Numbers 21: Anyone bitten by a snake who then looked at the copper snake lived.
Have you ever been snake bit? I am very happy to report that I am not in that number. Two groups of people have great snake stories: missionaries and plumbers. Missionaries have them because of their journeys and plumbers have them because they crawl under houses in places where snakes like to live. I seriously doubt that either group says that encountering snakes is a highlight of their profession. In this Scripture passage the people anger God by being irritable in spite of his many blessings on them. In his anger, he sends poisonous snakes that bite people: a death sentence. Now, there are all kinds of concerns here about our Heavenly Father doing this, and, while I think it’s worthy of consideration, something bigger comes to mind. You see, spiritually speaking I have been snake bit. The result is that I’ve been poisoned by sin and the result of that poison is death. The remedy for the ancient Israelites is the bronze snake on a pole. When they look up they find healing — wholeness. My hope is found when I look to another “pole” — that is, the cross of Jesus. In him I find, not death, but life.
Take Away: Look up to the cross – and live!
There’s sin and then there’s Sin with a capital “S”
Numbers 15: The person…who sins defiantly, deliberately blaspheming God, must be cut off from his people.
This chapter of the book of Numbers returns to the subject of the resolution of sin. Sometimes, we’re told, people blunder into sin and don’t even know they’ve done wrong. In fact, the whole nation can mess up like that. Once the failure’s realized, they’re to confess it and then take steps to repair the crack in their relationship with God. As we’ve seen before that involves the death of a scarified animal and the application of its innocent blood. However, the Law clearly distinguishes between sins of error and intentional sin. Animal sacrifices offer no hope to someone who “deliberately despised God’s word” and “violated God’s command.” Such a person is no longer numbered among God’s people. This passage goes on to give an example of such intentional failure. In this case, the penalty is death. It’s easy to see that the Old Testament Law distinguishes between mistakes and intentional failure. Both are called “sin” but one is a hundred times more serious than the other. Sin with a lower case “s” receives an automatic portion of grace as one realizes the failure and moves to make things right. Sin with a capital “S” brings death. Now, having said all that, I’m glad the story doesn’t end here. Due to the fact that human beings are sinners by nature we’re all guilty of death dealing sin. We should all be taken out of the camp and executed for our intentional spiritual failure. Thankfully, in Jesus Christ there’s hope even here. Because of Jesus, Paul writes, we’re “not under law but under grace.” He also says, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” What a wonderful difference the Son of God makes, dealing not only with sin but also with Sin with a capitol “S.”
Take Away: We’re recipients of grace and its grace that we need.
Exodus 12: God’s entire army left Egypt.
Four hundred and thirty years earlier sixty-six descendants of Abraham left Canaan and relocated to Egypt. Now, Pharaoh not only “allows” them to leave, he insists on it and 600,000 people begin the Exodus. Even as they gather their belongs in preparation to depart, the Lord tells them that they’re to commemorate this event each year. Even before the Ten Commandments are given the Passover is initiated and this event and all that is associated with it will define this people forever. In the centuries to come when times are especially difficult they’ll look back to this night and be reminded that God delivered them; that they are his very own; and that the Lord is always faithful. My story isn’t all that interesting but it’s as important to me. The day came when the Lord delivered me from the bondage of sin. He called me his very own and he promised to be faithful to me. Even as the Israelites remembered and in times of trouble found encouragement in their Exodus, so do I look back and remember; and in remembering, I’m encouraged in my spiritual journey.
Take Away: What’s the story of your Exodus?
Cooperating with God
Exodus 12: The Israelites then went and did what God had commanded Moses and Aaron. They did it all.
Emancipation day is coming. After generations of slavery God is about to keep his promise to “rescue and redeem” them from the bondage of Egypt. The deciding event will be one of fearsome judgment. Death is coming. However, death will not visit every home in the land. The Israelites must to follow explicit instructions if they’re to escape the terrible events of that night. A lamb is to be slaughtered, cooked, and eaten. Some of the blood, mixed with hyssop is to be smeared on the door posts of their homes. As a result, the death angel will “pass over” their dwellings. They listen and obey – “they did it all.” In so doing they become a part on their own deliverance. Most of what needs to be done is accomplished by the Lord but they must cooperate by taking this action. Well, you know where this is going by now. God has acted to deliver me from slavery to freedom. He has done the vast majority of what must be done. Still, he has instructions for me to follow. I must respond by cooperating with the Almighty if his perfect will is to be accomplished in my life.
