A Daunting Endeavor
When we were drawing this thing up on paper, while it was still a nebulous blob of awkward shot-in-the-dark brain storming, there was one vision, one story that stuck. The biggest question before us was (and is): What are we actually doing here? What do we really expect to accomplish? Thinking about the nature of “change,” we cannot achieve it, we cannot cause it. With effort, we can move from one trap to another if the desire so drives, but to move from creation to Creator and genuinely love Him — that is no human accomplishment. As Paul puts it, “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”
What can we expect to accomplish? At face value, the answer can only be: nothing. No mere conversation, no exhortation, no intention can convince a man or woman of sin, cause the heart to hate it because of its offense to God, turn toward God in trust, and obey Him joyfully. Observing as a mere human, there are efforts, but they are silly compared to the goal we hope to achieve. We could turn our hopes to the hearts and intentions of redemption group members, turn the responsibility on them and say, “it will only happen if you want it to hard enough.” But at this point, we’re really grasping, and this is bordering on passive aggression to be honest. I don’t say all this as if we really put our hopes there but to highlight just how ludicrous this all really is without a God who intervenes in our hearts, interjects His gospel, imposes on our desires, and reforms our wills.
Gracious God, Grumbling People
Enter a truly peculiar Old Testament story that reverberates throughout God’s story through the New Testament and to us today. To set the scene, God made one-sided unconditional promises to Abraham that He would make a nation from him and bless the entire Earth through his descendants (particularly through Christ). God also foretold Abraham that his descendants would be held captive for 400 years but that He would rescue them powerfully and they would leave with great possessions. Throughout God’s process of doing this through the well-known plagues and Moses’ staff, Israel disbelieves, distrusts, complains, and accuses God. God does rescue them, they do leave with great possessions, but they soon accuse Him of ill intent as Pharoah’s army presses on them one last time, saying to God, “Did you bring us out to kill us all in a mass grave?”
God does rescue them, makes lavish promises, reminds them who He is and what He’s done. They soon, however, grumble about bitter water. He graciously provides sweet water. They grumble then about lack of food, claiming it was better for them in Egypt and that God had done evil to them. God graciously provides manna. Then, they grumble and accuse God as they’re lacking water, distrusting God’s provision again. He graciously provides, makes lavish promises. They disobey His command to join Him and become His people, a nation of priests, and a prized possession because they still refuse to trust Him. They make a golden calf and ascribe their past rescue and future hope to it at the exact same time that God is detailing to Moses how He plans to still dwell with His people and begins pointing to Christ in the strongest way yet as He describes the Holy making unclean things clean. They grumble and accuse about how boring manna is, and He gives them meat. They still grumble and accuse.
I feel the tug to apologize for the lengthiness of “setting the scene,” but as Ecclesiastes carries on seemingly indefinitely for a good purpose, it is important to see God’s nature pitted against that of Israel’s. It shows the one-sidedness of His intervening and imposing love, the lavishness and undeservedness of His provision to us. Yes, I said “us.” We are Israel. We are the grumblers, each of us. We are the accusers. We suffer, and we also sin — we sin, and we also suffer. God has a mind to cure both with compassion and power.
A Peculiar Cure
God decides, as hard discipline to His people, having abounded in steadfast love, to send on them “fiery serpents” to bite them with poison. Many of them died as a result of this. Get the picture here. Suddenly, one day, snakes are everywhere, in the tents, in the water supply, in the food. They are biting everyone, killing many. This is a scene of panic, fear, bewilderment, hopelessness, and above all: desperation. I make no claims that this is, in its entirety, intended to be an allegory of the Christian’s life, but we would not err to consider these snakes as an image of the tangible, desperate destruction sin causes in our lives.
This might sound like a mass murder scene here, but remember that this is discipline. God has a promise to keep, and His name is at stake in the Israelites making it to the promised land and eventually giving birth to Christ Himself. He will not let His people utterly die. He will not let His promises fail, not even one of them. God’s remedy for this situation, though, is truly odd. He tells Moses to have a serpent crafted from bronze and raised up so that all of the people can see it. Then God tells Moses that anyone who looks upon this serpent will be healed from the bites of the serpents, from the wounds, from the poison. All in all, this can seem like quite the strange episode until we see how Christ used this story millennia later.
To the Jewish teacher Nicodemus, who clearly wasn’t understanding what Jesus was telling him, Jesus says, “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.” Jesus was probably referring to His crucifixion here but surely He was referring also to Himself being lifted up by the preaching of the gospel. It’s as we believe on Him in the gospel that we are healed. But what about the second part of what He said? It is a direct parallel to what God said to Moses in the wilderness in the book of Numbers: “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.” On one hand, a serpent is lifted up, and whoever looks on it lives. On the other hand, Christ is lifted up, and whoever believes on Him lives forever. Christ is the better staff, believing on Him is the better seeing, and eternal life is the better life. We see this link repeated in John 6, 8, and 12.
