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JOHN 3:1-21
Series:  For Life - Part Six

Pastor Stephen Muncherian
August 24, 2014

This morning we’re going on with our study of the first four chapters of John’s Gospel - looking at the early days of Jesus’ ministry.  Thinking through what we believe about Jesus and why and bottom line:  What all that truth and history can mean for us as we live our lives in the places where we do life.


This morning we’re coming to John 3:1-21 - which is the next event in the sequence of the beginning part of Jesus’ ministry.  What we’re coming to is a conversation between Nicodemus - whom were going to meet in a moment - a conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus that focuses on the bottom line question of:  How do I live a life that pleases God?  How do I live a life that that God approves of - that God blesses - that’s going to get me into heaven?


Let’s jump into the conversation.  Would you read with me - John 3 - starting at verse 1:  Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.  This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”  Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”


Let’s pause there and make sure we’re on the page - or screen - or whatever you’re using - the same page together with this conversation.


Not long after Jesus cleaned out the Temple - what we looked at last Sunday in chapter 2 - maybe even that night a man named Nicodemus comes to Jesus.


First, John tells us that Nicodemus was a what?  A Pharisee.


We know about the Pharisees.  Right?  These were the religious fanatics of Israel.  Let’s be careful.  Sometimes the Pharisees get looked down on.


At the core of what they were all about - they really were concerned about doing what God required - approved of - that pleased God.  Think major commitment - devotion - even reverence for God.  And, they had a passionate desire to see others live with that level of commitment to obeying God.


There were only about 6,000 Pharisees in Israel.  Each of them had taken a vow in front of three witnesses that they would devote their lives to pleasing God by living in obedience to His Ten Commandments - giving their lives to obeying God’s law.


Which really isn’t a bad thing.  Right?


The struggle they had was in how to apply God’s law to the specifics of everyday life.  Which led them to the fanatical approach to religious regulations and piety that they often get slammed for.


Example - in order to keep the law the Pharisees had come out with the Mishnah - which is a very thick book that the Jews still have today - a very thick book that’s very detailed on how to keep the Ten Commandments to every day life.  The section on keeping the Sabbath goes on for 24 chapters. 


John then tells us that Nicodemus is also a what?  “a ruler of the Jews.”  


Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin.  Which was the ruling council - made up mostly of Pharisees - a ruling council of 70 men that - in the first century - the Sanhedrin was Israel’s congress and supreme court.  They had authority over the religious affairs of Israel.  And in fact had religious authority over any Jew any place in the world.


Which is probably why Nicodemus showed up a night.  He’s got a reputation that would’ve probably been compromised if he’d been seen with Jesus.


We’re together on who Nicodemus is?  He’s a member in good standing of this tight-knit brotherhood - a political and religious group that had earned the respect of their fellow Jews.  A devoutly religious man.  A leader of God’s people.


John tells us that Nicodemus initiates this conversation by beginning with what was culturally a very respectful greeting.  He addresses Jesus as “Rabbi” - meaning “master.”  Notice also the word “we.”  He’s probably speaking for others - maybe a majority of the Sanhedrin.  “We know that you’re a teacher.”  Key word being “teacher.”


Point being that Nicodemus - and probably a number of the Pharisees - while they had huge issues with what Jesus was teaching - in their hearts that knew that he really was a man from God - a teacher.


Nicodemus wasn’t doing miracles.  Other members of the Sanhedrin weren’t doing miracles.  But Jesus was.  Miracles - signs.  Signs point at things.  What Jesus was doing was pointing to Him as being, at the very least, a man of God - potentially the Messiah. 


So Nicodemus comes with respect - initiates this conversation - looking to Jesus as someone who just might have insight in how to keep the law - how to live in obedience to God - to live the life that God approves of.


Let’s be clear.  Where Nicodemus is coming from - behind all that obedience and respect - is the same basic religious philosophy that messes people up today.  Even us.  We can way too easily get tripped up by this.  The belief that all we really need in order to get right with God - to live pleasing to God - all we need is good teaching (a knowledge of what God expects) and then a commitment on our part to work at that - to live pleasing to God.


