How Can I Have Eternal Life? John 3:9-19 September 21, 2008
The meanings of words change so much sometimes that it’s hard to even use the word anymore. Did you know that “nice” used to (13th century) be an insult, meaning foolish or stupid? More recently, “Spam” was canned meat made by Hormel, but now it’s junk email! “Born Again” is like that – a political bloc, one sect of Christianity? But it’s Jesus’ term, He said it’s not a kind of Christianity but it is the only kind of Christianity: you cannot see or enter the kingdom of God unless you are born again.
I. Nicodemus wondered, “How are these things possible (able to be)? Are you, a teacher of Israel, not familiar with these things? So Jesus teaches the ‘great teacher’ of Israel. How does anyone know about heaven? (verse 13), “No one has been there! But there is one who has come down from heaven...” “I’ve been there, I can tell you the truth about heavenly things”, Jesus says.
A. The O.T. had many references to God’s provision of new life (Ezek. 36. 37), but Jesus asks him to remember something that took place 1400 years earlier, described in the book of Numbers. Verses 14, 15.
1. The children of Israel had been wandering for almost 40 years (Expositors, p. 670) – 40 years of complaining, grumbling against God, sniping at their leaders, foolishly longing to go back to slavery in Egypt, “we may have been slaves, but, hey, at least we had onions and garlic there!” (e.g. Num. 11:1-6) Have you noticed how grumbling blinds us to blessings God has given us? Imagine weighing the two: “bondage, slavery, forced labor, or no onions or garlic…hmm, hard choice.”
2. In Num. 21 they are whining again about the bread and meat God has given them – by the way, for free, every day! And God judged: serpents came into the camp and everyone they bit died. “Oh, there is something worse than no onions! Death!” They woke up under this discipline from God! They repented and crying for God’s mercy came to Moses, “Moses, go to the Lord and pray for us!”
3. God could have just removed the serpents. But God did something very strange: He told Moses to make a serpent out of bronze – a replica of the very thing that was killing the people – and put it on a stake of wood and lift it up. And God promised that whoever looked at that bronze serpent would be healed!
B. The memory of this incident lingered for generations.
1. The very stake was kept as a reminder of God’s deliverance for some 700 years – for 700 years people wondered why God had done it that way; for 700 years they talked about God’s promise that looking at that awful viper gave life to those bitten by the snake.
2. And then the people went crazy. You know how we are about old things – mementos become treasured antiques, and treasured antiques (especially in a church!) become sacred objects that take the reverence and worship which is due only to the living God. That’s what happened in Israel: the bronze serpent, a reminder of God’s grace, became an object of worship.
3. And King Hezekiah destroyed this ancient symbol of God’s gracious deliverance (II Kings 18:4). It was gone forever.
II. Why did God do it like that? The amazing lesson is given by Jesus.
A. “Just as…”
1. Jesus says that it was pointing to Him! The most amazing thing about Jesus is how He exalts Himself.
2. It’s absolutely crazy to think that Jesus was just another teacher! “You know what God did 1400 years ago, what all the scholars have been discussing since then…well, it was pointing to me!”
B. But it didn’t point to Jesus being crowned King, or a parade in His honor but to His death! The viper on a stake was a picture of Jesus on the cross! Strange! What symbol would you pick for Christ – lion, lamb, crown, staff…but a viper? What does that mean?
1. Like the ancient Israelites, we also have sinned. We also are ungrateful to God, dishonor His name, we’ve broken His good laws. And the punishment for our sins is death – physical and eternal, being separated from God who is life and joy and light.
2. As the viper was a picture of the punishment people deserved, so Jesus on the cross – torment and agony, forsaken by God Himself – is a picture of the punishment we deserve. Isaiah (53:4-6), “the punishment for our sins was laid on him…by his scourging – his pain and death – we are healed.”
3. As looking at the viper by faith in God’s promise brought healing, a new lease on life for the Israelites, so looking at the cross of Christ with faith in God’s promise that our sins would be forgiven, gives us eternal life.
