Look and live

Numbers 21:4-9

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And 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.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 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.

One night, a religious leader by the name of Nicodemus came to see Jesus. He chose to come to Jesus at night because he did not want to be seen by other Jews. Nicodemus had heard enough about Jesus to know that there was something different about Jesus. He had seen what Jesus can do. He saw how Jesus opened the eyes of the blind, made the lame walk, healed a leper, and he was convinced that Jesus must be a teacher from God, for no one can performed those signs unless God was with him. So let’s give Nicodemus some credit. He might be afraid of what other religious leaders think but at least he was willing to accept that God must be with Jesus. Nicodemus referred to Jesus as “a teacher came from God.” Jesus smiled. Jesus was certainly a teacher but he was so much more than just a teacher. So they began to converse. Jesus told Nicodemus that in order for him to enter the kingdom of God, in order for him to have eternal life, he must be born again. To which Nicodemus replied, “Born again? How is that even possible? How can anyone re-enter their mother’s womb and be born again when he is old? It is impossible. Even if it is possible, it would be extremely weird.” Can you imagine re-entering your mother’s womb? However, Jesus was not talking about physical re-birth but spiritual re-birth. Jesus was saying, “Listen Nicodemus. In order for you to enter the kingdom of God, God needs to make you a brand new creation. God must do a supernatural work in your inner being that make you a brand new person. God must make you born again. That is the only way to enter the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus asked, “How can it be? How can I enter the kingdom of God?” This is the question that Nicodemus asked before he disappeared from the story. The next time we see Nicodemus was at Jesus’ burial.

But let me throw to you the same question that Nicodemus asked to Jesus. How can you enter the kingdom of God? If you were to die tonight, how can you be sure that you will spent eternity in Heaven? Let me tell you John’s answer. This is the most popular verse in the whole Bible. John 3:16 – For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. The answer is really simple. All you have to do to enter the kingdom of God and have eternal life is to believe in Jesus. That’s it. It does not matter who you are. You can be the nicest person in the world or you can be a serial killer. You can be rich or you can be poor. You can be Asian or you can be Australian. You can be good looking or not so good looking. You can graduate from Sydney University with Suma Cum Laude or you can graduate from high school by the grace of God and your teachers. The only requirement for you to enter the kingdom of God is to believe in Jesus. The question for us is, what does it mean for us to believe in Jesus? I’m glad you asked. Go back two verses before verse 16 and Jesus will give us some context on what does it mean to believe in him. John 3:14-15 – 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. What is happening? Jesus is using the story from Numbers 21 to make his point. So let’s look at what happened in Numbers 21 and see what it means to believe in Jesus.

Let me set the stage in order for us to understand the story in Numbers 21. Think about what the Israelites had witnessed with their own eyes so far. They saw the 10 plagues happened. They saw God sent hail, darkness and ultimately how God killed every first-born son in Egypt but spared the Israelites through the blood of the lamb in their doorpost. If that’s not enough, they saw the Red Sea split into two and they walked on dry ground. Once they got to the other side, the Red Sea returned to normal and swallowed the Egyptian army. That must be one heck of a sight. But three days later, they had no water to drink and they grumbled against Moses. And God turned bitter water into sweet water. Then few days later they were hungry and they grumbled again against Moses. “Are you trying to starve us to death Moses? Oh how much better was Egypt. We used to have fish and chips to eat for free. But now we do not have anything to eat.” And God graciously sent them quail in the evening and bread of heaven in the morning. You would think that was more than enough for them to trust God.

A great tragedy happened in Numbers 14. Before they were about to enter the Promised Land, Moses sent 12 spies into Canaan to gather information on the condition of the land and the people in it. So, the twelve spies went into Canaan. In Canaan, they saw a beautiful fruitful land flowing with milk and honey. But they also saw giants inhabited the land. When the spies returned, they reported what they saw back to Moses. The land was indeed very beautiful but it was filled with giants. Caleb and Joshua were ready for a fight. But the other 10 spies refused to trust God. They refused to obey God. The rest of the Israelites were on their side. Israel refused to enter the Promised Land and they even wanted to stone Joshua and Caleb to death. God was angry. “After everything I have done, after all the works they saw I have performed, after all the grace and mercy I poured out on them, how can these people still not trust in me?” The LORD had enough and he wanted to destroy all of Israel but Moses begged God to forgive Israel for God’s own name’s sake. “God, if you kill all of them, what would other nations think of you?” So, God spared their lives but he promised that none of them would enter the Promised Land, except Joshua and Caleb. And because of it, Israel had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, until the whole generation of Israelites who did not trust God died and a new generation was ready to enter the Promised Land. And in Numbers 21, the 40 years wait was almost over. Israel once again found themselves at the brink of entering the Promised Land. And in those 40 years of wandering, Israel never lack anything. God provided for all of their needs. God took care of them and paid attention to every little details, including their shoes. The Bible told us that their shoes were never ripped. They wore the same shoes for 40 years of wandering in the dessert. And at the beginning of Numbers 21, Israel defeated one of their enemies and marched their way to Canaan. They were ready to finally take hold of God’s promise for them. Then something happened.

