You know there’s a lot of things that Jesus said and did that might seem insane to a lot of people. He said some pretty radical things that even to this day our religions sometimes stumble over. But as insane as some of the things he said is to our religious mindset, it’s the genius of Jesus that moves us from a focus on religion to a focus on spirituality. Jesus was constantly clashing with religious people during His time here because Jesus’ goal wasn’t religion. His goal was to save humanity, and bring us into a spiritual relationship with Him.
There’s nothing wrong with being part of a religion. Religion helps us to set doctrines that make it easier for us to understand God and His plan for our lives. Being part of a religion helps us to connect and worship with people who have the same basic understandings and values. But when we treat Religion as the way to salvation instead of a way to better understanding God that’s when we begin to clash with the teachings of Jesus.
There’s a story in John 3 of a man named Nicodemus. Now Nicodemus is a religious man, a Pharisee, but he’s not finding complete fulfillment in religion alone, and he hears about this teacher that is somehow bringing the scriptures to life in ways that none of his colleague have been able to do. So he decides to go to this man one evening after the sunsets, he doesn’t dare go in the day because he’s afraid some of his friends will see him and judge him for visiting with a heretic. Nicodemus is taking a huge risk here, because he is a member of the Pharisees, a group that hated Jesus and His teachings. Yet his drive for truth and a real sense of spirituality brought him to Jesus despite the risks to his reputation. Nicodemus came with a question burning in his heart, and before he could begin his question, before the introductions were over, Jesus cuts in with the answer, “I tell you the truth, unless you’re born again you cannot see the kingdom of God.”
A Kingdom of Spirit
The question that is plaguing Nicodemus’ heart is “how can I enter into the kingdom of God? How can I be saved?” Jesus answers saying, “unless you are born again, you can’t even see it let alone enter.” What Jesus says is that it’s “A Kingdom of Spirit.” Nicodemus is so stuck in a religious mindset, that he’s thrown off by Jesus’ answer. His whole life he’s been taught that the key to entering into the kingdom is living a good life, obeying the commandments, and obeying all the micro-commandments the religious leaders came up with, but Jesus is trying to get his mind unstuck. It’s not a kingdom of rules, or commandments or actions, it’s a Kingdom of Spirit.
Jesus is challenging every preconceived notion about salvation. The Kingdom of God isn’t about what you were born into; it’s not about what family, or religion you were born into. But before we even worry about “entering” in, worry about the fact that unless you’re born again you can’t even see it! The Kingdom of God is only visible to those who are born-again. Who you are, without God’s Spirit in your life, is a hindrance to your Kingdom living. The part of you that wants to earn salvation through works, the part of you that wants penance or punishment for your sins because Jesus’ forgiveness isn’t enough, the part of you that thinks that being part of a certain religion is your key to kingdom living, it’s that part that prevents you from even seeing the kingdom!
What makes us ready for the kingdom isn’t what we do or believe, it’s the Spirit of God working in our lives, creating in us a totally new person than we were before. Your anger issues, Jesus wants to brings peace to those. Your cycles of depression and loneliness, Jesus wants to bring contentment to that. Your addiction to smoking, or drinking, or drugs, pornography or sex, Jesus wants to bring freedom from that. Your hatred, pride, and selfishness, Jesus wants to give you deep love for others. The sinful part of you, that’s the part of you that’s a hindrance to your kingdom living, but don’t think that anything we do in our own power to change ourselves is what gets us in. It’s only the Spirit working in us for freedom from sin that brings us into the Kingdom Life.
Faith Before Belief
As Jesus continues to describe this Spirit transformation He says what is probably one of the most famous Bible verses, “for God so loved the world that he gave His only son so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” I love the context in which Jesus says verse 16 because He ties it to a story in Numbers 21 with verses 14 and 15, and to the idea that We need faith before belief.
In Numbers 21 the people are grumbling and complaining against Moses and against God and they reject God’s protection. With God’s protection rejected all these venomous snakes begin to come into the camp and they begin biting people. The Bible says that many Israelites die, and they run to Moses and say “we have sinned against God by complaining, please pray for us ask God to take away the snakes! Moses prays on behalf of the people and God tells Moses to make a replica of the snake and attach it to a pole. And God promises that if anyone bitten by the snakes simply looks at the pole they would be healed instantly. So Moses fashions a snake out of bronze, attaches it to a pole, and lifts it up and everyone bitten by the snakes come to Moses and look at the lifted snake and is saved.
Jesus uses this story as an analogy for the way He would be crucified, and the way people could be saved from sin. Just like the Israelites we’ve been poisoned by sin, which leads us to death, but the Son of Man was lifted up on the cross so that anyone who looks to Him is saved. Belief is what we have when we experience something in our lives; it’s the acceptance of something that is true based on our experience. When we think of “Faith” we think of what we believe in. Faith is often associated with a belief in something but faith doesn’t have to be based on belief. Faith is being desperate enough to trust in something regardless of evidence. We are called to have faith before we believe.
