I recently started reading John MacArthur’s book, The Jesus You Can’t Ignore. This book focuses upon the confrontations Jesus has with his ideological opponents, the religious establishment of the day. The third chapter covers what is probably the most congenial of these confrontations, which you will find in your Bible in John 3. This tells of the clandestine meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus.
You’ll have to study John 3 in depth or get Dr. MacArthur’s book if you want to look at this in detail, I just want to look at a couple aspects of this meeting. However, I do want to quote John 3 here to let you know exactly what I’m talking about. Here’s John 3:1-21:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, 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? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
I really would like to discuss the tone of Jesus and how he interacts and comment on these things as MacArthur does, but I think there’s something more important here to point out. Thus, I just want to make two observations regarding this passage.
John 3:16 here is probably the most well-known scripture in the Bible, “For God so loved the world…”, yet it is often unknown that it took place in the context of this conversation with Nicodemus. Jesus was telling this ruler among the ruling council of Jews that the Messiah had come, but that the traditions of the ruling council and of Nicodemus himself and his colleagues, the Pharisees, were failures. They didn’t heed Holy Scripture. They missed the important point.
The point he missed is that it is not enough to act holy. It isn’t even enough to believe that that holiness has its source in God. (Luke 18:9-14) Everyone in the world is condemned from the start. See the subtle play on words in this passage? The Son of God didn’t come to condemn the world because it’s already condemned. The world we live on and the people in it are, by nature, condemned. Left to ourselves we are broken down, dead, and useless. All our attempts to do good are weak and fail to achieve any righteousness.
The salvation that Jesus brings comes from without and isn’t a matter of your actions. If you think that you’re a relatively good person and that will get you by, you are already condemned. Being good and doing good is not enough to help you in the eyes of God. To gain the salvation Christ offers, you have to realize that it’s not something you can do for yourself. It’s something only he can do for you. Which brings us to the reference to Moses and the serpent—which is the key. Jesus is referring to a story that would have been familiar to nearly every Jew and certainly to Nicodemus.
This story is found in Numbers 21:4-9. In summary, the Jews were on their great exodus from Egypt to Canaan and travel was slow going and the people grumbled. God punished the people for their complaint by sending poisonous snakes among them. The people asked Moses to pray to God for help and God responded by asking Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it upon a pole. Then, whenever someone was bit they would look at the bronze serpent and be healed. Jesus is claiming that he too would be raised up and that anyone who looked to him on the cross would be made righteous.
All it takes to be saved as a Christian is to be born again. All it takes to be born again is to yield yourself to Christ and look upon his cross for salvation. Everything else you need to know will grow out of that simple dependence on the cross. Every believer in Christ knows that this is the rock and foundation of our salvation. We grow in knowledge and understanding, but each of us starts by looking at the cross and each of us keeps on looking throughout the rest of our lives and on into eternity.