Let’s pretend that when you walked into Church this morning you were given – along with your bulletin – a blank sheet of paper and a pencil, but no explanation of what to do with them. Let’s also pretend that at the beginning of this sermon I asked you to take that pencil and paper and write – entirely and only from memory – the words of John 3:16. I have every confidence in the world that you all could do it.
Some of you would use the language of the English Standard Version translation that we use in our services today and have been using for a number of years: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It’s probably more likely that most of us older folks would use the language of the King James Version that we knew and used for most of our lives: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Both are correct. Both are accurate translations of the original Greek text. The point is that no matter which translation you may use, you know those words. They are indelibly seared in your mind and in your heart.
So far, so good. But there’s another part to this pretend quiz. In the second part, I would ask you to write – again from memory – the words of the two verses that immediately precede John 3:16 – the words of John 3:14 and 15. I may not be giving you folks enough credit, but my guess is that most of you could not do it. So let me help you out. This is how those two verses read: “And 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.” That’s a lot harder to remember, isn’t it?
My point here is not to pass theological judgment on anyone, but to point out that God’s Word consists of far more than just a few words from a favorite Bible verse. Do you remember what God the Father told Peter, James and John when they were on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus? He told them to listen to His Son. Really listen. Listen not to just a few favorite words here and there – but listen to everything that He says. Not just your favorite verse that you memorized many years ago – but everything that He said for the benefit of your faith and your salvation.
In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is having what seems to be a private, late-night conversation with a Pharisee by the name of Nicodemus. Usually we associate the Pharisees with enemies of Jesus, but Nicodemus shows us that not all of them hated Jesus and wanted Him dead. Nicodemus actually seems to want to learn from Jesus. In John chapter 7 – at a time when the Pharisees and leaders of the Temple were plotting against Jesus – Nicodemus spoke up in Jesus’ defense. After Jesus’ body had been removed from the cross, John tells us that Nicodemus brought large quantities of myrrh and aloe to help bury Jesus’ body in the tomb. Scripture never mentions Nicodemus again, but we do know from the Book of Acts that some Pharisees became Christians. Early Church tradition tells us that Nicodemus did, indeed, become a Christian as well.
One thing we can say for sure about Pharisees – about the good ones and the bad ones – is that they knew their Scripture. They knew it inside and out, frontwards and backwards. When Jesus mentioned the serpent lifted up in the wilderness, Nicodemus’ mind would have gone straight to Numbers chapter 21, the chapter that Jesus quoted when He referred to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness.
In Numbers 21 we read of the time when the Children of Israel were in the wilderness during their 40-year sojourn from Egypt to the Promised Land and they grumbled and rebelled against God – something they unfortunately did with great regularity. “And the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.’ Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”
For the Children of Israel, the solution to their “serpent problem” was not just to kill the fiery serpents. They couldn’t kill them or get rid of them – there were too many, they just kept coming, they just kept biting. The solution was not to administer some medicine, for no human antidote could cure them, even if one had been available. They couldn’t hide or run fast enough or climb high enough to get away from them – no matter where they hid or ran or climbed, the snakes were waiting for them. Waiting to bite them. Waiting to inject them with their deadly, fiery venom. Waiting to make them suffer. Waiting to make them die.
Substitute the word “sin” for the words “fiery serpent” and you have a perfect, one-to-one illustration of our desperate plight cause by sin. After all, we can’t get rid of sin – it just keeps coming at us. We can’t cure sin. We can’t hide or run from sin. No matter how hard we try, sin is always waiting for us. Sin is always waiting to inject us with deadly, incurable venom. Waiting to make us suffer. Waiting to make us die.
The whole world – every last one of us – has been bitten by the always deadly venom of sin. We were even bitten by sin while we were still in the womb; as King David writes in Psalm51: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
When Nicodemus heard Jesus mention the fiery serpents in the wilderness and the brass serpent on the pole, he would have understood that that the bronze serpent itself did no healing. The bronze serpent in itself saved no lives. As Luther once wrote: “Just looking at the serpent did not effect the cure; it was faith in the Word that did it. These people accepted the Word of God as a reliable promise of healing and deliverance from the poison.”
I want to go back to verses 14 and 15 again, where Jesus says: “And 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.” The phrase “so must the Son of Man be lifted up” is much stronger and to-the-point in the original Greek. Jesus actually said that “it is necessary” for the Son of Man to be lifted up. A small difference, it might seem, but an incredibly important difference. “It is necessary,” Jesus said. Not a choice. Not optional. Not, perhaps, some other way to get the job done. “It is necessary.”
Now listen – listen carefully – to John chapter 3 verses 14 and 15 and 16 – all together – with the substitution I just described. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so it is necessary that 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, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Yes, God did send His Son so that all who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. But the thing to remember is that you cannot in faith understand and believe the words of John 3:16 unless you also in faith understand and believe the words of John 3:14 and 15. God’s Son could not win eternal life for you unless He first suffered and died on the cross – unless He first suffered all the agonies of hell – for you and your sin.
It is a sad commentary on the state of modern-day Christianity that many churches and many denominations refuse to include crosses. You walk into some of those churches – or, more precisely, what they call their worship space – and not a single cross will be seen. Not the empty cross like the one on our altar or the one here to my left. Not the crucifix like the one over here by the Lectern or the one that shines down on us from that stained glass window above the Altar. Those churches probably do remember and repeat the words of John 3:16, but the words about Jesus being lifted up – well, for all practical purposes, they don’t even exist.
For longer than any of us could possibly know, John 3:16 has been popularly known as
“the Gospel in a nutshell” because it is considered by many to be a summary statement of the central theme of the Christian faith. I would like to suggest to you here today that we need a bigger nutshell. If you really want to describe the Savior’s work of salvation, then speak … learn … remember the words of John 3:14, 15 and 16.
Let’s try it together. Take out your bulletin and join me in reading the words printed on the cover. “And 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, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”