Preaching the Gospel from John

Title: Preaching the Gospel from John

Text: John 3:1-15

Date: July 28, 2007

I’m preaching the gospel through each of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and today I’m in the Gospel of John 3:1-15 (read), the account of the Jewish Pharisee Nicodemus and his conversation with Jesus. There are four books of the Bible called the Gospels because they record the good news or gospel of Jesus Christ. In a general way, all four books tell the good news or Gospel of Jesus Christ. But some passages get more specific about the way of salvation or eternal life — which is specifically what the good news is all about. Jesus came to bring us reconciliation with God so we might live forever in eternal happiness. I’ve been drawing out passages from all four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and now today John — to illustrate what specifically is the message of the good news or gospel. Today, we’ll see a very prominent Jewish leader, a member of the elite group called Pharisees, visit Jesus with some questions about spiritual reality. This man, named Nicodemus, was a very serious student of the Hebrew scriptures, a very strict follower of the religious laws of the Jews, and a very important leader in the community. Yet even after a lifetime of study and even teaching, this man sensed that Jesus had a greater knowledge of God then he or anybody else he knew. He was curious and interested in Jesus, so he visited Jesus one night to get some answers to his questions. Now the thing that puzzled him was that he was convinced that Jesus truly was a man sent from God because of all the miraculous things he could do, but he was confused because Jesus wasn’t teaching the things he had learned or that other teachers taught about God. Yes, there were many things that Jesus taught that were one and the same things taught by Nicodemus and the other Jewish scribes and Pharisees. Jesus seemed to know the scriptures and quoted from them often. But he also went beyond the scriptures and spoke directly and with personal authority on matters that he couldn’t have possibly learned from any Jewish teacher. So where did Jesus get his teachings? How could he speak with such authority and certainty? These and other questions Nicodemus wanted answers. But why did he come at night to visit Jesus? We must understand that Nicodemus had a reputation to uphold; he was a top Jewish leader in Israel. He was highly educated, he was widely respected, he was looked up to, he had accomplished much and achieved much on the way towards his position on the Jewish ruling council called the Sanhedrin. He didn’t want to jeopardize anything he had worked hard to achieve in life by being seen with a radical preacher from Nazareth. But at the same time he was drawn to Jesus and actually wanted to hear more of what he had to say. So what does Jesus say to Nicodemus? Let me point out three things.

First, salvation isn’t obtained through any human achievement. John 3: 1-3, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.’ In reply Jesus declared, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’” Nicodemus was a member of the strict religious group known as the Pharisees, which meant that he was a very serious student of the scriptures and was very serious about following all the Jewish laws. He no doubt had trained under the best teachers of Israel. He had evidently worked his way up from student to master and was now a top leader in the Jewish religious community. He had accomplished much, was in a position of status and power, he may have been wealthy financially although we don’t know for sure. Nevertheless, he possessed many other things besides wealth that men strive for in the world, such as status and standing in society. He was probably famous – which is probably why he came at night to visit Jesus: so that he wasn’t seen by the public, just as celebrities today might dodge the paparazzi photographers to go some place they don’t want known. Now Nicodemus begins by presenting Jesus his dilemma: I believe (it actually says “we believe” meaning that he must have been talking it over with others) that you are from God, but on the other hand, your message is different from our teachings. Jews are famous for saying, “On the one hand, on the other hand.” Remember the movie Fiddler on the Roof where the star Tevia does this in his dialogue? Nicodemus does this too. But Jesus ignores his problem and answers his real question: how can I enter the kingdom of God? “You must start all over again, you must be born again,” says Jesus. Here was a man who was careful to keep every known Jewish law, a member of the strict law-keeping group known as the Pharisees, yet just like the rich young ruler in another account, when it all came down to it, he wasn’t really certain that keeping the law – or trying to keep the whole law – could really save him. He really wanted to know about his own personal salvation, about his relationship with God, whether he would or wouldn’t enter into the eternal kingdom of God. That’s the same question people really ask today, although they may not admit it. The big questions are: will I live forever in happiness, is there a God to guarantee that I will, how can I arrange for eternal life with God. For most of the world, like Nicodemus, people think pleasing God to get eternal life is a matter of achievement – doing the right things and doing enough of them to earn a ticket to God’s kingdom. That’s what Nicodemus was working for, but he had his doubts. So Jesus gives some good news and some bad news. Yes, there is a way into the kingdom of God. No, it isn’t gained by human self-effort and achievement, but it is gained by starting over again, by being spiritually born again to a new way by grace through faith. But how many people really understand this? Nicodemus didn’t.

