Meanie? No, Merciful!

John 3:14–21 14 “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18The one who believes in him is not condemned, but the one who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God. 19This is the basis for the judgment: The light has come into the world, yet people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. 20In fact, everyone who practices wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, or else his deeds would be exposed. 21But the one who does what is true comes toward the light, in order that his deeds may be seen as having been done in connection with God.”

When I taught the Fourth Commandment to my 7th grade Catechism class, I asked them what kind of discipline their parents have used on them. The students mentioned spankings when they were younger, mouths washed out with soap for talking back; grounding from activities; taking away electronics; turning off the Wi-Fi; doing extra chores; having to babysit their younger siblings; and picking up dog poo in the backyard.

One student described his mother’s discipline like this: “Whenever my brother, sister, and I fight with each other, my mom takes away our electronics. Then, she makes us sit in the living room with each other for 30 minutes. All we can do is talk to each other. If we’re still fighting after 30 minutes, we get 30 more minutes.”

I was laughing and said, “That’s awesome!” “No,” he said, “It’s torture!”

Many in our culture would describe these children’s parents as big meanies. They believe that corporal punishment will hurt their soft behinds; removing visual stimulation will hurt their fragile psyches; and making them do physical labor will hurt their delicate hands.  

If people believe that about parents disciplining their precious wallflowers of children, then they must really believe that God is a big, old, horrible meanie when they read in the Old Testament how God sent snakes to bite His disobedient wallflower children of Israel (Numbers 21:4-9). Sending venomous serpents to attack His people in the wilderness – that doesn’t sound very nice. Surely, a loving God wouldn’t do that. God must be a big, old meanie!

God had taken care of His precious children by providing a miraculous exodus from their Egyptian slavery. He administered 10 devastating plagues that forced the Pharaoh to kick the Israelites out of Egypt. Then, trapped between the fomenting anger of the pursuing Egyptian army and the foaming waters of the Red Sea, God caused a causeway to be created in the Red Sea waters. After the Israelites were safe on dry land, the waters came crashing down, drowning the pursuing Egyptian army (Exodus 14:26-28). When the Israelites became thirsty, God provided water from a rock (Exodus 17:1-7). When they became hungry, God provided quail to flock on the ground and manna to fall from heaven (Exodus 16).

Still, the Israelites whined about getting caught between Pharaoh and the Red Sea. They grumbled about being thirsty. They complained about the manna.

That’s because the Israelites had been bitten. Long before the Israelites were bitten by the venomous snakes, the Israelites had been bitten by the Ancient Serpent of the devil (Revelation 12:9).

God sent the fiery serpents as discipline upon His children. He was swatting their behinds, washing their mouths out with soap, grounding them, by sending these serpents to bite them. This doesn’t sound very merciful … until you consider the alternative – to let them go in their sins; to let them destroy themselves; to allow them to sin themselves to death. So, God was teaching them a valuable lesson. He was reminding them of their boundaries. He was correcting their grumbling behavior. He was scolding them, but at the same time He was offering salvation from the snakebites of the serpents. More importantly, He was teaching them that He was offering salvation from the snakebite of sin from the Ancient Serpent.

We, too, have been bitten by the Ancient Serpent called the devil. We, too, carry on a constant litany of grumbling, complaining, and impatience. We have immersed ourselves in the culture of complaint. We bellyache because the check-out line is too long. We are unhappy because our order wasn’t exactly right. We are dissatisfied with the service we received. We find fault with our teachers. We badmouth our politicians. We resent having to take care of our elderly parents. We are frustrated by the little blessings running around our house. We ignore God when our health is good, but complain as soon as we become ill, elderly or infirm. We gripe about the weather, taxes, schools, roads, neighbors, and anything else we can think of.

Sometimes we keep our bitterness hidden behind a grumpy, internal, and silent complaint. Other times, we whisper our criticisms to those near us, so that we can gain their pity for our dissatisfaction. And other times, we make our disapproval known with loud and bold statements, so everyone can fear our indignation.

Just like the folks in the wilderness, the poison of sin is coursing through our veins, turning us away from God, and turning us against God. These are not minor complaints or mere grumbling. This is deadly. Physically and spiritually.

Then, when God disciplines us, we grumble and complain even more persistently.

The worst thing we fear we could ever hear from God is for Him to say, “No” to us. “No” to moving in with our fiancé. “No” to sleeping in on Sunday morning. “No” to disrespecting our current or past President. “No” to letting the rude driver have it. “No” to the kind of music we enjoy. “No” to the kind of behavior that gets us noticed in a crowd.

