Summary: What God gives in love, we receive by faith, so that we may live in hope.
ONE OF THE PROBLEMS with religion is: You can believe all the right things – that is, you can be orthodox in your faith – but it can be a dead orthodoxy. You know what I mean? It can appear lifeless, certainly not vital and contagious. Same thing with our conduct. We may behave ourselves quite well – you know, do the right things, live good lives. But our morality can have the effect of making us smug and self-satisfied. We believe what we’re supposed to believe, and we do what we’re supposed to do. But there’s no joy in it.
So, can we avoid these things? Can we escape the trap of dead orthodoxy –believing the right things, to be sure, but with no passion – and can we be more than simply “good” people, living conventionally moral lives but that’s all? In other words, how can we have a vital, engaging, contagious faith? And, if so, how?
It starts with God. Doesn’t it? I mean: Any life we have begins with God. That’s what Jesus says here in John, chapter 3. An authentic faith is a gift of love that comes straight from the heart of the triune God. And what God gives in love, we receive by faith, so that we may live in hope. That’s the message of the most well-known Bible verse of all time. What does it say? John 3:16? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
The first thing I notice in that verse is that God gave, and his gift was motivated by love. God gave in love. Today is Trinity Sunday, and if you look at this passage as a whole, what you will see is that all three Persons in the holy Trinity are involved in giving this loving gift. Jesus, remember, is talking to Nicodemus, a religious leader of the day, and Nicodemus, we learn, is like a lot of people in our own time. He is orthodox in his faith; he is upstanding in his conduct. But he is not alive spiritually. He needs to be born “a second time.” So Jesus explains what happens in the new birth, and he does it in a Trinitarian framework. He begins with the Spirit, he proceeds to the Son, and he ends with the Father.
If we reverse that order and begin with the Father, we see that, in love, the Father gave his Son. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” The apostle Paul says in Ephesians that “he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph. 1:4).
The Son, in turn, gave his life. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jn. 6:51). In other words, Christ’s love impelled him to die for us.
In fact, here in John, chapter 3, Jesus says to Nicodemus that, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (vv. 14f.). Now, what’s Jesus doing here? He is recalling an account given to us in the Old Testament book of Numbers, a story with which Nicodemus is no doubt familiar. The incident took place in the wilderness, when God’s people of old were traveling to the Promised Land. The way was hard, and the people grew impatient. And they complained about Moses’ leadership and they even “spoke against God.” So, we are told, the Lord sent poisonous snakes into the camp, and those who were bitten died. And, as you might imagine, the people cried out for mercy, and God showed mercy. He told Moses to form a bronze serpent and put it on a pole so that it could be seen from every point in the camp. When people were bitten, if they looked up at the bronze snake, they would be healed.
So, what is Jesus telling Nicodemus? He is telling him that he – Jesus, the Son of Man, as he calls himself – will be lifted up just like the serpent was. His “pole,” of course, will be the cross. And all those who look to the cross – all who look to him – will “pass from death to life” (Jn. 5:24) – pass from spiritual death to eternal life. All that’s required is to look to him!
But who will look to him? Who will put their faith in Jesus Christ for eternal life? The truth is that, without this eternal life, we are spiritually dead. Paul actually says in one place that we are “dead [in our] trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). And to be spiritually dead, according to Scripture, is to “live in the futility of [our] minds,” to be “darkened in [our] understanding, [and] alienated from the life of God” (Eph. 4:17, 18). People who don’t understand spiritual things, people who are alienated from God, do not look to the cross. They cannot. In fact, the Bible says that “no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:11).