“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17).
A Pharisee named, Nicodemus, met with Jesus one night. As we imagine some worry on his part that his peers might see him visiting Jesus, that he came at night seems significant. But the hour only colors the meeting. Since Pharisees were, most likely, businessmen, it may have simply been after work.
As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was a separatist from the ways of the world. He held to strictly interpreted concepts of Israel’s founding laws. His purpose seems more interesting, as we must read between the lines of his simple affirmation, “You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with Him” (John 3:2).
Nicodemus met Jesus, not with a question but with a statement. Yet, Jesus wasted no time leading Nicodemus into a deeper understanding of who He was, especially in His relationship with God. As Nicodemus recognized the presence of God with Jesus, Jesus opened the door for Nicodemus to meet God.
You see, God sent Jesus to save us. By definition, salvation, as following Jesus, requires a meeting. You can only follow someone that you have met and are getting to know. Jesus and the one to be saved must meet one another. That’s how a person meets God in salvation. God sent Jesus to save Nicodemus. The meeting was on!
Meeting Jesus, we discover who God is, and we trust in Him for salvation.
Lord, open our hearts to those gracious meetings with You which fan the flames of faith and understanding.
How do we meet God in Jesus?
It’s nighttime. This man who separated himself from the world was sitting with the Rabbi of the people. It’s ironic, since his name, Nicodemus, means victory of the people. Perhaps they’re around a fire. Or, imagine the candles lit, and an oil lamp on the table. And this Rabbi, Jesus, jumped in by telling a “ghost” story—a Holy Ghost story, the story of the Spirit.
But rather than a scary story, such as ours are, Jesus told the sacred story of the life-giving Spirit of God. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do no be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:6-7).
We meet God in Jesus through the work of the Spirit. This Spirit, who gives us being, this Spirit who gives us life, Jesus characterizes as free and inscrutable. “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
There is no pressure to slip in a visit under cover of night or simply after work. The Spirit goes whithersoever it desires. And we know His presence. There is no Pharisaical pressure to remain separate from perceived threats to the Law. The Spirit moves in us and through us and around us and with us. Indeed, the Spirit moves us in directions and ways which exceed our understanding. The Spirit gives us life and breath, exceeding the limits of nighttime and all the pharisaical legalism of presumptuous leaders.
And then the tone turned somber if not a little tense. Nicodemus showed deeper reluctance to the descriptions of Spirit-life which Jesus had offered. Jesus challenged whether Nicodemus could be such an expert in the Law and not be able to see the truth as He opened it up before him.
From introduction to the Spirit, Jesus now focussed on His personal story. The image is striking if not frightening. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
We meet God in Jesus when He is lifted up. What does this serpent talk allude to? What would lifting up Jesus look like?
First, the Moses and serpent story refers to an incident in Israel’s history in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt. Moses tells us that in response to ongoing toxic complaints from the Israelites, “The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (Num 21:6). God’s character, methods, or motives are not the question here. The emphasis is on the venomous nature of the people’s complaint.
But even that is not Jesus’ point. Jesus moved to the solution. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent [out of bronze], and set it on a standard; and it shall come about that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live’” (Num 21:8). The bronze serpent was lifted up in sight of the community for the sake of the community. Thus, must Jesus be lifted up.
Listen! The serpent was a construction of men which God used for their salvation. Crucifixion is a construction of men and God used the crucifixion of Jesus for our salvation. This is the, “Lifting up Jesus,” part. We think that, “Lifting up Jesus,” means something like, “Giving Jesus the praise!” or, “Always blessing His name!” Later in John’s Gospel we find that the phrase, “Lift up Jesus,” specifically refers to the crucifixion. Jesus said, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” John explained, “But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die” (John 12:32, 33).
Sacrificial deaths were not a new thing. Society probably owes its existence to the emergence of such violence. But previously, no sacrifice ever gave more than a temporary relief from suffering by the suffering of the other. The difference with this crucifixion, in the lifting up of Jesus, was that Jesus went sinlessly and willingly and gracefully and filled with forgiveness to the cross. And most importantly, we heard the story from the perspective of Jesus. That’s the story we tell today as we, “Lift up Jesus.”
This brings us to the Father. Giving Jesus to the world, God was giving Himself to His creation. Hear these most well-know of verses. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17).
We meet God in Jesus as God gave His Son to us. He is the God who gives of Himself into His creation and for our good.
Pharisees tried to remain separate from the Romans and from the Greek cultural influences and the common folk and the Sadducees and all the others who didn’t follow the Law with the right (meaning, in agreement with them) interpretation. Business occupied his day and a meeting with this Jesus, with Whom he sensed God, occupied this night for Nicodemus.
In complete contrast, God refused to separate Himself from us. He came in the flesh. He turned night into day in the light of His presence. Jesus walked with us and touched us and lived with us and went about doing good. And Jesus died for us and rose for us and is coming back for us.
The age of life was present and open to Nicodemus that night. It remains open to us today. We often translate the phrase, zoen aionion, the zoe—eon, eternal life. For many, this implies a future in heaven. But this phrase refers to an eon or “age” of life which is present as we speak, and which lies before us without end. Eternal life is simply that life which is worth living eternally.
God meets us in Jesus, and we can meet Him and be saved (entering into this life-age) through Him. He is the Father God who gave His only Son to us. He is the Son of Man lifted up on the cross. He is the Spirit who gives us life. Meet Him! Know Him! Trust Him!