Maybe that’s something you’re struggling with.  If so, you’re not alone in your struggle.  It is way too easy to slip into thinking that.  Say a prayer and then live righteous.  What God expects of us is to live life as best as we can trying hard to do what God commands and if we can do that then we’ll be pleasing God and we’ll be accepted by Him. 


Verse 3.  Notice how Jesus bypasses the cultural pleasantries and cuts to the heart of Nicodemus - what he’s really struggling with.  Verse 3:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 


“Truly” in Greek is the word “amen.” Which is where we get our English word… “amen.”  “amen” in Greek transliterates a Hebrew word “amen” which has the idea of affirming what’s true.  When we say, “Amen” at the end of prayer we’re agreeing with what’s been prayed.  In a sense, “Right on!”  “We agree.”  “That’s true.”


Jesus is affirming that what He’s about to say is absolute truth - God’s truth.  Jesus’ repetition “Amen, Amen” adds emphasis.  Each time in the conversation Jesus says “Truly, truly” He’s about to introduce truth that we need to pay attention to.  In a sense:  “Nicodemus, you need to wake up and smell the coffee.  Don’t miss this.  This is God’s absolute truth that is essential for your life.”


Jesus tells Nicodemus:  “You’re not going to see God’s kingdom unless you’ve been born again.”  Truth number one:  Rebirth is Essential to see God’s Kingdom. 

Being “born again” is a term that gets used and abused.  Let’s make sure we’re clear on how Jesus is using it.


Physical birth is the result of a man and a women joining their bodies together in the way God designed that to happen.  9 months or so later for the baby there’s a process of transition.  Birth is the way we pass from one world into another - from one form of existence into another.  Womb to world.  That transition comes with the giving of equipment that is totally necessary if we’re to exist in this world.  We really have very little to do with any of that except to perhaps initiate the timing of the process of birth.


The word “again” in the original Greek is: “anothen.”  It has the idea of doing something a second time.  And - by the literal definition of the word - that “second time” is such a radical new beginning that it comes from above - meaning heaven.


“To see” has the idea of seeing and understanding something because we’ve seen it first hand.  In other words we have to be born into the world to see the world outside the womb.


What Jesus is getting at is that being born again into the Kingdom of God is something so radically new to our lives that it can only be accomplished from above.


Are we together?  Spiritual birth is similar to physical birth in that it has to be done on behalf of the child.  Spiritual birth is entirely the work of God.  Transforming us - equipping us - so that we’re able to enter into - “see” first hand - this whole new world of God’s kingdom is a God thing.


To see God’s heavenly kingdom requires being born into it.  God’s way.  By God’s working.  By nothing that we could ever do on our own.


Let’s be careful.  Jesus is not saying that being “born again” means we get a “do over” on our lives.


Maybe you’ve said this:  “If I knew then what I know now.”  Let’s be honest - if we knew then what we know now and could go back and do it over again we’d just make different mistakes.  It really doesn’t matter how many “do overs” we get we’re still going to mess up.  Just trying harder a second time or a third or fourth or twenty millionth time isn’t going to get us there.


Nicodemus is not some theological light weight.  This man is a brilliant theologian - skilled in the art of debate - trained to dissect ideas and philosophies and religion according to the teaching of Scripture.  He was a devout student of God’s law committed to doing the right thing.


Nicodemus knew the right thing to do.  But he and every other top of the pile religious person in Israel - the most righteous of the righteous - all came up short in doing what they knew they needed to do.  And no matter how hard they defined it - categorized it - analyzed it - and worked harder at doing it - over and over again - they kept coming up short.


Which points out a huge struggle that we all have.  Most of the time we know what the right thing to do is but we come up short in doing it.


The reason that’s true of all of us - no exceptions - is because its not what we know or don’t know or what we do or don’t do that’s the bottom line problem we all struggle with.  What we all struggle with - our problem is - who we are.


Can we hear Jesus?  “You’re wasting your time if you think you can see the kingdom of God the way you are.  By what you’re doing.  They reason you’re coming up empty is because you must be born again.”


In verse 4 Nicodemus asks:  “How does an old guy enter the womb again?”  It’s reasonable to think that Nicodemus is focused on the physical act of birth because spiritually Nicodemus is focused on doing things to earn God’s approval.  But, minus the gynecology it’s a good question:  “How do we get born again?” 

