Jeremy Sarber / The Bible Readers Podcast

The gospel of Jesus Christ according to John 3:16

I knew very little about Doris Medlin when I preached her funeral on November 15, 2017, at Bryan-Lee Funeral Home in Garner, North Carolina.

One day before the service, her adult children guided me through their mother’s abandoned house. I studied what remained in the one-story ranch, hoping to get a sense of her personality, background, or anything that might help me. Before the tour was over, her son said to me, “Just preach the gospel.” So, that’s what I did.

When I asked Henry and Pamela whether their mother had a favorite Bible passage, they were quick to say, “John 3:16.” I suppose that most of us know this verse well. Speaking to one of the Jewish Pharisees, Jesus said:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 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.” (John 3:16-17)

Let’s pray. Heavenly Father, you are the Creator of all things. You are the Author of life itself. You have the power to give life and the power to appoint life’s end. We may know these things are true, yet we can’t help but mourn the loss of our loved ones. Merciful Father, we give you our grief. We lay these burdens at your feet and humbly beg for comfort. Give this family peace of mind. Assure them that your sovereign purpose always works together for the good of those who love you. In Christ’s name. Amen.

[The hymn “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” plays in the chapel.]

“Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” is an appropriate song for this moment. Unfortunately, I never had the privilege of knowing Miss Doris, so I asked her son and daughter what she might want me to say today. They told me, “Preach the gospel. She’d want you to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.” With a text such as John 3:16 and a song such as “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” I’m confident that I can honor the memory of this dear woman by fulfilling that request.

You must be born again

Again, Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). We live in a unique place and culture where it seems that just about everyone knows the words of this verse, but I wonder how many people know what they mean. It’s one thing to recite the words; it’s quite another to understand and believe them.

When Jesus spoke these words 2,000 years ago, he was talking to a man by the name of Nicodemus who was curious about Jesus. We’re told, “This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him'” (Jn 3:2). Nicodemus was convinced there was something special, possibly supernatural about Jesus, but he wasn’t sure about the details. What better way to find out than to ask the source?

The funny thing is, Jesus never gave Nicodemus an opportunity to ask a question. Without hesitation, Jesus said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3).

Nicodemus was there for answers. Apparently, he wanted to know more about Jesus. Perhaps he had other questions as well, but Jesus stopped him in his tracks. Jesus basically said, “Before you can know or see any of the spiritual things to which your questions inevitably point, you must be born again. You must be fundamentally changed from the inside out.” The transformation is so drastic, in fact, that he describes it as a second birth, an altogether new life.

Where does this change begin for us? Practically speaking, what is our first step in entering this new life, which Jesus defines as “eternal life,” life with no end? (Jn 3:16).

There is a righteous God

I’ve often said the four most important words of the Bible are the first four words of the Bible: “In the beginning, God” (Ge 1:1). Apart from God and his sovereign purpose for all things, what meaning would anything have? The book of Ecclesiastes says, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecc 3:1). That can only be true if there is a divine Creator with a plan for his creation. Before all else, we must understand and confess that there is a God.

Second, we must acknowledge God’s righteousness. We don’t make the rules; he does. We can’t determine what is right or wrong; only he can. This world belongs to him. We are merely his creation. Romans 9 asks, “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (Ro 9:20).

No matter how we feel about ourselves, God declares us sinners. Ever since the first man, Adam, rebelled against the commandment of God, he says about each of us:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18)

Even so, most of us would say that God is loving and merciful. Surely, he’ll sweep our sins under the rug and forget about them. Listen to what God said about himself: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex 34:6-7).

Remember that God is just and righteous. It would not be just for him to say, “I know you’ve broken my law, but I’ll just forget about it. Let’s pretend it never happened.” That’s not justice. He cannot clear the guilty that way. Someone has to pay for our crimes against God. It will be either us in hell or a perfect sacrifice of God’s choosing.

Moses’ bronze serpent

Before I talk about that sacrifice, let me read what Jesus said to Nicodemus just before John 3:16. He said, “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” (Jn 3:14-15). What is he talking about? What serpent in the wilderness?

If not for John 3, then perhaps this story would be relatively obscure. It’s a strange story found in the book of Numbers. To give you some context, the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness for forty years. By the grace of God, Moses delivered them from their slavery in Egypt, and they are making their way toward the Promised Land.

Sadly, however, the people are ungrateful. They turn against God to idols and sin. They complain that Moses led them into the wilderness not to be free, but to die. Here’s what happens on one of those occasions:

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. (Numbers 21:4-9)

Can you see what was happening? Because God is just, he had to punish the people for their sin. He sent poisonous snakes to bite and, ultimately, destroy them. The book of Romans says, “The wages of sin is death” (Ro 6:23). But God also said through the prophet, Ezekiel, “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone … so turn, and live” (Eze 18:32).

God was justified in sending the snakes, but he was also merciful by providing the people a way to escape. He tells Moses to put a bronze serpent on top of a long pole and says, “Anyone who looks at the bronze serpent will live.” It’s not that the bronze serpent had miraculous healing powers. God was putting the Israelites in a position where they would have no choice but to trust his promise if they were to live. They couldn’t stop the snakes from biting them nor could they provide their own antidote for the poison, but they could have faith in God to save them.

The gospel of Jesus

Again, Jesus says, “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” (Jn 3:14-15). Just as that bronze snake was set before the Israelites on a tall pole, Jesus, the Son of God, was nailed to a wooden cross. God says through Isaiah, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else” (Isa 45:22).

The question is, how can looking to Jesus on the cross save us from the wrath of God? It is because Christ (i.e., Jesus the King) offered himself for us. Though he never deserved to die or suffer God’s anger toward us for our sin, he voluntarily came to this earth to bear our punishment. As a perfect sacrifice, God accepted his offering, and says, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more” (Heb 10:17).

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 6:23). Our only escape from the poison of sin is Jesus Christ. We can’t undo our sin nor can we make amends by performing good works. All we can do is look to Christ who was lifted up for our sakes. All we can do is trust his promise found here in John 3:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 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. 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.” (John 16:18)

Trust his promise for life

As the song says:

O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face;
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.

From the depth of your soul, can you feel the weight of your sin? Can you see the Savior lifted up on the cross? Can you sense his love? If so, throw yourself at his mercy. Surrender your will. Trust his promise for eternal life. Then, rise to “walk in newness of life” (Ro 6:4). Let the assurance of Christ give you comfort in this time of sadness. Remember these words of Scripture:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)

I’ll leave you with a passage which I noticed your mother (or your grandmother or great-grandmother) hung on her refrigerator at home. It says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col 3:23-24).

I hope that I’ve managed to honor Miss Doris by preaching the gospel she believed.