Sermon, November 15, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
We return again this morning to the gospel of John, and today we’re going to start chapter 3, which is a chapter containing possibly the most referenced verse in all of scripture—maybe you’ve seen it in the background at a sporting event or on the bumper of a car—that verse that so encapsulates the gospel in its essence that it is the one verse that we point people to if they’re going to hear just one verse of scripture. I’m of course talking about the 16th verse of John chapter 3: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” We all know that one, yes?
But, we’re not going to get there quite yet today. We’re going to look at the story that leads up to that verse. I’ll say, we don’t often look at John 3:16 in its proper context, almost always we are hearing it as something that stands alone, but there is reason for it to be where it is, and it is closely related to the story that produces that summation of the gospel.
The story that leads to John 3:16 is actually also quite familiar, the story of Jesus’s encounter with the Pharisee Nicodemus. And they have a surprising exchange. Let’s read that now, John chapter 3, follow along with me, verses 1-13.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 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?” 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. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 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.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 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. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
The Word of the Lord.
There is Jesus once again confounding someone he meets, isn’t he? If you heard the message two weeks ago, looking at the end of chapter 2, we made the point that Jesus is often confounding us, because his wisdom is beyond ours, his knowledge is perfect, and there is nothing that happens that he did not ordain. There is great comfort in that, and I hope you feel that comfort.
But you may also remember at the end of that message, and the end of chapter 2, there is a little transitional couple of verses between the story of the cleansing of the temple and the story that we have here, and it is actually out of those verses that we drew most of our application two weeks ago. To remind us, here are the last three verses of chapter 2:
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
And remember when we read that, it was a bit haunting, reflecting on the immensity of God’s knowledge—he knew what was in man, and he does know what is in every man. This little transition could just as well be the beginning of chapter 3, not the end of chapter 2, because it sets up our story of Nicodemus perfectly. Is this not a story of Jesus knowing what is in this man in front of him? Someone who wants to know more about Jesus—but not really? Jesus knew what was in Nicodemus before he came, before he opened his mouth, and he knew exactly how his words would be received by Nicodemus’ ears. Yes, these last few verses are an excellent introduction to the story we’re about to hear. Let’s walk through the story in more detail.
It says that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a ruler or leader of the Jews. And he comes to Jesus at night. There is some speculation as to why he came at night, but it is possible that he didn’t want his meeting with Jesus to be noticed by the other Pharisees. Or perhaps, since he talks of “we,” he is representing the Pharisees, they sent him, but they’re not ready to let the people know that the Pharisees have given their stamp of approval on him. Here is Jesus, who just came into Jerusalem like a bull in a china shop, cleared out the temple in dramatic fashion, and then went on to perform many signs and miracles throughout Jerusalem. And Nicodemus comes to Jesus, perhaps on the sly, and he actually comes to Jesus with some humility. He recognizes that Jesus is not some ordinary person, he is the real deal. First, he calls Jesus “Rabbi,” which is a title that Jesus didn’t necessarily deserve yet, especially since he hadn’t gone through any of the official rabbinical training yet. In that way, Nicodemus was certainly above Jesus in stature, no doubt. He was a Pharisee, a Jew of Jews, a Jew that had more knowledge of the law and the prophets than any other, he had the pass into the top-tier club. The Pharisees were super-Jews. So to refer to Jesus as “Rabbi” was significant—he may not be in the top-tier club yet, but he did have some standing. He says:
“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.”
He recognizes that even though Jesus doesn’t have the credentials that he and his Pharisee brethren have, he has these sign, these miracles that he’s performing, and that certainly does give him standing, because God must be with him. Jesus’s response is curious—I feel like I’m saying that a lot, “Jesus’s response is curious”—but it is.
3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
And of course Nicodemus responds with incredulity—how is that possible? Are you kidding, how can one be born when he is old? We all shake our heads at Nicodemus here because we know that Jesus is speaking figuratively and we can’t understand why Nicodemus would take him literally, that he needed to be born again in the same way that he was before. But Jesus continues the discourse and doubles down on his explanation of how salvation works, you do need to be born for a second time.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
And here we get to the heart of it. Two major points of doctrine here. The first is that there is no halfway in the Christian life. We’ve made this point many times before, but we keep needing to hear it: the Christian life is something entirely new, and it is complete. Jesus didn’t come to make you better, or to help you. He came to make you born again.
I was reading a book about marketing last week, and it was talking about the best ways to advertise to people, especially American people. And the gist of it was that you needed to get the customer to think of themselves in a story. And it describes one storyline that is pretty much irresistible to the American consumer, the one that will get them to buy what you’re selling, and it happens to be the plot of almost any movie that has success in America. Really, it all comes down to a single plot line. Do you want to know what it is? Here it is, the plot of every majorly successful film in America, when you boil it all down:
A character has a problem and meets a guide, who gives them a plan and calls them to action, and that helps them to avoid failure.
