Let’s turn together in the gospel of John to John chapter 3. It can be found on page 887 in your pew Bibles. And it’s New Year's Eve and the new year turns our thoughts to our plans for the next year, to the possibility of a fresh start, possibly a new beginning. And what better place to turn than to John chapter 3 tonight, because John chapter 3 is about the only true new beginning. It's about the new birth. And some of us make resolutions for the year to come, look for places in our lives to change. Well, John chapter 3 reminds us that true change, real change, lasting change comes only through the work and by the power of the Holy Spirit for those who trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. And so with that in mind, let us give our attention to John 3. But first, let me pray for our time studying His Word.
Our Father, we need Your Spirit for new birth, for new life, but also for understanding and for guidance and for wisdom and for the growth in grace and the fruits of righteousness and to look more like our Savior, Jesus. And so we ask that You would give us Your Spirit tonight. Open Your Word to us. Help us to see Christ and to trust in Him more fully and to live for Him and for His glory in all that we do. And we pray these things in Jesus’ name, amen.
I’m going to read John chapter 3, the whole chapter.
“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 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.’
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 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 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.’
After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison).
Now a discussion arose between some of John's disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness – look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’ John answered, ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.’
He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever.
We can break this passage into two parts. There are earthly questions and there is the heavenly answer. Earthly questions and the heavenly answer.
First, we see earthly questions. And the first question comes from a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Now most of us are probably more familiar with Nicodemus' background than we are with maybe some of our close friends. You know, it's a regular occurrence here around First Pres that you will be talking with someone that you have known for many years and it comes up in conversation and you stop and say, "Wait, I didn't know that she was your sister! Or I didn't know he was your brother!" We can have close friends and not really know a lot about their background. But we know about Nicodemus' background, don't we? We know about what the Pharisees were like. The Pharisees – they were that movement, the strict, religious-based movement in Israel around the time of Jesus. And they were well-trained in the Hebrew scriptures. They knew their Bibles and they took God's law seriously, so much so that they added layers on top of layers of tradition on top of God's laws to get a sort of a barrier against breaking what God had commanded. And because they gave such attention to what God had commanded and to the law, they were committed to a morally upright lifestyle. They were admirable people. They were well-respected members of society. Now, unfortunately, because they thought God's law was attainable, they also became self-righteous and they used God's law as a means for elevating their own position and for keeping those under them, under them.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, but he was also, he was also, we are told, “a ruler of the Jews.” He was a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. He was a prominent man. And that probably explains why he came to Jesus by night. You know Jesus had already upset the Pharisees by some of the things that He had done, and here is a man who was supposed to be an expert. How would it look if he was coming and approaching and seeking out Jesus and having a conversation with Jesus? And so he came to Jesus at night because he was curious. You know, surely for Nicodemus, the externally-focused religion of the Pharisees bothered him. And maybe he recognized that his own significance was based on flimsy and shaky ground.
And here was Jesus. The uniqueness of Jesus was undeniable. Jesus is clearly extraordinary. And so he had a question for Jesus. Even though it’s really not formed in a question, he says in verse 2, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him." Now, what's he saying there? What's he trying to find out? Well, notice how he refers to Jesus. He calls Jesus, "Rabbi." Now that's a term of respect. It means something like "teacher" or "master" or maybe something like the way we would use the word, "doctor," as a term of respect. I was, several years ago, pointing out to one of our sons one of my seminary professors and I said, "That's Dr." – we'll call him, "That's Dr. Smith." And he said, "Oh, is he a real doctor or is he a church doctor?" There are real doctors and there are church doctors, but a church doctor is a term of respect. Isn't it? It may not be a real doctor, but they know something! And that was the case with my seminary professor. That's the case with Jesus in Nicodemus' eyes. Nicodemus knows that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God. He had either seen or he had heard about some of the things that Jesus had done.
What Wisdom Do You Have?
