This week our Scripture passage includes one of the most familiar passages of the Bible for followers of
Jesus, John 3:16. That reference has been displayed at football games by fans in the end zone during the
extra point for decades. Does anybody know; do they still do that? The intention, as I understand it, is to
encourage people who don’t know Jesus to look up the verse in their Bibles (presuming they have a Bible).
Now, I suppose many can look it up on the internet on their phones or at home. So, they look it up, and
they are encouraged because it tells them that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that
whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” There’s the Gospel right there in a nutshell,
but for people who don’t know Jesus, it can be a tough nut to crack.
I have come to think that this reference of John 3:16 we see at sporting events and things does more to encourage
and remind followers of Jesus than it does to bring people to faith. That certainly has its merits too. Why do I
think that? For one, a practicing Christian is more likely to be know what John 3:16 says. I am terrible at
memorizing anything, including Scripture, and even I remember at least the first part of that verse. Even if I
didn’t, I might be inspired to look it up. I know that the reference is for the Gospel of John, chapter 3, verse 16.
Even if I didn’t know where John is in my Bible. I could look it up in the table of contents and go from there.
I can read it, and be reminded of how much God loves me. That is very encouraging.
These days, you cannot count on people outside of the Christian faith knowing any of that. Someone who is
seeking God might, but the random non-Christian? Not likely. Why is that? Strangely enough, Jesus explains
it to us in another part of our passage for today. One of the problems with focusing on John 3:16 exclusively is
that we don’t see the many many important things that this passage is teaching us about God and about faith.
We won’t be looking at all of them, or we would be here for a year … at least. We will focus on a few questions,
namely Why, What, and How.
So I invite you to read the passage with me in your Bibles. We will be reading John 3:1-17. It begins on page 1649
of your Pew Bibles. As we read and listen to this familiar passage, try to do so with fresh eyes and fresh ears, as if
it were for the first time.
John 3:1-17 (NIV)
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling
council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has
come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter
a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born
of water and the Spirit.6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not
be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear
its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I
tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not
accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will
you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came
from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man
must be lifted up] 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but to save the world through him.
Last summer we looked a little about the question of why. Why are we here as a church? Why do we follow
Jesus? Knowing your why helps you know what you should be doing for God and how you should be going
about it. In this passage we get the answer to why for the biggest question of all. Why did God send Jesus
to earth? It is the same verse we were discussing a few minutes ago, verse 12. Why did God send Jesus?
Because, “God so loved the world,” that people might be saved from destruction and have eternal life. That
is a summary of the whole gospel, the good news. Whenever you read about something that Jesus did, a
lesson that he taught, remember the reason, the why. “For God so loved the world…” Why did he allow himself
to be crucified? Why did he keep the disciples around when they keep misunderstanding and messing things
up? Why did he have compassion on widows, children, blind people, lepers, and more? Because God so loved
Why did God send Jesus? Because despite its brokenness, its blindness, God so loved the world that he gave
his one and only Son, Jesus, to provide the bridge, the ladder, the connection, the life-line between humanity
and the kingdom of God. He came so that we might have life, real life in the light of God, and have it abundantly.
Anyone who trusts Jesus and follows him won’t be living as zombies (the walking dead) in this broken and dying
place. They will be able to experience real life, like the difference between living in black & white and living in
color. God did all this to rescue and redeem the world.
God rescued and redeemed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and guided them to their real home. He took them
from the only existence that they ever knew. In the same way, Jesus came to rescue the world from its slavery,
from the only life humanity has ever known and guide us to our real home.
But, not everyone wants to go. They don’t even see a different life as an option. They may not even realize that they
are slaves to sin and death and in need of rescuing.
Nicodemus knew enough about God that he realized that there was something special about Jesus, but he was
perplexed. He thought he was good and knowledgeable. Jesus told him that he didn’t know a thing, and he
couldn’t until a very important thing happened.
Nicodemus was right about one thing. Jesus is special, but Nicodemus’ knowledge was incomplete. He knew
what he studied. He knew what he had seen. He knew what he heard about Jesus. Observation, logic, and
deduction, they are excellent tools, yet he still only had the smallest idea.
There is knowing, and then there is knowing. We can know things that we’ve studied intellectually. We can
study mechanical engineering. We can think that we know everything about it, but when our car breaks down,
we won’t know if we know anything about mechanics until we try to fix it.
