In John 3 a Pharisee named Nicodemus approaches Jesus, seemingly to inquire about the kingdom of God. The passage ends with a discussion of the results of belief and disbelief in the gospel of Christ. John 3:18 clearly lays out the need to believe: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
To condemn, in this context, is to pass negative judgment on someone—to find him guilty of a wrongdoing. John 3:18 says that, without faith in Christ, everyone is found guilty. The guilt has already been decided—they are condemned already. The reason is that everyone is a sinner, and apart from the Savior, everyone will receive the penalty due for sin (see Romans 3:23; 6:23).
John 3:18 directly follows a wonderful declaration of the good news, the gospel of Christ: “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. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:15–17).
The historical incident Jesus refers to in John 3:15 is found in Numbers 21. Israel was traveling from Egypt to Canaan. Along the way, they sinned against the Lord by grumbling and speaking against Him. God judged the people by sending poisonous snakes into their camps, resulting in the death of many Israelites. The Israelites asked Moses to intercede for them and deliver them from their condemnation. The Lord told Moses to lift up a pole with a bronze snake on it; anyone who looked upon it would be healed and delivered from God’s judgment. The Israelites were condemned for their sin, but God made a way of salvation.
Just as the Israelites were condemned in Numbers 21, the world is condemned already because of their sins. The snake has already bit. However, God has provided the way of salvation. Just as the snake was lifted up in Numbers 21, Jesus was raised up on the cross. Just as looking to the serpent in the wilderness delivered the Israelites from certain death, looking to Jesus in faith delivers all those who believe in Him (John 3:14–18).
Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:17). There was no need to condemn the world, for everyone already stands condemned (John 3:18). But there was a need for a Savior. Jesus came to save. He provided the proper sacrifice for sin, and all those who believe in the person and work of Jesus Christ are relieved of their condemnation (Romans 8:1). They are made His children and provided eternal life (John 3:16).