Second, salvation is obtained by the very opposite of human achievement: as a gift freely given, freely received by faith. John 3:4-8, “’How can a man be born when he is old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born.’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is 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. 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.’” Nicodemus was a spiritual teacher in Israel but he wasn’t thinking spiritually, he was thinking physically and materially. In fact, that was his problem in all areas of his life. He had followed the worldly path to success in his field – and in the Jewish community especially, success in one’s field was important; that’s why so many Jewish mothers wanted their daughters to marry a professional man or a scholar or a businessman, etc. This important Jewish man Nicodemus had followed the earthly path to success in his field and thought that salvation from God was obtained the same way. Wrong, according to Jesus. In fact, Jesus told this man that instead of building on what he had already accomplished in life, that he’d have to start over again from scratch. None of his status, his achievements, his position of power in society, his wealth (if he had any), counted for anything in respect to salvation. He would have to start over from scratch, to start brand new just like a baby, and enter the kingdom with only faith, only trust for God alone. Nothing that he had obtained and achieved spiritually, religiously, or in any area of life counted for anything as far as salvation. Nothing we do for God counts for anything, only what God does for us counts, and only when we trust in God and not in ourselves. Again, Jesus was trying to get Nicodemus to think spiritually so he contrasts the flesh and spirit, the physical and the spiritual. Just as we are born physically, we must be born spiritually. The wind is invisible, yet it acts in ways we can see, so too, the Spirit is like the wind because it is invisible yet it acts in ways we can see when we are born again. These two realities are real but must not be confused, but rather understood separately. Like Nicodemus, Jesus is calling all of us to stop trying to obtain favor with God through human, earthly effort. No, we must go a totally different route in pleasing God, which is the path of faith. Only through whole-hearted trust in God’s grace and mercy for salvation can we obtain it. The entrance to the kingdom of God is gotten only when we stop trying to earn it, and only when we receive the free gift of salvation by grace through faith. How about you? Do you grasp the point Jesus is making, or are you still confused?

Third, salvation is evidenced by earthly effects. John 3:9-15, “’How can this be?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘You are Israel’s teacher,’ said Jesus, ‘and you do not understand these things? I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, 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? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.’” It was hard for Nicodemus to change his way of thinking because he had always thought and assumed that gaining entrance into the eternal kingdom of God was a result of personal effort. He had built his life on the assumption that if he tried hard enough, long enough he could obtain salvation through his good works and achievements. But here, Jesus is saying that none of that counts, but only faith is required. Obviously, Nicodemus had many questions because this was totally different than anything he had ever heard before. I wish the later Apostle Paul could have been there to explain to Nicodemus about salvation through faith alone as opposed to works. I wish Nicodemus could have read the Book of Romans to explain it all to him, but that wouldn’t come until years later. But here we see the message of salvation by grace through faith being taught by Jesus to a Jew who had only heard salvation by works. It’s sad but there are still lots of people, maybe even most people, who still think that salvation from God comes through performing, through achieving, through doing. There are many people who even attend Christian churches who are still confused just like Nicodemus was. “You mean it isn’t based on how good I am? You mean heaven isn’t a place where all the good people get to go?” These kinds of questions are still asked today, even after the preaching of Jesus, the New Testament, and 2000 years of Christianity. It just goes to show that the myth of salvation by human effort is hard to break. It fits in so well to our earthly lives because in this world, reward and good things usually come to those who work for them; if you work harder, you get more reward. But in spiritual matters, it doesn’t work that way. The fact is, obtaining heaven isn’t possible by human effort, period. It would be like one person having it in their generous heart to pay off the national debt of the United States. But even if they worked a lifetime, overtime, they still wouldn’t earn enough to pay it off. That’s the way it is with our debt of sin before God. No amount of goodness on our part can erase our sin debt, only Jesus’ death on the cross paying the debt for us can pay it. Our only response is to receive Christ’s payment as a free gift and put our trust in Christ’s payment on our behalf.

But how do we know that we have trusted Christ sufficiently for salvation? Jesus says that if you trust Christ in earthly things it’s a good indication that you trust Christ in heavenly things, like salvation as well. But, on the other hand, if you don’t even trust Christ in earthly things, things that can be seen and tested, then it is doubtful that you are trusting Christ in heavenly things either. This is a sobering test for everyone who claims to be a Christian – which is most Americans and most Europeans. Jesus says, “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” A good way to “examine ourselves to find out if we are in the faith,” as the Apostle Paul instructs us, is to look at our lives in terms of trusting in Christ in the little things of this earthly life. Jesus says things like “Love thy neighbor as yourself.” That’s a practical, earthly thing that can tell us whether we trust Christ in this little way. If we pay no attention to trusting Christ in the little things of life, what makes us think that we are trusting him for the larger issues of heaven like salvation? There are people who profess Christ, who claim salvation by faith alone, yet who routinely ignore Christ’s promises and instructions for this life. Or in other words, it doesn’t look like they trust Christ enough to change their normal, sinful patterns of life here on earth, yet they claim to trust Christ for eternal heavenly salvation. But again, if a person doesn’t seem to trust Christ in little, simple, practical, every day things that can be seen and tested, what makes them think that they really trust Christ for the larger issues of heaven and beyond in the next life? Our earthly life cannot earn us a spot in heaven, but it can testify as to whether or not we trust in Christ. Today, we not only have confusion in people thinking they can be good enough to earn a spot in heaven, which is absolutely wrong, we also have a confusion by people who think they can obtain heaven by believing in Christ any old way, that’s wrong also. Salvation doesn’t come through believing generally in God, or even believing generally in Christ or even his death for our sins. Salvation is obtained by trusting in Christ whole-heartedly and not trusting in ourselves. It’s trusting in Christ and then expressing that trust in our lives in big and small ways. What does trust look like? If I claim to trust someone, what does that mean, what does that look like in the way I live my life? These are the issues that Christ challenges us with today. Do you truly trust Christ alone for salvation? Does your life testify to that trust, or is there a total contradiction between your claim of faith and how you live your life?

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