In chapter 3 of John’s Gospel, Jesus has a discussion with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a leader in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council in Jerusalem. The normal lectionary text for today only goes to verse 17, which I think is somewhat unfortunate, because that cuts off Jesus mid-speech and leaves an important part out of it. Verses 18 through 21 provide important context where Jesus says, “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. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”
You don’t ever see John 3:18 written on placards at ball games; instead you always see John 3:16 where Jesus says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is a graceful verse and many people’s favorite one in the Bible. Yet, it’s missing something without verse 18. Because it’s verse 18 which tells why God sent His Son. He sent His Son to save the world, because the world and we in it were condemned already. We were condemned already because of the sin we’ve inherited from Adam and Eve, and the world was condemned already because of the decay and death that their sin brought into it. That’s why Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world, it was already condemned. He has to come to save it and us from this condemnation.
Consider our state before God when we were born. Were we innocent? Were we sinless? Well, if we are descended from Adam and Eve, then the answer is no; no, we were not innocent; no, we were not sinless. We were indeed, born as condemned sinners. From our parents, we inherit things like hair and eye color, our facial features, even the way we stand and bear ourselves. We also inherit something else: sin. We are born tainted by sin. And our parents also inherited this sin from their parents. And their parents before them. And all the way back to Noah and his family and then all the way back again to Adam and Eve.
So, we are conceived already in a state of sin. And then we add to this inherited sin the sins we commit throughout our lives; acts of selfishness, rage, covetousness, lust, and much worse pile onto the condemnation we already had inherited. Truly, we were condemned already due to the weight of all this sin; indeed, we were held captive by sin and death and evil.
I’ve had this discussion with people before and what I often hear in response is a question and protest of, “Well, what about our free will?” Americans tend to focus on our sense of free will; it’s almost as if protecting our sense of “free will” is more important than upholding God’s grace and mercy. Thus, it’s important here to make a distinction between what we might term the “horizontal realm” and the “vertical realm.” We stand before the world, living in the horizontal realm among other people. We also stand before God, living in the vertical realm in relationship to Him. So, there’s two realms, horizontal and vertical, in which we inhabit.
Now, in the horizontal realm, it is true that we have free will with regards to things pertaining to our lives on earth, like who we marry, where we work, where we live, what car we drive, things like that. That is, to the extent that any one of us is ever really free, we’re able to make these choices. Yet, even at that, we’re always bound by various limitations placed upon our actions, such as law, culture, society, and responsibilities. So, I would submit to you that even in the horizontal realm, in our relationships among other people on this earth, we are not as free as we would like to think we are.
Yet, things are much more restricted with respect to the vertical realm, that is in our relationship with God. Our wills are not free, at least since the fall of Adam and Eve into sin. They could be said to have had free will, and look where their “free will” led them. It led them to sin and plunged them and their ancestors (i.e. us) into the chains of sin and death. So, we are not free with respect to the things of God. We are born sinful, which is to say that we are born condemned already, enslaved to sin and death. Everything changed when Adam and Eve sinned. So, Jesus didn’t come to condemn us, because we were condemned already. Our wills were bound by sin.
Yet, the gracious corollary of this is that Jesus did come to save us and the world, that “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” God so loved the world that He sent His Son to save it. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to die for our sins and to perfectly fulfill God’s Law for us.
And in Baptism, God connects you with the death of Jesus. You die to sin in Baptism, being buried with Jesus in his tomb. Death frees a slave, and your death in Baptism has freed you from being a slave to sin. And then God does something else to you in Baptism; He raises you up to new life, just as Jesus rose from his tomb. Your death freed you and now you have been given new life as a child of God. You have already died and risen with Jesus; you have been born again of the water and the Spirit and brought into the kingdom, or reign, of God.
Therefore, you are no longer subject to eternal death and separation from God and each other. Instead, you are vouchsafed in the Lord’s care, even once your bodies turn to bones and dust, until the day when Jesus Christ himself returns to reunite your souls with your bodies at the resurrection and bring you into the fully restored creation.
Do you see, then, that just as your earthly birth the first time was against your will, relying instead on the will of your earthly father and mother, that also your re-birth is against your will, relying instead on the will of your heavenly Father? And do you see also the connection that your own rebirth has with the restoration of all creation? As important as your salvation is, it’s not the only thing that Jesus came to do.
I think this is where the full significance of Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus comes into play where he says, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12).
