The Necessity of Faith (Part Five of our Exploration of John 3:16)
The eternal life that John describes in John 3:16 does not come automatically to all people. It is not bestowed on those whose children “behave” themselves or on people who first get their lives straightened out, put everything in order, and make certain their bills are paid on time. Eternal life is for anyone and everyone who “believes” in this gift of God’s love, namely Jesus: who he is and what he has done to save sinners.
This offer is universal and indiscriminate. It extends to all people of both genders, from every ethnic group and socio-economic category. It extends to all manner of sinners: from the most scandalous to the seemingly saintly, from the bad to the very worst.
The truth and promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ are like spiritual honey. But how do I describe the taste of honey to someone who has no taste buds? I can break honey down into its many chemical constituents. I can describe for you its color and texture. I can even explain in intricate detail the process by which it is made. But the only way for you to enjoy the taste of the honey of eternal life is actually to taste it. So, taste it! Believe in Jesus and you will find him sweet to your soul and the most satisfying person you’ve ever known.
In other words, believing in Jesus is more than merely agreeing in your head with the facts about Jesus. It does include that, but it goes far beyond mere intellectual assent. The demons believe true things about Jesus, but they are eternally lost (James 2:19). Believing also means savoring in the most deeply satisfying way all that God is for you in Jesus. It means you treasure the one you know. You prize him above all others. You enjoy him to the fullest degree. “It is coming to Christ and finding him true and satisfying to the deepest longings of the soul” (John Piper).
This mention of the necessity of believing takes us back into John 3:9-14. I want us to look particularly at vv. 14-15.
“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 3:14-15).
The incident to which Jesus points is found in Numbers 21. The people of Israel had been traveling from Mount Hor near the Red Sea to the borders of Edom. As a result of the difficulties they encountered, they complained and grumbled against both God and 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” (Num. 21:4). So God sent “fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (Num. 21:6). They are probably called “fiery” serpents because of the severe sting in their venom.
The people asked Moses to intercede for them, and he did. God instructed him to erect a pole with the figure of a serpent made of bronze at its top. Everyone bitten needed only to look to the bronze or brazen serpent and they would be healed.
We know this incident was a type or foreshadowing of the death of Jesus because Jesus himself says in v. 14, “as” Moses lifted up the serpent . . . “so” must the Son of Man be lifted up. What strikes many as odd is that if the bronze snake is portrayed as a curse, it would suggest that Jesus is being portrayed in the same way. And that is true. But listen carefully. Jesus became a curse for us. Jesus became sin for us. Paul said it in two places:
“For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).
In becoming like the snake, he was the embodiment of our sin, and the embodiment of our curse. And in becoming sin and a curse for us, he took ours away. “Jesus, in the place of the snake, is the source of healing, the source of rescue from the poison of sin, and the wrath of God. Jesus is the source of eternal life” (John Piper).
But this deliverance from the poison of sin and the wrath of God that it brings only comes through faith. You must believe in Jesus. When the Son of Man, Jesus, is lifted up on the cross, you must look to him, hanging there as the substitutionary sacrifice for your sin, you must believe in him as the one who can save you from the poisonous venom of your moral and spiritual rebellion and the wrath of God that it provokes.
Before we leave this story, let me also point out what the people of Israel were not told to do. They were not encouraged to follow some path of self-reformation. They were not instructed to incorporate themselves into what someone has referred to as the SEFS: The Society for the Extermination of Fiery Serpents! They were not told to pray to the serpent on the pole, nor were they commanded to buy some relic of the serpent and reverence it in hopes of continued well-being. Sadly, some in Israel did precisely that, as we read in 2 Kings 18:4. There we read about the spiritual reforms instituted by Hezekiah:
“He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it” (2 Kings 18:4).
The point we are to glean from this is simple: we are bitten with the poison of sin just as the Israelites were of the serpents. And just as they looked to the bronze serpent for physical healing we are to look to Jesus in faith for spiritual healing.
So, as we turn our attention back to John 3:16 we see that believing in who Jesus is and what he has done is absolutely essential for salvation and eternal life. This emphasis on believing in John 3:16 means that not everyone will benefit from God having sent his Son. It is of benefit only for those who believe, that is, those who embrace him for who he claimed to be and who trust him for what he came to accomplish.
But why wouldn’t everyone believe? Knowing what God is offering us in his Son, why wouldn’t every person joyfully and instantly believe? The answer is given in vv. 19-20.
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:19-20).
Let me illustrate what is being said. In 1960 there was a movie released called, “The Time Machine,” starring Rod Taylor. It was based on a novel written by H. G. Wells. Taylor portrayed a scientist who created a machine that would thrust him into either the future or into the past. As he traveled into the future, he encountered a strange group of people called the Morlocks. These mutants would only come out at night because the light of day and of the sun was painful and repelling. They would recoil when confronted with fire and return to the darkness of their caves to protect themselves from the light.
This is what John is telling us in vv. 19-20. People reject the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ because they love spiritual and moral darkness. They fear exposure (v. 20b) and shame and the light of truth. They prefer to remain in darkness “because their works are evil” (v. 19b). The bottom line is this: people do not reject Christ and the gospel and Christianity primarily for intellectual reasons, but for moral reasons. It isn’t that they lack evidence or think Christianity is logically incoherent. They reject Christ because to accept him and follow him means that they must abandon their sinful ways. And they prefer the immediate gratification and pleasures of sin above Jesus and the life that he offers. Or again, people reject Jesus Christ because they cherish the pleasures of sin more than they fear its consequences.