As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.
The greatest lack in our church is discipleship. This was never made clearer to me than over the past twelve months of the pandemic. What I learned about our church is that we weren’t as discipled as we (I) thought we were. We aren’t as committed to discipleship as we need to be. By discipleship I simply mean gaining a solid, working grasp of God’s word and applying it to our lives; leading to Kingdom growth.
The evidence that discipleship is wanting is a shortage of Kingdom growth. You may be thinking, “Pastor, don’t you know we’re in a pandemic? What do you expect.” Well, the Bible doesn’t teach anything about the Kingdom of God recoiling in hard times. Or the church growing and expanding only under favorable conditions. The biblical witness is, in fact, that it increases most during times of great challenge. We read about it today with the surge of Christianity in countries that often target the faith for persecution and threaten annihilation. So, what’s going on?
If it’s not the pandemic conditions stifling us, then what is it? It’s inferior discipleship. God has given us everything we need, and more, to accomplish the task He’s assigned us.
- Make disciples
- The Great Commission
He saved us, inhabited us with the Holy Spirit, provided His Word and His church. The missing piece is discipleship. We’re the disciplers. That’s on us. Not apart from God, but in cooperation with Him. What’s interesting is that biblical discipling is often needed most by people who know their religion the best. That’s because they weren’t discipled. They were taught how to be good church members, but they weren’t really discipled. It’s literally possible to have a congregation of people that’ve been taught a lot about Christianity…and yet never been discipled. Which brings us to today’s text.
The passage is part of a larger teaching by Jesus to a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Just by virtue of being a Pharisee we know this man had a robust command of Scripture. He would have memorized large portions of the first five books of the Bible. Additionally, according to one commentator, Nicodemus was one of the three wealthiest men in Jerusalem. Maybe the most well-known of all the Pharisees in Jerusalem. He would have held a prominent place in the Temple and community. Which is likely why he sought Jesus’ counsel by night. (3:2)
Still, Nicodemus lacked even a rudimentary understanding of how to be saved. He was convinced it was a matter of checking off the right religious boxes. Reminds me of me on a much smaller scale. Being nurtured into Christianity through the programs of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Greenville, PA, I grew to know a lot about what it meant to be a good Lutheran. I enjoyed the Saturday morning catechism classes, but never hearing a simple explanation of Gospel salvation.
I came to believe being right with my church meant being right with God. Nicodemus was right with the Temple but not with God. He knew this in His spirit, that he wasn’t right with God. And he hoped Jesus had the answer to calm his guilt. And I will say, “I’m glad he wasn’t right with God.” It’s by his dilemma that we have these blessed verses before us today.
The passage we’ll spend time on contains arguably the best-known verse of the New Testament.
- John 3:16
- Recognized even by unchurched people
The trouble with its fame among church members, most are unfamiliar with the verses before and after John 3:16, since they haven’t been properly discipled. But those are as critical to understanding genuine salvation as John 3:16. There is rich discipling value in all of them. So, let’s be grateful for the whole passage and ask the Lord to guide our hearts and minds as His words disciple us. The title of this message covers the three themes before us.
- Believe, Because and Belong
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
The words believe and believed appear five times in the first four verses of our passage. This makes us believe that belief plays an essential role in understanding what’s before us. To begin, verse 14, refers to the wilderness scene recorded in Numbers 21. God unleashed a monstrous brood of poisonous snakes on His people for their incessant complaints against Himself and Moses.
Numbers 21:5-6, The people spoke against God and 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 miserable food (manna).” 6 The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.
As His people repent, God instructs Moses to craft a bronze serpent; place it on a pole, and whoever looks at it when bitten will live.
Numbers 21:9, And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.
Medical insignia symbolizing physical restoration. In Jesus’ discipling of Nicodemus on salvation he speaks of an event that would be very familiar to him. The Lord builds a theological bridge between what this man believes to be true and what he needs to believe to be true, while inferring His own future resurrection. Nicodemus likely wouldn’t connect those dots until resurrection Sunday. Without saying as much, Jesus implies that Nicodemus believed what Numbers 21 teaches. Now he must believe what Jesus is about to tell him. Verse 15 is the connector.
- So that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
Like those poisoned dessert wanderers looked to the risen bronze serpent and lived, people must look to the resurrected Son of Man for eternal life. The risen serpent of Moses reminded the people of their sin; reflecting the instigator of original sin. But the risen Savior would remind people of the God’s love and grace. People can believe in a salvation by sin or by the Savior. Salvation by sin is the false promise of redemption by human effort. That’s what Nicodemus believed until Jesus discipled him.
