“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. 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. 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. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 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.” – John 3:14-21
When I was growing up, I never understood why some of my friends would try to do things they were not supposed to do or do things they didn’t want others to find out about in the middle of broad daylight… where the likelihood of getting caught was quite high.
Everyone knows the best time to sneak around and get away with stuff is at nighttime when it is dark.
When you want to eat that extra cookie Mom and Dad said you can’t have, you wait until they are watching their evening show before you tiptoe through the dark kitchen and sneak into the pantry.
When you are not supposed to watch that R rated movie because it’s too violent, you wait until your parents go to bed before you quietly turn the movie on in the dark tv room.
When you try to avoid the teasing of your older sister, you snatch up the cordless phone, slip into the dark hall closest, close the door, and talk softly to your new boyfriend so your sister doesn’t figure you out.
Or when your conscience tells you to befriend someone who isn’t quite so popular among others, but you fear that associating with her might affect your reputation, you only talk to her in secluded dark hallways and only hang out with her on the playground when it’s past dark and nobody’s around.
Most of us know that it is in the darkness where we will least likely get caught or found out by others.
And so I think this is why – at the beginning of John 3 just before our passage for today – Nicodemus chooses to go to Jesus at night… It is in this darkness where nobody would be able to see where he was going and find him out.
You see, not only was Nicodemus a Pharisee, a Jewish leader who knew the Mosaic law backwards and forwards and strictly followed it. But he was also a member of the Sanhedrin court, an elite group of Jewish leaders who taught and enforced the Mosaic laws. He was an expert and a rule-enforcing judge, and when someone broke any of these stringent rules or threatened the religious legal system, Nicodemus was one of the few who would get to determine the rule-breaker’s punishment. (Which – as we know in Jesus’ case – could be quite merciless.)
And, of course, Jesus did just that… by the 3rd chapter of John, he had already become a rule-breaker and was gaining influence among the people. He had been performing miracles and was developing many followers. He had started to challenge the ways of the system, angrily driving out the money-changers and turning over the tables in the Temple.
People began to talk. And some were even saying he was the Son of God, the King of Israel, or the Lamb of God who was going to take away the sins of the world.
This Rabbi named Jesus was unorthodox, and he was beginning to pose quite a threat to the religious system.
And so as word about Jesus spread to the Pharisees and some of the members of the Sanhedrin court, they began to talk, as well. But as they voiced their concerns to one another in broad daylight, they likely didn’t speak too kindly of him.
And yet, for some reason, Nicodemus decides to go to this Rabbi, himself. To see him with his own eyes and to hear this rabbi’s words with his own ears. Nicodemus was curious. Maybe even hopeful. And so he sneaks off to see Jesus through the darkness of the night.
And when he reaches Jesus, Nicodemus proclaims: “We know you are a teacher who comes from God because those great miracles and signs you have performed could not occur without the presence of God.”
However, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is unclear: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, without being born anew.”
This concept is foreign to Nicodemus, and he doesn’t understand. So Jesus further explains: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh. But what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.”
Now Nicodemus is really confused. Not only is Jesus saying that one cannot see the kingdom of God without being born from above, but one cannot enter the kingdom of God without being born of the Spirit.
What on earth could this mean?
It makes sense that Nicodemus doesn’t get it. How could he? He was born a Jew, is a Pharisee, a Jewish leader who had devoted his life to studying the Torah, and a member of the elite Sanhedrin court, who strictly enforced the Mosaic law. If anyone were to see and enter the kingdom of God, it would be Nicodemus. He had all the credentials and was more religiously qualified than anyone else. How could Jesus tell him that his heritage, obedience to the law, and positions of leadership counted for nothing?
And not only that, but was Jesus saying that this kingdom of God might be accessible to anyone who was born anew, to anyone who was born of the Spirit? To those who were not even ancestors of Abraham? To those who did not even observe the Mosaic law? To just any old Jane or Joe? How could this be?
Our passage for today begins here, as Jesus continues to explain these things to Nicodemus. But this time Jesus makes reference to a story that – as a dedicated Jew – Nicodemus would have known quite well. Jesus says: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
This story Jesus references takes place in our Old Testament lectionary text for today in Numbers 21. The Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for a while and were getting impatient. As they were getting impatient, they loose site of where they came from – oppression and captivity in Egypt – and they loose site of how they got into the wilderness and away from Egypt in the first place: God – by way of Moses. And as they wander in the wilderness with their eyes closed to what God has and was doing for them, they begin to complain to Moses and against God. “Why haven’t we gotten to the Promised land yet? Why have you left us out here in the wilderness to die? We are sick and tired of this journey. We are sick and tired of this food, which isn’t good enough for our liking. Why!? Why!? Why!?”
So the Israelites are punished for their rebellion against God. And how does God punish them? By sending them poisonous serpents, which would have immediately reminded them of the serpent in the Garden of Eden and the evil that is inherent in all things of the world. Many of the Israelites are bitten. And some of them even die.
And as more and more of them are infected by the venom of the serpents, their eyes are opened and they begin to see and gain a bit of perspective. They repent and cry out to Moses and God. They are now ready to refocus. They are ready to put the trivial things they were complaining about behind them and look upon the wilderness with new eyes. They are ready to put their trust back in God and to return back to living in covenant relationship with God.
And so God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, and lift it up before the people. And if they were bitten, they were instructed to look at the bronze snake, and they would be healed.
