If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to the Gospel of John, chapter 2, verse 23. We’ll be going all the way from 2:23 through the end of chapter 3 this morning, so buckle in. John says:
While Jesus was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many trusted in His name when they saw the signs He was doing. 24 Jesus, however, would not entrust Himself to them, since He knew them all 25 and because He did not need anyone to testify about man; for He Himself knew what was in man.
There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Him at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher, for no one could perform these signs You do unless God were with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “I assure you: Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4 “But how can anyone be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked Him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, “I assure you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit.7 Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again.8 The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can these things be?” asked Nicodemus.
10 “Are you a teacher of Israel and don’t know these things?” Jesus replied. 11 “I assure you: We speak what We know and We testify to what We have seen, but you do not accept Our testimony. 12 If I have told you about things that happen on earth and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about things of heaven?13 No one has ascended into heaven except the One who descended 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 so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.
16 “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world that He might condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 Anyone who believes in Him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the One and Only Son of God.
19 “This, then, is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who practices wicked things hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed. 21 But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.”
22 After this, Jesus and His disciples went to the Judean countryside, where He spent time with them and baptized. 23 John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water there. People were coming and being baptized, 24 since John had not yet been thrown into prison.
25 Then a dispute arose between John’s disciples and a Jew about purification. 26 So they came to John and told him, “Rabbi, the One you testified about, and who was with you across the Jordan, is baptizing—and everyone is flocking to Him.”
27 John responded, “No one can receive a single thing unless it’s given to him from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I’ve been sent ahead of Him.’ 29 He who has the bride is the groom. But the groom’s friend, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the groom’s voice. So this joy of mine is complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
31 The One who comes from above is above all. The one who is from the earth is earthly and speaks in earthly terms. The One who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He testifies to what He has seen and heard, yet no one accepts His testimony. 33 The one who has accepted His testimony has affirmed that God is true. 34 For God sent Him, and He speaks God’s words, since He gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hands. 36 The one who believes in the Son has eternal life, but the one who refuses to believe in the Son will not see life; instead, the wrath of God remains on him.
This is the Word of the Lord.
We are about to dive into what might be the most famous passage in all of scripture. I’ve you’ve been to Sunday School, or VBS, or anything, then chances are you remember the old familiar verse, John 3:16.
But what’s fascinating, though, is that what might be the most famous passage in all of scripture opens with what oughtta be the most infamous passage in all of scripture. Starting at verse 23, John says:
“While [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many trusted in His name when they saw the signs He was doing. 24 Jesus, however, would not entrust Himself to them, since He knew them all 25 and because He did not need anyone to testify about man; for He Himself knew what was in man.”
That’s shocking. The crowds see Jesus healing the sick, they see him lifting up the poor, they see him turning water into wine, they see him clearing out the temple because it’s become corrupt and stopped doing what God created it to do, and they’re amazed. So they start to crowd around him. They start promising to “entrust” themselves to him.
But he does not entrust himself to them in return. That’s shocking.
From a practical standpoint that seems like a very bad decision. Right? If your goal is to build up a big following, generally speaking you should not turn away the masses when they entrust themselves to you. If your goal is to become a cult leader, the last thing you want to do is to tell your potential cult members to go do something else with their lives. But that’s exactly what Jesus does.
Jesus turns away the masses, which probably shocked his disciples, and would certainly shock most any “Church Growth Specialist” you would consult, because that’s Jesus saying “No” to cold hard numbers. That’s Jesus saying no to “growth for growth’s sake.” And if we take a look at verse 26, we see exactly why.
It says Jesus did not entrust himself to those masses, because he “knew exactly what was in man.” He knew exactly what was in each of those people. Every person who came down to meet him after watching him perform some sign, who got caught up in the heat of the moment, and made a promise they didn’t mean, who entrusted their lives to him, full of passion but probably not sincerity – Jesus knew them from the inside, but he knew them deeper than that. Jesus knows us with a knowledge that is very much like knowing us from the inside, but is actually more perceptive than that. Jesus knows us better than we know us, because he knows us without all of our delusions.
So Jesus turns away the crowd.
