The Lord's Day Evening
July 12, 2009
“A Bible Teacher”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now we continue this evening a series we began about a month ago of conversations, discourses, that our Lord Jesus Christ had with various people, and tonight we come to a very well-known, familiar passage. It's the passage about Nicodemus and it contains language that is part of our religious subculture — the language of being “born again.” Now before I read the passage, I want to point out a couple of things.
First of all, John Piper, in his latest book, Finally Alive, addresses this issue of what does the word, “born again”, mean. In our culture, in the news, in our newspapers, the term is used with such frequency that you might not be all together sure what the word means, particularly since the Barna Group, for example, in its research points out that there are so many hundreds of thousands of people who profess to be born again, but are as worldly as the world - who tolerate injustice as much as the world, who are mean, who are spiteful, who commit all kinds of sexual practices that the Bible forbids and so on and so on. The conclusion that Barna draws, is that the church is full of born again people who are very worldly.
But John Piper in his latest book draws an entirely different conclusion. It's not that the church is full of born again people who are very worldly; it is that the church is full of worldly people who are not born again. We need, you and I, to rescue this word, “born again”, as we find it in John and in John's gospel, and especially here in the third chapter of John's gospel and pour into that word all of the biblical truth that it ought to have. Now before we read this familiar passage, let's look to God in prayer.
Father, we thank you again for the Bible. We thank you for the day and age in which we live — that we can have a copy of the Scriptures in our own hands, that we have many copies at home, in our cars, and on electronic devices. We are a people that ought to be very familiar with the Scriptures. We pray now for your blessing as we read a passage that is very familiar, and pray for the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit. Grant, O Lord, that light might shine upon us as we read these words, that we might not only read them, but understand them and take them to heart. We ask it all in Jesus' name. Amen.
John chapter 3:
“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?’ 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 it 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.’
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 received our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if 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.
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 love 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 work 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.”
Thus far, God's holy and inherent Word.
Now, it's night time, and a Pharisee, named Nicodemus, comes to Jesus. He comes by night, perhaps because he's frightened of being seen in the presence of Jesus and of conversing with Jesus. We’re told in verse ten that he is a teacher of Israel. He is one of the great Bible expositors, one of the great Old Testament expositors in Jerusalem. He is a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. You might have been there in Jerusalem at one of the great festivals: Purim, Tabernacles, the Day of Atonement, Passover. And you would be walking in the streets and point out, there he is, that great Bible teacher, Nicodemus. But he's not a believer. He isn't in the kingdom of God. Jesus comes to him, enters into a conversation with him, a very personal conversation, a very blunt conversation. It's not like the conversation with the woman at the well. There was a lot of small talk to begin with. No, Jesus gets to the very heart of the issue — he's not born again, and unless a man is born again, he may not see, he may not enter the kingdom of God. He comes to Nicodemus, this man who knows the Old Testament, who teaches the Old Testament, and proclaims the Old Testament, and He says to him, “You’re not in the kingdom of God.” These are the kinds of things that might have gotten Jesus punched in the nose perhaps. It's that blunt. It's that “in-your-face.”
Twitter is a marvelous thing. Between the first and second services this morning I got a message from a dear friend in Orlando. And he is a minister at the same church in which R.C. Sproul is the preacher. And the text for this morning, at least the message for this morning that R.C. Sproul preached was, “Three Words That Changed My Life.” “Three Words that Changed My Life - Regeneration Precedes Faith”. Oh, if you know R.C. Sproul, that's R.C. Sproul all over. That's the kind of statement that gets him going. Regeneration precedes faith. Perfect, I thought. That's exactly what John chapter 3, the story of Jesus speaking to Nicodemus is all about - that before you can believe, before you can exercise faith, you need to be regenerated. You need to be born again. What is Jesus saying to Nicodemus here?
I. Men and women are spiritually deaf and unable to understand spiritual truth.
Well, first of all, He is saying that something is absolutely necessary. Something is absolutely necessary. Unless a man is born again, he cannot see, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. It's an absolute necessity. This new birth, this being born again, or perhaps being born from above, is something that is necessary not because Nicodemus is a Pharisee, not because Nicodemus is a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, it's necessary not because Nicodemus is Jewish, it's necessary because Nicodemus is a human being. This is something that is true, not just of Nicodemus; it is true of every single individual that is born into this world. Because he is a human being, because he is a fallen son of Adam, unless he is born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of God, he cannot see the kingdom of God — he is spiritually blind. You remember the apostle Paul writes about that in the opening of 1 Corinthians. The natural man, he cannot see, he cannot discern spiritual things. Many of you have experienced that through believers, who are Christians here tonight. You've spoken to someone about spiritual things. You've read a passage of the Bible and it's got you all excited and there's a sort of glaze over the person's eyes and they have no idea what you are talking about. It's not because you’re using technical language, it's that they don't comprehend, it's not getting through; they don't accept things that are spiritual. It's like you’re speaking a foreign language.
