"Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him." (John 3:1-2)
'Theology' is "the study of the nature of God and religious truth." To explore religious questions is to do theology. A theologian is, "one who is learned in doing theology." Nicodemus wanted to do theology with Jesus. But he recognized that Jesus was a theologian. "You are a teacher come from God." Among his peers, Nicodemus was a leader. But with Jesus, he was the student.
Nicodemus is certainly not the only Pharisee to have ever come to see Jesus. Lots of others did too. But the others wanted to be the theologians and teach Jesus a thing or two. They tried to trap Jesus in His words. Nicodemus seems different.
We can only imagine what might have gone through his mind before actually going to see Jesus. "Should I go or shouldn't I? Think of the risks? What if I'm seen?" "What will they think?" John simply reports that he came at night. He didn't want to be seen seeing Jesus.
And Jesus welcomes Nicodemus. Open-minded seekers like Nicodemus are always welcomed by Jesus, even theologians.
Our Gospel reading for this morning begins about half way through the lesson that Jesus teaches to Nicodemus. "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."
The point that Jesus wants to make with Nicodemus is that there's a connection between what took place in the desert and what will take place at Golgotha. What God did there through a bronze serpent hung on a pole; He is doing again through the Son of Man hung on a cross. The critical point of this lesson for Nicodemus to grasp is that just as Israel had to look at the serpent on the pole to live, he would have to look upon the Son of Man crucified to have eternal life. Or, as Jesus puts it for His student, "whoever believes in Him may have eternal life."
And with that, the lesson continues with what may be the most familiar teaching by Jesus in all the gospels.
"For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." This lesson has six points.
I. The Giver
First of all, consider who the Giver is. "For God…" God is the giver. The same God who created the whole world in the beginning continues to give the whole world what it needs. Only God could create the world. Only God can save the world.
II. The Motive
Second, consider the motive that moves God to do what He does. "For God so loved…" His motive is love, pure, perfect love. The bible calls love the highest and greatest of all virtues. St. Paul says that all the other great and noble virtues are included in love. "Love is patient, love is kind." Love is not temporary or on again, off again, "love never ends." (1 Cor.13).
God is not moved to give the gift He does by any merit or worthiness in us. That would mean that His motive was 'fairness' or 'justice.' Nor is He moved because it's His duty or obligation or even because we ask or plead with Him. Simply put, God is love and He loves to love.
When the gift is given in love, it makes the gift all the more wonderful and precious. Even a wonderful gift, if given with dubious motives, is hard to appreciate. The motive of the giver makes the gift. That is why this gift, which God gives, is without doubt the most precious and wonderful gift that the world has ever been given. Sure, others may look at it and not think too much of it. They may not be able to understand why we consider it to be so precious. But that's because they don't know the giver or His motives, like we do.
III. The Magnitude of the Gift
Third, consider the magnitude of the gift. "For God so loved, that He gave His only Son." What greater gift could God give than His own Son? The Son is everything to the Father and He is everything His Father is. By the gift of His Son, God gives us Himself. What else do we need?
If you have this gift of God's Son, you lack nothing, you have everything, because Jesus Christ is all in all. St. Paul writes to the Colossians saying, "In Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (Col.2:3). To the Corinthians Paul says, "For all things are yours and you are Christ's and Christ is God's." (1Cor.3:21-23).
Think about this. What compares with this gift? Do money, possessions, power, success even begin to compare to this gift? Isn't it sad it that we think so much about these things, which thieves break into and steal and moth and rust destroy, and so little of the gift of God's Son. Why do we worry about what we will eat, what we will wear, how we will live, how we will about retire? "If God did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also give us all things." (Rom.8:32).
The greatest of all givers who gives for the best of all motives gives the best gift there is.
IV. He Gave
Fourth, consider that little word "gave." "God GAVE His only Son." What an important word that is.
"For to us a child is born, to us a son is GIVEN," declares the prophet. (Isaiah 9:6) Wages are paid, possessions are purchased, homes are mortgaged and cars are financed, but gifts are given. He GAVE His only Son because this is what love does. Love GIVES. Freely. It is by grace alone.