I’ve just relayed to you God’s plan of salvation that He is fulfilling through Jesus. And this salvation is not just for you, it’s for all of God’s creation. For all of God’s creation was marred by the sin of Adam and Eve, their sin brought decay, suffering, pain, sorrow, and death into this world. These evils weren’t in the world before their sin. Before their sin they dwelt in perfect communion with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation; their sin disrupted this communion. In the Church, we have a foretaste of the restoration of this communion. And when Christ returns at his final Advent, we will celebrate the fulfillment of this communion.
Yet, if he has told us of earthly things and we do not believe, how then will we believe these heavenly things? If we don’t believe that God created all things, then how can we believe that He is restoring all things through His Son? If we don’t believe that God spoke forth His creation into existence through His Word and then sanctified it by His Spirit, how then can be believe that God speaks us righteous through His Word and then sanctifies us by His Spirit? If we instead believe that we evolved over eons, then that means that decay and death were in the world at the beginning and that they are here to stay; that they’re natural. We end up calling something evil, namely death, as “good,” then. And we lose the full force of what Jesus came to do. And we lose the full hope that Christ has called us into.
What I mean is that Jesus didn’t come just so that we can die and go to heaven. And he didn’t come just so that you and I can have a personal relationship with him. These hopes are too small, they are not great or big enough. Our God has so much more in store for us.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Who does Jesus say God loves here? It’s the world. It’s His creation that He spoke into existence. As John says in the beginning of his Gospel, this very Word through whom the Father spoke all things into existence came to restore and save His creation. He came in the flesh to accomplish it personally, to free the captives, and to make us – who were born sinful and enslaved and enemies of God – into the children of God. This rebirth is not due to anything residing in us worthy of reward, but solely due to the will of God in His grace and mercy.
And so what Jesus did is very personal to us, but not only that; we’re also joined together with each other, with Abraham, with Paul, and with all the others who looked to the coming of God’s Christ. We are called personally in Baptism, but incorporated together into the body of Christ of which we partake at the Lord’s Supper, as one body.
And this all comes to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus mentions this to Nicodemus. He says, “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” (John 3:15). Jesus is referring to an event in the book of Numbers when the Israelites rebelled against God and Moses. God sent serpents to bring death to the people as a result of their sin. Yet, He also had Moses build a bronze serpent and place it on a pole and lift it up, promising that all who looked on it, even though they were bitten, would not die.
And here Jesus is connecting this event with his cross. He is lifted up on the cross so that all who look upon him in faith, even though we have been bitten by the serpent through Adam and Eve, are saved. This symbol of death, this cross where the old serpent Satan thought he won, is actually our deliverance. Christ won his victory over sin, death, and the devil through his cross and through his empty tomb. His death and resurrection is why he came, dying for his enemies, for us.
So, Christ has restored the good relationships that existed in the beginning before Adam and Eve’s fall into sin. He came to restore our relationship with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation. And he also came to restore creation itself, and Paul notes in Romans 8 that creation itself is groaning for this restoration and for it to be cleansed and inhabited by you, the Church. We have a partial, firstfruits of this restoration now as the Church. We are restored to God. We are restored to each other. We are also restored to creation, bringing restoration with us as we carry out our vocations in the world and bless it as God told Abraham we would.
And isn’t this so much more affirming to life here and now and to our hope for the future than the too-small belief that “Jesus died so that we can go to heaven?” Jesus died for so much more. In fact, he also rose. He did all this for us so that we can come back to life again, body and soul united again in everlasting life, to live on an earth and in a creation that has no more death, decay, pain, sorrow, or any evil in it.
See, the truth is, we have an advantage over the patriarch Abraham, from whom we are descended in faith. God had told him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Abraham went, without knowing where he was going.
But, we know where we are going. When we die, our souls will go to be at rest with the Lord, in heaven, since that’s where the Lord dwells. Yet, that’s not the end. Heaven isn’t the promised land. The promised land is here, on this earth, but not this fallen and marred earth that we inhabit now. No, we’ll be brought back to life in the restored earth. And it’ll not just be earth, but heaven on earth, because the Lord will again dwell directly with His people, no longer mediated through Word and Sacrament, but directly, in person, shining his light directly on you His saints.
So, this is the land of promise. Like Abraham, you inhabit it now as sojourners, but it has been promised to you, and Jesus Christ will give it to you, because you are the children of God whom he has redeemed; and it is his to give, because he created it. The Lord is returning to finish what he started; he is returning to finish the restoration of his creation and to bring you into it, body and soul, forever.
Truly, “The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 121:8). Amen.
(Image:By unknown, drawing after William Hole – “Our day in the light of prophecy”, page 258 (online) by W.A. Spicer, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10983056)