Image credit: Ian Greig
This is The Living Word Bible Study for Sunday, March 14 (Lent 4) — TLW10B. We recommend reading the Bible passages as they stand first and then for a deeper dive there’s verse by verse commentary and reflections below.
Theme: How God’s descending grace meets our rising faith
See also the linked article, ‘Understanding God’s grace + our faith = new life in salvation’.
Numbers 21:4-9 — Israelites told to look up to the bronze snake. Complaining brings a judgment of deadly snakes before God’s grace prevails
John 3:13-21 — How God’s salvation is offered to all who believe. We find God’s grace and new life through believing in Jesus’ sacrifice for us
Ephesians 2:1-10 — By grace and through faith we have been saved. Although we deserved God’s wrath, He loved us and made us alive in Christ
And also read: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Numbers 21:4-9 — The Israelites are told to look up to the bronze snake
Complaining brings a judgment of deadly snakes before God’s grace prevails
4-5 They travelled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go round Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
“To go round Edom” — the King’s Highway route would have taken Israelites through Moab, but the request for passage was refused, and they were not to engage Moab in battle, Deut. 2:4-5. The Lord’s judgment was on the extreme sins of the Canaanites, Genesis 15:16; Lev 18:24-25.
“We detest this food” — dissatisfaction has surfaced again, not just a rejection of the “bread from heaven”, Exodus 16:4, but an attack on God’s grace in providing it.
6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.
“Venomous snakes” — the region is a habitat for extremely poisonous carpet vipers, against which the Lord’s protection was temporarily withdrawn.
7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
“The people… said, ‘We sinned’ ” — this was the latest in a number of similar protests. The people reject their dependence on the Lord (and here speak against God first, v.5), judgment is experienced, Moses intercedes — and the Lord responds with mercy.
8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”
9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
“When anyone… looked at the bronze snake, they lived” — by looking at the repugnant symbol of their judgment, the Lord gets them to acknowledge that His judgment is just and only He could deliver them from it. Jesus uses this event to explain how we look up at Him on the Cross in order to be saved from our sins.
SUMMARY Prevented by the Moabites from passing through their country to reach the Promised Land, the Israelites have to make a lengthy diversion to the south and circuit eastwards — and they resent it. Grumbling breaks out, not just against Moses but directed at the Lord Himself, and there follows a swift and painful judgment from desert vipers with deadly bites. Moses intercedes for the people and God instructs him to make a bronze representation of the snake. By looking up at the image representing God’s judgment on them, they could find deliverance.
APPLICATION This incident, with the judgment and the grace of God, and the bronze snake raised up on a pole, is a spiritual crisis. It is lso a sign pointing to a future spiritual crisis, this time with God’s Son raised up on a pole. Instead of finding grace by recognising the judgment manifested in a horrible snake, we find God’s grace released to us by focusing on Jesus suffering a horrendous and cursed death by crucifixion. In this most difficult of pictures is both the judgment on our sins, and our release through forgiveness by believing and entering into what Jesus has done by taking our place.
QUESTION Why did looking up at the image of the snake enable the Israelites to find God’s grace — and healing?
John 3:13-21 — How God’s salvation is offered to all who believe
We find God’s grace and new life through believing in Jesus’ sacrifice for us
13 [Jesus, replying to Nicodemus’ question, said:] “No one has ever gone into heaven except the One who came from heaven – the Son of Man.
“Gone into heaven” — having come from heaven, and able to talk about heavenly things: v.12, ” I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”
14-15 “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.”
“As Moses lifted up the snake” — a prophetic type, or preshadow, of the salvation that would come. As the Israelites were healed of snakebite by looking up to the bronze snake, we find salvation and healing from sin’s deadly bite by seeing Jesus lifted up on the Cross — and believing.
“The Son of Man must be lifted up” — it has the plain meaning of exalted and glorified but in John, always the second meaning of crucifixion.
• For further study, the “lifted up” sayings in Isaiah and John: Isaiah 52:13; John 3:15; John 8:28; John 12:32.
16 For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.
“God so loved the world that He gave” — the best-known summary of the gospel. The dramatic demonstration of God’s love by giving His one and only Son as a substitute for sinful human beings of any background, to die in their place and bear their sins.
• For further study on how this fits God’s character, see Exodus 34:6-7, Hosea 11:8.
17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.
“Not… to condemn” — the world was already condemned but Jesus was sent on a mission from heaven to bring salvation to whoever would believe.
18 Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
“Whoever believes” — not mental assent, but a settled considered personal trust in Jesus.
19 This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.
“Light has come into the world” — Jesus, the incarnate Word, life-giver and light of the world, John 1:4-5, John 8:12, 9:5.
