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Whosoever Believeth


Part Four of “The God Who Makes Promises”

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
March 18, 2012

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

John 3:14-21 

[Jesus said] “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.” 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. 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. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.  Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.  But 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. (John 3:14-21, NIV)

For the past few Sundays we’ve been talking about “The God Who Makes Promises,” and last Sunday we paused for a moment to consider what a remarkable thing that is—that God the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, would make promises to us.  You would expect it to work the other way around, that we would make promises to him.  But here is a God who comes to Noah after purging the wickedness of the world with a cleansing flood and says, “Never again; I promise”; who leads Abraham out of his tent under a sky full of stars and says, “Someday your descendants will be as numberless as these; I promise”; and who vows to the children of Israel at Mount Sinai, “If you will be my people, I will be your God; I promise.”  All of those are Old Testament promises, and in today’s Old Testament lesson God makes another promise to his people, although it is a rather small one. 

It happens not long after that “wedding in the wilderness” we were talking about last week.  In fact, you could think of this as the honeymoon phase of the marriage between God and Israel although, after hearing this story, you may decide that the honeymoon is over.  It’s from Numbers 21:4-9.  Moses is leading the people around the land of Edom on their way to the Promised Land, and apparently he is taking the long way.  The people become impatient.  They begin to complain against God and against Moses, saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?  There’s no food, no water…only this miserable manna three times a day!”  If you’ve ever been on a long car trip with children you may be able to sympathize with what God does next, because apparently he’s had it.  According to the text he sends poisonous snakes among the people, and they bite them, and many of them die.  And then the people come to Moses begging for forgiveness.  “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you.  Ask the Lord to take away the snakes.”

And so Moses prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and put it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live; I promise.”  And that’s what Moses did.  He made a replica of one of those poisonous snakes out of bronze, and he put it up on a pole, and from then on if anyone got bitten all they had to do was look at that snake and instead of dying they would live.  As I said, it’s not a very big promise, although I suppose that if you were one of those people and you had just been bitten by a poisonous snake in the wilderness it would seem huge.  But for us, living in 21st century America, sitting in a comfortable, climate-controlled sanctuary where there are (and we can thank God for this) no poisonous snakes to contend with, that story just doesn’t seem very relevant.  But you have to know that story in order to make sense of the verses that precede today’s Gospel lesson from John, chapter 3, where we find a very big promise indeed.

In verse 14 Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,” and now that you know the story, you know exactly what he’s talking about.  He’s talking about that bronze image Moses put on a pole when everybody was being bitten by poisonous snakes.  He’s making a connection between that event, that happened centuries before, and an event that is yet to take place.  “Just as Moses lifted up that bronze snake in the wilderness,” he says, “so that everyone who looked at it might live, the Son of Man is going to be lifted up, so that everyone who looks on him (in faith) will have eternal life.”  And then John summarizes: “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.”  And there’s that promise I was talking about, the big one: “Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  That one’s not just for people who happen to get bitten by snakes in the wilderness, but for all people everywhere.

Because this verse is so familiar to us we sometimes skip right over it.  “Oh, yes,” we say.  “John 3:16.  I’ve got that one.”  But let me ask you to look at it as if you were seeing it for the first time and let me point out some things that might not be immediately apparent.  This, for instance: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.”  Unlike the Old Testament passage we don’t begin with a God who is angry at his children because they won’t quit complaining, but with a God who loves the world he made, and the people who are in it, a God who wants them for his own.  I think it may be important to recognize that the word used here for “world”—kosmos—is the same word used in the Greek New Testament to connote the “sinful world.”  Over in 1 John 2:15 for example, the writer says, “Don’t love the world or the things of the world.”  You can almost hear the contempt in his voice.  But here in John 3:16 we find that God gave his one and only Son because he loved that same, sinful world.  It’s another way of saying that God loves sinners, which may come as a relief to every one in the room, and not least of all to me. 

I’m a sinner, and there have been times in my life when I have been deeply conscious of my sin, times when those lines about “wretches” and “worms” from some of the old hymns seemed to describe me perfectly.  In my youth and childhood, if I ever got too comfortable with my condition, my mother was good about reminding me that I was on my way to hell, maybe because she had been on some long car trips with me, or maybe just because she believed everybody was headed there if they didn’t do something about it.  She wasn’t mean about it.  In fact, she seemed almost cheerful when she reminded me that I was a sinner.  “There is none righteous,” she used to say, “no not one.”  At other times she would say, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  And at other times she would say, “Our righteousness is as filthy rags.”  But she could talk about sin that way and about sinners that way because she knew there was a remedy for sin, and that was believing in Jesus.  She would sometimes confess to me that the only way she was going to get into heaven was “by hanging on to Jesus’ coattails!”  But I sometimes wondered, “How do you do that?  How do you believe in Jesus?”   

