Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” All of this was wonderfully foreshadowed with the bronze serpent. This is part two. Here is part one.
Table of Contents
Under a Curse from the Law
Galatians 3:10 says, “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’” This is a quote of Deuteronomy 27:26 which says everyone who doesn’t perfectly obey God’s law is cursed. Because none of us perfectly keep God’s law all of us are under a curse. Some Jews, whether out of pride or ignorance, believe they can go to heaven by obeying God’s law, but it is this same law that tells them they are cursed if they don’t keep it perfectly.
Ecclesiastes 7:20 says, “There is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The law must be viewed as a unit, which is why it’s always spoken of singularly: law versus laws. The law contains 613 commands, but it is only one law, and to break part of it is to break all of it: “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10). Imagine a boy who throws a rock through his window. His parents confront him and he replies, “I didn’t break the whole window. I only broke part of it.” This is the same argument as the person who claims to have only broken part of the law.
The first part of Galatians 3:11 says, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law.” Justified means, “Declared righteous.” Nobody will be justified, or declared righteous, by the law because nobody keeps it perfectly. But what is the purpose of the law if not to save us? It is meant to show us our sinfulness: “Through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). When we become aware of our sinfulness we see our need for the Savior.
Because we can’t be justified by the law, we must be justified another way. That is by faith so Galatians 3:11 finishes, “For ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” This is a quote of Habakkuk 2:4. Those who are justified, or declared righteous, “Live by faith,” versus works for obedience to the law.
Galatians 3:12 continues, “But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’” By quoting Leviticus 18:5 Paul juxtaposes living by faith in the previous verse with living by the law in this verse. The law and faith are mutually exclusive. To try to be justified by one is to choose not to be justified by the other. When people choose to be justified by faith they are choosing not to try to be justified by keeping the law. When people try to be justified by keeping the law, they have chosen not to be justified by faith. And should people try to be justified by the law, they must also “live by” it, which means keep it perfectly.
Taking the Curse of the Law for Us
We can be justified by faith, but this still leaves us with a problem: because we have broken the law we are under a curse. Either we bear the curse or someone bears it in our place. But if someone would be willing to bear the curse in our place, he would have to have perfectly obeyed the law so as not to be cursed himself. Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” This is a quote of Deuteronomy 21:23. Jesus kept the law perfectly and was willing to be hanged on a tree to take our curse for us.
Many Jews reject Jesus as their Messiah, because he was hanged on a tree and cursed. How could their long-awaited Messiah be cursed by God and under his divine judgment and condemnation? But it is only in Jesus being cursed in our place can the curse be lifted from us. The Greek word for “redeemed” is exagorazō, which speaks of buying a slave’s freedom. When Christ took the curse for us, he purchased our freedom from sin and death.
All of this was beautifully foreshadowed in Numbers 21. The fiery serpents were sent as a curse against Israel. This is such a fitting type and shadow, because the curse was removed when the bronze serpent was lifted up and put on a tree, just as our curse was removed when Christ was lifted up on a tree. Just as the bronze serpent took away the wrath of God for all who looked to it to be saved, so too does Jesus take away the wrath of God for all who look to him to be saved.
Personal Application (Continued from Part One)
Complaining about Circumstances Can Be Complaining about God
This account in Numbers 21, perhaps more than any other, shows us how negatively God views complaining. When God sends out serpents to bite people it is obvious He is upset. Complaining angers God because He is sovereign, which means He is in control of everything we experience, whether good or bad. God says, “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things. Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” (Isaiah 45:7 and Amos 3:6). Lamentations 3:38 records, “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?”
Because God is sovereign, to complain about our experiences is to complain against God. We might feel like we’re complaining only about the trials themselves, but because the trials come from God and are part of His plan for our lives, complaining about the trials is complaining about God’s plan for us.
Let’s consider Job’s example. As much as Solomon is associated with wisdom, Job’s name is associated with suffering. It is hard to imagine anyone experiencing worse circumstances. Within a short period of time—because each new messenger arrived while the previous messenger was still speaking—Job learned of the loss of his oxen, donkeys, sheep, camels, servants, house, and children (Job 1:14-19).
Job’s suffering would be devastating for anyone who lived at any time, but it was even worse for him because he had no Scripture to encourage him or shed light on his situation. He lived before any of the books of the Bible were written. But even without Scripture Job still understood that all suffering must first pass through God’s throne because He is sovereign:
Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong (Job 1:20-22).
Do the words, “Job did not charge God with wrong,” mean Job did not believe God was behind what happened? No, he said, “The Lord has taken away.” Job saw God in charge of what happened.
Job suffered even more when Satan “struck [him] with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (Job 2:7). Job’s wife then told him, “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). You could wonder why she was allowed to live when everyone else near Job had been killed until you read her counsel. Satan kept her alive because she was his servant. Satan knew she would encourage Job to do what Satan told God Job would do: “Curse [God] to [His] face” (Job 2:5). Instead, Job rebuked his wife. Job 2:10 records, “He said to her, ‘You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10). Even though Job saw the “evil” coming from God he still didn’t curse him. Later he said, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15). He saw God “slaying” him, yet he continued to trust him.