Numbers 21:4-6 – From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And 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.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.

When I was young, I was a very picky eater. I complained about food all the time. “What? This food again? I don’t like it. I don’t want it. This food sucks.” And my grandma would put chilli on my mouth. Parents would do that to their children. That’s how they rolled back in the days. I did not have ‘naughty corner’ back then. I had ‘naughty belt.’ Kapoow! Anyone been there? But here is the thing. No parents would kill their children for complaining about food. “What? You don’t like the food that I cook for you? Don’t you know I spent hours cooking that? You ungrateful child. I’m going to put poison on your food. DIE!” No parents would do that. At first reading, what God did to the Israelites seems to be overkill. The Israelites complained about their food and God killed them. But if you read carefully, then you would realise that this is a lot more than simply a boy who did not like the food that his mom made for him.

The first thing that we are told is that the Israelites became impatient on the way. Remember that they have wandered for almost 40 years. And now they are on the brink of entering the Promised Land. They just experienced a great victory on their way to fulfil God’s promise for them. But then God told them to set out by the way to the Red Sea and to go around the land of Edom. If you look at the map at the back of your Bible, then you would realize something strange. Rather than going straight from Mount Hor to Canaan, they actually have to take a detour, which lead them further away from Canaan. After 40 years of waiting, they have to take another detour because God does not want them to touch the land of Edom. The people are furious. They become impatient. You and I know how it feels to be on detour right? You had a plan. You had a vision. You had a dream. And it seemed like the fulfilment of that dream was just right in front of your eyes. When suddenly life hits and you find yourself further and further away from your dream. What do you do? You become impatient. “God, why? I almost have it. Why detour? What’s wrong God?”

And in their frustration, the Israelites blame God and Moses. They say, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water…” Pause. What is happening here? They accuse God of delivering them out of Egypt, only to kill them in the wilderness. For 40 years, God has graciously provided for all of their needs. When they were hungry, God sent bread from heaven to feed them. When they wanted meat, God sent them quail. When they were thirsty, God made water came out of rock. God made sure that they lacked nothing and now they are accusing God of wanting to kill them in the wilderness. They are basically saying to God, “God, I cannot trust you. Despite everything that you have done for me, despite providing me with all of my needs, I still can’t trust you. You are not a good God. You are just playing around with my life and you will kill me at the end.” And then they went on to say, We loathe this worthless food.” This worthless food is referring to manna. So they look at the bread of heaven and they say, “I hate this food.” We need to understand that this is not simply complaining about food. Israel looks at all the gifts of God and they said that it is all useless. They hate the gifts of God. And hating the gifts of God is the same as hating God. You and I know that there is a big difference between what you feel when you receive a so-so gift from the one you love and receiving an awesome gift from your enemy.

Let me illustrate it for you. Let’s say that it is my birthday. And let’s say that I really wanted a brand new MAC laptop for my birthday and I made sure everyone around me knew exactly what I wanted for my birthday. A week before my birthday, I posted a picture on Instagram with the top 5 things I wanted for my birthday listed. And let’s say that I’m married. This is just an illustration. I can do whatever I want with my illustration. Mrs. Yo-yo saw my post on Instagram and knew exactly what I wanted for my birthday gift. So, on my birthday, Mrs. Yo-yo gives me her gift and she is very excited for me to open her gift. I am excited as well because the gift has the rectangular shape of a laptop. I open the gift, expecting to receive a brand new MAC book pro. And to my surprise, she gives me a brand new MAC book case. Not the laptop, just the case. She says, “I believe God will give you the laptop so I got you the case.” I smile, thank her and I thought to myself, “This is what I get for marrying a woman of faith.” Even though it is not something that I wanted, I still appreciate it because it is a gift from my wife whom I love. But let’s say that soon after that, a post man shows up in my front door, delivering a gift for me. And it has a rectangular shape of a laptop as well. I open the gift and it is a brand new MAC book. My prayer is answered. I am very happy and excited. Then I see a birthday card and I open it to see the name of the person who loves me enough to buy me this gift. When I see the card, my eyes become big. This gift is from my ex-girlfriend who cheated on me and trampled on my heart. She writes, “I saw your post on Instagram and I thought I’ll get you what you want to make up for what I did to you in the past. Enjoy.” She follows me on Instagram. I do not follow her back. True story. But then, Mrs. Yo-yo asks me a question. “Which one makes you happier? The laptop case from your wife whom you love or the laptop from your ex that you used to despise?” Guys, if you are married, please get the answer right. Knowing the right answer could be the difference between heaven on earth and hell on earth. But we know that who gave the gift matter. I am a lot happier with $10 gift from someone I love than $100 gift from someone I do not like.

