Monthly Archives: September 2011

Eternal Life

“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.  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.”
John 3:14-16 (NIV)

The children of Israel were in big trouble.  They had been traveling in the wilderness for decades, and frankly, they were sick of it.  It’s not that they were lacking for food or clothing or shelter; God had graciously provided plenty of manna every day, plenty of water for themselves and their flocks and herds, and the shoes and clothing that they had when they had left Egypt had been miraculously preserved, so they were just like new, even though they were nearly 40 years old.

But the people were still dissatisfied.  Even though they were finally headed to the Promised Land, it was taking too much time.  They were having to take the long way around instead of the direct route, and they were getting impatient.  They weren’t satisfied with what they had; they wanted more.  They wanted what the people around them had.  They wanted to eat whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it.  They wanted to live in permanent homes instead of in tents.  And they weren’t sure that they were ever going to get to the Promised Land where they had been promised milk and honey and all kinds of other wonderful things.  And so they blasted Moses with their discontent:  “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” (Numbers 21:5 NIV)

God’s response was immediate.  He sent venomous snakes among the people, thousands of them, and they started biting the people, and the people were dying right and left.  The leaders came to Moses, repenting of their harsh words:  “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us!” (verse 7)  And so Moses prayed.

But God didn’t take the snakes away.  Instead, He instructed Moses to make a bronze model of one of the snakes, and put it up on a pole so that it could be easily seen from anywhere in the camp.  And He told Moses, “Anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” (verse 8)  I think it’s fascinating that God’s solution wasn’t to get rid of the snakes as Moses asked on the peoples’ behalf.  The snakes were still there, and they were still biting people as a punishment for their rebellion.  But the bite no longer had to be fatal.  If the person simply turned their eyes to the bronze serpent up on that pole, they would live.  If they wouldn’t accept God’s solution to their problem, they would die.  It was that simple.  And I’m sure that there were some people who absolutely refused to look to the serpent when they were bitten because it wasn’t the solution that they wanted.  They wanted God to get rid of the snakes so that they wouldn’t be bitten in the first place.  Those people died.

Jesus points to a powerful parallel between those times and His times.  The people were still being poisoned and killed, physically as well as spiritually; not by snakes this time, but by the powerful poison of sin.  And the sin was reaching into every area of their society.  All over the place, people were mistreating others; marriages were being broken apart by unfaithfulness; revenge was taking the lives and property of individuals and families; business practices were increasingly shady; and even the religious leaders were less than godly.  And this physical and relational suffering wasn’t even the worst part of it.  Many understood that because of this sinfulness, the people had ended up separating themselves from the very God that they worshiped and wanted to serve.

Most of the people had just given up on things every getting better, just throwing up their hands in despair.  Others cried out to the Lord, because they could see that things had gotten bad enough that only God could fix them.

But what the people hadn’t really understood yet was that God had heard their cry, and that His solution to the problem was standing right in front of them!  Just as Moses had lifted up the serpent on a pole, so Jesus was going to be lifted up on a cross.  And just as the people looking up to the serpent in faith that God would use it to heal them were in fact healed, so those who look up to Jesus in faith that God would use Him to forgive their sins, would in fact be forgiven.

Since the day of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, billions of people have looked to Him for forgiveness.  And all who have looked to Him have been saved, their sins forgiven and a new destiny written for them.  But once again, God’s solution is kind of counterintuitive.  God doesn’t remove the temptation that causes people to sin.  Nor does He take away our free will so that we can’t sin.  But God has graciously provided a cure that is powerful and effective, that will in fact save us any time we find the poison of sin coursing through our spirits.

Just as in Moses’ day, some people over the last 2000 years have rejected God’s solution.  To some it just seems too simple to be effective.  Others reject it because it puts them too much in God’s debt; they want to work themselves out of the poisoning on their own.  And still others focus on the existence of sin, and use that to say that since God allows that kind of stuff in the world, He either doesn’t love us, or He’s not powerful enough to fix the problem.  All of those attitudes will prove fatal to our souls in the end.

The fact is, for twenty centuries God’s love for us, and His power to change hearts, and homes, and whole communities has been clearly visible whenever we look up to our crucified Lord, and in faith trust in Him to free us from the poison of sin.  “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.”

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“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?  I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.  I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?  No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man.
John 3:9-13 (NIV)

If you were to ask people to give their opinions as to who the most intelligent people in the history of the world have been, it is a sad reality that Jesus would probably never make most people’s list.  There would be great mathematicians like Isaac Newton and Einstein, perhaps some philosophers like Socrates and Plato, and maybe some inventors like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.  But probably not Jesus.  Many people respect Jesus or honor Him, but most people just don’t think of Him as being extremely intelligent or extremely knowledgeable.

Quite the opposite is true, however.  Jesus, being God in the flesh, literally knew everything that there could possibly be to know.  He actually knew and still knows answers to questions that we don’t even know enough to ask!  As the creator God, the one through whom all things were created (John 1:3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 1 Corinthians 1:16; Hebrews 1:1-2) no one would have had a greater understanding of how the world and the universe came about, as well as how life is structured and works best.  As the God of history, who personally knew and interacted with the patriarchs (cf. John 8:56-58), He knew not only the actions of each of them, but their characters and thought processes as well.  As the one who spoke through the prophets, He knew exactly what was the true meaning of each prophetic word and picture.