How is it that Job “Did not sin with his lips”? He did not complain. Despite all he suffered he chose to worship God and praise Him. Could there be a stronger contrast to the nation of Israel? Job’s example could not be more opposite than Israel’s response to their suffering.
Job fulfilled New Testament instruction before it was written in that believers are told to “[give] thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20) and “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). We tend to think this is speaking only of blessings, but this is destroyed by the words “all things” and “all circumstances,” which includes trials and suffering.
Ingratitude Is Sin
Obtaining food required considerable effort in the ancient world even under the best circumstances. How much more difficult in the uncivilized wilderness. Yet God graciously and miraculously provided it from heaven, and Psalm 78:25 describes the situation this way: “Man ate of the bread of the angels; he sent them food in abundance.” Any response other than awe and thankfulness was sinful. The Israelites were so ungrateful they said, “We loathe this worthless food” (Numbers 20:5).
After Jesus healed ten lepers and only one of them returned to give thanks, He said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:18-19). Whether in the Old Testament or the New Testament the Lord notices a lack of gratitude.
Discouraged Too Easily
This took place on the border of the Promised Land. When Israel entered they would have to fight “seven nations more numerous and mightier” (Deuteronomy 7:1). If they were this discouraged by the lack of food, water, and some bread they didn’t like, how would they respond to the enemies they were going to face?
I’m reminded of a low point in the prophet Jeremiah’s life. God told him there was a plot against his life from the men of his own hometown of Anathoth (Jeremiah 11:21). He replied by complaining about the wicked prospering: “Righteous are you, O Lord, when I complain to you; yet I would plead my case before you. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?”
God responded: “If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you are so trusting, what will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5). If Jeremiah were discouraged now, what would he do when things got worse? And they would! God informed Jeremiah that the people planning to kill him weren’t only from his hometown. They were related to him: “For even your brothers and the house of your father, even they have dealt treacherously with you; they are in full cry after you; do not believe them, though they speak friendly words to you” (Jeremiah 12:6).
If Israel was upset in the wilderness when they weren’t getting the food and water they wanted, what would happen when Israel was in the Promised Land and seven nations that were stronger than them were trying to kill them?
Not only did God not console Jeremiah, He rebuked him. Not only did God not console Israel, he punished them. When we are discouraged we might think that if we could have a conversation with God He would be quick to encourage us. Perhaps. But if we look at the examples with Israel and Jeremiah, we should also consider how quickly God might rebuke us if we have become discouraged too easily. Might He tell us instead to toughen up?
Disciplined for Good
God also sent out these snakes at a crucial moment in Israel’s history to get their attention and shape them into the nation they needed to be to conquer the Promised Land. And it seemed to work immediately—they started looking and sounding differently; complaining was replaced with repentance and humility.
While there isn’t much to commend about the Israelites in this chapter, one thing we can appreciate is that they allowed God’s discipline to produce fruit. Hebrews 12:11 says, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” When we are disciplined it does not feel good, but hopefully we can learn from the Israelites’ example and be trained by it, so the fruit of righteousness is yielded in our lives.
Ruining the Good
We have the potential to ruin even good things because of our sinfulness. We can turn God’s gifts into idols. One such example took place with the bronze serpent. Tragically, over time, people began to worship it. When Hezekiah reformed the nation and destroyed the idolatry, he had to include the bronze serpent, which by then had developed its own name:
[Hezekiah] removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan” (2 Kings 18:4).
The object that brought miraculous healing became an idol. Nehushtan is a reminder that we must be on guard against taking any of God’s blessings and letting our relationships to them become sinful. Marriage, children, homes, relationships, money, or jobs are no more sinful than the bronze serpent; however, when we worship them, they become Nehushtan.
The Gospel Is Meant to Be Shared
Moses didn’t hide the bronze serpent. He lifted it up on a pole so that it could be shared with as many people as possible. So too the gospel is meant to be shared with as many people as possible: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light” (Luke 11:33). Just as Moses made the bronze serpent available to as many as possible, we should make the gospel available to as many as possible.
Just as all the Israelites were to look to the bronze serpent to be saved, so too are all the ends of the earth to look to Christ to be saved: “Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:22 NKJV). Have you looked up for the salvation God has provided in His Son by faith in what He accomplished on the cross for sins? Have you then shared this wonderful news with others?
The gospel must be shared because nobody can look at the bronze serpent for someone else. All the sick and dying must look for themselves.
The Only Way to Be Saved
The bronze serpent was the only cure for those who had been bitten by serpents, just as Jesus is the only cure for those who have been bitten by sin. Peter said, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The only salvation available for Israel God graciously provided. If they rejected it, they died physically. Similarly, the only salvation available to us God graciously provided. If we reject it then we die eternally.