CONVERSATION WITH NICODEMUS (Part III) – John 3:14-18

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               THE ILLUSTRATION OF THE SERPENT ON THE POLE

INTRODUCTION:

The conversation with Nicodemus is still underway and the Lord Jesus has much more to say.  In verses  8-13 of chapter 3, Jesus used the illustration of the wind in order to help explain the mystery of being born from above.  We can’t see the wind itself but we can see its effects and its results, and they can be very powerful.  Jesus was reminding Nicodemus of Ezekiel’s prophesies, and the way the Spirit of God was going to work in the lives of His people to change their hearts and fill them with His Spirit.  It was going to be a miraculous event with powerful and amazing results.  As I mentioned in my last message, there was a price to be paid in order for this to happen.  In the next part of their conversation, the Lord Jesus uses a familiar illustration in order to communicate to Nicodemus the means by which one can be born again.

I..THE OLD TESTAMENT EVENT (verse 14a)

Jesus now says to Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness”.  This was a very familiar event and Nicodemus knew it very well.  Jesus is referring to the book of Numbers, chapter 21, and verses 4-9.  Verses 4 and 5 give us the background leading up to the event:  “Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom, and the people became impatient because of the journey.  And the people spoke against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this wilderness?  For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.’ “

Complain, complain!  That’s all these people have done since they crossed the Red Sea!  Now they are blaming God and Moses for the food, the water, and the delays.  Their needs have been taken care of, but it seems like there is always something to complain about and someone to blame when the focus of their attention is on themselves.  The Hebrew people are sinning against God by their attitude and actions.  God has been patient with their complaints but now it has gotten out of hand.  It was time for Him to do something about it, and God deals with them in a very unusual way.

Numbers 21:6 describes the punishment that God metes out to the people for their sin.  “And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people so that many people of Israel died.”  There are a number of poisonous snakes in that area, and I think it will be helpful to know which variety of snakes is doing the biting.  You’ll understand when I’m through.  Of all the snakes, researchers believe that there is one particular variety that best fits the criteria and sequence of events that are given in verses 6-9.  G.S. Cansdale, in his article in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible entitled SERPENT (FIERY SERPENT), (Vol. 5. pp.356-358), describes the various serpents which live in the wilderness area mentioned in Numbers 21 and cited again in John 3:14, seeking to determine which of them were the “fiery serpents”.  He, and others mentioned in his article, believe that the most-probable candidate is the “carpet or saw-scaled viper”.  It proliferates (has many babies), so much so that many nearby countries have put a bounty on them.  It is the only viper in that area that can move quickly over sand and rock.

It’s venom is hemolytic. affecting the blood by breaking the small blood-vessels, and the victim eventually bleeds to death within about four days.  The victims often start feeling better after two or three days and assume that all is well, when in actuality they are very close to death.  The effects of this venom are irreversible (except by a miracle from God).  The slow-acting venom gave Moses time to cast the bronze serpent and tell everyone what they needed to do to be saved from certain death before it happened.  As you can see from the description, these snakes could well be the ones used by God to punish His people.  

Numbers 21:9 says, “And Moses made the bronze serpent and set it on the standard (as God commanded him), and it came about that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.”  It was a time of decision.  Moses had made the bronze serpent, and put it on a standard ( a pole with another pole attached horizontally near the top) for the purpose of holding a banner.  In this particular case it was holding the bonze serpent, and it was raised high enough so that everyone could easily see it.  Each person had to decide whether or not he was going to look at the serpent on the standard when bitten.  His life depended on it; it was his only hope.  But, knowing the pride and stubbornness of the people of Israel, there were probably some who thought, “That’s ridiculous!  How is looking at that snake going to make any difference?  I’m feeling better now anyway.  I can take care of myself!”  That decision cost those people their lives. 

II.  THE NEW TESTAMENT ILLUSTRATION (verse 14b)

Now the Lord Jesus compares that illustration to Himself and His mission on earth when He says:  “even so must the Son of Man be lifted up”.  So the snake on the pole represents Jesus, not Satan.  It was made of bronze, which was often used in the Old Testament to represent judgment.  The pole or standard on which the bronze serpent was affixed represented the cross of Calvary.

