I hate snakes.
Growing up snakes did not bother me too much. But that’s only because I grew up in the woods of East Texas and every time I saw a snake I’d play a game called snake vs. 12 gauge!
A few years ago, we had a snake in the house. Unfortunately, I couldn’t use the 12 gauge because I didn’t want to have to call a contractor, so I found what was the best tool for the job at the time. Luckily a tennis racquet has multiple functions!
I say that all because in the passage we’re going to look at, snakes make a surprising appearance. Today we examine a text that comes to us from the early chapters of the book of John.
John was an apostle, a believer, a follower, and a disciple. He walked with Jesus, and many believe that when John wrote this book that it was several years later than the other three gospel accounts. The other three accounts — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — are all known as the synoptic gospels, which is from a word that means to see together. The first three gospels all have a similar pace, outline, and thrust. They are early accounts, and they give us a different flavor when compared to John.
Instead of featuring the parables and teachings of Jesus, the gospel of John will center much more on discourse and dialogue. Because of the later writing of John, we have a book that is structured theologically and strategically to address issues facing the early church.
This is what the Word of God says:
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:1-3)
Within these first few verses, we have Nicodemus introduced to us. We learn he’s a Pharisee, which tells us a lot about him. It tells us that he was a very moral individual, he was a part of a conservative group of teachers who were seen as the religious group and were considered by everyone as the authority on matters relating to God. The Pharisees were a group that Jesus was very harsh with because of their inability to recognize their need for God.
But as we see here, Nic comes and investigates. The Pharisees were generally a bunch who missed the mark when it came to recognizing the Messiah, but Nic is intrigued. He says that no one could be doing the things Jesus is doing if there wasn’t something special about them.
It says that he came at night. We could make a big deal about that or not. It could easily have been that that was the easiest time for him to get close enough to Jesus to have a conversation, or it could be that he was ashamed. Maybe he was scared to be seen. I’m not sure. Either way, though, he came.
And notice he calls him “Rabbi.” That means teacher and it’s interesting because Jesus had not come from some known rabbinical school — no, he had been a carpenter — he shows him a great deal of respect by using this title. But Jesus knows the hearts of men and so he doesn’t waste any time.
Jesus says, if you want to be a part of God’s kingdom then you’ve got to be born again. This probably was a startling thing for him to hear. After all, as a pharisee, he’s the one that is supposed to have it all together, and now he’s being told he’ll have to start all over.
Let’s look at verses 4-9:
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
We’ll call this section the question because we find a legitimate question in verses 4 and 9 that we really need to deal with: “How can this be? Not sure what you’re saying here, Jesus!”
The thing is, Jesus has gone right to the heart of what Nic really wanted to know. I really think that the Pharisees, in their strict adherence to rules and the legalistic ways they governed and taught the people, for many of them was a desire to be right with God. They just were going about it the wrong way. They missed the essence. It’s not anything I can do or manufacture. It’s about a relationship. To be in God’s family requires that I be born into it. That is why Jesus talks about being born and being born again.
To be a part of God’s family you must be born again. There are no grandchildren in the family of God! We must all be born into the family.
Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. (John 3:6)
He then goes on to compare the work of the Spirit to the wind. This really is a good thing for us, because how nice would it be if we had a formula or a list of things we could do that would ensure us being right with God — that’s a tempting thing to wish for. But just like you can’t control or even see the wind, the working of the Spirit is something that we can’t control, we can only point to its effects.
A life that has been changed by the Spirit (born again) will look different. There will be certain things about it that mark it distinct. So, it is with those who’ve been born again.
“How can this be?” Good question!
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 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.John 3:10-15
This is the explanation. Clearly, Nicodemus was confused and surprised because Jesus sees it on his face. Nic was a teacher of Israel, but even more so, he was a member of the ruling council, and yet he didn’t get it. What a great reminder for us today: No amount of information, facts, or position will ever guarantee true understanding. This must have been startling for Nic the Pharisee to hear.
