Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 10, 2024

John 3:14-21 Commentary

What would Lent be without at least one Sunday focused on confession and repentance? This is that Sunday.

We plop right into a conversation in verse 14, though it’s pretty much Jesus talking from here on out to Nicodemus. Even more disorienting, we start with this reference to an Old Testament story from Numbers 21. Jesus compares the Son of Man (himself) to the poisonous snake that Moses hung on a stick for the Israelites to look at. Whaaaaat?

In that original event, God sent poisonous snakes to the people in order to deliver judgment for complaining and speaking against God and Moses and wanting to go back to Egypt (a lack of belief). After suffering some of their punishment, the people repent and ask Moses to intercede for them. It is then that God takes the means of judgement and turns it into the means of their salvation and restoration to life. Anyone who is bit by a snake need only look at the snake hanging on the pole and they will not die from the poison.

It’s that last part that is the connection: the means of judgment becomes the means to life—if you believe it, that is. Indeed, God did not send the Son for condemnation but for life, transforming the moment of judgement into a moment of salvation. If we believe it to be true, its effects have the power to give us life eternal.

But believing is not automatic or easy, it seems. Jesus describes the judgment that God makes about the state of people in the world in verse 19: when given the light, we withdraw from it because we have come to love our existence without it and don’t want to have to change the way we live. Starkly put, we’ll need to reject the evil we perpetuate. Many of us have not had the experience of the Israelites in Numbers 21 yet, unable to realize that our way of living without or against God are poisoning us as though we were bit by poisonous snakes.

If we are unwilling to part with the things that are keeping us from God, then we are unwilling to let them be brought into the light to be dealt with. That is the essence of all this light talk. If we believe that the Son of Man is the God who brings light to the world, if we trust that Jesus has the ability (in fact has already done what is necessary) to make us at one and at home with God again, then we are not afraid to let things in this world change. We are not afraid to bring our whole selves, good and bad, ugly and beautiful, strained or at ease, into the orbit of his light for further reflection and transformation.

Jesus says that those who refuse to do so, do so because they love the darkness and do not want to have their evil deeds exposed. I think that we can break that diagnosis down into at least two broad categories: because we know what the light is (and means) and are afraid of its power, or because we don’t actually understand (or accept) what the light is.

Let’s start with the first because it’s a little more clear-cut. Like the unclean spirits who know who Jesus is and what he is capable of doing to and for this world, some of us refuse to bring our own “dark corners” into the light because we don’t want them to change. We refuse to believe so that we can think it doesn’t apply to us and so that nothing has to change. No need to confess and repent if one is living in denial. This is what Jesus means by being “condemned already.”

But the other category also cannot accept the light that is Jesus Christ. Their inability to accept has more to do with not being able to believe the truth about the light. That indeed, God did not send the light into the world to condemn it but to save it. That indeed, the light that is God is a light of love—a love that loves them. People who refuse to come into the light do not trust that such love is true for them, so they stay trapped in their way of living at its edge. Aware of it, maybe even hoping that it is true, but unable to trust and believe that it could be true for them just as much as it is for anyone.

As our good and loving God, Jesus gives us the antidote. He is the means of judgment becoming the means of life, after all. At the heart of the turn to the light is the confession and repentance that will help us experience the salvific power of coming to the light that is God.

Jesus describes this as actionable in verse 21: doing what is true is an act of stepping into his light and therefore coming to realize for ourselves and showing others that everything we do is already happening in God’s presence. We might fool ourselves into thinking that we can avoid the light of the world, but boy howdy, the light shines and the darkness does not overcome it.

Textual Point

The word for “believe” is used five times in our passage: once in verses 15 and 16, and three times in verse 18. Four of those five uses are in the form of a present participle, indicating the ongoing activity that is “believing.” The last instance is a description of those who are condemned because they have not “believed,” which is in the perfect tense. Interestingly, the perfect tense also has an ongoing quality to it, but only of its consequence. Jesus is saying that the choice not to believe will have a thorough and ongoing consequence for someone’s living, not just their eternal destiny. As Dale Bruner comments, “Jesus clearly believes that life without him is hell-like.”

[Note: In addition to our weekly sermon commentaries, we have a special resource page for Lent and Easter for you to explore!]

Illustration Idea

There is a new theory as to why insects such as moths are drawn to artificial lights at night. The studies have yet to be peer-reviewed, but here’s the gist of it. Instead of describing it as an attraction to light, these scientists say that the artificial light actually confuses the bugs. The artificial light is brighter than the actual moon and stars, which the bugs position themselves under as they navigate. Once they come near another light source, they automatically try to stay under it through what’s called “attitude control” (the term used to describe a flying thing’s orientation in relation to the horizon). Because the light is so bright they find it difficult to reorient to the moon once they leave the light’s reach—in essence, they become trapped in orbit.

Now, we humans are a little more sophisticated than moths. In the words of Jesus, we avoid the light because we know what it is. If we prefer how we get to live outside of it, we’ll avoid it because we know that being in the light will confuse our “attitude control”—how we fly. It’s best to avoid such confusion (feelings of guilt, remorse, responsibility, etc.) than to deal with them through confession and reorientation, eh?


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