But what’s his goal as he approaches Jesus? Well, it seems to be that his focus is on knowledge. What insight can Jesus give to him to make him more enlightened? Or what wisdom can Jesus impart to him to increase his understanding? After all, if he could get more knowledge from God, then that would make him a better Pharisee. But notice how Jesus answers him. Verse 3, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” See, it’s not just knowing more information about God. It’s not just thinking more clearly about God that sets one in the kingdom of God. It is a radical and a complete transformation. It is nothing less than a new birth. And yet, Nicodemus is still struggling to understand what Jesus is saying to him. And he basically says to Jesus, “That’s impossible. That’s absurd! Can a man enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
I was listening to an interview the other day with Alan Jacobs. He was discussing his new book called, How to Think, and he was talking about some of the ridiculous ways in which discussion and debate breaks down in our social media age. And what he pointed to was one of the things, one of the phrases that people will use is the phrase, “In other words.” And it goes something like this. An example would be, you may say something like, “I am really worn out from all the Christmas activities.” And then someone would respond to you and say, “Oh, so in other words, you hate Christmas.” You see, it’s a way of dismissing and getting rid of that person’s statement or the saying that they made. In a sense, that’s what Nicodemus is doing to Jesus. He’s dismissing Jesus and saying that that’s absurd. “You cannot be born twice!”
But then Jesus responds to him. He says that you must be born of the Spirit. Verse 5, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Now there’s a lot of debate about what that means to be born of water and the Spirit. It seems to refer to Ezekiel chapter 36. David Strain read it this morning to us in the assurance of pardon. It’s talking about one in the same event and it is the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit. And what Jesus is essentially saying is that the second birth is spiritual birth. Second birth is being born of the Spirit. Now we’ll come back to that in just a little while, but Nicodemus is still struggling to understand. He says in verse 9, “How can these things be?” And Jesus responds to him a third time with that phrase, “Truly, truly.” Jesus is speaking with emphasis and He’s speaking with urgency. And look what He says in verse 10. “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 if I tell you heavenly things?” You see, Nicodemus is concerned with earthly things. He’s concerned with things like learning and knowledge and information. But what Jesus wants to impart to him, what Jesus wants him to get are heavenly things. But he just keeps missing what Jesus is saying to him.
Now thankfully, this is not the last interaction that we find between Jesus and Nicodemus, or Nicodemus associated with Jesus. If we looked ahead into John chapter 7 we find that Nicodemus is defending Jesus, in a way. If we were to flip over to the end of John’s gospel to John chapter 19, we’d find that Nicodemus is helping with the burial of Jesus. It very much seems as if Nicodemus becomes a follower of Jesus Christ as time goes on.
Whose Purification is Better?
And yet here, after this initial interaction with Nicodemus, Jesus and His disciples leave and move on and they depart and they go into the direction of the Judean countryside where they are baptizing. And it’s in that scene, this is verse 22, “in the Judaean countryside, and remaining there with them and was baptizing,” this is where we get the second question that comes up in this chapter. You see, John the Baptist was also still baptizing and there was a debate that came up between John’s disciples and a certain Jew about the issue of purification. Now purification or ritual cleanliness, that was a big deal in Old Testament society. Think back about the law of
Moses and the law that was revealed at Mount Sinai and all the laws that dealt with clean and unclean foods and skin conditions and all those sorts of things. That was still an important issue in the day of Jesus as well. Jesus’ disciples, you remember, they were rebuked for not properly washing their hands. And then it was shocking during Jesus’ ministry that He would associate and come in contact with lepers and dead bodies and Samaritans. They were considered to be unclean.
