Sermon On The Gospel Of John For The Sunday Before The Exaltation Of The Cross (John 3: 13-17)

Christ Reveals His Identity and Predicts His Exaltation.


“And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven. even the Son of man who is in heaven.” – John 3:13

Since the preceding words of the Lord hinted that He knows both earthly and heavenly things, therefore it is that He now says that He knows them because of the fact that He has come down from heaven. He calls Himself “the Son of man,” that is to say, of the Theotoke, or Virgin Mary, the preplanted woman, whose seed was destined to crush the head of the serpent, because this is a scriptural phrase referring to Christ, its purpose being to serve as a name for the New Adam, in contradistinction to the old Adam, who was not a son of man. Christ, however, had always been and always is a son, both as a God being the Son of the Father, and as a man being the Son of man; this latter designation alludes to the renowned man, that is to say, the human being and woman otherwise known as the Virgin. So He says that no man can know the things pertaining to heaven, because no man has ever ascended to and descended from heaven. “I, however,” says He, “have come down out of heaven upon the earth; but even after coming down and remaining on earth I have not ceased being in heaven too. (For “The indescribable Logos – or Word -was wholly in what is below, and yet was not in any way absent from what is above; for it was a matter of divine condescension, and no spatial transition occurred.) Being thus ubiquitous, consequently, at one and the same time and together in conjunction, as well as apart in severance, I know and see things earthly as well as heavenly; accordingly, my testimony is true and trustworthy. Behold, then, how all the things I have told thee, Nicodemus, shall be accomplished and brought to pass, which thou hast not considered impossible.”

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” – John 3:14-15

Herein He reveals to Nicodemus, who had been laboring under the supposition that he had understood the Lord’s words, the nature of this first mission of His – that is to say, in other words, the fact that He had not come in order to become and reign as a king, as the carnally-minded and ambitious Jews had hoped, but, on the contrary, in order to be crucified, and thus enable the great and wonderful transformation to be accomplished which consists in the regeneration and reformation of men from water and Spirit, and which Nicodemus had been unable to understand, since he could not see how it could be brought about and actually executed.

How can these things be done,” he had said (John 3:9). “These things will be done,” the Lord answered him, “after I have been exalted on the Cross – after I die and rise again from the dead. Then will men be inclined to believe in Me; and, accordingly, they shall then be regenerated and reborn of water and Spirit, and thus shall they come to know who I am and what I am, for then they shall become spiritual instead of carnal, and shall admit and give heed to My words and shall do them; accordingly, they shall not be lost and go to perish, but, instead, shall be saved and live for ever through faith in Me.” All these things had been written, and could, therefore, have been known by the Jews; it was for this reason, too, that the Lord reproved Nicodemus on account of this very fact.

But why did the Lord liken His crucifixion and Himself to the lifting up of the serpent and to the serpent? Because of the very great analogy that exists between the two, since the former event was a type, or prefigurement, of the drama on Golgotha. When the Jews spoke against and denounced the Lord in the wilderness and at the same time and in the same place spoke against and denounced Moses for the same reason, deadly serpents came out and bit them, and they died. The consequence was that havoc was wrought among the people. As a result, however, of supplications on the part of Moses, the Lord had compassion and ordered Moses to make a brazen serpent, which he lifted up in the face of the people: then, everyone that was bitten by a serpent and was bound otherwise to die, was at once cured and allowed to live on if he gazed at the brazen serpent which had been lifted up.

This, therefore, was a type and a shadow of the Lord’s exaltation on the Cross – a type, or prefiguration, whereby a cure and life were accorded to the dying people. It is to be noted, moreover, that this prefiguration of the essence and truth of the crucifixion mystery, by divine arrangement of the type, also and the vitality of it, condemn at once and for ever those who condemn types, or forms, of divine meaning and significance that are recognized and sanctioned by our Church of Christ, on the allegation that they are dead and harmful symbols. But, be that as it may, let the blind open their eyes, and let them look and see that God Himself ordained and arranged these types and forms, and through the medium thereof afforded vital force and vivifying power, by virtue of the truth which they typify and symbolize. The works of God are type and essence, shadow and truth, because even man himself, being carnal, becomes spiritual instead of remaining carnal, and, by means of types and a shadow, he is promoted to the essence and the truth – that is to say, in other words, he becomes capable of assuming the spiritual essence and of imbibing and assimilating the real truth. It is for this reason that type and shadow are conjoined to tire essence and truth. The type of the Lord’s exaltation on the Cross which preceded and was manifested in the time and through the person of Moses, proves not only the vitality of types of divine meaning, but also the fact that the source is one and the same, and that the channel also is one and the same through which good things come down to us from above – namely, faith in Christ. For the sake of this truth having desired to have mercy upon a people succumbing to death, God did this by means of a type analogous to faith in Christ, which teaches us a great deal more than is superficially apparent.

The serpent was the appearance of that which had been lifted up in the wilderness, whereas the bronze was the reality. But instead of deadly venom there issued from it a vivifying power, wherein is to be seen a reflection of the One Crucified as its source, who, in this case, is the reality. Christ, indeed, was exalted upon the Cross like a serpent, like a transgressor and malefactor. “If He were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered Him up unto thee,” the Jews told Pilate (John l 8: 30). But He was bronze: that is to say, invulnerable to the arrows of sins, while the Devil, on his part, had nothing in his favor. If, however, the type and the shadow had the power of saving from bodily death those gazing upon it, it is obvious that the reality and the truth, the One Crucified, has the power of saving those who believe in Him from the second death of everlasting hell. Serpents caused death to the people who had transgressed the law, and the sight of an apparent serpent cured them and kept them alive. Transgression and sin cause everlasting death to men, and gazing upon an apparent transgressor and sinner and one accursed – faith in the One Crucified – suffices to relieve the faithful of everlasting hell and to afford them life everlasting. Great indeed is the mystery of Thy economy, 0 Lord; glory be unto Thee! We shall proceed to supplement these observations in commenting upon the next equivalent sentence by pointing out also the reason underlying the factuality of salvation and bliss attained through faith.

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”For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” – John 3:16

God is love,” says John the Theologian (I John 4:8). “But God com­mendeth his love to us,” adds divine St. Paul (Rom. 5:8), “in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” If we men could feel God’s love for us that alone would suffice to induce us to become devoted to Him. Unfortunately, however, the fact is that we are unfeeling, as respects God’s love for us. No matter how depraved one may be, no matter how sinful one may have been, God wishes one to turn to Him. Whenever anyone fails to be of one and the same mind with us and fails to please us, we immediately and without further ado disapprove of him and reject him from all favor. Not so, however, does God. While mankind was still far removed from God and weltering in sin, God gave His only-begotten and beloved Son, who had offered to serve His good will, for the sake of mankind and permitted Him to suffer all that He did for our sakes. This attests the fact that God has a very high degree of love for us.

“For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die,” says divine St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans (5: 7). Christ, however, died for the sake of sinners, because of transcendent divine love. The effective cause, therefore, of the coming and of the sufferings of Christ may be inferred to have been God’s love for us, as regards which we ought not to be insensible nor ought we to prove unworthy of it. But what is the final cause of His only-begotten Son’s having been delivered to such a fate? “That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” That is the object, or purpose, and that is the end, or final reason; and as such it is commensurate with and adequate to the beginning and source to which it is due.

This physical world of ours was made by God as a machine shop, wherein by virtue of many reactions man is wrought into shape and formed in a manner such as is worthy of God. But because of his freedom and as a result of plotting on the part of an invisible enemy, man strayed away from God and took the road leading to perdition – a deplorable and pitiable spectacle. Badly shaped and turned to evil ways, man was on the verge of being lost. The enemy was maliciously glad. It was to be expected, of course, that God would have compassion and save the one being lost. Accordingly, He delivered His only-begotten Son for this purpose. Perdition for man consists not in the loss of property or of relatives and friends, or even of his bodily life itself. True perdition for man consists in his failing to attain the realization of his destiny, which is none other than to be formed after the image and likeness of God, and, instead of succeeding, becoming, in point of fact, like beasts or demons – that is to say, like cattle or cohorts of the Devil-whereupon, getting separated forever from God and from all the good things that are bestowed by God, and being burdened to repletion with evils, he is cast into the everlasting Gehenna of fire along with the wretched and most vicious demons, and there shall be weeping and the gnashing of teeth.

Nevertheless, to the man who falls into this perdition of his own accord or because of his own shortcomings, God’s love offers a plank of salvation in the way of faith in Christ. He that has sense enough to grab hold of this plank is saved from drowning, and, as it were, from sinking to the bottom of the sea of fire called the Gehenna. He that believes in Christ is not lost, but, in the contrary, is saved. First of all comes the fact that he is regenerated and reborn, and formed after the image and likeness of God, in agreement with his destiny. Accordingly, after attaining to this point, he is deemed worthy, and, therefore, he lives with God, luxuriating in good things and partaking of good cheer for ever. But how can these things be done or realized through faith? What is the reason why faith in Christ justifies and saves a man? Such subjects of discussion and reflection, and many others of the same type, occur in the course of interpreting Scripture, and require extensive and special treatment. Here, for lack of time, only so much can be said as the purpose of the sermon requires: the rest must be left for another and more fitting occasion.

It is impossible for a man to be saved through the agency of the law and his deeds: that is to say, in other words, the law alone and a man’s own works, or deeds, will not suffice to save him from perdition. This is a fact proved by the testimony of all the Bible and by experience itself. That is why the All-good One gave the simplest possible means of salvation, to wit, faith in Christ. Faith in Christ, be it noted, consists in this: belief that He is really the Son of God and our Lord, that He suffered for our salvation, it being impossible for us to save ourselves without Him, and that He was raised up from the dead and restored to life by God, in confirmation and corroboration of all these averments. That is faith in Christ, described analytically.

We who believe and cherish this faith are thereby justified, and are saved, and inherit life everlasting. This is so first of all because we are performing the most primary and original will of God and carrying into effect the provisions of His most fundamental law, which says: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye Him.” This decree invites us to recognize the fact that Jesus is the beloved Son of God, that God was pleased to save us through Him and wishes us to obey Him. This we can do by means of faith. Accordingly, just as “Abraham believed in God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:5), so do we believe in God, who spoke from heaven, and it is accounted to us for righteousness. Next comes the fact that Jesus fulfilled all righteousness, and was therefore entitled according to the law to live. But sin – the Devil, that is to say – unlawfully took His life. So a trial was held in heaven, and the Devil and sin was condemned and was shorn of all authority over men, while Christ was raised up from the dead and restored to life, which had been taken from Him unlawfully and unjustly, and He was given and received all authority in heaven and on earth. So a new authority and governing head was installed and established among men.

Our faith in Christ is a recognition and approval of God’s decision, and therein an equalization of our will to that of God – that is to say, an identification of our wishes with those of God – and consequently it becomes our justification. In addition, through and by virtue of this faith we embrace Christ and renounce the Devil and sin; moreover, placing ourselves under the new authority of Christ, we are disburdened and disencumbered of the Devil’s authority, and are saved. According to the conclusion arrived at by St. Paul through reasoning, just as we became sinners through the fall of Adam, and the judgment pronounced upon one man was extended to all his posterity, so we many descendants of Adam have been rendered righteous and have become justified through the justification of one man; and the gracious gift of justification is extended much more than was the fall. This is done through faith and baptism in the name of Christ, through whom we are regenerated and reborn and thus become hereditary sharers in the rights of Christ. Christ was justified, God’s justice was satisfied, impudent sin was condemned, and thus the fountain of mercy was opened to all its victims who embrace Christ through faith and obey Him. Hence it is logical to conclude that God really loved the world with the greatest possible love, and gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but shall have life everlasting.

“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” – John 3:17

The Jews thought that the Messiah was destined to come in order to judge the world, in order to make war upon and sacrifice and destroy the other peoples, and to glorify only the Jews. But Christ refuted their error, and said that God sent Him, not in order to judge the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. For this purpose it was necessary that He be crucified and be raised up from the dead and restored to life through resurrection. But can it be said that this true notion concerning the coming of the Messiah had not already been formulated and formally expressed in the Scriptures? Why, then, did the Jews have a different opinion concerning this matter? In studying the Scriptures why did they pay more attention to their own desires and prejudices. Careful attention and purity of thought are required in order that a person may understand the Bible and imbibe the thought and intention of God, and not something else that is foreign thereto. But even though Christ was sent not to judge the world, but to become a means of salvation of the world, it is nevertheless a fact that the condemnation continues and persists as a natural consequence for those who do not wish to be saved through Him.

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This lesson is from the book titled “Kyriakodromion (Sunday Sermonary)” by Apostolos Makrakis, republished into English in 1951 by The Orthodox Christian Education Society

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