The substance of a discourse first preached on Lord's day, March 29th, 1835; and again, after fifty years, on March 29th, 1885.
We will read from verse 14: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Before we notice the wondrous revelation of God in these verses, it may be necessary, for some, to refer to a fatal mistake made by many in applying the doctrine of the new birth, as stated to Nicodemus, as though Christ meant, or taught, the new birth by water baptism. We must notice that the Lord was not speaking to a Christian about the church or Christianity, but to a ruler of the Jews; and He was speaking to him about the kingdom of God — that kingdom which God will assuredly set up on earth. And we must not confound the terrestrial glory of that kingdom with the celestial glory of the church. No doubt there are even important principles in common. Whether for the kingdom or the church, fallen man must be born again; but to suppose that the new birth is a priestly act of man, in the ordinance of baptism, is the most fatal heresy. It destroys the efficacy of the word, and faith. If a man can make a child or adult a member of Christ by water, there is no need for either faith or the word of God.
But the Lord does not say one word about baptism in His discourse to Nicodemus. He evidently speaks of that which Nicodemus ought to have understood. Now turn, and see if this was not the case. In Ezekiel 36:22-37 we have a very complete account of what God will do when He gathers His people, Israel, again, and sets up His kingdom — that of which Jesus spoke. And when He has brought them to their own land, He says, "THEN will I sprinkle clean water upon you and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them." Water was the well-known emblem of purification. Thus will Israel be born again in that day, by the operation of the Spirit of God, no doubt applying the word, as in our case.
It is important to notice also the entire change as to the law, when God shall thus set up the millennial kingdom. Under the law God commanded, required everything. In the kingdom of God He produces everything by the new nature and the Spirit. Even repentance is produced after they are born again in the land. "Then shall ye remember your own evil ways and your doings that were not good, and shall loathe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities, and for your abominations." (Ver. 31.)
The law could not produce in man that which an absolutely holy God requires; but God will produce it in His people: "and cause you to walk in my statutes." This is very blessed. Well, there is not one word of christian baptism either here, or in the Lord's words to Nicodemus.
Let us now look at these verses, John 3:14-16. We would call attention especially to three things in these precious words of Jesus: —
First, The atonement has the first place: "even so must the Son of man be lifted up;"
Secondly, Why was this, the death of Jesus on the cross? The answer is, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son;"
Thirdly, What was the purpose of God in Christ being so lifted up — so given? "That whosoever [or, every one] that believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
We must never fail to notice, that in the gospel the atonement has the first place. To exclude this, and preach what is called the Fatherhood of God, is the delusion of Satan. "So must the Son of man be lifted up." As Jesus said, on the way to Emmaus, "O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?" And again, to the disciples gathered in the upper room, "Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day." And after this manner the apostles preached the gospel: "Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead." (Acts 17:3.) "For I delivered unto you, first of all, that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures." (1 Cor. 15:3.) "Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree." (1 Pet. 2:24.) "For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God." (Chap. 3:18.) "Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification." (Rom. 4:25.)
Jesus assures us this must be: "Even so must the Son of man be lifted up." The work of Christ on the cross is the only true foundation for the glad tidings of God; and His resurrection from the dead is God's assurance to us of sins forgiven, and justification from all things. "Be it known unto you, therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins; and by him, all that believe are justified from all things." (Acts 13:38.)
But now, in the second place, why was this? Why did the eternal Son, by whom all things were made, and by whom all things subsist — why was He nailed to the cross? Why did He thus groan from beneath the load of our sins? Why must He thus die, the propitiation for our sins? Oh, wondrous answer! let heaven and earth hear it. For God so loved!
Let sinners hear it. The cause was the unfathomable, eternal love of God. For God so loved. Do not suppose that God loved us because Jesus died for us — that He then began to love us. Did He love Israel in Egypt because the blood was shed, and sprinkled on the doorposts? No, the blood was sprinkled as the token of His love. His purpose was to spare them. They were sinners, and thus the lamb must be killed, and the blood must be sprinkled, to shelter them from righteous judgment. Oh, wondrous grace! Christ lifted up on the cross was the manifestation of God's eternal love to us.
You may say, How can this be? I am sure I never deserved such love as this, neither before, nor since, I have tried to be a Christian. How can God love me, since I hate myself, and only deserve to be cast out of His sight, or into hell? All this is really true, whether we know and own it, or not.
But mark the contrast between the love of God and man's love. Man loves that, or those, whom he thinks deserving of his love. Not so God. For whilst nothing can shew more distinctly God's abhorrence of sin than the cross of Christ, yet it is even there that the love of God to the sinner shone out in all its glory. "For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly." "God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:6, 8.)
