Preached at Cornerstone Church in Cascade, IA on February 21, 2015 .
Turn in your Bibles to John 3. We will be reading verses 14-21. However, before we unpack that section, we must spend a short time reviewing what was discussed last week. Last week, we began analyzing the conversation between the Nicodemus and Jesus. As we saw, Nicodemus was a Pharisee, part of the Sanhedrin, and was known as the Teacher of Israel. He was very comparable to the Roman Catholic Pope in many ways.
Having said that, despite Nicodemus' religious pedigree, and rise to the top, Jesus made it very clear that Nicodemus was completely in the dark. Nicodemus wanted to know about getting into the Kingdom of God, and Jesus told him that you cannot get into the Kingdom of God through works of the flesh. The only way into the Kingdom was through the new birth. This new birth, Jesus teaches, is from God, and Jesus says it is like the Wind. It blows into your life, out of nowhere, and gives you the eyes to see Jesus as King, and submit to his rule.
As John puts it in 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.” God's love for us is the cause of our love of Him. God is the ultimate and decisive reason why we love Him. Without God first loving us, we have no ability in our depraved, stone hard hearts to love God. Therefore, it is impossible to enter the Kingdom apart from being born again.
Listen to how Jesus says it in Matthew 19:25-26, “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Man cannot save themselves, it is impossible. Only God can save. Nicodemus was trying to do the impossible. He was trying to save himself through his religion. He was depending on works, religious sacraments, and this was a lost cause. It was as if he was trying to swim across the Pacific Ocean, it doesn't matter how good a swimmer you think you are, you just can't do it. The only way to see and then enter the Kingdom is to be born again.
And this portion of the conversation that we unpacked last week is so crucial as we step into the second portion. So many people will read John 3:16 without the first 15 verses, and when they do this, their theology gets all twisted. The new birth is the prerequisite for the verses we are about to unpack. So with that said, let us read our text for today, pray, and examine God's Word.
A Serpent in the Wilderness
In verse 14 we see Jesus say, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” What is Jesus talking about?
What Jesus is doing is exactly what he did earlier in the conversation with Nicodemus. In an attempt to help Nicodemus understand the Gospel, Jesus is dropping Biblical references. Last week, Jesus dropped two words, “water and spirit” and these two words, as we saw, were references to Ezekiel 36. As we saw, these two words have nothing to do with Baptism or physical birth, these two words were to refer Nicodemus to the Old Testament's description of the new birth, whereby God cleanses you with water and puts his Spirit in you.
Jesus, in verse 14, is doing the exact same thing when he refers to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. Turn with me to Numbers 21:4-9. Last week I quickly touched on this reference, but did not go into it due to time, and I felt that today we needed to look at it a little closer.
In this passage the nation of Israel is in the midst of their 40 year wandering in the dessert. This was prior to their entry into promise land. This brief text in Numbers is a great window into the relationship between God and Israel during this 40 years. For in this brief story we see the rebellious nature of the people of Israel, the justice and wrath of God, and the love of their covenant God.
As many of you know, Israel, as described in the Old Testament, was a stiff necked people. They were constantly rebellious and ungrateful for all that God did for them. God's response to their sin was not to ignore it. God, being a just God, punished Israel for their rebellion. Numbers 21 is just one example of His justice. In or passage, the wage for Israel’s sin was death by poisonous snake. Moses, in response to God's justice and wrath, stood between a sinful Israel and a Holy God and asked God to take away the serpents. What is interesting is that God did not take away the serpents. God did not take away the punishment. Instead he had Moses make a bronze image of a serpent and put it on a pole. Why?
The reason was, in my opinion, is that the root problem for Israel was their lack of faith. Their impatience and their complaints against God was a direct result of their lack of faith in God. So what does God do, instead of taking away the serpents, he institutes a plan of salvation that requires an act of faith.
When an Israelite was bitten, they knew that they were as good as dead, and in that moment of realization that their destiny was death, they had a choice to make, believe in the power of the bronze snake to save them, or try something else. They had to make a decision: God's way, or another way. My guess is that after many people dieing they quickly realized that there was only one way to remove the death sentence. They had to trust God's way, and run to the bronze snake and set their eyes upon it high and lifted up. The means of God's Grace was faith in His plan. And God, desiring them to understand both his justice and his grace, uses the image of death (the snake), to overcome death.
The story of Numbers 21 is literally the cross reference that Jesus uses to help Nicodemus understand what he must do to enter into the Kingdom of God. Verse 14 , “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The lifting up of the Son, is the lifting up of Jesus upon the cross. Numbers 21 is a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus, that overcomes the sting of death. Nicodemus and anyone else bitten by the snake to believe in God's plan of salvation and put their faith in the power of Christ on the cross.
We Have Been Bitten
Whether the world realizes, the universal truth is that all of humanity has been bitten by the serpent of old, otherwise known as Satan. And his poison has spread from Adam to all of us. Romans 5:12 says, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned--“ Sin has been passed down from one generation to the next, to the next. Sin is a spiritually genetic disease.