The Lord Jesus was telling Nicodemus that, as the serpent in the wilderness provided physical healing from the deadly poison of the snakes, in a similar way He was going to provide spiritual healing and new life to the souls of people who believe in Him.  Jesus said that He would be “lifted up”.  The Greek word translated “lifted up”  (hypsos) means “to exalt”.  How could Jesus be exalted while He is hanging naked, bleeding, and humiliated on the cross?  What glory was there in that horrible situation?  His enemies and His executioners didn’t realize it, but by lifting Him up on the cross to die before their eyes, they were fulfilling prophesies and enabling the Lord Jesus to fulfill the Father’s purpose.  Jesus had laid aside His glory to come to this earth and die and pay the price for the sins of the world.  Only then could His resurrection and ascension back to heaven be fulfilled.  As Philippians 2:8-9 says, “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on the name which is above every name”.   Being raised up on that cross was the first step of His exaltation, “that He might draw all men to Himself” (John 12:33).

III.  THE PROPER RESPONSE AND THE RESULT (verse 15)

Is the Lord Jesus Christ being exalted in your life?  He can’t be truly exalted in your life if He isn’t present in your life.  Pastor and author Warren Wiersbe shares an insight and then gives a remarkable, true illustration of Christ’s exaltation in a person through His death on the cross.  “The whole world has been bitten by sin, and ‘the wages of sin is death”  (Romans 6:23).  God sent His Son to die, not only for Israel, but for a whole world.  How is a person born from above?  How is he saved from eternal perishing?  By believing on Jesus Christ; by looking to Him in faith.”

On January 6, 1850, a snowstorm almost crippled the city of Colchester, England; and a teenage boy was unable to get to the church he usually attended.  So he made his way to a nearby Primitive Methodist chapel, where an ill-prepared layman was substituting for the absent preacher.  His text was Isaiah 45:22  –  “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.”  For many months this teenager had been miserable, and under deep conviction; but though he had been reared in a church (both his father and grandfather were preachers), he did not have the assurance of salvation.

The unprepared substitute minister did not have much to say so he kept repeating the text.  “A man need not go to college in order to look,” he shouted.  “Anyone can look — a child can look!”  About this time, he saw the visitor sitting to one side, and pointing to him and said, “Young man, you look very miserable.  Young man, look to Jesus Christ!”  The young man did look by faith, and that was how the great preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon was converted.  (Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, pp. 296-297)

The people on the hill of Golgotha that day couldn’t help but see Jesus because He was lifted up above them on a cross (Matthew 27:33ff).  For three hours He hung there in the sight of all, suffering and dying.  We know that at least one person looked to Jesus in faith that day – a thief on a cross dying next to Him.  That thief said, “. . . we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong . . . Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!”  And Jesus said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:40-43).
In this thief’s eyes, Jesus was exalted there on that cross.  He recognized that Jesus was a king, and he asked to be a member of His kingdom.  Jesus told him that he now had something wonderful to look forward to.  He also had Someone wonderful to exalt and enjoy forever in the kingdom of heaven.

IV.  THE MOTIVE AND PURPOSE OF GOD (verses 16-18)

John 3:16 is one of the most well-known, and one of the most beloved verses in all the Bible.  Jesus says to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  By saying those words, Jesus is stretching Nicodemus’ present understanding of the scope of God’s love way beyond it’s limits.  “God loves the world, not just His ‘chosen people’?”  “What did those sinners and idolators do to deserve that?”  The world didn’t deserve God’s love anymore than he did.  God’s love was a gift, and it came wrapped up in the Person of His “only begotten Son”. the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is the only hope, the only antidote, the only alternative for sinful mankind.  Otherwise we are all perishing.  II Thessalonians 1:9 gives a good description of the word “perishing”:  “And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”  It doesn’t get any worse than that!

Years ago, two young parents were faced with a life-or-death decision:  either allow the doctor to give their baby an experimental drug or their baby would be dead by morning because of a 109 degree temperature caused by a sudden ailment.  Of course they gave that permission or I wouldn’t be here today to tell you about it!  When we look at the very best of human love, we can gain a bit of a glimpse of God’s love.  The following is one example of the very best of human love:

In his book, Written In Blood, Robert Coleman tells the story of a little boy whose sister needed a blood transfusion.  The doctor explained that she had the same disease that the boy had recovered from two years earlier.  Her only hope for recovery was a transfusion from someone who had previously conquered the disease.  Since the two children had the same rare blood type, the boy was the ideal donor.

“Would you give your blood to Mary?”, the doctor asked.  Johnny hesitated.  His lower lip started to tremble.  Then he smiled and said, “Sure, for my sister.”  Soon the two children were wheeled into the hospital room–Mary, pale and thin; Johnny, robust and healthy.  Neither spoke, but when their eyes met, Johnny grinned.  As the nurse inserted the needle into his arm, Johnny’s smile faded.  He watched the blood flow through the tube.  With the ordeal almost over, his voice, slightly shaky, broke the silence.  “Doctor, when do I die?”

