The Brazen Serpent And The Uplifted Christ
( Originally Published 1895 )
"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up : that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life." —John iii. 14, 15.
I AM greatly impressed with the message that is in this scripture to those of us who are already Christians. It expresses very clearly our duty to lift up the Lord Jesus Christ before the eyes of the world. John Ruskin, in his description of the artistic glories of St. Mark's Church, Venice, says that " Here are all the successions of crowded imagery, showing the passions and pleasures of human life, symbolized together, and the mystery of its redemption ; for the maze of interwoven lines and changeful pictures lead always at last to the cross, lifted and carved in every place and upon every stone; sometimes with the serpent of eternity wrapped around it, sometimes with doves beneath its arms and sweet herbage growing forth from its feet; but conspicuous most of all on the great rood that crosses the altar, raised in bright blazonry against the shadow of the apse. It is the cross that is first seen and always burning in the center of the temple; and every dome and hollow of its roof has the figure of Christ in the utmost heights of it, raised in power, returning in judgment."
Every Christian life ought to follow that ex-ample. At the top of every ambition ought to be the figure of Jesus Christ. High above all else, attracting more attention than anything else in our daily living, should be our devotion to the cause of Jesus Christ. Let us ask ourselves the heart-searching question to-night, whether we are so living from day to day that everybody who sees us, and knows us, recognizes as our chief characteristic that we are honoring the Savior, and holding him forth before the eyes of all men as the one to whom they may look and be saved.
There is a quaint little story that may have just the message that some one needs. Jacob Gay had been to church one morning, and his wife Rachel had not. When he came home she asked him, "Had a good sermon, Jacob?"
" Complete, Rachel," the old man said.
Rachel was not very well and could not go to meeting much, and so she wanted her husband to tell her about the sermon and the singing and the people.
" Good singing, Jacob?"
" I am sure I couldn't tell you."
" Many people out to-day?"
" I don't know."
" Why, Jacob, what is the matter? What are you thinking about?"
" The sermon."
" What was the text?"
" I don't think there was any. At least I didn't hear it."
" I declare, Jacob, I do believe you slept all the time."
" Indeed, I didn't. I never was so wide awake." " What was the subject then?"
" As near as I can remember, it was me." " You ! Jacob Gay!"
"Yes, mother. You think it a poor subject. I am sure I thought so too."
" Who preached? Our minister?"
" No, he didn't preach—not to me, at any rate. 'Twas a woman—a young woman too."
"Why, Mr. Gay. You don't mean it, surely. Those woman's rights' folks haven't got into our pulpit?"
" Well, not exactly. The minister preached from the pulpit, but I could not listen. I was thinking about my sermon. I will tell you about it. You know that young woman at the post office, Mrs. Hyde's niece. She and I were the first ones at meeting, and we sat by the stove warming. I have seen her a good deal in the post-office and at her aunt's when I was there at work. She is a pleasant-spoken and a nice, pretty girl. We were talking about the meeting. You know there is quite a revival going on. She was speaking of this one and that one, who was converted. There was quite a silence, and then she said, sort of low and trembling in her voice, and a little pink flush on her cheek, and the tears just a starting :
" `Oh, Mr. Gay, some of us were saying at the prayer-meeting last night that we did so want you to be a Christian.'
" Her cheeks flushed redder, and the tears fell. I knew she felt it, and it was a cross for her to say it. I never was so taken back in all my life.
" ` Why, bless your soul,' I said, `my child, I have been a member of the church forty years.'
"My tears came then, and I guess my cheeks would have been redder than hers, if they were not so tanned.
" `Do excuse me, Mr. Gay,' she said. `Excuse me for hurting your feelings, but I didn't know you were a Christian. I never saw you at prayer-meeting or Sabbath-school, nor heard you say any-thing about it when others were testifying, nor at the altar when others were seeking. I am so sorry I have hurt your feelings.'
" `Tut, tut, child,' I answered. `No harm done. I am glad you thought about an old man. I am a member as I say, but I haven't worked at it much, I'll allow. I've been making excuses for myself, but I am afraid the Lord wouldn't accept them.'
" Just then the people began to come, and I took my seat; but the looks and words of that young woman went to my heart. I couldn't think of anything else. They preached to me all the meeting-time. To think that some of the young folks in town didn't know I was a member, and were anxious and concerned for the old man ! And as I thought about it I said to myself, `Jacob Gay, you've been a silent partner long enough. It is time you woke and worked for the Lord; time to let your light shine so that the young folks can see it.' "
Are there not some here this evening that need just the message of this simple story? I do not bring any railing accusation against you. You are not an intentional hypocrite, and you mean to be a Christian. But have you ever considered how little outward manifestation you have given the world that you are in deed and in truth a devoted follower of the Lord Jesus Christ? Will you not begin now to lift Christ up before all that know you, as your own Savior, and the Savior of every one who will look unto him? I am satisfied that if all the Sunday-school teachers of this church, and class-leaders, and parents, and men and women in positions of influence, would, with consecrated fidelity and love, lift up Christ before their scholars and their children, their employees, their neighbors, there would be hundreds of people converted in the next few weeks.
