John 3:15, “So that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” He’s lifted up to save us from sin and death so as we look by faith we realize just as the world’s been bitten by sin and the wages of sin is death, He is the difference between perishing and living.
The best-known verse in scripture is John 3:16. “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.” I want to comment on this. This is by the way where the discourse begins. As I take it here, we move from the discourse with Nicodemus. In v. 16-21 it’s John’s commentary in discourse material- comments by John.
I want you to see something that many people fail to grasp. I think a lot of people somehow suppose, in spite of the truth of verse 16 and others like it, that Jesus came to appease a God who was against us. That Jesus actually has to appease us from the wrath of God and so that now God can be placated. But there’s something more profound, the cross must be seen as the Father’s work. It is God’s work. It is the Father who has loved us and who sent His Son. You must come to understand that the cross is really the expression of God’s love for us. It’s of His mind. So rather than seeing the Father as an enemy that Jesus now hat to placate, you must understand instead that the Father is the One who out of His love for us makes the sacrifice on our behalf.
The reason why that’s hard for us to embrace is that a lot of times we’ve had these deficient views of the Father- of perfectionism, of conditional love, performance-based acceptance, and all those things can really give us distortions. We must come to see this is the work of the Father. Look at II Corinthians 5:18-19, “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” Colossians 1:19-20, “For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say whether things on earth or things in heaven.”
So we see then as we continue on in John’s discourse verse 17, “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” He came to give them an option that they didn’t otherwise have.
John 3:18, “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.” So Jesus’ presence in the world will inevitably divide humanity. Sin invariably leads the sinner to hide him or herself from God even as Adam and Eve hid themselves from Him in the garden. So the children of light versus the children of darkness become manifest in this way.
We have this portrait here of light and darkness in verse 19 picking up on this theme. “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” This is the fourth portrait, light, and darkness. We have the imagery of the new birth, of the wind that blows where He wishes, of the serpent on the pole and how God makes a provision so that the people can have life rather than death but the choice must be made and we have the idea of light and darkness to illustrate the truth because the truth reveals us.
John 3:20-21, “For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”
I believe that this is John’s commentary in v. 16-21 to help us grasp the need for us to make a choice, to respond. I think it’s extremely important. Intellectual problems are only part of the reason why people don’t trust Christ. There comes a point when it’s not just an intellectual barrier, it’s a moral and spiritual barrier. I’ve known a number of people who will continue to wrestle on this issue and after a while, you can discern they’re throwing up smoke screens. The problem is not intellectual anymore. I’ve used this story before but on more than one occasion I’ve asked people when I suspected that this might be the case but I ask them, “ You know if I could demonstrate to you that Jesus really rose from the dead, would you then receive Him?” They’d say no. Now you realize it’s not just intellectual. There’s another matter as well. There is a spiritual apprehension.
May I tell you, even when you come to faith in Christ, even now, as a believer, you’re going to sometimes resist the conviction work of the Spirit of God because the more you love the darkness, the more you’ll want to avoid His convicting work in your life. We just have this natural disposition. We want to have autonomy. We don’t want Him to invade us too much. We don’t want to completely lose control or so we think. We have this issue just as we come to faith in Christ. Now there is still a moral and spiritual preliminary and you do not just grow in the intellectual knowledge of Him. You can do theology that way but you don’t come to know Him experientially. You’ll only know Him in a cognitive way. There’s another kind of knowledge, an experiential knowledge, that’s born by the receptivity and a willingness to do His will and to receive Him in that way.
Nicodemus at this juncture fades out of the narrative and we have no record of the reaction to the challenge presented to him here by Jesus. John, the Evangelist, focuses on what the life and death of Jesus means for all men. But we do learn more about Nicodemus a little later and we do discover that with Nicodemus, he eventually, as I take it, the wind of the Spirit does accomplish the purpose for which it was sent. As one writer put it, he apparently finally passed from the midnight of confusion to the sunlight of confession. The idea is that he identified with Christ at Calvary. I think in chapter 19 there’s an intimation of that.
This idea of a conversion experience, as I do believe Nicodemus later had, is an important theme we don’t want to overlook. I think we need conversion stories. We need to review and it’s good to hear about a person’s new birth and to hear their testimony, which is a powerful story about where they were while it’s fresh in their memories. It’s a very healthy thing for us to hear and review again and again. There are an authority and an authenticity about conversion stories that can be very powerful.
In John 3:22-36, we have a different account. We have the account of John the Baptist’s final witness to Jesus. In those verses, we see that there’s a parallelism here – just as Jesus came from above, (v. 3) and unless one is born from above (v. 31). He who comes from above is above all. You see a parallel here- just as in John 3:12-13, He was descended from heaven we also see that in v. 31-32, He’s the One who comes from heaven. You have a parallel also between the Jewish leaders in the first half of John 3 and then you have this Jewish prophet in the second half of John 3. There are similar discourses and themes that are going on here.
We have in verses 1-15 the story of Jesus and Nicodemus and then in verses 16-21 we have John’s discourse. Similarly, in verses 22-30 we have the story of John the Baptist and in verses 31 -36 we have another discourse, John’s commentary. There’s a parallelism in the literary structure that invites us to see similar themes, which are being developed in both halves of John 3.
John 3:22, “After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing.” But notice in John 4:2, “(Although Jesus Himself was not baptizing but His disciples were).” At the most it would appear that He baptized His disciples but later delegated this function to the twelve. You can imagine the problem that you’d have of elitism, hey; Jesus Himself baptized me. You see He wisely avoids that problem as you can see there were problems later on when people were saying, I am of Paul- I am of Apollo. We’re just this way. We want to take these little things and then our pride just overwhelms us.
