Sermon, November 22, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
We return this morning to the gospel of John, in chapter 3. Last week we looked at the first thirteen verses of chapter 3, at most of Jesus’s exchange with the Pharisee Nicodemus. This week we get to relish a bit in that (possibly) most famous verse of the bible, John 3:16, which comes early on in the passage we look at today. But naturally, we will make sure to examine the entire context of that verse so we can truly understand what it means, see why it shows up here, in this exchange with Nicodemus.
To review, leading up to our passage for today, last week we looked particularly at the two metaphors that Jesus used to communicate to Nicodemus how salvation works, how it operates. And, of course, the first of those metaphors, which Nicodemus had trouble understanding, was that he needed to be born again. Born again of the Spirit, not of the flesh. That was a difficult thing for a Pharisee to understand, not because they were unfamiliar with what a metaphor was, but because they had no interest being born of anything other than what they were. The Pharisees, Nicodemus included, were putting a whole lot of confidence in the flesh that they’d been born into. They were Jews, the chosen people, God was already on their side, right? Their flesh was good. Why would they want to throw that away?
This confounded Nicodemus because they were looking for a different kind of Messiah—that’s a common theme in John, people looking for Jesus to be something other than he is. Nicodemus, and often we as well, he was looking not for a transformation (like being born again) as he was a helper. But Jesus says that’s not how it works, you don’t need to be fixed, you need to be made new inside and out, born again. And if you think that even in that process you have control, think again, because the wind, this wind of the Spirit—it blows where it wishes.
And it is at that point in the conversation that we’ll pick up the passage, which is actually slightly before what is listed in the bulletin—we will consider closely starting at verse 14, but we will begin reading at verse 9. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word:
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
The Word of the Lord.
Well, there it is, the rest of the conversation. As I say all the time, there is of course, a lot in there. There are actually two parts to what we just read, and that is how we will look at it, in those two parts. We have the end, the rest of what Jesus said to Nicodemus, and I’m convinced, as many others are, that what Jesus says to Nicodemus actually ends at verse 15. Your pew bibles, and likely others too, have the quotes continue at verse 16 and don’t end until the end of verse 21, but many think that verse 16 is the beginning of John’s summary of Jesus’s teaching that is borne out in this story, not the words of Jesus himself. I think that would account for the fact that the end of verse 15 is immediately repeated at the outset of verse 16.
And now you’re saying to yourselves, “get on with it, Zach, it doesn’t really matter who said it,” right? All of these words are ultimately the words of Jesus, even if they came through John. Very true, it’s a pretty minor point. But it does change the way we look at it a little, if we are seeing verse 16 and following as a summary statement of the entire episode. Either way, we will look at what Christ says through verse 15 first and then look at the rest.
So, the first, then—verses 14 and 15: 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Remember this takes place after Jesus talks about being born again, how it is a complete transformation in your life, and after he talks about the wind of the Spirit blowing where it wishes. Jesus expands on that by having Nicodemus recall a story that he should know very well, and then he relates that story directly to himself.
We just read that story for the Old Testament reading, the story from Numbers—the story of Moses and the bronze serpent. It is actually the central, pivotal story in the book of Numbers. Numbers is the story of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert and the wilderness, a good deal of the time between the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan. I know that Numbers is not a book that we all read for fun all of the time, because it is full of, well, numbers, and very particular laws that we no longer observe and things like that. So many of us have started a read-through-the-bible-in-a-year in January, and if we make it through Leviticus, it’s usually in Numbers that we start to have trouble. But if you take a more bird’s-eye view of the first 20 chapters of Numbers, you don’t like the Israelites a whole lot. If you look at all of the narratives, it’s a story of lots and lots of complaining.
It starts out with the dedication of the Tabernacle, where God is going to be with his people. God, with you, in your camp, Israelites! The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who took you out of Egypt, miraculously. Who met you on Sinai and gave you the law, who didn’t annihilate you when you immediately turned around and began worshipping a golden calf. That God. He just had you build him a house so that he could be with you. And what do the Israelites do? Complain. “We had better food in Egypt! I really wish we were slaves again so we had better food!” So God gives them food. He miraculously provides manna for them, daily!
