Look Up and Live
3 Jun 2006, Dr Barry Wright
(Barry is Thornleigh's Church Pastor)
LOOK UP AND LIVE
Approximately 3-4000 years ago a dramatic event took place in a wild wilderness area on the Sinai Peninsula. It was an area that had become infested with poisonous snakes and scorpions and their presence at this time was causing absolute terror and confusion throughout the Israelite encampment.
In almost every tent were found the dead or the dying. The silence of the night was only to be broken by the piercing cries of fresh victims.
A Brazen serpent is hurriedly set up on a pole and God says, 'Look up and Live.'
Our Scripture reading this morning in Numbers chapter 21: 4-9 tells us that the people of God had lost sight of the many miracles performed for them since leaving Egypt. They had been complaining and indulging a spirit of discontent forgetting that God's power alone had preserved them. Because they had been shielded by divine power they did not realise the dangers that continually surrounded them. Now because of their unbelief, the Lord had permitted death to come upon them. The terrible sting of these fiery serpents found in this wild desert area caused violent inflammation and a quick death. Many of the people were to die.
As the people hurriedly humbled themselves before God, Moses was commanded to make a serpent of brass and to elevate it among the people so that all who were bitten could look upon it and live. While the people knew that there was no power in this brass serpent and that the healing power came from God alone, yet they were required to show their faith in this special provision he had made.
They were to look in order to live and it was that look that implied faith. The consequences of this tragic event was to teach them a very important lesson. They came to recognise that god alone was the only one able to heal them - they could not save themselves.
We need to remember that these downtrodden people had just been released from slavery in Egypt where they had been in bondage for more than 100 years.
On their release, God found it necessary to commence a re-education program to change and enhance their spiritual condition Because of the unclean and unhealthful habits formed while in Egypt, God had determined that they would be subjected to the strictest training in these areas before entering the land He had promised to them. At the heart of this special training were His plans for right and healthful living. God knew that the human body was to be the only medium through which the mind and the soul are developed for the up building of character. He knew that whatever injured the health, would not only lesson physical vigour, but would tend to weaken the mental and moral powers. He also knew that indulgence in any unhealthful practice would make it more difficult for people to discriminate between right and wrong, and therefore more difficult to resist temptation.
Consequently, it was absolutely essential that these people begin to understand the vital link between health and spirituality.
It was during their wilderness journey that god now makes a very wonderful promise.
Let's turn in our Bibles to Ex 15: 26 and I am reading from a paraphrased version. Listen to what God said:
'The Lord said to Moses, 'If you will listen to me and do what is right, if you will keep my commandments and laws, I will not let any of you come down with the diseases of the Egyptians, I will heal you, for I am the Lord.' (The Clear Word)
Moses and the people were very familiar with the diseases of Egypt. Some of these were referred to in the book of Deuteronomy 28: 27, 28 where it talks about the tumours, boils and sores of the Egyptians, and the itch that has no cure. The suffering of blindness, madness and the lack of a sound mind.'
These verses describe to us to a variety of cancers, skin diseases, eye diseases and diseases of the mind. Added to this were diseases such as cholera, meningitis, smallpox, syphilis, TB and a variety of arthritic conditions. All of these were quite prevalent and extremely severe during the time the Israelites spent in Egypt.
But God is saying 'If you listen to me and do what is right, if you will keep my commandments and laws I will not let any of you come down with the diseases of the Egyptians, I will heal you, for I am the Lord.'
We know this promise was fulfilled during the wilderness wanderings because Psalm 105:37 tells us that 'there was not one feeble person among their tribes.'
However, this promise was also conditional because we are told that their physical well-being was dependent on obedience.
Had the Jewish nation, over their long history, obeyed God's instruction they would have been the world's object lesson of health and prosperity.
Dear friends, we need to recognise this morning that this promise, given by god at the beginning of Israel's history, applies just as much to you and to me today and we need to understand the reasons why.
We need to have the same faith to recognise that when god gives a promise, he will keep it.
However, this does not mean that people will not have health problems because much of the sickness and disease from which we suffer are passed on from one sinful generation to the next. However, we can do much to minimise these effects. Healing and improved health is a gracious movement of God into the process of withering and decay that affect the human body.
A closer study of the Bible reveals very clearly that the concept of healthful living has always been a part of God's plan for his people.
We can trace these principles way back to Eden where we are told that, in the beginning, Adam and Eve were fearfully and wonderfully made. In order to maintain the body system, they had been instructed in what to eat and what not to eat.
