“Jesus Ministry: Getting the Prophecies Fulfilled” – John 3:14-16
Review: Jesus’ ministry (between the temptation bookends)
As we begin, let me remind you again of where we are going with the messages during this Lenten season. We are talking about Jesus’ ministry, which took place between those two bookends of temptation – the temptation in the wilderness at the hands of the devil and the temptation and suffering that took place on the cross. His Baptism and resurrection formed bookends to THOSE bookends. Two Sundays ago, we saw how important it was to “get things straight” – about Jesus’ identity, His mission and purpose, and our own discipleship. Last Sunday, we heard about Jesus’ passion to get the temple clean – not only the Jerusalem temple where animals and money-changers disrupted the worship of Gentile people, but also the temple of our own bodies which are afflicted by sin. Today our focus turns to “getting the prophecies fulfilled.”
1. Matthew’s Gospel – fulfilling Scripture
Matthew’s Gospel more than any other Gospel account of Jesus’ life and ministry documents the many times and many ways that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies about the coming Saviour. Matthew’s concern about those prophecies was because the readers of his Gospel seem to have been Jewish people that were familiar with the Old Testament, especially the passages that pointed to the Saviour who was to come. He also is the Gospel writer who most often points back to Old Testament events and people. He doesn’t explain Jewish customs because he assumes his readers already understand them. He uses Jewish terminology. In the genealogy of Jesus he only takes us back to Abraham, who is the father of the Jewish people.
Let’s have a quick look at some examples from Matthew about Jesus getting the prophecies fulfilled. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ birth fulfills the Isaiah prophecy that says “the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.” Four times in Matthew chapter 2 – the story of the visit of the Magi and the Holy family’s subsequent escape to Egypt – we hear that a prophecy is fulfilled. At the end of Jesus’ ministry, in the two chapters which describe Jesus’ suffering and death, we also hear two general references to Scripture being fulfilled, and two specific occasions – one with respect to the striking of the shepherd and the scattering of His sheep / His disciples, and the second in reference to the purchase of a potter’s field with the thirty pieces of silver that Judas threw back into the temple.
2. John’s Gospel – fulfilling Scripture, too
that to some extent, some more subtly than others. In the past couple of months, I have been using the Gospel of John to teach an Introduction to the Christian faith class. Because the participants are really unfamiliar with the Bible as a whole, I have taken the time to connect things about Jesus back to the Old Testament when necessary, when things come up that I think the participants don’t have the background for. One example is the story of Jesus’ baptism in John chapter 1, when John the Baptizer says, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The participants in my class don’t have an understanding of the concept of sin offerings and sacrifices of lambs from the Old Testament. So, I needed to explain that John was pointing to Jesus as the lamb sacrifice who didn’t just take away one sin or one person’s sins, but the sins of the entire world!
Another example was just our Gospel reading last week from John 2 – the cleansing of the temple. There we read that, after Jesus cleared the temple of the animals and money-changers, the disciples remembered that Psalm 69 talks about “Zeal for God’s house” and they related it to what Jesus had just done.
So, even though Matthew is the prime example of a Gospel writer who wants to let us know that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, both John 1 and John 2 also contain examples.
3. Numbers 21 context & story
Today, in John 3, we have another direct reference to the Old Testament, specifically the reading we heard from Numbers 21. The context of Numbers 21 is as follows: The people of Israel had spent some 400 years in Egypt, most of it as slaves to the Egyptian pharaoh. Under Moses’ leadership, God sent ten plagues on the land of Egypt – the last of which finally convinced him to let God’s people go. The Israelites left Egypt, miraculously crossed the Red Sea, and were finally free of Egyptian rule. They spent 40 years wandering in the Sinai desert before they crossed into the land of Canaan, the land that God had originally promised to Abraham. It was in the desert that they received the 10 Commandments, and it was in the desert that they truly found their identity as God’s treasured possession, His people, His holy nation, and His priests to the whole earth.
