Sermon texts: Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Death is all around us. Our world is one in which we live and then we die. That is what the people of Moses grumbled about in our Old Testament text: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” Death is all around the Israelites, or so they think. When things start looking bad, they get worse. “Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” If there wasn’t death before, there is death now. So much death and things are only going to get worse. The only way that death could be defeated was from God. As the fiery serpents brought death, God used a serpent to bring about life: “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”
From Adam and Eve, death became a permanent part of creation. Everywhere you turned, there was death and there was no escaping it. Death followed the people of Israel everywhere they went. It followed them as they wandered the wilderness. It followed them because of their lack of faith in God. It followed them to their children and to every generation thereafter. It follows to you and to me as well.
That’s bad news for us. Death is here for us. Death defeats us. But there is One who defeats death. Those who believe in Jesus Christ shall not perish. Yes, they will die a physical death, but they live eternally with Christ. What comfort that is in knowing that because of Christ, on account of what Christ has done for you, you shall receive everlasting life. The best part of all this: you didn’t do anything! You didn’t have to work for it, you didn’t have to earn it; you simply received it.
Here is how that happened. It had to happen at the expense of Jesus. That is what Jesus said: “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.” Salvation lies only in Jesus Christ and in no one or nothing else. The snake was lifted up on a pole; Jesus was to be lifted up on a cross. Everyone who looked in faith at the snake was healed from the bite of deadly snakes. Everyone who would look in faith at Jesus would be saved from the bite of eternal death and have eternal life. This is the life that begins with the new birth by the Spirit. This is the life that comes only through Jesus Christ for your sins.
Paul, in addressing the Ephesians, reminds the people just what it means because of Jesus: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” Because of our sin, we were dead. Notice that Paul doesn’t say that you are still dead, but that you were dead. If you were dead but are not now, what does that make you? It makes you alive; alive not because of you but only because of Jesus. It is because Jesus was lifted up upon the cross and only Jesus could be lifted upon the cross.
All of that changes with what Paul says. We see a complete change for us, a change that has been affected by Jesus. Paul says, “But 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….” You and I are dead. We are forsaken for all eternity for our many sins, for even just a single sin. But God does not leave us in that state of death. New life has been granted to you. The best part of that is that you did nothing to earn it. You did nothing to achieve it. We were completely dead in sin. We were spiritual corpses, with absolutely no spark of spiritual life in us. In love, however, God breathed spiritual life into us. We were made alive in Christ. On the basis of Jesus’ resurrection, through faith in Him, we are spiritually alive.
God’s love lifted His Son on the cross, and by His love, He lifts us from death to life. To lift us up, God lifted up His Son. Lifted up on the cross, the Father gave His Son as the greatest act of love for His creation. Here was a creation, made in the image of God: perfect, holy, and without sin. Creation did not retain that image for long and God was not content watching His creation suffer the effects of sin: death and eternal separation from Him. To restore creation, the Second Person of the Trinity, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, took on human flesh in order to do what we could not: live a sinless life in our place.
There is good reason that all of this was done and Jesus Himself says why: “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.” It was done in order to save it; it was done for you. Whoever believes in the Son of God is not condemned. Sin loses all power to damn us. Sin loses all power to damn you because Christ has died for you. But not only has He died for you, He also rose again for you. Again, the reason that all of this was done is because of the agape love that God has for His creation.
The key to our salvation comes in the final verses of our text for today: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We are saved solely by the grace of God which is given to us as a gift, not something that we have to earn. We have to do enough earning in life: earn our paycheck, earn brownie points with our spouse, earn punches for that free latté. Why should salvation be something that is earned? It is given as a gift.
That is the point of salvation. It’s not something that we can earn. It’s not even something which we deserve. On the contrary, it’s the furthest thing which our sinfulness deserves. We deserve eternal damnation yet receive everlasting life. And while all of this makes perfect sense to God, it makes no sense to us. How can something like this be given to me free of charge? There must be something that I have to do. However, that is not the case.
God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved you, even when you were dead in trespasses, made you alive with Christ and raised you up, for God so loved you that He gave His only-begotten Son, that by believing in Him you would not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son to you to condemn you, but that you through Him would be saved. God has given you the promise of eternal life, for He has declared you righteous—not guilty—on account of the saving work of His Son, your Lord Jesus Christ, on the cross, who gave His body and shed His blood for you and has seated you in the heavenly places with Him and the Son. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.