John 3:14–21

The Son Above the Clouds

Laura Miguélez Quay

Linebrook Church

March 11, 2018

 

Have you ever wondered where the sun goes on a rainy—or snowy—or cloudy day? Since we can’t always see it, it can be easy to assume that there are days when it doesn’t rise at all. But, as we all know, this isn’t the case. Simply because we can’t see the sun behind the clouds, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. Further, as Galileo figured out, the sun itself never goes anywhere but it is the earth that revolves around it. My point is that the sun is always shining even if we can’t always see it. I was reminded of this recently while on one of the flights Ron and I took on our trip to Florida. We boarded the plane on an overcast day but as we flew up, higher and higher, once we were above the clouds we were met by the sun which was so bright that most of those sitting in window seats were forced to close the shades to block out its blinding brightness.

Well, as I was thinking about our passage in John this past week, I was struck by a similarity between the hidden sun—“s-u-n”—and Christ Jesus, God’s Son—“S-o-n” being hidden from us. Yet as the sun in the sky is ever there even when we’re unable to see it, so, too, Jesus is ever there, even if we’re unable or choose not to see him. Now as we’ve already heard read for us earlier in the service, this portion in John contains one of the most well-known—and often ubiquitous at sporting events—verses in all of Scripture, John 3:16. But what precedes and follows this memory verse is so very important in order for us to grasp the importance of what Jesus is stating here about God so loving the world “that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Now as we’ve seen time and again, it isn’t unusual when we read an account of Jesus’ teaching or actions in the Gospels that we are presented as well with those who oppose him. And who is that usually opposes him? It isn’t the “tax collectors and sinners.” No, tax collectors and sinners love Jesus. Instead, and surprisingly since they should be on the same side of things, those who oppose Jesus are usually the Pharisees—or Sadducees—or priests—or teachers of the law. In other words, those who oppose Jesus are usually Jewish religious leaders whose understanding, teaching, and practice of the Hebrew Scriptures are often completely out of sync with that of Jesus.

But what we find in this passage is an exception to this tendency for as stated in verse 1 Jesus has been conversing with one of the members of the Pharisees, “Nicodemus[1] who was a member of the Jewish ruling council” (verse 1)—that is, the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus seems to be coming to Jesus as a seeker, not an antagonist. And when he came, he did so privately and at night (verse 2). This may have been so that other fellow Pharisees might not see him or simply because Jesus was so often surrounded by people during the day that it was difficult to talk with him alone. Regardless the first thing Nicodemus said to him was, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him” (verse 2). So despite the usual opposition we see expressed by the Pharisees towards Jesus, here we find one of their members breaking rank coming to him and respectfully acknowledging that, at the very least, Jesus was a teacher who had come from God, as testified by the many signs he was regularly doing.

By way of reply Jesus both affirmed and built upon what Nicodemus has declared about him. He affirmed that he had indeed come from God stating in verse 3, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” An alternate, and I think better translation of “born again” is born “from above”[2] so if you’ll indulge a slight paraphrase, Jesus was saying, “Exactly, Nicodemus. You’ve gotten this precisely right. I am a teacher who has come from God. For only one who has come from God is able to see the Kingdom of God.” And as we already know, the Kingdom of God is what Jesus came to proclaim to all of humankind for the reason he came from God was in order to help others be born of God.[3] He came to tell others how they could be born again; he came to tell others how they could be born from above.

So in his conversation with Nicodemus Jesus went on to explain that what was required to enter God’s kingdom was birth not only of water, or the flesh, but also of the Spirit (verses 5–6). In other words, natural water cannot cleanse us from our sins; only the Holy Spirit can do that. When Nicodemus didn’t follow what Jesus was saying, he reiterated in verse 13, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.” And with these words, Jesus was underscoring what he had already told Nicodemus about how it is that he is able to teach about the kingdom of God.[4] It is because, as Nicodemus initially affirmed, Jesus is a teacher who has come from God. So in stating “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven,” Jesus was making clear that the reason he is able to lead others to heaven is because he himself has come from heaven; because he himself is “the Son of Man.”

Now as we’ve noted before,[5] “Son of Man” was Jesus’ favorite way of referring to himself. This title affirms both his full humanity[6] and his full divinity. And in this passage in John it is certainly possible that Jesus was seeking to point out to Nicodemus, this expert in the Hebrew Scriptures, that the Son of Man is indeed God. Listen to this use of Son of Man found in the book of Daniel.

13 In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man,[7] coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.[8]

Though Daniel’s vision is a future one, the Son of Man of whom he speaks is clearly God for “all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him.” And important also in the context of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, the kingdom of this Son of Man “will never be destroyed.” Jesus, the Son of Man; Jesus, the eternal King; Jesus, who is God has come from God to proclaim the kingdom of God. And because he has come from God, he is uniquely suited to show others the way to enter into his heavenly kingdom.

