Our Redeemer
Lutheran Church

Lexington, Kentucky

Text: John 3:14-16

Theme: The Antidote

Date: November 9, 2003; Friendship Sunday; Third Last Sunday in the Church Year

How joyful it is when a congregation has visitors, as we do today. On this Friendship Sunday, I would to like to welcome each visitor among us, whether you were personally invited, or just happen to be here today. Not all visitors are alike, however. Some are just there because someone invited them. Others, however, others are there because they are religious seekers. They are interested, curious, about God, and want to know more about him. They are open to the reality of God in their lives, but they have questions. They are seeking. Seeking God. Seeking truth. Seeking answers.

I wanted to devote this sermon to such seekers. So I chose a sermon text in which Jesus himself spoke to a religious seeker. That seeker was Nicodemus. Most of John 3 describes Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, the Pharisee. Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. Nicodemus visited at night because he had questions about Jesus. He was curious. Something about Jesus attracted him. I’ve chosen John 3,14-16 as the sermon text. because in these verses Jesus presented to Nicodemus, simply, yet profoundly, what he and the Christian faith are all about. Let’s listen to the words of Jesus:

“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 one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14-16).

The first thing that Jesus said to Nicodemus was, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.” What Nicodemus probably understood, but many of us don’t, is that Jesus was referring to a remarkable event in the Old Testament, when God healed his people through a bronze serpent on a pole. This story is in Numbers 21:4-9. To understand Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, you need to understand Numbers 21.

As they marched through the wasteland that goes by the name of the Sinai Peninsula, the people bitterly criticized God and Moses. They complained. They were hungry. They were thirsty. They were tired. And they detested, they loathed the manna God had given them to eat. So they ridiculed God’s wisdom and mercy. They rejected God’s provision as woefully inadequate. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” “What a stupid plan. What was the point if we’re going to die of hunger anyway?”

It needs to be remembered, however, that it was their fault, not God’s, that they had such a miserable condition in the wilderness. For when God had been ready to lead them into the Promised Land, they had refused to go, because they were afraid that the inhabitants of the land would kill them. So they had rebelled against God and Moses and tried to return to Egypt. In his anger God punished them. Because they had refused to trust in the Lord, and rebelled against Moses’ leadership, no adult above 20 years old would enter the Promised Land. They would wander in the wilderness for 40 years until the last of them had died. Then their children would enter.

So it was their fault that they were still in a dreary wilderness, not God’s. Now back to the story in Numbers 21. To punish their sinful complaining God sent poisonous snakes to bite the people. These were probably asps, a very venomous snake (see Deut 32:33 where Moses speaks of “the cruel venom of asps” (ESV)). Many died when the snakes bit them. Many more were dying.

Reeling from God’s punishment, the people admitted their guilt to Moses: they confessed their sin and cried out for mercy: “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” The surprising thing is that the people do not ask Moses to pray for healing, but for the removal of the snakes (which were still in the camp biting people; otherwise why ask?). God, however, as He often does, did far more than they asked.

Moses did pray to the LORD and God answered him: “The LORD said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” Moses did as God had commanded: “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, he lived.”

God provided the means of rescue in the image of the very creature that brought death and sickness. A bronze snake, one that looked exactly like the poisonous snakes that were killing them, was to be placed on a signal pole, a standard, probably on some hill or place of high elevation so that it is visible to all. Then God attached a promise to this snake on a pole: “Anyone bitten, who looks at the snake, they will live (they shall be healed, the poison shall not kill them).

God is severe in his judgment and punishment of sin. But he is wonderfully merciful in his forgiveness and cure of that sin. It was impossible for them to heal themselves. All that was required was to look at the venomous snake on the poll. No doubt many of those bitten were near death, practically unable to move. All that was required was that they turn their heads and look. God didn’t require that they sacrifice at the tabernacle, do penance for days, pray for hours, do many good works, before he would heal them. Nothing was required, except to turn the head and look at the snake on the poll. It was that easy.

A person had to have faith in God’s promise before they would look, however. They had to believe that what God had promised would come true. Otherwise, why bother to look? For example one of those dying could have thought to himself, “So there is a snake on a signal pole. So what? I’m dying in agony and Moses is busy making a snake on a pole. How foolish! How worthless! Why doesn’t God or Moses do something to save me!” Such a person would have died in agony, for the snake on the poll was God’s chosen method of salvation and healing – no matter how odd it seemed. There was no other method. Only the one who believed what God promised about the snake on a pole would look, be healed, and live.

