Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ March 11, 2012 ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
We’re about to look at the second half of a conversation that took place late one night between Jesus and a curious Pharisee by the name of Nicodemus. Before we do, however, let me briefly summarize the first half of that conversation which we looked at last week.
Having watched the miraculous signs Jesus has performed, Nicodemus senses that Jesus is the real deal. This miracle worker, he concludes, must be from God. So he finds Jesus late one night to see if he can learn more about thekingdomofGod. What I think he really wants to ask Jesus is how he can find salvation. Which is, I think, a very good question. Don’t you want to know how you can be saved?
In response to Nicodemus, Jesus says a very curious thing. Jesus tells Nicodemus that God’s kingdom is only accessible to people who are born from above, people who have been spiritually born again. He’s implying that even though we are physically alive, our sin against God has made us spiritually dead. Our sin has cut us off from God, every last one of us. Naturally, that means that unless our spirits are somehow made alive again, we will not experience salvation, we will not be included in God’s kingdom.
Think of it this way. Jesus, the Great Physician, gives us the diagnosis: we are spiritually dead in our sins. He also gives the prognosis: our spiritual deadness, if not remedied, will ultimately lead to exclusion from God’s Kingdom. Lastly, he gives the treatment, or the remedy: if you are to live, if you are to be saved, you must be born from above.
Now, if that treatment leaves you scratching your head like it left Nicodemus scratching his head, don’t despair. For it is in this second half of the conversation that Jesus is going to give us a very clear explanation of how this treatment is administered. He’s going to tell us, in other words, exactly how a person is born from above so that they can, in the end, be healed from sin and spiritual deadness and find salvation and life in thekingdomofGod.
Let’s listen then, with ears that are ready to hear what it is that Jesus has to teach us.
14And just 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.
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. 18Those 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.
19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But 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.’ (John 3:14-21, NRSV)
Jesus begins his explanation of his remedy for spiritual death by reminding Nicodemus of a very odd story from the Old Testament. It’s a story that Nicodemus certainly knew well.
You can read it for yourself later today in Numbers 21:4-9. There we find Moses leading the Israelites through the desert to the Promised Land. But on the way, the people lose faith and curse God. They turn their backs on God. Even though God has provided for them everything they need, including deliverance from slavery, they still aren’t satisfied.
Well, their sin against God, as sin always does, cuts them off from God and, in turn, leads to death. In this instance, God sends a nest of venomous snakes among them which, we’re told, bit many of the people. Tragically, those who were bitten died. It was a bad situation.
Out of desperation, the people turn back to God. They confess their sin and they cry out for help. In response, God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it up high on a pole for all the people to see. Then God promises that anybody who looks up at the snake on the pole will be healed and live.
To review, it’s a bad diagnosis for the people. They are full of poisonous venom. It’s a worse prognosis. The venom is going to kill them. But God provides a remedy. Look to this image of snake on the pole and you will be healed. Granted, it’s a very bizarre remedy, but it’s the one God gives. In fact, it’s the only one God gives.
Notice something here. God has provided healing and salvation, but there is one great variable in the story. Will the Israelites trust and obey God and look, in faith, to the snake. Everything hinges on that. And it’s certainly not a given that they will. After all, think of all the other treatment options they could have explored. Maybe they could come up with their own cure by mixing up some medicine that might neutralize the poison. Or maybe they could simply have prayed to God to asked God to heal them straight away. Why did they have to look up at a silly pretend snake on a pole? What if they just promised God they would do better next time? Wouldn’t that be enough?
In the end, however, God does not allow for other treatment options. There is no second opinion. Just this one remedy. Obey me and look in faith to this snake up on the pole. If you do, you’ll be healed. If you don’t, you will die. The whole things hinges on whether or not they will trust and obey God.
Wisely, the people, out of desperation, do trust God and look up to the snake. And just as God said, they were completely healed.
Isn’t that a bizarre story? Nonetheless, this is the story Jesus chooses to explain to Nicodemus the treatment for spiritual death. He tells Nicodemus, “Listen, remember how Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness? In the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him, whoever looks to him in faith, may have eternal life.”
Are you starting to see the connections? Jesus, like the snake, will be lifted up on a pole. His pole, of course, was in the shape of a cross. And those who look to him in faith, those who believe in him, will be healed from the deadly poison of their sin and be saved.