It’s what most people believe today. Only Christianity teaches salvation by grace through faith (belief). Nicodemus’ belief in Moses’ wilderness account of the bronze snake informs us as to the kind of belief Jesus talks about in verses 15 and 16. Whether understood literally or interpretively, Nicodemus would have given significant weight to the Numbers story:
- Since Moses was the chief patriarch of his faith.
- Moses wrote it, and I believe it
This is the same weight, the same authority Jesus means him to have for what He says in verse 16.
- For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, thatwhoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
What would have really stretched Nicodemus wasn’t Jesus’ requirement for unbridled belief:
- But that He said “whoever believes”
This was completely outside the bounds of Judaism. Because whoever would include the Gentiles. No rabbi before Jesus had ever made such a claim, that non-Jews have the same access to eternal life as God’s chosen people. That was beyond belief. Certainly, pharisaical belief But that’s the kind of saving belief Jesus calls all of us too. Beyond belief, belief.
This is not a natural belief like believing the Steelers can win the Super Bowl this season. It stretches even the most devoted fan, but it is possible, beyond belief; belief is the willingness to bet your life on the Steelers winning it all.
John 3:16 belief is staking your life on Jesus being the Son of God, which is to believe in everything He said and did. That’s beyond our natural belief, it’s supernatural belief. It’s God-given, God-driven belief. Have you staked your life on Jesus being the Son of God? Do you have John 3:16 belief? That’s belief leading to salvation. Saving belief, saving faith. Anything less falls short.
For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.
The word because means: for the reason that.
I went to bed and slept, because I was tired.
- She ate, because she was hungry.
- Believing Jesus is the Son of God is essential…
Because God’s judgment, His decree of eternal life depends on it. God sent His Son to save whoever believes because we have already been judged by God as spiritually and morally deficient for eternal life.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Rom. 3:23)
You see, all of us have a birth defect. We are born as enemies of God; sinners by birth. Inheritors of hardened hearts. We’re prone to run toward the fires of hell and flee from the holiness of heaven.
- (19b) … men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.
This is our congenital nature. Which is why Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again.
John 3:5-7, Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”
Born of water, infers the embryonic fluid of natural birth, not baptism. His phrase, and the Spirit, points to the Holy Spirit’s supernatural work in salvation. We must be born again by believing Jesus is the Son of God and by the gracious mysterious work of Holy Spirit. When this happens, the Father’s judgment of us shifts from condemned to eternal separation from Him; to commended for eternal life.
- Condemned to commended, entrusted to eternal life
Condemned because God judges sin. Commended because God so loved the world. But we’re not only commended for eternity, we’re also commissioned for His work here and now. The Father sent His Son on mission.
- For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but thatthe world might be saved through Him.
And the Son sends us on mission.
- Matt. 28:19-20, Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
We’ve come full circle. The greatest lack in our church is discipleship. Make disciples, not just church members. So, how do we right the ship of discipleship? Consider the last point.
But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.
Belonging is like believing. There’s belonging, then there’s belonging. For some folks belonging to their church means casual attendance and occasional volunteerism. Other’s think belonging means calling the church office when they need something. These are examples of what most members consider belonging to their church. Then there are those for whom to belong is very different. For them the Body of Christ is a vital part of their weekly rhythm. They don’t think of the church as a place to go, but a Person to serve. The Person of Jesus Christ.
The place is an instrument for making disciples who follow Him. People don’t come to salvation spontaneously knowing how to practice the truth and demonstrate deeds as having been wrought (produced) by God. We come as needy, messy, and willful children. A lot like we were before being born again. And much like a new-born we’re either nurtured toward maturity, or our spiritual growth is stunted, and we behave like disrespectful youth. The first step of discipleship is to truly belong; be fully present and engaged.
I cannot adequately express how grateful I am for our members who’ve stuck with the church this past year. Even if you haven’t attended in person. It’s been the hardest year of ministry I’ve experienced. You’ve proven yourselves to be matured, discipled believers. You belong as God’s people because you truly believe. And it is a joy and honor to be your pastor. If we’ll work as hard serving Jesus post-pandemic conditions, as we have during it, we have many Kingdom blessings to look forward to.
Finally, do you belong because you believe Jesus is the Son of God? Because you see yourself as a sinner; confessing Him as your Savior. If not, will you do that right now. Belong because you believe. And if you’re looking for a church, talk with me about Pittsburgh Baptist.