Coming down to the time of the Exodus from Egypt, God now tells the Hebrew people that if they would obey His instructions, He would bless them with good health. (Ex 15:26).
These vital instructions were divided into four groups
The first were the MORAL LAWS - THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. These laws outlined in the Scriptures were to be a reflection of God's character and were to be unchangeable. If obeyed they were to bring happiness and longevity to those who followed them.
They were also to reinforce one of the immutable laws of nature - what you sow you also reap. We need to recognise that every human being is the architect of his or her own fortune.
The Second set of Laws were THE CEREMONIAL LAWS. These precepts, involving the sacrificial system, were to point to the cross and were thus done away with when Jesus died.
THE CIVIL LAWS were to take the broad principles of the 10 commandments and apply them to the economy of Israel as a Nation.
The fourth and final set of laws was THE HEALTH LAWS, intended by a wise Creator to promote health and longevity. These laws were to be applicable to all people in all ages as were the MORAL LAWS. They were to cover a multitude of areas involving diet, unscrupulous cleanliness, hygiene, sanitation and the application of quarantine controls.
European history would have been vastly different if these principles had been rediscovered before the Bubonic Plague took hold in Europe during the Middle Ages. As a consequence, this tragic experience, commonly known as the Black Death, resulted in the loss of millions of lives.
With god's health laws established, it became essential for his people to understand the reasons for them. We all need to be continually reminded about their origin or we become just like the Pharisees during the time of Jesus.
Let's turn to Matthew 23: 27 (KJV) and read what Jesus had to say.
This is what he says:
'Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, YOU hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, BUT on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean.'
This statement by Jesus would have been easily understood by any good Jew. It was recognised, that according to Jewish law, anyone who came in contact with a tomb automatically became unclean.
During the time of Jesus, the common place for tombstones was by the wayside or roadside. Therefore, it became essential, particularly during the time of the Passover when the roads were crowded with pilgrims, to whitewash the tombs so that no one would accidentally come in contact with them and be rendered unclean.
'Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, BUT on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean.'
What was Jesus really trying to say and what does this have to do with god's promises to the Israelites?
Jesus wanted to make very clear that there is not much point in doing everything right if you do not know why you are doing it.
When we keep any law because it is tradition we become like the Pharisees.
When we lose sight of the reasons why we do something we become as Jesus has said, '…like whitewashed tombs full of dead men's bones inside…'
You know it is very easy for those growing up within the Church or Community to accept and practice a lifestyle faithfully modelled by parents and the Church Community.
But, if we do things because it is the accepted thing, without understanding why we do it, then, as Jesus suggested, we become Pharisaical and hypocritical like white washed tombs.
We need to understand the very special connection between health and our spirituality because the outcome involves our eternal destiny.
What do the New Testament scriptures reveal?
Coming down to the time of Jesus we find the New Testament Scriptures telling us more about His healing of the sick than about His preaching. Matt 4: 23 says, 'Now Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their Synagogues, and preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.'
His ministry to the sick was especially designed to save souls for his kingdom.
Jesus began His work by first reforming the physical habits of man. (White, 1944: 486) He made it clear that unless people's bodies were healthy, their minds would not be strong enough to fully understand the truths of the gospel.
It needs to be understood that God's original plan for a healthy life was always to revolve around the mysterious plan of salvation. Author Ellen White in the book Education 15,16 tells us that the Plan of Redemption was specifically designed:
'To restore in man the image of his maker, to bring him back to the perfection in which he was created, to promote the development of body, mind and soul, that the divine purpose in his creation might be realised - this was to be the work of redemption. This is the object of education, the great object of life.' (White,1952: 15,16).
God also wanted us to be healthy in body and mind so that we could better represent his character to the world. He wanted us to be his temples of glory - a showpiece to the world
Our duty to our fellowman and his salvation is one of the reasons that God gave the original promise found in Ex 15: 26 to the Israelites after their years of slavery.
The Hebrew nation certainly needed to make major changes. They needed to unlearn much of what they had practiced if they were to represent God through right living to the nations around them. They were to be God's special nation.
While in Egypt they had followed the unclean diet of their masters and as a result had succumbed to many of the diseases inflicting this ancient civilization.
Ancient Egypt, at that time, had no sharp line of distinction between medicine and religion. Disease was believed to be the work of their Gods, indicating the presence of evil spirits in the body, or poisons injected by the spirits. A cure meant cleansing the body of such disturbances.
