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In our previous episode of Caleb’s Journal we looked at the account in Numbers 21 where the Israelites were bitten by snakes in the wilderness and we discovered a fascinating link between snake bites and usury… As we delved deeper we found further evidence leading us to conclude that the snake bite inflicted on the Israelites represented their rejection of God through covenanting with ‘another’ in order to secure life. The consequences of this action proved fatal to many of the Israelites, and this is still continuing in our day…
However there was an antidote to this poisonous venom. The ancient Israelites were commanded to look upon the brass serpent that Moses set up in the wilderness… in like manner we are to look upon the Risen Messiah, thereby coming back into covenant with our Lord and Saviour who is the only source and sustainer of Life.
In this episode we will take our investigation of snakes a little further to see how the conclusions we arrived at in the Old Testament are also witnessed in the New.
PAUL ON TRIAL FOR HIS BELIEF
In Acts 25-28 we read of Paul who was tried before Festus and Agrippa because of his belief in the resurrection of Jesus. It was clear from Paul’s defence and the events that followed, that his hope for deliverance lay exclusively in our Lord and Saviour.
We see his dependance on Jesus in Acts 26:6-8;
It was for this belief, for looking to the Risen Christ and therefore covenanting with Him, that Paul was being tried. No conclusive verdict could be reached in his case so he was put onto a ship bound for Italy. However, the voyage did not go well and after several adventures the company encountered a big storm and all on board feared greatly for their lives.
Through all this chaos Paul received a word from the Lord that only the ship and goods would be lost but all the souls onboard would survive the calamity. The way Paul confirmed this word before the people was by taking communion – a sign of being in covenant with the Lord through whom Life is secured.
Not long after this, the ship came to grief just off the coast of Melita and all onboard were able to make it to the shore safely.
It is what happened on the island that is of most interest to us in this study.
THE COMMUNITY FIRE AND THE VIPER
Picking up the account in Acts 28, we read that the people on the island showed great kindness in building a fire and receiving the shipwrecked souls into their midst. In ancient civilisations fires were places around which people and communities gathered not only for protection and the cooking of meals, but more so it was a place where wisdom was shared, justice dispensed and decisions regarding community life were made. By inviting the shipwrecked souls to their fire these natives were welcoming them into the inner workings of their community.
Yet when Paul reached out to put some wood on this fire a very odd thing happened. We pick up the narrative in verse 3;
Let’s take a look at some of the details of this strange event.
This viper coming out of the fire, seems to mirror the fiery serpents that bit the ancient Israelites in the wilderness.
Although I am not discounting the fact that there could very well have been literal reptiles biting the people in both accounts, we found out in our previous episode that there is a deeper revelation to discover when we encounter snakes in the scripture.
We saw that the bite inflicted on the Israelites in the wilderness was the result of their rejecting the wisdom of God and covenanting with ‘another’ in order to secure life.
This same concept seems to be repeating itself in the New Testament. The fire is a place where ancient communities shared their wisdom and the viper came forth from this fire. Would it therefore be plausible to suggest that this viper, which latched onto Paul’s hand, in some way represented the false wisdom or justice that these native people adhered to?
VIPERS AND WORDS OF BLASPHEMY
To find an answer to this intriguing question let’s start off by taking a look at the word viper, which in Greek is έχιδνα echidna which does literally mean a poisonous snake… however, this word also has a figurative meaning of – incisive words that deliver deadly venom with the use of blasphemy. This deadly venom switches the sweet for the bitter, the light for darkness, suggesting that the ‘viper’ has a venomous desire to reverse what is true for what is false.
Isn’t this interesting?
We see another example of this figurative meaning in Matthew 12:33-34 where Jesus uses this same word viper (έχιδνα) to describe the Pharisees and Sadducees of His day, who presented a corrupted version of Gods Word to the people;
It is becoming clear that, as in the account of the Israelites in the wilderness, this viper that bit Paul was more than just a snake. It was something that, through its words, sought to separate the hearer from God, His wisdom and His covenant.