And it was into that context that John came baptizing. And John was baptizing with a baptism of repentance. It was a baptism to prepare the way of the coming of God’s kingdom. And Jesus’ disciples, they’re also baptizing, and so this issue comes up. The question was, “Who has the better religious product? Whose purification gets the job done?” People want to know, “Where do we go? Who can we go to in order to be cleansed, in order to have our guilt and our imperfections removed?” And then on top of that, John’s disciples, they want to know, “Okay, if our baptism is a baptism of preparation and pointing to something better, then what’s Jesus’ baptism all about? What are His disciples doing?” And what John says to them is that Jesus is the one who is better. He is the one for whom they were preparing the way. And he says in verse 29, “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom who stands and hears him rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore, this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Jesus Has the Spirit
Now we’ve probably all been a part of a wedding, whether it was a certain groomsman who maybe relished in being the center of attention – he thought the rehearsal dinner existed for him to give his toast and he wanted to be the funny guy, even in the ceremony. And you’ve been around those kinds of situations and it was totally inappropriate; it was totally out of place. Well, that's sort of what Jesus is saying here in this passage. It would be out of place for him to be above Jesus. Because what sets Jesus apart is that He is the Christ. And He says in verse 34, "He whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure." You see, all this talk about purification, Jesus has the Spirit and Jesus gives the Spirit. The purity that Jesus provides is inner purity. It's the purity that we all need. It's spiritual purity. That's the purification that only Jesus can provide. It's not a matter of washing or sprinkling or ritual observance. It's not any kind of work of the flesh. It's more than that; it's deeper than that.
And that’s really what this chapter is all about. We could say it this way – the interaction with Nicodemus is all about the head. The interaction with John’s disciples are all about the hands. But what is Jesus all about? He’s all about the heart. Which, by the way, is the only way to actually impact the head or the hands. And so the questions in this chapter are about the head and the hands. They’re about earthly things. They’re religious questions for sure, but they’re earthly. One of them is asking about the kingdom of God and one of them is asking about purification. They’re religious questions, but they’re earthly questions.
Misses the Heart
Now I wonder how many of our religious questions are actually earthly questions? So many of our religious problems end up being focused on earthly things. And we’re concerned with music style or song choice or sermon length or the youth group or favorite personalities or the attention that we receive. It’s all religious talk, but it’s earthly, and it misses the heart; it misses the life of God’s kingdom. And that’s true in our secular culture as well, isn’t it? Even though we sort of have to take an extra step in making the application, because nobody in our non-religious culture is asking about the kingdom of God. Nobody’s asking about purification. But, people do want to know about joy, and they want to know about love and acceptance and esteem and peace of mind. And many people will pursue those things at great cost and pursue them by the means of learning or diet or exercise or entertainment. And we can get pulled into that too, can’t we? We can get swept up into the trends of our culture and think, “If I could just read the right parenting book or the right marriage book, or if I could just find the right counselor to help me think clearly or to think better and to communicate better, then my relationships will be healthy and fulfilling. Better knowledge leads to joy and peace.” Or maybe, maybe it’s not thinking but it’s doing. “Something I can do to feel better.” And so it’s clean foods. “Clean foods will make me look and feel better and even give me a clear conscience while I’m eating them.” Or maybe it’s CrossFit or SoulCycle or Orange Therapy that makes us feel better inside and out.
There was an article in The Atlantic recently called, “The Consumerist’s Church of Fitness Classes.” “The Consumerist’s Church of Fitness Classes.” The writer was explaining how gyms really provide a sort of a ritual and a community that can model the church in many ways. It can present a sort of prosperity gospel to us. And this is what she had to say about the promises that fitness programs offer. She says, “A single promise resonates – your body will get smaller, your world will get bigger, and your life will get better, but only through rigorous, sweaty work. And it’s so, so tempting to characterize painful work as cleansing fire.” Now that sounds like spiritual talk, doesn’t it? But it’s all very, very earthly.
