Description / Transcription
Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, as we come to Your Word, it is our prayer that we would be able to behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. May we never grow tired of this Good News. And as we in the weeks to come gather around the manger, may we always remember that this sweet little Jesus boy in the manger would be the Lamb of God to hang on the cross for our sins. Gracious heavenly Father, grant us now humble hearts, that I may preach Your Word humbly, that Your people may receive Your Word humbly, and may the one speaking be ultimately not the pastor, but the Good Shepherd. And as He speaks, let us, Your sheep, hear His voice, the Lamb of God, and believe. In Christ we pray. Amen.
You may be seated. Thank you all.
Our text this morning comes from John’s Gospel, chapter 3. John chapter 3, verses 9 through 15. The Gospel according to John, chapter 3, beginning at verse 9. This is page 888 in your pew Bibles.
“Nicodemus said to Him,” that is, to Jesus, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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.”
Hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear of some other famous person’s fall from grace. Think just in the last couple of months all the actors, producers, directors, journalists, TV celebrities, writers, politicians, candidates, perhaps even a few pastors. Sad stories we have heard. You may have seen this week the Time magazine “Person of the Year” or “Persons” this year, were the silence breakers, those who have come to speak out and in particular about abuse or harassment or sexual assault. And it seems that every week now, almost every day, we hear another sad story. And not just accusations, but confirmed, admitted, people that perhaps we liked or knew or thought we knew or trusted. And maybe in some instances the people close to the situation, now some of the stories come out that, well, we all, it was kind of an open secret, we all knew that these things were going on in Hollywood or with this politician or whoever the person may be. But at least in the eyes of the public, so often these people who have had their catastrophic fall from grace, and have thought to be brilliant people, influential people, in some cases people really respected them, revered them, good trustworthy people. That’s just a nice man, we think.
It turns out people are not always who we think they are. And it’s easy to feel angry with those people, maybe judgmental, maybe even just feel sorry for them, certainly sorry for those they have wronged.
But Jesus would not let us to just think about sad situations out there, what a sad world we live in, look at all the sinful people doing sinful things. Jesus never leaves us there. He would have us consider the matter a little closer to home. What if we are not the people that others think we are? Or what if we are not the people we think we are? Now that’s a little scarier thought to consider. It’s one thing when we see some morning news anchor who has a tremendous fall from grace, it’s another to think well, what if our reputation is not as well deserved as we might want. Or what if all the things we like to think about ourselves are, if we had a quiet moment to actually consider what’s going in our hearts, we’d realize we’re much less than we seem.
One of the dangers with just busy-ness and technology and phones, and yeah, we’re all aware of just the, the bad stuff that you can get, but it’s even more pervasive than that. It is hard in our day to remember that you have a soul. You actually have an immortal soul, and the abundance of life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions. So sometimes we just need to stop, think, be quiet. You do understand that the devil has many tools in his arsenal and perhaps one of the great tools he has in our day is just keep people going so fast, all the time, if they ever have a chance to have a spare thought or moment or heaven forbid, even a second of boredom, well, there’s a screen that can take care of that. And so he keeps up away from those uncomfortable thoughts: We are we really, and what if we are not who we think we are?
We see here with Nicodemus there is a profound disconnect between his credentials and his comprehension. You see that verse 10? Jesus asked “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”
Last week we say Nicodemus was a Pharisee. He was a ruler of the Jews, so he’s an important person. And though they may sound like bad categories to us, they certainly weren’t in the first century. These were the good guys. These were the people who took the Torah seriously. These were the people who were, you know, speaking at conferences and writing books. These were the people that they looked up to. And now we see one other designation in verse 10. Jesus says “are you the teacher of Israel?” And notice the definite article “the.” It suggests that he may be an especially prominent official, not just “you’re a teacher in Israel,” “you’re the teacher in Israel,” perhaps suggesting he’s something of a bigshot. He’s one of their go-to guys.
Presumably there were all sorts of people around who could say to one another, “You know, Nicodemus, I love that Nicodemus. Man, I’ve learned a lot from him. Man, did read his blog this week? Oh, man. Really appreciate Nicodemus. Really good. You follow him on Twitter?” The talk shows, when they wanted to have, you know, a little sound bite, “oh, let’s get Nicodemus, he’s the teacher in Israel.”