Now, I don’t have a definitive answer for you, but I think this has everything in the world to do with what the masses wanted. When you approach somebody and entrust yourself to him, it matters what you want when you’re doing it, right? There’s a difference between entrusting yourself to someone in a good way, like you’d entrust yourself to your spouse, or your friend, and entrusting yourself to somebody in a bad way, like a stalker, and the difference has everything to do with what you want when you do it.
And our passage says nothing directly about what they wanted from him, but it does tell us exactly what they didn’t want.
Looking at chapter 3, verse 3, Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, and he says, “I assure you: Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Whatever the masses thought they were going to get from Jesus, it wasn’t the Kingdom of God.
Whatever the masses wanted from Jesus, it was not what he came to give them. Does that sound familiar? It’s been 2000 years since Jesus had this hard conversation with Nicodemus, and things are basically the same. The masses approaching Jesus seem to want something very different from him than he actually offers.
In the year 2020, it seems very much like the average person approaches Jesus and entrusts themselves to him because they think that he’s going to make them rich, they think he’s going to take away the difficulty in their lives, that he’s going to grant them three wishes, or something. But as our passage our passage demonstrates, that’s not a new thing. The reality is that there’s never been a point in history in which the masses have not swarmed around Jesus and entrusted themselves to him with very different ideas about what Jesus is going to give them than what he ever actually offered.
And the result is that the crowds sought out Jesus, but they were not looking for the Kingdom.
Of course they weren’t looking for the Kingdom. They couldn’t even see it, verse 3. Jesus says, “Unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Of course they weren’t seeking out the Kingdom of God, they wouldn’t even have known it if they’d seen it.
So it’s worth asking: Are you seeking out the Kingdom of God? Do you actually want the Kingdom of God? Would you know it if you saw it? Would you care? When you entrust yourself to Jesus, what are you trying to get out of it?
To put it a little bit more pointedly: Are you looking for a King? Are you looking for a Savior?
Or are you just looking to get let off the hook for the bad things you’ve done throughout your life?
If it’s the latter, I have very bad news for you. You are the crowd.
You might walk down to the aisle and performatively entrust yourself to Jesus, but he will not entrust himself to you in return.
Don’t get me wrong: Jesus absolutely saves us from our sin, he absolutely saves us from our condemnation, but if your goal when you entrust yourself to him is to get “let off the hook,” then you will not be let off the hook. Like with the crowds, he will not entrust himself to you.
That’s a hard word. But the reasoning behind that is very simple. It’s because Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom of light, and there is absolutely no room for darkness in it. That’s why Jesus says, in verse 19,“The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.” Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom of light, and you will not seek out the light if you’re bent on keeping your darkness.
If that’s you, then you will not find the Kingdom of God, because you’re not even looking for it. That’s why Jesus says, in verse 20, “For everyone who practices wicked things hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed.” You will not see the Kingdom of God, because you don’t actually want to. That’s what we see happening with the crowds. Christ has zero interest in amassing a fan club who’s impressed with his miracles. Christ is looking for citizens for his Kingdom.
That’s our first point, that Christ knows your heart, just like he knew the hearts of the masses. And if you’re like the people who made up those masses, that might very well be bad news instead of good news.
But there is good news. And the good news is that just like Christ knows your heart, he also knows your sickness.
And just like Christ knows your sickness. And he knows the cure.
If you’ve spent much time in John chapter 3, you probably have a handful of questions about one very strange statement that he makes right before we get to the old familiar verse in John 3:16.
You might remember verses 14 and 15, where Jesus makes that very strange claim, he says:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.” \
If you’re like me the first time I read that passage, you get to the part where Jesus is talking about Moses with some snake in the wilderness, and you’re like, “The, uh, what now?”
We can’t really dive deep into it, it is very much a sermon of its own for another day, but Moses is drawing from what would have been a very well-known story from the book of Numbers. After Israel has rebelled against Yahweh for the infinity-eth time, God sends poisonous serpents, he sends poisonous snakes into Israel’s camp. They bite everybody, and everybody gets sick as all get out.
Which is honestly kinda funny.
But Jesus uses the story of the serpents in the wilderness to make a point about our own spiritual sickness. He’s saying, “You are sick with a sickness you cannot heal.” Doesn’t that ring true?
