From our perspective, complaining may not seem like a big deal, but it’s the forerunner to rebellion. The people of Israel learned this somewhere in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.
Though they were newly freed slaves, they seemed to have forgotten the hatefulness of that condition. They had cried out to God because of their affliction. He sent a leader to rescue them, but now they wanted out of the deal. They wanted to go back to Egypt.
The desert was no land of Goshen. They had little water and less meat. And they’d come to hate their daily ration of manna, the food of angels. After all, they’d had a steady diet of it for forty years. They’d had it, and they let Moses know. They let God know.
What’s a loving God to do?
What if He had given them what they asked for? I wonder how the people of Israel would have been received back in Egypt, after the death of all those first-born sons and the annihilation of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, not to mention the animosity they may have faced because they had walked off the job, leaving a huge gap in Egypt’s work force.
God of course did love His people so He didn’t give them what they wanted but what they needed — His justice and mercy.
First he sent fiery serpents among them. Deadly serpents that killed the people they bit. There’s God’s justice responding to their rebellion. He loved them too much to look the other way as they ruined their lives and the opportunity He was providing them to be His people.
As the serpents bit people and many died, Israel cried out to God, admitted their sin, and asked for deliverance. God instructed Moses to make a replica snake and put it on the end of a pole. Whenever someone was bit by a snake, all they had to do was look to the bronze replica, and they would live.Moses did what he was instructed to do. “And it came about…” I love that line. Just what God said, happened. The people bitten by a snake lived if they looked at the bronze statue lifted high above the camp.
That’s God’s mercy.
Then this amazing passage in the New Testament gospel of John. Jesus is speaking:
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
Jesus knowingly connected the mercy God showed Israel in the wilderness with the mercy He would show to the world. Yes, the world because the next verse says this:
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
Ironic that some use this verse as a proof text for belief in universal salvation. The thing is, Jesus, by connecting His impending crucifixion with the serpent lifted up above Israel’s camp made it clear: salvation is available to all just as the bronze serpent was out in plain sight for any suffering from the deadly bite of justice; those who believe, receive, just like those who looked at the serpent were healed.
God’s love involves His justice and His mercy. He is the same today as He showed Himself to be in the desert or on a hill called Golgotha. His love means He wants us out of Egypt; His justice means He would punish disobedience; His mercy means He bore that punishment that we would have a way of escape.
This article first appeared here March 2011