He was that sort of person. He maybe weighed in on the most important matters of the faith. Ruler of the Jews. Pharisee. The teacher in Israel.
You think Jesus is impressed with titles? Nope.
You notice how Jesus answers Nicodemus’ question with another question. Verse 9, Nicodemus says “How can these things be? Come on.” And then Jesus answers with another question. Nicodemus says “how can these things be?” Jesus says “How can you be? That’s my question for you.” How can you be you? You’re the teacher. You’re the Pharisee. You’re the ruler. And you don’t know these things? There is a gap, Jesus is saying, between your reputation on the one hand and the real thing on the other.
And I wonder if any of us have the same gap. Now I’m not saying it’s true of everyone. You do understand when the preacher preaches, sometimes it’s okay, you know, if there is a sermon on, you know, praying, well, we all feel like we can pray more, but sometimes you might listen and you might think “well, I think I am being faithful in prayer.” It’s okay sometimes to be obedient to things, all right? I just want to give you that permission as you listen to a sermon.
But we ought to consider, do some of us, in a room this size, have the same gap that Nicodemus had? A gap between his reputation and between the real thing? Now maybe your reputation is well-earned, or maybe you’re even more than meets the eye. But maybe, just maybe, for some of us, there is a gap. Jesus never wants us to look at reputation alone. Remember the letters to the seven churches. It says to one of them “you have a reputation for being alive.” I can hardly think of a worse thing to be said about a church. “You have a reputation for really being a good church.” Reputation. And I hope none of us are striving for a reputation alone.
Jesus says “Nicodemus, you’ve got a big, yawning chasm between your credentials and your comprehension.” And maybe that’s some of us. Some of us have a lot of titles, whether its father, grandfather, mother, grandmother, elder, pastor, deacon, Bible study leader, lifelong Christian, giver, banker, businessman, teacher, whatever, community leader. Credentials.
And on the other hand, comprehension. Reputation…reality. Jesus always is after exploding the supposed importance of reputation and credentials if you don’t have the real thing. He says “Nicodemus, how is this so? You’re the teacher in Israel, and you don’t know these things?”
Remember in chapter 2, verse 25: “Jesus needed no one to bear witness about man for He Himself knew what was in man.”
So Jesus knows what is in you and in me. He knew what was in Nicodemus and He knew what wasn’t in Nicodemus. You may fool everyone else; you don’t fool Jesus. And so Jesus knew what Nicodemus had. You know what you have, Nicodemus? You have a reputation. You have titles, you have credentials. You know what you don’t have? You don’t have the real thing.
Let me show you three things Nicodemus didn’t know. Or to put it another way, I’ll give you three words that Jesus has to say, hard words, to Nicodemus and perhaps it’s a word that He wants to say to some of us as well.
Here’s the first. Jesus says to Nicodemus, and maybe He says to some of us, “You don’t know your Bible.” That’s verse 10 and verse 12. Jesus, remember in the last passage last week, just got done speaking about being born again. You enter into the kingdom of heaven by being born again, being born of water and the Spirit. And Nicodemus isn’t so much confused as he just doesn’t really believe it. He says, “Oh, yeah, right, Jesus. How’s that gonna work? You gonna crawl back into your mother’s womb and a man’s going to be born when he’s old?” He doesn’t understand it. He doesn’t know his Bible. Jesus says “you’re the teacher and you don’t know these things?”
He should have known from Deuteronomy 30, verse 6. Moses speaks of our need to be circumcised in the heart. Or Isaiah 44 or Joel 2, prophecies about the coming outpouring of the Spirit. Or Jeremiah 31, the promise of the new covenant, and God will write the law on their hearts. Or David’s prayer in Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, renew a right spirit within me.”
He should have known this Old Testament idea of being renewed in the heart. He should have known Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things.” He should have known that we are born into this world with a natural tendency to hate God and hate our neighbor. That’s a Heidelberg Catechism, I think question and answer number eight. A natural tendency to hate God and hate our neighbor.
Now some of us are born into decent homes and neighborhoods and we have a socialization process that makes us polite, respectful people. That doesn’t change the heart. God has to change the heart. And so some of us have learned to be polite, and yet we’re born with a natural tendency to hate God and hate our neighbor. Nicodemus should have understood this. He was the teacher in Israel.