And all this, when it had been fully proved that there were none that met, or could meet, by law, the righteous requirements of a holy God. All were guilty as to acts. All were also dead in sins, children of wrath. "But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins," &c. (Eph. 2:4.) "God so loved." If sin had not come in, and Jesus had not been lifted up, the love of God could never have been known, and would never have been manifested. The telescope may reveal the great works of God, and the microscope the no less wonderful minute things of God; but no glass can be formed of sufficient power to manifest the love of God.
No, "In this was manifested the love of God, toward us, because that God sent his only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him." Here alone is the revelation of what God is to us, and what His love is to us. It is fully manifested. The sending of His Son manifests what He is: God is love. Surely we ought to love God. Man under law was required to love God. But looking within, or at himself, he could never say, I have found it, here is love. Has it not been fully proved that man, with every privilege of the law, only hated God? God was manifest in the flesh as Son of man. Did man love Him? He hated, only hated Him, and sought miserable satisfaction in killing Him, the Prince of life. No, it is not, if we love God, then God will love us. "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." Do you not see, dear readers, it is not our love to God, but God's love to us, when we deserved nothing but eternal wrath? Owning this honestly, that you only deserve wrath, can you say, "And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love"? Oh, do you so enjoy this love? Is it perfected in you? That is, do you so know and believe the love that God hath to you, that that love casteth out all fear? If we know that there is nothing but infinite, perfect love in God to us, how can we be afraid of Him? Nay, "because, as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love." If you are afraid of God, you are thinking of your own love, and that is not perfect. If you are thinking of His love, how can you be afraid? for He has brought you to be as Christ is, even in this world. As Jesus said, "I ascend to my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God." Oh, blessed position! — "As he is, so are we in this world."
Do we not love God then? Oh, yes; but let us remember it is love produced. "We love him, because he first loved us." (1 John 4:6-19.) We thus see that we cannot possibly be under law, and grace. If we are on the ground of love to God as a requirement, we entirely set aside the gospel of the glad tidings by which love is produced. We will now pass on to the third thing we find in these precious words of Jesus. May the Lord open our understandings to understand the riches of His grace.
The third thing we notice then in these verses is this. What was the purpose of God in Christ being so lifted up — so given?
"That whosoever [or every one] that believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." We have seen that the propitiatory death of Christ must have the first — the foundation place in the Gospel of God. "Even so must the Son of man be lifted up." The cause of this, was, "God so loved." We now come to the purpose of God in all this. Surely this is a deep and wondrous theme. God has His own eternal purpose respecting us poor sinners. It was no after-thought when sin had come in, and surely no subsequent thought when Christ had died or we, had believed. No, the greatest gift ever given in the countless ages of eternity, the gift of His only begotten Son, was according to purpose. "That whosoever believeth in him." Mark, this purpose was not limited now to Israel, as a nation. No, "whosoever believeth in him." This is a message for you, to you, because to every one that believeth. The only limit or distinction is faith, "That believeth in him."
Now the question is this, Do you believe in Him? Many would not deny there is such a person as Jesus, the Son of God. The demons were compelled to own that. We do not ask, Do you believe there is such a person as Jesus, once on the cross, now at the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens? but we ask, Do you believe in Him? Is He the object of your faith, and of your trust? The Waldenses fully admitted the existence of the church; but they would suffer martyrdom, in its most cruel form, rather than say they believed in the church, as an object of faith and trust. Is Jesus the object of your faith? Have you received Him as your Saviour, in whom you trust for present and eternal salvation? This faith is not the belief or demons, but it is the gift of God. We beg of you to answer the question in the presence of God. Have you this faith in Jesus? Can you abandon every hope in yourself, and rest in Him alone for eternal salvation? Do you say, I do believe in Jesus; but oh! my sins, and especially some of them, they so trouble me? It is all well, to abhor ourselves; but did not Jesus die for all the believer's sins? Was He not lifted up on the cross for that very thing? Have we not seen that the atoning work is done? Can those sins be charged on Him now? Then, can they be charged on you who now believe in Him as your complete and eternal salvation?
God's eternal purpose then was that every one that believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. If this purpose embraced every one that believeth in Him, and you believe in Him, then it surely means you — it embraces you. God is love, and what did He purpose concerning you? That, through the lifting up of the Son of man, you should not perish, but have eternal life. You may not yet know how good this news is, and how many there are that treat it as the greatest error. God grant you may believe it with an understanding heart.
