The Cross in the Wilderness

Bible Book: Numbers  21 : 4-9
Subject: Cross; Prophecy of the Cross
Series: The Way of the Cross

The Cross was not some cruel thing that just happened to Jesus. It did not take Him by surprise. It was not something evil that suddenly overcame Him. It was part of God’s plan before He said, "Let Us make man in Our own image" (Gen. 1:26). For proof of this, we may read Revelation 13:8: "All those who live on the earth will worship him (the beast our of the sea), everyone whose name was not written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slaughtered" (Rev 13:8, HCSB). This Cross was in God’s plan "from the foundation of the world." This verse holds before us two enemies who are so powerful that everyone will worship one or the other. Those who worship the beast are actually worshiping Satan. Every person whose name is not written in the Book of Life will worship Satan. The day is coming when it will either be Christ or the anti-Christ. Today, we either worship Christ or some anti-Christ.

Let me stress again that the Cross was in God’s plan from the beginning. The first hint of it is found in Genesis 3:15ff, where we find the first Messianic prophecy. I was disappointed when I attended an associational evangelism conference, looking forward to hearing one of my old professors leading the Bible study. He read Genesis 3:15 and said, "You preachers tell your people that is a Messianic prophecy. YOU DON’T KNOW THAT!" He went on to explain that we would not know that if we did not have the later prophecies to prove that this was a Messianic prophecy. You want to know what else surprised me? It seemed like three-fourths of those present said, "Amen!"

The simple fact is that if the Bible ended there we would not know it was Messianic, but we do have the rest of the Old Testament and that was in God’s plan from the beginning. Yes, Paul would explain to the Galatians that God promised as a part of the Abrahamic Covenant that the Seed of Abraham would bless the nations of the world (Genesis 12). Paul wrote, " Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say ‘and to seeds,’ as though referring to many, but and to your seed, referring to one, who is Christ" (Gal 3:16 , HCSB). In Numbers 21:4-9. We find an incident that foreshadows the Cross over 1400 years before the crucifixion of Jesus, hundreds of years before any empire or nation used crucifixion as a means of execution.

Now I will agree that if we stop reading the Old Testament with the third chapter of Genesis, there is no way we would know that the Cross was in God’s plan from the beginning, but we do have the rest of the Bible. We do have the account of God’s command to Abraham to offer his son of promise, Isaac, on an altar of sacrifice. This foreshadows the Cross when God the Father would place His only begotten Son on the altar of sacrifice and watch Him die for our sins. Many people see the account of Abraham’s placing Isaac on the altar as a picture of substitutionary atonement. It is that, but there is more. When Abraham took Isaac up from the altar we see a picture of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God placed His Son on an altar from which He could not deliver Him and provide for our salvation. He had to let Him die, taking our sins upon Himself. He raised Him from the dead that we might have eternal life. Paul states it clearly:

"For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, because it is written: Cursed is everyone who does not continue doing everything written in the book of the law. Now it is clear that no one is justified before God by the law, because the righteous will live by faith. But the law is not based on faith; instead, the one who does these things will live by them. Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written: Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree. The purpose was that the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, so that we could receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal 3:10-14).


A. The Israelites Rebelled Against God and Moses, Num. 21:4-5.

1) Miriam had died in the wilderness before this incident (Num. 20).

2) Aaron had just died at Hor and Eleazer his son was now high priest, 21:4.

3) Moses led the Israelites away from Hor by way of the Red Sea, avoiding Edom, 21:4.

Then they set out from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to bypass the land of Edom, but the people became impatient because of the journey (Num 21:4).

The most direct route from the wilderness to Canaan was directly through the country of Edom, but their kinsmen would not permit passage through their land. They made it very plain that they would go to war against them to keep them from passing through the land, even though Moses promised that they would do not harm to the land or the people. They would not even drink from the wells.

