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John 3:16-18 by Robert Dean
Series:John (1998)
Duration:50 mins 23 secs

God's Intense Love: Faith Alone for Salvation
John 3:16-18
John Lesson #029
November 22, 1998

Having given the gospel and stated the pre-suppositional fallacies in Nicodemus's thinking, which is the problem with all human viewpoint thinking, Jesus goes on to present the issue, a classic illustration of the issue of faith in authority. 

John 3:14 NASB "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; [15] so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life." This is a reference to Numbers 21.

Numbers 21:4 NASB "Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. [5] The people spoke against God and Moses, 'Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food'."

The people became tired and they started to grumble. Most of us in our limited mentality, when we think about Moses and the Israelites, have this picture where maybe we see a lot of people, a thousand, maybe 5000 people. According to the genealogies in Numbers there were about 700,000 men of military age. So if there is one woman and one child for every male then you have 2.1-million Jews. If they had more children than that per adult male then there could be as many as 4-million Jews. All of these people were wandering through the Sinai and they were all rebellious, all griping and complaining the whole way. They don't like the food, they don't like the service, and they are just getting harassed day in and day out because it is the same old food and it is a little boring. There is always just enough water and they don't know if there is enough for tomorrow. And Moses has to take care of all their problems and complaints. What a leadership challenge to move that large number of people through the desert in this area. Imagine how much space they would take. They are spread out covering an enormous area. So the Lord is going to discipline them one more time. [6] The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died." 

The word nachash is used for "serpent," the generic term for snake. So for one thing the Holy Spirit isn't making a big issue out of the kind of snake. We know that it wasn't a tethen, another word for snake which is normally translated asp or cobra. There are four different types of viper that inhabit this part of the world, and the most likely of the four is the carpet or saw-scaled viper. It is known to exist from Africa all the way across south-west Asia and northern India and is a type that is known to exist in incredible numbers. So it would fit the profile of the snake in Numbers 21. Further, it is a serpent that has one of the most powerful venoms of any viper and is also a snake that is very easily provoked.

Numbers 21:7 NASB "So the people came to Moses and said, 'We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us.' And Moses interceded for the people. [8] Then the LORD said to Moses, 'Make a fiery {serpent,} and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live'. [9] And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived."

So the issue is faith. Nicodemus, the issue throughout the Old Testament is not rationalism, it is not empiricism, it is not legalism, it is not ritual, it is not religion, it is faith in the authority of God. In the Mishnah the rabbis ask" "Was it possible for the serpents to kill or to make alive? No. But the case is that when the Israelites looked upward for help, and subjected their inclination to the will of their Father in heaven, they are healed; but when they do not, they perish." Unfortunately, the rabbis couldn't make the connection between the faith exhibited in this Old Testament incident and what was required for salvation. Jesus is pointing out by analogy that the issue is faith in the authority of God, not human reason or human experience.

What kinds of lessons can we draw from this?

1)  First of all the overriding principle is that the human viewpoint solution is no solution, the divine solution is the only solution.

2)  Only God can correctly define the human problem.

3)  The greatest problem that man faces is the problem of sin. This word nachash is used one other time in Scripture. If you were a Jew and were reading this it would remind you of another nachash, the nachash of Genesis chapter three when Satan came in the form of a serpent. And it was that serpent's sting, so to speak, that brought sin by virtue of the temptation and Adam and Eve yielding to that temptation and their sin that plunged the human race into the venomous results of sin that will always yield spiritual and physical death. God provides the only solution to the venom of sin.

4)  Man constantly tries to develop systems and solutions to solve the problem, but they are inadequate and they don't work.

Donald Grey Barnhouse: "The brewing of potions and the making of fads would have given them all something to do, and would have satisfied every natural instinct of the heart to work on behalf of its own cure. But there was nothing of the kind mentioned. They were to cease from human remedies and turn to a divine remedy. The fact that they were not told to make a human remedy is indicative of the greater fact that there is no human remedy for sin. Men have been bitten by the serpent of sin. How are they going to be cured of its bite? There is nothing but death awaiting them as a result of their wound unless God Himself performs the remedy. Men rush around in the fury of human religions seeking a palliative for sin. They perform all sorts of rites, chastising the flesh, humbling the spirit. They undertake feasts and pilgrimages, like the man in Israel's camp who refused to look at the bronze serpent but spent his time brewing concoctions for ameliorating his own condition, they are carried off to spiritual death through the poison that is in their being. The man who trusts religion instead of looking to Christ will be eternally lost."

