Scripture: John 3:1-17
It must be frustrating to be an innovative inventor. To be the type of person who files patents and creates the utilitarian products we use daily requires a unique way of thinking and viewing the world. It requires trying to solve a problem in the most efficient way possible, and inventors try to pack as much practical function as they can into the designs they create. This is where it must get frustrating for them, because they are too good at this. The clever things they create are completely misused by the rest of us. For instance, did you know that a pot has a built in spoon holder? Or a soda can, is intentionally made with a straw holder? You know how fast food cups have a tendency to sweat? Well, they are intentionally designed with a built in coaster. None of these things are clever life hacks that people came up with. These are all intentional design intentions that are expressed or illustrated in diagrams in the original patent applications. Several things that we use regularly were made to be used a certain way and either we overlook the functionality or we do not completely understand it. I think this is probably true for more than just the tools and objects we use regularly. In fact, I think it is probably truer when it comes to abstract or complex concepts. This example is probably a bit outdated, because after last year many people are more aware of this but a civics study from several years ago found that 43% of American adults did not know what the electoral college was or how it played a role in the election of US presidents. That is a lot of potential voters who participated in a system they did not fully understand. We tend to accept only partial understandings of ideas, and operate off of those. When it comes to the beliefs that we consider most fundamental and important to what we believe, then we need to be willing to fully question those ideas. It is important to ensure that we our core beliefs are as fully thought out, developed, and tested as we can possibly get them. When it comes to being a Christian perhaps the most core, must fundamental, and most basic of all beliefs is “Jesus saves.” We have all seen it plastered on billboards or sign posts scattered around the countryside, we have all heard that expressions, and many of us here truly do believe it. However, have we ever fully considered what it means to say that Jesus saves?
There are many questions to ask, “who does Jesus save?” “What does Jesus save us from? “ How does Jesus save? Why does Jesus save? As we continue on in lent we are going to focus on who Jesus is as revealed in the scripture. Throughout the gospels we see many different facets of Jesus, and by gaining an understanding of them all we can better follow Jesus as his disciples. Today, we explore Jesus as savior.
Even though it is not mentioned that Jesus saves until the verse 17 that is really the focus of the entire scripture. I think that a lot of modern day Christians can actually identify a lot with Nicodemus, because like a lot of them Nicodemus was “good religious people.” As a Pharisee, he took his faith seriously and he was known to all as a good, religious person. He would have been known, and respected in his community. People would have thought well of him, and if Nicodemus fit the mold well then he probably did his best to get along with everyone and do no wrong by anyone. Like I said, he was good religious people. However, like good religious people he faced the tension and discomfort that the truly good people who happen to be religious face. He had to choose between more authentically following his faith or not rocking the boat. You see, we good religious people, we do take our faith seriously but we also like when the waters are smooth. We like when everything is calm, and we are not in open conflict or disagreement. We do not like going against the grain, causing a scene, or sticking out as the one going against the flow. If we are being a little too honest with ourselves, we prefer things the way they are as opposed to dreaming about how they could be.
We get the sense that Nicodemus faced this same tension. This is why he went to Jesus under the secret of night. Nicodemus recognized something in Jesus. He could tell from Jesus’ actions and words that Jesus was not just another pretend savior, another wannabe messiah, or a rebel rouser with a charismatic aura. Nicodemus’ faith, his connection with God, was one of the most important things to him, and this drew him to Jesus. Nicodemus saw the divine in Jesus. As he says in verse 2 “You are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the sings you are doing if God were not with him.”
Yet, Nicodemus could not outright declare his support for Jesus. That would be far too radical for him. Jesus had proved to be a bit of a divisive figure. To even publically talk to Jesus in a way that was not belittling would have been viewed as endorsing him, and that would have been far too scandalous for a good religious person like Nicodemus who did not want to rock the boat. Thus, coming at night was his compromise that satisfied his faith based desire to draw closer to God and maintain his desire to keep everything calm.
Right away though Nicodemus finds he is out of his league, and is confused as to what Jesus is talking about. Looking back over the scripture, he just does not understand what Jesus is getting to at all. It seems that the author of the gospel, was also concerned that people would not get it, and adds their own summary. John 3:16-17,are not actually statements of Jesus, they are the author John seeking to clarify and explain what Jesus was getting at with Nicodemus. John summarize, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only 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.”
