Jesus said those words to the Pharisee Nicodemas the night he came inquiring. That’s an appropriate context for Christmas time. Christmas is about Jesus coming down from heaven. And this verse tells us why Jesus came down.
Christmas brings a lot of religious people out of the woodwork. There are people who wouldn’t think of stepping into a church except on Christmas (and maybe Easter). That is the product of religious blindness. That is the bad fruit of shallow superficial secularized religion. God has so much more than that for us. Nicodemas was a Pharisee and as such, a very religious man. We can learn a lot from Jesus’ conversation with him. We can learn why Jesus came down.
The Pharisees were a religious sect who lived to uphold Jewish traditions and the Mosaic Law (Mark 7:3, 5-8). They were well educated, underwent rigorous training, and had a privileged position in Jewish society. They were sticklers for outward details, fasted regularly and were zealous for Judaism (Matthew 23:23; Luke 5:33; 18:11-12; Matthew 23:15). But they were walking contradictions. Scripture indicates they were covetous and lived to impress people with ostentatious outward displays (Matthew 23:5-7; Luke 7:36-50; 16:14). They were at times cruel persecutors of their opposition (Acts 9:1; Phil. 3:5-6). Jesus called the Pharisees “vipers” (Matthew 12:24, 34), spiritually “blind” (Matthew 15:12-14), “serpents” (Matthew 23:33), “children of the devil” (John 8:13, 44) and “hypocrites” (Matthew 23:13-19). He said they manipulated the Scriptures to make a profit (Matthew 15:1-9). They were “lovers of money” who Jesus said, ”justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts” (Luke 16:14, 15). Not only did they not know the truth or God, but Jesus said they hindered others from finding and knowing God (Matthew 23:15). The Pharisees for the most part rejected Jesus (Matthew 12:24-34). Religious people reject Jesus and His truth. That’s why Jesus came down.
Nicodemas was honest enough to recognize Jesus had something he didn’t have. Jesus taught something that was foreign to him and his religious sect, something otherworldly, heavenly. He recognized Jesus was “a teacher come from God” (John 3:2a). He had power to work miracles and it was obvious to Nicodemus that “no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2b). There is evidence that Nicodemas eventually became a follower of Jesus (John 7:50-53; 19:39-42). But how did Jesus break through the religious hide of this Pharisee? He came down.
What Jesus said to Nicodemus is the same thing He says to all those who approach God in a religious way. Jesus said to Nicodemus the religious man, “No one has ascended to heaven . . .” Why did Jesus say this? He said this to make the point that no one can work their way to heaven. That has been true since the first religious effort of humanity at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). Religion focuses on human efforts and what people must do to get to heaven. Our efforts to be righteous, appease God our Judge, and ascend to heaven, are as filthy rags to God (Isaiah 64:6). There are none righteous, not one, and all fall short of the glory of God, all have sinned (Romans 3:10, 21). Sin separates a person from God (Isaiah 59:2). God is holy and will not look on wickedness (Habakkuk 1:13). If we regard sin in our heart God will not hear us (Psalm 66:18).
Without God we are doomed to hell, spiritually dead, destined to eternity in a dark loneliness tormented by regret and separation from a Holy Loving God (Romans 6:23; Revelation 21:8). There is nothing we can do on our own by our own efforts to rid ourselves of the curse of sin (Galatians 3:10). Indeed, Jesus started His conversation with Nicodemus with the halting words, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Nicodemus didn’t understand. He voiced his confusion by asking Jesus how an old man could be physically born a second time (John 3:4). Jesus elaborated by saying, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:5-7). The point is Nicodemus was religious, but he had no spiritual life. This is why he couldn’t understand the heavenly message Jesus brought. Nicodemus needed spiritual life. Just as he had received physical life at his birth, he needed a second birth, a spiritual birth. This second birth was a spiritual work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:8). Like the wind it couldn’t be seen, but like the wind it can move powerfully. John the Baptist said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven” (John 3:27). That’s why Jesus came down.
Nicodemus still didn’t understand (John 3:9). Jesus gently but firmly challenged Nicodemus, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” (John 3:10). As a teacher of Israel Nicodemus should have known these things, but without the Spirit there is always a lack of understanding of spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14). Jesus had a heavenly message and Nicodemus wasn’t receiving it (John 3:11-12). Nicodemus, like so many other religious people, was missing the whole point of who Jesus was and what he was offering. That’s why Jesus came down.