In Numbers 21, they were on the home stretch, the last leg of their journey to that promised land. Although God had provided food and water during their 40-year journey, although their clothing did not wear out – hey, I’ve still got this 40 year old sweater, too – and although their feet didn’t swell along the way, they still and often complained to Moses, and – if you can believe it – even longed for those slavery days in Egypt. God was fed up with their complaints about food, and He sent poisonous snakes / fiery serpents to bite people, and we heard that many of the people died from those snake bites. Sometimes it takes a slap on the face or a bite on the ankle to recognize and realize that you have done something wrong or that you have said something foolish and hurtful. The snake bites were cause for corporate reflection and then confession: “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you, Moses. Pray to the Lord, that He take away the serpents from us.”
Moses prayed, but God didn’t answer the prayer as the people asked. He left the serpents there, as a reminder of their rebellion against Him, but He did provide a means of healing when they were bitten. Moses was charged by God to make a bronze serpent, attach it to a pole, and set up that pole for people to look at. When they looked up at that pole in faith, they did not die, but were healed of whatever poison those snakes injected with their fangs. The serpent hung up on a pole was a remedy for the people.
What seems odd about this story is that when we hear about a snake in the Bible, our minds are quite naturally taken back to that Genesis 3 story of the evil snake in the Garden of Eden. But it really wasn’t the snake that was evil. It was that the evil one, the devil, used the snake as its puppet, as its voice, to deceive Eve and Adam into disobeying God. So, now when we hear about a snake again, we have a hard time understanding that the snake on a pole could be a bringer of good and of healing, rather than the poison of sin and rebellion against God.
4. Healing… from the snake or the pole?
Was it looking at the snake or the pole or both that brought healing? We have to be careful here about considering the inanimate bronze snake to be an idol, a god who had the power to undo the effects of the bites of the living snakes. Those who were bitten by living serpents were directed to look at the “dead” serpent on the pole for life. The fact that the snake was lifeless on the pole would direct them to believe in the One who had greater power than the snakes, greater power than the poison of the snakes, greater power than their grumbling and complaining and sins that was the cause of the presence of the snakes.
What about the pole? Was it just a means to elevate the image of the serpent? Apparently the early Church Fathers – the influential theologians and Bible scholars of the 1st and 2nd centuries – they somehow were taught – perhaps by word of mouth, perhaps in rabbinic writings – that the bronze snake pole was in the shape of a cross. So, it wasn’t just a means to elevate the serpent. We know, because we live in the New Testament era, that the cross has a different meaning, a much more significant meaning.
That’s what Jesus interpreted to Nicodemus in their John 3 conversation. He was challenging Nicodemus to be Israel’s teacher by properly drawing out the meaning of the “serpent in the wilderness” episode from Numbers 21. Of course, Nicodemus wouldn’t fully understand until he and Joseph took Jesus’ body down from the cross on Good Friday and laid it in the tomb.
5. Jesus lifted up…
a. for spiritual healing
But Jesus got him ready. He planted the seed. He did a little foreshadowing. “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 life eternal.” OK, so it wasn’t EXACTLY a “so that the Scripture would be fulfilled” passage, but it certainly WAS a “that’s what the serpent on the pole pointed forward to” passage. The people who were stung by serpents looked at the serpent on the pole / the cross and they lived. We who are stung by the poison of sin look at the Son of Man, the Saviour, lifted up on the cross and we are healed spiritually, and we live, but the amazing difference is that we live all the way to the Promised Land of heaven. So, in this brief conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus was drawing a parallel between that familiar Old Testament story and what would happen to Him in His crucifixion.
b. to fulfill Scripture
After the resurrection, we hear – on two separate occasions – that Jesus did the same. When He walked alongside two visitors to Jerusalem as they traveled home to Emmaus, and when they had lost their hope in Jesus as the potential Messiah, we read: “Beginning with Moses and ALL the prophets, He interpreted to them in ALL the scriptures the things CONCERNING HIMSELF!” HIMSELF!! Yes, He was the one who fulfilled Scripture. Later that night, as the risen Jesus met the disciples in the Upper Room, He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He made it clear: “It is written that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead…”
You see, there were more, many more Old Testament passages that pointed ahead especially to Jesus’ suffering and death and resurrection. He helped the disciples to connect the dots – from the Old Testament to… HIM! We’re going to hear about one very important fulfillment on Good Friday. I hope you’ll be able to join us for that one.
In all this – the passages referred to at His birth, the passages referred to at His death, the images that pointed ahead, Old Testament to New Testament – in all this, Jesus was fulfilling many, many prophecies that were spoken about the Messiah, prophecies that only the Messiah could and would fulfill. Some Bible scholars say that Jesus fulfilled more than 300 prophecies about the Messiah. And it wasn’t just a coincidence.
Mathematics and Astronomy professor Peter Stoner has calculated the probability of one man fulfilling just 8 of those prophecies – and he says it is 1 in 100 quadrillion (that’s 1 with 17 zeroes behind it). Jesus didn’t just get 8 prophecies fulfilled… he got them ALL fulfilled. One by one, Jesus checked all those prophecy boxes. For our sake.
6. We can have confidence in Jesus
What does that mean for us? It means that we can have confidence that Jesus is who He said He is, who the Bible says He is, and that He came to do what He said He would do, what the Bible says He would do. We can have confidence that when we look to Jesus – lifted up on the cross – in faith, we will receive the eternal life that He promised.
That’s what that famous John 3:16 is about. God loved the world so much, God loved YOU so much, that He gave His only Son – that’s Jesus, His greatest gift to the world – that whoever believes in Him, WHOEVER – young, old, male, female, black, white, yellow, brown, employed, unemployed, rich, poor – WHOEVER looks up to Him in faith, to the cross in faith, will not die of that serpent bite of sin and guilt, but will have life, eternal life.
That’s the oh-so-good-news that we never grow tired of hearing. Our Epistle reading from Ephesians 2 said it as well, and just as well. “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” Did the ancient Israelites do anything to contribute to their healing? Not really… just a faith-full look to God’s source of healing. Do we do anything to contribute to our salvation? Not really… just a faith-full look to God’s source of healing – Jesus on the cross.
7. Scripture fulfilled in you
Now, I understand that what I am going to say now about YOU pales in comparison to what I have just said about JESUS. I want you to understand that, too. He got ALL the prophecies of the Messiah fulfilled. Thank God for that! But there are some things in the Bible that talk about YOU as a follower of Jesus. So, we could say that there are some of God’s prophecies – or at least declarations – that are fulfilled in you. I think one of the most significant is found in 1 Peter 2: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” WOW… just like Jesus, that gives you both an identity and a mission or purpose. Identity – chosen race and royal priesthood. Those were terms originally reserved for the Old Testament people of Israel. But now, with faith in Jesus, those terms are applied to YOU! You are chosen by God… how awesome is THAT!! Every person who looks to Jesus with saving trust is chosen for life here and now, and also for eternal life. The idea of a priest is that of a mediator, a go-between. The people of Israel were to represent God to the peoples of the world around them. That is the “prophecy” that we now carry on and fulfill as our mission and purpose – representing God to our neighbours and proclaiming God’s authoritative words and miraculous deeds to call them into God’s light. (Other Biblical equivalents would be that we are Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth, or His ambassador.) The other term relating to our identity is “holy nation.” Holy, in a Biblical sense, means set apart for a particular purpose, and nation translates the Greek word ‘ethnos’ – ethnic group. It doesn’t matter what ethnic group you are part of – European, Asian, African, Central or South American – you belong to God because He says so! That means, that as you live your life – chosen, priest, holy – declaring God’s actions of grace, you are living out those words of Scripture, just like Jesus had that concept of a lifted up snake on a pole applied to Him.
You might feel snake-bitten by sin, by your own sin, and dying from those wounds. But you are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus – alive and well, and one day raised up from physical death to live with Him forever. Thanks be to God! Amen.