We are studying the gospel of John and focusing on how Jesus Himself is portrayed in John.
We see Him described as the God/Man, the One with both a physical and a divine nature. We also see the recurring themes of belief and disbelief among those who came into contact with the Lord. John skillfully weaves these three main themes together into one narrative.
We have also examined the dialogue between Jesus and a leader of Israel called Nicodemus. In their conversation Nicodemus tried to understand as Jesus revealed to Him the requirements needed to enter into the kingdom of God. Nicodemus accepted that the miracles Jesus did were from God, but had a hard time accepting that Jesus Himself was divine and the object of faith.
In essence, Jesus the God/Man was revealing to Nicodemus the "mystery" that had been kept secret for so long. This "mystery" as Paul refers to it in Romans 16:25, was the way to obtain eternal life. Jesus said that Nicodemus had to change and be reborn in water.
Of course it was hard for Nicodemus to understand because Jesus had not yet died on the cross and risen, but for now, in preparation for all of this, the change he needed to make was to humble himself in obedience to Jesus and be baptized to purify his soul. Later, as the gospel would be preached and the details of the kingdom explained, Nicodemus would be able to grasp more fully the meaning and value of what Jesus was offering him.
As I said previously, John 3:16 summarizes God's plan and purpose for sending Jesus. I would now like to review this plan of salvation, compare it to other plans and examine Jesus' feelings about the plan and why, for the most part, it was rejected.
God's plan: salvation by faith
When we study other major religions in the world we see that they also have plans for salvation. Major religions have traditionally been divided into 4 main groups which are listed below with general dates of their origin.
Near Eastern religions (Middle East/West/North)
Near Eastern religions and their subdivisions are the ones that we are most familiar with. These include:
- Judaism (1400 BC) – Their concept of salvation is based on obedience to the Law of Moses and cultural identity.
- Zoroastrianism (600 BC) – Salvation was based on the doing of good and certain worship rituals, especially with fire.
- Islam (600 AD) – Salvation based on completing the 5 Pillars: a) confession ("There is only one God and Mohammad is his prophet."); b) alms (giving 2 ½% - "Zakat"); c) daily prayer ("God is great"); d) fasting (during the holy days – Ramadan); e) pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy city. JIHAD (holy war) guarantees salvation.
- Christianity (40 AD) – When you study comparative religion, Christianity is categorized as a Near Eastern religion. We will discuss its plan or concept of salvation later. Salvation is by faith.
Eastern religions (mainly India)
Most eastern religions resemble one another. There are many but three are the source. They aim for the same goal but follow different ways.
- Hinduism (oldest organized religion that still exists) – Concept of salvation for Hindus is the continual improvement of self in various ways for a number of lifetimes until one reaches "MOKSHA." A merging with deity; not a personal being but rather a "force of nature into which you merge unconsciously." Like a drop of water falling into the ocean.
- Jainism (500 BC) – Salvation comes by total renunciation of the flesh and its pleasures (sex, personal relationships, personal possessions). This is how one reaches "MOKSHA."
- Sikhism (1400 AD) – Love of God, doing good is the way to "MOKSHA."
Far Eastern religions (Asian)
- Confucianism (500 BC) – Developing personal virtues, especially in leaders. No formal worship or deity. Social maturity was salvation for society.
- Shinto (Japan) – They had no concept of salvation except to keep the Japanese nation supreme. Veneration of past family was main worship ritual.
- Buddhism (500 BC) – Abandoning physical desire to possess things enables a person to be free. Freedom from the desire to possess is salvation. The method is to renounce all; when you cease to be, then you become. NIRVANAH.
- Taoism (600 BC) – To be in harmony with one's surroundings, because you have no power to change who or what you are. Salvation comes from balancing the Ying and Yang; by fitting into your surroundings. No afterlife (consciousness).
Some do not fit any category but are widely practiced.
- Animism – Not a formal or organized religion. Common beliefs among primitive peoples, from various regions. Salvation in animistic religions (Voodoo for example) is found by appeasing the spirits with gifts and finding ways to be safe from them.
- Naturalism (1700 AD) – Not a religion but a belief system. Finding happiness and contentment in this world by self-actualization because there is no God.
Each of the twelve main religions I have briefly described has its concept of salvation. Although they have different approaches, these eleven religions have only three ways they put forward for an individual to obtain salvation:
- By doing religious exercises.
- By doing good works.
- By doing a combination of meditation and asceticism.
When it came to salvation, they only offered two possible scenarios for what that salvation was:
- Physical paradise (now or later)
- Absorption into a greater power, unconsciously
The majority of people on the earth have sought these two objectives by pursuing these three ways while practicing one of these eleven major religions.
When we look at Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus, we see another view of salvation pursued in a radically different way.
God's religion and salvation
For comparative religion courses in college, they place Christianity as the fourth major religion in the Near Eastern section. It is put here because historically and geographically it is similar to the other three, but that is where the similarity ends.
Christianity is a religion. However, by virtue of its fulfilled prophecy, witnessed miracles, written revelation and impact on the world, it is in a class all by itself. No other religion even comes close.
