Numbers 21:9 ‘When he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived.’

March 4, 2018 by David Farmer 0 comments

Posted in: Weekly Commentary

This Weeks Focus Passage: Numbers 21:9 - ‘When he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived.’

These words spoken by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, are words that immediately precede perhaps the most well-known verse of the Holy Scriptures, namely John 3:16, which it may well be unnecessary to set before my reader, but I will do so, for convenience, anyway; For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life. It is not certain just where, in this passage, John the apostle leaves off speaking to record for us the words of Christ. There are, indeed, many translations that have made the determination for the reader by putting the ‘words of Christ’ in red letters. The problem is that there are very many commentators and students of the Word holding to any number of different and varied opinions with regard to the question. There was an occasion when this writer had been asked to supply the pulpit on one particular Sunday at his former church during a break in seminary studies. The intention was to preach on the verses at the top of this page, making the point on the way, that he believed that John 3:16 comprised the comments of the apostle upon the previous words of Christ. It was somewhat disconcerting therefore to open the ‘pulpit Bible’ to John, chapter 3, and find that it was a ‘red letter’ bible with the red letters extending to verse 16 of John’s 3rd chapter. Not to get into the question of where it should be understood that the words of Christ end and the words of the Evangelist, John, begin; the point attempting to be made here is that there is, indeed, a question. Hear what one well respected teacher and writer has to say with regard to this portion of the word of God in John, chapter 3. D. A. Carson has written;

“In two passages in this Gospel, both in this chapter (3:15-21) and 3:31-36), the words of a speaker (Jesus and John the Baptist respectively) are succeed-

-ed by the explanatory reflections of the Evangelist. Because the ancient texts did not use quotation marks or other orthographical equivalents [such as red-lettering—comment added by present writer], the exact point of transition is disputed. In the first incident, Nicholson (p. 89) thinks the dialogue ends at v. 10, with all of vv. 11-21 being the comment of the Evangelist. This is unlikely: the title ‘Son of Man’ is so characteristically reserved for Jesus’ lips as a form of self-identification that it is unthinkable that he ended before v. 15. The same problem attends the view of Beasley-Murray (p. 46), and others before him that makes 3:12-21 structurally parallel to 3:31-36. Some argue that Jesus’ monologue extends to the end of verse 21. But vv. 16-21 read more plausibly as the Evangelist’s meditation. For instance, the expression ‘one and only’ (mono-genes) is a word used by the Evangelist (1:14, 18; cf. 1 Jn. 4:9), and is not else-where placed on the lips of Jesus or of anyone else in this Gospel. Nor does Jesus normally refer to God as ho theos (‘God’).

This is, admittedly, a rather large exegetical bite to ask the reader to take here, but again, the point under consideration is simply that there is much disagreement over these things. The reader of the Word of God must make the decision and distinction for themselves, but these ‘red-letter’ folk have taken to themselves the decision for the reader, much as many translations have opted to employ other ‘reader-friendly’ interpretations which also take the decision away from the reader. We are not here bringing into question the motives of the dynamic equivalence translators, nor do we question those of the ‘red-letter’ folk. We may determine well-intentioned motive from the following remarks both about the origination of the usage of red lettering and then an explanation by the originator.

“Red-letter Bibles have become so common that it is easy to assume they have been around as long as Bibles have been printed. Not so! The first red-letter New Testament was published in 1899, and the first red-letter Bible followed two years later. The idea of printing the words of Christ in red originated with Louis Klopsch, editor of Christian Herald magazine.” Klopsch wrote an explanatory note in his red-letter Bible:

Modern Christianity is striving zealously to draw nearer to the Great Founder of the Faith. Setting aside mere human doctrines and theories regarding Him, it presses  close to the Divine Presence, to gather from His own lips the definition of His mission to the world and His own revelation of the Father……………The Red Letter Bible has been prepared and issued in the full conviction that it will meet the needs of the student, the worker, and the searchers after truth everywhere.

At one point in his considerations to publish, or not to publish, Klopsch asked the advice of one of his former mentors about the matter. He inquired of the “prominent Presbyterian preacher, clergyman, and reformer,” T. DeWitt Talmage, “if Christ’s words could not be printed in red. His mentor replied: ‘it could do no harm and it most certainly could do much good.’” While it remains an uncertainty as to how much good it may have done, or could do, it is too broad a statement from Talmage, to say that it could do no harm. Certainly, the motives of Klopsch and Talmage are not questioned here, but it seems that any time publishers of new translations, or of new features in their publications of the Scriptures take it upon themselves to go beyond translation and enter into forms of interpretation, they have gone too far.

It may seem to be, and surely is, an innocent attempt to aid the reader, but what pre-interpretation actually does—no matter how well-intentioned or subtle—is to remove the privilege and responsibility of the reader to interpret the Word himself. John tells us that all the people of God have an anointing received of Him that abideth in you. That is not intended to make any to become theological anarchists, but is a reminder of the gift of the Holy Spirit given to every believer. He will lead us into the Truth. The Scriptures direct us to depend upon the promise that He will take the things of Christ and reveal them to His people. We are told to ‘pray always’ and this certainly includes praying to be given understanding as we read. Our heavenly Father, in His Providence, has provided a great many helps such as the preaching and teaching of the Word; commentaries and treatises abound to help the reader as well. Search the Scriptures; use all the help available. Above all, remember that if the words of Christ are to be in red, that requires the entire Book to be in red, for Christ by His Holy Spirit has written every word.

David Farmer, elder

Fellowship Bible Church

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