The Only Antidote for the Venom of Sin
Text: John 3:14-15, Num 21:4-9
Once again we turn to this remarkable passage, where Jesus gives perhaps the greatest one-to-one exposition of salvation. Adding to the profound content of the subject matter, is the context in which it was given; that it was delivered to one of the most religious men on the face of the earth. An intelligent man, rich man, powerful man, respected man, a sincere man, and yet, as it turns out a deeply misguided man.
Nicodemus draws himself away from the company of Jesus’ greatest enemies. Away from those who were least likely to consider themselves in any need of what Jesus offers. What a convert Nicodemus would be. What a trophy. What an embarrassment to the Pharisees, that their great teacher instead of joining the camp of opposition to Jesus, actually joins sides with him.
But Jesus doesn’t pander to him, nor flatter him. Jesus is remarkably unseeker-sensitive to Nicodemus. He spends most of the time persuading Nicodemus that he can’t do anything to be saved! This is to a man whose discipline of life was beyond comprehension for most of us today. Then Jesus denounces his ignorance and then he exposes his unbelief.
As Jesus talks with Nicodemus, he rebukes his unbelief. Nicodemus had acknowledged that he knew Jesus was come from God. But Jesus reveals to him that He wasn’t merely sent by God as Nicodemus acknowledged, He was sent directly from heaven by God, AND He is God. And even though Nicodemus’ unbelief was hiding earthly truths from him, Jesus then draws in His eager mind to tell him something heavenly – v14-15.
As we glean from this iconic passage of God’s Word, we are given a wonderful insight into the Triune Godhead in the accomplishment of our salvation. Jesus begins with work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, then Jesus deals with the work of the Son of God in his sacrifice, and then He presents the work of the Father who gave His only begotten Son.
On this occasion we we will be looking at the work of the Son, and once again we find our Lord using imagery from the OT to teach Nicodemus and whoever else may have been there. I suggested last time that Ezek 36:26 out to have been sufficient for Nicodemus to understand the sovereign work of the Spirit in salvation, and the Lord uses similar language in v5 to show Nicodemus what he should have known from Ezek 36. Since he was one of if not the top teacher of the law in Israel, he should have known these things, and Jesus in facts chastens Nicodemus for not knowing (v10,12).
I. THE PICTURE USED – v14
In these verses the imagery should again be crystal clear to Nicodemus. In Num 21, as the children of Israel wander in the wilderness on their way to the promised land, we’re given an account (or one of the accounts) of them turning bitter and beginning to murmur. Now always bear in mind, the reason they were wandering in the wilderness was due to their own unbelief. After having led them through the Red Sea and defeating the Egyptians on their behalf without having to lift one weapon, God takes them to Kadesh Barnea from which they should have progressed to inherit the land. But their unbelief prevented them.
Now they are discouraged, and they are finding fault with God, claiming there was no bread when God had been sending them manna from heaven. So then they confess it wasn’t that there was no bread, but they were fed up with what God was providing. What a tragedy when God’s people get no profit from the bread God provides. May God prevent that from happening here.
They grieved the Lord so much that He sent fiery serpents to bring widespread judgment among them. Nearly everyone of the adults were not going to enter the promised land anyway, but judgement upon their lives is brought down more swiftly for many by their hardness of heart. As they start to die, they plead to Moses to pray for them.
The Lord gives an odd response to their problem, that Moses should make a brazen replica of the poisonous serpent, and everyone who looks and believes that it is God’s remedy for their problem, will live. Those who refuse, will die. Now they were all going to die at some stage, but the idea is that they would die and die eternally. They would perish in an irreversible state of damning unbelief.
Now what Jesus does for Nicodemus is show him that this was not merely history, but the theology of true salvation in the form or a picture. Jesus calls him to think of the scene of serpents biting people and there being no antidote or antivenom, until Moses lifts up a brazen serpent God had told him to make and for those who look, they live, and those who refuse, die.
And what Jesus then says is, there is another who must be lifted upon to whom all sinners must look for salvation.