Edom blocked their way in open defiance of the will of God. They were their kinsmen, descended from Esau the twin brother of Jacob whose name was changed to Israel. The Edomites knew who these Israelites were and why they were there. They set themselves squarely in opposition to God, a fact that He would not forget. Turn with me to the Book of Malachi:

An oracle: The word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi. "I have loved you," says the Lord.

But you ask: "How have You loved us?"

"Wasn’t Esau Jacob’s brother?" [This is] the Lord’s declaration. "Even so, I loved Jacob, but I hated Esau. I turned his mountains into a wasteland, and [gave] his inheritance to the desert jackals."

Though Edom says: "We have been devastated, but we will rebuild the ruins," the Lord of Hosts says this: "They may build, but I will demolish. They will be called a wicked country and the people the Lord has cursed forever. Your own eyes will see this, and you yourselves will say: The Lord is great, even beyond the borders of Israel (Mal 1:1-5).

Many Bible students have wondered how God could hate Esau. Please remember that Jacob here is the nation of Israel and Esau is the nation of Edom. Any time you read that God loved Jacob, but hated Esau, read this passage and you will see what it was Edom, the nation descended from Esau which God hated. God would not permit Israel to attack their kinsmen. Instead, He sent them on a long trek around Edom. The people were close to the Land of Promise, but instead of going directly into the land they were forced to make another long, hot, dry march. This is when they rebelled - once again.

4) The Israelites spoke against God and against Moses. "The people spoke against God and Moses: "Why have you led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness?" (Num 21:5a). What did these people spend a great deal of their time doing in the wilderness? The same thing their parents had done that caused God to judge them and sentence them to death in the wilderness. The Israelites would wonder in the wilderness for 40 years, until all those who were 20 years of age and older were dead, with the exception of the two faithful spies, Joshua and Caleb. These, their children, knew the story well, but they continued in the ways of their parents.

5) They loathed the bread God provided for them. The cried out, "There is no bread or water, and we detest this wretched food!" (21:5b). May I pause here long enough to tie some of these things together and then relate it to the church today?

(a) Egypt represented bondage and death. God had delivered His Chosen People from bondage and death by His strong and mighty hand. They were out of Egypt, delivered from bondage.

(b) Canaan was the Land of Promise for God’s Chosen People. He never delivered them from death and bondage to see them wonder in the wilderness, but to take them directly to Sinai where He would enter a covenant with them before taking them directly into the land flowing with milk and honey. Canaan is where God wanted His people, not the wilderness.

(c) The wilderness was the last place God wanted His people to spend 40 years. They rebelled against Him and He sentenced all the adults, those whom he held responsible for the rebellion, to death in the wilderness. They would wander in the wilderness for 40 years. Imagine the conditions. There were two million people whom He delivered from bondage, two million people camped out in the wilderness.

Now, let me try to relate this situation to the church today. Major Ian Thomas did an outstanding job of teaching this in one of his books, so this is not original. It may not have been original with Thomas, for that matter. Okay, here goes!

(a) Egypt represents death and bondage. Egypt denotes slavery. If you are saved today, you are saved by the mighty hand of God, who redeemed you from death by His grace when you placed your faith in His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. You were miraculously delivered. You could never have delivered yourself.

(b) God delivered you from death to live, not in the wilderness, but in Canaan; not literally in the land of Israel, of course. He delivered you from death and bondage to sin and Satan so that you might live a spirit-filled life, so that you would walk in the Spirit, not in the flesh. God wants you to walk with Him and enjoy the fruit of that walk. Canaan was the land flowing with milk and honey, a fruitful land. Those who walk with the Lord will be blessed and they will be a blessing.

(c) God did not redeem you from slavery to sin and Satan for you to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, or even for 40 days. Not even 40 minutes! Those who wander in the wilderness today are those who have been delivered from bondage and death, but refuse to live in Canaan; they refuse to walk in the Spirit. They are determined to walk in the flesh.

