The Fourth Sunday in Lent March 21, 2004
175, 245, 171(1-6), 313(2)
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.
In the name of Jesus, by whose blood we are saved, dear fellow redeemed:
Some 2000 years ago nobody would have predicted that people would have crosses displayed in their churches and their homes. Nobody would have thought it remotely possible that people would wear crosses on necklaces, or have cross tie-tacks, or cross earrings. In the days of the Roman Empire the cross was a symbol of shame and guilt. It was used by the government as a means of intimidation. When there was a slave uprising by a man named Spartacus they lined the highway for miles with crosses upon which they crucified Spartacus and his fellow rebels. When people walked by they would think long and hard about what they could do to avoid a similar fate.
When Jesus and two criminals were crucified this was done on a hill. It was a public place so all could bear witness to the consequences of crime against the Roman Empire. Yet for us Christians, we cherish the cross. It is not a form of idolatry or superstition. We have the cross before our eyes to remember the work of Christ on it in our behalf. The cross meant death for all who were upon it, but God tells us to view it in a new light. We are to LOOK TO THE CROSS OF CHRIST AND LIVE I. See the depth of God’s love for you. II. See the dividing line between heaven and hell. III. See how the view of the cross affects a person’s actions in this life.
It is on the cross that we see God’s reaction to sin. This reaction was prefigured in the Old Testament. In Numbers chapter 21, we read the account of the Children of Israel and the bronze serpent. This is the very event that Jesus brought up in His conversation with Nicodemus found in today’s text.
We know that the Lord hates sin. It goes against His very nature. Yet, at the same time, He loves the sinner. Instead of instant condemnation and punishment, God reacts to sin with grace. This was true in the garden of Eden and it was also true in the Sinai wilderness as He dealt with the Children of Israel.
The Israelites had grown impatient with God. They were tired of the wilderness and tired of the manna they had eaten for years and years. When God first gave Manna, the Children of Israel rejoiced to receive it. Now they said, “our soul loathes this worthless bread” (Numbers 21:5) —worthless in their minds despite having nourished them for forty years in the wilderness. There is little doubt that we would have made the same complaint. We also have a great abundance for which to be thankful, and yet often our first reaction is to complain.
At this point, the Lord sent fiery serpents against the Israelites and this caused the death of many. God’s goal was to bring the people to repentance. The goal was accomplished. The people cried out to Moses and to God for help. God’s response was to have Moses construct a serpent out of brass.
It must have certainly seemed odd to the people to see Moses work on serpent while they were writhing in pain, but in the end whoever looked to that serpent on the pole would live. This was an odd cure to say the least. No medicine. No destruction of the snakes. They were to look at a figure of the very thing that was causing them problems in the first place. But it worked! There were those who refused to look and they died. Yet those who believed what God had told them, looked to that bronze serpent and lived.
In His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus made a direct comparison. The bronze serpent was a type of the Messiah. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” [vv. 14-15]
There are three points of comparison. First of all, just as the serpent was an image of the cause of their death, so was Jesus. Sin is the cause of our death. Now it may seem blasphemous to call Jesus sin because we know that He is perfect and holy, and yet God says that very thing to us. “He who knew no sin became sin for us,” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The essence of our redemption is that Jesus took our sin and guilt upon Himself. We also realize that the bronze serpent was a harmless form of the fiery serpents that were killing the people. So also Jesus was perfectly innocent and blameless. Thirdly, whoever trusted what God said and looked to the bronze serpent lived. Whoever believes the Gospel and looks to Jesus in faith will also live eternally.
God’s reaction to sin is love. When God provided life through the bronze serpent, He showed His love and concern for the Israelites in spite of their disobedience. On the cross, Jesus displayed the depth of God’s love for the world. It was no less than God’s own Son who became sin for us. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” [v.16]
How much does God love you? The answer to that question is that His love is so great that He was willing to send Jesus into death to rescue you from eternal death. When we think of parents who have watched their children go to war, it is a sacrifice made for their country.
Consider the cause that led the Father to send His Son. It was to save those who were His enemies. Would anyone be willing to send his son to protect Osama Bin Laden—to give up his life to defend someone who hates America and everything it stands for? We wouldn’t find anyone who would do that. Yet God so loved the world that He was willing to give up His only begotten Son for its cause. Look to the cross and see God’s great love for you! He could have sent Jesus into the world to condemn it because we indeed are guilty, but instead He sent Jesus on a mission of rescue.
In Jesus we also see the dividing line between heaven and hell. “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” [v.18] At the time of the bronze serpent, there were only two fates for those who were bitten by the snakes—life or death. The same is true for those who are infected by sin. A person is either condemned or justified, guilty or not guilty, will live or die eternally.
Those who do not believe in Jesus are condemned already. Their sins are not forgiven, and if that is the situation in which they leave this earth, they will be accountable for their sins on the Last Day. A couple of years ago on an airplane flight to India, a friend looked around and remarked to me, “How many of these people are bound for hell?” In that case with a large percentage wearing the mark of Hinduism, we’d have to conclude that most were condemned because they were looking somewhere other than to the cross of Christ for salvation. Just as thousands died needlessly in the wilderness, so also many millions will needlessly die eternally because they have not relied on Jesus for salvation.
God directs us to Jesus. What is important is the object of our faith. Everybody has a trust for salvation. We can even end up skewing the picture and putting emphasis on ourselves when we emphasize the act of believing more than the object. Notice the difference between “whoever believes in Him should not perish,” vs. “whoever believes in Him should not perish.” God makes things very simple, and directs our eyes to Jesus as the way out of guilt and punishment. He did that in our place.
Finally, we see that whether or not a person looks to Christ will affect everything that He does in this life. Jesus is the difference between deeds of light and darkness, good and evil. People are condemned in not recognizing and acknowledging Jesus as their Savior. People are condemned for their preference of remaining in sin instead of under God’s grace. “This is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” [vv.19-20] Viewing Jesus as your Savior and leading a life of ungodliness are incompatible. Continuing in evil is looking away from the cross. It is trampling and rejecting the love of God.
Despite seeing the love of God for us, there is the temptation to leave Him. By nature we prefer the darkness. If you’ve ever gone to a movie in the afternoon it’s rather difficult to venture from the darkness of the theater to bright sunlight of the afternoon. Likewise, it is also difficult to have the darkness of sin exposed for what it is. Yet, how much better to be in the light!
The love of Jesus moves us to follow the truth, to act on it in our words and deeds, and to remain in the light. Jesus did not die that we should remain in sin and unbelief, but that we should be transformed, so that we are a new creation in Him and in His image and not in the image of the world around us (cf. Galatians 2:20 et. al.)
In this world we are surrounded by darkness. We are constantly being bombarded with what are supposedly better offers than what Christ has given us freely. We mistakenly believe that freedom comes away from Christ and may feel shackled by our faith in Him.
The truth of the matter is that only in Christ are we truly free. Only in Christ are we in the light. Only in Christ do we escape condemnation. That is all reflected in Christ crucified. He was lifted up that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. Look to Christ and live! Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.