Second Reformed Church

Thursday, May 21, 2015

"Lifted Up" Sermon: John 3:9-15

“Lifted Up”

[John 3:9-15]

May 17, 2015 Second Reformed Church

            Last week, we began to look at Nicodemus’ meeting with Jesus.  We saw that Nicodemus was one of a group of Pharisees who believed that Jesus was sent by God and empowered by God, though they did not believe that He was God the Savior. Nicodemus alsoheld political office under the Romans and over the Jews.

            Jesus explained to Nicodemus that being enlightened to our sinful, rebellious state and our regeneration – our being given faith and belief in Jesus – is all the work of God the Holy Spirit – as He wills and for whomever He wills.  We must be born again – twice – a second time – to – not a mere head-knowledge of being a sinner – but a heart knowledge that believes that Jesus is God the Savior.  This is a gift of God – we cannot cause our spiritual birth – or resurrection – just as birth as a human is something that is done to us, so regeneration – being saved – is something that God does to us.
             But, Nicodemus did not understand:

“Nicodemus answered him, ‘How can these things be?’  Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things?’”

Here we learn that Nicodemus was not merely a Pharisee – he was THE teacher of the nation of Israel.  Nicodemus was known be to be the best educated, most understanding, wisest teacher in all of Israel.  If anyone had a theological problem, Nicodemus would be the one to go to – and yet, Jesus shows him to not even have a basic understanding of the faith of Israel and God’s means of salvation.

Jesus was heart-broken and astounded that the ones who were to proclaim and teach the Word of God to all Israel – those whom God had chosen for Himself – the teachers did not know or believe what God’s Word says.

Some of you may be familiar with the name Dr. Bart Ehrman.  He is hailed by many are the greatest living scholar of the New Testament.  Yet, he doesn’t believe the Gospel and his books – which are largely about why the Gospel is not true, though readable and persuasive, are full of ignorance and errors.

Most seminaries today teach that the Bible is not historical and much of what the Bible teaches is not true.  And they produce ministers who don’t know their Bibles and don’t believe their Bibles, and believe that the Church is merely called to be another institution of social welfare and positive thinking.

The Church is for the proclamation of the historical Gospel of Jesus Christ and for the building up of Christians that we might better proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus continued, “’Truly, truly, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?’”

Notice the emphasis:  “truly, truly” – “this is important; make sure you pay attention.”

“We” – who are this “we” that Jesus is talking about who speak what they know and bear witness to what they have seen?

Jesus was criticizing Nicodemus for not knowing and believing the Word of God – especially as THE teacher of Israel.  So, Jesus is talking about the Word of God as it was inspired by God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

It was as though Jesus said, “Truly, truly, God in Trinity has spoken through the authors of the Word of God and superintended over their writing so it would be in their style and their words and their language, yet, God in Trinity kept there from being any errors in the text.  Even so, with the attestation that this is the Word of God, inspired by the Triune God, utterly coherent and agreeable with itself, despite it being written by many authors over thousands of years, still you don’t receive it – you don’t believe. 

“If God in Trinity has given you His Word and condescended to use human language and symbols and words of earth – like human birth and the movement of the wind – and you don’t believe, how are you going to understand when I tell you about heavenly things – like regeneration – like the second birth?”

We see that the “we” is plural – what we don’t realizing – reading this in English – is that the “you” is also in the plural.  Jesus is not just referring to Nicodemus’ lack of knowledge and his unbelief, but to all of the teachers, and priests, and Pharisees who would continue to fight against Jesus and deny Him and eventually take part in having Him put to death.

Nicodemus has nothing more to say; he is listening.  And Jesus tells him two things:

First, no one can ascend to heaven except the One Who descended from heaven:  the Son of Man.

“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”

Let us remember that Jesus’ favorite name to call Himself was “the Son of Man.”  That title comes from the book of Daniel – among other places:

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, ESV).

“The Ancient of Days” is God the Father.  “The Son of Man” is Someone Who has access to God the Father – Someone Whom God the Father gave glory and an everlasting dominion and kingdom – Someone Whom all the peoples of earth will serve.  Jesus said that this is He.

And Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18b, ESV).

And John recorded, “Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven saying, ‘The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever’” (Revelation 11:15, ESV).

“The Son of Man” was understood in Jesus’ day to be God.  At Jesus’ trial, we read:

“And the high priest said to him, ‘I adjure you by the living God, tells us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’  Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so.  But I tell you the truth, from now on, you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’  Then the high priest tore his robes and said, ‘He has uttered blasphemy.  What further witnesses do we need?  You have heard this blasphemy’” (Matthew 26:53b-55, ESV).

The High Priest asked Jesus if He is the Messiah – the Savior, God Himself.  And Jesus said, “Yes!  Not only that, I am the Son of Man – I am God in the flesh and I have all authority, and I am the judge of heaven and earth.”  That’s why the high priest tore his robe and said Jesus had committed blasphemy – He said He is God.

With that background – what did Jesus mean when He said, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man”?

