The following is an excerpt from The Better Covenant, by Ron Bailey (available on Amazon). I found this very moving and wanted to share it with A Mending Feast readers.
Here’s the passage (which will take up this complete blog entry):
For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (Jn. 3.16 NKJV).
This is probably the best loved text in the Bible but even the best texts can become dangerous if detached from their context. For example, this single verse speaks of “believing,” but the kind of believing that it has in mind can only be discovered by reading the preceding verses. “Believing” here does not mean agreeing with facts as is usually the case in contemporary counselling patterns. The kind of believing that John has in mind is the kind experienced by people in a unique situation.
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 everlasting life (Jn. 3.14,15 NKJV).
In other words, the kind of believing John has in mind is the kind found in Numbers 21.
The nation of Israel had sinned and the consequence of their sin was a plague of fiery venomous snakes. The context is so important that I will give the whole section here.
And Jehovah sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, because we have spoken against Jehovah, and against thee; pray unto Jehovah that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And Jehovah said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a standard: and it shall come to pass that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and set in upon the standard. And it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived (Num. 21.6-9 ASV).
These people are not just sick or inconvenienced, they are dying and they know it. They also know why they are dying. “We have sinned.” Conviction of sin is a work of God’s Spirit. They had not been persuaded of the facts of the case by an evangelist; they knew it. In fact, they took the initiative, they came to Moses. This is much more like New Testament evangelism where the appeal comes from the congregation rather than the preacher. They are desperate in their plea; this sounds much more like those old “after meetings” too.
They are also narrowed down to a single solution. “Pray unto Jehovah that he take away the serpents from us.” They know that there are not various options but only one possible solution: God must intervene. This is also much more like those old “after meetings.” They are seeking a salvation that only God can provide. If God does not move on their behalf they are dead men. Currently their focus is on the snakes: “Take away the serpents from us.” That must change.
Moses does as they ask and God commands him to make a fiery snake of brass and to erect it on a standard/pole. There is to be only one brass snake and it must be “lifted up” on a standard so that it was in sight of everyone who had been bitten. What a vivid picture this represents. I have a beautiful colour print by Harold Copping in an old Bible. I can’t look at it without weeping but let me see if I can describe it to you.
The tents of Israel spread out into the hazy distance. The scene is chaotic, people rushing out of their tents, some running, some standing. As in any panic it is difficult to make out quite what is happening. Or it would be if it were not for a tent in the foreground that is much closer and has its own tragedy unfolding. In the doorway of the tent there is a young man face down in the sand; a snake is wriggling over his arm and on its way to the next victim. There is an old man in the doorway with white hair and beard, his attention is not on any of the chaos around him but is fixed on the horizon where a man holds a wooden stake with a single crosspiece; it has a brass snake coiled around it.
There are others in the doorway of the tent; a man and his wife are frantically trying to rouse a young man who looks to be the brother of the snake’s earlier victim. The mother is cradling her teenage son in her arms, his eyes are closed; her face is pale with grief. The father is fear crazed; his eyes show white as he tries desperately to rouse his young son from his coma. His face strains to see any signs of life in his son, and his left hand points backwards to the horizon where the brass snake coils around the stake. There are no words, but I know what he is saying: “Look and live… look and live.”
Young’s Literal Translation does well to catch the sense of the verbs. “And Moses maketh a serpent of brass, and setteth it on the ensign, and it hath been, if the serpent hath bitten any man, and he hath looked expectingly unto the serpent of brass—he hath lived” (Num. 21.9 YLT). A paraphrase might say, “Any man looking away from everything else and putting his whole trust in the snake on the pole lived.” This is not just a wonderful story, this is a definition of believing as used by John in John 3.16. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that any man, looking away from everything else and putting his trust in a Man upon a cross should not perish but have everlasting life. This is John’s desperate cry to all who have been bitten, and that is the whole race: “Look and live… look and live.”
It is delivered to men and women who know that we have sinned and that there is no other remedy unless God takes away the snakes. I said earlier that men’s focus must not remain upon their own condition or even its cause: not the bite and not the poison eating its way through their lives, but upon the one “lifted up.”
That’s the passage from The Better Covenant by Ron Bailey. Isn’t that rich? I’ll just leave it there. Next time, hopefully, I’ll give a few of my own thoughts on it.