Jehovah is no mere tribal deity, but is “the God of the whole earth”; and
the salvation which He had in view cannot be limited to that of a little select group or favored few.
—Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (1974)
For Jesus Christ is the Savior not of a little flock merely, but of the world itself: and the end
to which all things are working together is nothing other than a saved world.
—B. B. Warfield, “The Propitiation for the Sins of the World” (1921)
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. He had come to Jesus to discuss heavenly realities. But instead Jesus had pointed out his own need for Spiritual regeneration, for a new birth. This had cut across one of Nicodemus’s most basic theological principles. Nicodemus, like all the Pharisees, believed that descent from Abraham was enough to qualify one for the Kingdom of God. But over against racial descent and natural generation, Jesus had insisted on Spiritual rebirth: “You must be born again.” Further, He had stressed the sovereignty of God’s Spirit in the matter. Like the wind, the Spirit’s movements were invisible and uncontrollable. The Holy Spirit brought new birth when, where, and as He pleased.
This was too much for Nicodemus. “How can these things be?” he asked. His mastery of the oral traditions hadn’t prepared him for such a radical understanding of God’s grace and power—or of his own desperate need for Spiritual transformation. What Jesus was saying was far outside his presuppositions and his worldview, even though Nicodemus thought his beliefs were thoroughly grounded in Scripture.
As it turned out, Jesus had a great deal more to say to this humble Pharisee. Nicodemus had wanted to discuss heavenly things, but his Spiritual ignorance left him abashed at the earthly reality and necessity of the new birth. Jesus had more to say about the earthly affairs of the Kingdom of God, and the surprising thing was that they all centered on Himself.
The Son of Man
Jesus reminded Nicodemus that no man had ever ascended into heaven to lay hold on transcendent realities. But Someone had come down from heaven: the Son of man. Jesus was, of course, speaking of Himself, although Nicodemus might not have understood that immediately. For “Son of man” was a Messianic title. Nearly five hundred years earlier, in a vision, the prophet Daniel had seen “one like the Son of man” brought before the Ancient of days to receive “dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan. 7:13-14). Such a celestial figure might well be the One who could and would reveal God to men.
Jesus claimed that this Son of man, this second Adam, had already come down to do just that. But then He added something incredible: He said that, even at that moment, this Son of man was still “in heaven” (John 3:13). In other words, the Son of man, who stood there before Nicodemus, also dwelt in heaven at the very same moment. This Son of man was an eternal deity. Let this doctor of theology wrap his mind around that!
The Serpent in the Wilderness
Then Jesus drew Nicodemus’s attention to an event in Israel’s wilderness wanderings. The children of Israel, as they had done so often, were complaining about their deprivations and God’s provisions. God sent fiery serpents into the camp. Their bite was fatal. Quickly, the people repented of their griping and sought God’s mercy. God told Moses to make a brass serpent—an image of their problem—and raise it up on a pole where all of Israel could see it. God promised that whoever looked on the serpent would live (Num. 21:4-9).
Jesus said that God was going to do something like that again. But this time, it wouldn’t be a mere serpent of brass impaled and lifted up… it would be the Son of man Himself. And this time, whoever—Jew or Gentile—looked to Him in faith would receive, not merely temporal healing, but eternal life (John 3:14-15).
The Love of God
This is the context for what is likely the best-known and most beloved verse in Scripture. But that verse is often read and understood out of context. For God loved Israel in giving her the brass serpent. All who looked to the serpent would be saved. But only those who looked to the serpent would be saved. No one could bypass the serpent and rightfully lay claim to the love of God. No one could despise the gracious provision of God and still expect to be rescued, protected, or excused by the infinite love of God.
“So”—that is, in like manner—“God loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” Contrary to Nicodemus’s first principles, the love of God was not restricted to Abraham’s genetic seed or to the covenanted nation of Israel. God gave His Son for the life of the world. But there is no universalism here, either. The love of God is wrapped up in the Person of His only begotten Son, Jesus, the Son of man. Those who would know and experience the love of God must find it Jesus the Messiah.
Why is that? Because Jesus is God’s only begotten Son. That is, He is God’s eternally begotten Son, the eternal Word of God and living image of the Father: He is true and eternal deity. He is God’s complete and final revelation of Himself, because He Himself is truly God. To seek God’s love anywhere but in Jesus Christ is to reinvent God to meet the desires and devices of one’s own heart. It’s idolatry.
Jesus went further so that Nicodemus (and we) should not miss the exclusive nature of God’s love. Those who believe in the Son, He said, have everlasting life, but those who don’t believe must “perish” and are, in fact, “condemned already.”
Light and Darkness
Jesus then elaborated on this condemnation: Men bear witness to their condemnation by their own actions. For whenever God has shed His light, His truth, into the world, men have run into the darkness. They “loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Those who do evil hate the light and won’t approach it lest that light expose their sins (v. 20). But those who do the truth (believe and obey God’s self-revelation) come to the light so that God’s work in them may be manifest (v. 21). Faith has its fruits, and they can be recognized by the standard of God’s word.
Conclusion: To Save the World
Jesus told Nicodemus that He didn’t come into our world to condemn it. The world already stood condemned. The evidence? For 4,000 years the world had hated, twisted and resisted God’s truth. The world, very willfully lay soaked in sin and darkness. So Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world; He came to save the world and to bless every nation, every family… to make all nations His disciples. The promise to Abraham and the Great Commission share the vision of John 3:16-17: the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ.