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Lifted Up

March 10, 2024|Lifted Up|John 3:14-21

JD Cutler

Click here for the sermon audio

Open your bibles to the third chapter of the gospel of John. John chapter 3 is made up of two sections, verses 1-21 and verses 22-36.The first section is a record of a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who would later become one of his followers. In the second section we have recorded for us the testimony of John the Baptist during the overlap of his and Jesus’ earthly ministry where he says the well known line concerning Jesus’ ministry, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’. 

This morning we are going to focus in on the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, specifically verse 14-21, where Jesus is explaining and expounding on his opening statement to Nicodemus concerning the necessity of being born again, or born from above to even see the kingdom of God. 

Many of us are familiar with this encounter, because within it is found the most famous bible verse in the world. John 3:16.

As I have often said before, the problem with John 3:16 is that it is not given by Jesus in a vacuum. 

That is, it is not an isolated scripture given by Jesus apart from anything else, it is not a proverbial maxim. Rather it is closely connected to an encounter and subsequent conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. To rightly understand John 3:16, we need to rightly understand why scripture gives us this statement in the context of a statement about being born again, we also need to rightly understand the way Jesus references an important Old testament event in the life of the nation of Israel. 

Since we are jumping into the middle of the conversation, let me just recap what has transpired so far. 

Nicodemus has come to Jesus at night and begins to compliment Jesus when seemingly Jesus cuts him off and makes what seems like a very out of place statement. He tells Nicodemus that unless one is born again that they cannot see the kingdom of God. 

Nicodemus is confused about this second birth and after a little bit Jesus says the key to understanding our passage today. Verse 12- John 3:12 (ESV) 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?

I believe that he then goes on to tell him of these heavenly things he spoke about. 

For instance, this is the first time in the gospel of John that Jesus is going to allude to the cross, including both the Father’s role and his own in the passion of it. He is going to declare that faith is the key Nicodemus is looking for as well as contrast spiritual light and darkness, everlasting life and destruction. 

He does this by first pointing back to an event in the life of Moses and the nation of Israel after their Exodus from Egypt, their meeting with God on the mount, and after rebelling against him by refusing to go into the promised land after 10 of their 12 spies brought back negative reports. It is in what we call the wilderness wandering that this event happens. Jesus starts there and moves to his own ministry, as well as proclaims the heart of the Father. 

So let’s pick up in verse 14 this morning and for now, let’s look at just 14 and 15. 

John 3:14-15 (ESV) 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

So Jesus points Nicodemus back to this event that we find recorded for us in the 21st chapter of the book of Numbers. I want to look at it with you under the heading…

The pattern of the cross-vs 14-15 

Notice the language Jesus uses. He uses three greek words that inform our understanding. 

And As (even as) Moses lifted up… so (in this manner, accordingly) must (necessity) the son of man be lifted up. 

With this Jesus paints the picture that the crucifixion is not only necessary but foreshadowed in this event in Israel’s history. 

Now, some of you may not be familiar with the reference, so let me read it to you this morning. 

Numbers 21:4-9 (ESV) 4 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. 5 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.” 6 Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 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. 8 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.” 9 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.

God has brought the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage, has provided for them repeatedly, did not utterly destroy them when they rebelled at Kadesh Barnea and now they are in the wilderness.  

They have repeatedly demonstrated that their gut reaction or knee-jerk reaction to difficulty is to complain and to grumble and so we are not surprised by what we find in verse 5. 

But notice a detail with me that is altogether interesting. Verse 5- we loathe this worthless food.

What are they talking about? Manna. God’s supernatural provision for them so that they would not starve in the wilderness. God had given the people manna and continued to do so for forty years. Manna was a substance that they could use to either make a porridge or to make a cake like food. 

So not only are they still grumbling about being brought out of Egypt, not only are they grumbling about water, even though God has repeatedly supernaturally given them water, but they are grumbling about the very provision he has provided them. 

So God sends fiery serpents and many of them are bitten and die in their rebellion. Having repented and having asked Moses to intercede, God tells Moses to put a bronze serpent on a standard (on a pole) and raise it up, and whoever looks at it will live. 

What now?

Can we talk about for a minute, what this Old Testament story entails? If you were bit and dying from this bite, don’t you need medicine? Don’t you need someone to physically intervene? You cry out to God through Moses hoping for a remedy and he comes back with a bronze serpent on a pole and says if you are bitten look to this and you will live. It’s downright ludicrous.

It is also a great example of faith. Trust that if God said this is the remedy then it is the remedy. If he says look, then I will look. Jesus connects this story and his own story, essentially in a way, this is the pattern the son of Man is going to follow. 

So must the son of man be lifted up. Here is a word that John records Jesus using at least three times describing his ministry. It has dual meanings. Lifted up can mean literally to lift something up and figuratively to exalt something, both of which apply to Jesus. He will be exalted after his resurrection, but it is also a clear reference to the crucifixion where Jesus would physically be nailed to a cross and lifted up. 

