This morning, as we continue to learn how to be more effective ministers for Jesus by studying how He ministered, we’ll come to what is undoubtedly the most well known verse of Scripture in the entire Bible. We see the reference to that verse on signs at sporting events, printed on the bottom of your drink cup when you go to In-N-Out Burger or on your shopping bag if you go to Forever 21. Tim Tebow even put that verse in his eye black before it was prohibited by the NFL.
Of course, I’m referring to John 3:16, a verse that most of us can probably quote rather easily. As important as that verse is, however, this morning we’re going to focus more on the surrounding context and in particular we’ll pay close attention to how Jesus interacts with a Pharisee named Nicodemus and see what we can learn from that.
So go ahead and turn in your Bibles to John chapter 3 and follow along as I begin reading in 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?” 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.”
John 3:1-21 (ESV)
This morning we’ll consider two significant ministry principles that we find in this passage and take some time to develop them in some detail.
Jesus focused on the person, not the position
This is probably a good time to learn a bit about who the Pharisees were. We often talk about them, usually in a negative light, but they actually did some things quite well.
The Pharisees developed in the 400 year period between the Old and New Testaments, and grew out of their opposition to the increasing Hellenization of the Jewish culture. Their name, Pharisees, comes from a Hebrew word which means “set apart” which reflected their idea that the Jewish people should be set apart from the increasingly Hellenistic culture around them.
The Pharisees were hyper-legalists, not merely when it came to the Old Testament Law, but also the over 600 oral laws that had been developed to guide its implementation. Although the Pharisees were to be commended for their understanding of the Scriptures and their devotion to the law, they had one fatal fault, one that we see Jesus addressing consistently throughout His ministry. They were so focused on the externals that they failed to recognize their own depraved hearts.
And Nicodemus was obviously one of the leaders of that group. Jesus refers to him as “the teacher of Israel” which indicates that he was regarded as the most accomplished teacher in all of Israel. From a human perspective, he was much more qualified than Jesus was to teach.
But while Jesus was always respectful of those in positions of authority, He was never so intimidated by them or in awe of them that it prevented Him from ministering to them. When Jesus looked at people, He saw each person as an individual whom He loved and desired to serve rather than identifying that person by his or her status, social position, race, gender, or educational background.
So far in this series we’ve seen Jesus minister to a rich young, ruler, a nameless Gentile woman, a couple of common women in their home in Bethany and a tax collector. And in each case, just as He does here with Nicodemus, He sees a person who has needs that He can meet.
If we want to apply this principle in our ministry to others, there are two extremes that we need to avoid. On one hand we can look at people and think that they are somehow undeserving of our involvement in their lives. We discussed that in quite some detail last week, so we won’t tarry here except to be reminded that if we want to minister to others like Jesus we need to extend the same kind of grace to them that Jesus has extended to us.
The other extreme is to be intimidated by a person’s position. In our workplace that might be someone in a position of authority over us. In our community that might be some well-known business person or a political figure. In school that might be a teacher or professor. And in those cases our tendency might be to think that we really don’t have anything that we could offer to them. But if we have Jesus in our lives, then we absolutely do have exactly what the other person needs in spite of how things might appear.
The key here is to follow Jesus’ example and have a genuine love for other people that causes us to see them as individuals that God wants to love through us.
Before we leave this principle, there is one crucial aspect of this ministry principle that we need to focus on for a moment.
• Jesus never assumed that someone was a genuine believer because of external appearances
When Nicodemus came to Jesus, he begins by acknowledging that Jesus was a teacher who had to have been sent by God because of the things He was doing. And as “the teacher of Israel” I believe that Nicodemus came to Jesus that night because he thought he could learn something from Jesus that he could use in his role as a teacher. We often make a big deal about the fact that Nicodemus came at night to visit Jesus, usually inferring that he was afraid to be seen with Jesus. But perhaps that was just the only time both of them weren’t busy and Nicodemus wanted to have Jesus’ full attention for a while.
And how easy would it have been for Jesus to have a Bible study with Nicodemus that night and let Nicodemus go away with some more head knowledge, never having addressed the more crucial issue of his heart. But even though Nicodemus had impeccable academic credentials Jesus probed him a bit in order to get Nicodemus to see his real need.
This is a really important principle that I have learned over time. Early in my ministry as a pastor, I made the mistake of just assuming that someone was a genuine believer because he or she was in church every week and had claimed to have committed his or her life to Jesus. But as I’ve grown older and hopefully a bit wiser, I’ve learned to probe a little bit more to confirm that what the person is telling me about their faith is true. Obviously no one but God Himself can know what is really in a person’s heart and know whether that person is a genuine Christ follower, but I think we often do people a disservice by just assuming they are a genuine believer without helping them to make an honest assessment of their faith.
We need to help people do what Paul exhorted those who claimed to be Christ followers in the church in Corinth to do:
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? - unless indeed you fail to meet the test!
