Monday, June 30, 2008

Why Did Jesus Die? (01) To Heal God’s People

There’s a rather strange story in the Old Testament about an incident that occurred as Israel was journeying from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land:

Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged 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 our soul loathes this worthless bread." So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.

Therefore 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.

Then the Lord said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live."

So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived. (Numbers 21:6-9)

What’s curious about this story is the method God uses to cure His children. A bronze serpent on a pole, what’s with that?

Christian readers, though, see here (as in virtually every page of the Old Testament) a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. And where do we get this idea? From Jesus Himself! For this is one of those times when Scripture does interpet Scripture. Jesus said:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. (John 3:14-17)

All Christians are fond of quoting John 3:16, but for some reason, few quote these verses just before and after it. But when we do read the context, we notice two or three very interesting things. One is that the phrase, “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” occurs twice within three short verses. Jesus repeats Himself, as if for emphasis. I have come to heal you, who have all been bitten by the ancient serpent of Eden. I am like that bronze snake Moses lifted up. As those who looked upon the bronze serpent lived, so those who look to Me in faith shall live forever.

This theme of destroying death and giving of life, the Lord’s own analogy (though not His only one), is the central, guiding motif of Orthodox teaching about the Cross: Jesus died to bestow upon the world eternal life. Every other thing we say about the atonement is one or another facet of this gem, is another way of getting at the fathomless mystery of how Christ destroys death and gives immortal life. This is the framework into which all the other pieces are fitted: that by death, Christ trampled down death and bestowed life upon those in the tombs.

We notice, in passing, that the story in Numbers gives no hint of that bronze serpent being punished in the place of disobedient Israel! It was raised for their healing, for their life. That’s what Christ twice says. In fact, it lifted their punishment. When Moses prayed, God simply forgave, without punishing anyone. The serpent on the pole was the form His forgiveness took. He demonstrated His forgiveness by healing the people. In just such a way, Christ, too, while on the Cross, prayed to the Father, "forgive them, for they know not what they do." And the Father did, still without having to punish anyone, and the Cross is the form His forgiveness takes, for upon it, our death is healed.

And yet, in an entirely different sense, that bronze serpent mounted on the pole definitely implies punishment; see the next post in this series, in which we will also examine how Christ's death could heal anybody else of death. How does that work?



William Weedon said...

Very good beginning. Look forward to more. A couple thoughts and questions:

Did God send the serpents that were killing the people in the first place?

Were they experiencing a punishment of death from the hands of God?

Was their experience of the serpent upon the pole a gracious reprieve from justly deserved wrath?

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Did God send the serpents that were killing the people in the first place?

Nothing ever happens but God either does it or permits it. The thing to notice is, it is always *for our benefit*. Not for His, as it is impossible for Him to benefit from anything.

So we don’t mind saying God sent the serpents for chastisement. But when we are speaking more strictly, technically, God permitted satan to send the serpents, his demons. It's rather the same thing as the way in which, for a time, God allowed the devil to afflict Job, except of course for another reason in Job's case.

Were they experiencing a punishment of death from the hands of God?

Death is never from God. They were going to die anyway, not due to God but to the devil, who seduced Adam and Eve. God but determines the timing. He shortens our days when that is best for us. He cuts short our sinning, for example, when He knows it would otherwise only grow worse.

Was their experience of the serpent upon the pole a gracious reprieve from justly deserved wrath?

It was a reprieve from gracious chastisement when chastisement had accomplished its gracious goal of bringing them to repentance.

What they deserved I cannot tell.

I do recall the disciples assuming too much when they asked Jesus whether the man had been born blind because of his own sin or that of his parents, and Jesus said, Neither.

Chris Grindstaff said...

Death is never from God.

Exactly! Remember Jesus's words on the Cross, "...why have you forsaken me?" It was not, "...why did you DO this to me." There is a big difference.

William Weedon said...

"Death is never from God." A

How does this assertion fit with God's own words about Himself in Deuteronomy 32:39?

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

The same way His glittering sword does (v. 41) and His arrows (v. 42).

Anastasia Theodoridis said...


Check out that whole Psalm with special attention to v. 24.


William Weedon said...

Help me understand, then, your basis for determining in Scripture when God is speaking anthropomorphically (and hence metaphorically) and when not.

Chris Grindstaff said...

Pr. Weedon,
I won't presume to answer for Anastasia, but for me the answer is quite simple. I use the Canon of St. Vincent.

William Weedon said...


