Holy Cross Sunday

Short Takes by William Mikler on

Old Testament: Numbers 21:4-9
New Testament: 1 Corinthians 1:18-24
GOSPEL: John 3:13-17

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Old Testament: Numbers 21:4-9

The Bronze Serpent

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.

Reckoning with sin, in faith

LOOKING AT THE bronze serpent on the pole forced the Israelites to reckon with their sin (grumbling), the consequences of their sin (death), and the means God used to punish them for their sin (fiery serpents).

God’s judgments were just and poetic. Israel’s venomous complaining reflected the nature of the great serpent, Satan, who doubtless worked in concert with the Israelites’ fallen natures to aid and abet their treasonous complaining. There’s a lesson here: Serve the Serpent and God will send in the snakes.

Israel’s sin was severe and God’s judgment harsh. But God’s judgment brought many to repentance. In repentance, Israel admitted her sin and beseeched Moses to pray for the Lord to stay His hand.

In response, the Lord forgave Israel, but did so by surprising means. Scripture says, “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.’

Looking at the bronze serpent on the pole, Israel was reminded of her sin, God’s judgments on her sin, and His instruments of judgment. But a snake on a pole is a dead snake. So what the bronze serpent symbolically said to Israel was that God had accepted her repentance. As snake-bitten Israelites looked in faith at the bronze serpent, they were healed. Ultimately, the bronze serpent was an expression of God’s mercy.

The story of the bronze serpent points to the cross of Christ, and does so in a number of ways. A fallen man is sinful. He is “snake-bitten” because of it. He is under God’s judgment. He is dying a painful death. He cannot cure himself.

But when that same dying man confesses his sins while looking by faith at the cross of Christ, he sees the remedy for his sins and his sins’ consequences. That is because, on the cross, Jesus bore the sinner’s sin and his judgment. The cross-gazing sinner also sees a dead snake, one that can no longer afflict him; for in his cross Jesus crushed the Serpent’s head. The sinner who looks to Christ crucified soon finds himself forgiven of his sins, delivered from satanic affliction, healed through and through, and saved.

Saving faith is faith that places trust in the holy Lord who died for sinners on Calvary’s cross. We must look to the crucified Savior in order to live.

How important, then, is the cross of Christ? The permanent scars in our Lord’s resurrected body say this to us: We will remember his redeeming death through all eternity. Amen.

New Testament: 1 Corinthians 1:18-24 

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

The CROSS: telling it like it is

The Corinth of Saint Paul’s day was a Greek city with a significant Jewish population. So Paul, writing to believers there, could sum up the essence of both cultures by simply saying that Jews sought signs and Greeks sought wisdom.

In other words, the Jews wanted miraculous signs like those that brought ancient Israel out of the land of Egypt and through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. The Greeks wanted wisdom like that offered by the various philosophical schools that competed for followers in Greek society.

The message of the cross, however, opposed what both Jews and Greeks were looking for. They perceived it as counterintuitive because it offered neither the signs that the Moreover, both Jews and Greeks considered the gospel to be utter foolishness. In human terms, the gospel simply wasn’t marketable.

But Paul wasn’t dissuaded by Jewish and Greek cultural preferences and standards, or by both groups’ innate resistance to the gospel. He preached Jesus Christ and him crucified, and he did so because God commanded it. He told both groups what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear. And he trusted the Holy Spirit to convince his hearers.

As our Sunday evening study group discussed present day applications of our Corinthian text, we spoke for some minutes about the challenges posed by our culture’s stubborn resistance to the gospel. One member suggested that Paul might have written to materialistic Americans by saying, “Americans seek stuff.” All agreed.

In the end, one of our study members, moved deeply by the message of the cross, said with tears, “We need to tell it straight.”

Indeed we do. The gospel is not what men want to hear. It is what they need to hear. So we must tell it to them, even though they think it foolish. Seeds get planted in the soil because the farmer wants to put them there, not because the soil asks for it. The gospel gets planted when we play the role of the farmer, not the dirty ground.

Against the sign-seeking Jews of his day Paul declared the cross to be the power of God. Against the Greeks, he declared the cross to be the wisdom of God. Had he held forth against Western materialism, he might have said that the cross is the great treasure that God offers man. Indeed it is. In the death of Jesus on the cross, the sin debt was paid on behalf of all who believe in him.

We have work to do, brethren. Against the tide of human sin and pleasure seeking we must preach the gospel of the cross. We must, as our study group member put it, “tell it straight.” †

• GOSPEL: John 3:13-17

13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

The LOve of God

John 3:13-17 connects the cause, the means, and the effects of our great salvation. Let’s take a few moments to note how this passage does so.

The means of salvation (vv. 13-14)

John 3:13-14 connects the two important means of our salvation, which are the Incarnation of the Son of God and his redeeming physical death on the cross. The Incarnation is indicated when Jesus, referring to himself, spoke of having “descended from heaven” (v. 13). His death on the cross was indicated when he likened it to the lifting up of the bronze serpent in the wilderness (v. 14).

The effect (v. 15)

Verse 15 advances to an explanation of the results of the Incarnation and redeeming death of Jesus. Whoever believes in Jesus comes into possession of eternal life (v. 15).

The cause (v. 16)

But what inspired the Incarnation and redeeming death of Jesus on the cross? What power conceived and then implemented these means on behalf of our salvation, and brought about their preordained ends? Verse 16 gives us the answer. The motive cause of our salvation, the wellspring and driving force behind the Incarnation and redeeming death of Jesus on the cross, was the love of God.

Verse 16 also makes clear that salvation involves NOT perishing. That is, salvation is salvation from death. God’s eternal love for us produces eternal life in us.

Justification (v.17)

Though he doesn’t use the word “justification,” justification was implied in verse 17 when Jesus said, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (v. 17). Not being condemned is what justification is. It is the get-out-of-jail verdict of God, and it is granted to people who place their faith in Jesus.

God’s love for a sinful world is also revealed in verse 17. God wishes to save sinners, not condemn them. Justification is offered to everyone.

So. God’s love explains everything Jesus speaks of in this text. Everything: The Incarnation, the cross, saving faith, eternal life, and justification.


I have been to the ocean many times, but I can neither fathom its depth nor embrace its breadth. It is that way with the love of God. I know it is far greater than I can comprehend. I see the basics of what it has wrought, however, and I lay hold of its saving benefits. Still, I cannot fully comprehend it. But over the course of my never-ending-life I will come to know it better and better. “Bless the Lord O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.” Amen.†

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