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Parable of the Soils Study #13: “The Rabbi Who Knew Too Little” – Part 2

Updated: Feb 27

“As Moses Lifted Up the Serpent in The Wilderness, God So Loved The World?”

By Richard Allen – February 26, 2024

In our last Blog on The Parable of the Soils, we touched on “the most sacred cow” of all modern Evangelicalism:  John 3:16. If I’m honest, it is with some fear and trepidation that I approach this verse, which many believe is the “heart of the gospel” and typifies all of Christianity! So, let me agree right off the bat how important this verse is. I must also say what strikes me as ironic is, that many Evangelicals believe this verse says something it doesn’t, and totally reject what this verse is actually saying!  While genuine believers reject the false doctrine of "Universalism," which is that Jesus' death ultimately will save all mankind, every last soul, the beliefs of many Christians are – that “God loves the whole world.” This borders on Universalist-Unitarian Theology. And to those who believe the false gospel of Universalist-Unitarian, I can say – at least they are consistent. They not only teach that God loves everyone, and Jesus died for everyone, but they also teach that “Ultimately Everyone Will Be Saved!”  I by no means agree with them but acknowledge that they teach that “whom God loves, He Saves!” Many Evangelicals believe contrary and confusing doctrines that are taught nowhere in Scripture. An example would be: “God Loves Everyone, and sent Jesus to personally die for every man, woman and child who ever lived.” At the same time “God will punish them forever and ever if they won’t believe." Doctrinally this puts all of the efficacy and glory of salvation on our human wills and volition, not on Jesus’ work on the Cross.

Every time I hear someone extol this broad meaning of John 3:16, which is, “that God loves everyone in the whole wide world” – I keep hearing actor Mandy Patinkin from “The Princess Bride,” uttering one of the best lines in the movie: “You keep using that word. I do not think you know what it means.”  This is no doubt true of the Greek word, Kosmos, which we translate, World. Even in the context of John Chapter 3 where this word is used, it’s used in three different ways in the very next verse: 

“For God did not send his Son into the world (creation) to condemn the world (mankind), but in order that the world (His Church from every race, and kindred and tongue) might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

This Greek word “Kosmos” is used in various ways throughout Scripture.  One of the most poignant uses is found in 1 John 2:15-17 where the Apostle John pronounces:

Do not love the WORLD or the things in the WORLD. If anyone loves the WORLD, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the WORLD – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the WORLD. And the WORLD is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15-17).

How ironic that the inspired Apostle of Jesus Christ (John) tells us: Do Not Love the World,” while at the same time he tells us in his Gospel: “That God Himself so loves this world?”  We’re left with an apparent contradiction if we just take the Greek word Kosmos at face value. But if we allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, it’s easy to see the context for both passages. John, while using the same word, means something quite different in each use – including several ways he employs this word in John 3:16-17. Context is everything. In 1 John 2:15-17, John is obviously talking about the “world’s system,” that is the godless structures of fallen men who do not seek God’s glory in anything. So, the question must be asked: “How then is John using Kosmos (world) in John 3:16? We don’t have to look far, the answer is in the previous verse, John 3:15.

“Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again. The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goesSo it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’  Nicodemus said to him, How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 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. 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. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life ” (John 3:7-16).

For some of you, this may be the first time you are studying John 3:16 in context. Let me take some time to explain. As Jesus continues His conversation with Nicodemus, “the Rabbi who knew too little,” we all acknowledge that Nicodemus says some nice things about the Man, Jesus. He states that Jesus is a teacher come from God, and that God must be with Him because of the miracles he’s seen. But that’s as far as Nicodemus’ understanding goes. Nicodemus only says what most of the world’s religions also say about Jesus: “He’s a good man and He does good things.” Islam actually proclaims that – and a bit more!  In fact, Islam says that Jesus was a Prophet sent by God, but He wasn’t the last and greatest prophet with the whole revelation, that honor belongs to a guy named, Muhammad. To Nicodemus, Jesus was just a man, nothing more. And since Nicodemus was a physical descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – a Jew in the Flesh – fleshly lineage was everything. Jesus’ pronouncements to him: “That which is born of Flesh is Flesh, the Flesh profits nothing, and a man has to be born of the Spirit or he won’t even see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3-6), was troubling to say the least. In his thinking, salvation was only for the Jews, God’s covenant people. Sure, Gentiles can be saved, if they are Circumcised, Keep the Law and Become Converts to Judaism. That is, if they become Jews.