Going on - verse 5: 
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, 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 the 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.’  The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”


Jesus’ “truly, truly” truth number two:  Rebirth is a work of the Spirit. 


Being born of water is all about repentance.


A few weeks earlier the religious leadership in Jerusalem had sent a delegation from Jerusalem out to the Jordan River where John the Baptist was.. baptizing.  They’d sent the delegation to find out what John was doing and by who’s authority he was doing it.  It was probably Nicodemus and the Sanhedrin that had sent that delegation.


So the report came back to Nicodemus and the Sanhedrin.  John is baptizing and calling the nation to repentance - to admit our sin and to get right with God.  John’s baptism is symbolic of that repentance.


We’re clear on this?  Baptism without repentance is like taking a shower with a rain coat on.  Might clean the outside but it has absolutely no effect on what’s inside.  Baptism as a sign of repentance is an outside act that demonstrates what’s already gone on inside.

Jesus is reminding Nicodemus of what he already knew.  Being born of water is all about repentance.


Which is a struggle.  Because - like Nicodemus - as rugged individualists who pride ourselves in our own whit, wisdom, and working we don’t like to admit need.  That there’s something fundamentally wrong with us.  It is so easy for us to cling to the idea that there’s something good within us that God ought to accept.  Or, if we just do enough good it kind of balances things out and the good Lord will let us into His heaven.


But repentance is essential.  We need to be honest.  Despite our best efforts we’re not fulfilling God’s law.  We’re not measuring up.  We can’t measure up.  The problem is much deeper than that.  We are what’s wrong.  We desperately need the Savior.  We need to let go of clinging to ourselves and turn our lives over to God.  Baptism - as the sign of repentance - acknowledges our understanding of that and our turning of our lives over to God.


Being born of the Spirit is what God does when we repent.


We don’t want to get buried in a lot of theology and doctrine.  But, if we can hang together for a bit there’s a reality here that we need to understand if we’re going to grab on to the truth Jesus is teaching.


What’s on this chart is a description of how Scripture describes us as human beings.  Each of us having three parts:  body - soul - and spirit.  Do you see those up there.

Our bodies - the green area - our bodies are the physical part of us that encloses everything else.  The part of us that ends up dead and buried.  What is the least important part of who we are that we spend the most amount of time focusing on.  Something to think about next time you’re assessing yourself in the mirror.


The blue circles represent our soul.  Essentially - our soul is who we are.  Our soul is made up of our mind, will, and emotions.  We behave - what we do or think - by the exercise of our will under the influence of our mind and our emotions. 


Our spirit is uniquely something that God has given us.  No other creature has a spirit.  Only man.  The spirit has the capacity to survive and be held morally responsible after we die physically.  The spirit is at the core of who we are in our relationship with God and at the core of who we are in how we live life. (1)


Looking at the chart - the spirit is at the center of the soul.  Which can be a little bit misleading.  The spirit is not part of the soul.  The spirit drives the soul - our mind, will, and emotions.


Meaning that if the spirit is alive towards God then what drives our mind, will, and emotions - and the physical acts of our bodies - is going to be a spirit alive towards God - meaning we’re living pleasing to God.  Or, if our spirit is dead towards God then what’s driving our soul is going to be dead towards God - meaning not pleasing to God.


Are we kind of together?


When Adam sinned he died - spiritually.  His body lived.  Physically he went on living - pulling weeds, herding goats, and having kids.  His soul lived.  He kept making decisions and acting on those decisions.  But, just as God said, “If you eat that you’ll die” when Adam disobeyed God spiritually he died towards God.


Which is true of each one of us.  We’re born physically.  We have a soul.  But at the spirit level we’re born dead towards God.  Which is why our own best efforts at pleasing God come up short.  Because at the core of who we are we’re spiritually dead.  Meaning unable to please God.


Which - coming back to Nicodemus and Jesus - which is why being born of the spirit is essential - essential if we’re to live pleasing God - to see God’s kingdom - to enter God’s kingdom.  What Jesus is describing is the rebirth of our spirit - our spirit being made alive again by God.  From above.  What we could never do for ourselves by our own efforts no matter how “do overs” we got. 


Are we still together?


