4 Lent, March 11
The people had food, but they deemed it miserable. Rejecting what fell from heaven, they complained of having “no food and no water” (Num. 21:5). They spoke against God and against Moses. Given the context, judgment is inevitable; but as happens so often in Bible stories, the judgment is strange. “The Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died” (Num. 21:6). “Death has passed [pertransit] though every human being, because all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12). Sin infects like a poison, and opens a wound that will not close, an issue of blood no doctor can heal. “Whether it be recognized or no,” says Karl Barth, “there runs through the story the line of death” (The Epistle to the Romans, p. 172).
An incarnational optimism may give a counter voice, but it cannot overrule the obvious reach of sin and death. Sin is not merely a transgression, but the biting and destructive consequence that follows. It is a vicious form of self-destruction that both Augustine and Luther aptly describe with the Latin tag incurvatus in se: turned in upon or against oneself. God sent the serpents, but in a sense they are the direct result of sin and embody the misery of self-inflicted wounds. Thus we live as exiles in a barren land subject to biting beasts. It is not a beautiful picture, but it is the newspaper. It is every scandal, every fall. The Old Adam is on earth doing his work marvelously.
“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (Eph. 2:1-2). The passions of the flesh, disordered as they are, lead one by one to the gates of death (Ps. 107:18). But there is a way out, a rescue operation, the work of God in Christ. God has “made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5). That is, God “has raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). We do not go to the throne of grace; we are already there. We do not stand near Jesus; we are “in Christ Jesus.” The life of Christ is imputed to us as pure gift. “By grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:5). “This is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). It is accepted through faith, to be sure, but faith is always “through him” (John 3:17).
Jesus is the bronze serpent. Looking to him, we believe; and believing, we concentrate our gaze. Christ awakes a deep and personal trust that leads to eternal life (John 3:15). While faith leads one to heavenly places, it also plants each person in the soil of daily life, in all the works for which we have been created in Christ (Eph. 2:6).
Jesus is our way of life; he is what it means to be true (Eph. 2:10; John 3:21). Just as we live with him in heaven even now, we live upon the earth. We live with the one who has overcome the world, the one who will not leave us comfortless. And yet in the world we find tribulation.
We are saved in Christ Jesus. In him, we have everything. And yet we still wait. We wait for “the immeasurable riches of his grace” (Eph. 2:7). We wait for the good works to which we are called. We wait for his coming again. We wait because there is no end to grace upon grace.
Look It Up
Read Numbers 21:9.
Think About It
Look at Jesus.