Dr. Phil Brassfield
If you study the Gospel of John and contrast it to the synoptic Gospels, you will discover several interesting encounters that John records that are absent in the other Gospels. And if the speculation of early Church Father, Clement of Alexandria, was right, John specifically wanted to add to his gospel narrative things not mentioned by the other authors. For example, both the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well and the post-resurrection encounter with Mary Magdalene are unique to John. But there is another, it is the night-time encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. This encounter and the conversation that transpired would shake the world, and provide some of the most impactful and beautiful Scripture recorded in the Bible. In fact, one of the fragments of the conversation would become the central theme of the Christian movement. It is what Jesus said in John 3:16. Today, John 3:16 has been called the Gospel in a nutshell and the mission statement of God in redemption. It is displayed on billboards, tee shirts, and bumper stickers. It is even worn in the face paint under the eyes of professional athletes at sporting events. And it always lives up to its billing. It is as simple as it is powerful and it works in whatever form it is presented! For example, during the college football national championship game in 2010 in which Tim Tebow played, he scribed John 3:16 under his eyes in black face paint. During the game, 94 million people googled that Scripture. And the story gets more radical than that as Christianity Today reported. Three years later to the day of the original championship game, Tim Tebow was playing for the Denver Broncos against the Steelers in the playoffs. The Broncos miraculously won the game in overtime on a last second touchdown pass thrown by Tebow on the last play of the game. After the game, he was informed by their stats people that including that last touchdown pass, he, during the game, had thrown for 316 yards with an average of 31.6 yards per reception, that their time of possession was 31 minutes and 6 seconds, and his yards per carry was 3.16. Every stat associated with Tebow’s performance that night had 316 in the numbers, and during that game over 90 million people googled John 3:16 once again. Incredible! And it all started during the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus that fateful night as the Apostle John relayed it to us. But what exactly precipitated the passage John 3:16? What was Jesus trying to communicate that night to this professor of Jewish Law? The passages just prior provide the answer. While seldom connected to each other, John 3: 14, 15, 16 and 17 must be read together to be properly interpreted. Here they are:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3: 14-17)
The illustration that Jesus used with Nicodemus that led to what is recorded in John 3:16 holds the key to interpreting the passage. It was that of ancient Israel’s rebellion against God in the Wilderness during their years of wilderness wondering. In the book of Numbers chapter 21, the story is told of how the people sinned against God by cursing the manna He provided them to eat. They became weary in their journey, discouraged, and cursed God and His purpose, wishing to return to Egypt. God in judgment sent serpents among them whose bite was deadly and was accompanied with a burning sensation and probably high fever.
The text calls them fiery serpents. While many were dying, the people came to Moses and repented of their rebellion and asked him to talk to God on their behalf. God responded by commanding Moses to make a bronze serpent, hang it on a pole and command those bitten and suffering to look upon it. When they did, they were immediately and miraculously healed. By explaining this to Nicodemus, Jesus unveils in its earliest and perhaps simplest form, the Doctrine of the Cross. Jesus tells Nicodemus that as it was with Moses’ serpent being hung on a pole as a remedy for sick and dying people who had been afflicted by their own sin, so must it be with the Son of Man who must be lifted up from the earth as a deliverance for all who would believe in Him. And those who believed in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life. In that midnight encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, Grace and the Law met in sharp contrast, and the heart of God was revealed in living color. God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world; the venom of sin producing death had done that. And the law was powerless to save them, it could only diagnose why death reigned. Rather, He sent His Son into the world to save humanity from what was killing them, like Moses’ serpent on the stick. Why the serpent? The Serpent in the wilderness looked like what was killing the people. Why did God become a man? For the same reason. What a conversation! What an encounter! What a powerful hope! And it’s all recorded for us in the Gospel according to John.
1 Eusebius, Church History, 3.24.1-13 2 https://www.christiantoday.com/article/tim-tebow-shares-amazing-story-about-john-316-and-the-miracle-of-numbers/102853.htm 3 https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/entertainment/2018/january/tim-tebow-rsquo-s-nbsp-shocking-story-about-john-3-16-lsquo-coincidence-rsquo-goes-viral