In a general sense, I understand the Big Bang theory for the creation of the universe. I am fully willing to accept
that this is the way that God started it when God said, “Let there be light.” (Gen 1:3) At one point, astrophysicists
thought that Big Bang best fit what they observed. Now, there is a competing idea involving multiple dimensions
and plenty of other things. Many astrophysicists think that this fits their observations better, and it is called String
Theory. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around that. Maybe that’s how God decided to create the universe.
Both camps of Astrophysicists think they know how the universe was created, and how it is continuing to develop,
but they don’t know. They think that they have the best theory based on their observations. If they observed
something completely different from what their theory suggests, they will change their theory. It is part of the
Maybe the best illustration of this love, and this time I am talking about the romantic type of love. You may go
through the stages of when you realize that you like someone. You like to be around them. You develop a crush.
You wonder could this be love? I think I’m in love. You know, sort of. Then, you have to go out of town for a few
weeks. You start doubting. You come back. You see them, and you know. I am in love. You know. Nicodemus
thought he knew. He didn’t know. Jesus explains to him what has to happen before he can really know.
We have learned why God sent Jesus because God so loved the world. Now, we learn what happens to people
because he came. People will be born again or born from above. The Greek can mean either, and John probably
means both. There is our natural birth. Then there is our spiritual birth when we start our new life, our real life,
with God. When we are born of the Spirit, we become children of God. (c.f. John 1:12-13)
You may have been a child of God for as long as you can remember, or you may remember your spiritual birthday
as a distinct moment of your life. Both are equally valid. After all no one remembers their physical birth.
Regardless of the timing, you cannot even perceive the kingdom of God until this happens. Nicodemus had not
been born from above, at least not yet, so he is blind to it. He is there to ask Jesus questions, but Jesus
tells him that he couldn’t possibly explain it to Nicodemus until this has happened.
Craig Strobel was the pastor here 10 years ago. As it happens, just before I came here, I worked for him in
Pocatello, ID. When we had to travel to Salem or Portland, he would always tell me that I should take a detour off
the interstate and visit Wallowa County and especially the Methodist Camp while I was so close. He would say
that it is so beautiful there. It is wonderful. You should see it. I would say to myself, I’m sure it’s great, but I have
an 11 hour drive. I really can’t afford to add three hours to go up to Wallowa County.
Then, I drove up here for the first time, specifically to meet with the Single Board Governance Team. As soon, as
I left Island City toward Imbler I started saying to myself, “Oh … Oh … now I understand.” The further that I went
up the road and though the mountains, it continued to get more and more beautiful, more and more awe-inspiring.
The mountains, the rivers, the pastures, the animals, the trees, the grass. It was about this time of year. All the
trees were blooming. It was almost unbelievable. Now, that I could see it, I could finally understand why Craig was
so adamant that I should visit Wallowa County. I had to see it to understand.
Until the Holy Spirit comes to us, and we are born from above, we won’t see it. We can’t understand. That new
birth is what has to happen first. Then things begin to make sense. Before that, all this Jesus stuff seems like folly.
Great teacher. Too bad that he ran into the Roman fist. He could have really made something of himself if he had
lived longer. Once we are born from above, and the Spirit begins to interact with us, we will start saying,
“Oh … Oh …now I see. God so loved the world that he sent Jesus.”
But, how does this happen? In verse 14, Jesus refers to a rather obscure incident when the Israelites were
traveling around the desert, and they were grumbling and complaining … again. The story is in the book of
Numbers chapter 21. They were inundated by poisonous snakes. People were dying from the venom, and the
Israelites repented. They said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord
will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.”
However, God did not take away the snakes. Instead he provided a way for the people to be cured and live. He
had Moses make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. He said that if someone looked at the bronze snake after
they had been bitten, they would live. (cf. Num 21:4-9)
In our passage today, Jesus says, “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.” (John 3:14-15) Lifted up means Jesus
lifted up on the cross, resurrected, AND his resurrection all together. (Judith Jones,
www.workingpreacher.org, “Commentary on John 3:1-17”) When Jesus is lifted up he saves people from
the deadly effects of this broken world. When we look to him, follow him, believe in him, we are saved from
the deadly poison of the world, and we can live.
We look to Jesus, the Son of Man, the one who has been lifted up. This is how the rescue mission happens.
This is how Jesus leads us to our promised land, our real home, our real life.
And why did he do all this? Because, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever
believes in him shall not perish but shall have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to
condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17)
The next time you watch a football game and see the John 3:16 sign, remember all that. I may never
watch a football game the same way again.