Maybe it doesn’t. When things are going well for you, it is very easy to bury your head in the sand, and pay zero attention to what you’re really like. There’s that old saying, that “everybody thinks of themselves as the good guy, because they see the world from their own perspective.”
You think of yourself as the good guy, because you see the world from your own perspective.
But that applies to everybody. That person you hate because they’re just constantly doing dumb and terrible and obviously inexcusable things sees themself as the good guy in their own story, just like you do – because everybody experiences the world from their own perspective.
But if you’re like me, every once in a while, something will happen that surprises you. Literally just shocks you. You will say something, and the second you say it, you’re like, “What’s wrong with me?” You’ll do something without thinking, and you’ll realize it soon as you do it, that that’s the kind of thing a scumbag would do. You look in the mirror, and you’re like, “Who are you?”
You know why that happens? Because you have a sickness. Because you are not well. Level with yourself here: You are not okay.
It’s okay to admit that. You are not okay. Nobody Is.
There is something wildly wrong with all of us. It’s just written in our DNA. It’s part of what it means to live in a fallen world that is in need of redemption.
And, among other things, that ought to make us a profoundly empathetic people.
Case-in-point: Your spouse is inconsiderate. Of course she is. Your children are unappreciative. Of course they are. Your parents just don’t understand, to quote Will Smith, of course, they don’t. That’s how people are. Everybody is profoundly unwell. There is a deep sickness, a deep brokenness in everyone. We are all afflicted with the same disease, and knowing that oughtta make us unbelievably patient.
Knowing that we are all afflicted with the same disease ought to make us unbelievably patient, unbelievably understanding, unbelievably forgiving, unbelievably eager to look past each other’s faults and love each other the way that we are.
I would never deny that sometimes you need to cut toxic people out of your life, but knowing that we are all afflicted with that same sickness, that we are all the same kind of Not Okay, means that that should rarely be our first resort. It means that breaking relationships off with people should rarely be a thing that we do. Because you and I are profoundly unwell, and knowing that everybody around us is suffering under that same unwellness should make us abnormally forgiving.
Literally, forgiving to the point that freaks the world out. The kind of forgiving that makes our neighbors wonder what’s wrong with us, that makes them wonder why we keep giving people chances, why we keep inviting people into our lives when they’re just going to keep screwing up.
Don’t misunderstand me: This is not a call to be doormats, but it is absolutely a call to be supernaturally patient.
Because you and I are sick with a sickness that we cannot heal ourselves. And Jesus uses the story of the snakes in the wilderness to illustrate that deep, spiritual sickness that we’re all suffering under.
But he also uses that story to tell us about the cure. Because in the book of Numbers, eventually the people of Israel get over themselves, they come crawling back, and say, “Lord, please remove this curse from us.” And so God pulls Moses aside, and says, “Build a giant statue of a serpent, exactly like the serpents that bit you. Set it up in the middle of the camp, and bring everybody to come and gaze at the serpent. Everybody who lays eyes on the statue of the serpent will be healed.”
And so they get everybody in a line, take them into the middle of the camp, they lay eyes on the serpent, and they are healed. That’s the story Jesus is drawing on here. Jesus says, “Remember the snake in the wilderness.” “Remember the snake that heals you.” “Remember the snake Moses had to lift up in order to heal the sickness of his people?” He says, “I am like that.”
He’s says, “I am going to be lifted up, and everyone who turns and looks to me for healing will be healed.” He’s saying, “I know your sickness, and I am the cure.” Christ knows your sickness, and Christ is the cure.
And very much like the old days in the wilderness, all it really takes to be healed is to look. Jesus says that “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.” Very much like the old days in the wilderness, all it really takes to be healed is to look.
That’s anticlimactic. Right? That is not the conclusion you would assume would be coming based on the rest of the story. You know what I’m talking about?
So much so that there are some people who will never believe the gospel for exactly that reason. The idea that the solution to your problem, that the way to be healed of the deep, overwhelming brokenness that has plagued you your entire life is to shift your eye line – to turn your gaze onto the Christ who was lifted up in the cross, believe in him, and be saved – that will push so many people away.
Of course it will. Because that takes a baseball bat to your pride, right? The cross takes a bat to your pride.