Jesus illustration about wind blowing where it wishes is all about God the Holy Spirit at work within us.  When we repent - God the Holy Spirit - enters into us and does the work of rebirthing our spirit - of transformation - that enables our entry into God’s kingdom.


God sovereignly blowing through a repentant person powerfully - sometimes painfully - but with progress and purpose - rebirthing that person - transforming that person - so that that spiritually reborn person is going to move through life where God leads.  Our bodies and souls being blown - being directed - by God.  Living lives that please God.


Which is hugely exciting.  When God gets a hold of our lives things change.  Having our lives directed and empowered by the God of creation its impossible to go on the way we were.  Who can predict where God will lead you?  What exciting purposes God has created you for?  The amazing things God will do in you and through you?  We’re in for a totally different adventure through life. 


Verse 9:  Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?”  Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?  Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe it I tell you heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”


Jesus number three truth:  Rebirth comes through faith.


There’s a progression here that leads to Jesus’ point.


First, Jesus asks Nicodemus how it is that Nicodemus as the teacher of Israel doesn’t “get it.”  “The” teacher meaning that Nicodemus is not just “a” teacher but “the” teacher.  He’s on a pedestal.  Respected by his peers.  Looked up to by the people.  He’s a leader - politically - religiously.  If anyone should “get” the truth of what Jesus is talking about, Nicodemus should “get it.”  This is Relationship With God 101. 


The first part of Jesus’ progression which is leading to His point is that Nicodemus should understand but he doesn’t.


Second Jesus says that Nicodemus doesn’t accept the testimony of the witnesses - plural.  “We speak of what we know…  We bear witness to what we’ve seen.” 


Every Jew knew - every student of Scripture knew - Nicodemus knew - that the law of Moses required at least 2 witnesses to agree together in order to confirm that the testimony offered was valid.  There was no stronger evidence than the corroborating testimony of two or more witnesses.  (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15)


Jesus sent His disciples out in twos.  The testimony of two being more acceptable than one.  Jesus said that when we confront a brother in Christ about a sin - Jesus said, “If he won’t listen to you take along one or two others so that the evidence can be established.”  Jesus was accused at His trial by more than one witness.  They had to do that according to the law of Moses - especially in a capital case.  (Matthew 18:15-20; 26:60; Mark 6:7)

The witnesses before Nicodemus are plural.


First - the Scriptures witness to the truth of what Jesus is saying.  The witness that Nicodemus - as the teacher of Israel should have understood.


Second - Jesus Himself is giving testimony to the truth of what He’s saying.  Jesus is testifying of what He knows.  What He’s seen.  Jesus being an eye witness of heaven.  A testimony corroborated in part by all the signs that are pointing to Jesus as the Messiah.


Then Jesus tells him, “How are you going to believe what I tell you about heavenly things - God things - being spiritually reborn - what you can’t see - if you’re not believing what are you are seeing.”


“Nicodemus the evidence is as plain as the nose on your face.  Its not what you know or what you don’t know that’s your problem.  You’re choosing not to believe because the problem is who you are.” 


Good old Mark Twain:  “Its not what I don’t know about the Bible that troubles me, its what I do know!” 


Belief means repentance.  Letting go of our clever attempts to try and make God fit into our little box of understanding.  With all the books and studies and sermons and resources we have available to us why do we still  end up doing just enough of what we say pleases God and avoiding harder truths like taking up our cross - dying to ourselves.  Why is it so hard for us to let go of everything that we cling to in life? 

Jesus gives an illustration from the witness of Scripture. 
No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.   


Heaven is the realm of God.  Descent from heaven is all about incarnation.  What all that ascending and descending points to is that Jesus has come down from heaven.  God Himself has taken on what it means to be human.  (Deuteronomy 30:11-14 [compare with John 1:14]; Job 38:4-11; Proverbs 30:4)


The title “the Son of Man” has its roots deep in the witness of Scripture.  Jesus applying that title to Himself is about Jesus focusing on His incarnation - His humanity - human frailty - weakness - all of what it means to be human.  Jesus - being fully human suffers the pains of humanity - especially as He endures the ordeal of the cross.


