The third chapter of John records a conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus who was one of the most respected theologians of his time. Jesus tells Nicodemus that unless he is reborn from above by water and the Spirit, he can’t enter the kingdom of God. In the part of their discussion we read a few moments ago, Jesus mentions Moses and a serpent on a Pole, a Son of Man and a Son of God, people living in light or darkness, doing evil or truth, and receiving condemnation or eternal life. The things he mentions are all drawn from the Old Testament and all the passages would have been familiar to Nicodemus, but he had not fully understood them. Most Christians know John 3:16 by heart, but many of the things Jesus talks about are still a bit of a mystery to them.
Let’s start with what Jesus says about the Son of Man.
Jesus says that the Son of Man descended from heaven and that he would be lifted up like the bronze serpent in our Old Testament lesson, so that all who believed in him could have eternal life.
Chapter seven of the book of Daniel refers to a heavenly Son of Man. Daniel had seen a vision in which he saw a series of empires. The last of these was truly dreadful and was ruled by an unusually wicked and boastful man. His kingdom is taken away and then Daniel sees one like a Son of Man who stands before God and receives an eternal kingdom that would replace all earthly empires. Daniel wrote:
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”Daniel 7:13-14
A bit later, Jesus refers to God’s one and only Son who is sent by God so that all who believe in him will have eternal life. Psalm 2 talks about a Son that God has begotten, who rules the nations. The Psalm says:
I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.”Psalm 2:7-8
God’s Son also receives an eternal kingdom in which he reigns over all peoples and nations forever. Since both the Son God has begotten and the Son of Man received the same kingdom in perpetuity, they must be the same person. He is the Son of God and the Son of Man.
This man who is God’s Son is none other than Jesus of Nazareth who called himself the Son of Man and called God his Father.
But Jesus has added something new. Both Daniel 7 and Psalm 2 speak of this person in the context of judgement, but Jesus says that he has not been sent to judge the world and condemn it, but that God has sent him into the world to give eternal life to all who believe in him. In doing this, he also identifies himself with the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, who dies and rises to atone for the sins of his people.
He also tells Nicodemus how this will be done. He uses our Old Testament lesson to give Nicodemus a preview of the cross.
Jesus says that the Son of Man will be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.
Why did Moses put a bronze serpent on a pole and stand it where people could see it? He did it to save them from dying because they had been bitten by snakes that God had sent in anger over their grumbling and disbelief. Whoever looked at the serpent on the pole recovered. God honored his promise and their faith. Whoever did not believe and therefore did not look, died. They had already been condemned to death and could not be saved except by believing God and going to look at the snake on the pole.
Jesus, God’s Son, was raised upon a cross. Fashioned in the likeness of sinful people, yet without sin himself, he was condemned to die and by his death he bore the punishment for our sins and so saved us from the God’s anger over our sins and unbelief.
Our Gospel lesson says that those who believe God’s promise concerning his Son and who come to him will be saved. Instead of perishing they will be given eternal life. Those who do not believe and will not come to Jesus are condemned already because of their evil deeds and remain condemned because they have not believed God’s promise to those who look to his Son.
In the beginning, a serpent attacked the first man and woman with poisonous lies that turned them away from God and made them subject to death. They had believed the serpent instead of God and fell into sin. When God came looking for them, they hid because their disobedience was evil, and because of that disobedience they died.
But now God has sent his Son into the world to proclaim the truth and to turn people away from the evil and lies that brought death to all mankind. And those who were condemned because of unbelief, can now live forever by faith in the Son of God who gave his life for them and will raise them from death and give them eternal life.
We no longer have the need to hide. At first, the truth about our condition is painful. We are sinners in need of our savior and would rather hide in the darkness than have our wickedness exposed. But God, who called light out of darkness, found us in the darkness of sin and despair and has shined the light of his grace and truth upon us.
In First John, we read,
“If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”1 John 1:9
We cannot by our reason or strength believe in Jesus, the Son of Man and the Son of God, but God in his mercy has sent his Spirit to enlighten us, so that having heard of what Christs has done for us, we might believe, confess our sins, and be forgiven and so live forever in God’s grace and forgiveness.
Paul says the same,
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.Ephesians 2:8-9
Likewise, the day will come when God will call us out of the darkness of our graves to live forever in the light of his presence.
What are we to say, then? Jesus, the Son of Man and the Son of God, has come and has brought life and light to us and to all who believe.
This is exactly why God sent him. It is why he went to the cross. And it is why God has rewarded him by seating him at his right hand until the day for judgment comes.
But believers need not fear that day. It was never God’s will to condemn us poor, sinful souls. Christ’s work of redemption, his death and resurrection, were part of God’s eternal plan and purpose.
When we hear “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” We can be sure that this promise is for us. We were born into this world that God loves and the word “whoever” means that everyone who looks to Jesus in faith receives eternal life. As the serpent Moses raised saved the Israelites from death, so the Son of God and Man who was raised upon the cross will save you from death and hell.