Every major religion touts some sort of salvation. The Buddhist is forever in search of Nirvana, the Muslim seeks to merit favor by submission and good works, Oriental religions seek to maintain purity of cultural thought and uniformity…..the list goes on and on, but there is a common thread – almost all religion points to a type or form of ‘salvation’ by human works. So, what is this ‘salvation’ thing, anyway? Oh, wait….Nicodemus asked that question already – of none other than Christ Himself! It is the context of the most famous and perhaps most beloved verse in the New Testament (John 3:16). OK – so what can I DO to be saved? The answer…. not a cotton picking thing! Salvation is not about ‘DO’, it’s about ‘BE’. Remember that conversation…. Nicodemus didn’t ask Christ how he could be saved – he simply acted on his convicted curiosity to meet the Master under cover of darkness to flatter Him based upon what he’d seen (… no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. John 3:2c). Jesus, without hesitation, used the opportunity to shift the focus to an unimaginable proposition…that in order to even SEE the Kingdom of God, a man must be ‘born again’. Like Sarah at the suggestion of her impending nonagenarian gestation (Genesis 18:12), you can almost hear the shocked snicker as he challenged Christ with the biological impossibility of the whole thing.
Here is where this idea of Christian ‘salvation’ was birthed – right here at the crossroads of works and faith. Christ’s allusion to Moses’ serpent being lifted up in the wilderness painted a picture for wavering Nicodemus – he would have been very familiar with the intricacies of every detail of Hebrew religious symbolism. Referring to that temporary remedy and all the protections that it afforded the backbiting Israelites is a nuance often left unaddressed by the Cliff Notes version of salvation that so many today espouse. In Numbers 21:4-9, God himself sent ‘fiery serpents’ to bite and torment those who murmured and complained against Moses’ leadership and, more importantly, God’s direction. The instruction to raise up a ‘brazen serpent’ was an archetype of salvation – a sort of pattern of what would later be perfected at Calvary. Those that ‘looked unto’ it lived, but those that persisted in their bellyaching died. So, where’s salvation in all of this?
- The children of Israel had been delivered from the shackles of Pharaoh and were given His personal protection and promise – a promised land of provision, plenty, and purpose. Men today have been given the down-payment on an eternal promise, but we must yet ‘endure to the end’ to be finally ‘saved’ (Matthew 24:13).
- The leadership of God was questioned by people who thought they knew better than God (or Moses for that matter) what they ought to do. People are still seeking their own way (Isaiah 53:6) over the way made straight by God. Often people will recite some ‘sinners prayer’ in hopes of finding an advocate to give them all the things they want and to protect them in their pursuit of their own way, not realizing that true salvation has eluded them in their selfish religious rationalizing.
- Israelites still died by the scores and hundreds, even though the answer was glaring right before them in plain sight. Men and women still die in their sin today, even though the answer has been ‘lifted up’ before them — if only they’d stop trying to make it all work and make sense, and lift up their eyes!
- Those that looked to the brazen serpent had to do only one thing…..stop what they were doing and look. People today still must do that same thing….stop all the religious rationalizing, complaining, and straining – and look up!
- The children of Israel, after looking upon the brazen serpent, lived…..but there was no suggestion that their pain was taken away or the scars of their sinful backbiting were removed. They lived, but many who didn’t look up did not – the bite of the fiery serpent was a death sentence as surely as the wages of sin is to the unrepentant man (Romans 6:23).
So, what does it all boil down to? Salvation isn’t the completion of a series of steps, adherence to a list of ‘pillars’, or achievement of inner peace. Salvation is the simple response to a simple call. It is an encounter, not a plan. So here it is….
- This is the ‘repent’ part — you can’t go in a new direction until you stop going in the old one (duh), yet the world is full of people who try to pull off that piece of trickery.
- Like the wandering children of Israel, we must ‘look unto’ the sacrifice of our Savior that likewise was ‘lifted up’ so that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:17). That ‘looking unto’ is not just staring at some symbol, it is abandonment of leadership by the old influences and embrace of the leadership of the new – in this case, Christ Himself!
- At the moment of conversion – once sin has been confessed, we by faith believe, in cooperation with the working of the Holy Spirit, and begin to walk in the light as He is in the light (1 John 1:7). We are ‘born again’. Salvation is the beginning of a clarified dependency – a settled understanding of our inability to navigate God’s perfect will with our imperfect intellect and intuition. The work of salvation is not so much a transaction as a work in progress, initiated at the New Birth, and continuing until the judgment. It is NOT a work of man, however….it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8) continually remitted to those who faithfully look toward their Savior.
Finally, about a millennium later, King Hezekiah had the brazen serpent destroyed because it had fallen prey to man’s inclination to fetishism – they had begun to revere and worship the symbol. That’s what happens when relationship dies and is replaced with the memory of a transaction. If your faith is based on a memory or something you ‘did’ sometime in the past – even if it was being baptized in water or walking down some aisle, but you’re no longer ‘looking unto’ the source of your salvation, you shouldn’t be surprised that the snakes are still nipping at your heels.