People were dying because of the snakes. There were no options for them, no cures or antidotes; if you were bitten death was certain. Then God steps in with a solution and a promise. The snake was lifted up, and whoever looked was saved. This made no sense, what power would a bronze snake have over real venom? There’s no reason or logic behind believing that looking at a fake snake would heal you from snake venom, but they had no other options, they were desperate enough to have the faith to look, maybe they didn’t even fully believe in the power of the bronze snake, but they believed that there were no other options.
God is just asking that you would come and look. You don’t have to believe in any set of doctrines; you don’t even have to believe that any of this is real, but as long as our faith makes us desperate enough to even look, that’s the moment God begins working salvation in us. When we look to Jesus out of a desperation after we’ve tried to self-medicate with everything the world has to offer to fill the void only Jesus can fill, when we would simply look to Him, that’s when we begin to see the Kingdom of God; that’s when we begin to experience Kingdom living. The moment we become desperate enough to have faith before we believe is the moment the Kingdom Life begins in you.
Neither Do I Condemn You
As important as John 3:16 is I believe John 3:17 is as equally important. “16 For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who has faith in Him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son just condemn the world. He came so that the world might be saved through Him.” Skip 5 chapters from chapter 3 to chapter 8 and Jesus is speaking to the crowds and the Pharisees bring a woman who was caught in adultery before Jesus. They throw her before Jesus and ask Him, “what should we do with this woman caught in adultery? The law of Moses says we should stone her to death for her sins, what say you?”
Two men, Pharisees, the one’s called to lead people into relationship with God, are dragging a woman holding each arm, as she screams and cries out terrified of what she knows is coming next. They throw her at the feet of Jesus, naked, bruised, covered in dust as they dragged her around, her face stained with tears, and her hanging low, waiting for this teacher to condemn her too. She can’t bare to even look at this Holy man, but she hears him bending down expecting him to pick up a rock, but he begins to write in the sand. The Pharisees get louder demanding that Jesus give them an answer and Jesus stands and speaks up, and says “Alright.” They expected Him to say “whoever is the witness cast the first stone” as is the custom, but He says something no one expected, he says, “Whoever one of you is without a single sin, step up and throw the first stone.”
Those aren’t the words the woman wanted to hear, nor the words she expected to hear. She’s in front of a Holy man, and religious leaders, surely one of them is holy enough to be without sin but not a single one of them is, and they begin to leave, the oldest first. Jesus stands before the woman and asks her, “woman, where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” She looks around to see none of them there, and I can imagine Jesus taking off his cloak and covering her, as He says, “Neither do I condemn you. Now go and sin no more.”
If anyone had the right to condemn it would be Jesus. If anyone was without sin and had the right to throw the first stone, it’d be Jesus. But the only one worthy of sentencing her to death was the only one to say, “neither do I condemn you.” Those are the same words He speaks to me today. Jesus sees me in my sin, and while the devil wants to guilt me into punishment, Jesus says, “Abraham, I don’t condemn you, now go and sin no more.” God doesn’t want to create boundaries between us, He wants to make salvation as easy as possible so He sent His son to pay the price once and for all. He sent His Son not to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.
It’s Who You Know
This is how God loved the world that He would be willing to give up His son just so that anyone desperate enough to have faith and look would be saved into His kingdom. Ultimately salvation isn’t about a long list of do’s and don’ts. Kingdom living isn’t about what we do. It isn’t about who we are, or what we’re born into. It isn’t about what we believe, or whether we have the experiences to even believe. It isn’t about dogmas or doctrine, labels, or titles, it’s who you know.
We can be the greatest people; we can volunteer all our time, and donate all our money; we can be the best Christians; we can keep every one of the Ten Commandments but all of that is useless unless we truly know Jesus. Salvation, Kingdom Living, is all about who you know. It’s about knowing our living Saviour. It’s about getting to know the Jesus who took all sin with Him into the grave, buried it in death, and resurrected again giving us new life along with Him. Whether you believe or not, it doesn’t matter. Just be desperate enough to look to Jesus. When we have a faith desperate enough to look, that’s when our lives begin to be transformed in the Spirit.
Jesus we thank you for the amazing sacrifice you made on the cross. We’re grateful that Salvation and Kingdom Life isn’t about what we do but about what you’ve done. Thank you for being so gracious towards us, that it’s not about what we believe, or do, or whether we even believe, but that Salvation begins when we’re desperate enough to look to you despite our doubts. Help me to experience the freedom from condemnation that you offer in your son Jesus Christ. Thank you for making salvation about a relationship with you. Amen.