First, Jesus was telling Nicodemus that no one is holy enough to come into the presence of God – no mere human being can do enough to be made right with God.  We can do nothing to fully pay the debt for our sin; much less can we keep all of God’s Law perfectly.

Second, He was telling Nicodemus that the Son of Man descended from heaven – “He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:2, ESV) – and He incarnated in the Person of Jesus.

As Paul explained it, “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church.  He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:15-20, ESV).

And third, He was telling Nicodemus that the Son of Man is the only One Who is worthy and able to ascend to God – and He is the Son of Man.  Jesus is God the Son of Man, Who Alone makes the Way for anyone Who will believe to be born again, saved, sins forgiven, and made righteous.

And we know that Jesus ascended back to the Father and will descend again on that final day to judge the world and restore the Creation:

“And when [Jesus] had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:9-11, ESV).

Because Jesus is God and Man in One Person – because He is the Son of Man Who descended from Heaven and incarnated in the Person of Jesus – He Alone is able to ascend back to the Father.  He is the Only One Who could possibly be the Savior of all those who will ever believe and make us able to come into the Presence of God the Father and live.

Nicodemus still said nothing; he was listening.

Second, salvation can only come through Jesus being “lifted up.”

“’And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’”

In the Gospel of John, the phrase “lifted up” only has one meaning:  “crucified.”

So, just as Moses crucified the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be crucified.


We have to turn back to the book of Numbers to find this history and to understand it:

We remember that Israel had been enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years and on the first Passover, God freed the people of Israel, they crossed the Red Sea, and began to make their way towards Canaan, the Promised Land.  As they journeyed, God fed them with a food they called, “manna.”

And we read:

“From Mount Hor they set out by way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom.  And the people became impatient on the way.  And the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this wilderness?  For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.’  Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so many of the people of Israel died.  And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you.  Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.’  So Moses prayed for the people.  And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who was bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’  So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole.  And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” (Numbers 21:4-9, ESV).

The people of Israel sinned against God and merited death.  Moses prayed for the people, who could not save themselves, and God interceded and made the way for them to be saved – by looking on the one who was affixed to the pole – by believing God by faith alone and repenting of their sin – and then, through the work that God did, they would be saved.

This event in the history of Israel was a type or a foreshadowing of what the Christ – the Messiah – the Savior – would have to do to save God’s people.  This is what Jesus was referring to as He spoke to Nicodemus – this thing happened in the history of Israel to help them recognize and understand that Jesus is the Savior.

There are four major similarities between the “lifting up of the bronze serpent” and the “lifting up of Jesus”:

First, in both cases, the death of the people is the reward for sin against God.

Second, in both cases, God, Himself, by His Grace and according to His Sovereign Pleasure, steps in to provide salvation.

Third, in both cases, a “lifting up” – or a crucifixion – must occur.

And fourth, in both cases, those who look at the one who is lifted up – through faith and with belief and repentance – are the ones who are healed – saved – given new life – born a second time.  [Cf. William Hendriksen, John, 138.]

Nicodemus should have understood – especially as THE teacher of Israel.  But he didn’t.

After the Resurrection, Jesus was walking with two of His disciples, “And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’  And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27, ESV).

Jesus said the suffering and death – the lifting up – of the Christ is plain in the Scriptures of the Old Testament.  Yet, as we saw last week, no one can understand God’s plan of salvation until God causes a person to be born twice – to believe in Jesus savingly, have faith, and repent.

So, let us learn to show the coherence of the Scripture and God’s plan of salvation.  Let us learn to see Jesus – God the Savior – in the Old Testament.  Let us notice when the New Testament writers point us to Old Testament Scripture to show that is it saying the same thing or that what has been said is fulfilled in the New Testament.  Let us be able to show that the Scripture makes sense.  And may God be pleased to use these efforts to draw people to Himself.

Humanity has a problem:  every mere human being is born a sinner.  And since we are born sinners, God’s Wrath is against us.  The only way to pay the debt owed to God is for a human who is holy and sinless to take the penalty for our sins and live a perfect and holy life under God’s Law which he would credit to our accounts.  No mere human being can do this.

The Solution, which has been God’s Plan since before the foundation of the world, is that God the Son, the Son of Man, would incarnate in the real human person of Jesus of Nazareth, keep the Law of God perfectly and in all holiness, only to be “lift up” – crucified – suffering the full Wrath of God for all of the sins of everyone who will ever believe throughout time and space – dying, rising, and ascending back to the Father, victorious in the salvation of His people.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, we thank You for sending the Son of Man to earth to be our Savior.  We thank You that Your Son was willing to come to earth, live, die, rise, and ascend as a real human being that we would be saved through His Work.  Help us to take Your Word seriously and help us to see and understand all those references to Christ in the Old Testament that we would better be able to proclaim the Gospel and glorify You.  Send God the Holy Spirit that He would take our words and apply them to those who hear us, changing hearts and minds according to Your Good Pleasure.  For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.

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