(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)

John continues his commentary on the interview between Nicodemus and Jesus by telling us in verses 14 to 21 how a man or woman is born again to eternal life. We are, therefore, in a much better position than Nicodemus to understand the terms upon which spiritual regeneration is possible.

(B) A desperate state.

(1) John draws a parallel between man's condition and that of the wandering Israelites described in Numbers21v4to9. The Israelites were rebellious and discontented for not the first time! But the people grew impatient on the way, they spoke against God and against Moses and said, "Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!" The Israelites' predictable and understandable reaction to their never-ending, aimless wandering and the monotonous diet of manna would be laughable but for its tragic implications. It was a symptom of an imperfect relationship with the LORD.

God was displeased with the Israelites and sent venomous snakes into the camp. Many of the people were bitten and died. Others with venom coursing through their veins were under sentence of death.

(2) This is a graphic picture of man's condition. We are in a failed relationship with God. My friend Tom once joked, "How could I become a Christian?" I said, "First of all you need to repent." Quick as a flash he retorted, "What have I to repent of?" Well, Tom, a decent man and a good friend, has much to repent of. Sometimes he denies God exists and at other times it is clear that if God did exist Tom would not like him very much. Sadly, he does not have a high regard for Jesus Christ. We are all by nature fallen creatures and as a consequence estranged from God.

There are various manifestations that something is wrong with our relationship with God - ignorance of his wishes, denial of his existence, indifference to his word, resentment at his interference and dissatisfaction with his efforts. Adam and Eve, placed in a perfect environment, became discontented because there was just one tree in the centre of the garden from which they could not eat. I wonder what comments we would write if asked to assess God. Would we like to write: 'He could do better. God must pay more attention to what is going on. He seems insensitive to the needs of others. God should make more effort in the future.' Last night I watched a TV program called Room 101 in which the comedian Paul Merton interviews guests about their pet hates. If the guest makes out a good enough case Paul Merton consigns their pet hate to Room 101 (oblivion). The weird English comic, Harry Hill, was the interviewee and he wanted to consign God to Room 101 for not really trying!

The outcome of our dissatisfaction with God is tragic. We are as surely bitten by the poisonous snake as the Israelites in the desert. The venom is spreading through our system. Our death is inevitable. All of us will experience the curse of sin unless Jesus returns first. Indeed John3v16 indicates a fate worse than death - we will perish without Christ. Many people perished in the Asian tsunamis of 2004. They vanished without a trace. They were altogether lost, irretrievably and unrecoverably lost.

If we harden our hearts and persist in rejecting God and his Son then we shall be totally, utterly destroyed. John writes: He who has the Son of God has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 1John5v12.

(C) A wonderful provision.

(1) God made it.
In the story of the snakes sent to plague the Israelites God made provision. He told Moses what to do. If there is to be a remedy for the bane of sin God must supply it. He pronounced the curse and only he can announce its cure. John informs us: God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son ...

The more we love the more we give. My friend KB told me not long ago that he was having a new kitchen installed. I said to him, "If you make do with your old one you could retire a year earlier." KB is very keen to retire! He replied, "Anne wants it." KB loves his wife and he was glad for her to have a new kitchen. Parents will go to extraordinary lengths to help a sick child even to the extent of donating a kidney.

God so loved that he gave his Son - the Father's other self. What more could he give? He gave him to be born in a manger, to live as a refugee, to toil as a carpenter, to be despised and rejected of men and to die as a felon on a cross of wood.

(2) The antidote.
The antidote to the venom spreading death in the camp was a bronze serpent on a pole. It seems strange that the cure was a representation of the curse itself - the cause of all their woe.

Jesus was like that brazen serpent. Jesus took our fallen nature at Calvary - the snake within that poisons our system. The Son of Man became sin for us. As he hung upon the cruel tree he accepted sin's bane and his life was forfeit.

