17 Believing and Life John 3:11-21   

John 3:11-21 is about believing and life. In John 3:1-11 Jesus had been in conversation with Nicodemus about the importance of the regenerating work of God’s Spirit in his life, something which would only come about through believing in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. The outcome for Nicodemus as well as us is life in His Name (John 20:31).

Imagine I said, “There’s a mouse running down the side of the church!”  Some might scream, others jump on their chairs, or others just stay put!  But what is certain is you would react to what you heard. This is the meaning of believing in the biblical sense: acting on what you hear.  If there was a fire in the church and Pete called for an evacuation, and no-one did anything, he might conclude no-one heard what he said, or they didn’t believe what he said.  Biblical believing should lead to repentance and a life of faith.

There is a well known example of a man who pushed a wheelbarrow over the Niagara Falls on a tightrope.  The crowds were amazed. He asked them if they believed he could do it again.  They all cheered and said yes!  Then he asked who would like to get into the wheelbarrow!  Silence fell and no-one did. Again, this illustrates the nature of biblical believing: it is actually getting into the wheelbarrow!  We need to remember this as we go through John’s gospel, because John has a lot to say about believing.  Remember, the devil ‘believes’ in God, but he will never repent or confess Jesus as Lord (James 2:19-20).

John also has a lot to say about eternal life. What is eternal life? Eternal life isn’t just pie in the sky when you die; it is steak on your plate while you wait! Eternal life is God’s life which begins at conversion and continues on beyond the grave (Ephesians 2:1-10).

  1. Believing in the death and resurrection of Jesus (3:11-15)

John introduces the death and resurrection of Jesus right at the beginning of his gospel, at least as allusions from the Hebrew Scriptures, because it is the death and resurrection of Jesus we need to believe in (1John 2:2).  The history Jesus uses is taken from Numbers 21:8, The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”  The Israelites had sinned and God sent poisonous snakes to bite the people. When the people were convicted of their sin, God responded by telling Moses to make a snake of bronze on a pole, and anyone who looked to it would live.  (NB the symbol of a snake on a pole is used by medical organisations worldwide to this day.)

The idea of looking at a metal snake on a pole and getting healed sounds foolish and improbable.  There was, of course, no medical reason for the healing. The only reason it could work was in the faith response of the people to God’s word.  It is amazing that 1000’s of years ago in the desert God decided to give a prophetic picture of the way in which His Son would one day be lifted up, so that whosoever looks to Him may not perish but have eternal life (John 3:14-15).

There is a bit of a word play on the word lifted. We can understand this as Christ being lifted up, 1. in His death on the cross; 2. in His resurrection from the dead; 3. in glory at His ascension back into heaven.   

In John 3:12 Jesus discusses earthly and heavenly things. What are these earthly and heavenly things? I take earthly things to mean things on earth, and heavenly things to mean things in heaven. Jesus’ death and resurrection took place on earth – these are the earthly things.  Jesus tells us about the heavenly things in John 3:13, No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man. Unless Nicodemus came to understand the things that happened on earth, namely the death and resurrection of Christ, how would he understand the heavenly things, namely, the descent and ascent of the Son of Man?  If Nicodemus clung to Jesus as only a good teacher or miracle worker, he would never understand Jesus to be the Eternal Word who descended in human flesh, and who would ascend back to His Father (John 20:17).

  1. The reason God sent His Son – that we might believe! (v16-17)

John 3:16 is the most famous verse for modern Christians. It speaks of God’s love in sending His only Son. (NB 3:16 and 3:17 are parallel verses.)  Jesus died in Jerusalem 2000 years ago at the hands of the worldly authorities that killed Him. Yet, God so loved the world … !  Jesus cried from the cross, Father, forgive, for they know not what they do.  And God loves the world today in equal measure, a world equally rebellion against its Creator, or more so. We need to feel something God’s love for the lost.

John 3:16 is possibly the best known verse in the Bible, yet we should try and understand it in the context fo 1st century Israel. Someone like Nicodemus would easily associate mention of the Son with Psalm 2, which speaks of Messiah as the Son who is King on God’s holy hill (Psalm 2:6).

Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. the LORD with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling.  Kiss his Son, lest he be angry and you perish in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him (Psalm 2:10-12).

Nicodemus was a ruler of the earth (of the Jews).  In the Hebrew mind the idea of being consumed by God’s holiness and perishing was a very real possibility (and it still is!) But Jesus emphasised that God sent His Son so we may not perish, but believe and have eternal life.  So, the idea of the Son being lifted up probably for Nicodemus had more to do with the ascension of the Son as King of Israel. But from our post-resurrection perspective, we know this would only come about through the cross and resurrection. These verses speak of the great victory of King Jesus over the forces of evil accomplished on behalf of Israel and all believers. If we believe it should lead us to repentance and confession that Jesus is Lord.

  1. Believing in the light that has come into the world (v18-21)

But there’s a problem: we don’t believe it, or not easily (John 3:19)! We have an incurable disease called sin. 

  • Human beings are the only creatures on God’s earth who slaughter and destroy each other by the millions.
  • Just about every good invention known to man that has been used for good has also been turned to evil.
  • Just about every good gift given to man – material possessions, sexual relations, chemical substances – which are all good in themselves have been used to corrupt human beings.
  • Power, which has been given to human beings as a gift for the right ordering of human societies so that people may live fruitful and blessed lives, has been used to devastating effect by tyrannical regimes.
  • Most of us realise we fall short of even our own expectations (1John 1:8).

Yet we continue to insist we are so wonderful! The Bible says we are sinners (Romans 3:23), sin which entered the world through our first parent’s (Genesis 3). The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9).  This is why you cannot see, and cannot enter the kingdom of God except you are born from above. The best psychology can give temporary relief, but it cannot deal with the problem of sin.  Light (Messiah) has come into the world to save, but sinful human hearts love darkness rather than light. In fact we hate the light and do not come into the light for fear that our sins be exposed. But Jesus did not come to condemn or to expose our sins to one and all, but to repent while we can, and to be saved (John 3:21).  May we be those who believe and are saved through His life.



It is helpful to see that John 3 is divided into 2 halves and 4 parts:


Jesus and Nicodemus


John the Baptist’s testimony to Jesus



Born from above


The Baptist’s testimony and his disciples (3:22-31)


Believing and life


The Father and the Son



In the first discourse, 3:11-21, it is difficult to determine if Jesus is speaking or John is commenting, but either way it is God’s word.  

There are connecting themes between these two halves of John 3,

Shared themes



Coming to a Rabbi

This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, (2)

And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, (26)

Contrasts among the characters

Jesus the divine teacher

Nicodemus the human teacher

Jesus the bride

John his friend

Earthly and heavenly things

Earthly things vs heavenly things (12)

From heaven vs from earth; belonging to the earth vs being above all (31)

Jesus’ own testimony

‘Our’ testimony (11-12)

His testimony (32-33)

The one from heaven

He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man (13)

He who comes from above (31)

Belief and unbelief

Belief and eternal life (15-16)

Unbelief and judgment (18-19)

Belief and eternal life (36)

Unbelief and wrath (36)



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