And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
John the Evangelist begins these verses with an allusion which every Jew of that day would have known: the story of the bronze serpent lifted up in the wilderness when the Jews had sinned against God after their escape from slavery in Egypt.
Their punishment – their torment – was to be smitten by deadly snake bite. But for those who believed what Moses told them and who looked up at the bronze figure of a serpent held aloft for the purpose, they would be healed – delivered – from the mortal affliction.
So Christ is here presented as the answer to the affliction of being condemned to eternal torment in hell because of our in-bred sin, or hostility to God our Maker.
And this is the amazing contrast of the Christian faith. A holy, righteous God so perfect that he dwells in unapproachable light, and cannot stand the very sight of sin, yet sends his Son to to be the sacrifice which bears the punishment we deserve for our sin.
Christ at the cross of his crucifixion bore the punishment you and I deserve for our hostility to God and for our disobedience to him, our Creator.
But this message is meaningless unless we believe it. Unless we believe in. This is the crucial distinction between those who stand and remain condemned on the one hand, and those who don’t on the other – those saved from God’s condemnation in eternity.
The Oxford English dictionary give the nuances of the word, believe.
One is “to accept as true”; another, pertaining to a religious context says, “to have faith in; to have confidence in”.
And that is the issue. Do we accept the words cited from John’s Gospel account above as true? Do we have confidence in those words – words which speak of Jesus Christ, of who he is, of what he has done, and of what we must do in response ?
HAVE CONFIDENCE IN.
When I first believed, I had tremendous fear that speaking of my belief in Christ and in his ability to save me, would produce unpleasant reactions from those I told. Well whether it did or not, my fear was the opposite of exercising faith that Christ was there to be with me and see me through; it was holding on to my own appreciation of what would happen, and that I would have to face it alone, without Jesus Christ. It was faith in my self with all its limitations, and not in God.
It was partly the faith that God alone can give to help us – indeed enable us – to believe; and it was partly my own human ability to believe.
We need to understand that Faith is a gift of God, and that it comes from God; but also that such faith needs to be exercised. [see Ephesians 2.8; Romans 10.17; James chapter 2.14-26]
What I have described is part of the reality of coming to faith in Christ. But these verses go on to describe what happens when people don’t believe, or rather refuse to believe.
They do that because they love – that is give themselves to – evil ie what is contrary to God and his teaching. They do that because their deeds, their actions, are contrary to God’s teaching.
They like their lifestyle and what they do, and they don’t want to give it up. They are addicted to it, such that even if they accept the message as true, they cannot benefit from it because they prefer to live disobeying God. They don’t want to do what God wants them to do, even though he – by definition – must know best.
They want to go their own way and live the way they want, in disregard of God.
In disregard of what God has done for them at the cross. In disregard for his great love for us to save us from ourselves and from his anger at our sin.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.
In the face of such amazing love – unmerited and unasked for – men still prefer disobedience and hell.
They stand condemned by their own attitude and actions.
And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
Such is a fundamental and truly terrible reality Jesus says we must face.