Wednesday was our monthly day of prayer and fasting. In the evening we prayed for Kylie serving in India, for Francis and Georgina moving to Holland and for Ian and Suzanne going soon to Uganda.
But what if you knew I fast and pray every Wednesday. Impressed? And not just during the day but through the night as well? Twenty four hours of prayer and fasting. More impressed? But what if you knew I do it standing on top of a tall tree stump at the bottom of our garden, in all weather, on one leg. Incredulous? Well don’t be, because I don’t, at least not on one leg… or on a tree stump… but you get the point.
You know what? Every religion in the world has one basic thing in common. They tell you what you must do to get right with God. Fulfilling the appropriate rituals, saying the correct prayers, wearing the approved clothing, giving the required tithes. And the more you do, and the more you give and pray and sacrifice, the more holy you must be. Right?
Wrong. You see religion is mankind’s best attempt to reach God. Christianity is God reaching down to us. It is not about what I must do, but about what God has done. You see, Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship. For many this is a crushing blow to their pride or their security. They prefer religion to a relationship. Let’s meet someone who felt just like that.
His name was Nicodemus. Please turn with me to John 3.
1. The Gospel Imperative (John 3:1-8)
1.1 The Context of the Encounter – A Divine Appointment
“Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:1-2)
Nicodemus the Person
Nick was Jewish – a member of the chosen people.
Nick was a Pharisee – a member of the priesthood.
Nick was a member of the ruling council – the elite 70 elders.
Nick was Israel’s teacher – the leading theological expert.
If the most important and influential teacher in Israel has doubts and questions about Jesus then its OK for you too as well.
Nicodemus the Problem
He came to Jesus by night. Embarrassed? Afraid? Incognito?
He said to Jesus “we know…” Was this the royal ‘we’? Was he just being polite or was he an emissary sent by the ruling elite?
Nicodemus the Pragmatist
Nicodemus calls Jesus “teacher” but Jesus was not a rabbi. He was not trained or authorised by the Sanhedrin. Assuming Nicodemus was sincere, he was acknowledging, if only by himself, that Jesus was sent by God. Whatever the reason, there is a Nicodemus in us all. We have come to Jesus by different routes, with unanswered questions, with a mixture of faith and doubt.
It does not matter whether we come by day or night. Whatever your reasons, what matters is you are here. The context of the encounter. A Divine Appointment.
1.2 The Challenge of the Encounter – A Cross-examination
Before Nicodemus could get any further with his prepared speech, Jesus interrupts him. Jesus makes a statement that cuts right through the fog of ecclesiastical pleasantries and small talk and cucumber sandwiches on the vicarage lawn… Jesus insists,
A New Birth that is Necessary for Salvation
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:3)
Jesus goes to the heart of the matter – but he speaks of the need to be born again in a general sense. Nicodemus is spiritually dead but Jesus believes Nicodemus can understand the implications.
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:3-4)
Jesus answers Nicodemus with an elaboration and a challenge.
This New Birth is God’s Initiative
“Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’”
In the 1st Century, just as now, a Jew was defined as someone with a Jewish mother, who, if male, was circumcised on the 8th day, had their Bar Mitzvah at 12, was married at 21, and if from a priestly family, would become a rabbi at 30. Chosenness and eternal destiny were determined by birth and religious practice. “Not so”, says Jesus. “You must be born again.” “I mean you, Nicodemus, not the Gentiles, not sinners, but you.” Nicodemus is clearly confused so Jesus uses an illustration:
This New Birth is one in which we are Passive
“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
Weather forecasting has come a long way since the 1st Century. Forecasters these days have a prediction accuracy of 100%… afterwards. If you are observant, you’ll notice that invariably, weather forecasters tell us more about the weather we had today than the weather we might have tomorrow. And they never tell you whether they got it right or wrong the day before…
Birth is not something we have much control over either. It is a process in which we are at best semi-conscious and entirely passive. So it is with new birth. It is the work of God’s Holy Spirit. The Context of the Encounter – A Divine Appointment. The Challenge of the Encounter – A Cross-Examination. The Gospel Imperative.
2. The Gospel Illustrated (John 3:9-15)
2.1 The Reasons Nicodemus Could Not Believe
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen.” (John 3:9-11)
Jesus is amazed that Nicodemus understood so little. We too must be careful not to equate knowledge with wisdom or qualifications with spiritual discernment. They are not the same.
He Lacked Spiritual Discernment
The simple reason why he needed to be born again was because he was spiritually dead. Only God can open blind eyes. He clearly lacked spiritual discernment.
He Lacked Personal Experience
He knew a lot about God but his knowledge was theoretical.
He could say the right words and perform the required rituals but he did not know God personally. These are the reasons he could not believe. But Nicodemus was also culpable. It was not just that he could not believe, but that he would not believe. Notice,
2.2 The Reason Nicodemus Would Not Believe
“but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (John 3:11-12)
Jesus begins to point out that Nicodemus is inconsistent. Nicodemus had acknowledged Jesus was from God.
That the miracles Jesus had performed could only be the work of God. “Then who don’t you believe me?” says Jesus. “You say God is with me because of the miracles. Then why don’t you trust me when I tell you about God’s will for your life?” Nicodemus was troubled that everything he had built his life on – his upbringing, his religious practices, his position, counted for zilch in the eyes of God. What does Jesus do next? He gives …
2.3 Three Reasons why Nicodemus Should Believe
Jesus is a Unique Person
“No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.” (John 3:13)
Jesus origin: “from heaven”
Jesus divinity: “came from” and “gone into”
Jesus title: “Son of Man”
That title – Son of Man was very significant. It comes from Daniel.