What then is eternal life? Sometimes we understand what a thing is, by looking at what it is not, or in contrast. What then is temporal or mortal life? It is life that may cease to be. That is the life of all living creatures; as to the life even of man's body, it may cease. It may be for a day, or a month, or a year, and then cease to be. Now many would admit that God had so loved as to give a life, not eternal, but temporal — a life that may be lost or cease to be — may be for a time, and then cease to be. Now eternal life is the opposite of all this; it is life that cannot cease; it is not the life of a creature, it is the life of the self-existent Son of God. Not temporal, but the self-existent, eternal life. And has God so loved, that, through the lifting up of the Son on the cross, we, every one that believeth in Him, should have the eternal life that cannot, that will not, cease to be — the life of the self-existent, eternal Son? This amazing fact is revealed by Jesus.
In scripture, eternal life is spoken of in two ways. The one as to the believer's future state as Matthew 25:46. "And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal." See also Romans 2:7. It is also, as we shall see, spoken of as already the portion of the believer. These words of Jesus, "should not perish but have eternal life," do not necessarily imply present possession.
We will look at other passages which leave no uncertainty as to this. Even in this same chapter, "He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life; and he that believeth not the Son, shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him." (Ver. 36.) Here are two things equally certain as to present position. The believer hath eternal life as a present thing, and on the unbeliever the wrath of God abides.
As to the believer the Lord makes it most certain. He says, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath eternal life, and shall not come into judgment, [it should be,] but is passed from death unto life." Have your ears been opened to hear the words of Jesus? Have you been brought, through grace, to believe God who sent His Son? Then the Lord Jesus assures you that you have eternal life; that you shall not come into judgment; that you have passed from death unto life. Why should you doubt Him? He further says, "And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son and believeth on him may have everlasting life, and I will raise him up at the last day?" only there must be faith in His death, as well as in Him as the bread come down from heaven in His incarnation. "Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life." Nothing can shew more ignorance of His word, or spirit and truth, than to pervert these words of Jesus as though He spake of the bread and wine in the Lord's supper. It is receiving the fact of His death, the shedding of His blood, for our salvation. Whoso does this hath eternal life.
And mark, Jesus does not speak of life that may be lost, or that might be taken from you, or that could possibly cease to be: no, it would not in any such case be eternal life. It is as imperishable as Himself, as it is Himself, and it cannot be lost or taken away. He says, and to faith that is enough, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all, and no man [or one] is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand." (John 10:27-29.)
Satan and unbelief would say, do not be so sure that God so loved you as to give His Son to be lifted up for you, that you might have such certainty as this. Has He said, that you shall never perish; that, as a believer, you not only have eternal life, but none can pluck you out of the Father's hand? "Oh!" Satan says, ever serpent-like, "He knows that if you should sin, you will lose all and pluck yourself from His hands, then where will your eternal life be?" What a liar the old serpent is! But we have the sure word of God, and has He not made full provision should the true follower of Christ in a moment of temptation fail or sin? Was not that sin borne by Jesus on the tree? What saith the scripture? "And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins," &c. (1 John 2:1, 2.) Yes, "God so loved." Sad indeed it is that so many will not believe that God so loved: they prefer to cling to the dark reasonings of unbelief.
Is it then a light matter to disbelieve God as to this? "He that believeth not God hath made him a liar, because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son. And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son." Yes, God so loved. Is it dreadful heresy to believe what God so plainly tells us — His very record? And mark, eternal life is in His Son. Can the Son cease to be? can the life He is, then, cease to be? He is the eternal Son. It is not something apart from Himself that we may lose; "He that hath the Son hath life; he that hath not the Son of God, hath not life."
Do you ask, Is it the will of God that I may really know that I have this blessed portion in the Son, even eternal life? "These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God, that ye may know that ye have eternal life." (1 John 5:10-13.) Oh, how clear the record of God; but beware how you despise it or reason it away.
This is the gospel God was pleased to give to a poor country boy to preach fifty years ago, and this is the same gospel God gave him to preach last night, and gives him now to lay before the reader. That gospel he received not from man. For weary months he was struggling under law, seeking to meet the requirements of the law, and ever failing. God the Giver, and God the Producer of all He requires was, as yet, utterly unknown to him. He was returning to his home, in a village near Laughton, weary and sorrowful even to despair. He was alone with God in the lane: he fell to the ground in the middle of the road and groaned, "Oh Lord, I can do no more, I can go no farther," and he felt in his soul he was lost. It was there the Holy Spirit revealed to him the true blessed fact that "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that, whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life." And oh, from that day, what mercy, depths of mercy! what failures and chastenings! But the writer has ever proved the truth of the words of Jesus — none, no one, has been able to pluck him out of His hands. Be there few or many days before we see the face of Him for whom we wait, may we never cease to proclaim the same glad tidings — that the moment a soul is, through grace, brought to truly believe God, he has eternal life, eternal salvation, is for ever perfected by the one sacrifice of Christ, and stands in the full unclouded favour of God in the Beloved. "For we are complete in him." May God, to whom all praise is due — God who so loved, bless these few words to all who read them.