Jesus continued to build on Nicodemus, “Israel’s teacher’s” (verse 10), understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures in verses 14 and 15: “14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,[9] 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” Now if you’ll recall, the account of Moses lifting up the snake in the wilderness occurred after the people of Israel had escaped from Pharaoh’s rule in Egypt and had begun to make their way back to Israel. Yet along the way, they “grew impatient… they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.”[10] In experiencing this judgment from God as a result of their complaining and lack of belief in God and his goodness and provision for them, the people repented. They “came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people.”[11] And then the LORD in his mercy “said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.”[12] Well Jesus here likened himself to this healing bronze snake on a pole that is able to deliver people from their complaining and speaking against God and his servants and receiving their consequent judgment. As those among the people of Israel who looked upon the bronze snake were healed and enabled to live, so too it is with Jesus for everyone—and it’s important to note that Jesus speaks not only of Israel as was the case in Moses’ time but of everyone, whether Jew or Gentile; everyone who believes in Jesus; everyone who trusts in Jesus, the Son of Man, will be healed of their complaining, disobedient nature and be enabled to live—not only now but for all eternity. For unlike the bronze snake, Jesus, the Son of Man, is Christ; he is God in the flesh. As such he is the way the LORD has provided for us, who are deserving of eternal death due to our complaining and disbelief in God’s Son and our complete and utter disregard for the God who made us for himself, to nonetheless receive eternal life.

For as we learn beginning with verse 16, God in Christ comes becomes he doesn’t want us to suffer judgment, the consequence of our complaining and unbelief, “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.” Notice here that in the Person of God, love isn’t simply a feeling but it’s an action. God doesn’t simply have warm and fuzzy feelings towards us. No, God demonstrates his love by taking action on our behalf. And that action was nothing less than sacrificing his Son, who is the image of God incarnate; who is God who has come in the flesh, that those whom he made in his image, that is all people who have rebelled against him might not perish but have eternal life. As stated in verse 17, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Apart from God and his provision the world stands condemned by virtue of its rejection and lack of belief in him. But in the Son, in Jesus Christ, God provides an escape from that condemnation. For in the Son, in Jesus Christ, God takes upon himself our punishment that we might be free to know God’s love and thereby love, and live for God in return. Therefore, verse 18, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” In Jesus Christ, God’s Son, we’re provided a way; we’re provided a chance; we’re provided an opportunity to know our Maker not only in a general way but in a personal way.

Do you see what is being said here? Because Jesus is God’s Son, all human destiny is wrapped up in whether it accepts or rejects him. If we believe in him—and turn to him from our selfish ways—then we are justified not by our actions but by his life and sacrifice on our behalf. His obedience is applied to us who have been lacking in obedience and belief. So if we believe in Christ we are declared “not guilty” in God’s sight regardless of whatever sins we have ever committed, thought, or even considered. For belief in Christ means that we have been purchased by him; belief in Christ means that we now belong to him. And Jesus will not condemn those whom he’s bought with the price of his own life. Jesus will never abandon those who belong to him.[13] Jesus will never let go of those who belong to him but instead sends them his own Holy Spirit to seal and indwell and unite them with himself now and forevermore.

But again those who do not believe in Christ Jesus and the salvation he came to provide stand condemned already by virtue of their lack of belief in God’s one and only Son. For, as stated beginning with verse 19, “19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” Jesus, like the sun that each day rises but remains hidden from our eyes on a rainy or snowy or overcast day, has come into the world. But rather than embrace the light he offers, we close the shades of our hearts and the lids of our eyes to him. We would rather live a Sonless (S-o-n), cavernous existence than have every dark deed and thought we have ever felt toward God and others exposed by the light of Christ. We would rather cling comfortably to our dark, complaining, selfish thoughts and deeds, perhaps even telling and convincing ourselves that we’re not so bad, than to have Christ’s light give the lie to or expose our fallen reasoning and rationales. We would rather live in a world clouded by our own sinful thoughts and actions and that of others than to receive the light God has offered us in his Son, Jesus Christ, the light of the world.[14] And it is this, our choice to reject Christ that condemns us, not God. For God in Christ demonstrates his love and seeks to save us.

But we do have a choice for, verse 21, “…whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” Once we respond to God’s offer in Christ, we are enabled by him to live for him. For as was the case with God, our belief in Jesus shouldn’t be just a feeling; nor should it just be an acknowledgment of the truth of who he is. But our belief in Jesus should result in a changed life. Those who live by Christ’s light; those who choose to live by Christ’s truth are no better than those who choose to live in a darkness of their own creating by virtue of their rejection of Christ. The difference between these two groups is that light-live-rs know that there’s a freedom in having their sins—their complaints, their disbelief—exposed by the light of Christ. For it is only by embracing the light of Christ that we can see, confess, and repent of our selfish ways. Then, having embraced the truth and light of Christ, those who now belong to him are encouraged and enabled by his Holy Spirit to continue to desire to know and live by the truth that is found in Christ and his Word. Those living by Christ’s truth know that it is but by Christ alone that any genuinely good deed can ever be done or accomplished.