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven… He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away…” (Daniel 7:13-14)
Jesus is indeed the heavenly man. A unique person.
Jesus has a Unique Purpose
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.” (John 3:14)
Why the comparison with a snake? If you have been following our teaching series “Christ in all the Scriptures” you will remember the Book of Numbers where we encountered the bronze snake. Because God’s people rebelled in the wilderness, he sent poisonous snakes which attacked the people. When they cried out he told Moses to make a bronze serpent, put it on a pole and lift it high. Jesus uses the event to explain that he too would be lifted up on a cross. Jesus, a unique person with a unique purpose, offers,
Jesus Offers a Unique Promise
“that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:15)
As people looked on the bronze snake they were healed. So, says Jesus, will those who look to the Son to save them. What a promise. We have seen the reasons Nicodemus could not, and would not, but ought to believe.
We have considered the gospel imperative and the gospel illustrated. Finally please notice,
3. The Gospel Invitation (John 3:16-18)
Jesus explains the way, the joy and the necessity of a new birth.
3.1 The Way to this New Life
“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.” (John 3:16)
What does God tell us about his love? At least five things.
- The height of this love “God” – It is unlimited
- The breadth of this love “world” – It is universal
- The depth of this love “gave his only son” – It is unbelievable
- The extent of this love “whoever” – It is unconditional
- The duration of this love “everlasting” – It is unending.
Know what? You can never be too sinful, too far gone in life, too far away from God, for his love not to reach you. The height, the breadth, the depth, the length and the duration of God’s love. It is unlimited, universal, unbelievable, unconditional, unending to those who will believe. The way to new life.
3.2 The Joy of this New Birth
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)
To reinforce his point made in verse 16, Jesus restates the same profound truth in verse 17 from the opposite perspective. John Calvin put it this way, ”The Son of God became the Son of man that the sinful sons of men might be made the sons of God.”
Have you ever wondered why Christians sing so much compared to other religions? Because at the heart of the Gospel message there is joy. Praise on our lips flows from joy in our hearts for what God has done for us. Lack of praise merely exposes the absence of joy. I took a funeral recently. We sung “Amazing Grace”. Out of the congregation of may be 100 people, I could not tell with certainty who were Christians. But I could certainly tell who were not. How? They could not sung,
“And when I think that God his son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in, that on the cross my burden gladly bearing he bled and died to take away my sin…then sings my soul, my saviour God to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art…”
When we trust in Jesus, God puts a deep joy in our hearts, knowing Jesus died in our place, gives us a new life, forgiveness for the past, certainty about the future. Are you joyful this morning? The way to this new life. The joy of this new birth.
3.3 The Necessity of this New Birth
“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.” (John 3:18)
Let me ask you, “Have you been born again?” Do you know for sure that you are forgiven? Do you know you have eternal life? If you are not sure, make sure today because there may not be another.
The curator of a certain famous art gallery not a million miles from the Tate was immensely proud of his collection of fine paintings, but he was rather intolerant of the cultural philistines who sometimes came to view them. One day he was walking through the gallery and overheard a tourist comment “what a dreadful picture. I can’t understand why they should hang such a monstrosity in public.” Incensed, the curator stepped forward, barely restraining his anger, and said to the visitor, “Sir, the merit of these paintings is not in question. It is those who view them that are on trial.”
It is a good point. For that, according to Jesus, is certainly true of our verdict upon him. “Your destiny”, he says, “is ultimately sealed by how you respond to me.” With a single exception, God will forgive you absolutely everything. Whatever is on your conscience today, God will forgive it. The bottom line is this. God loves the world and does not wish to see a single individual perish. The gospel is as unlimited and as personal as that. But there is one thing he cannot forgive. What is that? The refusal to accept his forgiveness. You may not yet be a Christian. You will certainly have non-Christians in your family or circle of friends. Have you questions unanswered? Are they waiting for a spiritual experience that will zap them?
Or just too busy or can’t see the relevance? This is Jesus verdict:
“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (John 3:19-21)
In these closing sentences of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, just as the credits are about to roll and the studio lights begin to fade, Jesus says that all the popular excuses for avoiding Him are really just a smoke screen, a tissue of self deception. Jesus insists that the real reason people do not believe in him is not intellectual problems.
Its not lack of religious experience, not busyness, not indifference. The real reason is sin. Jesus insists gently but firmly that our excuses will not hold water. Spiritual blindness is culpable. And that is the verdict on our world today. The light has come into the world but many people prefer darkness to light because their deeds are evil. And if you are in any doubt, just read the front page of any of today’s newspapers.
We don’t know how long Nicodemus stayed to chat with Jesus after the apostle John put away his Dictaphone. I expect it went on much longer. Could it be that they talked all night? It would not surprise me if they did. Nicodemus arrived in the dark in more ways than one. Could it be that as they parted the first glimmerings of dawn were hovering over the eastern horizon? And did he smile, I wonder, at the rising sun – as the light dawned on him. By the end of the Gospels he has indeed crossed over from death to life and is numbered among the disciples of Jesus.
What people think of Christ divides the world in two. There is no middle way. There can be no compromise. We have listened in on this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, between the teacher of Israel and the Teacher. We have heard the evidence for this vital experience, being born again. We have heard the claims for Jesus own uniqueness. The son of God sent into the world to save it from destruction. Now he insists a decision is needed.
He is not asking us to understand everything he has ever said. Nobody can do that. All Jesus is asking is that we trust him with what we know. Believe in him. Because that is the only way we can be separated from our sin. Because that is the way, the only way, we can be born all over again. Lets pray.