13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.John 3:13-21
A. [John 3:19-21] Drawn to the Light
Charles Dickens put it rather subtly when alluding to Dover’s reputation for smuggling:-
Small tradesmen, who did no business whatever, sometimes unaccounably realised large fortunes, and it was remarkable that nobody in the neighbourhood could endure a lamplighter.The Tale of Two Cities
But there is nothing subtle about the repeated judgement of Jesus:-
people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. and everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.John 3:19f..
Remembering that Nicodemus famously came to see Jesus by night, we might wonder if he is being rebuked by this double condemnation. Afraid of being seen he might have been — we don’t really know — but the condemnation of man’s partiality to darkness is used rather to encourage those dwellers in darkness who are drawn to the light as Nicodemus seems to have been.
B. [John 3:17f.] Dreading Condemnation
God sen[t] his Son into the world … in order that the world might be saved through him. It is a sign of our times that unbelievers protest at the very idea of salvation from condemnation because they condemn the very idea of condemnation.
Remember that those who protest in this way have no right to protest on your behalf. If the contrast between condemnation and salvation seems clear enough to you then that’s because it is crystal clear. Just as being drawn to the light is a good thing, so is being saved from condemnation a very good thing.
We may be wondering what Nicodemus must have made of this but John 7:45-52 gives us some insight into that. The Pharisees were, of all people in Israel, the most condemnatory: “… this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.” someone said. To which Nicodemus, … who was one of them, replied,“Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?”
C. [John 3:13-16] Descent to the Rescue
Nicodemus might not have been prepared to go and dispute with Jesus in broad daylight but he knew that ignorance of the Law was unlikely to have been the reason the officers had failed to arrest him. We might protest that Jesus had so browbeaten him that Nicodemus was unable to ask whatever question he came with but, there again, it is plausible that one statement of Jesus answers the question he came to ask to ask:-
No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.John 3:13
If Jn. 3:13 is an answer what could the question be? The Pharisees seem to have liked playing with questions like, “which is the great commandment in the Law?” (And Jn. 3:16 is a possible application from the answer to that one.) But, condemning their great rivals the Saducees for not believing in resurrection, the Pharisees were naturally interested in anything to do with going to heaven. So, a question about ascending to heaven might well have been on Nicodemus’s agenda for the meeting. Excluding Enoch, whom God took, and Elijah, who was carried in ‘a chariot of fire’ the Son of Man in Dan. 7:13 is the only one who could be said to ascend into heaven. Such an answer as Jesus gave would have suited the Pharisaical way of thinking but, without a pause, Nicodemus is challenged to rethink his categories again when Jesus declares that — in connection with him ascending into heaven — the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
When Jesus made this exegtical connection between the serpent in the wilderness and the Son of Man it probably stunned Nicodemus into silence but worse was to come. Having surpassed the expertise of the Pharisees Jesus went on to deny their claims to exclusivity. When John went on to write the Revelation he summed up who the gospel is for:-
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands …Rev. 7:9; c.f. 5:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15
But when Jesus gave Nicodemus the reason why he had to be crucified — i.e.”be lifted up” — he used a term, “the world”, which summed up for the Pharisees what was wrong with everyone else and justified their pride. Whether we think we’re too good to need the Gospel message or too bad to benefit from it, the words of invitation still shine in the darkness today despite whatever Pharisees we have to face or might be:-
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 3:16