“Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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.” (John 3:9–15, ESV)
Have you ever walked into a conversation in the middle and wondered what they were taking about? Splitting up looking at Bible passages from day to day can almost be like walking in on a conversation. The big difference is that we can pick up our Bibles and read the current passage in its complete context. In the last post we read that Nicodemus had come to visit Jesus at night, commenting on how anyone who did the things that Jesus did must have been sent from God. Jesus’ response to Nicodemus was that he needed to be born again—a birth from above by the Spirit entirely different from His birth in the flesh. This new birth would come with a full and complete cleansing.
In today’s passage Nicodemus responds to what Jesus had said by questioning how what Jesus had said could be possible. Jesus turned the tables again on Nicodemus pointing to his position as a teacher among the Jews. As a teacher he should know the things which Scripture had foretold, and as a person of faith he should understand of the things of God. All of the things of which Jesus had spoken were foretold in the Scriptures (Old Testament), and as not just “a” teacher but “the” teacher of Israel Nicodemus should know these things. Clearly from this we get the picture that Nicodemus was a well-studied and highly respected person, one who was regarded as being knowledgeable in the things of God.
Here we also have a distinctive emphasis between “we” and “you,” where “you” refers to the nation of Israel who hear and do not understand or accept what they have heard, and the “we” represents Jesus and those who know, understand, and proclaim the truths of God and the means of His salvation. Those, such as Nicodemus, who should know clearly do not know. Even speaking in simple earthly terms they don’t get it. So, how would they get that which is from God?
It is for these reasons that Jesus spoke in parables or chose not to do miracles in some regions or in front of some people. Jesus knew their hearts, and He knew who would respond. Knowing these things, He also selectively chose how He would work and what He would say. Jesus had just told Nicodemus that he must be born again by the Spirit of God. In this portion of the passage, Jesus told him that in order for this to come to pass that the Son of Man (the Son of God, the Christ, the Messiah) first had to descend from heaven. As we know, Jesus (the Son of God) was sent by the Father and conceived by the Holy Spirit becoming fully man as He is fully God. Jesus was sent to go to the cross to pay the price for our sins, and after His death He was to rise again, after which He would then ascend to the Father. Jesus was sent by God and He would return to God, and in between these He would accomplish our salvation and the granting of eternal life. The latter would not happen without the first. These truths are found in the Old Testament Scriptures, and yet Nicodemus (like most others) did not understand them. Jesus was the only One of whom this is true. No one else had this kind of access to heaven, but the Son of God alone. As such, no one had the authority of the One sent by God to save mankind of his sins and grant to him eternal life.
Jesus pointed to the picture of Moses raising up the serpent in the wilderness. In Numbers 21:5-9 we read, “And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that He take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” (Numbers 21:5–9, ESV)
The people of Israel had begun to grumble and speak against God and Moses. In response God sent judgment on them such that if they were bitten by the fiery serpents they would die. As they watched others dying before them they recognized their sin and pleaded with Moses to beseech God to take away the serpents. It is interesting to see that God did not remove the serpents, but He did send a cure. Moses made a fiery serpent of bronze which he raised up on a pole, and when the people who were bitten by the serpents looked upon the bronze serpent they were saved. This is an incredible picture of God sending His Son to be raised up on a cross to give life—eternal life—to all of those who would believe.
Throughout the Scriptures we find that God had consistently pointed to the coming of His Son. And as the teacher of Israel, Nicodemus should have seen Him coming and not have been surprised. Unlike Nicodemus, we have the advantage today of not having to interpret the Old Testament prophecies and portrayals, but of also having recorded for us the coming of Jesus, including His birth, teachings, miracles, death, burial and resurrection. God told us what He was going to do hundreds of years in advance, and in the Bible we see that He actually did it. The statement that Jesus made to Nicodemus is true for all who wish to be saved. It is a simple one—believe in the Son of God and you will be saved.
Jesus continued to unfold this mystery to Nicodemus, and we will continue to look at this important interaction in the next post. “For God so loved the world, that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, ESV)