“I was years and years upon the brink of hell – I mean in my own feeling. I was unhappy, I was desponding, I was despairing. I dreamed of hell. My life was full of sorrow and wretchedness, believing that I was lost.”

These are the words the older Charles Spurgeon used to describe his early years. Because of this inward turmoil he decided to go to church on a snowy January morning in 1850. On his way the snowstorm picked up and trying to avoid the wind the young Spurgeon darted down a side street and quickly entered a small Methodist chapel. He walked in and sat down. The snowstorm had apparently held the pastor at home that morning, so one of the elders stepped into the pulpit and read Isaiah 45:22, “Look to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth. For I am God and there is no other.” In looking back on this moment Spurgeon said, “He had not much to say, thank God, for that compelled him to keep on repeating his text, and there was nothing needed-by me, at any rate except his text. Then stopping, he looked and pointed to where I was sitting under the gallery…[1]

We’ll pick this up again at the end the sermon.

For now, turn to John 3:9-15 where we’ll linger today. A few weeks ago we began John 3 and witnessed the beginning of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. In these first 8 verses Nicodemus is told about the new birth, the blindness and inability of natural man to see and enter the Kingdom of God, and he is confused. Echoing his previous question in v4, in v9 he asks Jesus again, “How can these things be?” To which Jesus abruptly answers, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” Recall Nicodemus was no simpleton. He was a Pharisee, even more, a member of the governing body called the Sanhedrin. This means he was a Jew among Jews, a scholar among scholars, a theologian among theologians. That Jesus refers to him as ‘the teacher of Israel’ shows us that Nicodemus probably held a teaching position among this elite group. So, of all people Jesus implies that he ought to know that man cannot come to God in his own strength. Even if being born again was new to him, he shouldn’t have greeted it with such bewilderment.[2]

Jesus continues in v11-13, “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.” Here Jesus tells Nicodemus of the reliability of His message and of the reliability of Himself. In v11 Jesus ‘we speak’ and ‘we know’ and ‘we have seen’ and ‘our testimony’ to indicate that not only Jesus and John the Baptist are united in their message but that Jesus and His disciples are united as well. Perhaps Jesus used the word ‘we’ because some of His disciples were even present at this evening meeting, but we don’t know that for sure.[3] In v12 Jesus reminds Nicodemus that He’s used earthly imagery of birth and wind to explain these things but Nicodemus still didn’t understand Him. Than in v13 Jesus gives Nicodemus the ultimate reason why he should Jesus – only He has come down from heaven, therefore, only He can truly testify to heavenly realities. This would’ve challenged Nicodemus because he, along with the rest of the Sanhedrin, were known and respected among all Jews as the authorities in matters of divinity. Jesus levels the playing field here by elevating Himself above all other men. Only the One who ascended into and descended from heaven can speak of its glories with authority.

Then we come to the main point of v9-15 where Jesus speaks of a parallel between His Person and Work and the work of a fiery serpent in Numbers chapter 21. v14-15, “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.”

Out of all the things Jesus could have chosen to tell Nicodemus to help him understand what the Son of Man has done for men, He said this? Yes, and I think it was the perfect thing to tell Nicodemus for one reason; it met Nicodemus precisely where he was. Nicodemus would have already known this history about Moses and the serpent from his own childhood very well.[4] He would have immediately known what, when, and where this event occurred. He probably could have immediately recited the whole story back to Jesus then and there. But you see the mastery in Jesus’ choosing this story, because Nicodemus knew it well, he only have a short jump to make in order to understand what Jesus is saying about Himself being lifting up!

So, let’s go back to see what Jesus is saying here. Numbers 21:4-9 says, “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 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.”

Because of their complaining, God sends fiery serpents into the camp, and many people were bitten and infected with the serpent’s deadly venom. These serpents were not called fiery because they were on fire, it’s because when they bit someone, their venom burned through their veins. The people went back to Moses, confess their guilt, and asked Moses to pray for them, He did and God told Moses to craft a serpent out of bronze and set it high on a pole for the people to see, so that those who look will be healed.

That’s it. That’s the whole account. God’s people sin, then God in punishment and wrath, sends the serpents to bite them. Then God in mercy; provides a way of escape by another serpent. And all they have to do to be healed is look at it. The serpent Moses made was the visible sign of an invisible healing for all who thought they were about to die. But you must imagine that not all of the bitten people could see the serpent Moses made. Even if Moses was carrying the serpent through the camp to make it more accessible, there were thousands and thousands of Israelites. So in order to get a look at the serpent, the Israelites had to get themselves into a position to see it. It’s easy to imagine that many bitten Israelites were so angry at God and so angry at Moses for bringing them into the wilderness that they didn’t even bother to go and look, despite the burning pain the venom caused. It’s a sad tale for these individuals, for they perished as God said they would. But for those who wanted to be healed, for those who believed they would be saved by looking at the serpent, they did all they could do to get a peak at it. Nothing would stop them from pushing their way through the crowd, running as fast as their failing health would allow, mustering up all the might they had just to gaze in faith at this serpent on a pole and be saved from certain death.