And that’s basically what’s going on in John chapter 3. Nicodemus and John’s disciples are looking for spiritual realities, but they’re asking earthly questions and they’re looking in the wrong place. It would be almost like you open up a new puzzle and you start to work a puzzle and the puzzle inside the box doesn’t match the picture on the outside of the box and the pieces just don’t make sense to the big picture. That’s sort of what’s going on. They’re trying to put all the pieces together and yet it doesn’t match the big picture. They need the big picture. They need the heavenly answer. And that’s what we see Jesus is. Jesus is the heavenly answer.
And these two episodes in John chapter 3 are linked together by the teaching that Jesus is sent from heaven. He has come from above. He has come from heaven. Look at verse 13. "No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man." And then go down to verse 31. "He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all." You see, that's what sets Jesus apart from all the teachers of Israel, from all earthly religion and earthly wisdom. It's what sets Jesus apart from John the Baptist and all those who had come before Him to point the way to Him. It's that He has come from the Father; He has come from above. Because John says in the very beginning of this gospel, "In the beginning, he was with God and he was God." He is the only God dwelling in the flesh among them. "He is the glory of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."
Focus on Jesus
And so John must decrease because Jesus must increase. You see, John was nothing without Jesus, and it was his great joy, the very purpose of his ministry, to point the way to Jesus and to exalt Jesus and to step out of the way when Jesus had come because Jesus as the better baptizer. John baptized with water, and that was ineffective for making one truly clean. But Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit to wash away sin and guilt completely and to make one completely pure in the sight of God. To work in our hearts the life of God; the life of God in the soul of man. You see, John knows that the focus belongs on Jesus. It’s because all that look to Jesus in faith will see the kingdom of God and will be born again.
You see, that phrase “born again,” the new birth that we’re talking about, it can actually be translated – if you look down at the very bottom if you have the pew Bible or if you have an ESV, the footnote to chapter 3, there’s a footnote in the ESV, it says, “or from above; born again or from above.” It can mean either one of those things. And it’s somewhat ambiguous in that way. To be born again means to be born from above. And what it’s referring to is regeneration. It’s referring to a new life; new life to the core. A radical and a total change of someone who is now a new creation. And that’s what John had written about in the prologue. Remember? He said those who believe in Jesus are born “not of the blood nor of the will of man nor of the will of flesh, but of God.” We read in verse 8, “born of the Spirit.” It’s this new birth. It’s a supernatural work of God. It’s mysterious and it comes by faith. And three times we read in this chapter that everyone who believes in Jesus will have eternal life. John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” That’s the gift of God. Out of His love for the world, that He would send His Son to give eternal life to all those who look to Him in faith for salvation.
There’s this picture here that John gives us of looking to Jesus. It’s like looking to the serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness. It’s a somewhat obscure story from the book of Numbers. And what was going on there was that God told Moses at this time He had sent these serpents because of the people’s sin and rebellion. He told Moses to make a bronze serpent, lift it up on a pole, and whoever looked to that serpent would be healed from their snake bites. You see, it was the very cause of their distress and their death that was lifted up on the pole. And everyone who looked to God's way of deliverance would be delivered. Well, this is a very similar way in which it is our sin and our rebellion against God that brings chaos and death. And it's our sin that was placed on Christ as He was lifted up on the cross. And our sin was paid for on the cross so that as we look to Jesus and we trust in Him for salvation, that sin and death no longer has hold on our lives. We are delivered and saved and given eternal life.
Life by the Spirit
And what is that eternal life? It’s a life that is begun by the Spirit. It’s a life that’s filled with the Spirit. And that’s good news. That’s good news for all those who look to Jesus and rest in Him for salvation. Because ultimately, it’s not about our plans, it’s not about our own efforts; it’s nothing external or earthly that we can do. But it’s the grace and the love of God who is given to us in Jesus Christ. And you may be at the end of the year and maybe you can think of several disappointments over the last twelve months. Maybe there are some mistakes that you wish you could forget about, but you’re still dealing with the consequences of them. Or maybe you developed a bad habit in 2017 and you’re struggling with doubt; you think you failed as a Christian. And yet, what we find here is that if you believe in Jesus, you have been born from above. You have been born of the Spirit and you are a new creation. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. We have a great confidence in the new birth and being a new creation – that God will complete the work that He has begun in us.