While, on the one hand, treatments included warnings, threats and curses, they also involved putting concoctions into the body. Since the prime purpose of these recipes was to rid the body of unwelcome spirits, they often took unappetising forms consisting of substances that were calculated to turn the stomach.
Consequently, some Egyptian doctors were seen by many to be both a priest and a magician.
However, there were other doctors in Egypt who practiced real remedies that were to form the basis of modern Western medicine. Though, they were to be more involved in curative practices than in prevention.
While many of their cures were still very closely associated with their religious beliefs, it is clear that their surgeons were able to perform quite complicated brain surgery. They also prepared a variety of potions that were to cure many diseases (Coupe & Jenkins, 1972: 27).
One historian's evaluation of the Egyptian contribution to modern medicine is summed up in the following words by suggesting that:
'…the popular medicine of almost every country of Europe and the Near East largely owes its origin to Egypt…many well-known drugs of universal vogue were first used by the Egyptians…From Egypt we have the earlier medical books, the first observations in anatomy…the first experiments in surgery and pharmacy, the first use of splints, bandages, compresses, and other appliances, and the first anatomical and medical vocabulary' (Ibid: 28).
The Israelite nation, while in Egypt, had also been exposed to the many perverted marriage practices of the day with the resulting physical and emotional illnesses and diseases.
Most of the Hebrew people at that time had almost lost sight of God and the image of God in them had almost been obliterated.
However, they belonged to God. He loved them and desired that, as a nation, they could once again represent him to the heathen nations around them.
TO DO THIS they had to be re-educated. So this is the reason why God, in His love, was to set out laws, not only to deal with their duty to God But also their duty to their fellowman.
However, one of the strongest reasons found in the Scriptures to follow a healthy lifestyle is found in the book of 1 Corinthians where we discover the Apostle Paul telling us that God, because of his creative and redeeming acts, has a legitimate claim on our bodies.
DOES GOD HAVE THE RIGHT TO MAKE THIS CLAIM?
Well Paul seems to be very emphatic. Let's read 1COR 6: 19,20. KJV
'What? (This is incredible) Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? (Why) For ye are bought with a price. (As a Consequence he says:) Therefore, glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's.'
Let's read the paraphrase.
'Do you realize that when you became a Christian, your body became a temple for the Holy Spirit to live in? His presence in you is a gift to you from God! So you are no longer in charge of your body to do with it as you please. Your body belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ.
You have been bought with a price, which no human can pay. Therefore, honour the One who paid the price for you, because you now belong to Him.
Paul goes on to say in 1Cor 10: 31, 'whether therefore ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do it all to the glory of God'.
Because the body temple is Holy, we are not to abuse it with harmful substances, but to make sure it is kept pure and clean.
As noted by the mother of John Wesley, founder of Methodism, 'Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, decreases the strength and authority of your mind over your body - that thing is wrong, however innocent it may be in itself'
Every sin committed against our bodies is a sin against god and against the Holy Spirit.
One of the very strong reasons that Christians are to practice good health habits is to protect the command centre of their body temples. This centre is the MIND - The dwelling place of the Spirit of Christ.
We need to recognise that anything that allows the mind to become enfeebled, limits the channel through which the Holy Spirit can work.
It is well known that the relation that exists between the mind and the body is very intimate - When one is affected, the other sympathises.
The condition of the mind affects the health to a far greater degree than many people realise. Many of the diseases from which our society suffers are believed to be the results of mental illness.
Extreme and prolonged grief, anxiety, remorse, guilt, distrust, and hate - All these everyday hazards tend to break down the life forces and invite decay and death.
As noted in the book 'Counsels on Health p. 344, author Ellen White says that disease is sometimes produced, and is often greatly aggravated by the imagination. Many are lifelong invalids who might otherwise be well if they had only thought so (White, 1951: 344).
On the other hand, courage, hope, faith, sympathy and love are attributes that promote health and prolong life.
WHERE DO WE GET THESE ATTRIBUTES FROM?
The Scriptures tell us that a contented mind along with a cheerful spirit is health to the body and strength to the soul.
Prov. 17:22 makes clear that a merry heart (a happy mind) doeth good like a medicine.
These principles can best be illustrated through the extraordinary life and experiences of a man called Ernest Gordon, whose home was located in Dunoon on the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. The ominous drums of war in Europe were just starting to sound while he was attending St. Andrews University in 1939.