And in particular he should have known from Ezekiel 36. Turn back there for a moment. Old Testament, page 724. I referenced this briefly last week, but it’s good for you to see it with your own eyes. Ezekiel 36, because this is in particular what Jesus has in mind when He spoke earlier about water and Spirit. He’s thinking of this passage in Ezekiel where water and Spirit come together in newness of life. Ezekiel 36, verse 25: “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness and from all your idols I will cleanse you and I will give you a new heart.” So you see verse 25, water, now we’re getting a new heart and “a new Spirit I will put within you, and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
Now, it’s no coincidence that after this passage in Ezekiel 36 we come to Ezekiel 37 and you can read the title there: “The Valley of Dry Bones.” The Spirit took Ezekiel out to see this valley full of dry bones. “And He said to me, ‘Can these bones live?'” and He says to “prophesy over the bones and say to them,” verse 4, “O dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord. Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover your with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Now many of us, we’ve heard of that, and we know songs about “them bones, them bones, them dry bones.” But imagine Ezekiel seeing this. This at first has to look scarier than a zombie apocalypse. Okay? Dry bones. Skeletons. Just there in this valley. Why are there bones? Because there’s death. There are skeletons because there is no life. Then he prophesies over them. This comes through the abiding, germinating power of the Word. The Spirit comes and the bones live and sinews, bones are connected to bones, and then flesh on the bones, and then walk, they live, they move. This is what God by his Spirit has to do.
Nicodemus should have known his Bible. We need to know our Bibles. Now we know this intellectually, but we forget it so often, and so we come to think that we can, we can do things that only God can do. You cannot cause your child to be born again. You cannot do it.
We were just praying back here with some of the pastors and the elders, and one of the things we pray for, and I try to pray for it every week, and say “Lord, would You be doing the things this Sunday that we cannot do ourselves?” If we come to a Sunday and we say “well, here’s what I know I can do,” then we’re not aiming high enough. We have to be about the things that we are powerless to do: New birth. Rescuing souls from hell for heaven, bringing marriages to be healed, bringing conviction of sin. These are the things that the Spirit must do through His Word and He uses us, but we are ultimately powerless to accomplish them. We need the dry bones to be invigorated with Spirit. We need the water to come and to cleanse. We need the Spirit to come and give a new heart. These are the things Nicodemus as the teacher should have known, but he didn’t know.
And I bet most of us know these things and I bet most of them forget these things. If that’s true, it’s that’s what’s necessary for the human heart, you think that’s going to affect how we view society, how we view politics? You think maybe that should temper our utopian ideals? You think maybe that should give us a sense for why we need guard rails? Why we need checks and balances? Actually, you can read through some of the Founding Fathers, whether they were all Christians or not, they weren’t all but many of them influenced by Christian ideas, and one of the ideas was the depravity of man. James Madison writes about it in Federalist Paper 51. That’s why we have to have checks, because we don’t have a government of angels, we have a government of fallen men.
And we understand that because we’re Christians. We forget it sometimes when we’re raising our kids. We think, “Well, my kids, I ought to be able to get the product I want if I just do the right prayers and I don’t feed them more than this amount of sugar, and I give them enough vegetables and I get them into the right school, and I have them doing soccer when they’re 2 years old and I have them traveling in a league every Sunday when they’re 4, and I have them all doing all that, and I just line it up and then product! Kids, there, they’re great. They love the Lord.” They’re dry bones.
Now, you discipline them, you nurture them, you teach them. They need a new heart. Or ministry. We don’t want to be about the things that we just know how to manage, how to get done. There’s a lot of big churches, a lot of big churches that specialize in dry bones. Come, look, very well-dressed, beautiful, well-run, valley of dry bones. That’s not what any of us want.
Jesus says to Nicodemus, how have you missed these things? Nicodemus was a teacher. He probably taught for years about entrance into the kingdom, and maybe he said “well, you obey God” or “you perform the sacrifices” or “you trust in God’s promises.” But somehow he hadn’t been talking about the new birth. And Jesus says if you can’t understand 101, how are you going to graduate to 201? You see that in verse 12? “If I’ve told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” The early things probably have to do with this new birth. Now you may say, “Well, that’s birth from above. How is that an earthly thing?” Well, it’s early earthly in the sense that you can see it. You can see the effects. That was verse 8. You can see the effects of the wind. You can see the effects of the new birth. This happens here on earth, the entrance into the kingdom of heaven. It’s observable. And Jesus says if you can’t understand that, now it’s mysterious, it’s glorious, but it’s not a different concept… You need a new heart. You need to see evidence of a new heart. If you can’t get that, earthly things, how are you going to understand and believe heavenly things? Invisible things? Mysteries yet to be fully revealed concerning the Trinity, the cross, the resurrection. He could have said to Nicodemus what Jesus will say later: You err because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God.
