Reading: John 3:14-21.
In our previous meditation, we were occupied with the earlier part of this chapter in which we saw two men looking at one another across a great divide between two irreconcilable worlds - the earthly man at his best, represented by Nicodemus; the heavenly Man in all His complete difference and "otherness" - Jesus. As this chapter proceeds, we are brought to that great divide, that great difference and 'otherness', and made to see that it meets in the Cross.
The two men meet in the Cross, and one disappears, so far as God is concerned, and the Other goes on. One, with all that he is as before God of impossibility, and the other as He is before God with all His possibilities, they meet here in the Cross. Into this section, these few verses from 14-21 and the whole of the letter to the Romans is crowded, and we have to read that letter to see what it means, in the first instance, in the fundamental instance, to be born from above.
No Righteousness Found in Earthly Man at His Best
The letter to the Romans is a very comprehensive and thorough setting forth of what it means basically to be born from above, and therefore we shall have that letter in mind before us with this part of the gospel by John.
Nicodemus is representative of all that man would call good, splendid, presentable, and acceptable with God, all that man would consider as not being reprobate or depraved. This man Nicodemus is led back in his own nation's history to a point well-known by him, in a wilderness where serpents are rife, loose everywhere, venomous, deadly, spreading death through the multitude and through the nation. Then at the command of the Lord, a likeness of a serpent is made of brass and fastened upon a pole and lifted up, and the people are preached to by a priest who tells them of their way of deliverance, by a look of faith towards that serpent. And it is this splendid representative of that nation who is called upon now to look at that, and then, with a swift movement, is asked to pass from Numbers 21 onto another scene shortly to be enacted outside Jerusalem, where this One who stands facing Nicodemus will be lifted up as that serpent was lifted up, that this splendid Jew, this magnificent specimen of the nation, this ruler, this teacher in Israel might find his salvation, his life, only in the same way - by a look of faith at the Son of Man lifted up. And he is left to make his own deductions from the implication.
The letter to the Romans gives us those deductions. The implications are in John. The deductions and consequences are in Romans. This man is regarded as the very embodiment of righteousness according to Jewish standards. He would not be in his position as a ruler and a teacher, a Pharisee, were it not that he was a man who passed all the tests of righteousness according to Jewish standards. The letter to the Romans brings us immediately face to face with this question of righteousness and we find that in those early chapters, a sweeping quest is made throughout the whole creation for this thing called righteousness. God is looking into the whole creation, sending out His messengers to find righteousness, and to round up all in whom righteousness is not found.
In Romans we find part after part, section after section of man, mankind, is searched in order to find this righteousness. The net is spread worldwide, universally, to gather in all in whom righteousness is not found, and the net is seen to be closing in, narrowing down, from all men to some men, and then to these of the Jewish nation. The net is closing in, and there are none outside of it. It is bringing everyone, no one is escaping; they are all coming in this great net of condemnation, and in the end not a single man remains outside, "not one is righteous, no, not one, all have sinned", and therefore judgment, through condemnation is universal. And Nicodemus is in the net, and badly in the net.
Earthly Man at His Best Identified with the Serpent
Look at the serpent. What does the serpent signify? That old serpent, the devil (Rev. 20:2), the deceiver, the poisoner, the source and instigator of all iniquity, and of total and utter depravity. Nicodemus, that is you! A terrible thing for Nicodemus to swallow! It was a terrible thing for Israel to swallow! They would not swallow it. That is why they were so bitter with a bitterness of devilish hatred against the Son of Man. Total depravity. You will agree that that is so, with the serpent lifted up, will you not? You were not prepared at the outset to agree that that is true about Nicodemus, or yourself, or many men known to you, but the Lord Jesus is not sparing anyone. He uses this 'whosoever'.
The world - not the Jewish world, not the Latin world, not the Greek world - they are all in Romans. This letter to the Romans touches all those three great world representations. You will find them all in the letter - Latins, Greeks, Hebrews. It is a comprehensive letter. The whole world - "whosoever" - the world. Nicodemus is in the net, all are in the net. Sin - "all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23). Judgment is passed upon all men, for all have sinned. Death - "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). That is John 3:14-21 and the letter to the Romans at its outset.