Only then did the doctor realize why Johnny had hesitated, why his lip had trembled when he agreed to donate his blood.  He thought that giving his blood to his sister meant giving up his own life.  In that brief moment, he’d made his great decision.  Johnny, fortunately, didn’t have to die to save his sister.  Each of us, however, has a condition more serious than Mary’s, and it required Jesus to give not just His blood but His life.  (Thomas Lindberg) 

Below is a brief description of the greatness of this verse:  John 3:16

“God”–The greatest Lover.
“So loved”–The greatest degree.
“The world”–The greatest company.
“That He gave”–The greatest act.
“His only begotten Son”–The greatest Gift.
“That whosoever”–The greatest opportunity.
“Believeth”–The greatest simplicity.
“In Him”–The greatest attraction.
“Should not perish”–The greatest promise.
“But”–The greatest difference.
“Have”–the greatest certainty
Everlasting life”–the greatest possession.

How great is our God!  I hope that reading the words to John 3:16 from that perspective will give you a fresh realization and appreciation for what God did for us and why He did it.  You may want to copy those words and place them in a place where you will see them often, as I am going to do.

Martin Luther referred to John 3:16 as “The Miniature Bible” because it contains the essence of the Gospel in “a nutshell”.  During World War II, it was the custom for any household that had given a son in the service to place a star in the window in the middle of a white banner.  A gold star, however, indicated that the son of the house had already given his life’s blood in support of his country’s cause.  Sir Harry Lauder related a touching story in regard to this custom.  He said that one night a man was walking down a certain avenue in New York City accompanied by his five-year-old son.  The little fellow was greatly interested in the brightly lighted windows of the houses and wanted to know why some of the houses had a star in the window.  The father explained that those houses had given a son to the war.  The child would clap his hands as he saw another star in the window and would cry out, “Look, daddy, there’s another family who gave a son for his country!  And look, there’s another!  And another!  And look, there’s one with two stars!”

At last they came to an empty lot, and a break in the row of houses.  Through the gap could be seen the evening star shining brightly in the sky.  The little lad caught his breath, “Oh, daddy”, he cried, “look!  God must have given HIS Son for He has hung a star in the window of heaven!”  (Our Daily Bread, 9/6/1960)

How true are that little boy’s words!  As we look at the brightest star in the sky tonight, may we be reminded that the Lord Jesus Christ gave his life for our sins; and as we count the other stars in the heavens, may we be reminded of all the believers who are shining for Him, both on earth and in heaven.  There are more than we can count.  I hope you are one of them, shining brightly for Him today and every day (Matthew 5:16).

Jesus has just described to Nicodemus how He was going to die and the reasons for His death.  In three short years, I believe that Nicodemus would be standing at a distance together with the other Pharisees and Leaders, watching Jesus die, and he would be realizing the fulfillment of Jesus’ words to Him.  He could not help but think about the serpent on the pole and put the two events together.

Verses 17 and 18 are sometimes overlooked because of the greatness and popularity of John 3:16.  But these two verses amplify the mystery and the eternal consequences of Christ’s death on the cross.  Verse 17 begins with the words, “For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world.”  This is a mystery to me because, logically and realistically, God should have sent His Son into this world to judge us and condemn all of us to hell.  That’s what we all deserve because we’ve all sinned against a holy and perfect God.  But God wasn’t acting logically; He was acting emotionally.  Love is a powerful emotion and God’s love is perfect and unconditional.  That’s why the rest of verse 17 says, “but that the world should be saved through Him”.  Notice the word “should.  God has expressed His desire and provided the way.  There is no reason why we shouldn’t repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, turning our lives over to His control.  There are no “good reasons”.  There are only excuses.  If you haven’t done so, what is your excuse?  You’re making the biggest mistake in your life, you’re passing up the greatest opportunity of your life, and you’re missing the greatest joy in life if you don’t respond to His great love.  The Lord Jesus is not just saying these words to Nicodemus, but to each of us as well.

