God brought the Israelites out of Egypt. He provided them with food and water in the desert. They owed their very lives to him, and yet “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 loathe this worthless food’” (verse 5). Although the Israelites had been given freedom and safety, they complained against God. Therefore God sent snakes to them, and when they were bitten, they died.
There was nothing the Israelites could do about the snakes. They had no defense, no protection. Their only chance was God – the same God they had spoken against, who had sent these snakes in the first place. But when they prayed, confessing their sins and asking for help, God had compassion on his people. He provided for them a way out. “So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” (verse 9). Through a snake, God provided protection from the snakes. He gave his people the gift of life that they could not have achieved on their own.
So it is with us. Like the Israelites, we have been given many good gifts from God. And like the Israelites, we often scorn these gifts, complaining that we want more. We rebel against God. This can take many forms: perhaps we disrespect our parents or cheat on our taxes or look at pornography. Whatever form our rebellion takes, God sees it, and he creates situations which will bring us back to him. It’s those moments when we fear for our life the most that we realize what we have done and return to the Lord our God. It’s those moments that remind us that we need help, and there is one place alone to get it.
When we turn to God, he points us towards the gift he gave us in Jesus Christ. The Israelites were saved from snakes through a snake lifted up; we were saved from death through death lifted up on a cross. We have the gift of life because he died in our place. When we are bitten by our metaphorical snakes – when we turn away from God and his gifts – we can look at Jesus and live.