Furthermore, the crowds understood the reference, at least to a degree. After using this same language again in John 12, we find this. 

John 12:34 (ESV) 34 So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?

They see a disconnect with a Christ that remains forever and a son of man that must be lifted up.

This is a clear and easy to see pattern in the story, Moses lifted up the bronze serpent, so too Jesus will be lifted up on a cross. But is that all there is to it, I don’t think it is. Let’s dig a little deeper.

This bronze serpent, this standard that was lifted up, what was it? What did it represent?

The Israelites sinned against God and therefore in God’s justice he sent fiery serpents on them and when they were bitten they were as good as dead. They received the just punishment for their rebellion against a holy and righteous God. 

When they repented and turned back to God, he commanded Moses to provide a way for them to be healed. They had to look on the image of the very thing that was causing their death, a symbol of their sin. 

The bronze serpent served as a symbol of and the solution for the immediate penalty of their sin. 

What do we see on the cross?

Jesus dying because of our sin, our rebellion, Jesus experiencing the just wrath of God in our place. The very cause of our death embodied in an undeserving, innocent, savior. 

And why? Why was the serpent lifted up? So that they might look at it and be healed. 

Why was Jesus lifted up? Jesus says in verse 15 so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

What is belief here?

Let’s back up and look at the pattern again. 

You are bitten. The poison of sin is coursing through your veins and you are going to die. Someone told you that God has provided a way for you to live. Laying in your tent acknowledging that will not save you, knowing that if you climb out and look at the bronze serpent and you will be saved will not save you, saying that you believe that if you did you would be saved will not save you, it is not until you turn in faith and obedience and look to the object of faith God gave that you will be saved.

Belief is more than knowledge and it is more than intellectual assent. It involves those, but it also involves trust, absolute and complete trust in the object of your faith. 

Knowledge is someone sharing the good news of the gospel with you, that God created you, that because of sin you are separated from him and headed for destruction, but that in his love he provided a way for you to be forgiven and reconciled to himself in his son Jesus Christ through his substitutionary atonement on the cross.   

Intellectual assent is understanding that, acknowledging it, but faith is putting all of your hope and trust in God’s provision of His son, the willing sacrifice of the Son, and the application of that saving work by the Holy Spirit.

In a word, look, to the Son. Look at how great a love puts him there, look at how great a savior who stays there, bearing the weight and wrath of your sin, so that you can look to him for salvation. 

Some may say that this Old Testament story is a pattern for the cross, but I say the cross is the pattern for the Old Testament story. It is not until we see Christ on the cross that this story becomes clear to us. ‘A gracious God providing a means of salvation to an unworthy sinful people.’ 

With this pattern in our minds, let us now turn to that beautiful verse in John 3. 

John 3:16-17 (ESV) 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

We have seen the pattern of the cross, let us now look at…

The proclamation of love-vs 16-17 

For God so loved the world. 

Before we go further, we have an interpretation question we must answer. 

What does the word ‘so’ mean? 

Does it mean so as to the amount God loved the world? Listen to these two translations to see what I mean. 

“For God so [greatly] loved and dearly prized the world, that He [even] gave His [One and] only begotten Son, so that whoever believes and trusts in Him [as Savior]shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16 amplified bible

“For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 NLT

Is that what it means? What are our other options? Listen to the way the CSB translates it. 

“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. John 3:16 CSB

The CSB gets it much closer to the Greek word translated ‘so’ here. In this manner.

Does it matter, yes, in every way. 

One places the emphasis on the object of love and one on the lover of the object. 

One emphasizes the creation and one the creator. 

One says, God loved the world so much that he couldn’t imagine heaven without us, he needed us, so out of that love he sent his son. It makes the Father’s motivation for sacrificing his Son the amount of his love for humanity, as if he simply could not do without us and would do anything to get us back. This is emotional narcissism to think that God needed anything, much less us. For God to be God, he needs nothing from his creation.  

The other one says, You want to know what God’s love looks like?" It looks like him sending his only begotten, eternal son to die for the sins of His elect. It is Jesus describing the quality of the Father’s love not the quantity of it and it is tied directly to verse 14 and 15. 

John 3:14-15 (ESV) 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life, this is the way God loved the world, just like he gave the serpent to be lifted up, he gave his one and only son to be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 

Not a created, lifeless, article made by human hands, but the incarnate, eternal, living, son.

Jesus declares the eternal, unchanging, infinite, sovereign and gracious love of God by pointing to what he has done. 


The second thing we can miss is the object of this love. Many of you have heard something like, you can put your name in the spot world, as in, For God so loved Billy, or for God so loved Sue.’ And I guess you can, because technically they are part of the world, but again it misses the emphasis. Billy and Sue are not worthy recipients of God’s love, they in fact are not loveable. They are sinful, rebellious human beings in their unregenerate state. You are not a worthy recipient of God’s love. 