The Death of the Earthly Man in the Cross and the Emergence of the Heavenly Man
But then the Lord has so ordered that Nicodemus is brought right up to that Cross, and shown that although that is his nature in the sight of God, that is his state, that is his doom, it need not be literally and actually. It can be his representatively and substitutionarily, the Son of Man lifted up. Now Nicodemus will truly be there, but in a different way from judgment. So we find that this letter to the Romans leads this whole world full of judged, condemned and doomed mankind, to the Cross (chapter 6) of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Son of Man lifted up, found now still as the heavenly Man, but having voluntarily taken the very place of this earthly man in his position and in his condition. "Him who knew no sin He made sin on our behalf" (2 Cor. 5:21). He was made a curse for us. And there in the Son of Man lifted up is an end of that earthly man in his position and in his condition, the end of all that we said about that earthly man in our previous meditation, and the beginning of the heavenly Man. "If we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection; knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him...". Raised together in the likeness of His resurrection: the new man, the heavenly man, introduced. The great 'cannot' over that earthly man, the great 'cannot', forever established and ratified in the Cross. Remember that.
Oh no, there is no serpent wriggling out of that Cross, somehow getting round that Cross and escaping onto the other side and reappearing. That serpent is finished with before God. And all that that means is everything which has his venom in it, his nature in it, is in God's mind finished, ratified; the 'cannot' man nailed, the great 'cannot' established.
We must lay hold of the fact that whatever we may find in ourselves as believers, even after faith's acceptance of this identification with Christ in death, it belongs to the earthly man and is not accepted by God. The Cross of Jesus Christ says, No! - forever, fully, and finally. No excusing, no condoning. It is terribly harsh judgment, and "If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged" (1 Cor. 11:31 A.V.). We have to be ruthless with ourselves on that side, because God has been ruthless with Satan.
The serpent lifted up and the Son of Man lifted up, but they are identical in the sight of God. They are not two things, but one thing, so utterly has Christ entered into the work of Satan to destroy it. If He had not utterly entered into it, He could not have utterly destroyed it. And we are there as the earthly man whose place has been taken by the Lord Jesus in that utter way.
See God's attitude and the total judgment upon total depravity, repudiating and denying it, forsaking and abandoning it. God is not going to be with us when we begin to condone and excuse and say, "This is just the old man, old Adam; we all have some imperfection!" No, that is not God's attitude.
We saw in our last word in the previous chapter that God has only one Man in view and that is the heavenly Man. God does not commit Himself to the earthly man. "Jesus did not trust Himself unto them, for that He knew all men, and because He needed not that any one should bear witness concerning man; for He Himself knew what was in man." And this was what He knew was in man - the serpent. He is not committing Himself to the serpent.
This is the meaning of holiness, the basis of holiness. We have been too easy with ourselves. The 'cannot man' is abandoned and the 'cannot' is established forever, but the 'can' Man is introduced, and He also is established in the resurrection.
The Work of the Cross Entered into by Living Faith
The Roman letter, then, is condemnation without any escape. Then, through faith and justification, putting faith in that One lifted up; it is the object which gives the value to faith. It is not some abstract thing called faith. No, it is the pinning of our entire destiny to Christ crucified and raised. No hope whatever otherwise, but all our hope in Him lifted up. The dark side and the light side: "Whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have eternal life"; this is justification.
The Working out of the Cross by the Spirit
That is the picture here, that is the setting. It only remains for us to make the application, to get into this, because this has not really been entered into. I am not saying this has not been seen as a truth, accepted as a truth, believed as a truth, preached as a truth, professed as a truth, and declared as a position. No, all that may be, but because this has not really been entered into, we have so much confusion, mixture, contradiction, and inconsistency. Two things have got mixed up and there is no clear emergence of a heavenly Man; it is a mixed up man.
