“Truly, truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, and yet you people do not accept our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the One who descended from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. (John 3:11)
This is a longer red letter passage than usual. But the individual verses are connected in totally cool ways, so I’m going to go through it piece by piece.
One thing that is puzzling about this passage is that Jesus speaks in the plural. So the first thing I want to explore is who is “we?” There’s no knowing for sure, but I think one possibility could be that Jesus was including himself in the company of all of the prophets who came before him. They spoke what they received from God, yet got no love from their hearers. It was as Ezekiel said about the Jews, “They have eyes to see but do not see, and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious house.” (Ez 12:2b)
Jesus also might have been referring to the disciples who were following him. From the other gospels, we know that they were going about healing, telling people to repent, and proclaiming the kingdom of God. They were testifying, yet many did not believe them.
In summary, I think Jesus was saying, “What is it with you folk? You’ve had direct witnesses to God telling you his will, but you never paid them any mind.”
Then I want to look at is what Jesus said next, “You can’t even believe when I talk about earthly things. How are you going to believe when I talk about heavenly ones?” (Paraphrased.)
What did Jesus mean by “earthly things?” It probably refers to what he said and did while he was on earth.
- So the Jews gathered around Him and demanded, “How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.” “I already told you,” Jesus replied, “but you did not believe. The works I do in My Father’s name testify on My behalf.” (John 10:24-25)
- “But I have testimony more substantial than that of John. For the works that the Father has given Me to accomplish–the very works I am doing–testify about Me that the Father has sent Me.” (John 5:36)
Like the prophets of old, like the disciples, Jesus gave a sort of testimony, but people didn’t believe. And Jesus was saying, “If you can’t believe in this testimony which is physical evidence that you can see, how are you going to believe in what you can’t see, which is heaven?”
The third thing I want to discuss is Jesus’s statement about. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven.” It’s just my take, but I think Jesus is playing loose with the time frame here. He includes his coming from heaven, which happened when he was born (John 1:4), and his future return to heaven (Acts 1:9) in the same sentence. He defines himself as the one who came from heaven and will return to heaven. He’s trying to get people to see that as the only actual witness to heaven, he’s the only one qualified to give testimony about it.
Lastly, Jesus asserts, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. ‘”
This statement follows perfectly from what preceded it. Jesus said people didn’t accept the testimony that they’d been given. And if they couldn’t believe in the testimony of him on earth, they wouldn’t able to believe in heaven. And he was the one who could authentically testify about heaven. And he was the perfect one to provide a way for them to get to heaven.
Let me break this last part down a little more. When Jesus was lifted up, which happened with the events of the cross, that became the catalyst for the Jews to finally be able to believe. As Jesus stated later in John 12:32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Jesus’s death and resurrection would capture people’s attention like no testimony of the past. It was the game changer. It was the faith bringer.
And what would people have faith in? Not only Jesus, but the eternal life he brought. They would believe in heavenly things.
Our gracious God, through his Son, in one fell swoop, made a way for those who heard the testimony to completely believe.
What does this mean for us?
Can we relate to the Jews of old? I certainly can. Lately, my life feels like the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. Some fundamental parts of my landscape have changed. And now there are times that I just can’t seem to have faith. I can’t believe that things will work out. Even after all of the “testimony” God’s given me in the past, all the ways he’s worked in my life, I keep slipping back into the swamp of thinking, “It’s going to stink.”
I’ve been reading a nonfiction book about people whose faith is the very opposite. It’s written by a man named Surprise, who tells the story of when he was a teenager in Mozambique and heard God’s voice in the middle of the night, telling him to leave his village. Surprise obeyed the voice, even though he had never heard about God or Jesus. After wandering in the jungle for two weeks, he came upon a clearing and saw an aged man who had been told in a dream to wait for him. This man took care of him and shared a very simple version of the gospel with him. Surprise believed, and over time, began to go into the surrounding villages and tell the people there the good news about Jesus. At first he didn’t have a Bible. He only knew that people were sinning and God loved them and had sent his son to die for them. But he shared what he knew, and everywhere he went, the people believed. They didn’t have to have lengthy studies or explanations. They had simple faith. Surprise started hundreds of churches.
Maybe, in the Western world, we make faith too complicated sometimes. Maybe there’s something about our cultural mindset that makes it difficult to believe.
Maybe we all just all need the cross. The simple message of the cross is what impacted the villagers in Africa. It impacted the people at the time of Christ. It’s our lifeline when we’re pulled every which way by the world and our troubles.
I recently came across this blog by Julia Martin on “How do You Remain Faithful to God When Life is Terrible?” She writes,”When we suffer we must run and collapse at the foot of the cross. It is there that we look up to see His hair blowing in the wind, His blood dripping on the rocky ground. It is there that we lift our face to see that this Man, the One in the center, is staring at us, not with eyes that condemn but with eyes of love.”
Isn’t that picture compelling? Does it work on your heart? Can you see how cherished and valued you are, in spite of your perceived flaws? Can you see that there’s someone who experienced the depths of despair, and can relate to what you’re going through? Can you know that there’s hope, because, by the power of God, this man’s story ended in triumph?
I know that the foot of the cross can be the only place where I find healing and peace.
But thinking of heaven also helps. As I remember that my citizenship is in heaven, my perspective changes. I’m fortified by the realization that my place is with the almighty and all-loving God, wrapped in his safe, comforting presence, not with all of the worries and dysfunction of the world. One day I’ll be there in reality. In the meantime, it helps to remind myself that I don’t belong to all this angst.
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect. Heb. 12:22
In conclusion, the passage we’re looking at today was a part of Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus. Nicodemus was perplexed. He didn’t get it.
Neither did many of his peers.
And even today, I can struggle to get it. But if I walk with God through my dark valley, he holds my hand and guides me until the shadows dissipate and I find a glimmer of hope.
If you’re struggling to have faith, reach out for God’s hand and let him walk through that dark valley with you. Know that Jesus came and was lifted up to make a way for you to believe. Remember the cross. Remember heaven. With a simple faith, knowing these is enough.
I wrote this blog over a period of days, and I’m feeling better now. God has worked in amazing ways to bring light to my soul.
I know the same will be true for you, if you persevere.
All of this makes us even more certain that what the prophets said is true. You must pay close attention to what they wrote, for their words are like a lamp shining in a dark place—until the Day dawns, and Christ the Morning Star shines in your hearts. II Peter 1:19 (CEV, NLT)