Because if you’re the sort of person who finds your identity primarily in how much better you are than everybody else around you, learning that your sin is bad enough that it necessitated the death of Jesus, that will take you down a peg. Right? That might take you down so many pegs you decide this religion is not for you. When you genuinely grasp that your sin was horrific enough that Jesus needed to die in your place to redeem you, that prideful disdain for people who are lower on the social ladder than you oughta wither up and evaporate.
But maybe it won’t. Your pride might never evaporate. You might go the whole rest of your life deeply committed to the idea that you are superior to your neighbors, maybe that you’re superior to most of the people in the pews. And if that happens, let me tell you what you’re probably going to do.
You’re probably going to keep nodding along to the things that the preacher says. You’re probably going to keep nodding along at the Women’s Bible Study or at the Men’s Bible Study, you’re going to say, “Amen” when you hear something you like. But in your heart of hearts, you’re going to just ever so slightly adjust the gospel that you believe. You will slightly adjust your beliefs so that rather than recognizing and living out the gospel that Jesus preaches to us, you will weave a very different gospel that says, “If you want to go to heaven, here’s the religion that’ll get you there.”
You’ll weave a very different gospel that says, “You can earn your way into heaven by believing the right things.” You will create a very different gospel for yourself that says, “I cornered God into accepting me by saying a magic prayer,” like it’s some kind of password that gets you through the door into the clubhouse, or something.
And yet what Jesus tells Nicodemus here is very different.
He says that, “Like the snake that Moses lifted up in the wilderness, so also the Son of man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.” Your problem is not that you used to believe the wrong thing so the solution is to start believing the right thing, your problem is that you are sick with a sickness that you cannot heal yourself, and the solution is to turn your gaze onto Jesus to be healed.
That brings us to a second very important question, although, honestly, it’s essentially just the first question I asked earlier: Do you want to be healed? Do you actually want to be healed?
Ask yourself. Seriously. Do you want to be healed of that deep, spiritual sickness that you find in yourself?
To be entirely frank, I think the answer for most people is “No.” If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us cherish our sickness. Level with yourself, here: You probably love your sin. It seems very much that most folks like the idea of the light, but not so much that they’re willing to part with their darkness.
So ask yourself: Do you want to be healed of that deep, spiritual sickness that you find in yourself? If the answer is “No,” I’m not surprised. But if the answer is yes, then Jesus tells us exactly where to look. He says, “God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”
That’s our second point, Christ knows our sickness, and Christ is our cure.
But John does not leave us hanging on that point, because as we see, he transitions in the last section of our passage, into our third and final point. And that is that as people who have been healed and are being healed through Jesus, the rest of our lives are about bringing people to Christ to find healing for themselves.
Looking at verses 26 through 30, John says that:
“[The disciples of John the Baptist] told him, “Rabbi, the One you testified about, and who was with you across the Jordan, is baptizing—and everyone is flocking to Him.” 27 John responded, “No one can receive a single thing unless it’s given to him from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I’ve been sent ahead of Him.’ 29 He who has the bride is the groom. But the groom’s friend, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the groom’s voice. So this joy of mine is complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Notice what’s happening there. John’s disciples come to him, and they’re complaining to him, saying, “John, notice how few people are here? We are hemorrhaging disciples to that guy Jesus that you introduced us to.”
And John’s response essentially boils down to, “Yeah, I wish we’d hemorrhage more.” He says, “I told you, I am not the Messiah. I am not the guy you’ve been waiting for. I am not the one who’s going to satisfy your longings. I am not the one who’s going to heal your sickness. I’m just a guy who wants to point you towards him. And there he is. So what are you still doing here?”
He closes out his monologue with that famous line: “He must increase, and I must decrease.”
As people who have been and are being healed through Jesus, the rest of our lives are about bringing people to Christ to find healing for themselves.
That means that if you’re here this morning and, if you’re honest with yourself, you do not know Jesus. You know about Jesus, you admire Jesus – maybe growing up, as far as you could tell, Jesus was the god over this particular patch of land, so you figured that you were already a Christian by virtue of being an American, or something, but you’re realizing now that that’s not quite how it works. If that describes you, I’ll be standing at the front in just a moment as we respond to the Lord in worship through song, and we would love for you to come down to the front and have a conversation with me. I’d love to talk you trough the process of turning your gaze onto Jesus to be healed.