It’s an understatement to say that Pharisees weren’t exactly coming out in droves to become disciples of Jesus. So it’s no wonder Nicodemus decided to come at night, in the darkness, to ask a few questions and find out what was going on with this upstart Rabbi who had seemingly come out of nowhere to capture the imagination of the people.
Their discussion begins with Jesus baldly stating that unless you are “born from above,” you cannot see the kingdom of God. Entering the kingdom starts with God’s initiative, a birth “from above,” an action from the outside that enables us to participate in God’s rule. Then Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15).
It’s this phrase that caught my attention a few weeks ago in my Bible reading, and these are the words that came as I meditated on it.
The Son of Man must be “lifted up.” A clever, intentional double entendre referring initially to his crucifixion and subsequently his glorification to the throne of heaven. Because of the ascension, Jesus has now been loosed upon the world through the Spirit. Christ has gone cosmic and can now be found by anyone who looks. He refuses to stay in the confines of our pet ideas about him and is working. He is the original misfit, the true maverick, the ultimate wild man.
This seeing of and entering into the kingdom of God is something that is available to everyone. Moses lifted up a snake in the desert so that everyone could see it, if they wanted. Eternal life is available to everyone because Christ has been lifted up in the ascension, He is radically available to all who call on him, no matter their background, history, pedigree, successes, or failures.
This life doesn’t belong to everyone carte blanche, but to those who believe, which doesn’t mean mental assent to facts. To believe is to trust someone. I can mentally agree that airplanes are generally safe, but I’m not actually trusting until I step on to one of them and allow a pilot to fly me through the air. Everyone who trusts Jesus gets eternal life now. It doesn’t take better-than-average morality or intelligence, no big sacrifices are needed, just simple trust, manifested in obedience, which is the natural result of trust.
Eternal life isn’t simply “life forever.” It’s not simply a matter of quantity but quality. Eternal life is life in God’s kingdom, the with-God life, the same life Jesus had. The life that is the light of all mankind, life abundant, life filled with glorious and oftentimes inexpressible joy. Starting now, starting whenever we surrender and begin trusting him, and growing in strength and capacity from that starting place.
This is not a “fountain of youth,” a generic eternal life of endlessly pursuing earthly pleasures or wealth. Heaven is not all the donuts you can eat. This is a completely new kind of life, an eternal life in him, on his terms, according to his design, according to his will, received from him as a gift. Again, it’s learning to live the “with-God” life, knowing that we will have all of eternity to continue to work out its implications and discover its joys.