“And 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.” –John 3:14-15
In 2009, I did something I’d never done before: I went on a mission trip. Fresh out of college, I served for over five months in Kampala, Uganda assisting with a church plant in Wabigalo slum. It was a season of spiritual growth, discipleship, advancing in my knowledge of God’s Word, and of course, sharing the good news of Jesus. It was also a time of incredible community with missionaries and like-minded brothers and sisters in Christ. Without Western amenities like television, nights in Africa were filled with conversations about Scripture, theology, and the things of God’s kingdom, and like most houses in Africa…story-telling.
One night after dinner, we sat around the small living room and listened to Dan, the local church planter, tell an unbelievable story. In some ways, it’s still difficult to comprehend. But in other ways, it makes perfect sense. Dan’s story was about a small village not far from the Nile River in southern Uganda. Like so many others in East Africa, this particular community had a large tree in the center of the village. But what made this particular village unique was not the tree itself, but what was living in the tree. In this town not far from Kampala, a snake had made its home in a fruit tree. A giant snake. And this wasn’t just any big snake; it was an idol. Literally. Apparently, every so often, the villagers would lay food and other items at the foot of the tree in order to make sacrifices to this snake-god they worshipped in the tree. My jaw dropped to the floor as I listened to Dan describe the scene. In Africa, Christianity is often blended with superstition, animism, and other pagan beliefs that often resemble something out of a Disney movie. But this wasn’t Disney. I was envisioning the Temple of Doom.
Growing up in church, I’d always known that Satan took the form of a serpent, but I’d never heard of people worshipping an actual snake! After imagining the village in my mind, I had a solution: “Why don’t we just go down there and gut that snake to the glory of God?” I asked Dan intently. With four men against a giant snake, I liked our odds. “Problem solved. We kill the snake and liberate the people!” After all, wasn’t there something in the Bible about bruising the head of the serpent? Despite my quick, worldly thinking, Dan’s response was also quick, and it took me a moment to process: “Obbie, we want them to kill their own snake.” I probably had a confused look on my face, because it made me think. After a minute, I soon understood what Dan was saying. Ultimately, it didn’t matter if we chopped the evil snake into tiny pieces and had a barbecue, if Christ didn’t turn their sinful hearts to Him, the villagers would simply find another fat snake to put in their tree. I was trying to solve their sin problem with a knife. Before these lost souls could turn from their sin and dethrone the serpent, Jesus had to reign in their hearts with the message of the Gospel.
In America, our sin stories don’t usually resemble Indian Jones movies, but the fundamental problem remains the same. Our idols aren’t necessarily snakes, but they’re no less Satanic. And that’s why idolatrous hearts can’t be subdued by simply cleaning them up from the outside. Regardless of how we appear or what we do for other people, the light of Jesus must penetrate the innermost recesses of our darkened hearts and change us from the inside out if we are to see God. (2 Cor. 4:6) We have to be changed internally. (2 Cor. 5:17) We have to die and be raised completely new. (Col. 2:12) Sin is so evil, so vile, so lethal to our souls that we must be born again. (John 3:3) Anything less is like taking a pocket knife to a giant snake and hoping for salvation.
There is wisdom in disciplining our bodies. (Matt. 5:30) But without the power of the resurrection to open our eyes to the glory of Jesus, no lifestyle change is sufficient to save. The evil of sin is so great, the Serpent so cunning, that despite removing ourselves from pornography, alcohol, drugs, wealth, or any other vice we could imagine, we will continue to worship ourselves apart from the Spirit of God. Too often we’re willing to kill small snakes, but the real behemoth is festering in our own hearts. Sin is a giant snake. And salvation takes more than a pocket knife. It takes more than moral reform or new surroundings. This is the reason that Jesus Christ himself compared the Gospel to the Israelites looking upon the bronze serpent in the wilderness (Num. 21:4-9) Sin is serpentine, and Christ was willing to save His people from the curse of sin by becoming a curse Himself. (John 3:14-15, 2 Cor. 5:21, Gal. 3:13) When we look to a crucified Christ, we see our sin punished in a perfect substitute. Jesus will crush the head of the serpent not by wielding a knife in a tree, but by being slain on a tree. And our defeat of sin will require nothing less.