Topical Scripture: John 3:9-16
What’s the last really dumb thing you did? Mine was just a week ago. I was playing tennis, straining for a backhand, and jammed the end of my racket into my knee. Here’s the funny part. I use a Wilson racket, with a “W” on the end. I hit my knee so hard, part of the “W” was imprinted on the bruise. Branded by my own stupidity.
Later it occurred to me—most of my pain is similarly self-inflicted. Occasionally I suffer through no fault of my own. But usually I can take at least partial credit for my problems.
Here’s the good news: God won’t brand us for our stupidity. He’ll forgive every sin we confess, wipe the slate clean, and grant us his gracious mercy.
But here’s the bad news: I believe in his grace so much that it is easy for me to take it for granted. It is easy for me to continue to sin, knowing I can confess whatever I do wrong and be forgiven. It is easy for me to lapse into a life which misses the joy of Jesus, the power of the Spirit, the purpose for which I am made, a life in which I presume on the grace and mercy of God. I don’t want to live that way. Neither do you.
There’s a remedy for our problem. It’s called the “doctrine of the atonement.” We’ll discover the three non-negotiable steps to eternal life. We’ll see what it cost God for us to be forgiven and saved. We’ll learn why this doctrine is the most important in all of Christianity for those of us who are branded by our own stupidity.
Accept the uniqueness of Jesus‘ life
Our text begins: “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man” (v. 13).
“No one.” No exceptions or contradictions. “Ever,” without conditions or loopholes. Except the “Son of Man,” Jesus’ favorite title for himself. Only he has gone into heaven, and then come from heaven to earth. Jesus and Jesus alone.
On the eve of his crucifixion he said it again: “I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father” (John 16:28).
He was not just a prophet or priest, not just a religious pioneer or spiritual teacher. He was and is God come to earth: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning” (John 1:1-2). He is God.
No other religious prophet or leader ever made this claim, because none came from heaven to earth. Not Moses, or David, or Isaiah; not Buddha or Mohammad or Confucius; not Socrates or Plato or Aristotle. No other religion even claims that their founder came from heaven to earth.
The first step to eternal life is to accept this fact, to accept the divinity, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Believe that he is Lord, for only then will you make him your Lord. Only then will you trust the salvation he came to give. In a pluralistic world which believes that all roads lead up the same mountain, accept the uniqueness of Jesus.
One of my friends here at Park Cities is especially acquainted with my directional handicap, the fact that I seldom know north from south or the right direction from the wrong. In compassionate encouragement he gave me a cartoon the other day. It pictures one boy saying to another, “We went just about everywhere on our vacation. Then my dad finally asked for directions.” I’m grateful for such empathetic support.
Jesus didn’t need directions. He knows where he is taking us. He is the only person in human history who has been where we all want to go, and can take us there now.
On a trip, the only truly reliable guide is the person who has been where you are going. It’s even better if he will then take you there himself. And Jesus will.
Perhaps the most famous words C. S. Lewis ever wrote are these: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to” (Mere Christianity 55-6).
Admit the necessity of his death
Jesus continues: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (v. 14).
“Lifted up” refers to his crucifixion to come: “‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:32-33).
Note that he said, “the Son of Man must be lifted up.” This was not an option, the tragic end to an otherwise remarkable life, just one way the story could have turned out. This is why he came, and what he must do.
On the Sunday before his death he said, “What shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour'” (John 12:27). He chose to die: “I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:17-18).
Why? Why was it so important that Jesus die? And that he die in this way?
Isaiah predicted his death and its purpose: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed…He poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:5, 12).
He knew that he would bear our sins on his sinless soul. He knew that our sins would separate him from his Father for the only time in eternity. He knew that on the cross he would cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, quoting Psalm 22:1). And he came anyway, for us.
The Bible says, “The soul that sins, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). From the beginning of biblical history, the payment for sinning against a holy God has been death. That’s why the Old Testament prescribed specific sacrifices for specific sins—a dove, a bull, a sheep, and so on. The logic was this: the sinner brought his sacrifice, a perfect animal which was incapable of sin. The priest took the animal from the sinner, laid it on the altar, and slaughtered it. The Lord in his grace transferred the guilt from the man to the animal. If the animal had committed sin, it would have to die for its own transgression. Because it was innocent, it could die for the one who was guilty.