Not only do men turn to religious belief systems to solve the problem of sin, they turn to psychology, another human viewpoint solution. Psychology is ultimately based upon empiricism. The trouble with empiricism is that you might have X amount of data, but as soon as you come up with the next observation, Y, that may completely destroy your conclusions from X data. Human viewpoint solutions are so attractive because they do seem to work in so many different situations, but that does not mean they provide the ultimate solution because they are missing the most important element, and that is that "God says." Psychology is another human viewpoint solution and if you do not start at the right point you will never end up with the correct solution.

Another observation: The people were not encouraged to clean up their own lives. You don't see any self-reformation here, you don't hear, Okay, get the broom out and start cleaning all of the serpents out of your tent and gather them up; gather your little snake poles and go snake hunting. The solution to this is not a snake roundup. The people were not encouraged to clean up their lives.

They were not to solve the problem through one of our favourite solutions. No government action here! They did not establish a committee, they did not pass any legislation against snakes. They didn't call out the greenies, have an environmental impact statement as to just how these three million Jews have impacted the environment. And it's really their fault, they stirred up the snakes and are getting what they deserve, they all ought to die!

There is no direct cause and effect relationship here between the serpent bite and the solution. What we have is the voice of God saying this is the issue.  Remember, God claims to be the one who has the right to define reality. Reality is not what we determine it is on the basis of rationalism or empiricism, reality is what God says it is. God says: "I have the right to define the problem and I have the right to define the solution." And it is outside the boundaries of rationalism and empiricism. It based on His authority and you respond by faith alone. So you are going to take the serpent, put it up on a pole and elevate it so that all that is required is to look. Anybody can look, you don't have to have a high IQ to look at the snake. You don't have to be brought up in a Christian home to look at the snake. Anybody can look at the snake on the pole.

There is another message here: the power of the snake is broken. The power of sin is broken, that is the subtext here in terms of typology because the serpent represents Satan and the serpent's power was broken at the cross. There are all kinds of nuances to this but the point is to Nicodemus in John chapter three that the issue is faith; it is doing what God says to do.

John 3:14, 15 NASB "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life." There is a comparison here. The analogy is between the serpent who is a representative of Satan on the pole who is being compared to Christ. But what it speaks of is that the power of Satan is defeated at the cross. That is the point. "Whoever" believes in Him! One of the major issues in theology throughout the centuries is, for whom did Christ die?  The issue is called limited atonement or unlimited atonement. This is very important because it is based on the phrase "whosoever will." Unlimited atonement means that Jesus died for every sin committed by every single human being throughout all of human history. He paid the price. He didn't just die for those who believe, He died for everybody. There is not exclusivity at the cross. Whoever believes can have eternal life. Look at the analogy. Anybody in the camp of Israel who was bitten by the snakes could look at the serpent on the pole. So the analogy is that the solution is for everyone.

The term for eternal life there is not just a term for eternal existence. Neither the believer nor the unbeliever ceases to exist at the point of physical death. The believer dies and is immediately face to face with the Lord; the unbeliever goes to Hades, the holding place until final judgment in the lake of fire. Both are still existing. Even the unbeliever has in one sense eternal life. Both has eternal existence. When the Bible uses this phrase "eternal life" there is something more going on there than continuous non-ending existence. But the eternal life the believer receives refers to a quality of life. You don't get it when you die, you get it at the moment you put your faith alone in Christ alone: that whoever believes in Him (in Christ) has a quality of life. Jesus said: "I came that they may have life, and have {it} abundantly."

Acts 10:43, Peter is speaking to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius: NASB "Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins." So that opens the door to any and all people.

2 Corinthians 5:14 NASB "For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; [15] and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf." So it is clear that Jesus Christ died as a substitute for all mankind.

1 Timothy 4:10 NASB "For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers."

1 John 2:2 NASB "and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for {those of} the whole world."