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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Just Look!


So the Son of Man must be lifted up.’ But what would this statement have meant to Nicodemus, and to others that heard Jesus speak in a similar way? Well, the ‘Son of Man’ is a phrase that we find in the Old Testament book of Daniel. In Daniel 7:13-14, there is prophecy about the person who Jehovah God had been promising to send to the earth. We are told that this person, who we often call the Messiah, would be ‘given authority, glory and sovereign power’ and have a ‘kingdom... that will never be destroyed’.

Jesus is the person who God promised. In his public ministry, Jesus often borrowed this phrase from the book of Daniel. When Jesus spoke about the ‘Son of Man’, he was referring to himself. Also, when Jesus spoke about being ‘lifted up’, he was referring to his impending crucifixion. We can be certain of this from what we find in John 12:32-33. In that account, Jesus is speaking to a gathered crowd. He said ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ John then adds this clarifying comment, ‘He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.’

Crucifixion was a cruel punishment that the Romans inflicted upon those they considered to be the worst criminals. It involved being fixed to a wooden beam, often with a cross member that the arms were tied or nailed to. The criminal was then raised, or ‘lifted up’, from the ground on this structure, and left on public display. Gradually, through the effects of exposure to the elements, and resulting dehydration, the person’s strength would ebb away. It was an agonising death. It was degrading and humiliating. It was an experience that no-one ever volunteered for... except for one man.

Jesus knew that he would be crucified and he spoke about it. The language used may seem somewhat obscure to us, but those who heard seemed to understand the implication of these words of Jesus. In the subsequent verse in John 12 (v.34) we have the response from the crowd. They say this, “We have heard from the Law that the Messiah will remain for ever, so how can you say, “The Son of Man must be lifted up”? Who is this “Son of Man”?

This is really significant. These people had knowledge of the Old Testament scriptures. Quite probably they were aware of Daniel’s prophecy. They knew that when Jesus used the phrase ‘Son of Man’, he was using a title that referred to the Messiah. Their belief was that the Messiah would ‘remain for ever’. To them, this promised person was surrounded by the ‘everlasting’. Yet, Jesus was claiming that the ‘Son of Man’ would be put to death. How could someone who was going to die be eternal? It appeared to make no sense. That is why they ask the question, ‘Who is this “Son of Man”?’ In effect, they are saying, ‘We know that the Messiah, who has the title ‘Son of Man’, is going to live and rule forever. The ‘Son of Man’ that you are talking about is going to die. So, who is this ‘Son of Man’ that you are talking about, because he must be different to the one that we have heard of?’

At that moment, their understanding was incomplete. In the following verses, in John’s account, Jesus encouraged them to continue to listen to him, in order that the full ‘light’ of understanding might be theirs.

To have only some of the facts can lead us to very wrong conclusions. These people were correct in their understanding that the Messiah would be everlasting. But they seemed to have missed the multitude of Old Testament passages that spoke about the sufferings and death of God’s promised one. It was as if the scroll containing Isaiah’s prophecy had been stolen from the local library, years before, and no-one had ever had the opportunity to read it!

This brings us to Nicodemus, who features in our passage today. I really like Nicodemus. He realised that he didn’t know everything. His pre-conceived ideas were being challenged by what he saw in this man, called Jesus. There was a conflict that he couldn’t ignore. Nicodemus wanted answers.

Nicodemus was a man of standing within the religious community. He belonged to the strict Jewish religious group, known as the Pharisees, and he was a member of their ruling council. He taught the Law of Moses to the Israelites and was obviously well versed in those scriptures. Most of the Pharisees despised Jesus. At the heart of this was self-interest. Jesus threatened their place within Jewish society. Jesus was critical of their hypocrisy. They wanted to do away with Jesus, so that they could go back to their lives of smug, self-satisfaction. They boasted that God’s truth was really important to them. But the reality was that truth was just another commodity, to be used when it suited, to get what they wanted. Nicodemus was different. When his understanding of things was challenged, he wanted to enquire.

Proverbs 18:15 says this, ‘The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out.’ Despite the fact that Nicodemus’ associates were dismissing Jesus as a fraud, Nicodemus did seek out Jesus for answers. He said to Jesus, ‘we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him’ (John 3:2). In John 7:45-52, Nicodemus is heavily criticised by his ‘own number’, the Pharisees. When they were arguing about Jesus, Nicodemus turned to the truth of God’s word. He said to them, ‘does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?

This could be based on several portions of scripture, such as Deuteronomy 1:17, which says, ‘do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike.’ So, ‘hear’ what others have to say, before you pass judgement on them. Again, Proverbs 18 (12-13) contains Bible truth that is so relevant to this. ‘Before a downfall the heart is haughty (arrogant and proud), but humility comes before honour. To answer before listening that is folly and shame.’ The Pharisees believed that they had the answer already. They didn’t think that listening was necessary. What do we think of people who behave in this way? Perhaps what we think isn’t important. What the Bible thinks is important. The Bible calls it foolishness. God’s holy word calls it shameful.

The Pharisees say to Nicodemus, ‘Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.’ If only, they had taken this thought to Jesus. He could have told them of his birthplace in Bethlehem, and how this had been previously predicted by the prophet Micah (5:2). These people could have learned so much, by just asking the question and listening to the answer.

There is something else in John’s account that can teach us about Nicodemus’ continued journey towards truth. In chapter 19:38-42, Joseph of Arimathea is given permission by Pilate to bury the body of Jesus. He is accompanied by Nicodemus who does a really lovely thing. He brings more than thirty kilograms of spices to put around the body. This was an act that had a precious fragrance to it, in more ways than one.

