Love is our law, and any law which would prevent our ministry of love is a snake we drive out with the Gospel of God who is love.
Numbers 21:4-9 From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 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 we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
So far we’ve spent the first three weeks of Lent with Christ in the wilderness during his temptations. But now we’re going to join Moses and the Hebrews in the wilderness as they wandered somewhere between Egypt and the Promised Land.
Now this story about the Hebrews wandering the desert for 40 years was very, very important to the Apostles who were evangelizing the world and writing the New Testament. Because they understood themselves to also be in a similar period of wandering in the wilderness. Like Moses, Jesus had accomplished a Passover and an exodus for them, and they were awaiting its consummation, their promised land.
This wilderness period for Moses and the Hebrews was a period of hardship and trials, that culminated in rebellion and war. In the end, Moses himself would never cross the Jordan into the Promised land, but his successor Joshua would.
Similarly, the wilderness period for the Apostles and the Christians was a period of hardships and trials, that culminated in rebellion and war. None of the Apostles but John lived through the war which their prophecies had said would mark the consummation of their Lord’s kingdom.
It evident that the Apostles saw their own time foreshadowed by the wilderness period of Moses, and Paul provides our best examples. In 2 Thess. 2, he explains that the Day of the Lord was at hand, but not until the rebellion came. He elaborates on this rebellion in Hebrews 4, speaking it in terms of the rebellion in the days of Moses in the wilderness. As for the rebels in Moses’ time, God said, “I swore in my wrath, they shall never enter my rest” — so Paul says, make sure you don’t take part in the rebellion to come in our time, or you’ll miss your chance too – because our rest is at hand.
Now if you can believe it, the idea of rest is intimately connected with the stinging serpents. And I’ll explain how. Now, where does a Christian find rest? In Jesus. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Well, rest from what exactly? From a wearying burden. What burden? The burden of the yoke of the Law. Jesus continues: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” So the yoke of the Law wearies and burdens, but Christ’s yoke gives rest to a person’s soul. “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The was burdensome because it “increased sin” (Rom. 5:20.) But “the law made nothing perfect” (Heb 7:19). Paul says, “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.” (Rom. 7:9). Once more, Paul puts it plainly: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” (1 Cor 15:56)
The sting of death – makes you think of a serpent, doesn’t it? The serpent became for the 1st century Christians a symbol for the law, because for them, they were enduring the sting of death, sin, empowered by the Law which accused them. Remember that illustration of a serpent nailed to the cross? That wasn’t so much a symbol of the Devil nailed to the cross, but of the Law of Moses.
Jesus put it this way to the Pharisees: “Don’t think that I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set.” The Christians, on the other hand, set their hopes on Christ – and yet the Pharisees, who sat in Moses’ seat, were their accusers, persecuting them, arresting them, beating them, stoning them, sentencing them to death, for the sake of the Law.
You can see then, why the first Christians, as they endured these stings, kept their eyes on the Cross, upon which they said “the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; has been taken away [by God], nailing it to the cross.” (Col 2:14). They kept their eyes on the cross, and kept the faith, just as the Hebrews kept their eyes on the serpent on the pole in the wilderness. So you can see how this image of the law nailed to the cross, the serpent on the cross, and the bronze serpent on the pole in Numbers are all the same image.
Now as a side note, it shouldn’t ever be misconstrued that this connection between the serpent and the law of Moses means that Moses was the devil, or worse that his God was the devil! That was the misunderstanding and heresy of the Gnostics, who jumped to all sorts of conclusions based on these nuanced Christian symbols, and it’s the continued mistake of antisemites and antichristians who perpetuate this lie that the Old Testament God was the devil – be on your lookout for those kinds of false teachings!
But what was the real spirit of this teaching, and how does it make a difference in your life?
Well, the spirit of the teaching was about freedom. In Hebrews, Paul says that the hope of Israel was the promise of Sabbath rest – not just the day of rest prescribed by the Law, which was an earthly imitation of the heavenly rest which God had taken on the seventh day of creation. Paul says that Israel didn’t get any rest in the desert, but they didn’t get it from Joshua either – when they entered the Promised Land, otherwise David wouldn’t have prophesized centuries later that there was a sabbath to come for the people of God.
But, Paul says that “we who believe have entered into that rest.” Rest from what? Works of the Law. This is what Christ did for his people, when he was lifted onto the cross and “became a curse” for them. “All who rely on the works of the Law are under a curse” and “Christ redeemed all those under the Law by becoming a curse for us.”