The key is that just like the story of the snake in the desert, this story of salvation through Christ also hinges at one crucial point. Will Nicodemus, will we, trust and obey God and look, in faith, to the One lifted up on the cross. Jesus is telling us here that our healing, our spiritual life, all hinges on faith. And by the way, healing always does depend on faith.
Imagine, for instance, that you are sick and go to the doctor. After running some tests, the doctor gives you his diagnosis. It’s not good. You have a very serious disease.
Hearing the diagnosis, you ask for an honest prognosis. Once again, it’s not good. You’re told that unless it’s treated, this disease will eventually take your life. But thankfully, your doctor goes on to tell you, there is one available treatment. It’s a very strange remedy, but one that has, in fact, a 100% success rate. It will cure you. There are no other treatments, you’re told. Just this one. So getting a second opinion will be a waste of time.
In that scenario, do you see that everything hinges around one thing? Your healing depends on faith. Do you trust your doctor? You must trust your doctor’s diagnosis. You must trust his prognosis. And you must trust his course of treatment, and trust it enough to submit yourself to it. If you do, you will be healed. If you don’t, you will eventually die.
With this in mind, I want you to think of Jesus as the Great Physician. It’s a title that’s been used for him before. It’s fitting. He is, after all, the one who has come to provide healing for the world.
The Great Physician gives us our diagnosis. We are poisoned by sin. Every last one of us. We have chosen to live life on our terms instead of God’s terms.
The Great Physician gives us our prognosis. The poison of sin is fatal. Unless treated, our sin will lead to death. It has already led to spiritual death. It will eventually lead to physical death. Sin leads to death, in this life and the next.
Thankfully, however, the Great Physician tells us that there is a remedy available! Like a physician writing out a detailed prescription, Jesus spells out this remedy for death in these timeless words from verse 16. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but, instead, have eternal life.”
The good news of the remedy Christ provides is staggering good news. God loves us! And this is how much God loves us. God was willing to give up his Son, his only Son, and send him to the cross to die on our behalf. Even more amazingly, God did not do this for people who loved him. God did this for people who cursed him, and hated him, and ignored him, and rejected him.
Who does this sort of thing? Not me. I’ll just be honest with you. As your pastor I love you. And I would make great sacrifices for you. Although if you all turned your backs on me, it would be, I’ll admit, much more difficult to do so. Either way, I would not give up one of my children for you. I just don’t think I would do it. Would you? Would you give up your dearly beloved to save a group of people who wanted nothing to do with you?
How can God love like this? The love of God is the most powerful force in the universe. It is the source of life. It is the defining characteristic of God. It is the heart of the Christian Gospel.
As we learn in the next verse, God did not come into the world to condemn the world. Yes, your sin against God is great. It’s deadly. But when God comes, in Christ, to meet you, he does not come to condemn you. He comes to save you. He comes because he loves you. And this is not just true for you, this is true for everybody! God so loved the world! The whole world. Not just one nation. Not just one people. Not just good people. All people. Christ died for everyone. And everyone who believes, Jesus says, will be saved. Everyone who believes!
Friends, do you believe this good news of the Gospel? Because this is where it all hinges. Four times in this passage Jesus uses the word “believe.” He’s not being subtle here. Your diagnosis is bad. Your prognosis is worse. A treatment, however, is guaranteed. In fact, it’s already accomplished! All who believe in Christ will find healing and life, the gift of spiritual birth from above. All that is left is to believe. It all hinges on believing. Healing is not automatic. Salvation is not forced upon us. Faith, Jesus says, is required.
So, do you believe?
This is so important I want to personalize it for you.
Do you believe, do you trust Jesus’ diagnosis that you are poisoned by sin? I ask because, to be honest, I don’t assume that all of you do. Many people do not. Of course, nobody imagines they are perfect. But lots of people believe they are good. At least, good enough. I may not be as good as Jesus, but I’m certainly doing a lot better than other people I could name.
Jesus says, “No. You’re not good enough. You’re far from good enough. You’re full of poison.” That is his diagnosis. Our sin against God is great. It’s so great, it’s deadly. That is Jesus’ prognosis. Because of sin, we all are spiritually dead and on our way to being physically dead, separated forever from the love of God.
That is Jesus’ prognosis. Do you believe him? Again, I ask because many people do not. Some of you, I suspect, do not. Sin is bad, you agree. But not that bad. In the end, you may imagine, God will somehow make it possible for everybody to find their way into his Kingdom.
