As Easter approaches, I prepared the following as a sermon to use at one of our prisons to which we minister. I am sharing it here because its message is so important as we contemplate the Cross and all that Christ is for us.
John 3:13-21 (NKJV)
12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
The gospel is, as Fredrick Buechner put it, incredibly bad news before it is incredibly good news. In this passage, Jesus Himself explained the essence of the gospel message with one of Israel’s teachers, a man named Nicodemus. As we picked up the narrative above, Jesus honed in on the essential news of the gospel and it is nothing like the world imagines.
The terrible news is that Satan has bitten each of us just as a viper does and he has injected his vile poison into our veins. Some of those among us, defiant to the end say things like, “I am looking forward to Hell because all the cool people are there” or “my friends and I will party.” They consider Hell to be just a place, maybe not quite as posh as Heaven, but somewhere where they could make a home. To them, it is the difference between Buckingham Palace or the White House and a no-name motel.
However, Jesus outlined that this is not the case at all. He defined the difference between Heaven and Hell in terms of extremes: life versus death, saved versus condemned. They are polar opposites. There is nothing in the one that is in common with the other. The venom of the Serpent that has been injected into all men’s veins, if left unchecked, leads down a path of total destruction. So other people, who are not as defiant, raise their heads, fearfully turn to God and ask, “What is to become of me?” Nicodemus was one of these people. He was one who was seeking God’s honest answer to the bad news.
To those who ask, Jesus points out what He pointed out to Nicodemus in John 3. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” “Huh? What? What’s that you say?” What in the world does this mean? So confusing…or is it? We MUST all take the time to delve into what is meant by this “Moses and snake” statement, right? In order to do this, we must read Numbers 21:4-9 to understand Jesus’ context, one which obviously was known to Nicodemus. So, let’s turn to it and look at this story of condemnation and grace in terms of the Israelites:
Numbers 21:4-9 (NKJV)
4 Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.” 6 So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.
7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.
This occurrence is an analogy of the state of man. The Israelites represent the state of mankind: Venom sweeping through their veins; death staring them in their faces; and God’s response was to command Moses to quickly cobble together a bronze snake, hang it on a pole in the camp, and then bid the bitten to turn to stare at it! Please take careful note that this is the same thing that Jesus bids us do today. Note His words – “AS Moses lifted up….” (John 3:14) – He bids us to do the same as the Israelites in the desert that many years ago.
So what happened with the Israelites stuck with the bad news of their impending doom? The hardened and defiant ones just ignored God’s commandment. “Yeah, whatever??!” They preferred to deal with the poison their own way. They sucked on the bites, cut around them, drank herbal tea, uttered magic incantations, called the psychic hotline, researched “cures” online, and did everything that their minds could come up with to save themselves. And…they died.
The fearful self-proclaimed “faithful” ones heard the admonition and decided that God was crazy. “Turning and looking at some bronze serpent will not fix this poison! I have to do something SERIOUS about this situation.” They decided that they might as well look at the serpent and pretend to obey but at the same time that they would try something else that made more sense. Thus, they were just self-sufficient as the first group but they layered on a thin veneer of “religiosity” to appease their unbelief. In the end, they also tried to save themselves and in so doing, they rejected God. And…they died.
The rest, however, reasoned that God was indeed wise and that if He said it, then it had to be true. They abandoned all hope of saving themselves, turned in their faith, and looked at the bronze serpent. And…they discovered that they were immediately healed. The pain of the poison disappeared instantly and they continued living. That is total trust in a nutshell. Believing to the point of even death itself that God is truthful and able to save. It is not just sitting on the gunwales of the boat dangling your feet in the water. It is hopping out on the water expecting it to be like concrete under your feet…and it is!
So what happened there? Faith was either expressed or it was rejected. Those who outright denied God’s power could not be saved. Those who tried to add human effort to God’s commandment could not be saved. Only those who let go of their doubt and took a flying leap of faith, completely trusting in God’s promise, were saved. The turning to look expressed the desires of their hearts. They trusted God with a childlike faith. We don’t need to know the details of how God will accomplish His saving act in our life. We only need to know that He is fully able to do it.