In hating God’s gift, Israel does not only hate the gift but also the Giver. They are rejecting God. And this is not a small matter. This is massive. Their rejection of God’s gift shows us what is really happening inside of them. It reveals their true condition. And the word that Bible use for it is sin. Sin is so much more than breaking the laws of God. Sin is the rejection of God. And the root of all sin is unbelief in the goodness of God. It is believing that God does not want what is best for us and he is withholding what is good from us. Think back to the story of Adam and Eve. God told them that they can eat all the fruits they wanted except for one. There was only one thing that they could not do – do not eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. They lived in a world of million yes and one no. But the serpent tricked them into believing that God was withholding something good from them. That God was not good. That God did not love them. So they trusted the serpent and they sinned. Sin is the fruit of unbelief toward the goodness of God. Lets bring this idea closer to us. Do you know why you sin? Every time you sin, you believe the lies of the devil that God is withholding something good from you. That God does not want you to be happy. God is stingy. Therefore it is up to you to pursue your own good. You sin because you believe it makes you happy. You lie because you believe lying will gives you a greater comfort than telling the truth. You sleep with someone who is not your spouse because you believe its what satisfy your sex appetite. You sin because you believe you will be happier. No one sin out of duty. Here is another thing about sin. Whatever it is that you pursue, when you get it, it will not satisfy you. Sin makes you think that nothing is ever good enough. You can have the perfect job, perfect spouse, perfect family, and you can even live in the Garden of Eden and you are still unhappy. It is because your dissatisfaction is a result of sin inside of you. Israel’s hatred for God’s gift shows the true sinful nature of their heart. So God sent fiery serpents to bite them and many of them died.

Numbers 21:7 – 7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

Here we find the people of Israel acknowledges their sin. But do you realize how they come to acknowledge their sin? It is through God’s punishment. It is the serpent and the venom that wake them up to the reality of their sin. Don’t miss it. A lot of time, we are never willing to admit that there is something wrong with us until something comes to hit us and wake us up to our need to go and see the doctor. I see this happening again and again. In fact, I know a lot of people who refuse to go see a doctor and have medical check-up because they do not want to find out if there is something wrong with them. People love to live in ignorance of their true condition.

One of the best example is what happen with the Germans after World War 2. Do you know that there were days that world was very optimistic about human nature? There were times that people used to think that all they need to be good people is good education and environment. Do you know what change that? World War. After World War 2, people started to realize that the problem with human nature is much deeper. They asked the question, “How can anyone be so evil? How can the Germans killed more than 6 million Jews in concentration camps?” And the answer was not because the Germans were monsters. It was not because they were more evil than the rest of the world. People began to realize that every human has the potential to become monsters given the right conditions. They basically agree with what the Bible teaches about human nature. That monster is called sin. But here is what is interesting. After WW2, many Germans were interviewed in regard to the holocaust. Did they really were not aware of what was happening? Here is their answer: “I knew but I did not know.” Do you know what they were saying? They knew what was happening but it was better for them if they did not know so they closed their eyes to it. It took the World War and the German to be defeated for them to wake up to the reality of their sin.

When the Israelites wake up to the reality of their sin, they acknowledge their sin. No blame shifting. They own their sin. They do not say, “God, this is an overkill. This is not right.” But they say, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against Moses.” Nothing can awaken us to the destructive power of sin like a fiery serpent. For some of you, I can talk on and on about sin and its destructive nature but nothing can drive you to repent from your sins like experiencing the consequences of sins. But here is what we must understand. The purpose of God in sending us trouble is not to destroy us but to bring us to himself. The fiery serpent is designed to wake us up from our sins and run to the only one who can save us.

Numbers 21:8-9 – And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 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.