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, when it was still dark—and was told about the light. Being literally and metaphorically in the dark, he came to Jesus, the light who came into the world to conquer and dispel all darkness, suffering, and death. And in the discussion that follows we see how God is not unmoved by our suffering. He is not indifferent to our pain. He isn’t untouched by our sorrow and tears. For God knows that apart from him we have no way to escape the evil and suffering in this world. He knows that apart from him we have no way to escape the evil thoughts and motives we may see in our own hearts and minds. He knows that apart from belief in him we stand condemned to lives without true meaning and purpose. And so he sent his Son into this very world. He sent his Son into this world not to condemn it but to save it. As John again tells us in his first epistle, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”[15] And, again, once we have turned from our ways and turned to him, he will never let us go. John, the author of this Gospel, gets this. Earlier in his epistle he tells why he is writing his letter, “1 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”[16]

Again, as is the case with God, our love shouldn’t remain at the level of feelings but should be demonstrated by our actions. Immediately after noting that we can know God’s love because Jesus Christ died for us, John adds “And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” But notice how practical he is in suggesting ways in which we can lay down our lives: “17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” And so he concludes, “18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”[17]

So, too, after encouraging these believers about Jesus Christ’s advocacy, his pleading for those who are his, John exhorts them to similarly live in a loving manner towards others for

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. 10 Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. 11 But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.[18]

Later John underscores this in stating, “19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”[19]

We too often miss this, don’t we? It’s so easy to get wrapped up with other people in our lives, to limit our understanding to persons we can see. We think that our earthly lives are simply about getting along—or not getting along with those around us. We decide that if others are kind, we will love them; if they are unkind we will dislike or not deal with or cut them out of our lives. Yet God in his written and risen Word points us in a different direction. He reveals to us a different truth, another way of understanding our lives. For the very existence of other human beings should lead us to believe in God for he has made all of us his image. But the Fall has resulted in us too often being stuck with our gaze looking downward rather than up towards the One who made us in his own image; towards the One who made us for himself; towards the One who made us for each other.

My prayer for all of us is that we would fix our eyes upon Christ Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith;[20]

that we would turn our gaze towards Christ Jesus, the Son of Man, the King over all creation, our Savior and our LORD;

that we would ever look to Christ Jesus, the Son who is always there and is there for us; the Son who is inescapable; the Son who has broken through the clouds of our sin and darkness and sadness that we might know and walk in his light even as he is the light and so encourage and love one another; and so spread his truth and love to others who are yet walking in darkness.

Let us pray.

 

[1] Interestingly, Nicodemus later defends Jesus as recorded in John 7:45–52: 45 Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?”

46 “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards replied. 47 “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. 48 “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49 No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.” 50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51 “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” 52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”; Nicodemus also later joins Joseph of Arimathea in asking Pilate for Jesus’ body: John 19:38–42: 38 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. 39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. 40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. 41 At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

[2] Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ.

[3] Matthew 4:23–25: 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. Matthew 9:35: Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. See How to Share the Gospel sermon on Matthew 9:35–10:8 preached on June 18, 2017.

[4] As the Crossway ESV study Bible points out, though references to the kingdom of God are common in the other Gospels, in John’s Gospel Jesus refers to his kingdom only in this passage and in John 18:36 when he replies to Pontius Pilate’s questioning: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

[5] E.g., sermon preached on 8/20/17 Matthew 16:13–20, Who Do You Say I Am?

[6] E.g., the 93 occurrences of this title found in Ezekiel are a way of affirming his full humanity.

[7] NIV online Bible < https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/New-International-Version-NIV-Bible/> has the following note after “son of man” here: The Aramaic phrase bar enash means human being. The phrase son of man is retained here because of its use in the New Testament as a title of Jesus, probably based largely on this verse.

[8] Daniel 7:13–14.

[9] This is the first of three references in John’s Gospel to Jesus being lifted up. Sa John 8:28: 27 They did not understand that he was telling them about his Father. 28 So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. 29 The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” 30 Even as he spoke, many believed in him. 12:32: 30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

[10] Numbers 21:4–6.

[11] Numbers 21:7.

[12] Numbers 21:8–9.

[13] See, for example, Hebrews 13:5–6:Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”[Deuteronomy 31:6] 6 So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”[Psalm 118:6,7]; John 10:27–30: 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.” ; Romans 8:38–39: 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

[14] John 8:12: When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

[15] I John 3:16a.

[16] I John 2:1–2.

[17] I John 3:16b–18.

[18] I John 2:9–11.

[19] I John 4:19–21.

[20] Hebrews 12:1–3: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

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