SCRIPTURES – Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:14-16
“Whoever believes…” Faith; it’s a good thing, right? You may hear faith praised and encouraged with sayings like, “Just believe,” or “Have faith.” “All you have to do is believe,” you are told. When I hear this, I am tempted to shout: BELIEVE WHAT?!!
Faith is not so simple, you see. It doesn’t automatically help or save any more than eating does. Eating bad food harms you; so does a bad faith. So, I ask again: BELIEVE WHAT?!! God does not leave this question unanswered. In His Spirit-inspired Word He tells us just what the faith that saves believes and receives.
First of all, the faith that saves you is the hard and painful realization that, apart from faith in God, you are not saved and alive, but are in fact dead. “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked,” Paul says to the Christians in Ephesus (Eph. 2:1). Now, I’ve performed many funerals and have seen many dead people. Not one of them thanked me for coming to their wake. Not one shed a tear upon seeing the grief of their families. They had no response to the kind words said about them, or even to them. “Oh, don’t be so foolish, Pastor. Of course they didn’t. They can’t! They’re dead!” That’s right. The dead can’t do anything, can they? No, not one single thing. Apart from God and before we believe in Him we can’t, either! We can’t and don’t do anything that is good and pleasing to God.
The dead can rot and stink, however. And so, those who are dead in sin can put off the odor of sin. What is that odor? It is such things as:
Grumbling and complaining because you think God hasn’t done enough for you, or is wrong for laying hardships upon you. We see such sins, and God’s response, in Numbers 21.
The foul smell of sin is present when you take credit for doing good things and speak as if we will be accepted into heaven because of them.
Jesus puts the death and decay sin brings this way: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” The serpent Moses made and lifted up on a pole was a reminder to the people of their sinful rebellion against God and the death it brought. Jesus was lifted up on a cross because sin – your sin; you are responsible – kills you. His cross is a reminder that we are dead in sin and cannot save ourselves, for if we could, His death for us would not have been necessary. This is what the faith that Jesus speaks of as saving faith believes and confesses. It is a hard confession.
But, this is not all it believes and confesses. The faith that saves above all rejoices in and confesses the great mercy of God. “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved,” we are told in Ephesians 2. Jesus declares: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” God’s mercy and love is seen in Jesus, and it begins when we are dead in sin. He loves us sinners even while we are dead and stinking!
But, He is not happy that we are dead and stinking, and He is not content to leave us that way. God doesn’t just tolerate us rebellious sinners, you see. He doesn’t show His mercy primarily by holding back and not punishing us every time we sin. In mercy He gives His Son into our sins to rescue us from them and give us life. Jesus is the living sign of God’s mercy. He is willing to be lifted up on a cross and become, like Moses’ snake on a pole, the sign of sin and death; but also the sign of healing and life. He rises from the dead to life eternal to guarantee eternal life for us, an eternal life that is received by faith in Him. “Whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” He says.
How different things are now for us who believe in Jesus! We are no longer dead and only able to rot and stink. We are truly alive! We have a life that is far greater than the life we feel and see here in this world, for the life we feel and see is brief. Our health comes and goes as the effects of age increase. But, to you who believe in Jesus God has given eternal life; and note, has given. Eternal life isn’t just something before you, awaiting you like a gift that is promised you and will be given to you only when it’s your birthday. Eternal life is not held back from us and given only after we die. It is ours through faith in Jesus now. “Whoever believes in him [God’s Son] is not condemned,” Jesus says, and so he is free and is not living in fear but is able to live in peace and joy! In fact, in Eph. 2 we are told that “God made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Through faith in Christ you have already triumphed over sin, death and hell, and, in some mysterious way that cannot be perceived in this life, you are right now with God in heaven!
You are also on this earth. But, as a believer in Christ you are alive here; truly alive. God will bring forth this life, which is Christ in you. He will have Christ’s goodness be seen in you and bring blessing to others. And so, God has things for us to do. “We are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10)
Ok, so, just as I asked, BELIEVE WHAT?!!, I now ask: DO WHAT?!! What are the good works that God has prepared for you to do? This is no mystery. Remember last week’s Old Testament reading from Exodus 20? It was the Ten Commandments. Before He gave them God said: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” He has done the same for us in Christ, brought us forth from the slavery of sin and death to eternal life. Now, do His commandments, for these are the good works that God created you in Christ Jesus to do.
When you don’t steal or grumble, then, but are content with what you have and help others to keep what is theirs, you are doing the good works that God has prepared for you to walk in.
When you change the diapers of your baby; or raise your kids to love God and do His commandments; or take care of your elderly parents; you are doing the good works that God has prepared for you to walk in.
It is in such simple ways that your new life in Christ is seen here and now. And, God is praised.
Now, someone might say, “You don’t have to be a Christian to do such things. Non-Christians do them, also.” This is true. As believers in Jesus we don’t take credit for the good we do, however, but give God the glory for all our works. This pleases Him and makes our works good in His eyes.
For this reason, the greatest praise and greatest work is the humble confession of faith in Christ, who was crucified for you, the sinner. Such faith is the root and source of all good works, of a life lived in God that pleases God. St. Paul sums up the source and blessing of faith this way in Ephesians 2: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
In the blessed name of Jesus. Amen.