Take Away: How can I best cooperate with God today?
God is all about results
Exodus 6: I will rescue you…I will redeem you…I’ll be a God to you.
After centuries of slavery and under increasing oppression the descents of Abraham are ready for some action from God. Their hope is likely quite modest. Maybe the Lord’s going to engineer a little bit less of a workload from their Egyptian taskmasters for them, or maybe there’ll be an improvement in living conditions. The thing is that they have the attention of the Almighty now and he has his own agenda that includes such big ticket items as “rescue,” “redemption,” and making them “his very own.” When God delivers people he does it in a big way. This is no patch up job so that they can somehow hobble on. Big things, things they can’t even imagine, are going to happen. That’s how it is when he saves us. I come to him, lost in my sins. My prayer is a modest one, like: “Lord, I just want to feel better” or “Just help me make it through this situation and I’ll be okay.” He says, “I will rescue you…I will redeem you…I’ll be a God to you.” The result is more wonderful than I ever imagined.
Take Away: When the Lord does something there are no half-measures about it.
Fighting the right battle
Genesis 6: Noah did everything God commanded him to do.
We Christians sometimes rush out to fight the wrong battles. When I read the story of Noah and the flood I’m not supposed to come away with a scientific understanding of how the flood happened. I’m not supposed to whip out my calculator and try to figure out how many animals and provisions the ark would carry or study geology to prove there was really such a flood. Instead, I’m to see that God has a plan to redeem humanity and that he’ll go to whatever extreme is necessary to get that done. I’m also to appreciate Noah’s obedience in spite of the seeming unreasonableness of his task and his being alone in accomplishing it. Now, that isn’t to say this event is to be filed under the heading of “parable.” Just the details of the construction of the ark and the clear references to locale mark this as a historical event. The take away, though, isn’t my charging off to prove the story is true or sharpening my debate skills so I can conquer the “unbelievers” with stories of gopher wood on Mount Ararat. Instead, I’m to see God at work, redeeming humanity. I’m to be impressed at what the Lord can do with just one obedient person and be challenged to obedience in areas of my life that are beyond my understanding. Rather than fighting battles on the scientific front, a wiser use of my energy is to deal with the eternal spiritual issues of this event.
Take away: It’s easy to get caught up in battles and miss the main points.
Those mysterious sons of God
Genesis 6: The sons of God noticed that the daughters of men were beautiful.
What’s going on here? Who on earth (or beyond this earth) are these sons of God? Do we have some angels coming to earth and being attracted to our women? Now that would make for some juicy sermon material! Alas, I don’t think it will work. We don’t find any evidence in the Bible of angels being called “sons of God.” Still, the writer of Genesis says that the result of the union of these mysterious sons of God and the daughters of men is a race of giants: big, aggressive, and conquering. I think the best way to work on this passage is to read it backwards. That is, the result of all this is that God concludes that “human evil is out of control.” The rebellion that started with Adam and Eve has gotten progressively worse to the point that humanity is focused on evil all the time. A branch of the human race has sprung up that threatens God’s plan to redeem human beings. The part about sons of God is how the writer introduces this accelerating fall of humanity. Now, having put it into perspective, the identity of these sons of God isn’t quite as important as it was. It’s just the set up describing why God is about to take drastic action against humanity. It may be that the writer is simply giving us a poetic view of how a race of “mighty men” who have no fear of God came dominate the earth. I do have a theory that I’ll share with you, but its pure speculation. I think the sons of God are the descendants of Seth. It’s through him that the Son of God will trace his lineage. It’s Seth’s offspring who are listed as living those extremely long lives in the previous chapter. I also think the “daughters of men” are the offspring of Cain. That murderer was driven out and is no longer counted as one of God’s people. Just because Cain and his descendants are considered to be outsiders doesn’t mean they fade to nothing. In fact, it’s just the opposite. They’re building cities, developing the arts, and bringing the world into the Bronze Age. You might say that humanity has forked into two distinct groups: those who worship God (sons of God) and those who advance humanity apart from God. When the God-worshipers start intermarrying with these humanists the Lord decides he must act aggressively to save humanity. At least that’s my take on it all.