It was at this time that he made the decision to enlist in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
In the late autumn of 1939 they were on their way to war. Down through England, through France, through the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean by troopship, through the dripping jungle of Malaya on foot and down through the mud and blood of a heart-breaking retreat to the last stand in Singapore. Of a 1000 strong battalion, only a battered remnant of one hundred and twenty men remained.
In keeping with regimental tradition the Argylls were the last troops to cross from the Malayan mainland to Singapore Island. No sooner had they set foot on the island than the causeway was blown up behind them to seal in Singapore's inhabitants. This took place on the 30th December 1942.
The fighting continued until their little remnant ran out of water, ammunition, land and hope. Only thirty of their original 1000 were now left. They were to continue south, across the Straits to Sumatra, halting in the coastal city of Padang.
With the Japanese forces rapidly advancing, a group of Officers made the decision to escape by boat to Ceylon. A little 50-foot craft called the Setia Berganti was purchased from a Malay village and judging by the faces of the onlookers, the Malays had by far the best of the bargain.
After a time at sea, and approximately 500 miles from their goal, they were captured by an armed Japanese tanker and were faced with the prospect of immediate execution. However, orders from Tokyo resulted in them being taken as prisoners of war and eventually brought back to Singapore. It was here they were to be questioned by the Kempei Tai, or Military Police, who as they learned later, delighted in the most depraved kind of tortures. The War Crimes Trial of 1946 was to affirm this situation with the use of two words 'unspeakable horror'. Ernest Gordon had just turned 24 years of age.
With other British soldiers they were marched into the jungle to the prison camp of Changi, some twelve miles from the docks.
So began his three and a half years as a 'guest' of the Japanese in a number of camps. First in Malaya and then in Upper Thailand on the banks of the River Kwai.
During this time the Japanese Military violated every civilised code. They murdered prisoners overtly by bayoneting, shooting, drowning, beating or decapitation. They murdered them covertly by working them beyond the limit of human endurance, starving them, torturing them and denying them medical care. However, this situation needs to be seen in the context of the times and was part of a behaviour code held by the Japanese that was based on the concept of victory or death, and as such, any cruelty could be condoned.
It is important to note that at the end of the war in 1945, orders were sent to these camps to destroy all documentary evidence and those responsible were instructed to escape and attempt to conceal all trace of their identities.
The Changi camp, located on the site of the former British barracks at the East side of Singapore Island, was designed for no more than 1000 men. A three-metre barbwire fence surrounded the compound that now was to house over 40,000 prisoners of war.
Morale in the camp was low. The pain of defeat was keenly felt and 'no-escape' pledges were expected to be signed by all POWs. Additionally, there were problems with their diet resulting in starvation and a host of diseases caused by vitamin deficiency such as beriberi and pellagra.
It was here that Ernest was first diagnosed with malignant tertian malaria. This meant hospitalisation and was the beginning of a long series of illnesses that were to eventually lead him to the door of death.
Many of the men in the camps turned to religion but the motivation was not love or faith, but fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of suffering and the fear of death itself. Church going became a kind of insurance policy to protect them, an attempt to find a quick and easy answer, a release from their fears. While there were many who benefited from this interest in religion, in most cases it led only to sterility.
The Argyles were then moved to a place called Banpong in Thailand and it became obvious that if there were to be a camp they would need to make it themselves. While their rations remained the same, their regime soon changed to one of hard labour. They were now all subject to the full effects of malnutrition and many died.
In September of that year the order came to move again. Further north they were brought to a place called Chungkai on the River Kwai. This was close to the spot where they would later be forced to build the notorious bridge that would join two sections of rail referred to as the 'death railway'. The use of prisoners of war in this project was in violation of all international conventions.
The railway commenced construction in November 1942 and, to fit in with the Japanese invasion timetable, was set for completion in October 1943. Human flesh was cheap and included a plentiful supply of native labour. More than 60,000 men were used, starved and overworked, and, when broken, were thrown carelessly on that human rubbish heap - the Railway of Death.
The men worked seven days a week. Death was everywhere. Men collapsed in their tracks from thirst, disease and starvation. The Bridge over the River Kwai was built in the spring of 1943, and, contrary to the widely publicised film called 'The Bridge on the River Kwai', the men who worked on it did not do so willingly, but at the point of a bayonet and under a bamboo rod. At the risk of their own lives they sought every opportunity to sabotage the work under construction.
