From Death to Life.
St Chad’s March 14
The words of John 3:16 are perhaps the most well-known part of the New Testament, and a short-cut, or a summary, of what God did and why. Let’s look at the context Jesus spoke them in. The hearer was Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who was curious. He had heard a lot about Jesus, and started to think about what Jesus preached, and compare it with what he had been taught from his tradition. Nicodemus couldn’t come openly and sit and Jesus’ feet to learn from him, because the Pharisees as a group were not sure what Jesus represented, and were suspicious of him. So Nicodemus came at night, sneaked over to where Jesus was staying to have a private and discreet conversation. This account comes quite early in John’s Gospel, but Jesus’ words sum up what his earthly ministry was.
Nicodemus knows his scripture, – he knows the story of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness, so that all those who were bitten by snakes could look at it and be healed. Jesus then uses the same sense of lifting up – just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.
This comparison has several dimensions. First, it refers to a simple upward movement, a lifting up. Moses raised the serpent high so all could see it, Jesus would be raised high upon the cross for the world to see. The serpent was a sign of healing – as the people gazed on a depiction of what had harmed them – the poisonous snakes in the wilderness, they would be healed from that harm. Just as people gaze upon Jesus on the cross, and reflect on what it means for them and for all of humankind, our hurt is eased, and we are set free from the power of sin.
Jesus describes this setting free as having eternal life. It is sin that separated us from God in death – but in Jesus we can turn away from sin, it no longer has any power over us. We enter into life, and life enters into us. Eternal life – being with God for all time, after our earthly bodies have finished their work, our soul will be with God.
Jesus further explains this carefully to Nicodemus:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Here Jesus is saying that he is indeed the Son of God, the Messiah, the one the Jewish people had been waiting for. He makes it really clear, so that there is no doubt. He explains it again and again – he was not sent into the world to condemn it, but to save it.
In the same way, God did not send the snakes in the wilderness to condemn the people, but to save them from their lack of faith and trust in him. When they looked up to the snake set upon the pole, and accepted that God was all powerful, they were saved from the power of sin and death.
It’s interesting that it is a snake that was the dangerous animal isn’t it? There were probably lots of harmful animals roaming the wilderness looking for a meal -certainly when we see nature documentaries anything is fair game for dinner! But it wasn’t lions or jackals, but snakes. This can be seen as a reference to the original snake, the symbol of sin in the garden of Eden. The snake was a metaphor for the devil, the accuser, the tempter. By showing himself powerful over the snake in the desert, God was saying that sin was on the losing side. By using the same analogy for himself, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he triumphs over sin, its reign is ended, and that by believing in him we can enter into new life, a life free from the power of sin.
Jesus then uses another image for himself – the image of light. The light has come into the world, but people loved darkness. This too has two meanings- in a world without street lighting, it was very dark at night, and what went on was hidden away from sight. The night was the place of crime, of sin, of secret conspiracies. Of anything that couldn’t bear the scrutiny of the cold light of day. In our world of good lighting at night and lots of security cameras, deeds that happen in the night are not quite so hidden away, but darkness is still used as a cover for all sorts of wrong.
Jesus refers to himself as the light – it doesn’t mean that he was shining like a lighthouse that you could read by, but that his purity and goodness would make any sin obvious and seen. Therefore those of us who follow Jesus know that our behaviour is accountable. In whatever we think, speak or do, the light of Christ shines, and shows up anything that needs to be brought to God for prayer and for healing. It’s not a condemning light though. There is such a sense of Gods’ huge love for us all in this text that we can rejoice in it. Maybe too Jesus was making a wee dig at Nicodemus coming to him by night, not sure that this action would bear the scrutiny of day. It might not have stood up the Pharisees’ criticism, but Jesus is brighter, purer than them, and this reassures Nicodemus that he has done right.
Let’s look at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians to see why this has all happened.
‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.’
It is the gift of God – we haven’t deserved this. We are not entitled to it, but rather than grumbling like the Israelites in the wilderness, we can say, thank you! And accept the gift.
‘We are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.’
This is why we are here on earth. Because God has prepared the way for us, it is not a difficult way. Following Jesus is far easier than trying to live life without him, and as many of you have experienced, it gets easier too with time, because decisions become clearer as we learn to trust God in prayer.
This week, as you go about your daily life, think about the serpent lifted up – a bronze one, just a model, not real like the snake in the garden of Eden. It has no life, so it has no power. Sin also has no power over us as we trust God, and, like Nicodemus, follow Jesus.