Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Believing the King

Nicodemus came to Jesus, recognizing Him as a teacher come from God (John 3:2), but he was immediately confused by what Jesus had to say. “How can these things be?” he asked (John 3:9).

Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:10-12)
There are things Nicodemus, the Pharisees and the Jewish ruling council should have known, and a testimony they should have recognized and embraced, but they did not. “We speak what we know and testify what we have seen,” Jesus said. Some see in this the plural of majesty, the “royal we,” but it seems more likely that Jesus is speaking of Himself and “everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8), so that “Our witness” is essentially the testimony of Jesus and the Spirit. Jesus spoke to Nicodemus of heavenly things in earthly terms such as “birth,” “water” and “wind,” yet he did not understand. How then, could he ever hope to understand the things of heaven, the things of the kingdom, the things Jesus came to bring, apart from the new birth that comes from the Spirit of God?

Nevertheless, Jesus continues; He does not turn Nicodemus away but gives him opportunity to receive the witness — and the new birth — of the Spirit. “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man” (John 3:13). The only reliable witness of the things of heaven is the one who comes from there.

Now, pay close attention to how Jesus refers to Himself here; He calls Himself, “Son of Man.” That terminology is very much about the kingdom of God. It is the phrase used in Daniel about the One who comes from heaven and to whom is given “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14). From His first words to Nicodemus, Jesus has not ceased speaking to Him about the kingdom of God and the one God anointed as King.

He goes further, with a reference to Moses and the Bronze Serpent. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). In their wanderings through the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land, the children of Israel spoke out against the Lord and against Moses. On one of these occasions, poisonous snakes went through the camp, causing many of the Israelites to die. The people came to Moses repenting of their rebellion and asking him to pray to the Lord on their behalf. God then had Moses make a bronze snake and lift it up on a pole, promising that anyone who was bitten and would look on that bronze snake would live (Numbers 21:4-9). On one level, it served as a focal point for their repentance and faith; on a deeper level, it is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

It is no coincidence that this story concerns Moses. The Gospel according to John has compared Jesus to Moses from the beginning.
  • In John 1:17, there is the direct statement, “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
  • In John 1:21, the Pharisees ask John the Baptist if he is “The Prophet.” This is a reference to a promise God made to Moses: “I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him” (Deuteronomy 18:18). John said he was not that Prophet, but indicated that he was the forerunner (John 1:23-27).
  • In John 1:45, after Phillip begins to follow Jesus, he finds his friend Nathanael and tells him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote — Jesus of Nazareth.”
Now, in John 3:14-15, Jesus compares Himself to Moses. Remember that the poisonous snakes came because the people rebelled against the Lord and Moses. The remedy was a bronze snake — the image of the very thing that was killing the Israelites! — lifted high. To look on it was to live. In like manner, the Son of Man, to whom is given eternal dominion over all nations, must be lifted up. In this is a reference to the Cross, where Jesus bore in His own body the very thing that was killing us all. But it also shows us the Ascension, Christ exalted in the heavens.

Jesus is the fulfillment of Moses, one like him yet greater than him, The Prophet. He is the Messiah, the Anointed One of Psalm 2: “Why do the nations rage, and the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against His Anointed” (Psalm 2:1-2). The only remedy for this rebellion is for the Son of Man to be lifted up. All who look on Him live.

This is the way in which God loved the world (John 3:16): He gave His one and only Son — the one of whom God said, “Yet I have set My King on My holy hill of Zion” (Psalm 2:6) and to whom He said, “You are My Son, today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession” (Psalm 2:7-8). God gave His Son, Jesus, to be “lifted up.” To look on Him, to believe in Him, is to enter into the life that belongs to the ages, even the life of the kingdom age that has come into the world through Him.

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