There is Good News for You
Why do we ponder the passion? Why do we set aside time each year to meditate upon Christ’s suffering and death? Is it so that we can vent our anger on the ones who put Jesus to death – the ones who hated him then and the ones who hate him now? This only puts us in the habit of complaining about other people and really only has negative effects. Is it so that we can feel pity for Christ, lamenting and bewailing his innocence? In that case we put much into meditating on the pains that Christ went through, and maybe the anguish of his faithful followers, but if we never progress beyond that, what good is it? So why do we take the time to ponder the passion?
There was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus, who wanted to know more. He wanted to know more about Jesus, and wanted to know more about why he came. Little did he know that he was also going to learn more about himself in the process. He came to Jesus in the secrecy of night, because he was a member of the Jewish ruling council and was afraid of what they would think of him coming to Jesus. It seems that Nicodemus didn’t quite know what to ask Jesus. He only came wanting to know more. But Jesus knew the burning question in his heart, and he knew just how to address it. The overriding question of the moment was whether or not Nicodemus was in the kingdom of God. If not, then he needs to know how to get there.
The problem was, Nicodemus was looking in all the wrong places and at all the wrong things. We heard last week that the leading Jews put much attention on the physical temple in Jerusalem rather than seeing the spiritual worship which was to take place there. They carefully devoted themselves to going through the motions of the Mosaic customs while ignoring the spiritual life they were meant to influence. All along, Jesus was leading Nicodemus to see not just the physical, but the spiritual aspect behind it. “The wind blows wherever it pleases.” He said, “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8).
Then Jesus alludes to an event that Nicodemus would have known well. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (Jn 3:14). Long ago, when the Israelites were rebelling against God as he led them out of Egypt to the Promised Land, he sent snakes among them which would bite them. Many Israelites died. It sounds harsh, but it was a physical representation of what was happening spiritually. Spiritually, many Israelites were succumbing to the venom of sin and dying inside. So God used physical venom as an antivenom to sin. It was the only thing that the Israelites would respond to. And it drew them back to God’s promise. Nicodemus knew that it wasn’t the physical act of looking at the bronze snake that saved the Israelites in the wilderness. It was their trust in God’s promise in connection with the bronze snake that saved them.
The reality is that we too often get so tied up in the physical that we forget about the spiritual. How many of you complained or were appalled at the news this week? How many of you are disgusted at the heart of the people who commit those crimes, steal that property, harm others’ lives? But in all of this disgust and rage, have we forgotten about why all this happens? Why ask, what could possibly be going through a person’s head to lead them to this? We know it’s not just a problem with their head. It’s actually a problem with their heart. They have been infected with the venom of sin and it’s killing them inside.
Next time as you watch the news on your TV, think of that screen not as a window into another world, but as a mirror of your heart. I’m serious. Because although you may not have acted on it, those same sins are in your heart as well. The bickering and backstabbing you see in politics can also be seen in your heart regarding people you may call your friends. The stealing and robberies you see are but reflections of your own greed and selfishness. Even the heartless murders are reflected in your own hate against those who may not have been so kind to you in the past. God alerts you to this spiritual problem time and time again in his word, but sometimes it just doesn’t sink in. Sometimes it doesn’t hit home. And so here we are, just like the Israelites looking at the bronze snake, here we are looking at a physical reminder of our sinfulness. Luther said in one of his sermons, “When you see the nails piercing Christ’s hands, you can be certain that it is your work. When you behold his crown of thorns, you may rest assured that these are your evil thoughts. For every nail that pierces Christ, more than one hundred thousand should in justice pierce you.” So meditating on the passion is not at all to burn in anger against those who crucified Christ, unless the finger is only pointing at ourselves. Meditating on the passion is not to feel sorry for Christ’s suffering, but to remorse over the suffering of our sinful condition.
All this lays the ground work for the very important message that Jesus has to share with Nicodemus and with you. In the suffering of the passion, there is good news for you. For “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” (Jn 3:14-16). As you are reminded of your spiritual condition – that you are spiritually dead in your sinfulness – then look to God’s uplifted Son, because there is Good News for you. His physical death was the antivenom for your spiritual death of sin. Look to him believing the promise that God has spoken in connection with Jesus’ death. You know the promise well. As you look to God’s uplifted Son and meditate on the passion, hear his promise and believe his promise: “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” (Jn 3:16). There is new life in connection with Jesus. Life, real life with God, unending life, begins the moment one places full confidence in the Son of Man. There is Good News for you.
It’s not a natural thing for us, though. It’s not natural for us to have the sinful condition of our hearts exposed. Like Adam, we hide our sinfulness from God. Like Nicodemus, we live our lives pretending to be one thing when we know that there is something wrong – some need to be met. And it’s really all for the same reasons that a criminal might run from the law or fear the court. We know that we deserve judgment. God has every reason and every right to summon the world into court and have his Son judge each and every one of us. We know the verdict already. The verdict would have been condemnation and eternal banishment from the presence of God for everyone. But God’s love intervened. There will be a time for judgment, make no mistake about it. But now is not that time.
Jesus says, “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” (Jn 3:17-18). His mission, when he took on flesh, was exclusively one of rescuing and deliverance. This whole conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus has been geared toward bringing Nicodemus to see God’s unlimited love and salvation in Christ. The whole reason God did not wipe out humanity – when Adam first fell into sin, when the Israelites rebelled, when Jesus was crucified, or after each and every one of your sins – was because now is not God’s time for judgment. Now is his time for salvation. The believer who comes to God trusting this, despite the condition of his heart, no longer stands in the court of judgment with the verdict of condemnation. Your faith in the Savior has removed all cause for an adverse verdict. You are not and never will be condemned. There is good news for you who look to God’s uplifted Son. There is good news for sinful human beings who lean on God’s unlimited love. You will never find a limit to what he can forgive.
This fundamentally changes a believer. Having established the necessity of believing and having declared how faith in Christ averts every kind of judgment, Jesus now draws a clear distinction between the believer and the unbeliever. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world. 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” (Jn 3:19-21). Those words must have hit Nicodemus pretty hard as he was sneaking around at night to find Jesus. Yet they were not just words of condemnation. Primarily they were words of encouragement. Jesus wanted Nicodemus to realize his own condition and great need to follow the truth. Jesus wanted Nicodemus not to be afraid of coming into the light.
The clear difference between the believer and the unbeliever is readily recognizable in their attitude toward the Light, Jesus. Unbelievers reject the light and prefer the darkness they were born in. They love the darkness with the kind of love God has for the world. They deliberately and intelligently, although foolishly, choose to remain under the control of the prince of darkness. And when the saving light comes to them and tries to free them from their enslavement, they fight back and insist on remaining in their evil deeds. Unbelief is more than just blindness to the light. It is stubborn refusal to accept the light that can remove the blindness.
Believers are completely the opposite. They are willing to live with the reality of their own unworthiness, relying on the love of God which covers their shame. They readily seek out the light because they know he hasn’t come to judge, but to love. They seek him so that they can live in that truth of forgiveness for their sins. They are not afraid of exposure, because God is at work in their lives and is using them to his glory. Live in God’s unveiled light of Jesus, because there is Good News of forgiveness for you.
We need a regular reminder of this. We need to mediate on the passion to shed light on our spiritual condition. We need to see the lengths God was willing to go to assure us that he came to love, not to judge. We need to meditate upon God’s uplifted Son to realize the Good News it proclaims. God loved the world, including you, so much that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.