6) Now, let me mention the characteristics of those who wander in the wilderness.

(1) They loathed the bread God provides for them. Please don’t ask God to send me manna from heaven! That may surprise some people, but let me remind you that manna is the food for the wilderness, not the food of Canaan. God did not want them to wander in the wilderness, eating manna for 40 years. Manna sustained them but never satisfied them. Those Christians who walk in the flesh are sustained by manna from heaven. They are not sent back to Egypt, but they are denied the blessings of Canaan. They have chosen the bread of the wilderness and rejected the milk and honey of the Land of Promise. There are a number of other things that characterize those who wander in the wilderness.

(2) They complain about God and their pastors, deacons, and other leaders. Those who were sustained by manna in the wilderness were never satisfied. They griped and complained. The verbally attacked Moses and Aaron. They blamed God. You show me someone who spends his life griping and complaining about what the pastor does, or what the Sunday School teacher says, or what the minister of music is doing with the choir, and I will show you a church member who is either lost or one who is walking in the flesh. It took the mighty hand of God to deliver the Children of Israel from Egypt, and it took the mighty hand of God to deliver them from the wilderness to Canaan. It takes the mighty hand of God to save a person, and it takes a mighty act of God to deliver one who is walking in the flesh to the spirit-filled life.

(3) The believer who wanders in the flesh does not understand what God is doing. He not only rebels against God, he cannot see what he is doing wrong. He sees what everyone else is doing wrong! But, in the flesh, he is not likely to see that he is the one who is wrong. Secular psychologists tell people that it is natural for them to be angry with God when things don’t go right for them. Let me expose my ignorance here. I believe it is natural for the wilderness saint to blame God for bad things, or to be angry with God when tragedy strikes. However, the more you walk with God in the Spirit the less likely you are to be angry with God when tragedy strikes.

I was pastor of the Hollywood Baptist Mission one year when I stayed out of Seminary to work for the USDA and pastor a mission church. One day I received a call from Emerson Strode. He and his wife Martha wanted me to know that their little four old son, Paul had undergone a tonsillectomy and he they were unable to awaken him. He was going to die. When Becky and I walked into the hospital, I wondered what I might say to my friends. They said it all. They said, "We asked God for a son and He gave us one. He never told us how long we could keep him. We will just thank him for the time we had with Paul." You say that’s not natural? Right! That is not natural. It is not natural for one who is walking in the flesh, but it was natural for those godly people who were walking in the Spirit of the living God!

(4) There are those who think they are living in Canaan who are still in Egypt. Hannity and Colmes interviewed a lady from some really far out fundamentalist church in April, 2006. This church had sent members to the funeral of a fallen soldier who had died in Iraq. They were there to tell the family that he deserved to die. Sean Hannity said, "I’m a Christian," and the woman said, "No, you are not." Alan Colmes stressed that her church was not affiliated with any Baptist convention. It is an independent Baptist church. She condemned Colmes and he made the statement, "I worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." Let me stress here that Alan Colmes does not worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He dishonors Him by rejecting His only begotten Son, whom He sent to die for Alan Colmes. He loves him and reaches out to him, but if Colmes would honor the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he would turn to Jesus, God’s Messiah. Jesus states this clearly in John, Chapter 8.


B. The Lord Sent Fiery Serpents Among the People to Bite Them, 21:6.

1) Satan assumed the image of a serpent when he tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, Genesis 3. He proved himself to be the bitter enemy of God, but since he could not defeat God, he concentrted his attention on the one creature created in the image of God.

2) Satan was behind the rebellion in the wilderness. He is behind the wilderness wanderer today, constantly suggesting ungodly thoughts to the mind of the person who is walking in the flesh. Someone will not go to a particular church because someone said something to offend them. I have had church members to say things that offended me! The question is, do we let that drive us away for God or His church, or do we forgive and seek a reconciliation?