We are so familiar with John 3:16, but at first glance it does not seem to fit with the rest of the scripture. The bulk of what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus has to be with being born again. Again at a glance it seems to be a bit of a jump to go from “flesh gives birth flesh but the spirit gives birth to spirt” to Jesus saves. The key to understanding this jump is right before the lauded verse 3:16. John 3:14-15 read, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” The first part of that sentence is so odd and out there that we almost read over it, just what snake is Moses lifting up in the wilderness?
We have to remember that Jesus was talking to Nicodemus. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have known the Torah extremely well. To make his point, Jesus relates it to a story out of Numbers. In Numbers 21:4-9 there is the story of the bronze snake. This is when the Israelites were wondering the desert after they had left Egypt with Moses, but before they had arrived to the promise land. The people were impatient, they were ungrateful, and they lashed out in anger and blasphemy against God. They turned away from God and desired to do things their way. As a consequence for this sinful behavior, God sent poisonous snakes throughout their camp. The people confessed and repented their sin. God instructed Moses to erect a bronze snake on a pole, so anyone bit by a snake could look upon the statue and they would live. This was a reminder to the Israelites that they could not save themselves, but that it was God who saved them.
In the wilderness the Israelites out of pride and selfishness had turned away from God. Their sin led to separation from God and death. Jesus brilliantly uses this story that Nicodemus would have known inside and out to illustrate the human condition. Jesus is comparing himself to the bronze snake, because even at this point Jesus knew that there would be a day when he was lifted up for all to see. However, the cross that the powers of the world meant for ridicule became salvation.
Just like we do not always understand how to utilize all of the features built into everyday items, we do not always realize the full depth of the scriptures or God’s love. John 3:16 is perhaps the most quoted and best known scripture in the world. “For God so loved the world that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” is one of the scripture that most good religious people can quote in some form. However, when we remove that scripture from the fullness of its context, it loses its power. God’s love for the world was vast and so great, that he offered up his son on a tree. Just like the bronze snake was lifted up in the desert Jesus was lifted high on the cross. Looking at the bronze snake was how well one was healed in the desert. It was an admission of humility and a realization that the people could not save themselves. Looking to the cross of Jesus is how one is saved from sin and death. It is an admission that we have fallen short of the glory of God, that we have sinned, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. It is an acknowledgement that the savior who hangs on that tree has taken the punishment deserved by me.
To accept this reality, to gaze upon the cross and live is like being born again. This is what it means to be born by the spirit. Being born again is living life with the profound realization that we need a savior. It is acknowledging that we cannot make it through this life, that we cannot truly know peace, love, or goodness on our own. It is like being born again, because to truly realize that creates an entirely new outlook on how we view and understand life. Instead of always looking out for #1, we are looking up, to the Son of Man who was lifted up, on our behalf.
The gospel, the good news of the Christian church is communicated in this scripture, and it is perfectly paraphrased in John 3:16. If we wanted to get it even shorter, we could shorten it to two words as many have done. The gospel is Jesus saves. Who does Jesus save? The scripture says God, so loved the world. All who look up and acknowledge Jesus as Savior will be saved. What does Jesus save us from? Jesus saves us from ourselves, from our sin, from our rebellion against God. It is through Jesus that we are reunited with God and we are born again to live a new, God-focused life, that will last for all eternity. How does Jesus save? Jesus saves us by taking the punishment we deserve. The consequences for our evil and wrong actions were taken by Jesus when he was lifted up on the cross. By acknowledging that we are cannot save ourselves and that Jesus is our savior we are reunited with God Why does Jesus save? Because God so loved the world. God loves me, God loves you enough that he was willing to pay any price to get us back.
One of the most profound ways that we can know Jesus is as the savior. This scripture declares that Jesus is the savior of the world. The most important question we have to all answer is this: Is Jesus the savior of you? Perhaps, you have gone to church before today, you have heard that Jesus saves, but you have never truly considered what that means, and what that means for you. Perhaps like the unused functionality of everyday objects, you had not fully considered what it means for you to be saved. If so, then it is my prayer that today has been a help to you. If so, and you still have questions then there is nothing that would bring me more joy than to continue the conversation. It is my deepest and most sincere prayer for all of you that each and every one of you would know in the depths of your hearts, minds, and souls that Jesus saves. May you be willing to confess that you cannot save yourself and acknowledge that you need a savior. May you live a life that is born again, a new life, and eternal life that is given birth by the Spirit. May the proclamation of all our hearts joyfully be Jesus has saved me!