Lifting, Gazing, and Living
A. W. Tozer explains: “Faith is the gaze of a soul upon a saving God.” As a southern culture, most of us know of the better staff (Christ Himself), but we don’t know much of the better “looking.” This tends not to make its way much into our teaching, our minds, our hearts, or our daily endeavors. Christ is clear that the better looking is in essence believing, and yet we find further vividness in the rest of the Word of believers “gazing on” and “beholding” God. To put bones and flesh to this blob of “beholding,” consider the Psalms. Consider in particular ones like Psalm 42. God, I’m desperately thirsty for you in a place that’s utterly empty by comparison! I long for you amidst a people who mock you! I pour out my heart before you, longing to lead a wild party of praise to You! The psalmist also speaks to himself. My soul, why so depressed? Hope in God! Remember Him!
Sometimes dripping slowly, sometimes raging like a flood, the Psalms pour over a Person. They revolve around Him, they get angry at Him, they delight in Him, they recall His deeds, they tell of Him. This is “gazing.” It is a personal, relational, active, engaging orbit around God and in His presence, taking place in the thoughts, the emotions, the desires, and the actions. Christ put it as “believing;” and we know from the Word He embodies that it is so much more than cognitive processing and agreement.
Gazing involves the lifting up of Christ in the gospel. This doesn’t just mean that He was lifted up (crucified) once, but we actively lift Him up today as Moses lifted up the only hope for Israel in the wilderness at the brink of sure death. If believing in Christ is this engaged, relational orbit around God in His presence, then lifting Him up is the inciting and stirring of this believing by recalling Him as the Psalmist did, ultimately by looking to the good news of the cross. God is lavish in helping us with this, as we see Him reminding His people of His nature, benevolence, faithfulness, deeds, power, and promises. We have help practicing this as we see this lifting up practiced so diversely in the gospels, the Psalmists, and the Apostles. One cries out, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Another cries, “You keep my tears in your bottle. You intimately care for every detail of my life.” Yet another declares, “God gave you Christ when you were at your worst. How much more will He give you all things!”
And what is the end result of this lifting and gazing, this belief that is so much more than mental assent? It is “eternal life,” which if you’re anything like me doesn’t yet mean very much. But we aren’t left alone on this to figure it out. Christ later prays publicly in the same gospel, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” While “know” can mean a number of things depending on context, Jesus’ context is about salvation, and it is highly personal in this prayer. This “knowing” is essentially the result of Romans 8:29 where God “foreknew” us, and the context of this is unity with Christ, adoption, forgiveness, a promised inheritance with Him forever. As Matthew Henry says about this “knowing,”
God’s foreknowledge of the saints is the same with that everlasting love wherewith he is said to have loved them. God’s knowing his people is the same with his owning them. Words of knowledge often in scripture denote affection.
Eternal life is first being known by and therefore knowing God, personally, intimately, in a familiar sense. This knowing is as a son calling his Dad, “Papa.” This knowing is as a bride dancing with her Bridegroom. The better life, eternal life, is receiving the very object of our gazing and believing, the center of our orbit: God Himself.
No Ordinary Conversations
No conversation, no exhortation, no intention can change a person’s desires. Unless the son of man be lifted up, that is. These are no ordinary conversations we have in redemption groups, no ordinary words, no ordinary thoughts, feelings, desires, actions. Once for all time, Christ being lifted up purchased for all His people, all who would gaze on Him and believe Him, a secure promise of change and a sure inheritance where all evil desire is put down forever, never again even influencing our hearts. In this context, as we lift Him up before each others’ eyes, we begin to see this identity purchased for us, its intimate promises, its applicable reach, its power.
In redemption groups at Legacy Church in Knoxville, we spend our efforts in trust that God is giving the growth by lifting up His son for us to believe on and be healed. Many will come in desperate need of healing from suffering inflicted on them and from sins they inflict toward God. This gospel is the “power of God toward salvation for all who believe,” and this faith is His gift to us, undeserved, purchased for us by Christ along with all His gifts. Not only will brothers and sisters come, gaze on the gospel, and find healing in Christ. They will also lift it up to others themselves. The heart of redemption groups is a skillful and applicable display of Christ and an arm-in-arm gaze on Him. Infatuated with Him, we fully expect this display to spread from participants to their spheres of life, lifting the heads of the shamed, confounding the proud, encouraging the downcast, and liberating captives.
In short, we are, together, lifting our eyes and our hearts to Jesus.
For more information on this scene from Numbers 21 and its connections to Christ, John Calvin’s commentary is very helpful.