I personally believe that the Lord Jesus Christ was the greatest preacher and teacher who ever lived on this planet.  There is much to learn by studying how He communicated with people.  I’m sure that Nicodemus had never been in a conversation quite like this one before!  Jesus had made some shocking statements to Nicodemus, given illustrations, asked questions, corrected misconceptions, and made comparisons.  In verse 18 the Lord Jesus ends this illustration of the serpent on the pole with another principle of preaching and teaching:  REPETITION.  He says in verse 18, “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe in Him is judged already. because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”  Jesus is saying basically the same thing to Nicodemus, but this time His purpose is to establish blame or fault.  The Lord Jesus did not come to this earth to judge, but to save and remove judgment by taking that judgment for sin upon Himself.  Therefore those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are not judged  because it has already been taken care of through His death on the cross.  However, those who refuse to believe, those who reject God’s gift are “judged already” because they have made the call; they have made their choice in view of the consequences, and by so doing they are judging and condemning themselves at that moment.  They have no one to blame but themselves.  To not believe in His name is to not confess Him as Lord.

While Nicodemus is still reeling from the impact of Jesus’ words to him, the Lord Jesus gives one final illustration and exhortation:  the contrast between light and darkness.  We will study that illustration in the next message.  I hope that the words of Jesus so far have given each of us some things to think about and put into practice in our own lives.

 

CONSTRUCTION SITE:

Welcome!  This is a completed construction site.  If you are new to this blog site, my purpose, as I study a passage of Scripture, is to place it on the site a section at a time as I complete it so that you can see the progress and study along with me if you would like to do so.  I call it a work-in-progress.  May God teach us all patience as we learn to accept the events in our lives, and diligence to make the most of our situations by His all-sufficient grace.

 

 

 

MYSTERY SOLVED, EXPLANATION BEGINS – John 1:18

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Do you like a mystery?  Do you enjoy reading a mystery novel or watching a mystery program or movie?  Each generation has its own mystery writers, and the ones from previous generations are still classics.  There are more and more mystery programs on the television these days because the viewing audience and the ratings for a good mystery program are so high.  Why this interest in mysteries?  They appeal to our curiosity.  A good mystery usually shows good prevailing over evil.  It also has interesting characters, often reminding us of ourselves or people we know, having motives that aren’t always clear.

Secondly, and more importantly, mysteries are appealing because people like to solve things.  Look at all the cross-word puzzles and other kinds of puzzles in our newspapers and magazines.  A mystery is like a puzzle.  It challenges our problem-solving abilities.  The goal in everyone’s mind is to try to solve the mystery before the solution is given;  to figure out the “whodunit” before it’s done.  This challenge causes us to immerse ourselves in the plot and the action.  The majority of mystery stories are solved at the end, but there are exceptions.  People want a solution, so when there is no solution given, everyone makes up their own minds about the solution, or the character who committed the crime.  As the saying goes about mystery writers:  “You don’t always have to give the answer, but you always have to raise the question.”

The apostle John began his gospel much like a mystery writer would begin a mystery novel.  And why not?  He appeals to the curiosity of his readers by presenting a mystery, using terms they are familiar with, but in a way that is unfamiliar.  “Who is this Logos?”, his readers are wondering.  “What are all these things that you are saying about him?”

Can you remember these words being directed at you:  “I demand an explanation!”  The person who said those words probably had the right and authority to say them.  If you heard those words as a kid, you knew that you had to either confess the truth or come up with a really good alibi in a hurry!  When John’s readers say or think those words, “I demand an explanation”, they are being drawn into reading the rest of his gospel to find out if a satisfactory explanation is going to be given in order to satisfy  their curiosity and remove their confusion.

In this particular mystery, John revealed the identity of the Logos in chapter l, verse 17.  The Logos is the Lord Jesus Christ.  But it’s going to take twenty-two chapters to explain the solution to this mystery.  They are going to read about many of the miracles that Jesus performed and see Jesus’ description of Himself.  They are also going to read the testimonies of many eye-witnesses who responded to what they saw and heard and experienced.   John’s desire is that his readers might come to the right conclusion about Jesus Christ by the grace of God.  I have chosen to focus my study on just one verse, John 1:18, because John uses this verse to give a short, concise description of the Lord Jesus Christ from the perspective of eternity and the Old Testament scriptures.  He is preparing us for what will follow.  The mystery still remains a mystery to our human minds and imaginations.