Again I think Jesus is trying to teach us about the nature of God’s love. Not only did he love in this manner, by sending his son, he sent him into a world that continuously and habitually hates him, rejects him, who are enemies of God. 

God’s love is merciful, God’s love is unfathomable gracious. This is the point of John 3:16.

God loved the rebellious and sinful world in this way, he sent his son to be the object of their faith so that they might be reconciled to him, completely by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. 

I know it isn’t as warm and fuzzy as God so loved Billy that he sent his son, but it is much more faithful to the text and to the context. Listen to verse 17 again. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

See, some might say, Jesus did not come to condemn, not to judge. God is love and Jesus came to proclaim his love. 

Yes and amen, but don’t misunderstand what Jesus says here. God did not send his son into the world to condemn it, because it was already condemned! This is what he wants Nicodemus to understand. 

John 3:3-8 (ESV) “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus, you must be born again, or born from above because having been born into the flesh you are already condemned. The son did not need to come to condemn the world, but so that salvation through himself might be accomplished for those already condemned. 

That whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Friends, the implication is then apart from the saving work of Christ you are headed for destruction. This is the condition of all those born in the flesh. 

But, God did not leave us without hope. At the right time, he sent his one and only son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 

I watched a video of a street preacher the other day, and a lady asked him, why should anyone come to the Jesus he proclaimed if their life would not get better, if they would not escape difficulties and hardships. He said, because although those in CZhrist and those outside of Christ both encounter difficulties, hardships, sufferings, those in Christ know that their end is everlasting life. There is purpose, there is peace, there is comfort in this. We may suffer now, but it is not unto our destruction. Following Jesus is not about your best life now, it is about being reconciled to God now and for eternity. 

This is the great proclamation of love that Jesus makes concerning the Father. But he not only highlights the pattern of the cross for Nicodemus, he not only proclaims the love of God, he tells Nicodemus, what we are calling this morning… 

The principle of salvation-vs 18-21

Here is why we cannot stop at John 3:16. There are some people in the world today that say that everyone will ultimately be saved. That ‘because God is love’ and ‘because he sent Jesus to die for the sins of humanity’, therefore everyone will be saved. 

This is not what Jesus says here, is it? Listen to what he goes on to say in verse 18. 

John 3:18-21 (ESV) 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

Jesus says there are those who believe and are not condemned, and there are those who are condemned already who do not believe. 

That is, they do not put their faith in the provision God made for their sin and therefore they are still under condemnation. 

But why? Why would anyone hear the gospel message and not put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior?

This is the judgment- same root word for condemned. This is the condemnation, Jesus says. 

People love the darkness rather than the light because their works are evil. 

Because the people are unwilling to have their wickedness exposed. 

This has been the condemnation from the beginning. When Adam and Eve sinned, what did they do? They covered and they hid. 

They withdrew from the light of fellowship with God because they did not want their wickedness exposed. 

Here is the principle stated as plainly as I can. Everyone is condemned and in darkness, everyone needs a savior, everyone needs to be born again, everyone needs to come to the light. This is what I see Jesus saying. 

Nicodemus needed to understand that his nationality, his ethnicity, his religious upbringing could not save him anymore than his pagan, idol worshiping gentile neighbor. 

Listen, the world does not need our churches to dim the lights, now I’m not talking about physical spaces, but to dim the light of the gospel, to downplay sin, to promote easy believism that says you can come to Jesus and remain unchanged, we do not need to lower our standards for membership, we do not need to lower the bar for baptism or the Lord’s table, we need to be beacons of light for people who want to come to the light. 

A non-believer is welcome to come in, but listen, they should not be comfortable. There should be a light here that challenges them to either step further into it or to flee from it. 

Here is the other principle. Three times we see the word whoever. This word is usually translated as all. 

(All who) believe in him, (all who) do not believe in him, (all who) believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Jesus offers no quantifiers. Not the Jews who believe in him, not the religiously observant who believe in him, but all who believe in him. Here is the good news, as far as I can tell, there is no one who wants to step into the light that is barred from it. 

All who believe in him should not perish but have eternal life. This is the message we must proclaim, here in this building, in your homes, to your neighbors, friends, and family members. God has made a way for you to come out of death and darkness into light and life. Look to Jesus. 

We began a great conversation about evangelism at our Regenesis table yesterday. We must not settle for evangelism that lowers the bar that Christ set. You must be born again, you must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. 


Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, and Jesus told him plainly that God had displayed his love in sending his one and only son, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life, but many will reject him because they love the darkness. 

We find in scripture that eventually Nicodemus came to the light, that he followed Jesus and because of that he was born again from above, something he could not understand, but he experienced. 

I don’t know where you are today, but I know where you could be. 

I know that Christ proclaimed that God’s love is displayed in sending his son, that Christ proclaimed that he was going to be lifted up and he proclaimed that all who look to him in faith can be saved. 

May God do for anyone here that has yet to come into the light, the same that he did for Nicodemus. 

Let us pray. 

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