As conditions steadily worsened, with starvation, exhaustion and disease taking an ever-increasing toll, the atmosphere in camp became poisoned by selfishness, hate and fear. Nothing mattered except survival and many lived by the law of the jungle - survival of the fittest. The weak were trampled underfoot; they would not only steal from one another, but also from the dead. The sick were ignored and the dead forgotten. Cursing became an obsession and all restraints of morality were gone. Their captors had promised to reduce them to a level lower than that of any coolie in Asia and it would seem that they were succeeding only too well. The camp was slowly slipping down the slope of degradation. Many believed that even God seemed to have left them.
However, pervasive selfishness was not universal. Ernest Gordon was to discover this after being diagnosed with diphtheria leading to polyneuritis where he was to lose all sensation in his legs. This time he was headed for the death house. It was full of the smell of rotting, unwashed flesh, swarming flies, bed bugs by the million and worst of all was the loneliness.
To escape the vileness of his surrounds he asked to be taken to the morgue where it was cleaner and he would be away from the sights and sounds of dying men. Later, one of his good friends built a small hut where he could be by himself. The move was eventually approved by two senior medical officers who believed that Ernest ought to have a decent end. The death sentence had just been pronounced by two experts.
It was at this time that two men, both practicing Christians of Catholic and Methodist faiths, offered to give him full time care. It was through their faithful ministry and patience that he was slowly guided along the road to recovery.
Through the example of these men, and others like them who were prepared to sacrifice for others, the attitude in the camp started to change. Generosity became contagious as men started thinking less of themselves and more of their responsibilities to others. The less sick cared for the more sick. God's saving grace was being witnessed in a way difficult to describe.
In the Camp a new industry began in the production of artificial legs. A jungle University was established. Classes were held anywhere, anytime. There were no degrees or records kept. A library was formed. It had no home and no lending system. It was arranged by word of mouth. A Church without walls was started in one corner of the compound where the men could seek God's presence and pray.
New hope and a feeling for life found expression in a burst of artistic activity.
Then there was an orchestra with instruments made out of all sorts of left over material.
With the orchestra, the leaven of faith, hope and love was spreading. The men gained respect for themselves. Stealing ceased and confidence began to grow, eventually overcoming selfishness and suspicion.
The change that took place in this camp has been referred to since that time as 'The Miracle on the River Kwai'
During his three and a half years of captivity in the POW camps of southeast Asia, Ernest Gordon learned the hardest lesson of all: to forgive and even love one's enemies. While so many of his comrades were consumed by anger, he discovered a sustaining belief in God and the capacity to love - even in a death camp.
'Selfishness, hatred, jealousy and greed were all anti-life, he once wrote. Love, self-sacrifice, mercy, hope and faith, on the other hand were the essence of life, turning mere existence into living in its truest sense.
These were the gifts of God to men to provide health and prolong life.
This fact could not be more evidenced than in the miracle that took place on the river Kwai.
After the war ERNEST GORDON, as with many others, went into professions where they could more effectively serve their fellowman. He attended theological college in Edinburgh for two years and after a course in history at Hartford Theological Seminary, Connecticut, served as assistant minister at Paisley Abbey. He then returned to America and FROM 1955 became Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University.
Ernest Gordon, the consummate survivor who cheated death several times died at the age of 83 on 16th January 2002 after a long illness that he couldn't overcome.
GOD says, 'If you listen to me and do what is right, if you will keep my commandments and laws I will not let any of you come down with the diseases of the Egyptians, I will heal you, for I am the Lord.'
The last words of the text remind us again that God alone imparts healing - That he is the master Physician
The actual healing process is performed by a power over which human science has no control.
The Apostle John in chapter 3 verses 14 & 15 reminds us again of the intricate relationship that exists between health and spirituality when he makes reference to the Brazen Serpent. Listen to his words.
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness even so was the son of man lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
God is not just concerned with life on this earth, important as that may be, but that we also have the opportunity of life eternal in the wonderful Kingdom he has prepared for you and me..
As with the Israelites in the wilderness who were to live because they believed God's word and trusted in the means provided for their recovery, we are also encouraged - TO LOOK UP AND LIVE.
Coupe, M. C. & Jenkins, B. R. (1972) Progress of Man. Sydney: Rigby Limited.
Gordon, E. (2002) To End All Wars. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan
White, E. G. (1944) Testimonies for the Church Vol 3. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
White, E. G. (1951) Counsels on Health. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
White, E. G. (1952) Education. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
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