I am not talking about sinlessness, I am talking about the introducing, presenting, and progressive growth of a heavenly Man, seen firstly in a clearly defined cut that something radical has happened and there is a basic difference. That person is not the same person that he was. If you right at the beginning met them, you are meeting something heavenly now, you are not meeting what you met before; there is a radical difference. And it does not stay there. That difference is going on, and you are meeting less and less of what you met before, and you are meeting more and more of what was never there before. The earthly is going where God put it, the earthly is being repudiated by a conscious teaching and direction of the indwelling Spirit of Life, indicating what is belonging to that old life has to be repudiated, pointing out what must go.
There is something basically and fundamentally wrong when a Christian, after so long, is still guilty of the same natural, earthly things persistently, that were there before. I am not only talking about gross sins, I am talking about the earthly man. He may be a Nicodemus; even Nicodemus is going to come to see that all is not well.
You have only got to call him [the earthly man] by another name: Saul of Tarsus, of the strictest sect of the Pharisees. And that man, who would pass every test according to Jewish standards of righteousness, would come in to say, "I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing" (Rom. 7:18). The Holy Spirit can do marvellous things in making us aware of what we are entirely blind to. I do not understand the persistence of blind spots in a Christian indefinitely, something persisting all the time that is obviously doubtful, questionable, wrong, harmful, unwise or indiscreet. Let us be careful. Do not think about anyone else, think about yourself. There are many things about us which would not be called gross iniquities, that are still very harmful and un-Christ like, and certainly not the heavenly Man.
What I am saying is this: in the heavenly Man there is a progressive check-up, and you cannot, if you are going on the heavenly way, indefinitely repeat those things which are not heavenly without knowing it. Oh no, you will know. It is as well we do. It may give us a bad time, but we would not have it otherwise. We would surely say, "Lord, do not let me go on in an earthly way, contradicting the heavenly without knowing it". The more heavenly we become, the more acute will be those lessons, and the worse will be our bad times under the Holy Spirit's hand, for the Holy Spirit is working, not to our estimate of the Cross, but to God's. But God's estimate of the Cross is that we by nature are utterly defiled and Christ is utterly perfect. He is working towards that conformity to the image of His Son which Romans tells us about.
Now then, one or two other applications. That is the application of the Cross to the whole of the earthly man, and the relationship of the Cross to the whole of the heavenly Man. Basically, it is a crisis, a divide, a mighty difference; being progressively transformed, changed. We are not just changed mechanically; God is so practical, the Cross is so practical. We are only changed by the working of death in us to give more room for Life, for Christ. The ways of God come in here again.
The crucifying ways to our flesh, the terrible ways to our natures, all that against which we naturally revolt, under which the earthly part of us writhes, all that is God's way of bringing the principle of the Cross home, to make things more than theoretical, to make things practical. At any rate, it works that way. That is what happens, and the points at which that Cross is applied are countless. I could never tabulate them if I tried. All of us differ so much; the change takes place on all manner of things. If I were to stop to illustrate, I would only spoil the picture, perhaps because I should miss so much. But you have to say about people who are now living on the resurrection side - "They are becoming so different, they used to be this, they used to be that, this used to be the thing about them, it was so difficult and trying, but they are becoming different..." that is all that you have to say about it, but that is it.
The Utterness of God's Dealing with the Earthly Man and the Need of Faith's Appropriation
Having said that, let me focus upon the utterness of this thing. Remember that God's tense about this is the past tense. The past tenses of John 3:14 and onward are rather impressive, and the past tenses of Romans, especially chapter 6, are indeed inescapable. "Our old man was crucified with Him". Is it not true that the trouble with us is that we are so terribly occupied and obsessed with that old man which was crucified, who, in God's thought and mind is dead and buried? And we are digging him up all the time and having a look at him, and trying to paint him up and make him look a bit better, and this is proved by our prayers. Listen to how people pray, and you will see how far they have got into Romans 6, "Oh, what a miserable creature I am! Lord, you know all this about me, what a poor specimen I am..." telling the Lord all about this corpse, and that kind of prayer gets nowhere. It brings death, darkness and misery in; it effects nothing. You know nothing about Romans 6, however much you could quote word for word all the written doctrine, however much you have preached about it or talked about it, if you are constantly going to bring up that wretched self-life before the Lord in public or private prayer.