3) God sent the fiery serpents to bite the people. I have a confession. I hate snakes. My brother Mike, a defense attorney specializing in injury litigation on the defense side, told me he had to defend an insurance company that covered a restaurant that had a deck our over Bayou Deseard in Monroe, LA. A man was sitting at a table over the water when a cottonmouth mocassin came up between a tree and the deck and bit him on the leg. Everyone knew the insurance company would pay the damages, but they wondered how much more they would have to pay. Someone asked Mike if they would ask a jury how much it would take for them to sit down at a table on that deck and let a cottonmouth bite them. A snakebite is a horrible thing to contemplate.

4) All who were bitten died. Today, death from a snake bite is rare, especially if the victim is rushed to a hospital where they are given anti-venom serum and antibiotics. It was not in God’s plans for these victims to survive. You may wonder what kind of God would judge people so harshly. I can tell you this much: He is a holy God. We speak often of the love of God that provides for our salvation, but we must also remember the holiness of God that cannot tolerate sin in His presence.

C. The Lord Provided Salvation for a People Under His Judgment, 21:7-9.

The people then came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Intercede with the Lord so that He will take the snakes away from us." And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, "Make a snake [image] and mount it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will recover. So Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten, and he looked at the bronze snake, he recovered" (Num 21:7-9).

1) Many of the condemned people repented, 21:7. Did he really say that horrible word? Did he really say the "repented"? I realize that many people today do not want to hear anything about repentance. A popular TV preacher has openly stated that the does not say anything about repentance because he just wants people to feel good. Praise is a lot more popular today than repentance. John the Baptist preached repentance: "Repent ye, for the kingdom of God is at hand!" Peter and John preached repentance. Paul preached repentance. Jesus demands repentance.

Lost people must repent in order to be saved. I met Carl Hart (Mr. Carl) at a deer camp when I was a very young pastor. I witnessed to him for years before he was saved. One day, he told me he had gone to a certain church in the area and the pastor had preached about turning over a new leaf. He said, "I need to do a lot more than that!" He was right. He needed to repent and belive in Jesus Christ. He eventually did that as we prayed in his living room. He loved being in services as much as anyone I have ever known. When his faith forced him to miss for some time I went to see him and had a nice visit. As I was leaving, Mr. Carl said, "You tell those people at that church that the Bible says you must be born again, and by golly, I’ve been born again." I told them exactly what he said.

2) Moses prayed for the people. I love the Book of Jeremiah, but I will have to admit that when I began studying Jeremiah I found some surprises. In fact, every time I go back to Jeremiah I found something there I had never noticed before. Of course, that is true of the Bible in general. Let me read a few verses from Jeremiah:

Then the Lord said to me: "Even if Moses and Samuel should stand before Me, My compassions would not [reach out] to these people. Send them from My presence, and let them go. If they ask you: Where will we go? you must tell them this is what the Lord says:

Those [destined] for death, to death; those [destined] for the sword, to the sword. Those [destined] for famine, to famine; those [destined] for captivity, to captivity.

"I will ordain four kinds [of judgment] for them"—[this is] the Lord’s declaration—"the sword to kill, the dogs to drag away, and the birds of the sky and the wild animals of the land to devour and destroy (Jer 15:1-3).

You may think that is very severe. What does that say about the love and mercy of God? It speaks volumes about the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man. Judgment could have been avoided if the people had repented and obeyed the Lord, but the absolutely refused. The Lord had told Jeremiah to stop praying for those people, and now he says that He wouldn’t spare them the coming judgment even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before Him. Why Moses and Samuel? Because they were great intercessors, prayer warriors who constantly prayed for the people.

3) God had Moses to make a serpent of brass and put it on a pole, and all who looked upon it in faith were saved. All who were bitten could simply look upon the brass serpent, a symbol of the curse, and they would live. I hope you are wondering what all this has to do with the Cross.



Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.

A. As the Serpent Was Lifted Up on a Pole, Jesus Had to Be Lifted on a Cross, 3:14-15.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life (John 3:14-15).

