The Gospel of John, Jesus' first sign, part 7
Oct 15, 2019
When Jesus told Nicodemus the difference between natural and spiritual birth, he did not seem to know anything about this. John 3:9, 10 says,
9 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?”
Knowledge of the principles of sonship begins properly with the revelation of Christ’s own virgin birth after He was begotten by the Holy Spirit in Matthew 1:18-20. But Nicodemus had not heard of this—or if he had heard rumors of it at the time Jesus was born, he had long forgotten it. Perhaps he had dismissed it as superstition. Whatever the case, he certainly had no revelation of it.
Testimony in the Court
Jesus continued in John 3:11, 12,
11 “Truly, truly [“amen, amen”], I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness of what we have seen; and you do not accept our testimony. 12 If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
Jesus was speaking in judicial terms, as if he were ready and willing to provide testimony in a court of law only to have the judge refuse to allow such testimony. Proper testimony is based on telling the court what we know and what we have seen as eyewitnesses in a case. Hence, Jesus was telling Nicodemus that He was an eyewitness with firsthand knowledge to be presented under oath: “Amen, Amen.”
When Jesus said “we,” He was probably using formal terminology, but He was also implying that others could also give testimony in regard to spiritual birthing. His mother, for instance, was still living.
When Jesus said “you,” He was not just referring to Nicodemus himself but was including the entire Sanhedrin with its president and high priest, Caiaphas. We know that the Pharisees among the Sanhedrin had already sent a delegation to inquire about John the Baptist (John 1:24). John had already borne witness to Jesus.
Perhaps Mary’s uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, had already attempted to introduce evidence supporting Jesus’ calling but had been refused. As fellow Sanhedrin members, perhaps Nicodemus had heard Joseph’s words and had been stirred to do his own private investigation. Was that why Nicodemus came to Jesus by night?
In verse 12 Jesus implies a longer conversation that John did not record here. “If I told you earthly things, and you do not believe” suggests more than was written in John’s record. What were those “earthly things” that Nicodemus found difficult to believe?
The foundational truth of fleshly and spiritual birth is set forth in the story of Israel’s deliverance and exodus from Egypt. This is the event which was then commemorated by the feast of Passover. John’s gospel, then, culminates with that final Passover where Jesus died on the cross to redeem not only Israel but the entire world. His redemption was not merely about delivering men from physical slavery but from spiritual slavery to sin.
My friend, Mark Eaton, wrote to me, saying,
“I heard a message from Dr. Michael Hiser this weekend… He shared that the book of John, chapter 3, is a direct commentary on the book of Exodus, chapter 12. Jesus said, ‘You are a teacher in Israel, don’t you know these things?” It was a direct reference to the passage in Exodus 12.”
Exodus 12 is about Israel being redeemed from Egypt on the feast of Passover. When God instructed Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land, He said in Exodus 4:22-23,
22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Israel is My son, My first-born.’ 23 So I said to you, ‘Let My son go, that he may serve Me;’ but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your first-born.”
Hosea 11:1 bore witness to this, saying,
1 When Israel was a youth, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.”
Jesus, too, was taken to Egypt in order to fulfill this prophecy of Israel (Matthew 2:15). In other words, the earthly event where God physically birthed Israel out of Egypt (the mother of Israel) was fulfilled prophetically in Jesus Himself. The difference was that Israel was fleshly, while Jesus was spiritual.
Israel’s Father was God; Israel’s mother was Egypt. This was based on the pattern of Ishmael, whose father was Abram and whose mother was Hagar the Egyptian. Paul discusses this more extensively in Galatians 4, telling us frankly that the earthly Jerusalem was “Hagar,” who represented the Old Covenant. Jerusalem’s “children” (fleshly Jews) were thus Ishmael, not through genealogy but by their lawful status in the eyes of God.
Jesus’ Father was God; Jesus’ mother was Mary, a true believer. His birth, therefore, followed an upgraded pattern, for though she was yet flesh and blood, she was of the New Covenant, for only the New Covenant can give birth to the inheritors, the sons of God. Mary was not a “Hagar” but a Sarah, the heavenly Jerusalem, “our mother” (Galatians 4:26).
Genesis 16:12 tells us that Ishmael was to be a “wild donkey-man” (pereh awdawm). A donkey is an unclean creature and its firstborn cannot be given to God directly. The law in Exodus 13:12, 13 tells us that a donkey must be redeemed with a lamb and that for this reason, all of the first-born of Israel had to be redeemed. In other words, they were spiritual Ishmaelites, born of an Egyptian mother. That is why they were redeemed by the Passover lamb.