Salvation, the incredibly good news part of the gospel is summed up in John 3:14 to 17. In the same way that the bronze serpent was lifted up and set in the midst of the dying, so also is Christ. He was raised up on the cross where He died for all mankind’s sin and He was raised up from the dead and is standing by ready to save whosoever will. Verse 15 drives the point home that we must believe in Him. There is no human effort involved. There is nothing additional demanded of us. The kernel of the gospel, the Good News, is that we only need to believe and turn to look upon Him with the eyes of faith.
God has the antidote to the poison which is ravishing our beings. This antidote is the “transfusion” of the precious blood of Jesus into each of us! God’s incredible love for us is so intense that He chose to send His Son, His only Son, a part of the Godhead, a part of Himself, to die for our sins. The Bible tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that the Perfect was made to become sin for our salvation’s sake. He Who could not sin paid the penalty for our transgressions. The blood of Calvary is more than adequate to cover our sin and move us from the realm of eternal death and into the realm of eternal life.
Do not be mistaken, Hell is a serious place and a serious time. It is an eternal lifetime in a place completely devoid of the love and grace of God. There is no mercy, no relenting, no goodness, and no party. It is, in Jesus’ words in Mark 9:42-47, a place where the fire is never quenched and a person never can escape the torment. God is fully aware of this and so He freely offers us salvation to take us out of this place. God’s love offered up His only beloved Son as the ransom for our souls, and Jesus’ blood is the only antidote to the Satanic poison that afflicts us. As Charles Wesley wrote so eloquently in the hymn, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”:
He breaks the power of cancelled sin
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean,
His blood availed for me.
Returning to Jesus’ words in John 3, let us consider what they mean to us. John 3:16 is probably among the most quoted verses of the Bible and yet so many miss what it actually says. It states that God’s intense love for us was expressed in the broken, bleeding body of Jesus on Calvary’s cross. He saw the only way that the bite of the serpent could be healed and paid the price Himself. All that we each need to do to be free from the poison of sin is to believe. Jesus’ atoning sacrifice has the power to take us from a state of perishing to a state of eternal life. Verse 17 emphasizes that Jesus came to Earth, to be born as one of us, to be God’s agent of salvation. His first coming to the world has broken open the coffers of God’s grace and He bids us to take hold of it.
The Bible reminds us that Jesus will come to Earth one more time. This second time will not be like the first. The first advent of the Lord Jesus was to NOT condemn the world but to save it (v 17). In the second coming, He will be the Judge of the world. The coffers of grace will once again be sealed up and those who have rejected Him will be condemned and cast into Hell. How can we reject Jesus? Verse 18 clearly outlines that “he who does not believe is condemned already.” We already have the venom of the serpent sweeping through our bodies. That venom, which is our natural sinful nature, will serve to convict us. We stand condemned because of our evil natures which hate God’s light and reject it. If we do not do anything, we are under the death sentence that we rightly deserve.
Yet, the Good News is that there is a way out. God’s light has come into the world. Jesus Christ has come and paid the price and God bids us to turn to Him in faith and trust Him. “He who believes in Him is not condemned,” says verse 21. “Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life,” is stated twice in verses 15 and 16. In verse 17, we are told that God sent His Son into the world to save it. The way out does not depend upon our being intellectual giants. The way out does not need us to be smart. The way out does not need us to be strong. The way out does not need us to know some secret handshake. The way out is to turn in faith, to repent of our sins and hand everything over to the Lord Jesus. The word “repent” literally means a “change of one’s mind” and represents a 180 degree shift in our perspective. We agree with God that we ARE sinners and that we do not have the power to fix it ourselves. We agree with God that, no matter how crazy His solution to the problem may seem, it is the RIGHT one. We turn, like the Israelite did in the desert, and look towards God’s solution with eyes of faith.
Today, if you already have turned and looked at Jesus, if He already is the “author and finisher of your faith (Heb 12:2), then you are blessed. You have loved the light and come into it. However, if you have never really looked to Him as Lord and Savior, then I urge you to not waste another moment. Being under condemnation is not a good place to be. All you have to do is to realize that, without Christ, you have nothing waiting for you but Hell. The gift of God is free. It is waiting for you to accept it. Just have faith in God, trust Him, and turn and look at Jesus.
(Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)