Now we are in a position to understand Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,” Jesus says. He is talking about his crucifixion. This is exactly what would happen in a typical crucifixion. The condemned person was laid down flat on the horizontal crosspiece, and their hands were nailed to the crosspiece. Then the crosspiece, with the crucified person nailed to it, was lifted up with ropes, and attached to the vertical piece; finally, the condemned man’s feet were nailed to the vertical piece. All this happened to Jesus when he was crucified. He was literally lifted up when he was nailed to the cross, just like the bronze snake on the pole.

It is also noteworthy that Jesus said, “the Son of Man must be lifted up.” Jesus often referred to himself as the “Son of Man” to emphasize that He, the eternal Son of God, was also true man - fully human. How fitting! In Numbers 21, snakes had brought death to the Israelites, so a snake was used to bring life to them. Long before that, however, a man (Adam) had brought sin into the world (Genesis 3; Romans 5:12-21), so a man (a sinless man) was used to bring life and healing. “For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19).

Now comes the promise: “that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” The reason that Jesus was lifted up on the cross and crucified was to bring healing and eternal life to all. Just as God attached a promise to the bronze snake on the signal pole, so Jesus attaches a promise to his crucifixion. Everyone who believes in him will be healed of the poison of their sin and death, and live eternally! Everyone who says in their heart, “Yes I believe that the healing of my sin and eternal life comes through Jesus who was lifted up and died on the cross for me,” will be healed, forgiven, saved from eternal death, and given life eternal in heaven.

Believing is trusting in God’s promise. Those who trusted God’s promise through Moses about the bronze snake were healed, lived rather than died. In the same way, those who believe, who trust God’s promise about Jesus on the cross, will also be spiritually healed. They will live (eternally) rather than die (eternally) Just as looking and believing went hand in hand in the wilderness, so they do for us. As our Lord said in John 6:40, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

Jesus says, “everyone who believes.” This little word “everyone” is amazingly comforting. The healing, forgiveness, and eternal life that Jesus came to bring is available to everyone. There are no exceptions. Everyone, no matter how severe their sin, no matter how wicked their past, can receive spiritual healing, life, and forgiveness, by believing that such spiritual healing, life, and forgiveness come only through Jesus who was lifted up on the cross for them.

Now comes John 3:16, one of the most famous and beloved of all Bible verses: “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.” Perhaps you’ve been watching a football game on TV, and have seen someone holding up a sign that said, “John 3:16.” Such Christians are trying to arouse curiosity so that people will look up the verse and read it themselves. This is all well and good; but John 3:16 really can be understood only when one knows and understands John 3:14-15. And John 3:14-15 can be understood only when one understands the story of the bronze snake on a pole to which Jesus refers. You are in a position to understand John 3:16. God in his incredible love for everyone in the world, not wanting any to die of the spiritual poison of sin, gave his Son, to be crucified on the pole of the cross, that everyone who believes in him, who believes the promise that He alone is God’s antidote for the poison of sin, shall not perish, die eternally, but have eternal life.

The Israelites who looked to the bronze snake and believed received their physical life back again. But all those who look to the crucified Jesus and believe in him receive eternal life, a perfect, sinless life in heaven that will never end.

None of this makes any sense, of course, unless you first believe that all people, including yourself, are dying of the poison of sin. Yet this is the very thing that God says in his Word: “There is no one righteous, not even one. No one is good. No one seeks for God. Together they are worthless . . . For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:10-12, 23). In another place Jesus says, “For unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24).

In the wilderness, those who had been bitten and poisoned knew it; they knew they were dying. They felt the horrible symptoms. Unfortunately, such is the not the case with the poison of sin. The sickness of sin usually can’t be felt, though there are extreme situations when it can (e.g., drug addiction). The only way to know that you are dying from the sickness of sin, is to believe what the Law of God tells you. For God does not lie. Those who choose denial, who refuse to accept the verdict of God’s Word about their impending death, will die the second death.

So God invites you through me: “You are dying of the sickness of sin. Turn, before it is too late and look and believe the promise that God makes to you about Jesus, who was crucified for you. If you do, if you believe that Jesus alone is God’s antidote for the poison of sin, you will be healed, forgiven, and given life – life eternal. Now is the time. Look and believe before it is too late.

By the way, Nicodemus did just that. He looked to and believed in the crucified Jesus on the pole of the cross and was healed. The seeker became a follower. But whether you are consciouly seeking or not it ultimately doesn't matter. What matters is that God is seeking you. And he is. In fact, that may be the reason that you are here today. Amen.

The Rev Dr. Richard P. Bucher
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, LCMS
Lexington, KY