Now this story is very bothersome for me. Honestly, I don’t like that God punished God’s people by infecting them with poisonous snakes. This doesn’t seem like good news to me at all.
But for Jews in the ancient world, this story was very good news. It was a story that represented God’s mercy, love, and grace. It was such an important story for the people of God in the ancient world, that the bronze serpent was placed in the Temple for hundreds of years so that whenever they looked at it, they would remember this event that took place in the wilderness. They would remember that evil is in inherent in all things of the world, they would recall their own sin – their own snakiness and rebellion against God, and they would remember that God extended grace and salvation to God’s people despite of it all.
And Nicodemus would have immediately known this when Jesus referenced it.
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
“Ah,” Nicodemus must have thought as the light bulb begins to flicker on. “God’s saving acts in the wilderness. God’s mercy and grace for God’s people. The Son of Man is offering this kind of mercy, salvation, and grace. Now I am starting to see.”
Jesus continues. And this is when he goes on to say the most well-known verse of the New Testament, the verse that Martin Luther describes as the “Gospel in a nutshell.”
“For God loved the world in this way: that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but may have eternal life.”
Now, the eternal life Jesus is speaking about in John is not necessarily what we often think of when we see this verse on bumper stickers or hear it quoted by street preachers. The Greek word aoinios – which we translate into “eternal” or “everlasting” – is an adjective which means: “age-long” or “partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief or fleeting.” It is “age-like” or having “the quality describing a particular age” or period of time.
According to Strong’s Greek Concordance: the eternal life Jesus is speaking about in John “operates simultaneously outside of time, inside of time, and beyond time. [For example, it is] what gives time its everlasting meaning for the believer through faith, yet [it] is also time-independent… [It] does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age it relates to. Thus believers live in “eternal life” right now, experiencing this quality of God’s life now as a present possession.”
And as one scholar suggests, eternal life described in John is: “everlasting communion with God, along with all the wonders that involves. It is a state of glory.”
To put it in other words, eternal life is an age of being in the presence of God through Christ. Eternal life is an age and a state of being in which we experience and understand the love and grace of God that is realized in and through God incarnate, God in the flesh.
And for the author of John, eternal life is not just about some kind of life after death that we can only reach in a different time and a different realm. God is not in a place that is distant and separate from us. Rather, God is always with us in our current place and time. Thus, eternal life is a new life we are born into from above, when we are born anew. A life that we may experience in the future, but one that begins in the here and now, as we believe – and put our trust in – Jesus Christ, the One who manifests the greatness of God’s love and sets us an example for how we are to share that love with the world.
Eternal life is a new life we enter into as we are born of the waters and Spirit… A baptismal life that is full of grace. A transformational life that is experienced when we open our eyes, look to the cross, and bring to light our own snakiness. A life that is experienced when we recognize and begin to let go of our fleshly and worldly desires to put ourselves first, to strive to be on top, and to dominate over others and God.
Eternal life is a transformational life that is experienced when we remember what God has and is doing for us. That God has saved us from the evil that is inherent in all things of the world. That God has saved us from our sin we have been in bondage to and from all of our past snakiness that haunts us – no matter how sneaky and nasty it may have been.
This eternal life is one in which we can experience because of God’s great love, not because of anything that we have done.
God loved the world in this way, that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but may have eternal life…
“Indeed,” Jesus continues: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Here in John 3, Jesus is saying to this law-abiding and law-enforcing Nicodemus: “Yes, Nicodemus. Your eyes are finally beginning to open. You are starting to come into the light. The kingdom of God I am talking about involves grace. It involves abundant love.
However, this grace is extended not just to those in the inner-religious circle. God does not only love the descendants of Abraham and those who are good rule-followers and meticulously obey the Mosaic law. God loves the cosmos. God loves the whole world. And, while the current legal religious system is one that has been excluding those of other heritages, social standings, economic statuses, and those who cannot maintain obedience to the strict laws – God’s kingdom is one that is inclusive of ALL.
God loves the whole world.
God loves the whole world in this way: that God gave his only Son – not so that God would condemn the world, but rather so that God would save it.
That God would save the whole world from captivity and oppression. That God would save the whole world from the bondage that evil and sin has on it. God loves the whole world in this way: that God gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but may have eternal and abundant life in God’s loving and grace-filled presence.”
I think our New Testament reading from the letter of Ephesians explains this well:
“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world… All of us once… follow[ed] the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved. And [God] raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
For God loved the world in this way, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but may have eternal life.
“Yes, those who believe in me,” Jesus is saying to Nicodemus in our text in John 3, “those who put their trust in me, those who follow me in sharing this love to the whole world will begin to experience this new eternal life. This new life – which is not of the flesh, but is from above. This abundant life – in which God’s love and grace is experienced and emulated to the whole world so that the whole world might be saved.”
Now this – I think – is good news. It seemed to be good news – for the law-abiding and law-enforcing Nicodemus, who later in John defends Jesus at a meeting with the Sanhedrin court and who – after Jesus’ death – takes his body from the cross, lovingly wraps it with spices in linen cloths, and lays it in the tomb.
And I think this is good news for us, as well.
For God so loved the whole world, for God loved Nicodemus, for God loves me, for God loves you… in this way: that God gave his only Son, that whoever believes in, trusts, and follows him, should not perish, but may have eternal life.
Yes, I whole-heartedly agree with Martin Luther. This truly is the Gospel – the good news – in a nutshell.