Here was a teacher, a ruler, a Pharisee, and he is failing on a fundamental point because he does not know his Bible.
What about you? Would people be surprised by how much or how little you read your Bible? Would they be surprised to find that you are sitting in that chair every morning, reading? Or would they be surprised to find about you, or about me or about any of your pastors, would they be surprised to find that it has been days, weeks, long stretches, in between really knowing, diving into God’s Word?
At the church in Michigan we had a leadership class. You had to take the leadership class and you had to pass the leadership class in order to be considered for an officer in the church. And it wasn’t just an academic exercise, but there was a test at the end of the class, and you had to answer, it was like 100-question knowledge test about the Bible, you had to fill in some essays and talk about the Gospel and your own personal faith. And it was always eye opening to realize what people did and didn’t really know about the Bible. Sometimes people would surprise you and you thought “well, that quiet person, I had no idea that they just aced this thing” and then sometimes people who were very active and well-respected people and you’d find out “wow, you have some huge gaps in understanding the Scriptures.” You realize biblical literacy in this country is not exactly at an all-time high? I’m sure you could find more people who could name the four Beatles than the four Gospels.
And it’s not so much that we need to get the Bible trivia stuff right, though it’s fun to do. Yeah, we need to know people and places and know our way around the Scriptures, but it’s even more than that, it’s more than just do I know the facts and do I know, you know, all the kings of Judah and do I have all the books memorized, can I find them in sword drills and can I get there faster than you? It’s about the culture that you have in your head an in your heart. When you’re steeped in the Word of God, there are things that become second nature to you, a new nature to you, but you must be in the Bible long periods, consistent periods. If not, it’s not so much that, you know, you’re going to not do well on the Bible trivia exam. You’ll know some true things, but here’s what will happen. Your head and your heart will not be shaped by the culture of the Bible, it will be shaped by the culture all around us. And you will know some true things, and you will have some true conclusions, but you won’t know how you got there.
And your feel for the truth will be off. That’s what we’re finding with younger and younger generations. Your feel for the truth. Why? Because your feel, what feels right, is not shaped by the Bible. You’re not spending most of your time in the Bible. It’s shaped by social media, it’s shaped by movies, it’s shaped by cable news, it’s shaped by music, it’s shaped by YouTube. That’s what’s shaping. Now you’re still learning things and you’re still going to Sunday School and youth group and you’re understanding who, you know, Saul and David and Solomon, and you know about the split with Rehoboam and Jeroboam, and you know things, but the whole culture of our heads and our hearts are not being shaped by this, they are being shaped by everything else. And that makes a person who easily wavers, easily wobbles, easily is topped over.
Jesus says to Nicodemus you don’t really know your Bible. You should, as a teacher, you should know this. This is not a small thing, to be born again. This is not just tucked away somewhere. This is big time 101 and you’re not getting it.
Here’s the second thing Jesus says to Nicodemus, and maybe He says to some of us. He says you don’t know who to listen to. Verse 11: “Truly, truly I say to you, we speak of what we know and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.” And then in verse 13: “No one has ascended into heaven expect He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
There are two problems in these verses, or interpretive questions. First, look at verse 11. Who is the “we?” “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know.” This is Jesus, so who’s the “we?” Some people say Jesus is speaking for the prophets, He’s saying we, and all of the ambassadors of God say this. Other people think He’s speaking of the disciples, “we,” maybe some of the disciples are there with Him, presumably. But the disciples seem fairly clueless through most of the Gospels. It’s hard to think they are getting this unless He is speaking of a time when they will get it. Or perhaps He’s just using a royal “we.” Or perhaps He’s speaking in some measure of the Trinity, that the Son and the Spirit have seen these things and bear witness together, or the “I” and the “Father” are one, maybe that’s the “we.”