But Jesus was born of Mary and thus had to fulfill the prophecy of Egypt in another way. He was thus taken to Egypt to escape from Herod’s paranoia. Thus, Egypt was only His stepmother.
These are deep spiritual truths, revealed in the law and by the prophets and through history. Nicodemus was unfamiliar with these things, because they were unknown to the rabbis. The Apostle Paul understood this, however, as we see from Galatians 4. No doubt John understood this as well, for the conflict between Christianity and Judaism was an ongoing manifestation of the conflicting claims of Isaac and Ishmael.
The real question was whether Hagar-Old Jerusalem was to be the mother of the inheritor, or if Sarah-New Jerusalem was to be his mother. Scripture tells us to “cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman will not be an heir with the son of the free woman” (Galatians 4:30). Nonetheless, no Jew believes this today, and few Christians as well. Hence, Nicodemus was not alone in his ignorance.
When Jesus was Lifted Up
John 3:13-15 continues the theme of Passover, saying,
13 No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man. 14 As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.
In the big picture, Christ “descended from heaven” to die on the cross, and then He “ascended into heaven” forty days after His resurrection. John was looking back at that event, for it occurred many decades before John wrote his gospel.
Jesus then ascended when He was “lifted up” on the cross to fulfill the type of the serpent that was “lifted up” in the wilderness in the time of Moses. There is an obvious parallel between His being lifted up on the cross and His ascension to heaven. Jesus’ words show us that He already knew that He had come to die on the cross, but it was far too early to reveal this to Nicodemus. So Jesus veiled it through the type and shadow of the serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21:9).
The term “serpent” used in Numbers 21:9 is nachash, which has a numeric value of 358. The nun is 50; the chet is 8; the shin is 300.
Likewise, the Hebrew term Messiah has a numeric value of 358. The mem is 40; the shin is 300; the yod is 10; the chet is 8.
Therefore, when Jesus compared Himself to the serpent in the wilderness, He was revealing that He was the Messiah, though few (if any) would have recognized this at the time.
The serpent (nachash) was also the tempter in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1). It seems strange that the Messiah would be identified numerically with the tempter. This does not mean that they are one and the same. When Jesus died on the cross, all the sins of the world were imputed to Him, even as the high priest would lay hands on the lamb or goat to transfer the people’s sins to the animal before killing him. This was legal guilt, not actual guilt, for the lamb was actually innocent, though legally guilty.
So also is it with Jesus, the Lamb of God. He was a Lamb without blemish and “spotless” (1 Peter 1:19), yet He was willing to become legally guilty of the sin of the entire world. He was willing to be declared to be the nachash, the devil himself.
Likewise, being lifted up on the cross defined the Hebrew word ga’al, “redeemer.” It is spelled gimel, aleph, lamed. The gimel literally means “camel,” but it carries the idea of being lifted up. The metaphor literally pictures a camel kneeling down so that a man can mount it, and then the camel stands up, lifting the man high into the air. In the negative sense, gimel can refer to man’s pride, but in the positive sense, it can refer to exaltation.
The last part of ga’al is aleph and lamed, which is the word for “God.” Hence, ga’al literally means “to lift up God.” When Jesus was lifted up on the cross, the people did not realize that He was the great Redeemer of all that had been lost through Adam’s debt to sin (Galatians 3:13). Furthermore, the Redeemer is identified as “God,” for Isaiah 62:12 says,
12 And they will call them, “The holy people, the redeemed of the Lord” [Yahweh]. And you will be called, “Sought out, a city [New Jerusalem] not forsaken.”
God is often said to be the great Redeemer. Christ then descended from heaven, showing His pre-existence, and as the Father’s Agent, He died on the cross as “God.” This brings us back to the early verses in John’s gospel, showing that Jesus Christ is the Logos who was “in the beginning with (THE) God” and also Himself “was God” (John 1:1, 2).
In the days of Moses, Israel was judged for their sin when God sent fiery serpents among them. Moses built a fiery serpent made of bronze and put it upon a pole (with a crossbar), so that anyone who looked upon it would be healed. This was a prophetic type and shadow revealing how the Messiah would one day be lifted up on the cross, so that anyone who looks to Him and has faith in His work will be healed of mortality and be given eternal life.
This is part 7 of a series titled "Jesus' First Sign" To view all parts, click the link below.