are biting them, and t hey are getting sick and dying.
• There was no hospital, and even if there had been, it wouldn’t have been big enough to treat all those who were sick.
• There are no doctors, and even if there were, there wouldn’t be enough for all the patients.
• There is no anti-venom and no other medicines, and even if there were, there would not be enough to go around.
• This is a desperate situation. People are dying everywhere and there seems to be no cure available and there is no help in sight.
What a tragic picture this paints of the lost sinner and his fallen condition. Left to himself, the lost sinner is in a hopeless, helpless condition. He cannot change his situation. He cannot save himself from the poison of sin that flows through his veins.
That is why I rejoice in a tremendous thought that presents itself in this passage. Here it is: even though a situation may be desperate, with God it is never hopeless.
I. Israel’s Sin
II. Israel’s Sentence
III. V. 7 ISRAEL’S SORROW
When you have been bitten by a deadly snake, there are only two things you can do: You can sit and die, or you can get up and do something about it. The Israelites chose to do something about the situation. They took three steps that every person has to take if he is going to be cured of the snake bite of sin, and escape the fiery judgment of hell.
A. There Was Conviction – “Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, ‘We have sinned.’” No matter what else you do, until you get to that point in your life where you are willing to say, “I have sinned,” you will never be saved. That is what Jesus meant when He said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day,” John 6:44.
B. There Was Confession – The people went on to say, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you.” True conviction is always followed by full confession. In fact, confession not only follows conviction, but conviction really forces confession. The sinner must get honest about his condition before there can be salvation.
C. There Was Contrition – The people went on to say, “Pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us. So Moses prayed for the people.” The final step is when you realize that your only hope is God. When the sinner comes to see his lost condition, and confesses that need before the Lord, the sinner will be at a place where he will turn to the Lord for the help he needs.
These three steps always work together.
• In conviction you acknowledge you have done wrong to yourself.
• In confession you admit you have done wrong to others.
• In contrition you accept that you have done wrong before God.
• Then and only then is the Lord ready to accomplish His work of salvation in the lost soul.
Every single one of the steps I have mentioned here is the work of God’s grace within the sinner’s heart. The sinner cannot convict himself. The sinner cannot draw himself. The sinner cannot even see his own need until God reveals it to Him for he is “dead in trespasses and sins,” Eph. 2:1.
• It is God Who makes the sinner aware of his lost, sinful condition.
• It is God Who convinces the sinner of his sin.
• It is God Who draws the sinner to Jesus Christ.
• It is God Who gives the sinner the faith to believe the Gospel, Eph. 2:8-9.
• It is God Who saves the soul!
• To put it simply, from beginning to end, “Salvation is of the Lord,” Jonah 2:9.
I. Israel’s Sin
II. Israel’s Sentence
III. Israel’s Sorrow
IV. V. 8-9 ISRAEL’S SALVATION
Incredibly the cure for this serpent problem is not a pill or a potion. The solution is a brass serpent raised up on a pole. There are some precious truths I want you to see in that brass serpent.
A. There Is A Picture Of Guilt – The serpent symbolizes sin. “Brass,” in the Bible, is a symbol of “judgment.” Being lifted up on a pole pictures a curse, for the Bible says, “Cursed is everyone who hangeth upon a tree,” Gal. 3:13.
Now do you see anything strange here? The cure for the serpent problem took the form of what caused the problem to begin with. It was a serpent that bit them, but it was a serpent that healed them!
When Jesus went to the cross, He died to pay for our sins. Jesus had no sin of His Own. He was innocent of all sin, but He took our sins on Himself and died for us, the innocent for the guilty! “For He hath made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him,” 2 Cor. 5:21.
B. There Is The Provision Of God – Who came up with a plan like this in the first place? Verse 8 says, “Then the Lord said to Moses.” The plan of salvation is God’s idea, and God’s idea about salvation has never changed. The way people were saved here in the Old Testament is exactly the way people are saved in the New Testament. And, it’s the way people are still saved today.
In Num. 21, Looking to a substitute provided by God saved them. Looking to a Savior, Jesus Christ, provided by God saves us. The only difference is, in Numbers 21 we see a picture of the Lord Jesus, but in the New Testament we see Him!
C. There Is The Power Of Grace – I want you to see something about this wonderful salvation.
1. It Was Infallible – Everyone who looked, lived. They didn’t just feel better, they got well. In the Old Testament the Bible says, “look and live.” In the New Testament the Bible says, “believe and be saved.” (John 3:16; Acts 16:31)
Looking is to the eye what faith is to the heart. If you looked at that serpent, you were guaranteed to live. If you believe in the Lord Jesus you will be saved. “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord, shall be saved,” Rom. 10:13. Dr. John MacArthur defines faith as simply “exhaling the breath the Holy Spirit provides.” (Ill. Eph. 2:8-9)
2. It Was Individual – Everyone had to look for themselves. Nobody could look for another person. If you were bitten and wanted to be healed, you had to look for yourself. Anybody could be healed, but not everybody was healed, because not everybody looked.
3. It Was Instantaneous – The people who looked at that serpent did not have to wait, pray, or pay for this salvation. The moment you looked was the minute you lived. Salvation is not a process. Salvation is a moment of crisis when you come to see yourself exactly as you are, when you come to see Jesus Christ exactly as He is, when you are brought face to face with Jesus Christ, and you look to Him with the eyes of faith, trusting Him for salvation. At that moment He saves you by the power of His grace.
4. It Was Invaluable – The healing God provided through that serpent was free, readily available, sufficient, and it would work for anyone. And thus it is with Jesus Christ! You can be saved if you want to be! Ill. Rev. 22:17, “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.”
