O Death, Where Is Your Sting?
Everyone has a snake story, especially here in West Texas. I have almost stepped on a rattlesnake twice, found copperheads while fishing, and fished where cottonmouths lay on logs in the sun. Jesus has the most unique snake story of all. It comes in relation to the most famous Bible verse, John 3:16. Have you ever noticed that John 3:16 starts with the word “for?” That means it is explaining, expanding, or expounding what comes before it. Jesus explains to Nicodemus, a leader of Israel who should know these things, that the Old Testament teaches the new birth. He does this by looking at a story about snakebite in the book of Numbers.
Numbers describes several occasions where the people grumble. In 21:4 they begin to grumble at Moses for bringing them into the wilderness to die and the daily provision of manna bread. So, God sends venomous snakes, probably carpet vipers, among the people and many died. The people get over their anger towards Moses and beg him to ask God to take away the snakes. But God has a different solution, he tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole and place it where everyone can see it. God promises that everyone who looks at the snake because of God’s promise will live and not die.
The parallel becomes obvious here. John 3:16 says God sent his Son out of love for the world that whoever would look at Him lifted on a “pole” would not die but live. In the wilderness, they were delivered from physical death. At the cross, we are delivered from eternal death and given everlasting life. This life comes from believing the promise of God that whoever believes in Christ as their solution to sin and death will not die but live. This is not magic but the opposite. Life comes because of the promise of God. When anyone passes from death to life by the cross of Christ, they are born again. No works can work here; only faith in a promise works. If you believe God’s promise—that whoever looks to Christ as God’s solution to sin and death is saved—then you are born again. And if you are born again, then you are living a new life with new desires after God.
Let us look a little further into this theme of snakebite. In 1 Corinthians 15:56-57 Paul says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The word “sting” in Greek here refers to anything that punctures and injects toxins below the surface of the skin. This can refer to anything from bee stings to snake bites. Paul says the “sting” which injects the toxin is sin. But the potency of the toxin is not the venom itself but the law of God. The law and its demands for punishment are what makes sin lethal. Remember Balaam who told Balak he could not curse what God had not cursed (Numbers 23:8). So he “taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:14). Numbers 25:3 then says, “So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.” Because the curse of the law came on those who sinned, those who Balaam could not curse now find themselves under the curse of the law of God. This resulted in the death of those who practiced idolatry and immorality. (25:5) Sin is the snakebite but the law of God gives the venom its potency. God’s holiness and justice demand death for sin.
I heard of a sad story of an East Texas man who bought a beautiful emerald green snake in Africa for his son thinking it was harmless. Unfortunately, it bit his son and they had to send to Africa for the anti-venom, but it was too late. The anti-venom was not available in America. While witnessing to someone at an airport in Spokane, Washington with this story, I found out the person I was speaking with was a herpetologist, someone who studies snakes. She told me that they are working on a synthetic anti-venom that covers all kinds of American snakebites. But it would not have covered this African snakebite. Every sin is a snakebite that brings death and we sin multiple times. The anti-venom cannot be found on earth, and the snakes still remain with us. But God brought the solution from heaven to earth by sending His Son. And that anti-venom is divinely potent and in a sense synthetic; it covers every form of sin and every sin we ever commit. Since the curse of death comes from the law of God, He himself provides the solution for us.
Colossians 2: 13-15 helps us understand how God does this. “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside nailing it to the cross. He disarmed rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
Death comes because of the law of God. It is the potency in the venom of sin. Death is caused by sin alone. It may come by means of many things, as we are unfortunately seeing today. But death occurs ultimately because of sin. So how does the sinless One die? By taking our sin on himself. He does this not by sinning, but by taking the power of sin to himself. The Scripture says his skin was not punctured by sin but by the power of sin, the law of God “that stood against us with its legal demands.” When Christ was nailed to the cross, the law’s demand for punishment was nailed to the cross in Him because He took that punishment for us. As a result, sin can no longer kill us. We have a potent antivenom from heaven. As Michael W. Smith says, “a rescue from heaven.” Paul further states that this disarms Satan. It takes away his power of death and his ability to accuse us before God because of sin (See Zechariah 3). Like sin, Satan has no power apart from the law of God. “When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within, Upward I look and see Him there Who made an end of all my sin.” This does not mean that Christians can sin freely. Those who believe so have not truly “looked at the snake.” Why would someone who knew they have almost died because of snakebite and were delivered from death desire to play with poisonous snakes? Well, some still do, both physically and spiritually.
Now we have as Paul Harvey says, “The Rest of the Story” of John 3:16. Christ himself compares the cross to the story of Moses lifting up the snake in the wilderness. Because Christ was lifted up, Paul proclaims, ‘Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” In Him, we have victory over the sting of death because the power of sin, the law, has been endured for us on the cross. “Whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). This is a promise to all who know they have been snake bit by sin to look to Christ and live. He has the keys of Death and Hades (Revelation 1:18). In Him, brothers and sisters we have received a life that can never die or be taken away. Thanks be to God!
Brad Swygard received his two best gifts while at WTSU, his salvation and his wife, Jeanette. They have been married 31 years and have three grown children, Sarah, Joel, and John. Brad has been in the gospel ministry for 27 years, most recently as Senior Pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Dewey, Oklahoma for the last seventeen years. He graduated from WT in 1985. He received his Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary in 1990. He has started a window washing business in Amarillo while pursuing his Ph.D. in Biblical Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. He has been a church planter and a school principal, as well as coaching a High school speech and debate team for sixteen years. Brad likes to spend time with his wife, ride trains, hunt, fish, and train his bird dogs.