But that’s not what Jesus says. And you can disagree with Jesus. That’s your prerogative. You can fail to trust him at this point. But don’t try to make Jesus say something that he never said or ignore and disregard what he has said. According to Jesus, you and I are poisoned by sin which, unless treated, will lead to death. Do you believe his prognosis?
Even if you do, even if you do trust Jesus’ diagnosis and prognosis, the question still remains as to whether or not you will trust his prescribed treatment. Specifically, do you believe that the only way to be healed from the deadly poison of sin is to look in faith to the Son of God who was lifted high on a pole? Because according to Jesus, no other treatment is available. No other religious path leads to salvation. Our own efforts at goodness can’t bring about spiritual birth. We are only saved as we believe in Christ. This salvation is a gift you can never earn. Yes, it’s a gift available to us all. But you do have to believe. Jesus says the word four times here so that there can be no question about it. The treatment is only effective if you believe.
To believe in Jesus, however, does not simply mean that we believe he exists, or that we believe he is God, or even that we believe he is the Savior of the world who died and rose from the grave. As the scriptures tell us, even the devil believes these things and he, certainly, is not saved. So instead, the belief Jesus speaks about here is more like trust. Saving faith is trust that leads to obedience.
You see, if you trust the diagnosis, prognosis and prescribed treatment of your physician, you are going to do whatever he or she tells you to do. If you trust your doctor you obey your doctor. In the same way, if you truly trust and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you are also going to be ready to do whatever God tells you to do. Even if it doesn’t make sense, you’ll do it. Even if you really don’t want to do it, you’ll do it. And if you find that you just can’t do it, you’ll ask God to help you do it. That’s trust. That’s the belief Jesus speaks about here.
I’m sure it didn’t make sense to the Israelites how looking up at a bronze snake on a pole would lead to their healing. Nevertheless, they trusted and looked. As a result, they were healed. Not because there was some magical healing power in the snake. They were healed because there was power in God and that power came to them when they trusted God.
I’m going to say something that is going to be hard for some of you to hear. While I truly am not thinking of any one person in particular, I know there are people in this church, as there are in every church, who have told themselves that they believe in Jesus but who, if the truth be told, don’t wholeheartedly trust Jesus. Some of you acknowledge Jesus; you just don’t trust Jesus.
You see, trusting in Jesus’ ultimately means that you are humbly ready and willing to do whatever it is Jesus asks you to do. You may need his help to do it. In fact, you probably do. Nonetheless, you are willing to obey, ready to submit, eager to follow, even when what Christ asks of you makes no sense? This is what it means to trust Jesus. It’s not simply to acknowledge Jesus in your head, but to trust and follow him with your life. And I fear that some of you do not yet trust Jesus like this.
Jesus, through his teachings, has made clear how he desires us to live. He plainly tells us that he knows the best way for us to live. Do you trust him? Do you trust Jesus to the extent that you believe that he knows better how to run your life than you do?
Are you willing, for instance, to use your money and possessions in whatever ways Jesus tells you to use them? Would you give everything away if Jesus told you to give everything away? He may not ask you to do that, but what if he did?
Are you willing to make time to meet Jesus in places he tells you make time to regularly meet him, in prayer, in the scriptures, in the community of his people?
Are you willing to strive for sexual purity in your life, to use the gift of sex the way God tells us it should be used, in marriage and in marriage alone?
Do you desire to become the sort of person who shows compassion to the poor? Are you ready to let Jesus help you forgive people you begrudge and love people you hate? Do you desire for Jesus to teach you to stop gossiping, or complaining, or lying?
Are you ready to give up your own ambitions and dreams in exchange for Jesus’ ambitions and dreams for you because you trust that his dreams and ambitions are better?
Let me be clear. We are not saved because we do these things. That’s dead religion. That’s works-righteousness. We are saved by the grace of God in Christ and nothing else. We are saved because Christ was lifted up on that pole. But that grace of God in Christ comes to us through faith. We receive it when we believe. And true belief, true faith, means that we have come to a place where we humbly say, “I’m through, Lord, living life on my own terms. And because I trust you completely I’m ready to let you, Jesus, transform me so that I can begin to live life on your terms. I’m ready to place everything in your hands, to stake it all on you. If you’ll help me, I’m ready to do whatever it is you ask me to do.”