And maybe you are thinking about the future, thinking about ways that you can change. You know most of us, when we make resolutions we make them like one of our boys did in preschool. We had this book and it had all their work throughout the year. And they would draw something and the teacher would write what they said they had drawn. Well at the New Years’ time, this was their New Year’s resolution. His resolution was to eat healthy and to get a little exercise. This is when he was four years old. We just wanted him to eat anything at that point! But that’s typically what we want to change, isn’t it?
And again, those are earthly things, but in some of the main ways that we need to change, there is no way that we would or could resolve to do the things that are necessary for that change. Think about those spiritual qualities that we all desire. Things like humility and hope and patience and love. How do we grow in those things? How do we change in those ways? So often we change through trials. I don’t think anyone ever makes the commitment, “I’m going to suffer more this year!” No one ever says, “I need more difficult people to love in my life so that I can grow in love!” “I’d like some more disappointments this year, some setbacks, so that I can grow in patience and be humble!” “I’m planning for more circumstances that are outside of my control so that I can grow in faith!” “And I’d like more conflict to rub off some of the rough edges in my life!” No one makes those kinds of resolutions, do they? But that’s very often the way that the Holy Spirit works. Because in those things, the Holy Spirit is pointing us to Christ, pointing us to Jesus, and He’s doing His work in our lives. That’s the work of the Spirit. That’s what the Spirit is all about. He’s all about pointing us to Jesus and saying to us, “Look to Jesus! Look to Jesus!”
And we can choose all sorts of good things, good ways to spend our time – it could be reading our Bible, going to church more, serving more, praying more – and we could do all of those things and yet not look to Jesus and we’re just making ourselves busier with earthly things. One writer put it this way. He said, “It’s the difference between the stethoscope and the telescope.” He says that, “as important as it is, we can’t only rely on the stethoscope and look inwardly. But we have to look through the telescope and have a steady habit of looking up and looking to Christ and looking to heaven and looking to God.”
A God Resolved to Change Us
The story is told about Richard Baxter. Richard Baxter was a Puritan and he wrote in detail about almost every issue that you could go through in life. We have a book in our library called, A Christian Directory, and it’s by Richard Baxter. And it deals with all of the things that really put pressure and stress our consciences. And it’s a helpful book; a much-recommended book. It’s almost a thousand pages long. But here’s what Richard Baxter wrote, or confessed, at the end of his life. He said, “Though I am greatly convinced of the need of heart acquaintance,” of self-examination, “yet I see more need of a higher work that I should look more often upon Christ and God and heaven than my own heart.” He’s saying he needs more of the telescope than the stethoscope; more looking up to the sufficiency and the glory of Christ in our weakness and in our needs. And the good news is, in all of those ways that we hope to change and in the ways that we need to change, what we see in Jesus is not a need for better resolutions; it’s that God is resolved to change us. After all, He sent His only Son that we should not perish but have eternal life. And He gives us the Holy Spirit to make us a new creation and to finish the work that He has begun in our lives.
What more could we need for the start of a new year than to look to Jesus and to look more to Jesus? And maybe you’ve never turned in faith to Christ in the first place. Don’t let 2017 end before you bow the knee to Christ and turn to Him in faith and rest in Him alone for salvation. The promise to you will be that 2018 will be new in the truest sense of the word. And we all need that sort of new beginning. Let’s pray.
Our Father, we give You thanks for the great gift of Your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. We pray that You would help us to see Him and to see our need for Him, to exalt Him and to praise Him and to glory in Him above all else. And that as we go forward from here that the theme of our lives would be like John the Baptist – that we would decrease and that He would increase. And that He would get all of the glory. We pray these things in Christ’s name, amen.
© 2017 First Presbyterian Church.
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