After telling Nicodemus that a “Fleshly response accomplishes nothing” – except to bring about more natural, fallen human behavior, Jesus tells him that the Sovereign Spirit comes in and changes whom He will!  We’ll get back to John 3:8 in greater detail in my next Blog. Be aware that Nicodemus’ whole religious experience was related to his lineage!   

To a Jewish Pharisee, steeped in “tradition and the law,” Jesus’ good news was anything but! To Nicodemus, good news would be that God would come back with a mighty hand and destroy the Romans, set up Israel’s Theocratic rule with a descendant of David, and rule the gentiles with an iron fist.  All this, while enjoying temporary forgiveness from Jehovah God as they sacrificed daily in the Temple, and once a year on “the Day of Atonement.” That would be the good life. Nicodemus had no concept of God loving any Gentile, or any people except those Jews born of the Flesh! And here he was, being schooled by this brash, unlettered teacher from Galilee. This conversation was not going well already, but then Jesus delivers a repulsive message: “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. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:15-16). Make no mistake, Nicodemus knew exactly what Jesus was implying. In the days of his forefathers, after one episode of grumbling and complaining (Numbers 21:4-9), God visited the Jewish camp with “fiery serpents, who bit many of the people, causing death.” But after confessing their sin and begging Moses for deliverance from the fiery serpents, God instructed Moses to make a Serpent of Bronze, hang it on a wooden tree branch (pole), and set it up for all to see. When anyone in the camp was bitten, all they needed to do was to exercise a “look of faith” to the fiery serpent on the pole, and they would live!

It’s not in the scope of this Blog to untie this whole story or its meaning, but suffice it to say, the serpent was accursed, just as anyone who was “hung on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23). No doubt that accursed serpent which hung on a tree represented Jesus, lifted up on Calvary’s cross as the “sin bearer.” Jesus tells us as much: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” so must the Son of Man be lifted up. Just as the look of faith in God’s provision during the “fiery serpent ordeal” brought healing, so will the “look of faith” to the Son of Man (Jesus), nailed to a cross, bring healing and salvation to the world from the serpent’s bite. This allows access to men from every nation, kindred and tongue. But what must really have rankled Nicodemus, was Jesus’ application of the event in Numbers 21, saying that “once the Son of Man was lifted up,” access to God’s Salvation would no longer be limited to the Jewish people, but would be available to all nations, kindreds and tongues through the Spirit. That’s what John 3:16 means, Access to all Nations! Yet many Christians who believe in some general way God loves everyone, also believe that He loves Jews the most. As a result, they reject what John 3:16 teaches, believing more like Nicodemus!  In the context of John 3:15-16, Jesus was telling Nicodemus that God no longer loves Jews only, but He loves all kinds of people, from every nation and tongue:

“After this I beheld, and lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations and kindreds and people and tongues, stood before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes and with palms in their hands” (Revelation 7:9).

Jesus had promised on more than one occasion: “If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men unto Myself” (John 12:32). Just as in the days of the grumbling, complaining Israelites wandering around the land of Edom, found that any of those who understood that they were bitten and dying from fiery serpents, could be healed by a look of faith to the Bronze Serpent on the Pole. Now Jesus, whom Nicodemus only regarded as a human teacher enjoying a bit of God’s favor, makes a claim: “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13). Was this Rabbi Jesus now claiming to be the Messiah, the Christ who would be lifted up for “all peoples of the world to see and be saved?”  This was a bridge too far for Nicodemus.  In fact, we hear nothing more from him during this encounter with Jesus in John Chapter 3. It should be easy to see why Jesus quoted Numbers 21:4-9 regarding the Fiery Serpents and connected it to “For God So Loved the World” in John 3:16. God the Son would no longer be limited to one people born by human means (see John 1:11-13), no, Salvation would come only by the Sovereign Spirit “blowing where He pleases” (John 3:8). Salvation would never again come through “being Born of the Flesh,” but through being “Born of the Spirit” with a look of faith beholding the Crucified Christ, hung on Calvary’s tree. Salvation is no longer limited to a select people, but rather available to anyone with eyes opened by the Spirit who looks to Jesus Christ in Faith! God no longer loves only Israel (Amos 3:2), but God loves men and women from the whole world!

Soli Deo Gloria!

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