That’s it. And the character in this story winds up the hero. A character is helped by a guide, and the guide helps them to become a hero. Isn’t that great? Can you think of some character—guide pairs that you remember from movies? How about Karate Kid and his guide Mr. Miyagi. Miyagi sure takes the Karate Kid and turns him into a hero. How about Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi? Harry Potter and Dumbledore? These stories make sense, right? We like these kinds of stories, they sell extremely well.
And the point in the marketing book is that you have to tell the story of your product in such a way that the customer always feels like the character that’s being guided into a hero. You, and me, we all need to stay the heroes in our own stories. It’s so American, isn’t it? And the opposite is true according to the marketers—if you position your product, your company as the hero of the story, that doesn’t sell at all. Keep the customer the hero, you be the guide, because customers, people like to feel like the heroes in their own stories. I can see why that sells.
Then we come back to Nicodemus here. Are not the Pharisees the heroes of their own stories, and all they really need, all they’re really looking for is is a guide to get them there? Is this not how most people in our culture treat Christianity, treat their faith, treat Jesus? Jesus, thanks for helping guide me to victory, guide me to salvation. Thanks, Jesus, I couldn’t have done that without your help.
I know that sounds silly, but if you really look at American Christianity, and really listen to the words people are saying, some of the words coming from pulpits, the messages in what passes as “Christian” non-fiction, it’s really all just self-help, isn’t it? Jesus is there to be the guide to help you be a hero. That’s the story that we want, that’s the story that sells. I know it’s the story that sells, that tickles our ears, some of the greatest marketers in the world just told me so!
Back to Nicodemus. He is the hero of his own story, just like all the Pharisees. And he wants to know, “Jesus, we know that you’ve been sent from God, do you have some advice to guide us over the finish line?” And now we see why Jesus responded the way he did and why it was so confounding.
Jesus knows what is in man, right? That’s the introduction to this. He knows that Nicodemus is here for some self-help, and what he needs is a heart transplant. All of the learning, all of the memorizing, all of the fasting and praying and giving, all of the speaking, all of the ceremony, it’s all nothing. Absolutely nothing, unless you are born again. You cannot reform your first birth. You cannot fix it. You need to be born again completely.
And this birth, Jesus says, is different than the first one. Nicodemus got hung up on the literal idea of it, but Jesus wasn’t talking about the same kind of birth as before. You were born of flesh the first time, this time you need to be born of the spirit. It is completely different this time, a completely different kind of birth. You don’t need Jesus to make your broken life better, you need him to give you a new life altogether.
So we see why Nicodemus was confused. He was looking for a guide, not a hero. The marketing people say, “no, no! The people don’t want your company or product to be the hero! That story doesn’t sell!” But Jesus says, that’s not how it works, and we know that’s not how it works. Jesus is the hero. He’s always the hero. He is not standing there saying “I want to fix what’s broken in your life.” He’s saying “I want to give you a new life, a rebirth, a second birth. Not of the flesh this time, but of the Spirit.”
It is so reminiscent of David in Psalm 51. David begs God to cleanse him from his sin. But he doesn’t just want to be fixt. He says “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Give me a new heart! Don’t just clean the one I was born with, I know I need a new one, a different one, one that produces goodness, not sin. A heart that is born of the Spirit, not of the flesh. David is asking to be born again, is he not? It’s not fixing, it’s rebirth.
So, Christian, what does this mean for us? What is the application of this first major point in the story? It means that there is no such thing as a half-Christian. Or someone who is just “spiritual” but not religious. A part time Christian is not a Christian. A person whose relationship with Christ positions Jesus as the guide and not the hero of the story, that person has not been born again. Now, those of us who are born again, who are real Christians, who have been given a new heart, we of course will continue to slip, we will often retreat in our thinking to having ourselves be the heroes of our story and Jesus just a wise guide. Of course we will slip to that from time to time.
But this is why we pay attention to fruit. Fruit shows that you have been born again. Christian fellowship, service to your neighbor, a zeal for the church, a thirst for learning the things of God, and many others, these are fruits of one who has been truly born again.
When Sproul wrote about this passage he remarked that referring to oneself as a “born-again Christian” is a sort of stuttering, actually. What is the purpose of that qualifier, “born again?” If you are a Christian, you are born again, there is no such thing as a Christian who is not. So when you say “I’m a born-again Christian,” you’re really saying “I’m a Christian Christian.”
