The Gift

John 3:14-21 

Think of the gifts that you have given certain special people in your life – gifts that try to communicate your love and your true feelings for them. The most precious gifts are those that are a part of you. Something that you have made, or something that you have that has been passed on to you as an heirloom – something that you are now passing on to someone special to you. What did you give? A Bible that belonged to your grandfather or a ring that was your dad’s or a quilt that was made by your grandmother? Those are special gifts that convey a deep love and devotion.

Have you ever given the gift of salvation? Not that you can give salvation, but that you are passing on a faith that is the most important gift you could give. When you do that, you have given something eternal – something that transcends the bounds of this earthly life.

In our passage this morning, we come to a verse of scripture that is more recognized, more memorized, truly more beloved than any other passage of scripture in the Bible. But it’s value is far beyond its sentimentality – it is the very heart of John’s Gospel. Everything else in this Gospel focuses through the lens of this passage – that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. He was giving a gift to each of us – the gift of his Son who was and is more precious than anything else in all creation.

This conversation that we listen in on between Jesus and Nicodemus is meant to be overheard. It is between these two: Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, and Jesus, this rabbi who works miracles and speaks with power and authority. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night because this is a conversation off the record and out of sight because his fellow Pharisees are quickly coming to the conclusion that Jesus is too dangerous to be allowed to live.

As John records this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, we sense the longing that Nicodemus has for what Jesus is telling him – to know God, really know God – not just his law, not just the rituals, but as we listened in last week – to be born again.

This is part two of the conversation, and in verse 14, Jesus prophetically speaks of his own death: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus recalls for Nicodemus that tragic, dark moment in the Israelites’ history. They are coming to the end of their forty-year wandering in the wilderness and they are on their way to the promised land. After forty years, you would think that God would have worn the rebellion out of his people, but they have one last tantrum in them:

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. (Numb 21:4-9)

Why does Jesus bring this up? Because first, he wants Nicodemus to know that God’s punishment has never been because of wrong doctrine, but because of rebellious sinfulness. And secondly, that God has always wanted to save his people in spite of their rebellion. And in the midst of the punishment, God is still the one who saved his people. And God still wants to save his people in the midst of their rebellion.

This time, instead of a snake on a pole, God’s own son will be lifted up so that everyone who comes to him will be saved.

And it is in that context that Jesus says what he says next: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (Jn 3:16-17)

This is not a nice platitude to hang on your wall or paint on a sign, but the reminder that God has always been in the saving business, not the condemning business. And if your picture of God is one who finds joy in sending people to hell, then your picture of God is wrong. God loves you so much that he sent his only son to save you, even if it meant letting him be crucified on a cross in your place.

That is the Gospel at its core – God loves you and saves you by his own grace.

But just like the Israelites in the wilderness, there is still rebellion in our hearts. When Moses lifted up the snake so that the people could come to it and be saved, there were still thousands of the Israelites who refused to come and died there in the wilderness – not because of God’s condemnation but because of their own rebellion.

And today, God doesn’t bring condemnation into our lives, he brings salvation through his son, but there will still be many, many who die eternally because they refuse to come to the son and live.

Listen to what Jesus says next: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (Jn 3:18) God does not bring condemnation, but he will not force anyone to receive salvation. If they refuse salvation through his son, they have condemned themselves. Though we cannot save ourselves by any good work or act of human merit, our response is critical. If we believe and trust God to save us through Jesus we receive the gift of salvation that God wants desperately for us to have. If we reject his gift then he has nothing left to offer – we condemn ourselves by our own rebellion.

And then Jesus speaks of the universal condition of human hearts: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (Jn 3:19-21)

God has sent light into the world. In the beginning of creation, God said, “Let there be light.” And the dark world was illuminated. When God sent his Son, John wrote in 1:9, “The true light has come into the world.”

Light has two functions: it illuminates and it exposes. Now I like to do woodworking, but I make mistakes from time to time – a gouge in the wood, a poorly done joint, a rough cut. You can do one of three things when you make a mistake: you can use putty and paint, you can hang it in a dark corner, or you can redo the piece you made the mistake on. We can try to do the same thing with the mistakes we make in life: we can try to cover them up, we can hide them in darkness or we can start over in repentance and forgiveness.

The Hebrews writer says: Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Heb 4:13)

Jesus says it is human nature is to hide our sins from the light: “… men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil…” It is not our nature to be transparent before God. When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, what did they do? They hid from God because they were ashamed. When David sinned with Bathsheba, what did he do? He tried to cover up the pregnancy by murdering her husband.

But while that might be our human nature, it is not God’s will for us and it will only drive us deeper into sin and shame. Instead, Jesus says, “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”

While light causes the momentary pain of embarrassment, it also makes it possible for God to work in our lives and bring the healing that we need. He doesn’t just cover it up, he heals us and makes us whole again.

It is incredible that when confronted with the choice of living in darkness or light that we will choose darkness, time and time again. When confronted with truth, when exposed to the light, we recoil and hide and tragically not recognize the awful, eternal consequences of that choice, while inches away, out in the light, God’s promise of forgiveness and joy await us.

Listen to David when he finally came to his senses: Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”— and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Ps 32:1-5)

The relief and joy he felt when he finally stepped into the light were God’s gift of forgiveness.

When we began, I asked you if you have ever given a special gift to someone, something that you have made or something that was of great value to you. How would you feel if the person you gave that gift to said, “No thanks, I don’t really want it”?

We have been given an incredible gift. What a tragedy if we were to snub God and say “no thanks” to the gift of his son.

Thank God for his patience. He doesn’t want anyone to die eternally and go to hell and so he continues to offer his invitation to come and join him as a son or daughter hoping that you will come to him.

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