Two Sundays ago I quoted John 3:16 when I was talking about the faith of Abraham.  I said that when God told Abraham that someday his descendants would be as numberless as the stars Abraham believed him, and God “reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  But I made a distinction between believing somebody and believing in somebody.  Abraham may not have believed that someday he would have seventy sextillion descendants—which is the latest guess at how many stars there are in the universe, a 7 followed by 22 zeroes—but he believed in God, that is he trusted him with the future no matter what the future might hold.  To believe in Jesus is to do the same.  It doesn’t necessarily mean believing things about Jesus.  It doesn’t mean giving your intellectual assent to a long list of doctrinal propositions.  I think it means something more like this: knowing Jesus so well and loving him so much that you can trust him with the future, no matter what the future might bring.  

And while I’m at it, let me just say a word about “whoever,” or, as I memorized it from the King James Version, “whosoever.”  That may be the most shocking word in this whole passage because it suggests that the blessings of God are available to anybody who believes.  In the old days, the only people who could be assured of God’s blessings were the children of Abraham, but now, in Jesus, the doors have been thrown wide open.  Anybody can get in.  And before you nod your head with approval take some time to think about who “anybody” is.  In the Book of Acts it was Samaritans, Gentiles, and Ethiopian eunuchs.  Can you imagine how hard it was for some of the children of Abraham to sit down at the same communion table with people they had been taught to despise?  And what about us?  Back in 1965 we had some trouble opening the doors of the church to a couple of students from Nigeria.  They didn’t look like us, they didn’t sound like us, they didn’t dress like us.  But in the end we welcomed them because they believed in Jesus, and according to John 3:16 that’s all that matters.  You see?  This talk about “whosoever believeth” is shocking precisely because it throws the doors open so wide.  It’s frightening to think that Jesus might just let anybody in, but apparently he will, at least anybody who believes.

Isn’t that what it says here, that whosoever believeth will not perish but have eternal life?  That word that we translate as “perish” comes from the Greek word appolumi, which is not so much “eternal death” as it is “complete destruction” or “total loss.”  God loved the world so much he gave his one and only son, we could say, so that whoever believes in him might not be lost and gone forever, but have forever life.  And as far as that goes—that “forever life” we love to talk about—the Greek words there are zoen aionion, which is literally “the life of the ages.”  In Jesus’ time many devout Jews believed that they were living in an age that was coming to an end, one that would be followed by the age to come—the messianic age.  Everybody wanted to live in that age, and enjoy that life, when the Messiah was on his throne, the kingdom was restored, and everybody sat down to feast at the messianic banquet table.  God loved the world so much, we could say, that he gave his one and only son, so that whoever believes in him might not come to an end along with this age, but experience the joy of the age to come.  Jesus seems to suggest that that kind of joy can begin at any time.  “This is the life,” he says, in John 17:3, “eternal life, the life of the ages—to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.”

So, what are we waiting for?

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,” John says, “but to save the world through him.”  Do you hear that?  God is not out to get us; he’s out to grace us.  And when you pile these verses on top of each other the evidence is overwhelming.  God loves the world.  He loves the sinful world.  He loves every sinner in the world.  He doesn’t want to condemn them; he wants to save them!  And that’s why he gave his Son.  I think we sometimes live in fear and trembling of Judgment Day, imagining that moment when Jesus will review our lives and separate us as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  We get this image from Matthew 25, where the Son of Man is seated on the throne of glory, where he welcomes some into the Kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world and sends the rest stumbling off toward the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  But this is the Gospel of John, not Matthew, and in this Gospel the sheep and goats separate themselves, and Judgment Day has already come. 

Verse 18 says, “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.”  And in the verses that follow, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.  Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.  But 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.”  “This is the verdict,” we are told: that when Christ came into the world he came bringing nothing but light.  Some people were drawn to it, and drawn to him, because they loved the light, while others ran for cover, because they didn’t want their evil deeds to be exposed. 

That makes me want to ask: which one are you?  I don’t want to draw caricatures.  I don’t want to imagine that there are only two kinds of people in the world, the kind who leap out of bed and throw back the curtains to let the morning sun come streaming in and those who can’t wait till the sun goes down, so they can pour the first drink and get the party started.  Instead I might just want to ask you: where do you find the most joy?  I don’t mean pleasure; I mean joy.  Does it come to you under the cover of darkness, or does it come to you in broad daylight?  I think this is partly what John is getting at in this passage: that what God is giving us in his Son is not something you have to wait until after dark to get.  It’s not something you have to go looking for in some back alley or talk about in whispered voices or show your identification for.  What God is giving us in his Son is light, and life, and love and you can receive those anytime, anywhere, although there may be no better place than this one, and no better time than now.  “What about it?” God asks.  “Can you trust Jesus with your future?  Can you put your life in his hands?  Because if you can your eternal life will begin right now;

“I promise.”

—Jim Somerville 2012

 
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