I've just come back from Switzerland, where at least in one part they were speaking French which I somewhat understand, and in other parts they are speaking German which I understand less. And when you’re in the presence of someone who's speaking a foreign language, nothing's getting through. You’re hearing the sounds, but you don't understand; you don't comprehend. That's like what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus. Unless you are born again, unless you are regenerated, unless you are born from above, nothing is getting through. You don't understand. Do you know what Nicodemus said? “I don't understand.” (laughter) “I don't understand what you’re talking about.” He confirms, you see, his need of regeneration. He confirms the very thing that Jesus is saying — that unless you are born again, you don't understand spiritual things. He hasn't entered into the kingdom of God. Regeneration precedes faith.
II. Can we decide how and when we enter God's kingdom?
Now, people sometimes think that they can believe whenever they like. I have spoken to lots of people, especially young people, especially college-age folk, and they have this notion that they can believe on their own agenda, on their own timetable. “I'm going to have my life at college, I'm going to sow my oats, I'm going to live a little, and when I get married and have children, I’ll think about religion then. But it's on my timetable, it's on my agenda, it will be according to my plan.” And Jesus is saying, this regeneration, this new birth, this spiritual awakening, this new heart, this new spirit, is life from above that is absolutely necessary to enter the kingdom of God. It is not something that you can manufacture, because Nicodemus doesn't understand it. He doesn't comprehend it.
You remember what John had said in the opening prologue. Turn back, if you have your Bible, turn back to chapter 1 and verse 12: “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who are born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
We’re not Christians because we have a blood line. We’re not Christians because we happen to be covenant children. Just because our parents, our mothers our father, our grandparents, our great-grandparents are Christians, doesn't make us Christians. We’re not in the kingdom of God, we're not regenerate, we're not born from above simply because of blood line. Nor, John says, of the will of the flesh. We’re not Christians because we have willed it. It is entirely something that is our making, it is entirely something of our own decision; we are in charge of our own agenda. It's not of the will of man. Isn't it amazing that John can say such a clear statement and that people still think that they have this notion called free will - that we can believe in our own time and in our own agenda. I have a finger on this button and I can press it whenever I want and I'm going to do it when I'm 45, or 55, or 65.
I was reading yesterday a breath-taking statistic. By Horatius Bonar, the Scottish preacher, hymn writer. We sing some of his hymns in the Trinity Hymnal, Horatius Bonar. He asked, this is in the 19th century, 253 Christian friends at what age they were converted. Under 20: 138; from 20-30: 85; from 30-40: 22; from 40-50: 4; from 50-60: 3; from 60-70: 1; and over 70: 0. Isn't that interesting!
I don't want to make too much of that, but I do want to say this: If you are leaving it until you are 30, or 40, or 50, or 60 because you believe that being born again is something that is within your own power, within your own resources to do, my dear friends you are in the greatest possible of dangers. Jesus is saying to Nicodemus that there is an absolute necessity here, but this necessity can only be done and only be achieved by a sovereign act of God.
III. How are we “born again”?
The term being “born again” can be rendered from above. That is, from outside of ourselves. Look at verse 31 of chapter 3: “he who comes from above” — it's the same term, being born again, being born from above, from outside of ourselves. The coming into the kingdom of God is not an act of synergism, it's not an act of cooperation; it's not a little bit of God and a little bit of me — 50% God and 50% me. No. Nicodemus is right. Nicodemus had not understood what Jesus was talking about. If he was going to be born again, it must be from above; it must be from a sovereign interposition of God. Now, isn't that humbling? It's meant to humble. It's meant to bring us to the dust. It's meant to inform us that by our own efforts, by our own will, by our own disposition, by our social standing, by our family network - none of that would avail us in entering into the kingdom of God.
Jesus begins to illustrate what He is saying here. He talks about the wind. The wind blows where it wills. You hear the sound of it, but you don't know where it's coming from and you don't know where it's going; you just feel it on your face. Have you ever tried to stand, perhaps on a hot, clammy day, perhaps like today, depending on which part of the building you’re in just now — if you’re underneath the balcony, you’re fine. But if you’re in the center, you’re feeling a little hot. Now, try willing the wind that's blowing out of those vents, and try willing it to come in your direction. Now, if you try to do that, they’ll take you away. (laughter) You understand that? It's as silly as that. That's the illustration Jesus is using. If you think that the power to be born again lies within you, it's like sitting there willing that wind to come out of that vent and blow in your direction. It's as silly as that.
No, my dear friends, we must come to a point where all we can do is cry for mercy, to cry for mercy and cleansing. “Nothing in my hands I bring” — not my will, not my works, not my covenant status. “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.”