Knowing what is in the Bible is certainly important, but its chief aim is not to inform you about God, but rather to introduce you to God. To reveal God. The gospel of John is a gospel tract.
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)
Transformation is the goal! Not to inform us about God, but to actually introduce you to Him. And no amount of learning, education, or church attendance, will ever make up for knowing God.
In this section we see Jesus using the phrase “Son of Man.” This is a calling back on the Old Testament where it says, “one like the son of man will come…” It is a title and one that helps us to see that, yes, Jesus has the appearance of a man, but he is also divine.
And then we have a couple of very interesting verses that I want you to notice. I’m not trying to presume that you’ve never seen them but maybe like me sometimes you read something and have a tendency to not notice something or to forget and need to be reminded.
But have you stopped and noticed verse 14? “Just as Moses lifted up the snake …” Whoa, wait, how’d we get on Moses and snakes? What John has recorded for us is how Jesus came as a fulfillment of what was said and done in the Old Testament. Everything was a picture of what was to come.
Do you have a reference or a study Bible that can give you a footnote here? Who knows what scripture this is alluding back to? (Numbers 21)
This is a part of the wilderness wandering account and I’ll summarize what has taken place here.
The people are in the desert, wandering for 40 years because of their disobedience and mistrust of God. And so, to mold them into the people God wanted he sends them on this extended trip. And it takes a long time. All the while though God was continuing to provide, and he even sent manna (bread) straight from heaven each morning for them to eat.
How awesome would it be to wake up each day and food was just there! (That’s what I pictured marriage would be like, “breakfast is ready!”)
But the thing is, it was the same food day after day. And they grew tired of it. Which I suppose is quite natural because if you ate anything every single day, you too might grow tired of it.
In college, I spent my summers working at Pine Cove, a Christian camp in Tyler Texas, and let me tell you we had to really work at being excited at the end of summer for “Tater Tuesday!”
So, the text says that the people grumbled and complained. And God punishes them for their thankless hearts.
And what happens next is literally something from a nightmare I’ve had. Snakes start crawling into the camp. They are everywhere and people are getting bit and are dying. Venomous snakes! And remember this was a whole nation, not just some campsite.
And so, the people go to Moses because he was the representative of God and the people and they say, “please go tell God that we’ve just been on Pinterest and we’ve got a whole bunch of yummy manna recipes we’d like to try and we’re really sorry.”
Moses goes to God and what God says is quite peculiar.
The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (Numbers 21:7-9)
God’s instructions are to make a bronze statue of a snake on a pole and put it in the middle of the camp and if the people will come and look upon it, he’ll cure them.
So, they did it, and those who believed found life. They were cured. It is a crazy story; of this, I am quite aware. But let’s look back at John 3:14: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man (Jesus) must be lifted up.”
The phrase “lifted up” is one that John uses with a double meaning. It means both the lifting up of Jesus on the cross, but also the lifting of Jesus into glory. And they are no doubt connected. Because the cross led to Jesus being crowned with glory.nJesus could have refused, evaded, or ignored the cross. He could have run from it, but if he hadn’t embraced the cross there would not have been glory.
We can choose the easy way if we wish. We may refuse the cross or evade or ignore it. You have the choice to run from the cross, but make no mistake, if we don’t embrace the cross, we’ll never reach glory.
God provided a way for Israel to be saved from the snake bites if they would believe. This belief was demonstrated by their willingness to go and be obedient to what God had said.
It’s not that the statue was magical, no this was just how God chose to demonstrate his power. The promise was to believe and live.
And just as God promised deliverance to those who would believe and looked, so too, we who believe in The CHRIST and in what was accomplished upon the cross will be saved from sin. Which, in a very real way, is just like venom running through our veins. Sin is killing us! We’ve been cursed! I hope you realize that. It is robbing mankind of life and relationship and we are POWERLESS to do anything about it on our own! That is why God stepped in and intervened!
Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost! And John 3:16 — probably the most well-known verse in all of the Bible — comes in this way. As a cure to the sin that is killing me! John 3:14-15 is about Jesus and the sacrifice he made.