More significantly - “Son of Man” is the title that Daniel gave to the messianic figure in one of his visions.  One like the son of man” to Whom God gives everlasting dominion over all the earth - to eternally rule over all peoples.  (Daniel 7:13,14)


In Nicodemus’ day - and even today - its hard to process the incarnation - Jesus being fully God and fully man - that God would take on what it means to human - the suffering of the Messiah.  But this is Jesus’ way of identifying Himself as the sole Messiah of Scripture - Who in fact is God.


Then a second illustration from Scripture:  And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,    


In the days of Moses - on one of many occasions when the people of Israel were disobeying God and grumbling because God wasn’t doing things the way they thought He should - at a time when they were under condemnation for their sin and God was punishing them - the people of Israel were being bitten by hundreds of poisonous snakes and a number of the people were dying.  Nothing they could do could save them.


Finally the people admitted their sin.  Told Moses to pray for them.  God told Moses to take a pole and put a brass snake on it and put it up where the people could see it.  The snake in and of itself was just a brass snake.  But God said, when someone was bit by a poisonous snake - if that person would look at the brass snake - meaning by faith take God at His word - then God would heal them.  Which they did and God did.  (Numbers 21:4-9)


Jesus is saying, “That all applies to me.”  Jesus - descended from heaven - Jesus fully God - fully human - in His humanity lifted up to die.  When that happens, if you’ll look at Me and believe that I’m dying for you - lifted up for you in your place - then God will give you life - eternal life. 


You can’t do it for yourself.  You can’t even understand it because it’s a heaven thing that I’m testifying of.  But, God can do it.  You need to believe in Me - in Who I am.  Rebirth comes through faith. 


Hebrews 11:6 says that “...without faith it is impossible to please God.” 


The reason that’s true of all of us - no exceptions - is because its not what we know or don’t know or what we do or don’t do that’s the bottom line problem we all struggle with.  What we all struggle with - our problem is - who we are.


Hang on to something.


When we repent - meaning when we agree with God that we are sinners in rebellion against Him - fatally bitten by sin - spiritually dead towards Him at the core of who we are - and totally without hope.


When we finally give up and turn our back on our efforts at pleasing God - because its not what we do that’s the problem.


When we’re willing to throw ourselves on God’s grace and mercy - not because we understand it all or every could - not because we’re clever enough - because its not what we know that’s the problem.


When we’re willing to look to Jesus as our only Savior - crying out to God to save us - then God the Holy Spirit will enter into us - spiritually transforming us - giving us new birth - spiritual life as only He can give it.


Are we together?

Coming to verses 16 to 21 - this where Jesus goes on to apply that truth to the day to day of where life gets lived.   


“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.  Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the judgment:  the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.  For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.  But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”


That’s pretty to the point.  Isn’t it?


There are two trajectories through life.  Every one of us is on one or the other of those trajectories.  Either we’re living in darkness or we’re living in light.  Living not pleasing to God or living pleasing to God.  Living condemned or not condemned.  Either we’re perishing - meaning eternal punishment - or we’re headed for eternal life - which is infinitely better.


Spiritually - we’re all born spiritually dead - living in darkness - not pleasing God - condemned.  Judgment is coming and we’re all toast.  Pretty hopeless.

Except God.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son - Jesus came into the world - not to condemn what was already living under condemnation - waiting for judgment and eternal punishment - eternal perishing.  But God so loves each of us that Jesus came to be lifted up in our place - to save us from that condemnation.  To give to us eternal life.


The promise of God is that all those who believe - that’s faith not what we do or know - but repentance and trust - all those who believe God gives new birth to - saving us - bringing us into His kingdom now and forever.


Maybe you’re longing to live life pleasing to God.  But you’ve never been born again.  Maybe you’re living seeking after God but you’re hungry - empty inside - sensing the futility of your own efforts.  Maybe you’re looking at your life and seeing only bondage to the past or the failures of today.  Being freed of all that is by faith in the God who really does love you. 




1. Definitions adapted from The Mystery of Godliness by Major Ian Thomas, Zondervan, 1964

General reference for this message: 
“Born Of The Spirit” - sermon shared by Ray Stedman from John 3:1-17, May 15, 1983 


General Reference for this series:  Charles R. Swindoll, “Insights On John:  Swindoll’s New Testament Insights,”  Zondervan, 2010


Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®  (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.