John 3:23, “John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and people were coming and were being baptized.” Aenon in Salim means springs near peace and we don’t know precisely where that was but it appears that there are some springs in the area that are not far from Samaria
John 3:24, “For John had not been thrown into prison.” Verse 24 presupposes the synoptic story because he doesn’t discuss that here but the Synoptics tell us about John being thrown into prison. It’s one of those places where John assumes that his readers are familiar with the synoptic gospels. This text tells us something the synoptic gospels don’t tell us, namely there was some overlap between John and Jesus’ ministry until John was arrested. Then Jesus had to go up to Galilee because of the pressure there. It fits. The Galilean incident recorded in chapter 2:1-11 is not regarded as part of the public ministry of Jesus.
So we have this picture particularly in verse 25 with this discussion concerning what John was doing. “Therefore there arose a discussion on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew about purification.” See, this is troubling. Baptism was something that you do with Gentiles when they became converts or proselytes but the Jews wouldn’t be baptized. They would have cleansing. That’s why they had these mitvos, which were ceremonial baths that would be taken before prayer or sacrifices. They were ceremonial cleansings for purification. But the idea of baptizing a Jew- they didn’t have any kind of category for that. They’re discussing this issue. What’s he trying to do? Is this a ceremonial washing or what?
John 3:26, “And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold, He is baptizing and all are coming to Him.” Actually, I think that this text is included here because as we know, there was a problem later on in Acts 19. A number of people were disciples of John but they weren’t disciples of Jesus. The Church Fathers tell us this went on for a few generations and maybe John was addressing this issue in this very text that would say, “Look, get your eye off of John because John himself would not have wanted you to do that.” Instead, follow what John said, “He must increase and I must decrease.”(v.30) They were concerned about this.
John 3:27-28, “John answered and said, ‘A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.” John is divinely commissioned to be a forerunner of the Christ but like other human teachers, he’s earthly in origin.
That’s why he goes on to say, I must decrease and He must increase. This is true for all of us. The danger we have is sometimes the followers of a charismatic leader can put that person in such a position that they begin to defend that person so much that they almost elevate them to a position that he himself would be uncomfortable with. It often takes place this way. John is saying, “Don’t do that.” Don’t pursue factions- let Jesus increase. His servants are not meant to call attention to themselves. It’s important for us to see then that this, as Hudson Taylor put it, “We are little servants of an illustrious Master.” That’s the way to look at it. That He is the One who must increase. John the Baptist is the best man. Don’t make so much of speakers, writers, and ministers that you miss out on the real issue of Jesus. The focal point must always be that, as this text would encourage us to see (not that that’s a problem for most nowadays!)
John 3:31, “He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all.” So no human teacher comes from above. This is the truth that must descend. It is something from the outside. It’s something foreign to our experience. It’s something we couldn’t have made up. It’s something that we must respond to.
John 3:32-34, “What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure.” I take it he’s referring to the giving of the Spirit without measure to Jesus and that He has given Him immeasurable possession of the divine Spirit, whereas we have a measured amount of Spirit to do the things God has us to do.
John 3:35, “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand.” All that is to be revealed about God has been committed to Him and thus we need to respond by accepting His teaching.
John 3:36, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” You see to accept His teaching is to testify that God is in fact true. (v.33) To reject it is in effect to make God a liar. (I John 1:10) First John 5:10, “The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son.” Disbelief and belief in the Son of God is a matter of life and death. It’s a supreme revelation of God’s love. It brings assurance of eternal life. I sometimes put it to you as those who are born once will die twice and those who are born twice will die once. Do you catch that understanding? There’s a need for two births that leads to one death and only one birth leads to two deaths. There’s physical death and then there’s spiritual death or separation. There can be no neutrality when it comes to the witness of Christ. Either He must be embraced and accepted or He must be rejected.
I want you to see the three “musts” in this chapter. There’s the must, first of all, of the sinner- you must be born again. That’s a must. In verse 14 there’s the must of the Savior- so the Son of Man must be lifted up. Thirdly, there is the must of the servant. He must increase and I must decrease.
We see that the first must is we must embrace whom He is and we must be born again. The must of the Savior is the One who is actually going to be lifted up. We must lift our eyes to Him and find our life in Him. Not to do so is to be in a position where we do not have spiritual life and therefore we are separated from Him.
You want to understand something that’s very unique. This is offering this message to all who will come to God regardless of their origin and their background. We have a picture there in that one sense it’s inclusive but there’s another sense in which Jesus is quite exclusive. He’s not inclusive, as we’d like Him to be. I invite you to read Matthew 7. There’s a way that leads to life and there’s a way that does not. There’s a path that leads to destruction.
Here’s the issue, Yes we do have free-will. While He’s inclusive in His offer the decision is ours to make and He will not include those who do not choose to be included. It’s a dangerous heresy to suppose that everybody gets in whether they like it or not because it’s to say there is no barrier upon what you believe, how you behave and your eternal destiny. I think the scriptures tell us otherwise.
The reason why He came to do such a radical thing was to make it possible for us to escape the wrath of God and to embrace instead the love of God. The One who deserves the love of God, namely the Son, receives the wrath of God on the cross. We who deserve His wrath receive His love on the cross. That’s a portrait of how God goes to such extreme measures in order to make it possible for us to have knowledge of Him.
John 3:16-17 That’s the best-known verse in the bible and there’s a good reason for it. It’s the gospel in a nutshell. I want you to notice what we often overlook, namely that God’s the One who is the initiator, or in philosophy we would call it causeality. It’s not Jesus wrestling salvation from an unwilling Father or a Father wrestling salvation from an unwilling un-participitant. Actually, it’s the Father who sends Him and Jesus is on a mission from the Father. That’s extremely important for us to capture.