I'd be interested in how you apply that canon to this particular question, for I believe you could find numerous fathers, especially Western fathers, who would describe the death visited upon our race as being a punishment from God for our sin. I think this passage from Augustine's Enchiridion is illustrative, and note that he DOES deal with anthropomorphism on wrath, but not on the penalty of death:

And so the human race was lying under a just condemnation, and all men were the children of wrath. Of which wrath it is written: All our days are passed away in Your wrath; we spend our years as a tale that is told. Of which wrath also Job says: Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. Of which wrath also the Lord Jesus says: He that believes in the Son has everlasting life: and he that believes not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abides on him. He does not say it will come, but it abides on him. For every man is born with it; wherefore the apostle says: We were by nature the children of wrath, even as others. Now, as men were lying under this wrath by reason of their original sin, and as this original sin was the more heavy and deadly in proportion to the number and magnitude of the actual sins which were added to it, there was need for a Mediator, that is, for a reconciler, who, by the offering of one sacrifice, of which all the sacrifices of the law and the prophets were types, should take away this wrath. Wherefore the apostle says: For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. Now when God is said to be angry, we do not attribute to Him such a disturbed feeling as exists in the mind of an angry man; but we call His just displeasure against sin by the name anger, a word transferred by analogy from human emotions. But our being reconciled to God through a Mediator, and receiving the Holy Spirit, so that we who were enemies are made sons (For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God ): this is the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

William Weedon said...


I guess what troubles me in this is that if the "I make alive" is not taken metaphorically, it seems utterly arbitrary to take the "I kill" that way.

Chris Grindstaff said...

Pr. Weedon,
First I apologize if my previous comment sounded flippant. That was not my intention. I was pressed for time (my real work was getting in the way :-)), and probably should have waited to respond.

I am the first to admit, that the application of St. Vincent's canon is not always simple. I simply meant that the answer to "how do we interpet Scripture?" is simple.

This whole discussion is influenced by how we view so many things such as:

1. What is salvation?
2. What was the state of pre-lapsarian man? (See Anastasia's excellent posts on this)
3. Does God change? I think we would both say "no" to this, but it's worth considering.
4. How do we view sin? Is it a moral problem, or an ontologcial problem?
5. A corrolary to #4, how do we view death?
6. Just what is the wrath of God?

There are a whole host of other items I could list. I guess what I am saying is it would take me more time than I have (and more ability than I have) to adequately answer your question. I know that sounds like a cop out, but it's true.

A quick answer, though, is to look at the liturgical services (and here I mean the Orthodox liturgical services) from Grent Lent through to Bright Week. What is the overriding motif of those services? My contention is it is summed up nicely in the Paschal Troparion. At least it's summed up better there than in say Jonathan Edwards. ;-) Sorry, couldn't resist.

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying God is not an enemy of sin (if I can apply such a term to God.) I am simply saying God is not the enemy of mankind. Perhaps I am not saying that clearly or draw enough of a distinction between these, but it's the best I can do.

BTW, I am failing to see in the quote you provided from Augustine just where he claims that this "condemnation" was put upon man by God. Or was that not what you were saying?

Chris Grindstaff said...

Sorry, one last thing: I am not denying that Augustine views death as a punishment from God (I trust you on that one) I just was having difficulty finding a reference to it in that quote. I suppose it is the phrase "just condemnation"??

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Chris’ answer is a good one, but I think it’s even easier than that.

The basis I’m using is the revelation we have in Christ. Just as Christ reveals God to be the Truth Itself/Himself (John 14:6), hence it is impossible He should lie (Titus 1:12), exactly so, Christ also reveals God to be Love Itself/Himself (I John 4:8,16), hence it is impossible He should literally hate; and Christ reveals God as Life Itself/Himself (John 11:25, 12:6), hence it is impossible He should literally kill. In Christ, God shows Himself the “Friend of sinners.” (Mark 11:19, Luke 7:34) He sends His sunshine and His rain upon the just and the unjust, alike. He loves those who hate Him; He is good to those who curse Him. (Matthew 5:44-45) “He is kind to the unthankful and to the evil.” (Luke 6:35)

It’s the devil who has the power of death. (Hebrews 2:14) I’m sure you do not wish to argue that God is the devil’s assistant, sending him more victims, helping Him to populate Hades. God has no interest in destroying His own handiwork; what He wants to do is save it – from death and the devil. He wants to reclaim it. It’s the devil who is "a murderer from the beginning," not God.

Why does anybody else even want to interpret this verse, or similar ones, so very literally, making God a killer? What for?

Anonymous said...

God says (twice even: in both Testamemts): "be holy even as I AM Holy", and "be holy even as Your Father in Heaven holy is". And this holiness includes quite clearly forgiveness of those that sin against us, blessing of those that curse us, repaying with good the wrong that others did unto us, ... "for if you would love only those that love you, with what would you be any different than the pagans?", Christ asks us.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

...and surely God is different from pagans!