The Israelites stepped up their complaining. Previously, they had just moaned about God’s representative, Moses, and God hadn’t appreciated that. This time they also ‘spoke against God’ (v.5). They were even ungrateful for the manna that was sustaining them in the desert, without which they would all be dead: ‘And we detest this miserable food!” (v.5).This wasn’t going to end well and ‘the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died’ (v.6).
God hates ingratitude so we need to make sure the first thing on our agenda each morning is to praise and be grateful to him. It’s interesting that God was using his created fauna, this time snakes, to plague the Israelites. He used a menagerie of frogs, flies, gnats and locusts against the Egyptians. The snake was an interesting choice, The last time we heard about the serpent was when Satan deceived Eve in the guise of a snake and it was then cursed to crawl on its belly. God has rehabilitated these reptiles to do his work for him.
The Israelites again asked Moses to rescue them / interceding through prayer to God. They just wanted the snakes to go but God didn’t make it that easy for them or they would soon forget the lesson. When they were bitten, they actually had to do something. They had to go and look at a bronze snake on a pole – then they would live, There is often a debate in Christianity whether we are saved through faith or works of a combination of both. Here, an Israelite is cured if they go and look at the snake. It doesn’t say they have to believe this will happen or to have faith in God. However, all the Israelites were operating at a much higher level of faith then our society does. They saw miracles on a daily basis – being led by the cloud descending or ascending from the tabernacle. They knew God existed, that he could prevent them from dying from snakebite and that Moses relayed his instructions faithfully. However, they were still saved by works – in that they had to go and find wherever the snake was in camp and look at it. We are saved by faith (belief) and baptism. However, faith and believe are still ‘works” as we have to choose to do them. We aren’t passively saved, we have to choose to accept God’s gracious and priceless gift of salvation. We have to work to be baptized – finding a minister to do it, going to church, agreeing to climb into the water. We work in a partnership with God for our salvation. God does all the supernatural heavy lifting of course. He is only too pleased to do the majority of the work for us if make a tiny effort. However, the fact remains is that we do have to make a conscious effort to accept God’s freely offered gift of salvation.
Making a bronze snake on a pole is highly unusual because it could easily become an idol that is worshipped instead of God. By the time Hezekiah become king of Judah, the Israelites have named the bronze snake and are burning incense to it. However, the snake on the pole represents Jesus on the cross, ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15).’ The serpent in Eden was punished by God for its transgressions. Jesus on the cross, took on our transgressions and punishment, so that if we turn to him we can live.
Hezekiah (2 Kings 4) broke the bronze serpent into pieces as the Israelite were worshipping it, instead of God. It should have been broken up and destroyed as soon as the venomous snakes had gone – if they ever did – but by now the Israelites were starting to collect a a large collection of holy objects – from the ark, altar and lampstand to the stone tablets, jar of manna and Aaron’s staff. They just added the bronze snake to the collection.
The Israelites politely asked Sihon, King of the Amorites, if they could pass through his country. He refused and attacked them. Israel killed him and took over a large number of settlements. Sihon probably mistrusted the Israelites and thought that they would have stripped the resources from his country. However, it would have been a lot better to trust in their word and take a risk rather challenging more than half a million fighting men. This victory allowed the Israelites to settle in the area and God assured them that they could also defeat Og, King of Bashan, and his whole army. They take possession of his land too. Things are going well for the Israelites – as long at they always trust in God to fight for them.
The Israelites settled across from Jericho and Balak, the King of Moab, realised that they are so many of them that he will require supernatural assistance to defeat them. He hired a professional ‘prophet’ called Balaam to curse the Israelites ‘For I know that those you bless are blessed and those you curse are cursed’, (Numbers 22:6). Even though Balaam charges a fee for his services, which religious people are not allowed to do ‘freely you have received, freely you give’ (Matthew 10:8), he did seem to have some sort of relationship with God. He was confident that the Lord would give him an answer during the night and, indeed, God did come to him and asked ‘Who are these men with you? (Numbers 22:9). It’s fascinating that a professional gentile prophet is making a living amongst a pagan population and regularly communicates with God. However, Balaam is condemned in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:15) as no-one should curse people professionally for money. As God knows everything, he already knew who Balaam’s visitors were and so he must have been testing Balaam with the question to check his honesty and motives. God instructed Balaam that he must not put a curse on the Israelites – as they are blessed and that he must not go back with the Moabite delegation. Balaam obeyed completely. However, the king does not take ‘no’ for an answer and sent even more distinguished visitors with the promise of a higher fee. This time, God permitted Balaam to go with the Moabites but to ‘do only what I tell you (22:20).