(3) Lifted high.
The serpent was lifted high in the middle of the Israelites camp for all to see. How it must have gleamed in the desert sunshine. There can be little doubt that its saving worth was vigorously proclaimed. The news was urgently disseminated throughout the stricken population.

Christ's saving work must be announced. What good news it is! For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him.

            Oh, the precious gospel story,
            How it tells of love to all!
            How the Saviour in compassion
            Died to save us from the Fall;
            How He came to seek the lost ones,
            And to bring them to His fold:
            Let us hasten to proclaim it,
            For the story must be told.

            The story must be told,
            The story must be told:
            That Jesus died for sinners lost,
            The story must be told.

(D) A glorious opportunity.

The uplifted serpent was a glorious opportunity for dying men. They looked and lived. God extends a like glorious opportunity to sinners. His remedy is:

    (1) Simple.
    The antidote to the poison that killed was very simple. All one had to do was look to the gleaming bronze snake on its pole. All the sinner needs to do is look to Jesus. Anyone can look. It's not hard to look. You do not need any special knowledge to look. It is within the ability of every lost soul to look.

            There is life for a look at the crucified One,
            There is life at this moment for thee;
            Then, look, sinner, look unto Him and be saved,
            Unto Him who was nailed to the tree.

            Look! look! look and live!
            There is life for a look at the Crucified One,
            There is life at this moment for thee.

    (2) Necessary.
    There was no other remedy for the snakebites that killed and there is only one cure for sin: Whosoever believeth on him (Jesus) shall not perish but have everlasting life. AV.

    Every time I get a repeat prescription for inhalers from my doctor I get a note telling me to make an appointment with the asthma nurse. On each and every occasion I ignore the request! My medication works and I see no necessity to change anything. If it works why change it?

    The cure for sin recommended by John is both necessary and effective. If that is the case why look elsewhere and why try something different?

            Not all the blood of beasts
            On Jewish altars slain,
            Could give the guilty conscience peace,
            Or wash away the stain.

            But Christ, the heavenly lamb,
            Takes all our sins away;
            A sacrifice of nobler name,
            And richer blood than they.

    (3) Inclusive.
    No Israelite who looked to the brazen serpent on its pole was left unhealed. That must have been an enormous relief for some of those who instigated the trouble!

    Thank God that the gospel is inclusive. It does not exclude anyone. Christianity knows nothing about hopeless cases. No-one is incurable and terminally ill. Why not? Because of the word: 'Whoever'. WHOEVER believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. v16. WHOEVER believes in him is not condemned ... v18. EVERYONE who believes in him may have eternal life. v15.

    C.H. Spurgeon said: Whosoever has a finger for babes and an arm for old men; it has an eye for the quick, and a smile for the dull. John does not say: the useful or the able or those with potential or the talented or the young and active who believe, but whoever believes will be given eternal life. John does not tell us that it is the elect or those given faith or those moved by the Spirit who believe, but whoever believes that will escape condemnation. I am so happy for that. If eternal life was reserved for the elect then I would worry that I was not among that number. If salvation is only given to those who are given faith I might still be waiting to receive it. The Puritan Richard Baxter said that he was very relieved that the John3v16 didn't say that if Richard Baxter believed he would be given eternal life because if it did he would suspect that it was some other Richard Baxter.

    We are all included in the offer of salvation and eternal life because God's word says, WHOEVER, and that means you, me and EVERYONE else.

    (4) Free.
    The Israelites had nothing to pay to be cured of the snake's bite. All they had to do was look and live.

    There is nothing to pay for God's salvation. Eternal life is a gift from a loving God. However, there is a cost involved.

