John 3:14-21 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, (15) that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (16) "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (17) For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (18) Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (19) And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. (20) For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. (21) But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God."
Isn’t it interesting how we can so easily take a verse out of context, and lose so much of the meaning that a particular passage may be trying to get across? How many times have you read this passage of scripture and only noticed verse 16? Do you notice verse 16 at the expense of the rest of what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus? Did you even remember that Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus who came to the Messiah at night? If your conscience is pricked regarding a too casual reading of God’s words to us, then be aware of this for the future and grow in your maturity in handling the revelation from our Lord. The purpose of this brief consideration is not to bring you down and leave you there. Rise up in joy as you consider some ideas about this passage. Let them lead you to even deeper reflection on some of your favourite verses of inspiration.
First, let us ponder two reasons that Nicodemus may have come to Jesus by night. There may be many reasons but of the many it seems two are most likely. One is that Jesus was so busy during the day that it was impossible to speak with him alone and open up to him privately – as we can do in prayer in our own era. Another is that Nicodemus was afraid of being seen with Jesus and used the cover of night to hide from eyes that might’ve spread rumour that could damage his “reputation”. Either way, it is not of much use to ponder too deeply. Where scripture does not give us any clues as to the answers to our questions we clearly do not need to know more. The scripture we have is sufficient, and where it is silent we can know that it is not an important detail for us to know.
Verse 14 gives us a valuable link between the Old Testament and the New. We see one clear parallel of Christ’s crucifixion given as a prophetic type. “The serpent can’t possibly represent Christ!” some might cry, “The serpent is Satan!” Yet the link is undeniably here and is a caution to using symbols, that appear through scripture, too dogmatically. We can draw clues from symbols but, when trying to understand the meaning of a passage, the immediate context must be adhered to first.
Verse 16 tells us that God has created the potential for anyone to be saved, but on the condition that they believe. This verse does not tell us that Jesus took the punishment for everyone when he suffered on the cross; it only shows that he has made a way for anyone in the world who believes.
Verses 17 to 21 tell us that, for his first coming, Jesus did not come into the world to directly condemn the world, though by his actions he has brought judgment on those who did not believe. When he returns the second time he will judge the nations. Verse 18 seems a bit of an odd way of putting this indirect condemnation, but it basically tells us that people who do not believe are condemned because they do not believe. This could be taken in a number of ways but the main one seems to be the emphasis placed on faith in Christ. Repetition is a well-known tool used for emphasis in Jewish writings and Jesus is here speaking to a Jew which means this is not an unreasonable interpretation. This lack of belief on the part of the condemned stands as a strong reminder that it is their own fault for not believing what should be believed, and that it is not due to having sinned so much as failing to deal with that sin before God, that condemns them.
Verse 19 describes the judgment of those who do not believe, i.e. they are given over to the darkness and are compelled to love it and follow it. This is similar to the judgment described in Romans chapter 1:
Romans 1:18-32 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (20) For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (21) For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (22) Claiming to be wise, they became fools, (23) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. (24) Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, (25) because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (26) For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; (27) and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (28) And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. (29) They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, (30) slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, (31) foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (32) Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Verses 20 and 21, of John chapter 3, contrast with each other to show that people can be placed into one of two groups: Good or Evil, Light or Dark, Righteous or Wicked, Spiritual or Carnal/Fleshly. There is no middle ground here and when we all die and stand before God to be judged we will be placed in one of these groups and receive the eternal fate accordingly. Earlier, Jesus describes how a man can pass from one group to the other through being born again by the power of God, which is given freely and un-coerced in His own time. All we can do is seek His mercy until He chooses to give it.
Lastly, we can see something that is fairly obvious, but which is worth mentioning because it is everything, and that is the glory of God. He is light, not dark. He is good and righteous, and has no need to fear what people say about His actions. He is truth and, from the knowledge that He has made a way for people to be saved, we can see His great mercy on those who do not deserve it.
God has been kind to us and has had mercy on us. How much more should we take the time to read carefully what He has set down for us in His revealed word?