When we look Numbers 21, we must not only see a foreshadow of the cross, but we must also see a foreshadow of ourselves. For we have all spoken against the Lord, and we have all rejected his rule in our life. We have all chosen to live our life independent of him, grumbling all along the way. Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned.” Romans 3:10, “None is righteous, no not one.” Ecclesiastes 7:20, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” Perhaps Proverbs 20:9 says it best, “Who can say, “I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin”?” The answer to that question is no one. There is no doubt that Satan's fangs have pierced each one of us.
And this is why in verse 18 it says, “but whoever does not believe is condemned already.” The word condemned in Greek is Krino, which means judged, concluded, determined. The gavel of God has fallen and he has declared everyone that does not believe in Jesus condemned.
The world is oblivious to this reality, just like Nicodemus. He didn’t understand that as he stood in that moment, he was not neutral before God, he was guilty, and no level of religiosity was going to save him. So many of us have heard people say over and over again that they are going to heaven because they are a good person. I don't know where they get this, because Jesus, who knows the hearts of all men, says that everyone who doesn't believe in him is siting on death row, waiting for their name to be called. There is no innocent party on God's death row. Everyone has earned their place of condemnation.
And oh how important is this!? If people do not recognize the severity of their condition, then they will never seek a cure. People must be told this truth. Our Gospel must include this crucial message. Everyone has been bitten, your children have been bitten, your parents have been bitten, your neighbors have been bitten, you co-workers have been bitten, and we must tell them. If we do not, who will? When we do this we are not judging them, for judgment has already been made. God has already declared them to be guilty. Our role is to be the messenger of this biblical truth and love them enough to tell them the truth.
Faith Alone, Christ Alone
And we must not forget that this truth of their condemnation does not come alone, nor should it. We do not declare guilt to rub salt in the wounds of the brokenhearted, we do it in hope that they cling to the cure, Jesus Christ.
And we should be very clear, that there is only one cure. For Israel, the only answer that God provided was the Bronze Serpent. It was the only thing that would take away the poison of the fiery serpent. Likewise, Jesus is the only way that God provided to deal with our condemnation. It is terribly common for people, such as Oprah, to say blasphemous things such as Jesus is one way, but not the only way. This is absolutely false. The God of the Universe, has chosen a single cure for our depraved condition, and the cure is his son Jesus.
Verse 17 says, “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.” This is why Jesus came, to save us through him. Not through our good works, not through our religion, not through our baptism, not through communion, not through Islam, not through Budism, not through Hinduism, not through technology, not through money, not through our nationality. Our salvation hinges on Christ alone. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. I have heard so many people say, it is not important what you believe in, but just that you believe in something. Imagine if that was the message of Moses as he walked among the corpses of Israel.
Later on in the book of John we will here the famous words of Christ himself in John 14:6, “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the bronze serpent, and we must hold him high in the wilderness of this world, and plead with people to believe in the sufficiency of the blood of Jesus as poured out on Calvary.
Some people may find this hard to believe, that simply believing in Jesus is enough, but it is. The Bible could not be more clear on this point. Verse 15 “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” Verse 16“that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Verse 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.” Everything hinges on faith in Christ. The Gospel can be summed up with the phrase Faith alone, Grace alone, Christ Alone.
For God So Loved
And this leads us to a very important question, why? Why would God save wretched, rebellious, depraved sinners like us? There is no doubt that we deserve Hell. What is the motivation behind his radical action of not only saving us, but saving us through the death of His Son? In between verse 15 and the end of verse 16 we see perhaps the most beautiful words in all of Scripture, “For God so loved the world.”
Without getting into all the the linguistic details of Greek, the phrase behind “so loved” stresses the intensity of God's love towards those who believe. He is driven by his love. His love compels him to act. And to emphasize even more the weight of his love towards those who believe, the gift God gives in the display of his love is of the absolute highest value. For there is not a greater gift that can ever be given, by man or by God, then the gift of His Son, is truly the pearl of great value and it is placed upon the finger of his Bride.
And I hope that this sinks in, especially as Easter approaches and we, with a more heightened attention, focus on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The reason why, the Son of God was beaten, spit on, mocked, torn to shreds, nailed to a tree, and left to die is because God loves you.
And this word love in Greek is agapao, some of you are familiar with another form of this word, agape. This word agape is a love that is not based upon conditions. It is a love that is freely given by grace alone. It is a love that cannot be earned, only received. I liked the way DA Carson put it, “the love of God is not the consequence of their loveliness but on the sublime truth that God is love.” As sinners, this kind of love is beyond our comprehension. It is beyond words. It is simply something to be praised.
Earlier this month, a group of us were at a conference hosted by Desiring God and during that conference a speaker quoted a hymn that none of us were familiar with, and afterward we were talking about how beautiful the words were and we wished we knew the name. Well, by God's sovereignty, during my study this week, I came across them again, and feel compelled to end today with them. These are the words of F.M. Lehman in his hymn, “Love of God.”
“Could we with ink the ocean fill, And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill, And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole, Though stretched from sky to sky.
O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall for evermore endure
The saints' and angels' song.”