Now if that is redundant to say that you’re a born-again Christian, why is that part of our vernacular, what is the purpose? Why do people say it? I think it became fashionable to say such a thing because there seem to be so many people walking around, especially in this country, claiming the name of Christ, and bearing no fruit. They treat Jesus like an accessory, an add-on to their lives, not the ruler of them. Jesus is my afterlife insurance plan, and I pay my premium twice a year, on Christmas and Easter. And the rest of the time I go on and live my life the way I want, with little thought to how he would have me live it.
What we describe there is someone who is not born again. I think what the people who refer to themselves as “born-again Christians” are trying to say is that “I’ve been given a new life, and this new life is entirely for the one who gave it to me.” I was born again to serve Jesus, and that’s all my life is about. I can get behind that, can’t you? I pray that if we are not living this way that the Spirit would convict us to our cores and remind us all who gave us that new life and why. There are no Christians who have not been born again.
And then to the second point here, that Jesus makes next in verse 8, about how this all works:
8 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.”
Why the metaphor of wind, specifically? Well, wind is one of the more mysterious things to us. There are two specific things about wind the Jesus mentions here that explains to us how the Spirit works. The first is that the wind blows where it wishes. This is a point we’ve made before and continue to, that God is sovereign, and he is calling to himself those whom he wishes. He is making “born again” those whom he has chosen. He is the actor, not us. He is quickening our hearts, not us. Once again, a passage that kicks against the Arminian view of salvation, that God allows us free will, and that with our free will we can choose God or not. We’ve discussed before at length how that is not how salvation works, and here is another rebuttal of it.
The wind (which in the text is the same word as the one translated for Spirit)—the wind blows where it wishes, not where man wishes it to blow. We know something about that in Casper, don’t we? We can ask, or try and force the wind to go all sorts of places, and it’s still going to make your trampoline blow away, like ours did last week. This dovetails so nicely with the idea of birth again. Can a baby choose whether or not it wants to be born? Is that a choice the one being born gets? No, the wind blow where it wishes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
The second thing about wind that Jesus mentions is that “you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” Wind is mysterious. We know more about it now, with our discovery of how gases operate, and atoms and molecules, and how wind is really those tiny pieces of matter moving. We get that. But, wind remains something that we cannot see, but there is no doubt that it is there. We don’t see the wind, but we see the effects of the wind. It whistles in our windows, it moves our trees, we feel it on our faces. So it is with those born of the Spirit. Back to our first point—someone who is born again will show the effects of the wind. A Christian who is born of the Spirit will show the effects of the Spirit in their lives, and will bear fruit.
So in these two metaphors, that of being born, and being blown by the wind, Jesus shows us what we need and how salvation works. We don’t need fixing, we need rebirth. And that rebirth will produce fruit in our lives. So how do we become reborn? It is entirely a work of the Spirit. So does that mean we sit around and wait to see if the wind blows our way? Certainly not! God works through people to accomplish his will. You are hearing this message today, and the word comes from the scriptures and lodges itself deep in your soul, and makes you say, “I don’t want to be blind like Nicodemus. I’ve been looking for a guide to tweak my life, but now I know that I need a new life altogether.” Perhaps you’re feeling that right now. Perhaps you thought you were all good, you’ve been a Christian for years, but now the Spirit is showing you, no you haven’t been. Nicodemus thought so! He thought he needed a tweak, a life or spirit-hack. No, he needed to be born again, and so do all of us. It’s here, right in front of us. Do you want to be born again? Or do you want to be a Christian in name only? Do you want to be the hero of your own story, or do you want to grab hold of the true hero of biggest story? Jesus is the hero of this story whether we recognize it or not.
Here is your Savior. He wants you to repent of your sins and believe. There’s a reason we want to treat Jesus like a guide, a buddy, a friend, a reason why we like stories where we remain the hero. That was the message of the serpent in the garden – be the hero of your story, God doesn’t want you to, but you can! You can be like God. No, we need a new story, with a new kind of plot. The good news is the plot is so simple. The plot is Jesus. Everything was created through him, all blessings come from him, and he is the reason for it all. He is our hero, and we are his people, and he has great plans for us. Like he described so beautifully in Ezekiel 36, like we read earlier. He says of us,
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 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. 26 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. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
Amen. Let’s pray.
Dear Heavenly Father,
Thank you for your Word for us this morning. In this time of trial, of strife, of uncertainty, we know that you are God. You have called us as your own and given us clean hearts. Let the wind of your Spirit blow in our lives like the mightiest winds of a Casper winter, that all who see us would know that we are yours, we’ve been born again, this time of the Spirit. Let our lives show that to everyone we meet. In the name of your precious Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.