This is a very strange cure. Just think about it. It was snake that bit them and caused all these troubles. And now God says that the cure is for Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten and look at the serpent on a pole will live. This is weird. Some people who were bitten might choose not to look. Why? Because it is foolishness. Why would anyone look at the symbol of what caused them death to find life? But the fact that God chooses to put a snake on a pole is not an accident. Snake is the symbol of the power of Egypt that the Israelites were eager to go back to. Snake is also what caused deaths among them. Snake also represents Satan. When Satan tricked Adam and Eve, he took the form of a serpent. With another word, snake is the symbol of sin. So now God tells the Israelites to look at the symbol of sin on a pole and they will live. Let me make it clear. It is not the bronze serpent that saves them. It is trusting the LORD who provides the mean for them to be saved. God is simply saying, “Look and live. Trust me and you will be cured. I am the only one who can heal you. I am the one. So look to me and you will live.”

Don’t miss the great paradox of this story. The symbol of death is transformed into the source of life. And all you have to do to live is to look. That’s it. You don’t have to offer special sacrifice. You don’t have to make promises that you will be good. You don’t have to do anything but to lift up your head and look. And anyone can look. The oldest, youngest, smartest, dumbest, weakest, strongest, richest, poorest, tallest, shortest, all can look. All receives life the same way. Look at the serpent on the pole and you will live. It is only a look but it’s a very important look. Whether you live or die is determined by whether you look or not. Look and live.

How does this story apply to us?

First, recognize that all of us are sinners. We have to wake up to the reality that we have a monster inside of us. We talked about David last week and how he committed adultery and murder. And he was a man after God’s own heart. If David can fall that far, what makes you think that you and I are not capable of the same things? And David’s fall began with a single glance. A glance. Sin always started small. That’s the devastating power of sin. Do not play around with sin. Sin is not your pet. Sin is a predator. You might think that you have in under control for now but it won’t be long before it will bite you and kill you. The reality is, all of us have been bitten by the serpent. All of us have disease that we cannot cure. We are dying and we are on our way to eternal death. And nothing in this world can cure us from this disease. Let me put it bluntly. Obeying the Bible cannot save us from this disease. No amount of good deeds can heal us. No religion can save us from the venom of the serpent. The problem with us is not that we need behaviour modifications. The problem with us is that we have a monster lurking inside of us.

Second, recognize God’s provision. Remember the strange solution: a bronze serpent on a pole. The serpent is what killed them and in order for them to live they need to look at an image of the very thing that killed them. Don’t miss it. The mean that God chooses to rescue the people from his curse is the picture of the curse itself. Now, remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus. John 3:14-15 – 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. What Jesus was saying to Nicodemus is, “Remember how God saved your ancestor from the fiery serpent? They had to look at the bronze serpent in a pole. Nicodemus that is how you can enter the kingdom of God. That is how you can be cured from your disease. That is the picture of what I am going to do.” What happened to Jesus? Jesus was put on a pole and he was lifted up. This is the picture of the cross. And when Jesus was lifted up on the cross, what hanged on that cross was not just Jesus but sin. 2 Corinthians 5:21 – For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Paul is extremely clear. At the cross, Jesus not only endure the punishment of sin but he became sin. He became our monster and he was crucified for it. Jesus absorbed the wrath of God toward sin at the cross so that he might offer forgiveness for us.

Do you know that there is no such thing as free forgiveness? For every wrong doing, someone must pay. When someone robs us of an opportunity, happiness, reputation, or takes away something that we’ll never get back, it creates a sense of debt. Once you sense that debt, you have two choices: demand a payment or pay the debt yourself. But someone must pay. Let me give you example. Few years ago, when we still had RYI at UTS, I did something terrible. I could not remember the exact detail, but it was during the pack up after the service, I was walking and I accidentally bumped into a guitar and it fell. At first, I thought it was my guitar. I was horrified. But when I looked at it, I realised it was not my guitar. It was Kimmy’s brand new guitar. I was even more horrified. Now, there are two things that could happen in this story. One, Kimmy demanded a payment from me. It was her brand new guitar and I damaged it. It was only right for her to ask me to take responsibility. Or two, Kimmy decided to let me off the hook. Those were her options. Which one did she choose? And this is her words: “Because you are my pastor and I did not know you well enough at that time, I acted cool. But as soon as I got home, I checked every corner of my guitar.” She chose the Jesus option. She let me off the hook. She forgave me and not demand a payback. She does not borrow my guitar few weeks later, drops it and say, “Oops, I guess we are equal now.” Although she might have thought of it. She was very gracious toward me. But how many of you realize that her forgiveness was not free? It was free for me but it was costly for her. By forgiving me, she paid the debt herself. And this is what Jesus did. Forgiveness is free for you and me but it is costly for Jesus. Jesus became our monster and paid the debt of sins by being lifted up on the cross. This is the provision that God has prepared for us to be cured from our sin. At the cross of Jesus Christ, the symbol of death becomes the symbol of life.

