A Bronze Serpant and a Wooden Cross: Sharing Jesus with others using John 3:16

Around this time last year I was beginning to grow really anxious, and extremely excited! That is really saying something since my wife and I had just welcomed our first newborn and were both running off of pure coffee.

My dad, a friend of his, and I all piled into a truck and left Savannah, GA to travel across the border into election land, aka South Carolina right before the 2016 primaries. Freshly printed tickets in hand, we pushed through a sea of men, some wearing suits and others clad in jerseys. After eating  food from a wild game supper, the large church that we were at opened its doors to seating; finally we were going to be able to see the speaker that night, Tim Tebow.

Tim was there that night to share the Gospel, but he sprinkled in a lot of great stories into his testimony. One story in particular floored me. He spoke of his time as the starting quarterback at the University of Florida, and through his success there, he found himself in the BCS Championship game on January 8, 2009. In that game he wrote a simple phrase on the black paint beneath his eyes: “John 3:16”. It felt like the whole nation had their eyes fixed on that game.

“We were playing for the national championship in college on January 8, 2009, and I decided to wear John 3:16 under my eyes, and during the game, 94 million people Googled John 3:16, and it was a pretty cool moment.”

-Tim Tebow

94 million. Tebow later said that he couldn’t believe 94 million people had to google John 3:16 to know what it said.

The league rule in the NFL wasn’t so favorable about writing beneath the eye paint, but the providence of God still seemed to be working through Tebow. Three years later exactly, on January 8, 2012, Tim played in his first playoff game as the starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos. As he took the field in overtime, tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tebow hit an 80-yard game-winning strike to Demaryius Thomas, finishing the day with precisely 316 yards passing.

The 316 phenomenon stretches a little farther, leading some to even think of it as a conspiracy. You can read about some of the crazier details here.

It’s just astounding to see how seminal John 3:16 continues to be, even as time passes. Almost everyone knows the verse, Christians and drunk people alike have quoted it to me. There even was the formerly popular man who attended many sporting events and always seemed to find himself on television holding a simple sign that said “John 3:16”.

The issue is, with as many people there are that knows what the verse says, there are far too many people who don’t really know what it means. Just on the surface, there are lost people who’ve heard the verse, but that is about the extent of their effort to dwell on it. More troubling than that though are those who do want to discuss the verse’s meaning, but interpret it terribly and lead other people to believe lies about the Gospel of God .

One of the theologically liberal blogs I check in with from time to time constantly baffles me with horrifically wrong assertions like the Bible isn’t inerrant, hell isn’t real, Jesus isn’t God, etc. Though this author’s view certainly isn’t in the  majority, his view certainly shows how far some people take the interpretation of John 3:16 when they don’t hold to sound doctrine.

After quoting the faithful interpretation of John 3:16, the author says this:

This is not at all like the loving Father Jesus tells us about; this is an angry, harsh, and vindictive God. The truth is… God does not punish any of us in some imagined hell. God is like a loving Father/Mother who wants the best for each of us and sent Jesus to tell us of his/her wonderful, unconditional love for every person… If people are not being condemned to hell or saved from hell, then what is it they are condemned to or saved from? I submit that we are being saved from a life of brokenness, pain, alienation, and death.

Read the whole thing here

So there you go. The great Gospel of the Bible in his view is that God sent his son into the world to only save people from pain, emotional hurt, and the like. God can save us from those things but when you deny that Christ came to save us from sin, the rest becomes meaningless.

So let’s put John 3:16 in context so we can understand what Jesus really meant. I am of the opinion that once Christians understand this verse, it will become immensely useful to sharing the Gospel.

14 As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

John 3:14-16

John 3:16 cannot be properly understood unless you understand John 3:14. Jesus begins by comparing his mission to an experience Moses faced in Numbers 21. Even if you understand the reference, you really need to read that story again to see just how many details between the two events parallel. It would be a good passage to familiarize yourself with so that you can describe it to others as the occasions arise. I will link the passage here so you can read it in full if you wish.

There, in the book of Numbers, the Israelites grumbled and complained against God and Moses, and as a punishment for their sin, God sent poisonous snakes into their camps to bite the people. The people then begged Moses to intercede on their behalf before God. In his mercy, God tells Moses to make a symbol of a bronze serpant, and to fasten it high to a pole so everyone can see it. God says anyone who is willing to look at that symbol and have faith that God will save them will not die. As a result of this great passage you’ve probably seen ambulances with an image of a snake on a pole painted on the side, as a symbol of healing.

Don’t tell the ACLU
What does this event have to do with Jesus? Everything.

In this story, we are the grumbling, complaining Israelites. We are the sinful people. And just like those people who were bitten by the bitter fangs of serpants, we too have been infected with sin. Moses stepped in to intercede on the behalf of the Israelites, so that God may provide a way to save the people, and Jesus is described as our intercessor, who goes before God on the behalf of our sin. God told the people to look upon the image of the bronze serpant on the pole with faith, and they would not die of the venom. So too God tells us to believe upon Jesus, who was lifted high on a cross, and when we have faith, God will forgive us of our sins. Not everyone felt compelled to trust God though, and there were certainly Israelites who perished in their unbelief. On our end, for all of those who refuse to believe that Jesus died on our behalf for sins, they will someday perish in their sin, and spend an eternity in Hell as punishment for their rebellion and unrighteousness.

I hope you see now the two stories are inseparably linked. When that blogger I quoted earlier tried to explain John 3:16, he simply mishandled the text and bungled the meaning because he did not place handle the context it shares with Numbers.

It is in light of that parallelism, Jesus continues speaking in John 3 to the teacher Nicodemus.

17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.
John 3:17-19

Every person has one thing in common. We are all sinners. The sin we have in us is darkness, it’s dirty, and its evil. We all willingly chose to disobey God at some point, and we are all already judged and condemned. Punishment is due for our sin. That does not make God vindictive. It makes God just, like a judge who levies a sentence against those who break the law. In God’s justice, He must punish sin. As we lived in sin, our outlook seemed very bleak indeed.

In steps Jesus, the one God promised beforehand, who would come to pay for our sins.

God is the sovereign planner of our salvation. He sent the perfect, sinless Son of God, Jesus to Earth. He was like the Light shining amongst our dark deeds. Jesus took our sin upon him, and also took the punishment for it too, being crucified and lifted high on a wooden cross. God punished Jesus instead of you. This great doctrine is where we get the big theological phrase “substitutionary atonement.” Jesus died in substitution for us, and atoned for our sins. Therefore, since God gave Jesus your sin and punishment, He also offers to give you the perfection and righteousness that belonged to Jesus!

Not everyone is going to take that offer from God. As Jesus said, some men love their evil deeds, and will willingly choose darkness, and the result of that decision will be on them, not God.

God calls us instead to look to His plan of salvation with faith, just like those Israelites who were perishing in their rebellion had to do. Look to Jesus, and believe that only his death, burial and resurrection paid the full price for your sins, and if you do, you have God’s promise that you will receive salvation and an eternal relationship with God! Now THAT is good news, and I hope you can take it and share it with others with greater confidence!

You can check out another awesome John 3:16 story at the introduction to my Christmas post.

God Bless!

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