I brought in the car for a $25 oil change this week, and came home with a laundry list of significant repairs estimating over $3,550. The car has 200,000 miles on it — so we knew this day was coming. Nicodemus probably came to Jesus hoping for a simple religious tune-up — a new teaching to consider or an old teaching with a new spin. Like me at the car shop, Nicodemus found out he had a bigger problem to address.
Recently I had a serious steering alignment problem. My alignment was so bad that if I let my hand off the wheel for a split second my car would veer sharply to the right into the ditch. Instead of getting it fixed, I decided to just fight it for months by gripping the wheel tighter. Eventually my wrists began to ache from holding the steering wheel straight.
The Bible describes a world completely out of alignment with God’s will and purposes. Human sin and rebellion have jerked everything out of whack. If we simply leave things, people, nature, government, etc. to do what comes naturally, we’re all veering into ditches, colliding head on and driving off cliffs.
Religion steps in at this point and provides some guard rails to help keep us on the road and out of the ditch. God gave us his Law to show us the righteous path, the holy road, that if followed will keep us from self-desctructive twists and turns, reckless off-roading adventures. But unlike my car’s steering, the misalignment of the human will caused by sin has no quick and easy fix.
Nicodemus has come to Jesus as a religious person wanting to tweak the system a bit. He’s approaching the human sin problem, the alignment issue, as a mechanic approaches an oil change or quick tune-up. His repeated question in John 3 is, “How?” “How can that be? How is that possible?” He’s focused on the mechanisms under the hood, or adding more guard rails to keep us on the right path. Or, like my death grip on my steering wheel, Nicodemus may just think a tighter grip on God’s Law will keep him on the narrow way.
But Jesus (and the Bible) show Nic that the human problem is even worse than this. The Bible says that sin’s effects run far deeper. Sin’s grip on the human race has our hands tied behind our back and our eyes blindfolded as we glide along in the driver’s seat of a car with poor alignment on a road with cliffs on both sides. Religion says, “Grab the wheel and try hard to keep on the road.” The Bible asserts that we’re dead in our sins and without hope apart from divine intervention. “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
Nicodemus may have come to Jesus to tune-up his religious system and tweak the mechanics, but Jesus is talking about a dead driver in need of a new heart — a new birth. This line of thought is evident throughout John 3:1-21, but may be strongest in Jesus’ allusion to a strange episode in Israel’s past:
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
Jesus refers to Numbers 21:4-9 where Israel again strays from God, and as a consequence for their disobedience a bunch of poisonous snakes are set loose to kill them. The people confess their sin and cry out for help. God mercifully provides a strange means of salvation. He tells Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”
By referring to this sad episode in Israel’s collective memory, he was drawing out several lessons that Nicodemus would very well have grasped. (Most contemporary Christians aren’t familiar with this story.):
1. The snake bites were lethal and apart from God’s merciful intervention, they would have all perished. Likewise, we’ve all been bit by Sin and we too are perishing apart from divine rescue. “Whoever does not believe stands condemned already…” (18).
2. Just as the bronze snake on a pole was God’s means of saving the Israelites, so Jesus lifted up on the cross is God’s means of saving the world from Sin’s venomous bite. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (14-15).
3. Only the Israelites who looked at the bronze snake were spared, and only those who believe in Christ and his saving work will be saved. The need for faith is repeated 3 times in these verses: “…everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” 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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned…” (15-18) Is it not abundantly clear that we are not saved by trying to be good people, but by faith in the only real good person?
4. Some Israelites bitten by the snakes likely pretended they were fine. Others doubted (or scoffed at) the ability of the bronze snake to heal them and therefore perished. Likewise Jesus warns that many will persist in unbelief, denying that they’ve been bitten by Sin and are perishing. One of the lethal qualities of sin is the selfish pride that insists we are not really in the dark, and the shame that keeps us in the darkness lest our sinful deeds be exposed. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed” (19-20).
To tie both metaphors together, we therefore find 3 types of people in the world:
1. The religious person believes there is a holy road to follow, the ditches are real, and acknowledges that sin has our steering misaligned. He grips the wheel tighter, tries harder to keep the car between the lines, and let’s God’s Law provide some guard rails to keep him out of the ditch. He thinks we are saved by our religious performance.
2. The worldly skeptic generally denies there is a God-paved road, believes the guard rails of Holy Scripture are restrictive, downplays the alignment problem, doesn’t believe there’s a cliff, and goes about trailblazing a path of his own making without thought of the consequences. He does’t think we need saving, or if we do, it’s arrogant to claim we know who that savior is.
3. The Christian believes the same the basics of the religious person, but also realizes sin has tied his hands behind his back, blindfolded him, and unless there’s some divine intervention he’s heading for a cliff. He believes we are saved by the gracious act of God in Jesus.
The good news for Nicodemus and us, is not merely that God sent Christ to pay our infinite bill in the cosmic repair shop, but that he put himself in the driver’s seat of our car and went off the cliff in our place, suffering the consequences for our misaligned hearts. He went off the cliff for our sins. He was lifted up on the poll for our healing.
All we need to do is look to him and live, believe in his sacrifice be saved. We don’t need to drive off that cliff. ” Let’s repent and believe the good news.”