Third, look and live. One day, C.S. Lewis was asked a question, “What separates Christianity every religion in the world?” Lewis thought long and hard. Finally after few minutes of silence, he found the answer. He walked up to the board and write the word “GRACE” and he walked out of the room. My friend, this is what separate Christianity from every religion in this world. It is the word grace. And grace is scandalous. Grace tells us that it is impossible for us to save ourselves. It does not matter how hard you try, you will fail. But grace also tells us that is it very easy for us to receive salvation. All we have to do is to look. Look at the cross of Jesus Christ. Believe in the Son of God who became sin and crucified at the cross. Believe in him and you will live. That’s it. No matter who you are, no matter what you have done, all you have to do is look. Look to Jesus and you will live. But if you don’t look, you will die.

Let me share with you a story of how Charles Spurgeon was born again. If you do not know who Charles Spurgeon is, he was a prince of preacher back in the mid 1800’s. On one Sunday in January 1850, Spurgeon was trying to get to church. There was a massive snowstorm that day. The storm was so bad that Spurgeon could not go the church that he wanted to go. So he decided to go to the nearest church from where he was. He ended up at a little primitive Methodist church around the corner. He said that when he walked in, there were only 12 to 15 people present in that chapel. And the funny thing was, the minister that was supposed to preach that Sunday could not come due to the snowstorm. After waiting for the minister to show up for some time, finally a man went up to the pulpit to preach. This man was not a trained minister. He was just a regular church attender. Someone came up to him and said, “We need someone to preach. Why don’t you go up there and preach?” So imagine if one day I am scheduled to preach but I am not here. You guys cannot find me and then you guys ask Isaac to preach because there is no one else. So Isaac walks up to the front and says, “If you have your Bible, why don’t you open it up with me to Isaiah 45:22. This is what the Bible say, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth. For I am God, and there is no other” (KJV). And the man began to preach. “My friends, this is a simple text. It says that if you want to be saved all you have to do is to look. You don’t need to do anything else but to look. You don’t have to lift a finger but just look. Anyone can look. You don’t have to go to college to learn to look. Even a child can look. You might be the biggest fool but you can look. The problem with many of you are you are not looking. And if you are looking, you are looking at wrong thing. You are looking at yourselves instead of God. The text says “Look unto me.” It’s not use looking to self. Look unto God.” Then Spurgeon wrote that the man began to lift his hands and say, “Look unto me for I am sweating great drops of blood. Look unto me, I am hanging on a cross. Look unto me, I am dead and buried. Look unto me, I arise again. Look unto me, I ascend to heaven. Look unto me, I am sitting at the Father’s right hand. Look unto me…” And the man continued his “look unto me” speech for another 10 minutes or so. Then, because there was only few people in the church, the man realized that there was one visitor in the church. He looked at Spurgeon and said, “Young man, you look very miserable and you will always be miserable in life if you do not obey my text. Young man, obey my text. Look to Christ and you will live.” Maybe I should try that sometime. But here is what’s amazing. Spurgeon wrote that at that moment, suddenly he realized that he had been trying hard to get saved by his own works. He had been trying hard to save himself from his sin, while all that God wanted him to do was to admit that he cannot save himself and look to Jesus. Spurgeon was ready to bleed in order to be saved. But when he heard the word, “Look,” he finally realized that he had not been looking. “Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, “Look!” what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could have almost looked my eyes away.” At that moment, Spurgeon was born again. The prince of preacher was born again not because he heard the greatest sermon from the greatest preacher. He was born again because an ordinary person told him to look to Jesus and live.

Here is the point that Jesus is making using the story in Numbers 21. There is one thing that separate eternal death and eternal life. One second you might be on your way to eternal death but the next second you might be on your way to eternal live. And what separate the two is “Look”. What are you looking at for your salvation today? Look to Jesus and you will live!


  1. Why did the Israelites became impatient? Have you ever experience what they experienced? How did you response?
  2. How does this story is so much more than simply “a child who did not like the food that was cooked for them”?
  3. “Sin is believing that God does not want what is best for us and he is withholding something good from us.” Explain how sin plays out in our daily life.
  4. Explain the great paradox of this story. How did Jesus used this story in his conversation with Nicodemus?
  5. There is no such thing as free forgiveness. Give daily life examples of debt and forgiveness. Using this understanding, explain why Jesus had to die for our sins.
  6. Why salvation is both impossible and very easy at the same time?
  7. The prince of preacher (Charles Spurgeon) was born again because an ordinary person told him to look to Jesus and live. What does it tell us about the power of the gospel and how is this truth encourage us to share the gospel with others?
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