Do you remember the conversion of John Newton - the slave trader on his way back from Africa? Having been involved in the buying and selling of slaves, a ship, called The Greyhound in 1748, full of, as it happens in God's kind providence, it was full of beeswax. And one thing about beeswax is that it floats. The ship was caught in a storm and began to fill with water, and it was the beeswax, apparently, that held it afloat. And this man, who was a violent man who cursed and swore, cried to God in that moment that God would have mercy on him. By the time the boat landed in England, he had been born again. He had been born from above. “Amazing grace”, he wrote, “how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
Jesus goes on to illustrate. He illustrates from the New Testament — it's a little odd, the illustration, perhaps to us, but it wouldn't have been odd to Nicodemus, because Nicodemus would have taught this passage many, many times. It was that incident in the wilderness when they were being bitten by snakes, and you remember Moses, by God's request, had made this brass snake. And whenever the people were bitten by snakes, they would look in the direction of this brass snake and they were healed. Now, that's a strange sort of story — it's in the Old Testament, it's one of God's miracles that He performed in the time of the wilderness wanderings. It was a story well known to Nicodemus, but what's the point of the story? That the way in which we are born again is looking to Jesus, look in faith, look in trust, looking in absolute reliance to Jesus and to Jesus only. There's life, for a look at the crucified one. There's life for a look at the crucified one.
And then Jesus illustrates this by saying in verse 5: “unless a man is born of water and the Spirit”. Now, we're sort of tempted when we see water, we think baptism. But Nicodemus wouldn't have thought of baptism. Baptism wasn't something that was terribly familiar to Nicodemus. What did Nicodemus think of when Jesus said “unless a man is born of water and the Spirit”? The answer seems to be Ezekiel 36: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you. I will give you a new heart. I will give you a new Spirit.” You know what the next chapter in Ezekiel is? It's the valley of the dry bones coming to life. Jesus is taking this Bible teacher back to Ezekiel 36 and He is saying to him, “unless you are born by a sovereign work of God in which your sins are taken away, and the Holy Spirit is imparted to you, you cannot enter, you cannot see the kingdom of God.”
How can I be sure tonight? That is I look to Jesus I will be born from above — how can I be sure? And Jesus utters, or perhaps John comments, the most famous verse in the Bible, at least for us: John 3:16 — “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” He loves the lost. He gives the best and He asks the least. He loves the lost, He gives the best and He asks the least. God so loved. Did ere such love and sorrow meet or thorns compose so rich a crown, that Jesus should die, that he should give his life, that he should become the cursed one in the room, and in the place of sinners like you and me? How can I be sure that, if I look to Jesus, God will bring me into His kingdom? Because of what Jesus has done. Because of the love of the Father that sent His only Son to die for us.
And if I come, and if I put my faith in Jesus Christ, what then? Jesus, in this conversation with Nicodemus, begins to open up to Nicodemus the kinds of things that he can expect if he trusts in Jesus, if he believes in God's promise, as he enters the kingdom of God, as he sees and begins to understand the kingdom of God. He says in verses 15 and 16 that one of the things that will be true is you will have eternal life, eternal life. You will live in the blessedness of the presence of God forever. That's the blessing. There will be no condemnation. “Whoever believes in Him,” verse 18, “is not condemned.” That on that Day of Judgment there will be no condemnation because the Spirit has come into my life and made me a new creation in Jesus Christ.
He speaks in verse 19 about the light that has come into the world, and the people love darkness rather than the light, but those who are born again, love the light. They love the light. You know, when you come to Jesus Christ, you’ll see everything differently. You’ll see life differently. You’ll see your family differently. You’ll see your family differently. You’ll see your existence differently. You’ll see the things that matter differently — the things that are important and the things that are trivial.
The great question tonight, and it is a great question, is - are you born again? Are you born from above? Are you in the kingdom of God? Are you trusting in Jesus Christ?
Charles Wesley put it in that great hymn, And Can It Be -
“Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature's night.
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon filled with light.
My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed Thee.”
My dear friend, tonight, do you know anything of it? Can you say about yourself — God, in His sovereign mercy has regenerated me? He has brought me out of darkness and into light. He has brought me into a stage where I can say, “No condemnation.” Though my sins are red like crimson, in Jesus Christ, they are white as snow. I see, I don't see perfectly, but I see. I see the beauty. I see the treasure that is Jesus Christ. My eyes have been opened to behold the beauty that shines in the face of Jesus Christ. Can you say that tonight? Because if you can't, I plead with you, I plead with you, I urge you tonight, this very night, to put your faith entirely and unreservedly in Jesus, in Jesus only, and find in Him your treasure, your extraordinarily beautiful treasure.
Father we thank you for the Scriptures. We thank you for this passage. We thank you for the truth that whoever believes on the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved, will be born anew, will be brought into the kingdom of God, into a relationship with Jesus Christ. Father, bless us. Bless anyone here tonight who is still an unbeliever. Give them no rest until they find that rest which alone is found by faith in Jesus Christ. We ask it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
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