Sermon: The True Temple: Light and Salvation for the World; John 3:1-17


Introduction: People of God, in our Gospel Lesson we will see that Jesus Christ will cleanse the world by dying.

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock, and our Kinsman. Amen.

Sermon: Every Gospel writer looks at Jesus from different perspectives.[1] The reason they do is to provide for us the full picture of who Jesus is. The gospel of St. John sees Jesus as the great Priest. It is a priestly gospel. What does a priest do? Particularly, in John’s gospel, the priest cleanses the temple.[2] The ministry of Jesus is one of tearing things apart for the sake of restoration. So, in John 2, Jesus cleanses the temple by overturning the idolatry of the temple. He overturns their tables as a sign that he is overturning their entire system. Their temple is corrupted and diseased. Jesus, as priest, has the responsibility to destroy any thing that is leprous. The temple is filled with leprosy and Jesus is beginning the process of cleansing.

The priests in the Old Covenant did the same thing. They were sufficient for that time; they were temporary cleansers; but they were not sufficient for this new era of the Kingdom. The people needed a faithful priest; a mature priest; one who communed with the Father in perfect harmony.

The reason the priest cleanses/destroys the temple is that He might become the True Temple. If the temple is corrupt and polluted by idolatry and false worship, then it no longer can serve the purpose of bringing the people close to God. Rather, now Jesus is the One we must approach to come near to God.[3] His body will be the temple offered for humanity as a gift to the Father.[4] The mission of our Lord as priest is to reconcile lost humanity to God by giving His body as a pure and spotless Lamb.[5] Everything the temple failed to offer—faithful priests, true sacrifices, pure worship—Jesus offers.

In our passage, Jesus our Priest is on His mission again to clean. We see this scene unfolding as Nicodemus, a trained scholar in the law, a Pharisee par excellence,[6] comes to Jesus by night. Now, we have to remember that the words placed in the Scriptures are not randomly placed, they have a purpose. They are there to tell us something about the nature of the text. In verse one we see that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. This is not just giving us an approximate time reference, but it is a continual theme and pattern throughout the gospel of John. Why the night? Why not in the middle of the day? There may be various reasons why he wanted to meet at night. It is possible that Nicodemus was looking for a private meeting with the Lord.  He didn’t want the people to see that a well-trained scholar of the law was asking the new comer questions. He may have been sympathetic to the ministry of Jesus.[7] Or maybe, Nicodemus saw Jesus cleansing the temple, and he too, wanted to be cleansed. These are all valid reasons, but it does not reach the depth of John’s usage of the word “night.”

This takes us back to the question: “why does the text say that he came by night?” The answer appears simple in light of John’s theology. The Jews in the first century were captive to the power of darkness. It is no wonder then that Nicodemus came at night, because they were men of the night. The night represented their evil actions. In chapter 3:19, Jesus says that humanity, but the Jewish leaders in particular, loved darkness more than light because their deeds are evil. In the secret of the night, Nicodemus came to Jesus.

In verse two, he affirms that Jesus’ actions are from God. Notice that he says that He is from God, not that He is God. Nicodemus is still expressing the same doubts and misunderstandings of first century Jews. But as he confronts our Lord, Nicodemus is about to receive a theological lesson about salvation that He will never forget. You may notice that from verses 1-9, Nicodemus is very much involved in this dialogue with Jesus. But from verses 10-21, Nicodemus does not say a word. He is remarkably silent.[8]

Jesus tells Nicodemus that He must be born of water and the Spirit in order to see the kingdom of heaven. It’s like the earthly experience of child birth. “No, no, you don’t have to enter your mother’s womb the second time. Nicodemus, it’s like the wind that you hear, but you don’t know where it is coming from.” Jesus again and again explains to Nicodemus the nature of this new birth, but Nicodemus remains in unbelief.

Jesus spends the first part of the dialogue giving earthly pictures of salvation. He talks about baptism, he talks about flesh, and he talks about the wind; all earthly pictures of the new birth. Now beginning in verse 14 Jesus is going to present the heavenly nature of this salvation. The only reason Jesus can teach Nicodemus about the heavenly nature of salvation is because He came from heaven before He became man. Jesus is going to give Nicodemus a heavenly, cosmic  view of salvation. He is not simply going to tell Nicodemus how one can see and enter the kingdom of God, but He is going to tell him the future of the kingdom of God. Jesus is giving us a lesson on the biblical view of salvation.

The way we begin to understand the future of the kingdom is by going back to before the world began. What was there before the world began? Before the world began there was Father, Son, and Spirit. The Trinity lived together in perfect communion; in perfect love. There were three divine persons in self-giving love.[9] They could have continued to live in perfect love for all eternity. The Trinity certainly did not need us to teach them what love is! They were all-loving from all eternity. They define love, because they live true perfect love. But what does love do? Love invites, love shares. Out of mercy and grace, the Trinity creates the world. The Triune God invites humanity to participate in their love. All three persons of the Trinity were involved in this creation. We see this clearly in Genesis 1. The Father creates in union with His Word, which is Christ, and the Spirit hovers over the face of the waters. But before God creates light on day one, there is darkness in the face of the deep. If you consider the creation narrative, you will see that John picks up these themes over and over. The parallel is striking.

St. John says in chapter 1 that Jesus is the light that brings light to every man. But according to John, every man lives in darkness before Christ brings His light. The world began in darkness as man begins in darkness and depravity, but God brings His light into the world to make a new creation. Christ is the light of the world. We have creation in Genesis 1 and New Creation in John 1.

This Trinitarian love is so great that it expresses itself in the greatest form of love known to mankind, the sacrifice of the Second Person of the Trinity.

