Nehushtan: Despising the Grace of God

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. ” (John 3:14-16 NRSV)

Among the most beloved passages of scripture in the New Testament are the wonderful words of John 3:16. Most Christians can probably quote the verse without much effort, and for good reason: it is, indeed, a core affirmation of the Gospel which we are called to proclaim. But, as often as John 3:16 is quoted, John 3:14-15 is usually ignored. And that is also understandable ... these are two very strange verses. What is this “serpent in the wilderness” that Moses is supposed to have lifted up, and how does it relate to crucifixion of Jesus?

I don’t know about you, but I hate snakes. I don’t like them, can’t stand them, don’t want to be around them, and when I see them I go the other way. Heaven help anyone who ever gets between me and an exit when I’m fleeing a snake. There is, definitely, something Biblical in most people’s revulsion for the slithery beasts. And, yet, they are a part of God’s creation. They are even a part of the creation about which God said “it is good.” And, God used snakes — he used what the King James called “fiery serpents” — to punish the Israelites when they did a very naughty thing.

The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” (Numbers 21:5 NRSV)

Let’s be blunt: the people’s grumbling against Moses, God’s chosen leader, was bad enough; the people’s grumbling against God was even worse; but for the people to actually grumble about God’s gracious gift of the Manna, calling this miracle provision of nourishment “miserable food,” is truly the height of spiritual arrogance. Worse yet, in detesting the Manna the people of Israel were detesting that very gift of God which Jesus would identify with himself: “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” (John 6:41 and following verses) No wonder God punished them!

And it wasn’t just any old punishment that God meted out! God didn’t just smite them, God sent something that most people truly detest -- poisonous snakes -- to bite this bunch of stiff necked, recalcitrant people. So horrific was the attack that the people begged Moses to ask God to take away the serpents; Moses did so, and God’s response was just brilliant:

“Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (Number 21:8-9 NRSV)

Rather than take away the snakes, God rubbed their noses in their sin by taking that which was attacking them -- the detestable snakes -- and converting them into a reminder of their sin as well as a symbol of their salvation. It’s as if God was saying “ok, you want to detest my gifts, I’ll give you something to really detest!”

This bronze serpent on a pole came to be called “Nehushtan.” It became an important part of Israelite cultic worship, and eventually people began to worship it, burning incense to it rather than being reminded of their sin. Eventually Nehushtan had to be destroyed, but not before God’s message was made clear: Don’t disrespect, reject, or despise the gifts of God.

This is a danger which we face today. It is so easy to find oneself despising, rejecting, or disrespecting God’s grace. God’s grace comes to us in many different forms: the Holy Scriptures, Prayer, Fellowship, Giving, Worship, Preaching, Serving, the Sacrament of Holy Communion ... the many means of grace are, themselves, manifestations of God’s grace. They are among the ways in which God has seen fit to channel Divine favor to those who act in faith. When we neglect their use we are, like the Israelites, declaring the grace of God detestable. When we fail to read scripture, when we forget to pray, when we avoid our friends and families, when we refuse to give as God calls us to give, when we stay away from Worship and from the Preaching of God’s Word, when we reject the call to serve in the family of God, when we repeatedly refuse to partake of Holy Communion, we are proclaiming the spiritual nourishment in these means of grace to be “miserable food.” Some of our brothers and sisters, for physical reasons, cannot partake of the Eucharist, cannot attend worship, cannot even see to read the scriptures; and, yet, they partake of God’s grace in many other ways: by praying, by listening to sermons on CD and over the internet, by serving through phone and note-card ministries of encouragement. How can we, who are physically capable of participating in the many means of grace, detest and disrespect God, God’s House, and God’s gifts by not participating?

Look in your life. Are the serpents attacking? Are things falling apart? Does God seem distant? If so, I implore you to stop detesting the grace of God! Delay not a second in praising God for grace, and neglect not a single means of coming into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ our Lord. The alternative we face is much the same as that which the Israelites faced when the serpents attacked. In our case, we can either gaze upon the cross of Jesus, realize that he hung on that cross and died for our sins, and give thanks for the miracle provision which he provides in his abundant grace ... or we can die. Eternally.

Thanks to God’s grace, the choice is ours.

© 2006, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from