This shows we should continuously ask God for guidance as he may change his advice when circumstances change.
After a night praying to God, Jesus called all his followers and chose twelve to be apostles. The list is in order of importance with Simon (now called Peter) at the start and Judas Iscariot at the end. The Holy Spirit must have advised Jesus to make this selection. Judas had been working devoutly to be elevated from a disciple to ‘an apostle’ and would have healed people and delivered them. The Holy Spirit knew what traitorous decisions he would make in the future but still included him because God turns all bad things to good for those who love him.
Power came from Jesus and healed all the people who come to see him. All those troubled by evil spirits were cured. Jesus gave a list of ‘blessings and woes’ which are similar to the beatitudes in Matthew 5 but seem a bit more physical. In Luke, Jesus says ‘blessed are you who are poor’ (v.20) ‘ but Matthew says ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit‘ (Matthew 5:3). Luke says ‘blessed are those who hunger‘ (v.21) but Matthew has ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness‘ (Matthew 5:6).
‘Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment (1 Timothy 6:17). Prosperity pastors point out that people such as Abraham, Joseph, David and Solomon were rich and still enjoyed favour with God. However, we are commanded to ‘do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share’ (1 Timothy 6:18). The poor are often relatively more generous than the well-off and shame us by giving more generously than we do, like the widow in the temple (Mark 12:41-44). Luke 6:24-36 clearly implies that those who are rich, well fed, laugh and well regarded in this life will not have such a great reward in heaven as those who were poor, hungry and wept. It’s warning to the majority of us who sit in warm houses with plenty of food in the fridge. while other people in the world are starving. We should be grateful to God for all he richly provides for us but we should share. This reading encourages us to love more and give more generously. Obviously, we can’t give richly to the poor unless we are blessed by God with resources in the first place. God does not forsake the righteous and richly provides for us in order that they can be generous (Psalm 37:25-26). Even when we live in a nice house, with food for dinner we can still ‘hunger’. Many celebrities find that their lives are still missing something despite wealth, comfort, shallow laughter and the adoration of their fans. We can decide that our comfortable and cossetted life doesn’t satisfy us and it’s only by looking to Jesus and asking him to come into our life that we can be satisfied.
Our house and bank balance will just be left to others when we die. We possess nothing for eternity other than our relationship with God.
Jesus’ next radical teaching is that we should love our enemies and show mercy to all. It is such a blessing to forgive people who have wronged us rather than carry around hate, bitterness and unforgiveness, which will harm our relationship with God. Lack of forgiveness can also harm us both physically and spiritually. I spoke to a friend this week who said she used to suffer with constant throat problems and painful tonsillitis. When she went for prayer, the pastor told her, through a word of knowledge, that she needed to forgive a certain person. She thought she had forgiven them in her mind, but the pastor advised her to ‘say it out loud’ as Satan needed to hear it too. As soon as she forgave a certain person out loud, she felt something shift from her throat. her medical problems instantly cleared up and she never suffered again. Forgiveness is a decision and one we need to make as soon as possible after an issue, rather than letting unforgiveness fester in our hearts turning them hard and giving certain spirits a legal right to take up residence within us.
If we are ‘righteous’ our children will not have to beg for bread (v.25). We can give generously (v.21) and utter wisdom (v.30). If the Lord blesses us, we will inherit the land (v.22) and the Lord will uphold us with his hand (v.24).
If we turn from evil and do good, we will not be forsaken as God loves the just and faithful (27-28). We will be protected for ever (v.28).
Picture: Jules & Jenny from Lincoln, UK, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons