We Have Sinned

It was just another day in the wilderness, or so it seemed. Journeying from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea seemed to be taking longer than it should. Maybe the people were dragging their feet. Maybe the herds were moving slower than usual. Maybe it was the endless hot days and high temperatures, or the never-ending dust, whipped-up by howling desert winds. But "the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way." (Numbers 21:4)

Eventually, they could no longer hold in their frustration. "And the people spoke against God and against Moses: 'Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread." (Numbers 21:5)

This was not the first time the children of Israel had sinned, nor would it be the last. Usually, Israel would be told whenever they had stepped out of line. They would then be informed as to what consequences or punishment would follow. However, on this occasion there is no record of a prior announcement or warning given by either Moses or Aaron; the Scripture simply records, "So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died." (Numbers 21:6) No doubt, a calamity of significant proportion because many people had died and were dying, as a result of being bitten.

At this point in the record the children of Israel display a distinctively spiritual trait, which is most significant and very encouraging.

Their response is even more significant when comparing it with contemporary responses to a catastrophe or human tragedy. Modern-day commentators would endeavour to find a rational explanation as to why so many people were dying of snake bites.

Our experts would reason, "the high incidence of snakes could be accounted for by the unusually warm season", or "the victims were in a remote region, and it was impossible to transport the vaccine in the required time", or that "medical science is working on a vaccine, but does not anticipate one being available on the shelves for another ten, maybe twenty years".

Others would protest that it could not possibly be an act of God, because God is a God of love. While others would simply recommend that Israel move on to a more suitable location, where there were no snakes. All these are considered acceptable in our day.

Yet, the children of Israel responded differently, and with a spiritual sensitivity typical of a people who are walking with the Lord. The people went to Moses, and confessed, "'We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD that he take away the serpents from us.' So Moses prayed for the people." (Numbers 21:7)

The people of Israel linked the appearance of the poisonous snakes directly to their rebellious behaviour. Receiving the event as a sign from their Heavenly Father, they viewed the poisonous snakes as chastisement. They had sinned and their Heavenly Father was calling them to return and be restored into fellowship with Him. And Israel wanted to return!

Oh, that the nations would consider their circumstances with the same integrity and courage.

Where on earth is there a people who would respond to any catastrophe or disaster in the same way? What nation would receive a natural disaster or a catastrophe as signs from the Almighty, and conclude that they needed to repent? Where is there a people with such spiritual sensitivity that they would respond, "We have sinned."? What nation would openly declare, "We have spoken against the Lord."? What nation could?

Indeed, who is like Israel, the people of the Lord, who have repeatedly shown the way by returning to Him. And what nation has taken upon itself to be the custodian of His commandments, that they might walk in them and live by them?

What nation is willing to follow Israel's example? Would that all nations follow Israel's example!

It is common for the children of Israel to receive heavy criticism because of their disobedience during the wilderness years, yet it is Israel who should be commended and congratulated for their exemplary behaviour in returning to the Lord. It is a lesson for any generation.

"Then the LORD said to Moses, 'Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.' So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived." (Numbers 21:8-9)

The cure for the poison was not a medical prescription, but obedience and faith. Anyone and all who had been bitten were required to look at the bronze serpent, which Moses had made according to the Lord's instruction. Though the nearness of death would compel a victim to seek any remedy for healing, the only cure was to obey and believe—look at the serpent on the pole. No potions or payments were required by the victim, only faith in Him who commanded the construction of the bronze serpent. Belief in the one true God, the Creator of Heaven and earth, and obedience to the Heavenly Father's commandment would bring complete recovery to one who was bitten. The lesson confirmed for every generation is that the commandments of God are trustworthy for life, in all circumstances, even when one is dying.

The events surrounding the bronze serpent incident are also lessons for all future generations. Consider, the phrase "the soul of the people" in verses 4 and 5. And again, where the children of Israel are specifically referred to as "the people" (seven times, including once as "the people of Israel" ), an indication that perhaps a greater picture was in view, one which includes future generations of the people of Israel.

In their journey to the Promised Land, the children of Israel were required to make a detour round the land of Edom. It was this detour that seemed to be taking an extended period of time, so much so, that "the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way." This could easily be a description of the people of Israel in the centuries of dispersion where, while waiting for the fulfilment of the promised return to the land of their forefathers, many have been discouraged by the pain and suffering which they have endured over the passage of time.

The wilderness generation complained that, "there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread." (v:5). This complaint also has a striking repetition in the spiritual experience of future generations, and in particular, those who have been scattered among the nations. During this time, spiritual nourishment has been scarce—like a dry and howling wilderness.

The hungry and thirsty soul has lacked the richness and fruitfulness of the Promised Land. Flowing with milk and honey, the Land was a well-spring of life and prosperity for the people of God. Like a Garden of Eden, the Land promised to break forth for an obedient holy nation. Driven from the Promised Land, however, the people of Israel would languish, as though living in a desolate place. Living under pagan rule, the people of Israel were compelled to adapt to foreign cultures.

Despite being the people of God, they were mocked and abused. The host nations even defiled the Law of God and His commandments. In a strange land, the Word of God became as "worthless bread" and the soul of the people longed to return home.

Significantly, the Messiah pointed to this incident while in discussion with Nicodemus, a man of the Pharisees, and a teacher of Israel. "No one has ascended into heaven but he who came down from heaven, that is, the son of man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:13-15)

The phrase "no one has ascended into heaven . . . " is a description of the walk of the righteous, which can be likened to a spiritual ascent, a going-up by way of steps. The Master is stating that there is none who have been sufficiently righteous or good enough to ascend into the Heaven of heavens. Whilst, it is not for the lack of endeavour or zeal, yet there is none who has accomplished such a high and holy calling. Therefore, God in His mercy has sent the Son of Man from Heaven to earth. " . . . he who came down from heaven . . . " .

Since the Son of Man is the only one who has been in Heaven and who has come down to earth, He is at once both the Heavenly and earthly man, and therefore, the only one who is holy and acceptable to God. The only way for the righteous to be fully accepted by the Holy One is through His righteous one, the Son of Man, who is the Messiah, even Yeshua. "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up . . . "

Since no one can ascend into Heaven by their own merits they must look to the Messiah, God's representative; the Son of Man who has come from Heaven. Like the serpent in the wilderness the son of man has been lifted up so " . . . that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:15).

Every person who obeyed the command of the Lord in the wilderness, looked to the bronze serpent and lived. In the same way, all who act on the command of the Lord to believe in Yeshua the Messiah will live, eternally.

The wilderness generation, in the days of the bronze serpent incident, suffered the consequences of their sin. Anyone who was bitten and did not look at the serpent on the pole eventually died. The lesson is that the consequence of sin is like being bitten by a poisonous snake. Without remedy, the sinner will eventually face the final judgement and death penalty (being separated from God for ever). However, this death can be avoided if the sinner is obedient to God and believes in the Messiah, the Son of Man who has been lifted up—crucified on the cross. And just as every one who looked at the serpent in the wilderness avoided death, so too, those who believe in the Messiah will avoid the final judgement and receive eternal life.

"And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Yeshua the Messiah whom you have sent." (John 17:3) Yeshua speaking with His Heavenly Father, in prayer.

May there be many in these days who believe in Messiah Yeshua and receive eternal life.