What is the alternative? The people who know anything about Romans 6 are the people who are in prayer glorying in Christ Jesus. "Oh, thank you, Lord, for Christ, for all that He means!" They are rejoicing in Jesus Christ in prayer. It is a radical test. You start off praying, before you have got very far, even starting with this, somehow or other you cannot get many sentences out before you drop down to that wretched level, and you have denied your Christ, you have set apart the heavenly Man, you have gone back to the other side of the Cross and nullified the Son of man. You have opened the door for death again, and Satan is going to encamp upon that ground and bring in his work which the Son of man was manifested to destroy. A true apprehension of Romans 6 means that our eyes, our faith and our hearts are pinned upon the risen Son of God, risen for our justification.
Three Questions as a Test of our Position
Oh, I call upon you to call to mind the three great interrogatives of Romans 8:31. The first interrogative - "What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not also with Him freely give us all things?" Look at the context of that. "What then shall we say to these things?" What things? "Whom He foreknew, He also foreordained to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren; and whom He foreordained, them He also called; and whom He called, them He also justified; and whom He justified, them He also glorified" (v. 29,30). "What are you going to say to that?" says Paul. How is God for us? Whom He foreordained, whom He called, whom He justified, whom He glorified. God is for you in Christ. He gave His Son to establish that, to ratify that. What are you going to say about it? "Oh... what a wretched thing I am! What a miserable, deplorable creature..." is that what you are going to say about it? "What then shall we say to these things?"
The second great interrogation, verse 33: "Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth; who is he that condemneth? It is Christ Jesus that died, yea rather, that was raised from the dead, Who is at the right hand of God, Who also maketh intercession for us." Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? What is your answer to that? "Oh, everything that you can think of can be laid at my door, every charge is true of me..." as one of God's elect? You have got to give a better answer to the question than that.
The third interrogation, verse 35: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?" Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Is the love of Christ to you stronger than sin, than Satan, than all the work of Satan? Tribulation, anguish, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword - is the love of Christ stronger than all that to you? You have not apprehended Romans 6 if it is not. If you have apprehended the meaning of the Cross, you say, "I am persuaded that none of these things shall separate me from His love. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us."
Just the contemplation of those three great interrogations is enough surely to show us whether we really have entered into Romans 6, the chapter we know so much about. Then, be gone despair, be gone misery, be gone all that would say to this world that we are lost, hopeless, and undone. Oh, be gone self-pity, be gone the love of having a problem, be gone all this speaking about ourselves and thinking about ourselves which only works out to draw attention to ourselves and make people sorry for us! God save us by His Cross from it all!
Yes, tribulation and anguish and peril and nakedness and sword, they are all real, they are all there, but with all our sufferings and tribulations, the question of our position with the Lord is not to be touched. We may be in heaviness through manifold trials; the apostle was there. We may have times of suffering when our spirits are cast down, but not because we have a question about our position with the Lord and the Lord's love for us. Oh no, Romans 6 is deliverance from this earthly man in all these ways. It is so comprehensive, it is so thorough.
But what is the issue? Well, it is, as we said earlier, what are people meeting when they meet us? That is the test of where Romans 6 is with us: what people meet, whether they meet the other side of the Cross, or this side of the Cross; whether they meet the earthly man, or the heavenly Man. We are not perfect as to the heavenly Man all at once, but there should be a knowing of progress in this, that the heavenly Man is growing, Christ is being fully formed in us, the situation is changing, we are not met at the point where we were met so long ago. It must be. This is what Romans says as to the meaning of being born from above.
Romans says that John 3:3 means this fundamentally, basically: the great change has taken place, and that change is being seen in development, if not by us as the subjects of it, by others as the observers. A change is taking place. From misery we are rising to triumph, from despair to hope and assurance, from darkness to light.