1) In the wilderness the people loathed the bread God provided for them. The issue in John 3 is that the people of the world loath the Bread of Life.

2) In the wilderness the people found neither bread nor water. Those in the wilderness of sin find neither bread not water. Those Israelites in the wilderness could look all they wanted to but they would never find an adequate source of water for two million people. It was impossible for them to find water in the wilderness, but God provided an abundant supply.

3) Jesus is both the Water of Life and the Bread of Life. It just as it is impossible for the lost person today to find the Water of Life or the Bread of Life as it was for those ancient Israelites to find water and bread in the wilderness. Jesus interrupted a feast once: "If anyone is thirsty, he should come to Me and drink! The one who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him." (John 7:37-38).

B. Jesus Was Lifted Up on the Cross for our the Salvation, John 3:16-18.

1) Mankind is in a state of rebellion against God. Just as those ancient Israelites rebelled against Him, all people are in rebellion against Him until they come to the Cross. It is not that the lost person is living without God; he is living in opposition to God, supporting the enemy of God. This is serious business.

Jeremiah was inspired to write, "The heart is more deceitful than anything else and desperately sick—who can understand it?" (Jer 17:9 ). Ezekiel wrote, "The person who sins is the one who will die" (Ezek 18:20). Paul teaches that "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). He adds, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). Why would God give His Son to die such a horrible death? The answer is amazing: "But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us!" (Romans 5:8, HCSB).

2) If you are in rebellion against God, you are snake-bit right now. You need immediate attention!

You will find healing at the Cross. As the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, so was Jesus lifted up on the Cross. Those who looked, believing in the wilderness lived. Those who look to the Cross, believing in Jesus receive everlasting life.

3) Everyone who looks to Jesus in faith will live forever. I memorized a lot of verses when I participated in memory drills and Bible drills, and one of the first verses I learned was John 3:16. What a glorious verse that is! It has been called "The Little Gospel" and "The Gospel in a Nutshell."

"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16, NKJV).

The serpent symbolized sin. Those who were bitten by the serpents in the wilderness looked to the serpent Moses raised up in the wilderness and lived. On the Cross Jesus took our sins upon Himself, became a curse for our sins. If we repent, believing in Him we have everlasting life. How can it be stated more simply, or more powerfully? Look to Jesus and live forever. Refuse Him and perish - forever.



A. Satan Is on a Rampage.

He has always raged against God and everything God holds dear. His primary focus is on the one creature created in the image of God. He would destroy every human being. He convinces people that they can handle their liquor and all the time he is trying to enslave them with it. Little does the young person who boasts that he can handle those drugs realize that he is becoming addicted to them. He is telling young girls that they need to buy clothes that will make them sexy. God gave sex to men and women for fulfillment in marriage, but today many people flaunt their immorality before God, not realizing that they are in serious danger. Not all immoral people die from STDs. Not all have pregnancies with which to deal. But all have sin that must be dealt with, and God will deal with it, either here and now, or forever.

A had a friend who was a lot older than I and one day I mentioned him to another pastor. The pastor told me that my friend had been a womanizer when he was younger. One day, as he was waiting for his wife to die of cancer, he said to me, "You know what I did last night. I lay on my back in bed and recalled 39 women with whom I had committed adultery." I would call him a serious womanizer. However, at this time it was a matter of shame.

B. Man Is in Rebellion Against God.

The world is not in rebellion against religion, it is rebellion against Almighty God. The world hates Jesus Christ and everything associated with Him. If you are walking with the Lord, the world will hate you, too. If you are loyal to Jesus the world will persecute you. If you love Jesus Christ, the religions of the world will hate you, just as the religious leaders of his day hated Jeremiah and sought to kill him. All the religions of the world are inspired and empowered by Satan. Why else would two billion people become slaves to Islam, a religion that has left a bloody trail from Mecca to the Twin Towers; from Afghanistan to Iraq; from Saudi Arabia to mosques all over Europe; from the Middle East to America.