But let’s get back to John, chapter 3, where Nicodemus is struggling to believe. Jesus tells this man about the vital need that we have to be ‘born again’ (v.3). Nicodemus is struggling to keep up, once more. He thinks that Jesus is talking about a second birth in a wholly natural sense, as if we must re-enter the womb again. No wonder he is confused! Jesus explains, ‘Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.’

It was ‘flesh’ that led to our birth as babies. It was the joining together of the flesh of our father and mother that resulted in our conception and birth. A human female gave birth to a human baby. Flesh gave birth to new flesh, and so this continues if we have children, and they have children. When someone is spiritually born again, they turn to God and believe in the Bible’s message about salvation through his Son. This new spiritual birth requires what Jesus refers to as ‘the Spirit’. Just as flesh must give birth to flesh, so ‘the Spirit’ must give birth to spirit. True spiritual life comes from God’s Spirit. And Jesus gives another illustration. He says, ‘The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’

We cannot see the wind. It is invisible. But we can see its effects. When we see the trees swaying in a gale we know that it is windy. We wouldn’t look out of our window and say, ‘well I cannot see the wind, so it obviously isn’t there.’ Instead, we look at the trees moving and conclude that this is all the evidence we need to know that it is, indeed, a windy day today. The reason that the conifer in our garden is leaning more towards the fence is because the wind is pushing it in that direction.

And we must come to exactly that conclusion in spiritual matters. Why is it that a man or women or child starts leaning towards the Lord? It is because the Spirit of God is pushing them in that direction. Without this, they would not, could not, move.

We might struggle to completely understand this. That’s ok, so did Nicodemus. He said, ‘How can this be?’ Jesus goes on to acknowledge that what he is speaking about can prove hard to accept. These matter of heaven and earth are huge. They were like foreign concepts to Nicodemus when he first heard them. But then Jesus speaks some more words. Of all the words spoken by humankind in history, these really stand out. They are so simple, yet they are also so profound. Jesus points Nicodemus to some Old Testament scriptures where there is a real life picture of being saved from death, which illustrates the gospel perfectly.

Jesus refers to an incident recorded in Numbers 21:4-9. The Children of Israel were on their wilderness journey, led by God’s servant Moses. Rather than passing through the land inhabited by the Edomites, they were being led around its border. They were taking the long way round. They did not like it. Not everyone does. I quite like taking the long way round. Why walk the three miles from my house to Dewsbury when you can go by another route and make it ten miles? Some people in my family take a different view. They start complaining.

This is what the Israelites did. They started complaining. In fact, such was their impatience that they misjudged Moses and misjudged the Lord. They criticised the Lord’s provision for them. They called it ‘miserable’. The Lord brings a curse upon the Israelites. We read that he, ‘sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.’ The people became desperate and confessed their sin to Moses. They cried out for a way to be made safe. The Lord instructed Moses to ‘make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ Then, we read, ‘Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

Jesus uses this event to show the essential simplicity of the gospel message. We are just like the Israelites in that account. The bible teaches us that we are all sinners and that the wages of sin is death (Romans 3:23 & 6:23). Our sin has left us cursed. As a result we must die. But the Bible tells us that the following is true of believers, ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole”’ (Galatians 3:13).

For those Israelites being bitten by the snakes, death was certain. The only way out was to look at another snake. They had to look at a bronze image of the very thing that had harmed them. If they did, then they lived.

It is the same for us. There is only one way to escape our predicament. When Jesus was crucified he became cursed. ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). When Jesus was crucified, he took on the sin of everyone who would put their trust in him. Sin is the thing that is killing us. In order to live we have only to look to Jesus, ‘lifted up’ on the cross at Calvary, made sin for us.

What do we have to do to be saved? We have to do exactly what the Israelites had to do in the wilderness - look and live. From our perspective it really is that simple. What else did those Israelites have to do in order to be free from that curse? Nothing. All that was required was for them to look to the means of safety that the Lord had provided, and believe that this alone could save them, and they would be saved. That was it.

Jesus says ‘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.’ In John 6:40, Jesus says this, ‘For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.’ Here is life, and it is eternal life. This isn’t a temporary salvation, like it was for those Israelites when confronted by the poisonous snakes. This is eternal, everlasting, safety. Who for? ‘Everyone’ - ‘Everyone who looks to the Son’.

This is evident in the record of Acts 16. In the city of Philippi, two believers called Paul and Silas have been thrown in prison because of their faith in Jesus. A miraculous event takes place and their jailor realises that these two men possess something spiritually that he just does not have. He cries out to them, ‘what must I do to be saved?’ In effect, their answer is ‘just look’. They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household.’

This was evidently a man of some authority. I suspect that his household was quite extended, with a number of relatives and household slaves included. Did Paul and Silas know them all? What about the characters of these people? What if there were murderers, or swindlers, or the sexually immoral, or drunkards, or idol worshippers in their number? It just didn’t matter. The message was the same for all of them - Just look – look and live.

And it is the same for every one of us. Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. Your birthplace is irrelevant, as is your previous character and behaviour. The only question that matters is ‘are you looking?’

Jesus suffered for sin on the cross at Calvary. He died a cruel and cursed death. Three days later, two women approached the tomb, where Joseph and Nicodemus had carefully and lovingly left the body of Jesus. The body had gone. An angel appeared and spoke words of tremendous truth, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen...’ (Matthew 28:5). Jesus rose from the dead to usher in a new period of time. He rose from the dead to live for ever as King over a Kingdom. His subjects are made up of a diverse group of people, yet they all have one thing in common – they all looked and, consequently, they all lived. Daniel’s prophecy was being fulfilled at last, and I’ll finish with his words, written hundreds of years before Jesus came to earth, to live and die and rise again. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed’ (Daniel 7:14)


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