In the days of Moses, Israel was under the curse of the Law for 40 years as they wandered in the desert, until they came to the Promised Land. In the days following Jesus’ ascension to heaven, the people of God were under the curse of the law for another 40 years, until it was completely taken away. The Romans surrounded Jerusalem, like Jesus and the Prophets said they would – and the city and the Temple were destroyed. The Levitical priesthood was taken away, and with it, the Law that it ministered. Paul says this: “the people received the law under this priesthood,” but “when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.” And the change in the priesthood is to that of Jesus, not after the order of Levites anymore, but of Melchizedek. Paul goes on, “there is on the one hand the abrogation of an earlier commandment because it was weak and ineffectual, becaues the Law made nothing perfect. But on the other hand, there is the introduction of a better hope…Jesus has obtained a more excellent ministry because he is the mediator of a better covenant…God found fault with [the old Law] [and said], Behold the days are coming when I will establish a New Covenant, not like the covenant I made with their ancestors…in speaking of new covenant, [God] has made the first one obsolete, and what is obsolete is growing old and will soon disappear.” Paul wrote these words less than 10 years before the entire Levitical priesthood was wiped out in A.D. 70, and the Law with it, fulfilling his words.
This is the Finished work of Christ! Your new covenant is in effect. The old has passed away – all things are new! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Paul said, if you try to keep the Law, you’re obligated to the whole thing, and Christ is no effect for you, because you are spurning the Spirit of Grace. He says, don’t let anyone disqualify you, about food or drinks, food or festivals, about which months, weeks, or days are holier than the other – God has made all things clean in Christ. Worship with a clean conscience. Don’t disqualify other folks for being hung up on those things. But don’t let them disqualify you, either.
This is what it means to drive out the snakes. Like St. Patrick. We can’t not mention St. Patrick this week! When St. Patrick brought the law of Christ to Ireland, there weren’t real snakes. There were the kind of snakes that we discussed earlier – there was a law that empowered sin, and that sin was the sin of death. Every nation and every culture has its own laws, its own purity codes, explicit or implicit. It doesn’t matter what the civil law alone says – the culture has its purity codes, its anointed, or self-anointed priesthood. In Patrick’s day, it was the Druids, who taught what was clean and unclean for a person, who belonged in, and who was to be cast out. In our day, we have similar priesthoods, self-anointed people defining for us who belongs in, and who is to be cast out. Canceled!
We are called to drive out the snakes! And how do we do that? By lifting up the snake on the cross. These purity codes, these ritual laws that empower the sting of death, sin, they’re nailed to the cross. Look at them in the light of the cross, of the truth of the cross. The serpent on the pole is the Gospel itself – we are saved by looking at this man Jesus, our Lord, the Son of God — really just 3 and a half years of this man’s life — in whom the whole mystery of God was fulfilled. This is how we’re saved. By hearing this story about Jesus, which shows us the truth about the snakes on the cross, and saves us. We’re saved by looking, by hearing, by understanding. By tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.
These snakes, these laws about who’s in and who’s out, who’s clean and who’s unclean, they’re against the spirit and the law of Christ. Rom. 14: “I am convinced and fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean…Do not allow what you consider good, then, to be spoken of as evil…let us pursue what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”
So we don’t go around pressing the advantage of our freedom against people whose faith is weaker than ours, who can’t accept grace and don’t believe in it to the degree that we do. But neither do we let a brother or sister’s weak faith get the best of them – love compels us. And just like we don’t want our faith in grace to cause them to stumble, we also don’t want their lack of faith in grace to cause others to stumble! Some people don’t believe in the finished work of Christ. Some because they haven’t heard. Others because they’ve been misinformed – they know about Christ’s work, just not that it’s finished. Little lines in the Bible they just missed, “we who believe have already entered into that rest” — they just missed it, and are still waiting for that Sabbath rest from works of the Law.
So we drive out the snakes by lifting up the snake on the pole, the cross of Christ. We lift up the gospel and proclaim it anew. “Let us pursue what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” We let love be our law. We let our hearts be tender as we reason together, to come to a fuller understanding of God’s will for us in the light of his love for us revealed in Christ Jesus.
Paul said in 2. Cor 3, that in his day while the Temple still stood, a veil remains when the old covenant is read, when Moses is read. But to anyone who turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. How much more so now that the Temple, its priesthood, and its Law was taken away — the snakes were day driven out. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into His image with intensifying glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
He wasn’t just talking about the freedom to worship with a face unveiled by the kind of masks our purity laws today tell us to wear everywhere, but the kind of freedom that led our Lord to host suppers in the homes of lepers, and to intentionally minister reconciliation to those who had been cast out, canceled by their society in accordance with purity laws. Criminals, lawbreakers in thought, word, and deed – no one was out of the reach of the Lord, nor should they be for us. “Let us pursue what leads to peace and to mutual edification,” that is, building up, the building up of this Temple of the Holy Spirit, the fellowship of believers.
Love is our law, and any law which would prevent our ministry of love is a snake we drive out with the Gospel of God who is love.
And the lesson from Numbers is, we may not drive out all the snakes. But we have the promise that when they bite us, we will not die. If the sting of death, sin, should temporarily overcome us, God has overcome sin. He will not hide himself from us, nor will we be hidden from Him, as it was in the Garden when Adam and Eve first sinned and died to His presence. His presence is with us, His tabernacle is with man, forever, as He has promised in the New Covenant.
“Let God be true and every man a liar.” We may not be able to drive out all the snakes, but they will not destroy us. Let us be edified by our faith in Christ, and may our faith be fortified by our love.