Two things about this picture we must note:
i) What it did – gave life That bronze snake on a pole was the means God used to give new (physical) life to the children of Israel if they were bitten in the plague of snakes that had been sent in as a punishment for the persistent murmuring. By God’s provision, new life was graciously granted. Why then should it be thought so strange that by the gracious provision of this same God there should be new spiritual life, indeed ‘eternal life’ (v. 15)?
ii) How it did it – by being lifted up Moses lifted up the snake on a pole so that all who were afflicted in the camp might look and live. In the same way, the Son of Man must be lifted up. The Greek verb for ‘lifted up’ (hypsoō) in its four occurrences in this Gospel (cf. 8:28; 12:32, 34) always combines the notions of being physically lifted up on the cross, with the notion of exaltation.
The theological connection between resurrection and exaltation is not infrequent in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 2:32–33; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; 2:6; Col. 3:1; 1 Pet. 1:21). John goes farther, and theologically ties together the crucifixion, the resurrection and the exaltation.
II. THE PROBLEM AFFIRMED – sin, especially unbelief
By using this picture, Jesus assumes man’s condition before Nicodemus. Man has been bitten by the serpent, the product of the serpent is the venom of sin, and the venom of sin results in death. Now Nicodemus was aware of sin. He may even have been aware of some sin in his own life. What he didn’t realize was the deathly effects of sin in his heart. To Nicodemus, the fact that he had the blood of Abraham running through his veins along with his personal religious practice, was assurance enough that everything was well with his soul. But Jesus, by using this picture affirms the problem Nicodemus didn’t get – the problem of sin.
The specific sin in this case is that of unbelief. Jesus addresses that unbelief in the previous verses, but now he takes an historical event to show Nicodemus the dangers of unbelief. “And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.” Numbers 21:5.
There sin was the rejection of the bread, which as we know and as Jesus will focus upon in John 6, was a clear type of Christ. A clear picture of their need. This bread miraculously came out heaven daily for the Israelites, and it showed them that all their need would be provided for by God. That God would send bread from heaven that would nourish their souls.
Now they’re fed up. Their turning away from the type, which symbolized their turning away from God in unbelief. They were literally saying, we want something else. Something other than Christ! And Nicodemus was in danger of doing the same. Christ was showing him what he needed to do, and in unbelief he was turning away from the provision God had sent down from heaven.
And people do this all the time. For Nicodemus, it was replacing Christ with religion and self-righteousness. And many today still replace Christ with religion and dependance upon their own righteousness. God had to show the Israelites, that the provision for life always and only comes from Him. Having rejected the bread which sustained their life, now they are made to feel death before they should look to the brazen serpent provided by God, just like the bread.
And the evangelical church today is falling into the same trap. People are bored with the simplicity of God’s provision in the Word and worship of Christ. They want a different meal. They want to go back to Egypt and feed on the provision from Egypt – a repeated picture of the world in the scriptures. So we’re fed up with the simplicity of prayer, studying the word and biblical worship – we want the bread of the world! We want its entertainment. We want a passive church experience, because we have been conditioned to be passive.
People sit of hours in front of the television every evening being entertained with all the drivel of the day. Then they come to church and they want it to be passive. They want to watch worship. They idolize the ‘feeling’ of the worship experience. The very definition of worship takes our feelings and opinions out of the equation. That’s not to remove our feelings from it, but we don’t do it for OUR feeling. Singing should be loud and bold, but mostly from the people. You should sing loudly and joyously, but if you pulled the plug on the amplifiers, speakers, and instruments in most churches today you’d barely hear the congregation. They are passive. Entertained by a bunch of hipsters who have been misled by carnal pastors.
The desire to go to Egypt and neglect the bread God gave was blatant unbelief, and just as it stood as a warning to Nicodemus, so it does for us.
III. THE PROMISE GIVEN – v15
i) The entrance to it – “believeth”
But Jesus’ message here wasn’t new. That’s the point. That’s why Jesus could rebuke Nicodemus. As a teacher of law, he should have known what Jesus was revealing. And the message of Christianity isn’t new. It’s the same message God preached to Adam after the Fall. Sin has brought death and eternal destruction, and men need to be saved by faith.
