Nobody enjoys talking about sin. In fact, experts would probably say that if you want to grow a church, you should probably not talk about sin. It makes people uncomfortable. The problem is that the Bible talks a lot about sin and if we remove sin from the equation, the message of the Bible will be distorted.
I’m not here to point fingers at specific groups or certain kinds of people. I would like to begin by confessing that I’m a sinner and I always have been. I have shared stories about my late teens and early twenties and my excessive drinking. But that was not the beginning. Although most adults who met me as a child thought I was a well-behaved boy, I had my dark side. Once when I was about the age of my children now, I gave three chocolate laxatives to another child at school. I was not ignorant of the results of such an action, I did it in full knowledge. And that is only an example of one of my deeds where I was caught.
You make believe or at least hope that now that I’m a pastor, my sinning days are far beyond me. Although it has been twenty-five years since I have been drunk and I don’t make it a habit of handing out laxatives, I am not sin-free. I have been known to say harsh things that I regret. I have had my moments of jealousy and envy. And if you think those are not a big deal, those sins are placed side-by-side with what we would call the serious sins in the Bible. Remember that Jesus said looking at a person with lust is like adultery and being angry toward a person is like murder.
What about you? How aware are you of your own sinfulness? Do you carry a burden of regrets? Do you sometimes feel like you don’t measure up? Do you sometimes doubt that God could love you? We all have sin in our lives. The Bible says that if we say that we have no sin, we are lying. And that just adds one more sin to the list.
This sounds like all bad news but the Bible says that there is hope. We are going to look at an Old Testament story and then look at how that points us toward the hope we have in Jesus Christ.
We have looked at the stories of the Passover and the Day of Atonement, events that many Christians with some knowledge of the Bible may be familiar with. The story we are looking at today is much less familiar but is just as powerful.
The basic context is that Moses had led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. While the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land is not that long, because of their unfaithfulness, the Hebrews were forced to wander in the wilderness for forty years. God continually provided for the people, with both food and water, but they were never content. Imagine giving your child a brand new Toyota and having them complain because it wasn’t a Lexus. That was the sort of attitude of the Hebrews. They knew how to push God’s buttons and they experienced his anger. We may prefer God’s love to his wrath, but that doesn’t mean that his wrath doesn’t exist.
The people were punished for their sin by being attacked by poisonous snakes. Did this mean that the Hebrews had gone too far and that God was going to wipe them out? Not at all. Sin was being punished but God was also going to provide a way of salvation. God had Moses create a bronze snake and place it on a pole. When the people looked up at the snake, they were healed.
This is the truth I want you to hear clearly. While God could have done anything to heal the people, he chose to use an image of what was killing them as the means by which he would save them. They were dying from snakes but they were being healed by a snake as well. We need to hold onto this thought as we move into what Jesus did for us.
Jesus Becoming Sin
It is a basic belief of Christianity that Jesus came to save us from our sin. But just because the bronze snake saved the people and Jesus saves, is not enough to connect the two. We need something stronger.
In the Gospels, Jesus said this, “As for me, if I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) What does that mean? Lifting up could mean anything. It could mean people lifting up Jesus, the way a cheering crowd lifts up their favourite sports hero. It could mean being lifted up in the sense of being place on a high throne above everyone else. It could mean that, but it doesn’t. Jesus makes this comment during a discussion about his impending crucifixion. The way that Jesus would be lifted up was by being nailed to a cross. The Romans designed crucifixion in a way that it would be visible to as many people as possible. There were quicker and easier ways to execute people but crucifixion was meant to communicate a clear warning to Rome’s enemies. However, Jesus turns this all around. Being lifted up on the cross would not be Jesus’ defeat but rather the means that he would draw all people to himself. As the ancient Hebrews were saved by looking at the snake on the pole, so can we be saved by looking to Jesus on the cross.
But there is more. Remember that it wasn’t just a pole that brought healing to the Hebrews, it was a snake on a pole. Salvation came in the form of that which was killing them.
It is sin that kills us. I don’t mean sins, in the sense of individual acts of disobedience, but sin as our natural bent to go in the opposite direction from God. How does the bronze snake inform our understanding of the cross?
We read this passage, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Jesus never sinned but he came in the form of sinful flesh. The hope of Easter is that Jesus became like us so that we can become like him. When Jesus was crucified, it was not just man on the cross, it was sin on the cross. Jesus appeared in the form of sin to save us from sin.
We can look back at the story of the bronze serpent and think, what a strange story. But when we look carefully, we can see that the bronze snake story points us to the cross and how sin was crucified so that we could be saved from sin.
The biggest obstacle for me in my quest for a holy life is the temptation of things not being a big deal. What’s the harm of a little bit of gossip? What’s the harm of a little bit of envy? I’m okay as long as I don’t do anything that will send me to jail or to lose my job. But then I look at Jesus. Sin was such a serious problem that God sent him who had no sin to be sin for us. I have looked up at Jesus on the cross and I have been saved from my sins. But being saved from sin doesn’t mean I can take sin lightly. It means I have to take it seriously. Not out of fear of hell or wrath but out of love for what was done to conquer sin.
Imagine if we really understood what God did to save us from our sins. Imagine if the seriousness of sin was made real in our hearts. Imagine if we were so overcome with love and gratitude for what God had done for us that a godly life was our only desire. It doesn’t have to be just imagination.