I.  THE INVISIBLE GOD (John 1:18a)

The apostle John begins verse 18 by saying, “No man has seen God at any time”.  We might take issue with that statement.  “Didn’t God appear to many people in the Bible?”  “Jesus is God, and thousands of people saw Him,”  Those comments are true, but John is referring here to the fullness of God’s glory.  His Greek and Hebrew readers knew what he was talking about.  As commentator William Barclay puts it, “In the ancient world men were fascinated and depressed and frustrated by what they regarded as the infinite distance and the utter unknowability of God.”  The Greek philosopher Plato said, “Never man and God can meet.”  The Jews also remembered what God said to Moses in the Old Testament:  “You cannot see My face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20).  So both Jews and Greeks would have agreed with John’s statement.  Later, the apostle Paul said, “God dwells in unapproachable light” (I Timothy 6:16).  Jesus Himself made that clear to His listeners when He said of Himself in John 6:46, “Not that any man has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father.” 

Let’s take another look at that first phrase in John 1:18.  The NIV says, “No man has ever seen God.”  The literal Greek translation gets the point across more strongly.  It says, “God no man has seen never“.  This phrase is referred to as an “absolute negative”.  To put it into American English:  “Absolutely no one has ever seen God, period!”  What he means is that no man has seen God in a full and complete way, in all His glory.  I think John is getting his point across to his readers and listeners!

There is a story about a kindergarten teacher who asked a boy what he was drawing.  Without pausing to look up, he said, “A picture of God”.  The teacher smiled and responded, “But nobody knows what God looks like.”  The boy carefully put down his crayon, looked her squarely in the eye, and declared, “After I’m finished here they will.”

He must have had a clear picture of God in his mind!  I would like to have seen the finished drawing.  It may have been very insightful!

II.  THE REVEALER OF GOD (John 1:18b)

If God is invisible, how can we know Him personally?  The author of Hebrews begins his epistle with these words:  “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways . . . “.  God revealed His presence, his character and His will through the prophets and through “visual aids” (miracles, visions, pillar of cloud, pillar of fire, the ark of the covenant, the “angel of the Lord”).  Hebrews 1:2,3 says, “In these last days has spoken to us in His Son . . . And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature . . . “. 

In John 1:18, the apostle John calls Jesus “the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father”.  That description requires some explanation.  Only John uses this title for Jesus.  As the “only begotten God”, the Lord Jesus Christ is unique and existed from all eternity as God.  The Lord Jesus is the God-man, reminding us of John’s words in verse 1:  “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God”, and “the Word became flesh” (verse 14).

The phrase “in the bosom of the Father” is an expression that conveys the closest of relationships, and the deepest love for one another and enjoyment of one another’s presence.  This figure of speech was used elsewhere in Scripture to describe the relationship of a husband and wife (Deuteronomy 13:6), of a nurse carrying a nursing infant-child (Numbers 11:12), and of the affectionate protection and rest afforded to Lazarus in Paradise (Luke 16:23) (Vincent’s Word Studies).  The phrase also reminds us of John’s words in John 1:1-2,  “And the word was with God . . . He was in the beginning with God.”

Because of Jesus’ identity as God, and His closeness to the Father, He is the only One qualified to reveal and explain the Father to us. In chapter 14, Jesus said to Thomas, “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.”  Philip then asks, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”  (They still don’t understand what Jesus is saying to them.)  So Jesus replies, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip?  He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me?”    It is a difficult concept for them, and us, to understand.  They are both God, and inseparable in their relationship to one another.

CONCLUSION:

God is still invisible in the sense that we cannot see Him today with our physical eyes.  In the same way, the Lord Jesus is also invisible to our eyes.  He left us no visible, physical image of Himself.  He didn’t pose for a painting or sculpture of Himself while He was on this earth.  All of His eye-witnesses are dead and none of them made a sketch of him or gave a detailed description of His physical appearance.  But even though we can’t see Him, He sees us and is with us always.  His character, His actions, His attitude, and His obedience to the Father have been written down for us by eye-witnesses.  Some of them were with Him day and night for a period of three years, and also witnessed His death, His post-resurrection appearances, and His ascension into heaven.  Because of their closeness to Jesus Christ while He was here on this earth, their understanding of God increased immensely, and they have shared that understanding with us.  Their belief in Him became firmly established and most of them were martyred because of their faith in Him.

We don’t need any more explanation.  It’s all there in the Scriptures, and evident in the lives of those who have entrusted their lives to Him.  There are no excuses for not having a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  If you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, are you giving others an explanation for the hope and joy that is in you?  If you don’t know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, don’t you think it’s time that you did?  It’s the one decision you could never regret, and will forever enjoy!

 

CONSTRUCTION SITE:

There are many other completed projects on this site and you are welcome to visit them all.  It’s always “Open House” here.  Thanks for visiting.  May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be your continuing source of joy and strength.