THE HAND REPRESENTING WORKS
Returning to Acts 28 we read that this viper fastened itself firmly to the hand of Paul. It is with our hands that we do work, and the work we do is directly linked to the one we serve. One could say that this viper is trying to hamper Paul’s ability to do works for the glory of God, works that would manifest His life, health and growth.
The viper achieves this through his seductive and poisonous words… which results in death.
But who or what could have been speaking words of darkness to Paul on this island of Melita?
THE VIPER’S IDENTITY REVEALED
We need to go back to the account in Acts to find the clue. In verse 4 we read;
The question is who or what was this ‘Justice’ that the people believed was not going to allow Paul to live?
Remember that the fire, where this event took place, is a place where the community shared their wisdom, and dispensed justice…
In looking at the word Justice we note it is the Greek δίκη diké meaning justice, but it is also the name of the Greek goddess of Justice… this connection would have been obvious to those living in Paul’s day.
For this reason we can connect the viper that bit Paul with the Greek goddess of Justice, δίκη diké.
This view is supported by the fact that Paul suffered no harm and the natives thereby concluded that he too must be a ‘god’. By grouping Paul in with the ‘gods’ it seems to imply that the natives evoked the goddess of justice and not just some kind of general justice.
WHY PAUL SUFFERED NO HARM
The natives were of the opinion that the verdict of this justice was guaranteed to be fatal to Paul. However, the fact that Paul was in no way affected by the words of this false form of justice implies that he had power or authority over that system, the venomous words could not flow through to him, which is an interesting thought to contemplate.
This seems to suggest that as Paul was in covenant with Jesus, through his belief in the resurrection, he was also in possession of the Light of true justice and the darkness of the venomous words of injustice therefore had no power over him. Jesus, through his death and resurrection had already overcome this darkness and all who believe in Him are likewise delivered from its effects.
This power that Paul possessed over this darkness, through his covenant with the risen Christ, gave him the authority to tread on snakes and scorpions… and as believers in the modern day this should give us great encouragement.
THE RESTORATION OF TRUE JUSTICE
However, the story didn’t end there. As Paul shook the snake from off his hand, he not only demonstrated his power over the snake but also the ability to do works for the Glory of God. The Life of Jesus flowed from him resulting in the healing of the natives of the island, starting with none other than the father of the chief Magistrate Publius. This is most interesting as a Magistrate is a civil officer of justice who administers the law.
As a result of this healing… and may we now suggest a restoration of true justice, many others came to Paul and were healed.
There are two more clues in scripture which may suggest that the restoration of true justice is what occurred during the three months that Paul spent on the island.
Firstly, the island of Melita, which is present day Malta, is intimately connected with honey production.
In scripture, honey is representative of enlightenment, and the Word of God.
Secondly, we read that Paul was honoured by the people.
The word translated honour here is the Greek τιμή timé and means honour, but in particular the perceived value or worth in the eyes of the beholder. These natives came to see the ministry of Paul as being weighty, having value and thus they honoured him.
Paul had become the bread of life to the people, by speaking words of truth and justice. This was indeed true bread from heaven, sweet as honey… and by consuming it the people were healed.
This is amazingly similar to the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness.
HANDLING MODERN DAY SNAKES
The two accounts, of the Israelites in the wilderness and Paul on Melita, shows us how to handle the snakes that are present in our midst. The solution is not found in our effort to kill the snakes, neither is it in our resistance to them. Rather, what these biblical accounts clearly illustrate is that our focus should be aimed squarely towards our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
The solution is not in our resistance to the injustice we find ourselves in but rather it is in our returning into Covenant with our Lord and Saviour, who has already overcome this darkness, and giving that reality expression in our lives.
In doing so we will not only be given the power to overcome the injustice surrounding us, but more importantly His Light and Life will flow freely from our being, resulting in true healing and restoration of the people.