Perhaps now we can understand what Jesus is up to in this conversation with Nicodemus. Even though Nicodemus knew this story, he didn’t know that it spoke of things greater than itself. He didn’t know the story points forward into the fullness of time when God would again save His people. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life.” When the Israelites looked to the serpent for rescue and healing from the serpent’s venom, we get a shadowy picture of what Jesus came to earth to accomplish for His Bride. Just as the serpent was lifted up, and the people looked to it for healing and new life, so too, if anyone looks to Jesus, the Son of Man, in faith when He is lifted up on the cross, he will be saved, he will be rescued from the venom of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and he will be granted everlasting life!

The irony is thick, for just as Adam and Eve were tempted by the serpent and plunged into death, so too now, we must look to the one who is lifted up like Moses’ serpent to be saved from that very plunge into death.[5] For on the cross Jesus would drink the venom and suffer and feel the sting of death for all who would one day believe in Him.[6] Jesus told Nicodemus then, and Jesus is telling you now that He, in the place of the snake, is the source of the healing and rescue from the poison of sin and the wrath of God. The Israelites were bitten from a serpent and saved by another serpent, so too, we fell to spiritual death in the first Adam, but can be made alive again by the Last Adam Jesus Christ! The poisoned Israelites only had to look to be saved, so too we, who are poisoned from sin, only need to look to Jesus to be saved. As they had to believe Moses and believe this deadly venom would kill them, we must believe Jesus and believe that we have a sinful nature to be saved from! All they had to do was look and be saved then, all you have to do today is look and be saved today.

But I am saddened, as some thought it was foolish to look at a serpent for healing back then, trusting in their own wisdom over God’s, so too I fear that many of those we know and love, perhaps some of you here today, think it is foolish to look to a man on a cross for salvation today. In the eye of natural fallen man this cross is merely the death of a felon, a place of utter disgrace, a mere symbol that we have attached meaning to. “But to the eye of faith it was (and is) the supreme glory.”[7] You see, to those who’ve been healed by this fountain that washes us white as snow, the cross is not merely the apex of the Christ’s humiliation but the means of His exaltation as well.[8] This is what Phil. 2:6b-9a means when it says, “…though He was in the form of God, (He) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him…” At the cross Jesus was lifted high bearing our shame, but from the cross and flowing out of the cross is an exaltation that the redeemed will glory in for all eternity.

So Nicodemus has the answer to his question in v9, “How can these things be?” As the Israelites felt as if they had been born again after being healed from the fiery serpent’s venom, so too the greater new birth happens, we can see and enter the Kingdom of God only through faith in the saving work of Christ on the cross.[9]

Conclusion:

Now let’s return to young Spurgeon to see the rest of the story, “Look to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth. For I am God and there is no other.” In looking back on this moment Spurgeon said, “He had not much to say, thank God, for that compelled him to keep on repeating his text, and there was nothing needed-by me, at any rate except his text. Then stopping, he looked and pointed to where I was sitting under the gallery and he said ‘That young man there looks very miserable…young man…lookin’ don’t take a deal of pain. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it’s just, ‘Look.’ A man needn’t go to college to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth thousands a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look. Many of you are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. You’ll never find any comfort in yourselves. Some of you are miserable, and you always will be miserable—miserable in life, and miserable in death—if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you’ll be saved. Look to Jesus Christ. You have nothing to do but to look and live!”

Spurgeon fondly remarks of this moment in his autobiography saying, “I know not what else he said – I did not take much notice of it – I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word ‘Look!’ what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could have looked my eyes away. Then and there the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun, and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to Him. Oh, that somebody had told me this before. ‘Trust Christ, and you shall be saved.’”[10]

Church, “…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.” You have nothing to do but look and live!

 

 

Citations:

[1] Mary Ann Jeffrey, Christian History ‘Spurgeon’s Conversion’, ChristianityToday.com, accessed on 4/7/17.

[2] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT, page 221.

[3] F.F. Bruce mentions this may be why the apostle John uses similar language in his own epistle (see 1 John 1:3), The Gospel of John, page 86-87.

[4] Ibid, page 88.

[5] R. Kent Hughes, John: That You May Believe, Preaching the Word Commentary, page 87.

[6] R.C. Sproul, John, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary, page 43-44.

[7] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT, page 226.

[8] Ibid, page 226.

[9] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, page 88-89.

[10] David Burnette, Look and Live: Charles Spurgeon’s Conversion, radical.net, accessed on 4.9.17.

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