Take away: God will act aggressively to redeem humanity…that’s true in broad terms, but also at the personal level as well.
He died before his time
Genesis 5: Adam lived a total of 930 years. And he died.
I’ve heard that the very long lives of people mentioned in the first pages of Genesis are the result of someone’s counting the seasons as years or something like that. While I have no authority to say it, I’ll say it anyway: I think that’s silly. Based on the Creation story, I think the Lord designed human beings to live forever. It’s their disobedience that brings death into the world. In fact, this very moment the only man already possessing a resurrection body is still alive 2000 years down the road. He’s physically at the right hand of his Father right now. Sin short-circuited the “forever aspect” of human life and it’s Jesus who redeems, not just the souls of people, but our bodies as well. At this point, Jesus is the only man to experience the redeemed body, but judging from his post-resurrection appearances the new body is a fascinating mix of familiar (eating) and unfamiliar (appearing and disappearing). Now, back to Adam. I think his extremely long life is a residue of his original design. If you think about it, his body was designed for eternity and he “only” lived 930 years. Soon, God will move to further limit life spans, not once, but twice. The original limitation, though, is the big one. Because of sin, life expectancy is throttled back from forever to under 1000 years. For a creature intended to live forever that’s like dying in infancy.
Take away: Jesus redeems us entirely, body and spirit.
Victory in Jesus
1John 2: He solved the sin problem for good.
An old preacher’s line is when asked the topic of his or her sermon is to reply “I’ve decided to preach about sin…I’m going to take a stand against it.” In this passage we find John doing just that. He tells his readers that he’s writing “to guide you out of sin.” Then, if a believer falls back into sin, he points us to the remedy, our “Priest-Friend” Jesus. Beyond that, as I consider the broader problem of sin, I’m told that Jesus has already dealt with sin at that level too. Sin, which breaks our relationship with our Heavenly Father, has been decisively dealt with through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. “He solved the sin problem for good.” When sin is an issue in my life there’s a remedy and his name is Jesus. From this passage I learn, then, that Christians can live in victory over intentional spiritual failure. I learn that if that failure comes anyway that Christ’s victory can yet be mine. I learn that, even as I’m dismayed by rampant, destructive sin in the world that there’s hope, a way out through the Lord. Because of him I’m set free from the domination of sin. That opens the way to abundant life. For every person who struggles with some old sinful habit; for everyone who sometimes feels the tug of some especially powerful temptation; for everyone who wants to live freely in Christ – for everyone – this is a wonderful, hope-filled Word from the Lord.
Take Away: At the cross Jesus defeated sin and death once and for all.
Acts 22: I paid a huge sum for my citizenship. How much did it cost you?
The captain isn’t having a good day. He’s arrested a man thinking he’s caught an Egyptian troublemaker but now realizes he has the wrong man. He then lets the man address the crowd, and to his surprise he addresses them in Hebrew. In a few minutes, there’s another riot and the man has to be rescued again. At this point the captain has had enough; he’ll beat the facts out of the fellow and be done with it. Then, as soldiers prepare to do the flogging the man informs them that he’s a Roman citizen. To be guilty of detaining and torturing a Roman citizen could be disastrous to his career. Additionally, the captain takes Roman citizenship quite seriously because obtaining his own citizenship had been an expensive process. Now, he’s come within a few minutes of jeopardizing his career because of this mysterious man. He asks Paul how he obtained his Roman citizenship and Paul responds that he was born free. Commentators aren’t sure how it is that Paul’s a Roman citizen but the best idea is that his home town, Tarsus, has been declared “free” by Caesar. Such a town is bound to allegiance to Rome, but its citizens are unfettered by the heavy hand of Rome. These people have the rights of a Roman citizen. The captain’s impressed that Paul was born with a privilege that has cost him dearly. For my part, I’m somewhere between the captain and Paul. I wasn’t born free. Rather, I was born a slave to sin and the price for my freedom was far beyond anything I could pay. However, the price was paid, in fact, had already been paid 2000 years earlier. My freedom was obtained at great cost. How much did it cost me? Nothing; but it cost Jesus everything.
Take Away: I’ve been set free a great price: the blood of Jesus.