In John 3:14-16, Jesus reveals God's plan of salvation and man's response to it, this is why I have devoted so much time to it.
In vs. 14-15 Jesus summarizes the essence of God's plan to save man by tying together an event from the past with an event that was to take place in the future.
Vs. 14-15 – As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
In this, Jesus explains to Nicodemus that the plan God had for change (salvation), He previewed in the Old Testament and would accomplish through Him in the near future. The episode with the snake in the desert was a preview of His method of salvation.
Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. The people spoke against God and Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food." The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us." And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live." And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.
- Numbers 21:4-9
In this story we are able to see spiritual principles at work:
- Disobedience is sin.
- The penalty for sin is suffering and death.
- The salvation from sin and death is achieved when God provides atonement or payment for sin and man believes and trusts that God's atonement removes his sins and thus saves him.
In the Old Testament story, the disobedience and murmuring of the people was sinful. The penalty was inflicted by the poisonous snakes sent by God. The atonement was represented by the bronze figure on the pole. The response of faith and trust was expressed as the people looked upon the bronze snake attached to the pole.
In John 3:15, Jesus looks ahead to His crucifixion and establishes this as God's final atonement or payment for all sins. The sins are every act of disobedience by all. The penalty is not just poisonous snakes but the eternal death of hell. The atonement of God is Jesus' perfect life offered as a sacrifice on the cross at Calvary. The response of faith and trust in Jesus is now expressed in repentance and baptism, as explained earlier to Nicodemus.
The salvation and the way to it is summarized in vs. 16.
Vs. 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.
We see that God's salvation is not a continuous cycle of life that ends in oblivion, nor a paradise of physical pleasure. It is an individual, personal, never ending experience of life with a new body on a level and in a dimension that can only partly be described with terms such as peace, joy, purity, power, love, wisdom, etc.
The way to God's salvation is not mediation, mysticism or philosophy; not the doing of religious exercises; not the performance of good deeds; not the denial of the body. Some of these things have value, but only in the context of Christian living.
No, the way to this salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ expressed at first through repentance and baptism, and then lived out through the love of others because of Him.
The reason God set this plan in motion is because He so loved the world. God's justice sends forth judgment and punishment for sin. God's love sends forth Christ to absorb the punishment and offer forgiveness based on faith.
The reason these other religious systems fail is because none of them provide mankind with what it needs, atonement for sin.
Jesus reveals to Nicodemus the plan of salvation (Christ dies for the sins of men); and the way or response to salvation: faith in Christ expressed in repentance and baptism. He also reveals the reason for salvation: God's great love.
Man's response to God's plan
In His dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus also reveals how mankind in general would actually respond to God's plan, God's gift.
Vs. 17 – For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.
If Jesus did come as judge, the entire world would be condemned. If He came for this judgment and punishment it would already have been handed out. Jesus says that He came as Savior not judge, so the world has an opportunity at true salvation.
Vs. 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.
In a rhetorical fashion Jesus poses the question: If Jesus did not come to judge, then why are men still condemned? The answer is that judgment is based on belief or disbelief. This is the dividing point for judgment: some believe, others do not. There is no need to wait in anticipation for the last day for the results of judgment, Jesus clearly states the terms: those who believe are saved and those who disbelieve are already judged.
At the end of the world there will not be any suspense, those who believed will take their place with God and those who disbelieved will be taken away. The charge that will condemn will be that they did not believe in the name (His true essence) which He explains is the "only begotten Son" (the only one who has this God/Man nature). This is the "essence" of Jesus.
In the next three verses He explains why this judgment is correct, to silence those who may take exception to His pronouncement (perhaps even Nicodemus).
Vs. 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.
The word light refers back to Jesus and the truth that He brings, the plan He reveals from God concerning man's salvation. When people come in contact with this light some choose the darkness because they love sin and evil more than they love the truth. It is not that they cannot understand, it is that they desire one thing over the other.
This is the main reason why people do not want to talk about religion or the gospel: they love the darkness they are in (whatever it is) more than the possibility of light in their lives. This is why many will not convert or why certain Christians do not grow: they love their sins more than they love Christ.
Vs. 20 – For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.
Not only do people choose darkness over light, once they do so they hate the light. People who hear and reject the gospel are usually its worse enemies. They speak against the church, the preacher, the Bible; against what they know is right. They run away from the light because they want to remain where they are without being bothered.
Vs. 21 – But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.
In the final verse, Jesus compares two people: one comes to the light but his love of sin brings him back to the darkness where he would rather be, avoiding the light. The other practices the truth. He has accepted the truth, has let the light shine on him and follows the light.
The one that comes to the light is not afraid of it because it does two things for him. It shows where his sins are and how to get rid of them. It also reveals all the good things that God will work in a person including eternal life (i.e. for Nicodemus: faith equaled rebirth).
Other religions promise part of this and produce some of this while a person lives, but the gospel guarantees an eternity of it experienced personally and provides a resurrected savior to bolster our faith and hope.
God's justice is right: those who accept the light He sent will live in that light forever, those who reject it do so because of their own evil and consequentially are condemned to forever live in the darkness they so love.