2 Corinthians 13:5 (ESV)
So when you and I get together, either when you invite me to your house or I invite myself over, please don’t be offended if I ask you some very personal questions to help you make an honest evaluation of the genuineness of your faith. Be assured that I’m doing that out of love. And as you have opportunities to minister to others, I pray you’ll love them enough to do the same.
And I’m also going to leave some additional time this morning to discuss the personal implication from this passage because understanding that implication fully will help all of us to make an honest evaluation of the genuineness of our faith. My prayer is that no one would leave here today until you have that matter fully settled in your heart.
Jesus’ goal was to move people beyond religion to a relationship
I’ve often had people tell me that they’re not interested in Jesus because they’re “not religious”. And when they say that, I tell them that’s good news, because neither is Jesus. That statement usually produces a quizzical look. But it’s true. Jesus was consistently more interested in helping a person develop a relationship with God than He was in their external religion.
I really think that in some ways Nicodemus was a lot like the rich young ruler. When he came to Jesus that night I get the feeling he was hoping to learn that one thing he could do in order to make sure that his religion was adequate to get him into the kingdom of God. But Jesus completely turns the tables on him and helps Nicodemus to focus on how to get his heart right with God so he can have a relationship with God rather than to just get some more religious knowledge. And as Jesus does that, He employs two approaches that are crucial in helping Nicodemus to change his focus:
• He started with something that was important to Nicodemus
Although Nicodemus never uses the phrase “kingdom of God” Jesus understood that as a Pharisee, being able to attain entrance into the kingdom of God was his fundamental goal. Obviously, as we can see in hindsight, the problem is that Nicodemus had a distorted view of how to obtain that. Like the other Pharisees he believed that he could obtain entrance into the kingdom by following all the right rules.
Now obviously Jesus knew that was the wrong focus, but He still started with where Nicodemus was at and used that as a starting point in the process of helping Nicodemus get to where he needed to be. During “Connections” today we’re going to look at how Paul employs this very same principle as he speaks to the people of Athens about Jesus.
We would be really wise to follow Jesus’ example here as we deal with other people. We should look for ways to take those things that are important to them and use those as a starting point to help them get to where they can focus on developing a relationship with Jesus in their lives.
I got to experience just how well this works recently. I can’t share too many details because I need to protect the confidentiality of what this person shared with me, but I can share enough to illustrate the principle. I was talking to someone who is a recovering alcoholic and involved in AA. So as the person opened up to me about some of their experiences with AA, I just listened. At one point, they shared that they had learned that they couldn’t beat alcoholism on their own. They needed the support of others in order to be successful with that.
I was able to start there and explain that is exactly what our relationship with Jesus is like. We can’t possibly do anything on our own to enter into a relationship with Him. And I was able to further explain how salvation is a free gift that is offered to us and which must be accepted by faith, but that we have a responsibility to do our part in developing that relationship with God in the same way that person had to take responsibility for taking the right actions in order to stay sober.
Now if I had just started out by trying to share the gospel with that person I don’t think I would have gotten very far. But by starting with something that was important to them, I was able to lead them toward a relationship with Jesus in a manner that was relevant to them.
• He kept the focus on the spiritual rather than the physical
Nicodemus kept trying to shift the conversation from the spiritual to the physical, probably because that is what he was most comfortable with. So when Jesus speaks of being born again, Nicodemus tries to kind of knock Jesus off course by asking how he can go back into his mother’s womb and be born again.
We know Nicodemus is no dummy, so I think he probably understood that Jesus was speaking of a spiritual rebirth. But because he was so focused on external religion, Nicodemus wasn’t real comfortable getting into a conversation where he would have to deal with his heart.
Perhaps he was thinking that spiritual rebirth just wasn’t possible for him. He was so far down the road of trying to enter the kingdom of God through his religion, that He just couldn’t imagine another way. But because Jesus understood how important it was for Nicodemus to understand his need for a Savior, Jesus didn’t allow Nicodemus to get Him off track.
If we want to minister like Jesus, then we must strive to focus on people as individuals that God wants to love through us and not get sidetracked by their position. And we need to focus on moving people beyond just religion to a relationship with God. But the only way we can possibly do that is if we’ve already experienced that kind of relationship in our own lives. That is why the personal implication that we’ll look at this morning is so crucial.
Experiencing the kingdom of God requires rebirth, not reform
Like me, you’ve probably heard some people ask something like this:
If God is such a loving God how could He condemn anyone to a place like hell?
But Jesus makes it very clear here that His purpose in coming to earth was not to condemn man, but rather to take away the condemnation that man has already brought upon himself. You see, every person is born a sinner and is already condemned because of that sin. Paul’s familiar words confirm that fact quite clearly:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience - among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
Ephesians 2:1-3 (ESV)
When we are born on this earth, we may be alive physically, but we are already dead spiritually. And just like a person who is physically dead can do nothing to bring himself or herself back to life, one who is dead spiritually cannot do anything to obtain spiritual life.