We see this sacrifice in verse 14: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus is taking us back to the days of Moses. In Numbers 21, Moses lifted a serpent so that everyone who looked upon it in faith would be healed. Jesus uses this example to speak of His own suffering. The gospel of the Trinity is a gospel of the cross; a gospel of love. Jesus tells Nicodemus that if the world is going to be restored, then there must be a cross. The Son of Man must be lifted up on the tree and whoever believes that His death will cover their sins will have eternal life.

In this context, we come to verses 16. This is perhaps one of the most celebrated verse in all of Christianity; and rightly so:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Let us consider this verse in Trinitarian terms:

God (The Father) so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever has the Spirit work in him in this way should not perish but have everlasting life. The work of redemption is Father, Son, and Spirit working in perfect unity. The love of the Father for the world has the death of the Son as a pivotal event in history.

In verse 17 we see what the death of God’s only Son accomplishes: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

The mission of God the Father, through the Son, by the regenerating work of the Spirit is that the world will be saved and not condemned. Consider the implications of such a statement in John’s gospel.

This does not mean that everyone will be saved as the Universalists teach, rather this means that the comparison between those who believe and those who do not believe is not even worth comparing in the end of history. When Christ returns in His Second Coming, you will see that the number of God’s elect is so superior to those condemned that Satan and his false prophets will be mocked[10] by the cosmic work of grace wrought by the Trinity. The simple point of John 3:16 is that the New Heavens and New Earth will be far more populated than the darkness of hell. The reason this is so is because God so loved the world that His beloved Son was sacrificed for it.

John tells us that the Son did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. If God says He wants the world, He will get it.[11] The great Reformed scholar B.B. Warfield summarizes beautifully the future of history when he said of John 3:16-17 the following:

Through all the years of history (there is one increasing purpose)…the kingdoms of the earth become ever more and more the kingdom of our God and of His Christ. The process may be slow; the progress may appear to our impatient eyes to lag, but it is God who is building and under His hands the structure rises as steadily as it does slowly and in due time the capstone shall be set into its place and to our astonished eyes shall be revealed nothing less than a saved world…[12]

The first step to fulfilling the mission of the gospel to save the world is to see the Second Person of the Trinity crucified.

The persons of the Trinity will only be satisfied in their mission when the world has been saved. This is why there can be no gospel without death and resurrection. Our Lord Jesus tells Nicodemus that if he wants to join this Trinitarian mission, He must die to his sins and be raised into newness of life.

Christ came into a dark world to bring light. The world was under the influence of the evil one, but Christ came to destroy the works of the evil one. He came to cleanse the temple and offer His body as the new temple to destroy the works of the devil.[13] Men love darkness because their deeds are evil, but those who love the light hate darkness. This stark contrast will be made known at the Last Day. In that day, lovers of darkness will abide in eternal night. But those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; who believe in His cross and live in light of His crown will have eternal life in the Son of God who is the light of the world.

How Shall We Then Live?

The gospel of John says that if you do not believe in Jesus the Lord you are condemned already. The Greek word for condemnation is the word “krisis” where we get the idea of “crisis.” The light of Christ brings people into a crisis. Will Nicodemus embrace the light of the world in the midst of the night? Or, will he continue to live in the night in the presence of the light? Later in the gospel, John mentions Nicodemus again as one who defends Jesus. It is possible that Nicodemus walked away from Christ as a child of the light. But the words of our Lord compel us to ask ourselves, those transformed by the light of Christ: Are we walking consistently in the light? When unbelievers come to us by night, do we put them in a crisis; do we cause them to re-consider their ways; or, is our attitude and our lives so vaguely reflecting the light that we cause unbelievers to be comfortable with us so they are not threatened by the light we offer? In other words, is our Christian witness so powerless that when the night comes to us they overcome our dim light? Do co-workers, family members, friends, neighbors know that you are in the light? Or do they just assume you are one of them? If you are in the light, then you walk in the light. There can be no other alternative. Brothers and sisters, may the world never doubt for one second that we are of the light because we walk in the light!

In the book of Numbers, Moses lifted the serpent, so that whoever would look at it in belief would be saved. In the same manner, God the Father lifted up His Son on the cross, so that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life. The true temple was sacrificed on a tree; the One who is the true light died for our dark sins and was raised for our redemption. In Jesus Christ there is light and no darkness at all.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] One could point to John Frame’s multi-perspectivalism to see how it is consistent to portray Jesus’ ministry from different angles/perspectives.

[2] John 2.

[3] John 14:6.

[4] John 3:16.

[5] John 1:29.

[6] Some of these notes come from a previous study I have done on John 3.

[7] Rushdoony takes an interesting perspective when he says: “This night visit has often been described as a cowardly and covert one, but there is no truth to this. It was customary for rabbis to pay one another long visits by night, when interruptions were less likely.”

[8] There is some dispute concerning who is actually speaking from verses 14-21. Is Nicodemus still part of the picture or is he gone? Is John speaking from his perspective or is Jesus still speaking to Nicodemus? I favor the latter.

[9] Some of these Trinitarian thoughts come from a sermon preached by the Rev. Rich Lusk.

[10] See Revelation 20.

[11] Psalm 2.

[12] Thanks to Rev. Mickey Schnider who provided a helpful citation: Warfield on “God’s Immeasurable Love” (Jn. 3:16), but haven’t re-read it yet.  (Biblical and Theological Studies, pp. 505-522 in the old edition). This is a summary from the quote given by Rich Lusk in his sermon on John 3. I have slightly modified the quote to make it easier to understand (the changes are in parenthesis).

[13] Hebrews 2:14.

About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
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