In exactly this way, Jesus was the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). If there were another way to heaven, Jesus would not have died on the cross for us. If pluralism is right, and all roads lead up the same mountain, Jesus would not have died on the cross. Buddhism cost Buddha nothing; Islam cost Mohammad nothing; Confucianism cost Confucius nothing; Christianity cost Jesus Christ everything.
If we don’t understand the necessity of Jesus’ death, we will not accept the results of that death in our lives. If we think we can save ourselves, or that all faith is the same, or that we’re good enough for God, we’ll refuse the gift which Jesus died to give us.
Understand that if Jesus had not died on the cross for your sins, you would have to die for them yourself. Your sins would separate you for eternity from a holy God. His death is the only means of your life.
So accept the divine uniqueness of his life, and admit the necessity of his death for your sins.
Ask for the gift of eternal life
Now we are ready for the third essential step to eternal life: ask for the gift Jesus died to give. Ask him for the gift of eternal life. Here is the result of his atoning sacrifice: “that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (v. 15). But we must ask for this gift to receive it.
“Everyone” contains no exceptions or qualifications.
“My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40, emphasis mine).
According to ministers who know, Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian strongman and corrupt dictator, became a believer in prison. According to ministers who know, Jeffrey Dahmer, the horrific cannibal who was murdered in prison, trusted in Christ as his Lord shortly before his death. They are part of the “everyone.”
And so are you. So am I. The long arm of God’s grace can reach into the lowest valley and save the worst soul. Even ours.
But we must “believe” in him. The Greek word means to trust personally. The devils believe and tremble (James 2:19). Jesus requires personal trust and reliance upon his grace. It’s the difference between believing that a flu shot is a good idea, and taking one yourself.
This is a gift we must ask for, before we can receive it.
All you had to do to receive birthday presents is be born. I’ve never asked for a birthday present in my life.
But this gift requires our free will. We can choose to reject if it we wish. We must ask for it, if we want it. We must choose to “believe” if we would receive.
When did you ask for this gift? Would you?
Will you accept the divine uniqueness of Jesus today? Will you admit the necessity of his death for your sins? Will you ask for the gift of eternal life he died to give? Then you are the child of God. Your Creator wants you to be his child, even more than you do. He wants you in heaven, even more than you want to be there. He always keeps his promises. And he promises: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (v. 16). Right now, you “have eternal life.” You are the child of God.
Now, what sin and guilt is bothering you today? Where are the tentacles of immorality entwined in your soul? What brand of stupidity are you wearing? Take it to the cross. Nail it there. Leave it there. Ask the One who died for you to forgive you, to cleanse you. And the cross will set you free.
What temptation has found you this morning? What voice is whispering in your ear and luring your heart? Take it to the cross. Nail it there. Leave it there. Remember what it cost Jesus to pay for that sin. And the cross will set you free.
Gymnastics was the claim to fame for Houston Baptist University when Janet and I were students there. Our football team is still undefeated, but also winless. But we were good in gymnastics.
Our best gymnast when I was in college was named Percy Price. He was the only African-American on the team, one of very few on the campus. Racism was more common those days than it is today, and Percy had to endure much. He chose HBU rather than attending a Division I university because our coach, an Anglo named Hutch Dvorak, cared more for him than anyone he said he’d ever known. He was there for him, helping his family, caring for him as a person. They loved each other.
It was the largest gymnastic meet of the year, with top gymnasts from across the country. Percy mounted the high bar to begin his routine. Hutch was standing beside the apparatus, watching, just in case.
Percy was spinning at breakneck speed around the bar. Suddenly, for the only time in his gymnastics career, Percy lost his grip on the bar and was thrown to the hard gym floor, head first. Hutch Dvorak, faster than any of us could react, threw himself under Percy, broke his fall, and took the blow himself. I watched as the black man pulled his injured white coach to his feet, threw his arms around him, and hugged him, tears streaming down his face.
The next gymnast up on the bar also fell. His coach was sitting on the bench, 50 feet away. He was hurt badly.
Which gymnast are you?