Now there are some lessons we need to glean from this passage about our relationship with the Lord Jesus, and how we are to be saved, and what we ought to do after we’re saved.
• We Must Look To Jesus For Salvation – Think about it. The only condition placed on these people was simply to look. The Israelites could have tried all kind of homemade remedies. They could have bathed their wounds with tears of remorse. They could have put on the ointment of religion. They could have bandaged themselves with good works. You know what would have happened? Those snake bites of sin would have killed them.
Hear me well. The people who died did not die just because they had been bitten. Ultimately, they died because they would not look, v. 8.
Take a moment to go back in your mind top that day and try to imagine the scene.
Here’s a man who has been wonderfully cured by looking at that serpent. He begins to go from tent to tent trying to get other people to look. One man says, “Oh, I’m too sick, I’m too far gone. Not even that raised serpent could heal me.”
He goes to the next tent. He says, “Sir, if you will just look you’ll be saved,” and the man says, “Well, I don’t feel like this snake bite is all that bad. Matter of fact, I haven’t been bitten as bad as some people. I’ve only been bitten once. I know some deacons in the church that have been bitten twice.”
This man goes to the third tent. He says, “Sir, if you’ll just look you’ll be saved.” The man says, “Well, when I get well I’ll look. But I’m just not going to look till I get that healing feeling. But I tell you, when I get my life straightened out, and I get over this snake bite, then I’ll look.”
He goes to a fourth tent, and a man says, “Oh, I don’t believe in that brass serpent theory. I don’t buy into that. I don’t see any relationship or connection between a serpent raised up on a pole and this snake bite that’s killing me. I’m not interested.”
He goes to another tent and he says, “Sir, you’re so sick. If you’ll just look at this serpent you’ll live.” The man said, “You know, I’ve really kind of gotten attached to this snake, or at least he’s gotten attached to me. I kind of hate to give it up. I kind of enjoy it. If I look to that serpent I’ll have to give up this snake, and I believe I’ll just hold on to what I’ve got, and what’s got me.”
Now that all may sound ridiculous to you, but the world is full of people who give those same kind of excuses day in and day out as to why they will not look to the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. The only people die in their sins and go to Hell is because they refuse to look to Jesus for salvation.
- John 8:24, “I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins.”
- John 3:16-18, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”
- John 3:36, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.”
• We Must Lift Up Jesus – To prove my point to you that I made earlier about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, listen to what Jesus Himself said about this story in John 3:14-15, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
If Jesus Christ was lifted up on the cross to pay for our sins, and if He is the only hope we have of salvation, don’t you agree with me that we ought to be lifting up Jesus so that others might hear about Him and be saved?
Let your imagination wander back with me just one last time.
Can you hear the sobbing and the wailing all over the camp?
Every family’s been affected by the bites of those poisonous snakes. Eyes are red with weeping; cheeks are blanched with fear; lotions and potions have been applied; herbs have been compounded; medicines have been drunk; for people are dying by the hundreds and the thousands, and still the people, young and old perish.
Everywhere you look there are funerals and burials.
Then all of a sudden a shout splits the air like a knife going through butter.
“A cure! A cure! A cure!”
People, who had been bitten, people who were dying, are now running in and out from tent to tent, saying, “Look and live! Look and live! Look and live!”
Soon, by the hundreds, and then by the thousands, fevered, pain-wrecked, expiring snake victims, are evacuated from their tents to places where they can simply look and see that brass snake on that high pole, and everywhere instantaneously people are cured, and people are saved.
In one tent a mother is bending over the weak, feverish form of her dying son. She’s just buried his dad, and now she knows she’s about to bury him.
All of a sudden a neighbor rushes in and says, “Your son does not have to die. There is a cure!”
The mother, with wide-eyed awe and amazement, said, “What do I need to do?”
She said, “Pick him up and bring him out. Get him to look at the brass serpent on the pole”
The mother brings him out of the tent, and she says, “Look, there it is!”
She lifts up the head of that little boy. She pries open just one of his eyes and says, “Son, look.”
That little boy looks, and does he see it? Yes, he sees it.
The color comes back into his cheeks. The fever leaves his sweating brow. His headache stops. His limps straighten out. His eyes open. He sits up. He stands up. He leaps, he shouts, he dances, because he’s been totally and wonderfully healed!
Has that ever happened to you? It has happened to me. If it has happened to you, you’ll want it to happen to others. It’s just natural when you look to Jesus; you want to lift up Jesus.
Conc: Where does this sermon find you today? Have you been bitten by the serpent of sin? Can you feel its poison working through your system? Are you aware of the pain and problems sin has caused you? Are you conscious of the fact that you are going to die, and when you do, you are going to Hell? Does that describe you?
If it does, let me tell you that you do not have to die without Jesus. You do not have to live one more minute as a slave to sin and his power. You do not have to go to Hell!
I am here today to invite you to look and live. Look to Jesus and and be free! It is as simple as that, Isa. 45:22; Rom. 10:9, 13. One look saved Israel, and one look will save you too!
If you are saved, are you lifting Him up to those around you? Are you “pulling them out of the fire,” Jude 23? Has The Great Commission, Mark 16:15; Matt. 28:19-20, become The Great Omission? Do you need to ask the Lord to forgive you for not telling the lost about Christ? Do you need to come and pray for lost souls today?
• If you are saved, how long has it been since you bowed at His feet, loved on Him and thanked Him for all He has done for you?
• How long has it been since you lifted your voice to testify of His saving grace?
• How long has it been since you have been overcome and overwhelmed by His power, His love, His grace and His glory?