Dr. Young, of the Central Christian Advocate, related some months ago the story of a revival meeting of great interest in a western city. During the meeting all the Sunday-school superintendents and Sunday-school teachers of the city were called together for consultation and prayer. The leader laid upon their hearts and consciences the spiritual condition and needs of their scholars, and urged upon them the request that the next day, which was the Sabbath, should be devoted entirely to revival services in the schools. In one of these schools was a young lady who had charge of a class of fifteen young ladies. On this Saturday night she was aroused to a strange, new sense of responsibility, concern, and anxiety, in behalf of her class. They were nearly all unsaved. She looked back over the past and lamented over her ill-used opportunities, and pleaded to God for help and guidance in the work of leading the unconverted to the Savior. She was so deeply moved that she found it almost impossible to rest; she spent nearly the whole night in meditation and prayer and preparation for the morrow. She prayed especially for the presence and help of the Holy Spirit.
The result was that she went to the school on the next day burdened with a sense of responsibility for her class and all aglow with a desire to bring them to Jesus. She found in the very opening of the service a tender solemnity pervading the school; an unwonted seriousness on every face. The superintendent, in his prayer, spoke with tremulous utterances, and prayed with pathetic power for teacher and scholar, and especially for the unconverted. And then came the earnest, heart-searching conversation which the teachers had with their scholars on the one question asked in the school that day, "Have you given your heart to the Savior?"
This one teacher, whose story we have been telling, depending on God for help, turned to her class, and as she talked to them concerning their duty to Christ, the deadly nature of sin, the awful danger of living in it, the obligation to help others, there was a new tremor in her voice and an unwonted moisture in her eyes. Her own serious prayerfulness proved contagious; one by one the members of the class began to yield to the call of the Master and to the gracious influences which at flood tide swept all about them. When that glorious Sunday-school hour was ended that day, in her class thirteen out of fifteen young ladies had accepted Christ as their personal Redeemer. What a glorious hour that was for that teacher, and how permanent the joy of it ! Through all eternity the music of that hour will echo and re-echo in glorious harmony. I would to God that there might be many who would follow this example in our own Sunday-school and church. There are no rewards so sweet and precious as those which come from holding up Christ faithfully before the perishing and the lost, and winning them to look upon him whom to know aright is life eternal.
To those who are not Christians there could not be a more hopeful scripture than this. The picture takes us back in Bible story to one of the most interesting scenes of Israel's wanderings in the desert. Travelers tell us that to this day a mottled snake with fiery red spots upon its head abounds at certain seasons in the Arabah. It is the dread of the fisherman, and is peculiarly dangerous to the bare-legged, sandaled Bedouins. So inflammable is its bite that it is likened to fire coming through the veins; so intense its venom, and so rapid its action, that the bite is fatal in a few hours. The body swells with a fier r eruption. The tongue is consumed with thirst; and the wretched victim writhes in agony till death brings release. This horrible pest suddenly appeared in the camp of Israel in large numbers. From crevices in the rocks, from holes in the sand, from beneath the scanty herbage, these fiery-headed snakes swarmed into every tent. It was idle to try to run away from them, and killing seemed hardly to diminish their number. On every side men, women and children were crying in anguish, unable to help each other or to save themselves. In this hour of their emergency which had come upon them because of their stubbornness and their sin against God, "the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he may take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole, and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived."
This is the picture which Jesus brings back to the mind of Nicodemus, and says to him in the language of 'the scripture we are studying, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life."
The place where the Israelites were bitten by the fiery serpents and where Moses saved them under God's direction, by the serpent of brass, was a place famous for its mines of brass, and no doubt Moses took the brass out of the very place where the serpents were, and found the remedy in the midst of the danger. So the Lord Jesus Christ came down from heaven, and was born into the midst of our life, was born under the law that he might redeem them that were under the law, bore the burdens and pains and aches of our flesh, was subject to hunger and weariness with us, was tempted in all points like as we are, took not hold upon the seed of angels, but upon the seed of Abraham. How complete was bis humiliation! He compares himself even to the serpent of brass that was lifted upon a pole before the dying camp, and says that as the bitten Israelites looked at that and were saved, so all that are bitten by the still more terrible serpent of sin may look to him and find salvation.
The serpent of brass was an emblem of God's presence. All who looked at it expected to be healed, not because of the brass serpent alone, but because of their faith in the mercy and faithfulness of God who had ordained it. So we look unto Christ as God's remedy for sin. He is our sacrifice. God hath laid upon him the iniquity of us all. We may' leave our burden of sin with the great sin-bearer, and become new creatures in Christ Jesus.
What a terrible suggestion is here of the deadly character of sin ! The venom of the serpent—it is to that it is compared. Once in southern Oregon, four thousand miles from here, I knew a man who had been bitten by a rattlesnake. Some temporary antidote was used, and it was hoped that he had entirely recovered. But something of the deadly virus was left in his system. And every year for ten years, when the season came on in which he had been bitten, and the anniversary of the time approached, the limb that had been bitten would become swollen and angry-looking, and he would be sick for many days; then it would pass away, and his normal health would return. But he lived in constant dread of some fatal result, and sure enough, the tenth year, when the angry symptoms returned, he grew worse and worse until he became wildly insane, and after a few weeks died with the most horrible suffering. Oh, my dear friend, it is to such a thing as that, the venom of a poisonous serpent, that your Savior compares the poison of sin. Why will you not turn away from it when the invitation is so gracious and so loving and so universal? " Whosoever believeth in him." Shall not the "whosoever" include you to-night?