Reading 1 - Num 21
Jesus expressly connects this parabolic event of the brazen serpent (Num 21) with his own death:
"Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:14-16).
In making comparison between those former Israelites and those to whom he was then speaking, Jesus was plainly intending to stress two points of resemblance:
The first -- between the "snake-bitten" then and the "sin-bitten" now -- is easy to grasp because we remember the role played by the serpent in the garden. Because sin entered into the world through the first couple's acceptance of his suggestion, the serpent became the fitting symbol of sin. He was in fact the true Bible "devil" (Rev 20:2): the teller of lies and the deceiver of men. By extension, then, the Bible "devil" now dwells in each of us because we bear the condemned nature of Adam, a nature susceptible to the rebellious thinking first seen in the serpent.
So, Jesus says, this generation is dying because it is bitten by "sin". He scarcely needed to say that every generation since Adam has met or will meet the same fate. We are born of the flesh, "born in sin", and dying just as surely as the Israelites fell in the wilderness -- unless a divine miracle brings us back to life.
Thus the way is prepared for the second intended comparison: between the serpent lifted up on the pole and Christ "lifted up" on the cross. The serpent was the symbol of sin, and therefore the serpent on the pole was the symbol of sin conquered. When Jesus spoke of himself being "lifted up", he unquestionably meant his own crucifixion (John 12:32,33). His crucifixion was to be the defeat of sin.
This of course implies that in some sense "sin" was attached to Jesus. But we err if we call him a "sinner":
"He committed no sin" (1Pe 2:22).
"He has been tempted in every way, just as we are -- yet was without sin" (Heb 4:15).
"Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?" (John 8:46).
How then did Jesus the sinless man partake of "sin"? How could he -- with any reasonableness -- be symbolized by a serpent? Paul gives the answer:
"For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin. And so he condemned sin in the flesh" (Rom 8:3).
Jesus was associated with sin because he possessed "sinful flesh": a nature susceptible to sin. The death of Jesus accomplished in full what the setting up of the brass serpent had done in part. It condemned sin, or the serpent, in human flesh; it destroyed it; and it provided a focus for the faith of those who needed forgiveness and deliverance from their sins.
No individual Israelite in that day was able completely to destroy (by his own will and strength) the "serpent" or "devil" ("diabolos") in his bosom. And neither can we! But one special member of the human race, with a nature just like theirs (and ours), totally subdued the evil desires of the flesh in himself, and finally took that serpent-nature that inevitably tended to sin and impaled it -- lifeless and powerless -- upon a tree. What a wonderful picture of our redemption is that serpent of brass!
Reading 2 - Pro 15:1
"A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Pro 15:1).
"We have read many times that 'A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger.' We know that the proverb is true. We may desire that wrath should be turned away, the stirring up of anger may be the last thing in the world that we should want, yet when the occasion comes how many of us can find the soft, healing words? How many can resist the temptation to use grievous words if we chance to think of something which we consider apt and telling, and which in any case gives relief to the feeling of the moment?" (Islip Collyer, "Principles and Proverbs").
What dangerous fires of hatred are kindled by words spoken in haste! That's why taking time to think about what we should say is so important. Restraint can bring peace to many an ugly situation, as is illustrated by this story: An old Englishman was greatly loved because of his positive influence. One day an angry young man who had just been badly insulted came to see him. As he explained the situation, he said he was on his way to demand an apology from the one who had wronged him. "My dear boy," the elderly man said, "take a word of advice from an old man who loves peace. An insult is like mud; it will brush off better when it is dry. Wait a little, till he and you are both cool, and the problem will be easily solved. If you go now, you will only quarrel." The young man heeded the wise advice, and soon he was able to go to the other person and resolve the issue.
How often the tongue pours fuel on a fire that would go out if left alone! "Do not be rash with your mouth... let your words be few" (Ecc 5:2). Perhaps you have a problem with someone and have decided to "tell him off." Why not wait? It's easier to brush off mud when it's dry. And pray for the one who offended you. It may dry the mud a little faster.
Reading 3 - Eph 1:7
"In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace" (Eph 1:7).
The simple truth of the transaction of redemption is contained in the key passages that equate redemption with the forgiveness of sins (Eph 1:7; Col 1:14). What has been forgiven cannot also be paid for. The sacrifice of Christ, the culmination of a life of perfect obedience and dedication, was the price paid for our salvation. That is to say, it was necessary that Christ give himself as a suitable basis for the declaring of God's righteousness in offering mercy to sinners. But God's offer requires a corresponding "payment" on the part of those who would accept it. Since they are to be redeemed out of death, they must repudiate that which brought death, which is the world and sin (Rom 6:1-7, for example). They must live sober and godly lives, repudiating all iniquity, as a special people belonging exclusively to God (Tit 2:14).