Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ John 3:14-21 ~ March 14, 2021
There is a pastor who starts each confirmation course he teaches with a jar full of beans. He asks his students to guess how many beans are in the jar, and on a big pad of paper writes down their estimates. Then, next to those estimates, he helps them make another list: their favorite songs. When the lists are complete, he reveals the actual number of beans in the jar. The whole class looks over their guesses, to see which estimate was closest to being right. The pastor then turns to the list of favorite songs and asks, “And which of these is closest to being right?” The students protest that there is no “right answer”; a person’s favorite song is purely a matter of taste. This pastor, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Notre Dame University then asks, “When you decide what to believe in terms of your faith, is that more like guessing the number of beans, or more like choosing your favorite song?” Always, this pastor reports, from old as well as young, he gets the same answer: Choosing one’s faith is more like choosing a favorite song. (www.sermonillustrations.com)
What do you think? How would you answer the question? When it comes to what you believe in terms of who God is, what he wants, and what a relationship with him should be like – are these things only and always matters of your personal preference like choosing a favorite song? Or are the things that you believe - things that can be, and should be evaluated against a trustworthy and reliable standard to see how accurate they are? I’m going to ask the question in a little different way to see if it helps clarify the issue: When it comes to matters of faith is there a right answer? Or wrong ones? Or is faith ultimately just about picking beliefs that are most appealing to your heart and your spirit?
That’s really the question on Nicodemus’ mind when he came to talk with Jesus in John, chapter 3. Nicodemus was a member of the sect of the Pharisees, an influential religious and political group. Even though Nicodemus is a spiritual teacher among the Jews, he is searching for spiritual answers. From Jesus’ miracles and authoritative teaching Nicodemus has concluded that Jesus must have come from God. So Nicodemus is interested in learning more about Jesus – to find out Jesus’ spiritual opinions.
Did you notice how Jesus answers Nicodemus? Does Jesus respond with an opinion? Or do you sense something else in the way he answers? Listen carefully to how Jesus replies: “Whoever believes in him [the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son” (John 3:18). Jesus doesn’t mention anything about subjective opinions or personal preferences. He answers with a definitive standard.
And with his answer, Jesus has just turned Nicodemus’ entire understanding of spiritual things upside down. For his whole life Nicodemus was of the sincere opinion that his ticket into heaven was the powerful combination of his being really good (right living) and his being Jewish (right race). Yet Jesus says nothing about either of those things.
Instead, Jesus spells out the divine standard that qualifies a person for entrance into God’s kingdom. Jesus, God’s Son, makes it abundantly clear that whether you believe it or not, there is only way for anyone to stand in right relationship before God. Jesus goes a step further: the only way a person can relate to God in a right way is by believing on him (Jesus) as their Savior! If Jesus were preaching in America today would he be labeled a religious bigot for holding such an exclusionary view of how people can know God rightly? If Jesus were teaching this message in America today, would people label him an intolerant hater for claiming someone would be condemned by God simply because they don’t agree with him (Jesus)?
I mean, God is love, isn’t he? How could he possibly condemn any of the creatures he made? Doesn’t he want all people to be saved? So how can Jesus be so restrictive, so seemingly narrow-minded? It’s because Jesus understands that when it comes to spiritual things, things that deal with eternal life in heaven or eternal death in hell, it’s not Nicodemus’ opinion or the opinions of any other human beings determine the outcome. The only thing that ultimately matters in spiritual things is what God has to say.
Jesus is aiming to help Nicodemus see this reality by reminding him of a story from Old Testament times when he says: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). In the first lesson from Numbers this morning we heard about what happened to the Israelites out in the Arabian desert after God had rescued them from slavery to the Egyptians. The Israelites had been complaining against God, grumbling about their wilderness journey and having to eat the same manna (bread from heaven) that God miraculously gave them to eat day after day. God grew tired of hearing all their opinions about how he could do better by them. He grew angry at their complete lack of appreciation for his rescuing and providing hand. It was their disrespect for God and disapproval of his actions that move him to take fatherly, disciplinary action. He sent sending fiery serpents among them whose venomous bite was lethal.