Read Hebrews 11 and you see that all the patriarchs and believers from the past were saved, not by their works, but by faith. What they did FOLLOWED their salvation. It was a product of their salvation, not a part of their salvation. And how have they all reached heaven? By faith! By believing! Not works or virtues. Faith! And Paul uses Abraham as the outstanding example. All the Lord wanted from Abraham in order to declare him righteous was faith. Not works. Faith. Abraham believed and he was seen as righteous. And this was revolutionary to the ears of a Pharisee, but it shouldn’t have been.
The entrance to the promise is faith. That’s all it took to be delivered from the venom of the serpents. The only difference between those who were dead and dying and those who were immune to the fatal effects of the bite, was a look to the serpent. That’s it. And that’s seen in this meeting tonight. It doesn’t matter what nationality or personality or anything like that – the great divide is between those who have looked to Christ for the salvation of their souls, and those who have not. Those who are dying due to the bite, and those who are living in spite of the bite, and the distinction between the two has been brought about by one thing v15.
ii) The essence of it – “should not perish, but have eternal life”
The expression eternal life literally means ‘life of the age to come’, and therefore resurrection life. But in John’s Gospel it’s clearly understood that this life may in some measure be experienced before the end. It has its greatest fulfillment and enjoyment in the age to come, but it begins here. The prologue says ‘in him was life’ (1:4). The eternal life commenced by the new birth is nothing less than the eternal life of the eternal Word. It is the life of God in you from the point of regeneration.
Do you have this? Are you still living in the life of the material only? Are you living for this life?
iii) The extent of it – “whosoever”
Oh how these words are lost on us. To a Jew like Nicodemus this would have been almost unacceptable. He was looking for Messiah to come and judge the nations that hated Israel. Jesus comes and says, no, anyone that believes will have eternal life! There’s no racism with God. The only special love he has is not decided by ethnicity or nationality. Do you understand that? You might be sitting here tonight with a baggage of sin in your heart that seems impossible to forgive. You might even think your sin is so dark it would be wrong for God to save you. You leave the rightness or wrongness with God. Jesus says whosoever and it’s time you took Him at His Word.
1. a picture of the plight of sinners – here is a people under judgement. they can see the effects of the bite all around, and they ought to have looked around and realized that without divine intervention, every last one of them was going to die.
Here then is a picture of men. Wandering in a wilderness due to sin, and suffering under the consequences of more sin, here is a picture of you if you are not saved. Can you not see the corpses left behind by sin? Do you not see the hurt in families caused by sin? Do you not see the destruction of sin, with people serving self rather than others? Drinking alcohol and taking drugs for their own selfish benefit without any consideration of the effect it has on other lives, even the lives of their children? This is the venom of sin.
Look across this city and country and tell me, do you not see the destructive nature of sin? Of course you can. Do you not see how it robs the most talented people of their bright futures? Of course you can. But the question is, do you see its effects on your own life? Tell me, can you not feel the venom of sin threatening your very life? Quit playing games my friend. Your sin is going to, if it hasn’t already, lead to your demise. Life is no game. Life is no party. Life is a mercy, and every day is another opportunity to deal with the venom.
2. a picture of the provision of the Saviour – why did God appoint Moses to make a fiery serpent of brass in order to deal with the venom of the serpents? To reflect the provision that would be necessary to deal with sin. It would require one in the likeness of that which ruining the Israelites; namely, their humanity (Rom 8:3). Note also that just as the brazen serpent had to be fashioned under fire, so the deliverance Christ would bring required Him having to be made sin for us,
3. a picture of the plan of salvation – just as in Numbers 21, the word of Christ to Nicodemus was, look and live! And listen my friend, you don’t need to know anything more than the fact you’ve been bitten by the serpent and that a look to Christ is all you need as a remedy. According to Christ to look is to believe. And just as that serpent was lifted up so that all