God seems so rude, so curmudgeonly, so mean, when He keeps saying “No” to us.

I asked the 7th graders if their parents were mean for turning off their electronics, making them do chores or forcing them to talk with their siblings. Thankfully, they all replied, “Not at all. They are doing these things out of love for us.”


God is the kind of Father who is not afraid to discipline His wayward children and tell them “No. Absolutely not. That’s harmful. That’s deadly. That’s just plain wrong … and stupid.”

In the wilderness, God sent fiery serpents. To be mean? No. To be merciful. His people were dying a slow, agonizing death from the bite of the Ancient Serpent. That serpent struck all the way back in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:1-7). God wanted His Israelite children to turn back to Him in repentance and faith. Tough love? You bet! But, would anything less have turned His children back to Him? And, when they did turn back to Him and cry out in repentance, God provided a cure. A cure that looked surprisingly like the disease.

God did not just wave His hand and make all the serpents disappear. He did not just speak and make everyone well again. Instead, He had Moses lift a serpent up on a pole. Moses preached the bronze serpent. God attached a promise to this snake – that anyone who believed in the serpent on the pole would not perish but have life.

At the moment of conception, each one us was bitten by that Ancient Serpent. As soon as there was life in the womb, there was also death.

But, God is not kind of Father that lets us get bitten by a deadly serpent and then allows us to die a slow, agonizing death. God promised a cure. As soon as Adam and Eve had been bitten by the Ancient Serpent in the Garden, God was right there with His promise to crush the Serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). Immediately, God gives the cure. It is a cure that looks surprisingly like the disease. We want the cure for death, so we are told to look with faith upon the Son of God dead upon the cross.

God did not just wave His hand and make our sin disappear. He did not just speak a word and make sinners well again. Instead, He allowed the Son of Man to be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:14-15). God preaches Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23).

We have been bitten by the fiery satanic serpent and injected with the poison of sin that brings death. But … there is life – not through a bronze serpent on a pole, but the Son of God on the pole of the cross. A serpent on a pole doesn’t make much sense, until God attaches His Word of salvation to it. A bloody, beaten, bruised, Jewish criminal on a Roman instrument of torture doesn’t make much sense, until God attaches His Word of salvation to it.

For this is not ordinary man on a cross. This is God in the flesh.

The bronze snake was fashioned in the likeness of a poisonous snake, but it had no poison. Jesus took on the form of a human being, but He had no sin. Whoever trusted God’s promise of relief from poison by looking up to the bronze snake lived. Whoever believes in God’s promise of relief from sin by looking up to Jesus lives forever.

The bronze snake gave immediate relief. Jesus’ forgiveness is immediate. With the bronze snake God gave the Israelites victory over death. With Jesus, God has given us the victory over eternal death. With the bronze snake in the center of the camp the Israelites could look up and call out with courage, “O snake, where is your sting?” With Jesus as the center of our lives, we can look up and call out with courage, “O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).

On the cross, Satan’s serpentine fangs sank deep into Jesus’ flesh, pumping poison and venom into His divine blood. But on that cross, Jesus absorbed the serpent’s strike against His heel so that He might step down hard to crush the Ancient Serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15).

God in the flesh has been lifted up out of love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16,17).

But, we are so sinful that we can’t even recognize true love. We think love should let everything go; permit whatever we want. If God was all-loving, then He should close His eyes, stop-up His ears, and shut His mouth.

What happens when parents to do that? Kids pitch a fit in the store. Children run amok in the neighborhood. Teenagers have no control over themselves. Young adults start crying the first time their boss yells at them.

God’s love is completely foreign to us. We cannot wrap our minds around the fact that God would give His Son for sinners, for people who practice wicked things and live in the darkness (John 3:19,20). This should be the basis for our judgment. Yet, Jesus promises: “The one who believes in [the only-begotten Son of God] is not condemned” (John 3:18).

God did not send His Son to condemn the world – we were already condemned. We were already bitten, already dying. We might think God is a big meanie when He disciplines us, so He should back off and take it easy on us. But, if God had done nothing, then we would be hopelessly lost – the walking dead.

Instead, God did something. He did the only thing. God so loved the world – God so loved you – that He gave His only-begotten Son to come down to earth so He might be lifted up on a cross. Jesus is God’s passionate love in response to our fiery, passionate sin. Jesus is God’s answer to our approaching death. The cure curiously looks like the disease. Jesus’ death is the cure for our death.

So, is God a big meanie? No! In Jesus, He is always merciful. Amen.