Like the rest of the Pharisees, Nicodemus believed that he could obtain entrance into the kingdom of God by following a set of rules, by focusing on the externals. And I really believe he came to Jesus that night thinking he could learn something that would help him do that just a little bit better.
But Jesus completely turns the tables on him. He tells Nicodemus that what he needs is not merely to reform his life; he needs to completely start all over again with a rebirth. And then Jesus tells Nicodemus exactly how he can enter the kingdom of God with these words:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
There are many different opinions about what Jesus means here, especially as it relates to being born of water. Some people claim this is a reference to baptism and that therefore baptism is required for salvation. But in John 4, we find that Jesus never baptized anyone and it seems unlikely that if baptism was essential to salvation Jesus would have engaged in that practice Himself.
Some take it to refer to physical birth since human birth is accompanied by a sack of fluid. But why would Jesus need to tell Nicodemus that he needed to be born physically? He already knew that.
The best explanation comes from Scripture itself. In particular, as the teacher of Israel, Nicodemus would have been quite familiar with this passage:
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Ezekiel 36:24-27 (ESV)
This prophecy refers to the rebirth of the nation of Israel which was still to come in the future. But you’ll notice here the reference to both being cleansed by water and having God’s Spirit placed in the hearts of His people. The message to Nicodemus was actually quite clear. Just as Israel needs to be cleansed as a nation and be given God’s Spirit in preparation for entering the kingdom of God, Nicodemus as an individual needed exactly the same thing. He needed to be cleansed and to have God’s Holy Spirit in his life. Then, and only then, would he be ready to enter the kingdom of God.
And just as the nation Israel can’t do anything to cleanse itself and is dependent upon God to do that cleansing, Nicodemus couldn’t do anything on his own to be cleansed. He was completely dependent on God for that. And Jesus gives Nicodemus two illustrations that confirm that idea.
The first illustration was the wind. Although we can hear the wind and we can see what the wind does, we can’t see the wind itself. The same is true of one born of the Spirit. There is no outward change that we can see, but we can discern that there has been a changed heart on the inside by how that change affects the life of that person.
The second illustration was the bronze serpent on the pole that Moses had lifted up in order to save the lives of the people who had been bitten by serpents because they had grumbled against God. I’d encourage you to read that account in Numbers 21this week so you can get a better understanding of what Jesus is saying here. Just as the Israelites had to look upon that bronze serpent in faith in order to live, every man must look upon the crucified and risen Jesus in faith in order to receive eternal life and be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.
It’s understandable why this idea was so hard for Nicodemus to swallow. After all, he’d spent his entire life trying to observe the law the very best he could in order to earn his way into the kingdom of heaven. And now Jesus comes along and tells him all of that is a complete waste of time and that he needs to start over again by being reborn through faith in Jesus.
It’s interesting that we don’t know whether Nicodemus actually responded to Jesus that day and placed his faith in Him. We do get two more quick glimpses of Nicodemus later in John’s gospel account. At the end of John 7, we find him standing up for Jesus before the Pharisees when they were trying to have Jesus arrested. And then in John 19 we see Nicodemus helping Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus’ body for burial and place Him in the tomb. But frankly there is really not enough there to know for sure whether Nicodemus responded in faith to Jesus and experienced that spiritual rebirth.
This morning the easy thing for me to do would to just assume that because you’re here in church this morning that you are a genuine Christ follower. But if I’m going to heed what we’ve learned together this morning, I would be doing all of us a disservice if I did that. Obviously there is no way that I can know for sure if you’ve experienced the spiritual rebirth that comes from faith in Jesus alone. Only you and God know your heart.
But I do know this. It is certainly possible for us to be just like Nicodemus and not even realize it. It’ so easy to focus on what we can do to enter the kingdom of God that we never take that essential step of starting over spiritually by being reborn. I also know that once we’ve experienced the new birth and have the Holy Spirit living in side us we should be able to observe the overflow of that new life in the way that we live our lives, not just here on Sunday mornings, but 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
So as we close this morning, I want to encourage all of us to make an honest evaluation of our lives. First I want all of us to evaluate whether we have indeed been born again. Have we believed in Jesus so that He can take away our condemnation? Secondly, I want to encourage those of us who can honestly say we have been born again to evaluate whether the way we live our lives reflects that new life we have in Jesus.
In a moment, I’ll ask us all to bow our heads and just spend some time in prayer with God, asking Him to reveal our hearts to us. There will be no singing our anything to distract us for the first few minutes – only some soft music playing in the background. Then I’m going to ask Ryan Fregoso, one of our elders to come and pray for all of us. When he is done praying, then we’ll take our offering as the music continues to play softly before we close the service with our closing song. While we take the offering I want to encourage you to continue your time of prayer with God as well.