    Last week I read an amusing story in the Daily Telegraph about five-year-old Aaron Taylor. After having his lunch he still felt hungry and so he left school and took a bus to Tescos. He got himself a basket and collected 26 of cakes. Sadly he only had 2p to pay for them! Now if Aaron had been with his mother and told her that he was hungry he would not even have needed 2p for food. She would give her five-year-old something to eat free of charge. But there would have been a cost to little Aaron. It is highly doubtful whether his mum would have given Aaron 26 worth of cakes from Tescos. Aaron would have to accept his mother's authority and eat what he was given!

    Salvation is like that. God gives it freely. We cannot buy, earn or merit it. However, in believing in Jesus we put ourselves under his authority. This is not a hidden cost! John makes it clear over and over again that the gift of eternal life is not given unconditionally. It is dependent upon belief in Jesus.

Do you think any Israelite bitten by a snake and under sentence of death would refuse to look at the bronze serpent? What else could the dying do? And yet some may have refused:

    (a) The incredulous.
    The camp cynic lies dying in his tent muttering to himself, "A snake on a stick! What good can that do? A snake on a stick! Now I've heard it all." His wife does her best to persuade her sceptical husband. She tells him that hundreds are looking to the gleaming bronze serpent and living, but he is not to be persuaded. No good can come from looking to a snake up a pole.

    Many just can't believe that a bleeding, suffering Jew on a cross is God's remedy for sin and his prescription for eternal life. They are unable to sing with conviction the words of the old Sankey hymn:

            What can wash away my stain?
            Nothing but the blood of Jesus!
            What can make me whole again?
            Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

            Oh, precious is the flow,
            That makes me white as snow!
            No other fount I know,
            Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

    (b) The complacent.
    An old granny, desperately sick, lies covered with skins and surrounded by her family. They are trying to get her up and outside to look at the uplifted serpent. Granny has always been stoical and optimistic. There is no need to put anyone to any trouble. She doesn't feel so bad. In fact she is feeling better. All she needs is a little sleep and she will be as right as rain. There is no need for her children to worry about her. But the old granny is dying just the same.

    Countless vaguely optimistic folk have died unsaved because they have put off doing anything about their dying condition. They know that something is wrong but cling to the mistaken belief that somehow everything will work out all right. They are like my elderly friend who asked me to take her to the dentist. Ivy knows that a couple of teeth need to come out. Every Sunday she says, "I'll phone up the dentist next week." John does not write in his gospel, 'everyone may have eternal life', but everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. The time to believe is NOW.

    (c) The pigheaded.
    A middle-aged woman is rummaging desperately through her baggage. She has a high fever and her eyes are shining brightly. Rachel is a determined and obstinate woman. Her husband is beside himself with anxiety. He tries to drag her out of the tent. "All you have to do is look to the snake," he urges. It is no use. Rachel keeps muttering, "I know it's here somewhere. I've got something for snake bites. My old mum swore by it." By the time Rachel has got the little flask between her teeth she is dead.

    There are sinners without number like Rachel. They have a better way to heaven than the Christian way. Their old dad knew best - attend church once a week and live decent. What more could God ask than that? He does ask more! He demands wholehearted commitment and unswerving allegiance to his Son.

    (d) The despairing.
    A young man in the full flower of youth has been struck down. For the first time in his life he feels ill. The poison is coursing through his veins. The grim spectre of death lurks in the shadowy corner of his tent. Benjamin is lying face down upon his bed refusing to move. Kneeling at his side is his girl friend pleading with him to crawl to the entrance of his tent and look, just look, to the glinting bronze serpent lifted high for all to see. It is so near. No more than a stone's throw from where he lies. Young Benjamin will not budge. He will not even look his girl in the eye. His sickness is too severe. He is too far-gone. He is a dying man and despairs of being made well. All that is needed is a look, one look, just one look but he will not make it.

    Nicodemus was like this despairing youth. Nicodemus thought it was too late for him to change. I have heard people say, whether honestly or not, "I'm too bad to be a Christian." How can anyone be too bad? Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. The Great Physician came to heal the sick, the terminally ill, dying men. None need despair. Remember the thief crucified along side Jesus. All he said was, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom." It was enough. It was enough. Jesus assured him that: "Today, you will be with me in paradise." Lk23v43.