And they complain. We’re tired of this food, we want meat! So God gives them meat in the form of quail. And they complain, because they’re tired of that too. Then they complain that they don’t have enough water, and that situation boils over to the point that Moses strikes a rock in anger, and is punished for that. Miriam and Aaron rebel against Moses. They go to battle against a neighboring people and they are defeated. Israel is in a mess. No faith, lots of complaining, and blessings from God despite that. Moses has to intercede with God on behalf of the people because the people have become so terrible and ungrateful.
Then there is the pivotal moment in the book. Israel is on the move, bypassing Edom, still receiving their miraculous food from God, and they say again, “we are tired of this food, and we don’t have enough water.” But this time, God punishes them for their unbelief, for their lack of trust, and he sends poisonous snakes into the camp, and they are a plague on the people.
But God does not leave them to this plight. This plight that they absolutely deserve. He provides a way for them to be saved. And he did that in a specific way that was going to point, almost 1500 years later, to another way for people to be saved. For the Israelites, he had Moses lift a Bronze serpent on a pole, that the people could look at, and it would heal them, physically. In Jesus, he provided a way for his people to be truly, eternally saved, in his own Son being lifted up.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent, and healed the people of the poison in their bodies, so must I be lifted up, he says. And this term “lifted up” has a double meaning here. It certainly does imply that Christ needs to be, or will be highly exalted, lifted up to a place of high standing, absolutely. But in that term “lifted up,” we definitely see the cross. Jesus the Christ will be lifted up on a cross. And he will be, when he is lifted up, will be the one thing that God has provided to his people to save them. Look to the Son of Man, lifted high on the cross, and be saved. Not saved from the poison of a snake that may take your body, no, saved from the stain of sin that will take your soul.
The bronze serpent is what we refer to as a “type” in the Old Testament, a person or a symbol that points to Christ, that pre-figures Christ and deepens our understanding of who he is and what his work is. And as is always the case, Jesus is far greater than any of the types that point to him. Many of those “types” are people—Jesus is the greater David, Jesus is the greater Moses, Jesus is the greater so many things—here he is the greater serpent. Instead of saving the temporary, your body, he saves the eternal, he saves your soul.
Nicodemus would know this story, and would know what Christ is saying here. He is saying it’s not about you, it’s not about who you come from, what ceremonies you’ve performed, or anything, it’s about him. It’s about Jesus. See how this story of the serpent dovetails with being born again, completely transformed? There is no other way. The death rate from the poisonous snakes was 100%, and the effectiveness of the cure, also 100%. God tells us over and over and over again, that Jesus is the only way, and entirely the way. It’s not you + Jesus, it’s only Jesus. The Jews, especially the Pharisees were looking for a “them + Messiah” sort of story, but the real story is that whosoever believes in Him, in Jesus, will have eternal life.
So with that in our minds, we turn to the summary of this whole story:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
The most quoted verse in the bible, and also the most misunderstood. People love this verse, and they should, because it encapsulates the gospel so perfectly. It should be treasured, but it should be treasured for what it actually says, not what we want it to say. Let’s break it down and look at what it actually means, and also what it does not.
First, the pretext for the entire gospel story: God so loved the world. This is where the first distortions begin. People hear those words, forget the rest of scripture, and think that means, “God loves the world, no matter what!” In a way that is true. God does not love sin, he does not love rebellion, he does not love people profaning his name or acting contrary to his law. He doesn’t love that. We have to dwell on the question of why does he love the world? The answer is not because we are so great, that we somehow deserve his love. We certainly don’t! We deserve nothing! This is how this great verse gets off on the wrong foot in so many people’s minds, people who want to be the hero of their own story. We hear that God loves us, and immediately think, “yeah, because I’m so lovable! I’m pretty great!” It is the most wonderful thing in the world to dwell on the reality that God loves you, but it is not for anything in you. It is because God loves his creation, he loves the people on whom he placed his image.
So that’s the first thing to keep in our minds, that God so loved the world because he is a loving God, not because of anything in us, out of his grace, his free choice, because he is a loving God.
And the immensity of that undeserved love, what did it compel God to do? It compelled him to sacrifice his Son to save us from our situation. Because God loves us, but like I said, he hates our sin. Acting justly, he could punish us for the sin by taking our lives. Any second of every day he would be just in doing that to any one of us, because we have that sin, and we add to it constantly. But look at what God does—it does not say, God so loves the world that he will overlook your sin. God so loves the world that he will accept you as you are. God so loves you that he won’t ask you to change anything about yourself, you’re all good. That’s the message of the liberal church, is it not? You’re all good, because God loves you just the way you are.