Many of you, I know, are in this place. And you have found great joy in life. But I fear that some of you are not yet in this place. If that’s you, I pray God would give you the humility to see that it’s true. Because if it is true, it means that while the full remedy has already been provided for you in Christ, to this point you have refused to receive it because you refuse to wholeheartedly trust in Jesus. That means, according to Jesus, that you remain in your condemnation. You may think you have faith, but faith without obedience, is a dead faith.
Jesus says it here, “Those who do not believe [i.e. trust] are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Let’s be clear, Jesus did not come to condemn such people, any more than a doctor meets with a patient to make him sick. Jesus doesn’t condemn us. Okay? Our sin condemns us. Jesus came in love. Jesus came to heal. But those who fail to trust him to the point of obedience remain terminally ill. And that’s not the Physician’s fault. The Physician came to heal!
Now, I suspect all this sounds extraordinarily judgmental to some of you. I know that. And you want to protest, “That’s not what God is like. God is a God of love, not a God of judgment.” And to you I would say, sometimes love feels like judgment. Sometimes, in fact, it is the person who loves you most in this world who is the only one willing to speak the hard truth and point out the thing in you that is killing you. And you may not want to hear it. It may sound to you like judgment. Sometimes the knife of the physician hurts when it’s used to cut out that which rotten inside you.
In verse 19, the Great Physician lovingly says, “Listen, this is the judgment. The light has come into the world, but people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” Some people simply don’t want to change the way they are living. They want to keep living life on their terms.
Jesus puts the crisis in black and white. According to him, there is a great divide in our world. For all of us the diagnosis, prognosis and prescribed remedy are the same. We all are poisoned by our sin, you as much as me. And that poison, unless remedied, is fatal. It’s spiritually and physically fatal for all of us. But then healing, complete and eternal healing, is also held out to all of us. All this is true for all of us. The great divide, therefore, comes at this point. According to Jesus, there are going to be some people who trust him in all this, and other people who don’t trust him and, as a result, choose poison over healing, death over life.
That being said, however, the main point of this whole conversation with Nicodemus is not that there are people who will choose to remain poisoned by their sin. That is one point, and a very important point. It’s just not the main point.
Listen to me. Jesus’ main point here is that nobody has to remain poisoned by their sin. The main point is that through Christ healing has been made available for everyone! That is the main point. That is the heart of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Which means that the main question is whether or not people will choose to receive this healing in faith.
Did you notice, by the way, that John doesn’t tell what Nicodemus chooses? John must have known. He was there. Aren’t you curious? Does Nicodemus trust Jesus? In the end, is he born from above? Does he find his way into God’s Kingdom? Or does he walk away from Jesus and choose, instead, life apart from God? Certainly, he must have made a choice, one way or the other. We’re just not told. Which, I happen to think, is for a reason.
You see, this story is left open ended for us because the important thing about this story is not so much what Nicodemus decides. The important thing about this story is what you decide. It’s what I decide.
The Great Physician, after giving us the worst diagnosis and prognosis we could ever want to hear, then offers us healing more complete and lasting than we could ever hope to hear. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” In faith, will you receive this greatest of all gifts and, in Christ, be healed, and healed forever?
The Next Step – A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
- Read John 3:14-21. What do you hear Jesus saying here?
- Jesus says that God loves the world. Why does God love the world?
- Jesus says salvation and eternal life and healing come to those who believe in him. What do you think it means to “believe” in Jesus?
- Jesus says, “Whoever does not believe stands condemned already.” Why? What does he mean by this? Condemned by whom? Condemned by what?
- Jeff summarized Jesus’ teaching this way. The Great Physician’s diagnosis: we are poisoned by sin. The Great Physician’s prognosis: unless treated, the poison of sin is deadly. The Great Physician’s remedy: the love of God sends the Son of God to be lifted up on a pole so that all who look to him in faith will be healed. Is this, in fact, what you think Jesus is teaching us? Do you agree with it?
- Do you trust in Jesus to the point that you are willing and ready to do whatever it is he asks of you because you believe that he can run your life better than you can run your life?
- If salvation only comes to those who trust in Jesus, what do we say about people who have never even heard of Jesus in the first place?
- After hearing everything he has to say here, what question would you want to next ask Jesus?
Further Scripture Readings for the Week: This Lenten season, in preparation for Easter, join others in the church setting aside at least 1% of their day each day to read through the Gospel of Luke.
Monday: Luke 9:46-62
Tuesday Luke 10:1-24
Wednesday: Luke 10:25-42
Thursday: Luke 11:1-28
Friday: Luke 11:29-54
Saturday : Luke 12:1-34