20-21 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
“In the sight of God” — or “in God” or “through God” i.e. enabled through partnership with God.
SUMMARY Jesus has explained to Pharisee teacher Nicodemus that he needs a spiritual regeneration to become aware of God’s kingdom and rule in his life. He now links this to what will happen to Him, alluding to a story that Nicodemus knew well. The Israelites were rebellious, and only God’s grace, responding to Moses’ intercession, could save them. The Jews of Nicodemus’ time, dissatisfied under Gentile rule, would not recognise the Messiah sent to save them. But those that were truth-seekers (like Nicodemus) would see the light that Jesus was to them, and choose to believe in Him.
APPLICATION As churchgoers we can too easily settle for less than Jesus. Like the Pharisees, we can get stuck on what we expect God to do, and miss the new thing that He is doing because it is a bit different. The gospel is about changing our mind-set and coming to a new place of believing and trusting: in God’s Son, in God’s grace, and in God’s new life for us.
QUESTION How would you explain what “believing in Him”, v.16, means in practice?
Ephesians 2:1-10 — By grace and through faith we have been saved
Although we deserved God’s wrath, He loved us and made us alive in Christ
1-2 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
“As for you” — this section contrasts the believers’ sinful state in the past, vv.1-3, with their salvation in Christ now, vv.4-7, all through God’s grace, vv.8-10.
“You were dead” — owing to Adam’s sin, the whole human race starts off under Satan’s power, spiritually dead, independent from God and powerless to resist Satan’s bullying.
3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.%C/p>
“All of us” — both Jews and Gentiles share the sam predicament witho Christ.
“Flesh” — term used by Paul for the unregenerate selfish nature which opposes God’s will and resists the Holy Spirit.
“Deserving of wrath” — God’s just judgment in asserting His perfect holiness.
• For further study 2C read Eph. 5:6; Romans 1:18, 2:5 and 8; 3:5 and 19; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19; 13:4-5; Col. 3:6; 1 Thess. 1:10; 2:16; 5:9.
4-5 But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — t is by grace you have been saved.</strong3E%C/p>
“God… made us alive” — gave us regeneration, new spiritual life in Christ Jesus which happens when we trust Christ and are born again.
“By grace you have been saved” — grace is the unmerited and unmeasurable favour and goodness of God. The religious way of thinking wants some involvement in this through ‘good works’ of church or towards the world. But that is to disbelieve that God’s goodness and mercy is sufficient.
6-7 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in orer that in the coming ages He might show the incomparable riches of His grace, expressed in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
“Seated us with Him” — the moment faith rises, we believe and God’s grace is experienced, we are given a spiritual authority, that of being positionally seated with Christ in the heavenlies.
8-9 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.
“It is the gift of God” — both the faith that rises and believes, and the grace that saves and transforms, are of God’s free giving.
10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
“Not by works” (v.9)… “Created in Christ Jesus to do good works” — good works are not the efforts of religious man to secure salvation, denying God’s grace, but the fruit of the new and Holy Spirit empowered life, through His gifts and leading.
SUMMARY Paul explains that at one time, we were all driven by selfish motives. We were all independent from God, following the ways of the world, and we deserved God’s just judgment, which the Bible calls His wrath. Then he sets out how God’s grace works: it is received by us by believing and trusting Jesus — nothing else.
APPLICATION Salvation is the gift of God and His work, not the reward of God for our works — and that’s an important distinction. Should our efforts to live righteously make a difference? Too often, that is what church teaches us, directly by unbiblical doctriner, or by inferring that the ‘work’ of sacraments somehow brings salvation. But the truth is, this is all about God’s kindness and the change He works in us, beginning the moment we turn from independence and believe. Then He lovingly begins to shape us like His special craft project.
QUESTION If we know that positionally we are seated with Christ in the heavenlies, how does that influence how we pray?
PRAYER Father, what more can we say other than thank You for Jesus and for all that He has done for us.
Through Him we find the immensity of Your grace and love, new every morning.
In Him we discover how we can be fruitful bringers of Your kingdom.
What are our imagined good works, by comparison to this?
Thank You again for doing for us, what we could never do for ourselves.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
1 Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures for ever.
2-3 Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story — those He redeemed from the hand of the foe, those He gathered from the lands, from east and west, from north and south.
17 Some became fools through their rebellious ways and suffered affliction because of their iniquities.
18 They loathed all food and drew near the gates of death.
19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and He saved them from their distress.
20 He sent out His word and healed them; He rescued them from the grave.
21 Let them give thanks to the Lord for His unfailing love and His wonderful deeds for mankind.
22 Let them sacrifice thank-offerings and tell of His works with songs of joy.