III. How are these things possible? The real answer to Nicodemus is something ugly, horrifying and humbling – like that viper on the stake. It’s the cross!
A. It’s summarized in 3:16.
1. God so loved – here it is, the fullest, truest expression of God’s love – the cross! To talk of God’s love and ignore the cross is like visiting Manhattan and missing the skyscrapers. “He gave..” – not just to us, but to crucifixion; the cross is the most obvious and plain demonstration of the love of the Father. Those ancient Israelites were reminded of God’s mercy and love by that bronze snake, and do you know the reminder of God’s love to you? It’s the cross!
2. God loved the world – not one nation but all people, even though we were ungrateful, grumbling and sinful; each of us was loved by God.
3. God so loved that He gave His ‘one and only son’
a. God’s love doesn’t just make it possible for us to be rescued from death. He doesn’t just wish us well and send us a card, but does all that is necessary for life.
b. And in Jesus, God gave His all – notice the “one and only”. There isn’t another; there aren’t other ways – a whole tool box of ways to give us eternal life. After Jesus there isn’t any other way left for God to redeem us – He emptied out His love and mercy in Christ.
4. “That whoever believes…” – The condition for us to benefit is to “believe” and have “eternal life.” Wait, I must have to do more! Surely, there are ceremonies, or requirements.
a. Imagine being one of those dying Israelites 1400 years before Christ, what would you have to do? Just look at the pole, trusting in God’s promise! What if you said, “I need to do something! Maybe take a pill, amputate my leg, pay some money!” It wouldn’t help! It’s simple.
b. It’s simple for us – believe God’s promise in Christ. But the results aren’t simple. The result is life itself – in all its splendor and beauty. We’re born again to a new kind of existence – we start living forever!
c. It’s like a baby: what does it have to do to be born? Not a whole lot! It’s pretty simple from the baby’s point of view. But its birth is the beginning of a whole new life – new appetites, new food, new knowledge, new friendships, new desires.
B. The cross brings us to a point of decision– 3:17, 18. The purpose of the cross is not to condemn but to save – remember the bronze snake? But it does condemn those who refuse its promise.
1. The serpent meant life for all who believed. But those who said, “This is the stupidest thing.” Or “Come on, there’s a lot of cures for snake bites!” or just didn’t believe, were condemned. They died.
2. I remember vividly a car ride in Narsapur with Richard Prabhakar, an orthopedic surgeon. We came to a village where a group of boys was playing. One of them had a club foot – at the ankle the foot grew at right angles to his leg! He was hobbling along, trying to keep up with the boys. Richard called him and his parents over, “I can fix that. Here come to this hospital and I’ll do the surgery. There’s no charge.” If they had thought, “Wait a minute, there must be hidden charges” and didn’t believe the promise, or they ignored the invitation, or put it off – the boy would be condemned to the same kind of life. But if they believed the promise on that piece of paper it would mean a brand new life for him! They had to make a decision.
3. The cross brings us to a crossroads: Believe God’s promise of life in Christ and live. But since there all of God’s mercy and love and grace was emptied out, ignoring it, rejecting it, putting it off means there is no other remedy, and we are left in sin and death.
C. I don’t know what Nicodemus did.
1. His answer here is not given. We meet him next in John 7:50 where he timidly defends Jesus before his colleagues who want to destroy Jesus, “Shouldn’t we at least hear from Jesus before we condemn him?”
2. Then we meet him again in John 19 right after the crucifixion. I imagine him this time with tears streaming down his cheeks as he has witnessed “Jesus lifted up” just like the serpent. And, along with Joseph of Arimathea, he took the torn body down from the cross and laid it in a tomb. I think he finally believed.
3. What do you see in the cross?
a. Do you see there a picture of the punishment your sins deserve? Pause and think of that.
b. Do you see there a promise of God to love YOU and have mercy on YOU and instead of punishment to give you life?
c. Do you see why we sing of the cross? Sing with all your heart – perhaps for the first time – “Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my God should’st die for me.”