John 3:16-17 is about God the Father and what his desire for this world really is. That they’d be saved. And this cure, this salvation may not look like what everyone thought then, nor what people expect now, but it is the essence of our faith! The cross is the irreducible minimum. We must get this right!
Jesus, the Son of God, died on my behalf!
This is huge! Most likely you’ve either had conversations or thought it yourself, (and either way is OK) but the question always comes up, “You’re telling me that my eternal hope and salvation depends upon what the death of a Jewish carpenter who was executed for blasphemy 2,000 years ago?” Yes!
We believe that the Jewish carpenter was actually the Son of God! That his death was a sacrificial payment on behalf of the guilty because he was innocent. And after three days he rose from the grave forever defeating sin and death and confirming once and for all that he is who he said he was!
I know that can sound foolish. Ridiculous even.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)
I pray that you will know the message of the cross as salvation! I pray you will have the courage to believe, even if it seems foolish.
Because we all must decide, “Is this real or not?”
Back in the Jewish camp, with the snakes, I can’t imagine the scene. Because I hate snakes and the thought of being bitten is terrifying!
But if I had lived back then and found myself in that situation. And someone came running down the street and said, “Listen, I know this sounds nuts, but God spoke to Moses and right now he’s working to build a bronze pillar and he says that if we will go and look on it and believe that we’ll see the power of God. We’ll be healed!”
“No, I don’t understand how.” “Yeah, I know what that sounds like.”
I know enough about myself to know I’d be skeptical. But if I had been bitten and venom was coursing through my veins, OR worse yet, if my wife or one of my daughters had been bitten. You better know that I wouldn’t care what people said or thought. If I had a chance to save their life, I’m going to grab them up in my arms and run straight for it! I don’t care how crazy a story, if this could save my family, my life, I’m going! I’d go and look right at that pillar and pray that God would be faithful to do what he said he would do!
When we realize we are dying we suddenly grow less skeptical!
Similarly, that is what the cross is all about! We may not understand all the components of how the cross of Jesus saves. But if you recognize your need, the fact that poison lives within us, then I don’t know what would stop you from grabbing your family and running straight for the cross! Throwing yourself upon Jesus and looking to him for salvation! And then we must trust that he will do what he says he will do. Save!
Let’s finish this out. It is a matter of belief!
I am fearful that our western and American way of thinking has reduced belief down into just agreement. Make no mistake we have here:
The pole with the snake didn’t save anybody. It was their obedience to do what God had commanded. To place their trust in God to do what only he could! HE was faithful to heal! Believe … cling to … rely fully upon … trust completely.
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. (John 3:16)
Isn’t that awesome! God gave! God sent! That whoever! — meaning anyone! We have heard an invitation for all! Sadly and tragically not all will believe, but the invitation is there! Whoever believes— I hope you feel the full weight of that word — will have eternal life! This refers to much more than just quantity of life, but also quality! This is the life that God intended, one that is marked by freedom, hope, and joy.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:17)
This is all about a rescue mission! We need not be condemned, we need not perish if we’ll believe! And then verse 18, which is about us.
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.
Because at the heart of the gospel is an invitation for you to be included! I am not ashamed to boldly say that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation! We must come to God through faith in Jesus!
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
We must rest in the finished world of Jesus! If you believe in that, there is now no condemnation.
To believe is to obey and to find life!
So, what does this teach me about God? I think it shows us that he desires to rescue! That he has provided the means for that rescue! And we must trust in HIM! What does this stir up within me? I think it ought to stir up within you a great sense of worship and gratitude if you are a believer! He’s saved us! He’s provided the cure! He’s made it possible! How can I now do anything but worship him and be obedient to him!
I hope it stirs up with you an awareness of your current condition if you are not a believer. And that with awareness a clear understanding of what must be done! What must you do? Run to the cross and believe that Jesus paid the price for your sin!
This article is adapted from a sermon preached by Adam Brock entitled Believe.
If you are ready to surrender to God or want to know more, reach out to us by email or call 337-480-1555.
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