There is a second reason Jesus told Nicodemus “No one has ascended to heaven.” Jesus meant to pave the way to introducing Himself as the unique, holy, Savior. Jesus set the contrasting tone between Himself and all others by saying, “but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man . . . .” These words would have had shock value with the Pharisee. Some Jews believed that Moses ascended to heaven to get the Law directly from God. But a proper study of God’s Word reveals that Moses ascended Mount Sinai and God met him there to deliver the Law (Exodus 19:3, 14, 17, 20, 24). Jesus was correcting this false notion and at the same time communicating to Nicodemus the truth of the incarnation of Jesus “the Son of Man.” No man, not even Moses, has ascended to heaven, only Jesus had a heavenly origin. But there was a connection between something Moses did and Jesus. That’s why Jesus came down.
In the Old Testament journey of God’s people from Egypt to the Promised Land they frequently grew impatient and weak in faith and complained against God. On one such occasion they were particularly ungrateful toward God and God disciplined them by bringing “fiery serpents” who apparently had a fiery venom. Many died and the people repented. God instructed Moses to make a fiery serpent out of bronze, put it on a pole for all to see and all who looked at the bronze serpent would live (Numbers 21:5-9). Jesus referred back to this historical event and applied it to Himself saying to Nicodemus, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). That’s why Jesus came down.
These words of Jesus must have caused Nicodemus, the religious man, to ponder just who it was that he was talking to. It must have really caused him to think when Jesus also referred to Himself as, “the Son of Man who is in heaven.” “Son of Man”? “In heaven”? What could this mean? There is no other like Jesus. He alone has a heavenly address. He left His heavenly abode to be the “the Son of Man.” Why did Jesus refer to Himself as “the Son of Man”? Jesus wanted Nicodemus to know that He was the promised Messiah of the Old Testament (Daniel 7:13). Jesus was the One foretold in the scriptures (Luke 18:31). He is not only a son of man; He is the Son of Man. Jesus came to reverse the curse that came through Adam’s sin. That’s why He came down.
As the Son of Man Jesus brought heaven down to earth. Jesus the Son of Man had command and Lordship over the most holy parts of the Law such as the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8). As the Son of Man Jesus had the authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6), to save and redeem the lost on the basis of His substitutionary atoning death (Matthew 20:28; Luke 19:10), and resurrection from the dead (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20), assign eternal rewards (Matthew 16:27; 19:28), spoke of future judgment of the world (Matthew 13:41), and His ultimate actual return in glory (Matthew 24:27-37). And as the Son of Man Jesus came with glorious good news from heaven; news revealing God’s great gift:
John 3:16-21 - 16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. 18 “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”
These are earth shattering, Pharisee shaking words. The Son of Man is the “Son of God.” Salvation from sin is offered by God to everyone! There is a way to escape the curse of sin and not perish! Belief in Jesus is the determining factor in whether a person is condemned or receives eternal life. People are condemned to perish because of their sin. The word “perish” (GK. APOLLUMI) means literally ruined, or lost. Those who refuse to believe in Jesus are condemned because they loved the dark evil of sin more than the light of God’s loving provision in Jesus. Believing in Jesus leads to eternal life and that life is a life of truth; that truth is found in God’s word (John 17:17). That’s why Jesus came down.
The “belief” (Gk. PISTEUO) that saves is not mere ascent. This belief is more than mere intellectual ascent. “Belief” here means “adherence to, committal to, faith in, reliance upon, trust in a person or an object, and this involves not only the consent of mind, but an act of the heart and will of the subject.” Saving faith is characterized by repentance, turning away from sin and the life of sin to God for forgiveness and to following Him obediently. Saving faith is defined by the acronym Forsaking All I Trust Him not my religious works, for salvation. God has offered the greatest gift; His only Son Jesus. He has offered Him to pay the penalty for our sins. He has provided a free gift of salvation from our sins and eternal life through faith in Jesus. That’s the greatest gift. That is the greatest gift of Christmas. Will you receive it? That’s why Jesus came down.