I don’t think all of those explanations are mutually exclusive, but I think there’s certainly something else going on, and that’s Jesus means to imitate, in a way, Nicodemus’ own comment in verse 2. Go back to verse 2. Remember, “this man came to Jesus by night and said to him, rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God.” So Nicodemus goes with the plural “we,” speaking for himself, maybe a few other Pharisees, maybe a few other rulers, maybe he’s just thinking of the crowds who can see what Jesus has done. He says, “Look, we know some things.” And so Jesus comes back in verse 11 and says “amen, amen, I say to you, we speak of what we know and bear witness to what we have seen, but you don’t receive it.”
So whether the “we” is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit or the “we” are the disciples or the prophets, He is certainly coming to Nicodemus with a “we” because Nicodemus came to Him, “we know.” And Jesus says “Well, let Me tell you what we know, because what you know is just some things you’ve seen, some signs. We know what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard.”
And then look at verse 13. There’s a question here. Why this past perfect? That’s the verb. “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” The Son of Man is Jesus’ favorite title for Himself, so He’s talking about Himself. It would make sense if He said “no one will ascend,” because Jesus is going to ascend into heaven, but it says no one “has” ascended into heaven.
There are lots of stories in the first century about people going to heaven. You think of a couple examples in the Old Testament, people who didn’t die but went right to heaven. Aha, see, you can get your Bible trivia here. Enoch, Elijah. And then there were also stories about Isaiah because he had the vision other Lord high and lifted up in His temple, and then Moses because he had these direct encounters with God on the mountain. So there’s stories. There’s a kind of a whole cottage industry sprung up in this time about people who had gone to heaven, or people who had had heavenly encounters with God, and what did they see and what did they know, and now what Jesus is saying there is “Look, there is no one who has ascended into heaven,” and sort of in parentheses here, “(as I’m going to ascend into heaven), except for the One who first descends from heaven.” He’s speaking of a kind of heavenly knowledge that you cannot have unless you are the one who descended to heaven in order that later you might ascend back into heaven. The Son has non-mediated knowledge of the Father. So this kind of ascent cannot happen except by way of descent. He’s speaking of His incarnation first, exultation later.
So it’s a little tricky because He says “has ascended,” speaking of there’s no one who has this already, and then He’s looking forward to what He Himself will accomplish. So, one commentator summarizes it this way: Jesus is saying no one else has ascended into heaven and remained there so as to be able to speak authoritatively about heavenly things, but only the One who has come down from heaven is equipped to do so. That’s surely the point. Jesus has come down from heaven, and He is equipped to speak of these heavenly things, and He will in time ascend back into heaven.
So here’s the point of verse 11 and the point of verse 13. Jesus is saying “I am the One you need to listen to. Nicodemus, you came and said ‘we’ve seen things,’ but Nicodemus I’m telling you, I’ve seen things. I’ve been there.”
It seems, judging by Jesus’ responses, that Nicodemus was not just a humble seeker at this point. His questions were not earnest searching, but were incredulous retorts. Yeah, how’s a man going to get back into his mother’s womb? How could these things be? So he’s not portraying himself as one who comes to Jesus, perhaps initially coming with some curiosity, but as Jesus goes on, Nicodemus is not responding with a humble heart to say “that’s a really interesting point, now help me understand because I really want to get this.” Okay? If that’s where you are with the Lord, the Lord is infinitely patient. But Nicodemus is sort of throwing up his arms and shrugging his shoulders and saying “What gives? How’s that going to work, Jesus?”
And so Jesus turns from dialogue to monologue in the last part of the paragraph, and He reinforces to Nicodemus and to us, “Look, I’m the One with heavenly knowledge, I’m the One who bears witness to the Father, I am the One that you need to listen to.” And at some point in all of our lives, the question will really become that straight forward and that simple: Are you going to listen to Jesus? Are you going to listen to Jesus? And by that I don’t just mean the red letters in the Bible because Jesus said He sent the Spirit then to lead the apostles into all truth, they’re the Spirit inspired messengers of Jesus, so this is Jesus speaking. He’s the Word. Are you going to listen to Him? Or when push comes to shove, do we say “Well, I’ve got Jesus, but I’ve got parents, I’ve got my friends, I’ve got what the magazines say at the checkout in the grocery store.” Are you more shaped by Jesus, or by CNN, or by Fox News, or by the New York Times, by the Drudge Report, whatever, take your pick, cross the aisle. What are you shaped by?