No, he doesn’t! He doesn’t love you just the way you are. That message is “you don’t need to be fixed.” Jesus just got done saying to Nicodemus you do need to be fixed, but you are completely beyond fixing, you need to be born again. So “you’re all good, you be you” can’t possibly be the message of John 3:16! No, this verse does not say “God loves you so much he will just accept you, sins and all.” No, he says something far greater. He says that he knows what shackles you’re in. He knows what pain sin is causing in your life, in your relationships. He knows that sin is a weight, it is a burden. He knows that sin makes your life worse. He loves you so much that he wants to take that burden off of you and get rid of it. He wants to give you new life, and a sinless record because he knows that’s what freedom really is. Freedom. God loves you so much, that he will not comfort you in your bondage, he will free you from it. Amen!
And that is the tragedy of the false gospel being preached in the liberal church, because it is not a gospel, it is cheap grace. This is not a caricature that I’m trying to sell you—the liberal church trumpets the idea, celebrates the idea loud and proud that what God really wants to do is tell you that you are all right the way you are. For God so loved the world, full stop. And they’ve decided that that means that he just loves the world, warts and all, and really doesn’t care about sin. Blasphemy. That ignores the entire rest of scripture, God telling us he wants to give us clean hearts, he wants to change us. He wants to give us freedom, not comfort.
But, that freedom comes at a price, doesn’t it? We read the rest of the verse and we understand that freedom that God wants for us, that he wants to purchase for us—it can’t be had without the sacrifice of his only Son. That’s where this verse is going—do you want to know how much God loves you? So much that he wants to clean the sin from you, even if it means the sacrifice of his own, his only son. That whosoever believes in him shall not perish—because that’s where sin, even one sin on your record will leave you—shall not perish, shall not be found with sin, but instead, be found clean. Instead of being found stained, being found in Christ, and having everlasting life. I hope that gets us closer to an idea of the depth of God’s love for us, even though there is not one single thing that we bring to the table. Not only is the table empty, we’ve piled it high with filth.
So there’s a lot to misunderstand in that verse, but a true understanding is far more glorious than any misunderstanding of it. And then we read the next two verses, which very importantly clarify this point.
17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
People love John 3:17 too, for some of the same reasons. It’s true, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world could be saved. People love that! Yay, no condemnation! See, Jesus is all love, not wrath, right? It sounds like he came to save the whole world, no questions asked, yay! This has led to this idea of universalism—God is going to save everyone regardless of what they do, see, it says Jesus came to save the world! Isn’t that the same gross misunderstanding we just beat down in John 3:16? You have to read 17 and 18 as a package to understand them. God says he did not send Jesus to condemn the world, and that is true, why is that true? Verse 18: because they’re condemned already! Jesus doesn’t need to condemn anyone, because that’s your natural state, you’re already there.
No, Jesus came to earth 2000 years ago to save, not condemn. He came to be the greater bronze serpent. He came to be the way to salvation for the people of God, the people God has called out of all peoples and all time to be his own. He came to save. He didn’t come to pat you on the back, he came to call you out of your sin, and in himself Jesus provided the way, on the cross.
As Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, so must Jesus be lifted up, so that we can look to him and be saved. You want real good news, real gospel? Just like the bronze serpent had a 100% cure rate, Jesus saves 100% of the people who fall down at his feet, repent of their sins, and put their trust in him to be their savior. 100% effectiveness. God’s love for you, despite everything in you, his love is so great, that he gave his Son for you. And he didn’t just loan Jesus to you for an afternoon to help you build a fence or something, he sent him to be despised, rejected, humiliated, and then, lifted up on a cross to die. For you, so that you would have everlasting life. That’s the gospel, let’s never let it be anything else. As we will sing in just a minute, let’s “Lift High the Cross,” and in doing so, proclaim the love of Christ, the love of God for all of us. Amen.
We come to you forever humbled by the immensity of your love for us, that you would provide a way of salvation for us when we have done nothing but complain and reject you like the Israelites of old. Help us to treasure this pinnacle of verses in your Word, but treasure it for all of the right reasons, and for our right understanding of it. Thank you for the gift of your Son, a sacrifice we cannot even imagine, in whose name we pray, amen.