But God’s desire wasn’t to destroy them but to bring them to repentance. He was aiming to lead them away from trusting in the desires of their own hearts to trust in the goodness of God and his heart and plans for them. To accomplish that goal our God of extraordinary love provided way of escape for these people from divine judgment by overcoming their complaining unbelief. God didn’t prescribe a snake-bite serum for the Israelites to eat or drink, nor did he instruct the Israelites how to safely drive the snakes out of their camp. Instead, God instructed Moses to make a serpent of bronze and to set it on a pole, so that anyone who was bitten by one of the snakes could merely look up at the bronze serpent and be healed. God’s plan of rescue superseded the laws of science. God’s prescription was 100% effective. Those who believed God and through faith in his promise did what he said, they were healed. But God didn’t force any of the Israelites to do what he said. If any of the Israelites didn’t believe that God’s way would work, or if they were of the opinion that his way was too simple, or if they thought they could concoct a better form of rescue from his divine judgment – well, that was certainly their right. But were any of their human attempts to avoid God’s divine judgment successful? Why not? For one simple reason: only God and his promise have the power to save from God’s holy wrath and so it’s only through faith in God and his promises that a person receives the saving help God supplies.
A somewhat parallel scenario is happening still today. Scan the news and there are stories upon stories upon stories of all the problems in our world today. Murder, violence, hatred, bitterness, anger, greed, child abuse, sexual perversions and permissiveness, selfish exploitation of others, famine, death, tears, and fears of every kind. These aren’t natural disasters. These are the result of human choices. When people believe they know better than God, that they can live in disobedience to His will, God allows people to do so. But he also allows people to feel the sting of what their sin brings to life. The bite of sinful attitudes, words, and actions sting, hurt, even kill. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, God permits us to feel the pain of sinful choices, both ours and others. It’s been said that people won’t change until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.
That’s what God wants for us. He wants to change us. He wants to turn our hearts away from trusting our own desires, turning our hearts to trust in him and his will for our lives. Instead of looking at bronze snake on a pole, he calls us to look to his Son dying on the cross. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16,17). Just as the Israelites were instructed to gaze in faith at the serpent to find rescue from God’s wrath, so God urges us in faith to gaze at Jesus, his Son, on the cross and we too shall be saved from the eternal death we deserve! Take God at his Word even though it may not sound very scientific. Listen to what he says even though his wisdom
doesn’t always make logical sense to you. Believe him and with eyes of faith look upon his Son who was lifted up for you and you have what he promises: deliverance from everlasting punishment.
Why is that important? Just remember what Jesus told Nicodemus: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God” (John 3:18-21). Jesus makes it abundantly clear here that he did not come into the world the first time to judge the world. Yet he is the dividing line between those who will be in heaven and those who won’t. That’s because entrance into heaven isn’t based on how much you’ve done for God but on whether you believe in God’s Son and all that he’s done for you!
That’s why Jesus refers to himself as the “light.” Without light it’s hard to see what’s really going on. Jesus is the light that illuminates what’s really going on in a person’s heart. When it comes to light of Jesus every person is either a moth or a cockroach. What’s the difference? When you turn on the light, cockroaches scatter but moths gather!
That’s why you’re here, right? Because you are drawn to Jesus. You want to be close to him. You find comfort and confidence that you’ll be in heaven someday because of what he did for you when he was lifted up on a cross outside Jerusalem! That’s also why when you come here, you don’t come to listen to my opinions about God. It’s also why we don’t take a vote on what to preach and teach here. Why not? Because this ministry isn’t about spreading human ideas about God. This ministry is about preaching and teaching what God tells us about himself. It’s about digging into God’s own words. Listening to all that Jesus teaches us to believe! The famous Christian preacher, Charles Spurgeon put it this way: “I would recommend you either believe God up to the hilt, or else not to believe at all. Believe this book of God, every letter of it, or else reject it. There is no logical standing place between the two. Be satisfied with nothing less than a faith that swims in the deeps of divine revelation; a faith that paddles about the edge of the water is poor faith at best. It is little better than a dry-land faith, and is not good for much” (www.sermonillustrations.com)
Faith that swims in the deeps of divine revelation, that’s the kind of faith that changes us. The great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis put it this way: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Don’t be afraid as Jesus shines the bright light of his Word and the glory of his presence into each and every part of your life, yes, even the most private and personal areas, like your dreams and ambitions, your relationships, your problems, even your fears. For this is what your Savior desires to accomplish in you: “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God” (John 3:21). Yes, Jesus wants to bring about real change, beginning at heart level in your life! When you stop to think about it, isn’t it a tremendous blessing to have the opportunity to share your whole life, every part of who you are, with your Savior God who loved you so much that he willingly gave up his own life for you? Yes our Savior God blesses us beyond measure as he shares the marvelous truth of his boundless love for us. Isn’t that why we gladly accept everything that he teaches us to believe and do? Of course it is! And that’s not my opinion. That’s exactly what Jesus has promised! Amen.