I’m reading an interesting book by Alan Jacobs on thinking. It’s a new book. I’m just part way through, but it’s very good. He makes the point, we often talk about people, think for yourself, and he argues no one actually thinks for themselves, we only think with other people. Thinking is inherently a social idea. You’ve never thought a thought, he argues, that isn’t in response to something else someone else has said or done or thought. Thinking is always social. You’re responding to something. So it’s not only desirable, it’s not possible to go think for yourself. When we say you should go think for yourself, we usually mean “stop thinking like those people and think like me.” Think for yourself. It’s not possible. We’re always thinking with other people. The question is, as Christians, what we think with and under and for Jesus. Because there will come a time in your life, maybe it’s when you really want to marry a non-Christian, or you really want to get a divorce that’s not biblical, or you really want to keep going on pressing home this lie that you think no one will know, when you finally want to give up the biblical idea of marriage. Whatever it is, some point, and you’ll have to ask yourself, am I going to listen to Jesus?
They had Jesus in front of them and they didn’t believe. Sometimes we think, “Well, if we could just, you know, if Jesus were just here, man, all of my non-Christian friends would be Christians.” No, they wouldn’t. Or “if Jesus were right here just telling me, I’d get it, I’d believe it in a heartbeat.” No, you wouldn’t. They didn’t there. It’s the sovereign work of the Spirit. Nicodemus didn’t know who to listen to. He wasn’t listening to the right people. Jesus said you’re not listening to the right people if you’re not listening to Me. So forget about being on the right side of history, be on the right said of God.
And here’s the final word that Jesus says to Nicodemus. Not only you don’t know your Bible and you don’t know who to listen to, He says you don’t know who I am really. Now we saw last week Nicodemus had some good things to say about Jesus. “Well, we know you’ve done some signs and we know you’re a rabbi and we know you’re a teacher and we know that you’ve come from God.” All true things, but he really doesn’t know. You can think Jesus is a good man and a good teacher and you’re pro-Jesus and you still don’t really know who He is.
And so in verses 14 and 15, Jesus is going to reference another Old Testament story. You remember this one from Numbers 21? It’s kind of a strange story. The people of God are wandering in the wilderness, and as they were apt to do, they became impatient. And they grumbled against God and Moses, and they said “look, there’s no water, and we hate this food, we’re all going to die.” Sound like any mealtimes at your house? We’re all Israelites when it comes to mealtime. “I hate this food. There’s nothing to eat. I’m starving.” Every time I said that, I learned, as a child, that that was just going to elicit a lecture about all the people in the world who really were starving and how hungry they were, how grateful they would be for these vegetables, all those things. So they’re like kids, they’re like us. “We hate this, we’re gonna die. Why’d you bring us out here, just to die in the wilderness? We should have never left Egypt.” And so God send fiery serpents among the people, basically brings them to North Carolina. Snakes everywhere, just everywhere. So they bite the people, the people die, and the people beg Moses: “Intercede on our behalf!” And Moses prays for the people, and then God tells Moses “I want you to make a bronze serpent like the ones biting and put a bronze serpent, you put it on a pole, and if they look upon the snake, they’ll live.” It seems strange. Almost seems like idolatry. And we don’t think of serpents as being symbols for healing, but here it was. The bronze serpent reminded the people that they did not have power to save themselves. They had to look outside themselves for the remedy to their sin. And just as that bronze serpent was lifted up for the healing of the people, Jesus says so will the Son of Man be lifted up for the salvation of sinners.
That phrase there, “lifted up,” it’s the perfect phrase, because it does double duty. It means on the one hand “lifted up on the cross,” and on the other “lifted up in exultation and glory.” That’s how the word is used throughout the Gospel. John 8:28: When you have lifted up the Son of Man you will know that I am He. John 12:32: When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to Myself.
Listen, friends, the offense, the mystery, and the brilliant wonder of the cross is that these two things happen at the same moment. That the moment of Christ’s most exquisite shame is precisely the moment of His greatest triumph. To be lifted up on the cross is to be lifted up in exultation and glory. Jesus says that Son of Man, that’s Me, it’ll be clearer as the Gospels go on. He will be lifted up like the bronze serpent in the wilderness and all who look upon Him and believe will be healed. Lifted high.