And consider what the Son whom God has GIVEN has done for you. He who did not consider equality of God a thing to be grasped, made Himself nothing, became a servant. He became your servant. He took all of our sins from you and onto Himself. He presented Himself to the Father with all of our sins and bore the wrath of God due them for us, in our place. He was put to death on the cross like that serpent in the desert. He became that which kills us. Poisonous serpents were killing the Israelites. Your sin is killing you. He who knew no sin became sin for us. On the third day, He rose from the dead and by His death and resurrection from the dead, all of your sins have been atoned for, forgiven, forgotten by God. By His blood shed for you, you have been reconciled to God, and God had made His peace with you, and eternal life is yours for the receiving.
This is the gift that God in His love for you has given to you. The only thing you can do when someone gives you a gift is accept it or reject it, take it or leave it. Your friends may be disappointed if you refuse to take a gift they want to give to you, but what does it mean to refuse this gift of God? This gift which cost Him more than all the gold and silver in the world? "Whoever believes," whoever receives, whoever takes it, has it.
V. The Recipient of the Gift.
Fifth, consider to whom God gives this most holy and precious gift of His only Son. "God so loved THE WORLD that He gave His only Son." We have a very hard time with that one. There's got to be something not quite right about that.
Here's the part of the lesson that, I suspect, was most difficult for Nicodemus to understand. It's the same for us. How could God love the wicked and idolatrous and the adulterous? The WORLD must not include them. How could God love murderers, thieves and cheats? How could God love those who reject His precious gift? In short, how could God love sinners? The WORLD can't be the whole world. How could God love even these?
Here is that part of this lesson that if we're not careful, we will find ourselves the theologian trying to teach Jesus a thing or two. It's right here that Jesus takes everything away from us and leaves us with nothing, no merits, no worthiness, no pride, nothing but God and His love and His gift.
With us, we love what we consider lovely or loveable. When we're single, we look for someone whom we love or can love and we try to marry them. When we're house shopping or clothes shopping we look for something we like. It's got to be what we're looking for or at least close. And when we find it we buy it or mortgage it or charge it. With us, we find a worthy object of our love and to love.
But with God, it's just the opposite. God creates the worthy object of His love. He loves us, not because we're lovely or loveable, He loves us while we are thoroughly unlovely and unlovable, while we are still sinners. While we were enemies of God, God showed His love for us in this, that He sent His only Son.
So, God gives His gift to wicked and idolatrous and adulterous people and by His gift, He makes us lovely. He makes murderers, thieves and cheats His dearly beloved. God loves sinners and by His gift, makes us holy and lovely in His sight.
So, God doesn't look for a worthy object of His love. He creates worthy objects of His love. He creates them in the same way as He created the world in the beginning – out of nothing. Out of nothing worthy and nothing loveable, by His Word spoken in the darkness of our sinful lives, He creates the object of His love.
So now can we see how everything is completely opposite of what we first thought. We thought if we made ourselves look attractive and desirable enough before God, He'd love us. But Jesus turns that around saying, "those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." (Mark 2:17). We thought that the WORLD couldn't possibly include sinners. Now we see that the WORLD does not include the righteous who say that they have no sin.
VI. The Purpose
And now sixth and last, consider the purpose of this gift. He gives His Son, "so that whoever believes in Him, SHOULD NOT PERISH BUT HAVE ETERNAL LIFE." His purpose is not to harm you or to condemn the world. The world does a fine enough job of that all by itself. Nor is it His purpose to make you healthy, wealthy and wise. Or to give you success, honor and power. Frankly, you can have all of these things and still be under the rule of the devil and take them all to hell with you.
Out of His pure love, God has given the gift of His Son to crush the serpent's head, open the gates of heaven and prepare a place for you in His Father's house to live forever.
God's purpose in putting the serpent on the pole was that those who were dying might look at it and live. God's purpose never changes. Now, He has lifted up His Son on the cross so that by grace alone through faith alone, you would believe in Him and have eternal life.
When you get to heaven, be sure to thank Nicodemus for having the courage to go see Jesus that night. And thank him for reporting the details of what took place to John who wrote it all down so that seekers like you and me might learn this lesson too.
(Based on Luther's sermons for Pentecost 2. Vols. 2, 6)