Sermon for Sunday March 11th, 2018, the Fourth Sunday in Lent
The Lessons: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Text: John 3:14-21
Topic: In his infinite love for the world, God gave His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, for salvation and healing.
INTRODUCTION: THE POISONOUS SNAKES JUST LIVING AROUND HERE
In South Africa there are quite a few snake parks, which exist mainly to educate the public about the various kinds of venomous snakes which are commonly found in the country. When our elder son, Peter, was a young child, one of our outings was to a local snake park just outside East London. While we were walking along a path leading from one snake enclosure to another, I spotted a small black snake with a triangular head crossing the path a few yards in front of us. I quickly picked Peter up, out of harm’s way, and walked in another direction to find a park ranger, because I was concerned that they had lost one of their snakes, and he might harm visitors. When I described what the snake looked like, the ranger told me that it was probably a boomslang, or tree snake, a back-fanged hemotoxic snake, and that they weren’t missing any of their snakes, but this one was probably just wild and living around there. They then started looking for the snake and caught it. When one works with snakes, it is easy to become almost casual or flippant about them, just as in a world of sin and rebellion against God, it is easy to forget how important it is to do what is right, obey God and believe in Christ, and keep oneself untainted by the world.
The Gospel lesson for today begins with Jesus making a surprising reference to the passage which tells of how God commanded Moses to erect a brass serpent on a pole, so that everyone who had been bitten by a poisonous snake might look at it and live, rather than die. He then links his prediction of his own death on a cross to this event, showing that his death would have the same life-giving purpose for all who believed in Him. Already he has reproved Nicodemus for not knowing the truth that every person must be born again, that is, born of the Holy Spirit in order to enter God’s kingdom (John 3:5-10). Just as it was hard for Nicodemus to believe the “earthly things” (John 3:12) of being born again of the Holy Spirit without being born physically a second time, it is hard to accept the heavenly truth that no man ever ascended up to heaven, but the Son of man (Jesus), who came down from heaven (John 3:13). “But what about Enoch, and what about Elijah?” Nicodemus might have questioned in his mind. Surely they were taken up into heaven without dying? The next surprising truth is to accept that Jesus, if he is the Christ, is to be lifted up on a pole or a cross, like the brass serpent was, and that by doing this, he would bring life to all who believed in him.
THE BRASS SERPENT
To understand the significance of Jesus’ reference to the brass serpent, we need to understand the reason for its being lifted up and put on a pole. This is explained to us in today’s Old Testament Lesson. True enough, the people of Israel later came to believe that the brass serpent had divine powers, and worshipped it, a practice which was stopped when King Hezekiah (715 – 686 B.C.) broke it in pieces because it had become an idol to the people (2 Kings 18:4). But originally it was God’s provision of healing for those people of Israel in the wilderness who had been bitten by poisonous snakes after grumbling against God about the lack of food and water in the desert. Anyone who had been bitten would live simply by looking at the bronze serpent on a pole. Their healing came not from the bronze serpent itself, but by obeying God’s command to look at it. If we reflect on this, we shall see that rebellion against God’s sovereignty as He was leading them through the wilderness, meant death for the Israelites, whereas obedience to God’s sovereign command brought life instead of death. This reminds us of St. Paul’s conclusion at the end of the sixth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans:
For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(Romans 6:23, KJV)
The person who had been bitten by a poisonous snake faced certain death, but this prospect of death was transformed into a new lease on life when he obeyed God’s command by looking at the bronze serpent erected on a pole. In a sense, this was like being born again, and was another illustration of being born again used by Jesus to convince Nicodemus of the truth about himself and about eternal life.
THE LORD JESUS CHRIST’S EXALTATION THROUGH THE CROSS
Now the word Jesus uses for “lifted up” in John 3:14 connotes not only a physical lifting up, as anyone being crucified would be, but also an exaltation, a glorification. In this way, Jesus extends the thought that He will ascend to heaven, but by means of his death on a cross first. Being lifted up in this Gospel entails not only death on the cross, but resurrection and ascension. The Lord confirms this through at least two of his sayings later in the Gospel. The first is this:
When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things.
(John 8:28, KJV)
If “lifted up” here meant merely “crucified,” it is clear that after the crucifixion, the Jews did not know who Jesus was, but after his death, resurrection and ascension, the disciples, by their witness, spread the news that Jesus Christ is indeed the Son of God, and that forgiveness of sins and eternal life are available through faith in Him. The second saying is this:
And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.
(John 12:32, KJV)
All people are drawn to Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit who speaks to their heart convincing them of their need for a Savior and Lord. This happened as the Church was birthed in the power of the Spirit after the ascension of Jesus, and the Gospel was preached to the world.
Now it is true that anyone in any country in the world can look upon Jesus Christ spiritually through the written or spoken word of the Gospel preached or shared, and believe in Him for eternal life. The purpose of the Lord Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and God’s gift of His Son in his infinite love for mankind, was to save the world from the poisonous snakebite of sin, and give people everlasting life.
SALVATION THROUGH THE SON
Three times in our Gospel Lesson, the Lord Jesus states the purpose of God’s gift and sending of His Son – that through him people should not perish but have eternal life, and be saved. To continue the snakebite analogy – there is an anti-venom for the snakebite of sin, and it is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ leading to the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. But the person who refuses to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and receive him as Lord stands condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God (John 3:18). He is like the person bitten by a poisonous snake who would rather die than receive anti-venom and live. The alluring deceit of a selfish and sinful life is sufficient poison to kill – the love of darkness rather than the light of Christ blinds people to the urgency of repentance and faith.