    (e) The angry.
    Joseph had crawled out of the camp in fury. He wanted no more to do with God's chosen people. How could God claim to love the Jews if he sent poisonous snakes to bite them? He was angry with God. Bitter that he was among the bitten. Joseph had heard that Moses had made a bronze serpent but it would not have been necessary if God hadn't sent those snakes in the first instance. What sort of God was it that made venomous snakes? Joseph was so angry that he would rather die than have God to thank for a cure.

    Far more folk than we realise are angry with God. They reckon he has treated them badly! They turn their backs upon him. Nothing will persuade them to submit to his will. They would rather die. Die they do!

There is one antidote to sin, one elixir of life - Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God. It is madness to refuse him. We shall succumb to sin's bane and be lost unless we believe on him. I long for the words of the hymn to be true for you:

            The gospel of Thy grace
            My stubborn heart has won,
            For God so loved the world,
            He gave His only Son
            That: Whosover will believe
            Shall everlasting life receive.

(E) The inevitable judgment.

(1) Condemned already.
John writes: Whoever does not believe stands condemned already. v18. The stubborn, hard-hearted unbeliever is like a condemned building:

    (a) It doesn't come up to standard. The surveyor finds it wanting

    (b) It is unfit for use. It cannot fulfil the purpose for which it was built and for which it was intended. The building cannot be trusted.

    (c) It will eventually cease to be a building at all. Eventually the building will be demolished - utterly destroyed.

That is the state of the person who has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. v18. They fail God's test, cannot fulfil God's purpose and are ultimately destroyed. Jesus, himself, told a story about a house built upon the sand that fell when the floods undermined its foundation. He said, "But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand." Mt7v26.

(2) The scrutiny of Christ.
John ends his commentary on Christ's encounter with Nicodemus by asserting that there will be those who shrink from the Son's scrutiny. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come to the light. v20. We all need to ask ourselves three questions:

    (a) Is our life influenced by Christ's truth; his teaching and example?

    (b) Do we consciously do things for Christ's sake? In order to inject a little realism to the exercise imagine that you attend a small country chapel overshadowed by a giant beech tree. One Saturday night an autumn gale blows leaves, twigs and small branches down on to the path leading up to the chapel. As you arrive for church on Sunday morning what will your reaction be? I have assessed seven possible responses and marked them on a three point scale:

    • This mess is a disgrace - I'll complain to the secretary. (-3)
    • Someone else is sure to sweep this all up.(-2)
    • I'd sweep this mess up but I do enough for the church as it is.(-1)
    • I'll see about sweeping up these leaves - later.(0)
    • I'd better sweep up this mess - it will save the secretary a job.(+1)
    • Here's a job that needs doing - I'll do it.(+2)
    • I can't do much but here's something I can do for Christ's sake.(+3)

    The person who sweeps up the twigs and branches to spare the hard-pressed church secretary another job is implementing Christ's golden rule of doing unto others, as you would have them do to you. The individual who sees a job, and does it because it needs doing without telling anyone, or in anyway seeking credit, is genuinely poor in spirit. It is an act of a truly humble person. There are just a few Christians who do mundane tasks for Jesus without hesitation or thought because they are in the habit of acting in this way. If you are in that category score +5!

    The people who will be happiest to come to the light are going to be those with plus scores. John writes: But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God. v21.

    (c) Do we act at the urging of God's Spirit? Many times the Holy Spirit prompts us to make a gift, volunteer help, pay a visit, write a letter of thanks, show appreciation or pray more earnestly - and we resist.

John is beginning to explore the implications of making a commitment to Jesus. Salvation is free but it does cost something to believe in Jesus. It is only as we live by God's truth revealed through his Son that we can stand Christ's scrutiny - otherwise we shall hate the light!