I love the unofficial motto around here, or maybe it’s the official motto when it was voted on at some time, I’m not sure, that verse from Colossians that in all things, Christ might be preeminent, or Christ might have supremacy. That is the point of our ministry, to lift up Jesus. That’s ultimately what we’re about. That’s ultimately what my preaching should be about. The banner waved over this church is not, first of all, Calvinism, though I am one of those with all my heart. Or Presbyterianism, or the Westminster Confession, or a certain mode of schooling, or the flag of our country. The banner to wave over the church of Jesus Christ must be and always be the cross of Christ. That He would be lifted up.
You need to know how it shapes how I think about ministry. If you lift up as the banner, as sort of ooom, that’s what’s drawing people here, you draw the wrong sort of people. Even if with good things. “This is a church for people who believe in predestination.” Well, you know what? If you lift high Christ, you get people who want to know Christ. And then as they love Christ, you teach them about the Bible and you teach them about our tradition, you teach them all sorts of good doctrine. When we lift high, what we say is this a place where Christ is lifted high, where Christ will be preached. It’s the point of our ministry. It’s the point of your faith. Faith is to look upon the One lifted up, this suffering servant, this mangled Messiah, and say that’s what I need, that’s who I will follow, that’s what glory looks like, that’s where eternal life comes from.
So even though I said there’s a gap between Nicodemus and his credentials and his comprehension, ultimately his was not a failure of intellect, but a failure of faith. He was not ready to look upon the bronze serpent and be healed. This story from Numbers, it’s a brilliant choice by Jesus, of course it is. The snake could not provide eternal life, but it was a means of exercising faith. But Jesus is the object and He’s the originator of that faith. If you know your Bible, you know that in the Old Testament later in the days of Hezekiah they actually had to destroy the bronze snake because people were thinking it had magic powers, people were making offerings to it, and so they had to destroy it. The power, there’s no real power in that snake.
But there’s real power in Christ. And you could say in a way we’ve all been bitten by the snake, that serpent in the garden, marked by sin, now prone to wander on a trajectory for death, and we cannot save ourselves. And just as God sent the fiery serpents to punish them, and then gave the bronze serpent to save them, so we know God is the One who rightly judges sin and He’s also the One and the only One who can heal sin.
Look upon the One who is lifted up. The foolishness of the cross. You think the serpent seemed foolish to people? I bet there were people there, they’re in agony, they’re withering in pain, they’re bitten by these fiery serpents, and Moses comes along and says “okay, good news, you can bet better.” “All right, what do we have to do?” “You don’t have to do anything, you just see this, there’s a bronze serpent over there, lift it up. Go look at it.” I think there were some people who said “I’m not going to look at that thing. That’s a snake. This is… I got bit by a snake, I’m not looking at a snake. It’s a bronze serpent. What’s that going to do for me?” It’s the foolishness, just like the foolishness of the cross. “You think that’s gonna help? A guy crucified, a criminal? What’s that going to do for me? I got real problems.” The foolishness of the cross, you look upon the One who is crushed, that He might be your healing.
So I began the sermon talking about a gap, maybe a gap some of you have between your reputation and your reality. And there may be some things that we have to do, some things to learn, some better habits, ways we need to change, but in another sense, the only way to close the gap is with the cross. See, Jesus is really answering Nicodemus’ question in verse 9, “how can these things be?” Jesus says, “I’ll tell you how these things can be, only when the Son of Man is lifted up will they be.”
So I said last week because Jesus said “you cannot make yourself be born again,” which is why the call of Christ is never “birth yourself.” The call of the Gospel is “believe.” And when you sincerely believe, it is because you have been born again. So it’s not hopeless, it’s not hopeless. God doesn’t say “birth yourself,” He says “believe,” and when you believe, it’s because you’ve been born.
So friends don’t look inside. You’ve heard the saying before: For every one look you look at yourself, take 10 looks at the cross. Don’t look inside, don’t look around. Look to the cross. Nicodemus did not know who Jesus was, but you can. You do. Look, look, look, and believe.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we join with the angels in giving thanks for this One who has descended, who was born, who left the glories of heaven to be born in a manger, to teach, to perform signs, to gather disciples, and ultimately to die, even the shameful death on a cross. But He did not stay dead, He lives, He rose, He reigns. Give us a heart to see, to savor, to behold, and to believe. We pray in His name. Amen.