Very few, if any, of the people in Jesus’ day understood these things about Him.  So, just like today, He was viewed by many who liked Him as a good man or a great teacher (and by those who were threatened by Him as a charlatan and an infidel!).  But even in Jesus’ own day He wasn’t considered a great intellectual, or someone who had all of the answers.

Jesus usually tried to put the information that He gave out on the “lower shelves” so that it was understandable.  But even the intelligent folks of His day frequently disappointed Him by not being able to understand what He was telling them about even simple, earthly things.  And His question to Nicodemus really is cogent:  “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”  If Nicodemus wasn’t willing to accept His wisdom about the simple things of the world, how was He going to be able to accept what He wanted to tell him about the deep things of God?

These days there are many people who discount Jesus when He talks about such things as the creation of the world and of mankind (Matthew 19:4); about the world-wide flood of Noah and the total destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as real, historical events (Luke 17:26-29); and about the fact that Moses really did write the first five books of the Old Testament (Mark 12:26).  They will tell you that when Jesus talked about these things, He was simply the product of His times, who only believed and taught what He Himself had been taught.  They will go on to say that these days we are so much more sophisticated and know so much more than Jesus did, and so they feel comfortable discounting and writing off what Jesus had to say about worldly things.  Jesus warning is, of course, that if we discount what He had to say about these simple, earthly matters, what would possibly make us believe Him when He talks about the things of heaven?

The core of the matter rests on who we really believe Jesus to be.  If we believe that He was merely a man, even an “enlightened” man, but one who was merely a product of His times and was mistaken or deluded in things like the age of the world or how God created it, then we cannot accept what He says about why He came or how to be saved.  After all, if He was wrong in those very simple things, what makes us believe that He was right when it comes to things infinitely more complex?  If we only can accept Jesus as a mere man, and not as God in the flesh who knows everything, then we cannot accept His sacrificial death on our behalf, because the death of a mere man, even the death of a very impressive man, even though it might be a wonderful example of devotion for us, cannot save us any more than our own death could.

But if Jesus really was who He said that He was (which I believe with all my heart!), then we can take Jesus at His word no matter what the topic.  When He speaks to us about the creation of the heavens and earth and all that is in them, He speaks with absolute authority and truth.  When He speaks to us about the fall of mankind and the horrible consequences of that fall, He speaks with absolute authority and truth.  When He talks to us about the patriarchs, what they were like and what they did, He speaks with absolute authority.  When He tells us what He came to do on our behalf and how to be saved, we can take that to the bank, because He speaks with absolute authority.  And when He tells us how the world will go in the future, and what His plans are for us, we can walk forward into that future with absolute trust and security, knowing that He has spoken with absolute authority as the one and only Son of God.

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Blowing in the Wind

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
John 3:1-8 (NIV)

Have you ever had a conversation with someone that was totally confusing?  You understood the words, but the way that they were being put together just didn’t make sense to you?  I can honestly say that in my life I have had several of these, some of which made sense after I had time to think about it, but some of which I’ve never been able to make heads or tails of!

Nicodemus was having one of those kinds of conversations with Jesus.  He had obviously come to Jesus with something on his mind, and he came at night, when his chance of talking to Jesus alone was better.  But we will never know what was on Nicodemus’ mind, because, like usual, Jesus wasn’t interested in Nicodemus’ agenda – He was focused instead on God’s agenda for Nicodemus.

Nick barely had time to get out a very nice and complimentary greeting when Jesus stopped the conversation cold with “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”  After a few seconds of silence while Nick chewed that one over, he responded, “How can a man be born when he is old?”  He was wrestling with the image of being literally born again at his age, and he just couldn’t see how that was possible!  But Jesus’ words meant more than Nicodemus’ frame of reference allowed him to see.

I’m not sure that Jesus’ clarification really helped Nicodemus at the time, but when we take it as a whole, His meaning stands out clearly.  The key element of His explanation is NOT the water and Spirit phrases, as so many explanations seem to focus on, but the saying, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to Spirit.”  In other words, even if Nick did figure out how to get back into his mother’s womb and be physically born again, it wouldn’t do any good – he would still be merely a flesh and blood human being.  Instead, he needed to Spirit of God to totally remake him, to help him be born again as a spiritual being.

This would have been a completely new way of thinking about it to Nicodemus.  For years he had spent his life doing his best to be obedient to all of God’s commands, but he knew deep in his heart that there was a critical element missing somewhere.  That element was the Holy Spirit!  In order to be born again spiritually, a person’s dead spirit needs to be made alive, and that is a work that only the Holy Spirit can accomplish.  Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit using both the term water and the term Spirit in parallel (just as God had done in Ezekiel 36:25-27) in order to communicate clearly with Nick that what was really needed for him to get into the kingdom of God was a SPIRITUAL rebirth that was orchestrated and performed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Nicodemus’ shock must have shown on his face, because Jesus told him, “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”  We can see the effects of the wind as it blows, sometimes with powerful consequences, but we can’t see the wind itself, and where it comes from and where it goes to are mysteries to most people.  But just because we can’t see it and don’t really understand it doesn’t mean that we have license to deny the reality of the wind!  Nicodemus had come to Jesus in the first place because there was something about Him, a power and a purity that was undeniable.  And Jesus is telling him clearly that the effect that he sees in Jesus’ life is caused by the same Spirit that can give Nicodemus a spiritual rebirth, purifying and empowering him in ways that he can’t imagine, can’t comprehend, and can’t explain, but which are stunningly real nonetheless.

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