Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Bronze Serpent

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
(Joh 3:14-15 ESV)

I find myself more and more concerned at all the baggage we in the church tend to shove off on those who want to enter the kingdom of God. I'm equally concerned at the burden we drop on people's shoulders after they have entered the kingdom. Read this, pray that, support this, give that. Not that reading, praying, supporting and giving are bad, but it seems like we make them a requirement of faith in Christ. We take the burden of one law off their shoulders, and exchange it for a new law that we ourselves have created - even with the best intentions.

In his song A New Law from the Mockingbird release, Derek Webb writes the following,

"... what’s the use in trading a law you can never keep for one you can that cannot get you anything..."

It seems to me that we barely give people a chance to breathe the fresh air of freedom and grace in Christ before we contaminate it with more rules and regulations. Then we set these rules and regulations up as the measuring stick for faith and growth in Christ. As I recall, both Jesus (Mt 7:1-2, Lk 6:37) and Paul (Ro 2:1-4) had some interesting things to say about our judging each other. But suppose we were able to make the case for evaluating each others' spiritual status (and I have my doubts even about that), it seems that our religious regulations for reading, praying, supporting and giving are the wrong standard.

Galatians 5:22-23 lists the fruit of the spirit as: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Without some serious reading into the passage, nowhere here is there any reference to regular Bible reading, specific regulations for prayer, agenda supporting or tithing your ten percent. Let me reiterate, those may all be wonderful ways (perhaps with the exception of the agendas) to express our faith. But they are not the only - or even the primary - ways of doing so.

Enough preaching, let's get back to Jesus' remarks about the bronze serpent and what it has to say for those who would enter the kingdom of God (and perhaps for those who are already part of that kingdom).

Jesus is obviously comparing himself to the incident described in Numbers 21:

Then they set out from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to bypass the land of Edom, but the people became impatient because of the journey. The people spoke against God and Moses: "Why have you led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread or water, and we detest this wretched food!" Then the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit them so that many Israelites died. The people then came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you. Intercede with the LORD so that He will take the snakes away from us." And Moses interceded for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, "Make a snake image and mount it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will recover. So Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten, and he looked at the bronze snake, he recovered.
(Num 21:4-9 HCSB)

Now, it seems reasonable to conclude that if Jesus bothered to compare himself to the serpent that was lifted up, then he must have seen some significant parallels. The most obvious is the idea of being "lifted up". Maybe that was all Jesus was referring to, that he would be "lifted up" on the cross for all to see, but I am inclined to think there is more in light of the statement, "that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."

Not only was Jesus "lifted up" in the same way as the bronze snake, but the parallel to Israel's "looking on" the snake is our "believing in" Jesus. According to the Bible, all the Israelite people had to do if bitten by a snake was to look at the bronze serpent on the pole. They did not have to do any repentance (as described by actively "turning away" from their sins), penance, good works or any scripture reading, any reconciliation on their part at all. They simply had to voluntarily look at the snake, a symbol of their sin, recognizing God's provision. In the same way, all we are called to do is "look on" Jesus on the cross (a symbol of our sin - and the sacrifice for it) and recognize/believe/accept that he is God's provision.

I know what you want to say, "What about repentance? What about being saved for good works? What about the life change? What about getting involved in God's work?"

My response to you is... What about them?

All those things are not things that we do "for God." They are things that flow out of the one positive response that we can have toward God: loving trust. Repentance cannot come out of ourselves, at least not the kind preached from so many pulpits. I know. I've tried.

It sounds like such a wonderful idea to "turn" from our sins and back to God. The implication is that somehow, once we've accepted Jesus as the gift of God, we need to get about the business of destroying sin in our lives. I can't speak for everyone else in the world... but I tried that so long that my relationship with God became anchored on my performance in the area of "repentance."

You see, in most protestant churches we've finally gotten it into our heads that faith doesn't come from "good works" - things we "do for" God to earn his favor. But in our inherently religious human nature, we've latched onto a salvation that is maintained by what we "don't do." We've backed it up a step or two and labeled it "sanctification" instead of salvation, but in the end it all works out the same. But our relationship with God - now and in the future - is not grown, improved, hindered or broken by either what we do or don't do. It is based entirely on the finished work of Jesus Christ.

"So what motivation do we have to make God-honoring choices? How do we make sure people are not just doing whatever they want and completely ignoring the responsibility of being a Christian?"

You're missing the point. That's not our job! Let me say it again for emphasis. It is not the responsibility of the church to make sure that people don't sin! Honestly, I'm becoming convinced that it's not even our job to "preach against sin", "call sin what it is", or any of those other trite little phrases that are so common in conservative circles. That is the responsibility of the Holy Spirit. And it's about time we quit trying to do his job. More importantly, we need to stop our attempts to force something that God himself has chosen not to force. Yes, we are to lovingly encourage and exhort each other, but it's high time we stopped beating people up with religion and started lifting them up in encouragement and love.

The only "responsibility" God has placed on us is to look to the risen Jesus for his provision and love just as the Hebrew people looked to the snake in the wilderness. Let's make sure that's the only "responsibility" we lay on anyone else. Or perhaps we could all use a reminder of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35).

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