How is America meeting that challenge? We are moving deeper and deeper into the post-Christians period in our history. As a result, we are losing our culture. Amazingly, immigrants, legal and otherwise, are coming to America seeking a better way of life, but once the get here many of them begin trying to convert America to the kind of country from which they had fled.

I remember reading once a number of years ago that while the divorce rate as a whole was approaching 50%, only one in twelve who were active Christians ever ended up in a divorce court. Today, divorce is a serious issue within the church. I am not talking about divorced people who turn to the Lord and get involved in His church. Some of the most outstanding people I have ever known have been divorced. I am talking about church members who are active in church and become involved in sin that breaks up the family.

C. There Is a War Going on Against God Right Now.

1) Spiritual warfare is nothing new. The escalation of the conflict is what should get our attention.

I read something I wrote in 1992 on this subject. It is amazing how much worse things have gotten since that time. We had a president who whose closest advisers declared him to be "a great liar"; a man who was grossly immoral. He was elected for a second term, with the votes of many who identify themselves as Christians. Throughout the seventies, I heard preachers talking about secular humanism. The Gospel of the classroom was evolution, the principles taught in colleges were that of atheistic evolutionary humanism, which breeds immorality, addiction, and a host of other sins.

When I wrote that sermon in 1992, I was aware of something that was happening, but I could not get many people to take it seriously. Suddenly, there were polls that showed a revival of interest in religion and belief in God, or so we were told. What the polls did not reveal was that while more people said they believed in God, it was having less impact on their lives. Of course, what many overlooked was that the polls asked, Do you believe in a God or a god-like force. There was no revival going on in the early nineties. What was going on was that humanism was being injected with a liberal dose of a spiritual element - New Age religious beliefs. It was really a challenge to get church members to take New Age matters seriously. Believe me, I tried. A few years ago another pastor tried to tell me that New Age was a fad that had already faded away. Little did he realize that New Agers dropped the name and began using a new term, Postmodernism. Postmodernism is a term that allows both humanists and all sorts of New Age religious beliefs under the same umbrella.

2) Satan is getting a lot of mileage out of various "isms" today. We have mentioned humanism and postmodernism. There are many other "isms" in Satan’s arsenal. We are familiar with the terms, Hinduism and Buddhism, but there are many more. We are also familiar with the secular "isms" like Nazism and Communism, but there are many more. For example, there is Mormonism and other so-called Christian cults, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

D. The Only Hope for Anyone is in the Cross of Jesus Christ.

1) The only hope for salvation for a lost person is in the Cross of Christ. "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved."

2) We must put on the whole armor of God if we are going to encounter the enemy of the Cross.

"Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the tactics of the Devil. For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. This is why you must take up the full armor of God, so that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your stand. Stand, therefore, with truth like a belt around your waist, righteousness like armor on your chest, and your feet sandaled with readiness for the gospel of peace. In every situation take the shield of faith, and with it you will be able to extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word (Eph 6:11-17).


What do we need to do? If you are a born again believer, you must "Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the tactics of the Devil." If you are not a believer, Jesus has a word for you: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). Jesus paid the price for your salvation.

Up Calvary’s mountain one dreadful morn,

Walked Christ my Savior, weary and worn;

Facing for sinners death on the cross,

That He might save them from endless loss.

"Father, forgive them!", thus did He pray,

E’en while His life-blood flowed fast away;

Praying for sinners while in such woe-

No one but Jesus ever loved so.

O how I love Him, Savior and Friend,

How can my praises ever find end!

Thro’ years unnumbered on heaven’s shore,

My tongue shall praise Him forever more.

Blessed Redeemer! Precious Redeemer!

Seems now I see Him on Calvary’s tree;

Wounded and bleeding, for sinners pleading-

Blind and unheeding dying for me!