John 3:14–21 (NRSV)
14 And just 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, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Today’s passage contains probably the most well-known passage of the bible. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” During my lifetime, we have seen this scriptural reference at nearly every sporting event, and when I was in college a professional wrestler hijacked the idea of John 3:16 to build his own persona. Of course, he was not known to grant eternal life but to know people out.
We have read, heard, memorized this verse for years. It is probably the first verse we memorized early in our life with Christ, and more than likely the first we teach the children in our Meetings or church. It has become so renowned that I fear we have lost the wonder within.
Today’s passage is part of Jesus’s conversation with the Pharisee named Nicodemus. This teacher of the law visited Jesus at night and discussed the finer things of faith. Within this discussion we gain some of the most profound spiritual insights mentioned by Jesus. For Evangelicals, we have the foundation of our spirituality of conversion, with the phrase you must be born again. And for many of us this concept we accept but in reality, we probably understand it about as much as Nicodemus did that night. The passage that we read today, is actually Jesus’s explanation of what being born again or born from above means.
By looking at this passage from that light, it begins to take on a different shape. He begins with the image of Moses lifting up the serpent. This is image is something that goes all the way back in Jewish history to the exodus from Egypt. For forty years the tribes of Israel wondered in the wilderness east of Egypt. During this time God provided for their every need. It is hard to imagine just how amazing this would be. For forty years their clothing did not wear out, they were out there walking in the desert and their sandals did not wear through and the cloth of their clothing did not become thread bare. After a couple months at work my khaki pants are ripping out and theirs lasted the rest of their lives. And their food appeared every morning, they would wake up and fill their jars with just enough for the day. If they took more than required it would spoil by the morning, but every morning there was more. The only time they could gather extra was the day before the sabbath so they could gather enough for two days so that they could rest on the seventh according to the law. Their only job during that time was to walk, following a pillar of fire at night or a cloud during the day. They would walk until this guide stopped and they could camp until their heavenly guide began to move once again.
Everything they could possible need was provided for them, yet they grumbled, they argued, they witnessed the miraculous daily and yet they failed to recognized God with them. Shortly after they had a battle with a Canaanite king and were given a victory over their enemies, the people of Israel began to complain. God had given them the victor, he had provided for their daily nourishment and they still complained. So, God allowed the land to become infested with venomous snakes. These snakes began to slither and bite, and many people began to die from the attacks. Just knowing I was in an area with venomous snakes and not being able to leave because the cloud hadn’t moved yet would be enough to kill me but they had nowhere to go. The people recognized that they had sinned against God, so they came to Moses to plead for mercy, and God heard their prayers. God devised a plan with Moses, he was to fashion a snake out of bronze and place it on a pole, when someone was bitten by a snake they could turn to this pole, to look at this bronze snake and the venom would not bring death.
I sat thinking of this story as I was preparing this week. The people of Israel were given a tangible experience to what life of rebellion against God would look like. When we reject God, it is as if we let the serpent in the garden that tempted our first parents bite us and the venom it carried begins to course through our veins till we can no longer function, we are consumed with poison, saturated with the venom of sin. The snakes slithering in the sands of that wilderness reminded them every moment of every day that they sinned, that they had rejected God, that they had stopped following Him and His ways and instead looked to themselves. They grumbled against God for the bread he provided they detested all that he had blessed them with. They wanted to go back to live as slaves in Egypt. This bitterness slowly consumed them, it poisoned them to the point that it threatened their very existence as a people. And God provided a sign for them to gain direction once again.
The idea of repentance is to turn. Usually it is seen as turning around and going the other direction, but some have interpreted it as being a return. A return to God. Israel turned away from God in the desert and when they came face to face with the deadly consequences of their sin they could return to God, looking up to the bronze serpent on that pole and the venom would not consume them. They believed, they trusted in the promise that was given to them through Moses that if they did this they would live, and they did. They put their full trust in that promise because it was clear through their life experiences that there was no other way, no other option to live once they were bitten but to look toward the bronze snake on the pole. There is only one way to restore life, one must turn.
Nicodemus knew this story, he knew it well because he was a teacher of the law. He was a member of the premier class of teachers that we know as the Sanhedrin. When Jesus spoke to him of being born from above this was the type of thing he was speaking about. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All have grumbled and complained. Each one of us all people have turned from God and have been bitten by the snake of selfishness and self. The venom of that lifestyle is coursing through our veins slowly eating away all signs of life. We may not notice it at first but it is there silently killing us until our hearts grown hard and cold. Jesus tells Nicodemus to remember that serpent on the pole and along with him he asks us to remember it as well. The people that were bitten by a snake were defenseless. There was no remedy that they could administer that could stop the devastating effects of the venom. Once they were bitten they knew their life was over. They could do nothing to prolong or preserve their life. But God provided a way to live. Turn and accept the grace from above. At the end of the desert wonderings the venom from these snakes likely touched every member of every tribe. They knew that it was God’s grace not their works that kept them alive. Without God’s grace they would all be dead. Without God’s grace Nicodemus would not be sitting there talking with Jesus because there would not have been a nation of Israel around to await their messiah they would all be bleached bones in the desert.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Just as the ancients looked to the bronze snake and placed their trust in God to overcome the venom of the snakes represented in that image, those that look to the Son of God will also not perish from the venom of sin. God loved the people of Israel, he did not want to see any of them perish but wanted them to be his people and Him to be their God. He wanted them to take on the lifestyle he created them to have in the garden and live that lifestyle within the world so that all would turn to the light of God. Yet they did not follow, they grumbled and they turned. They brought upon themselves their own destruction. But this verse if filled with hope. Everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. The serpent was the symbol of sin and death, Jesus is the symbol of life.
