Lift High the Gospel
“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 only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” John 3:14-17
Next time you are in a motel room, look in the front of the Gideons Bible. There you will find a dozen extra pages with one Bible verse translated into dozens of different languages: Chinese, French, Arabic, Korean, Italia, Vietnamese, Swedish, Russian, Japanese, German, English, and many, many more. This special Bible verse, sometimes called “the Gospel in a nutshell,” is known from memory by millions or even billions around the world.
There are 31,175 verses in the Bible, and this one verse is certainly the most familiar, the most beloved. Of course, it is John 3:16.
Let’s say it together:
“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.”
Perhaps this verse is so familiar that we take it for granted and don’t really think about what it means. So this morning we ask: What does John 3:16 mean for YOU?
People are often surprised to discover that this most familiar verse is the Bible is immediately preceded and introduced by a reference to probably one of the least familiar Old Testament Bible stories: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.”
We heard this Bible story in today’s Old Testament reading from the book of Numbers. God rescues his chosen people and brings them out of slavery in Egypt. In the wilderness God, out of bountiful mercy and goodness, provides for them with manna and quail to eat and water from out of the rock to drink. But they are ungrateful, and they grumble against Moses and against God himself: “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!”
They no longer have faith in Moses or faith in God himself. As punishment for their falling away from faith, for their rebellion, and their ungratefulness, God provides fiery snakes to bite the people, and many of them die.
Like those ancient people in the wilderness, YOU AND I have rebelled against the Lord our God. We too are often ungrateful. We like to blame others for our problems. It beats the hard work of self-assessment. Grumbling at God for our predicament comes more naturally than asking God for help. How quickly we become discouraged and impatient toward our gracious God, as did the Israelites in the desert (Num. 21:4-5). Because of our sin, our evil, our rebellion, our ungratefulness, we too deserve punishment, we too deserve death.
God has superhuman patience, but he will not forever put up with those who spurn his love. He sent deadly serpents to punish the grumbling Israelites (Num 21.6). Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were also fatally ‘bitten’ by a snake. They have passed on to all of us the curse of original sin, which poisons our lives, cuts them short, embitters them. God could have left the situation right there, but he did not.
The people in the wilderness repent and confess their sin to Moses: “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” God has compassion on them. By God’s command, Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. It looked like the source of death, but by God’s power it somehow neutralized or nullified the poison in their bodies and gave them new life.
God also has compassion for you, he also gives you a cure for your sin, a remedy to save you from death: “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.” The bronze snake hanging on a pole in the desert is a picture-prophecy. It points forward to the Savior hanging on a cross.
The Son of Man was also lifted up. Hanging on a criminal’s cross, he looked like a sinful human (Rom 8:3), but he was a truly righteous Man who took on himself the curse of our sin (Deut 21:23; Gal 3:13). Just as everyone who looked at the bronze snake was cured and lived, everyone who looks to the Son of God and believes in him has eternal life.
Imagine an Israelite child asking his father why Moses put that bronze serpent up high on a pole for everyone to see. ‘Daddy, those snakes killed grandma and grandpa, and my best friend. I don’t want to look at a snake.’ ‘My child, it’s God’s way of showing that he has power overthe snakes, and that we don’t have to worry about them again. Because of what God had done can look up at the pole and laugh at the snakes.’ It is like a hunter who shoots a man-eating tiger and hangs the stuffed head on his wall to show off his conquest and remind everyone that the killer has been killed.
The bronze serpent’s power was not magic, but the reality to which it pointed: Christ—The elevated Son of Man, created healing from the deadly bite of sin, death, and the devil.
In faith, look up to the crucified Christ, now raised and forever glorified. In him is light and life everlasting, overpowering all darkness and disease. “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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
With his obedience, Jesus paid for the rebellion of the whole world. With his blood, Jesus paid for the sin of the whole world, including you and me. No one is left out, no one is excluded from God’s love. On the cross of Calvary Jesus shed his blood for me, for you, for all people.
What does John 3:16 mean for you? It says for certain: God loves you; God forgives you. He loves and forgives you because his Son died for you. God so loved YOU that he sent his only-begotten Son, that YOU would believe in him and YOU would have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn you, but to save you through him.
Like the ancient people in the wilderness who looked at the bronze snake lifted up on a pole and lived, look at your Savior, lifted up on the cross. Believe in him and have eternal life. What does John 3:16 mean for you? God shows his love for you on the cross. God shows his love by giving his only-begotten Son to lay down his life for you.
Millions, even billions, of people throughout the world cherish that familiar Bible verse, John 3:16. For each and every person, that familiar Bible verse is a promise. That familiar Bible verse is a promise for you: a promise from God that YOU are forgiven; a promise from God that he loves you; a promise from God himself that YOU shall not perish but have eternal life.
Today we will dedicate this processional cross to the glory of God. It is a potent symbol of St. John’s words in our text for this Sunday–not the Gospel in a nutshell, but the Gospel on a pole. This crucifix on a pole will ever stand before you to remind you that Son of Man had to be lifted up for your salvation. Look up to him in faith. You shall live–not only here, but also back in the wilderness that is each on of our lives. There are snakes a plenty out there, but their venom will not poison you. Look up to Jesus, the Crucified One, and live forever!
“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 only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.