The history of Israel continues though. They once again turned from God. After they had entered the promised land they again looked to the world for their direction instead of God. They demanded a king, they desired gods that they could manipulate, and the consequences of those sins were again devastating. The kings took them to wars and withheld the profits of the people to build for themselves grand houses and feasting halls. This self-centered lifestyle lead to the fall of the nation and they lived in captivity. But a remnant remained and they returned to God, they returned to the land, only to start that cycle again. Nicodemus knew the history, Jesus was just reminding him of these cycles. And he continues by saying, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
The Son of God did not come to condemn the world, because they are already condemning themselves. I have thought of this verse often. I think of it every time someone speaks to me about God condemning people to spend eternity in hell. They always say if God is a loving God how could He do this? If God is a loving God how could he let bad things happen? If God so loves the world why? There really is not a good answer to this. Yes, God could do many things, yet he withholds his wrath. We look at the tragedies of school shootings, and the horrors of war and we demand to know where God is in that situation. Where is he, why has he allowed these things to happen? The sad truth is we are the ones that do it. We are the ones that cause the pain and destruction in our world. Because we are the ones that delegate human life as a means to an end instead of honoring the dignity of all who bear the image of God. God allows us to live according to our own hearts’ desires. We are condemned already because we are saturated with the venom of the serpent. That venom will continue to course through our veins deteriorating our societies until we turn and look at the one hanging on the pole. We will stand condemned until we believe.
The idea of belief is something that we have lost in our modern culture. We have skewed our understanding of this word to the point we no longer even know what it means. We have this idea in our mind that belief a form of knowledge, but the root of this word is trust. Trust in this sense is something that is reliable, something that we can count on to work. The idea is that we not only trust that it will work but we entrust our lives to it to the point our lives depend on it. When the ancients spoke of belief it was not simply an ideology they held to, it was their life. When they said they believed in a divine entity everything in their life revolved around that theological system. They lived their belief. And their belief was their life. Nicodemus believed in God, everything about his life revolved around his belief system. He woke in the morning entrusting his life to that system, he ate according to it, he breathed with it, because some scholars teach that the very name of God cannot be pronounced because it is not a word but the sound of breathing. They were Jews or Athenians whatever deity they claimed as their own not only on a feast day but every day. Why? Because their life was entrusted to that deity. Their very existence depended on that life.
When Jesus says that God so loved the world that He gave his only Son that whoever would believe in Him would not perish but have everlasting life, He is literally saying that they must entrust every aspect of their life on Jesus. Their very existence is to revolve around Jesus. Their lifestyle is to reflect the life of Jesus. Do we believe?
Jesus also says that He did not come to condemn. This is a hard concept to grasp. So often it seems that condemnation is what those claiming the name of Christ teach. We are sinners in the hands of an angry God, we are worms destined for the fires of hell. Unless you do what I say. We have focused so much on condemnation that when someone questions this concept we condemn them. Listen again to what Jesus tells Nicodemus, “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” Those who do evil hate the light because in the light their deeds may be exposed. In the light of Christ things are seen as they truly are. We cannot spin actual truth, we can only spin untruth. If we have a need to twist or skew our words we are doing so because we are wanting people to believe something that is untrue. And we most likely want people to believe that because it will provide us with some greater power over others.
Christ did not come to condemn because we have already condemned ourselves. The venom of the serpent is already there, we were born with it encoded in our DNA. We do not need someone to tell us how we can ruin our lives, or how we can exploit those around us. Just look at a child they know from early on how to manipulate their surroundings to get what they want. This only increases as time progresses. What we need is the remedy to the venom. We need the bronze snake on the pole that we can turn to when we realize we have been bitten. We need to turn, and we need to return again and again.
Do we believe? Are we born from above? Nicodemus wondered at these word, a man that was one of the most righteous of all the holy men of Israel. He wondered because he lived a life not of relational trust in God, but in self-reliant and selfish deeds. Those bitten by the snakes had to rest fully on the mercy of God, they had to entrust their very existence to his word because without him their death was secured. When we for a moment believe that we have control we turn away from God, when we in a moment trust in ourselves more than God we release the venom once again. Turn to God, trust in him, rely on the one who lived for us, who showed us what life with God looked like, and who took our sin and shame to the cross and died, who was buried in the grave and rose again on the third day. He removes the venom we inflict ourselves with, if we turn to him. When we live for him Loving God, trusting the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others we entrust our very existence to his ways. And we do this through worship, prayer, and service to others, not for our own glory but because we were once bitten by the snakes of sin and reverses the course of that venom and brings life.
What do we believe? In what do you trust? We live in a world were fear runs rampant and the kingdoms of the world prey on those fears saying if you only bow down to me I will take that way. Those in Christ are not of the kingdoms of the world our true place is in a kingdom greater than the greatest empire of mankind. A kingdom that stretches across all peoples and all time and will endure through the end of the ages. What do we believe?