June 23, 2019 at First Presbyterian Church of Unionville
[Jhn 2:23-25 ESV] 23 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.
[Jhn 3:1-15 ESV] 1 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. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.
My grandfather’s house was full of antiques. That is my mother’s father. He had apparently owned an antique store for a few years before I ever remember, or even before I was born. And I think grandpa was better at acquiring antiques than at selling them! So years after he closed his store, his house remained full of stuff. And as a kid it was fascinating to me. The wall in his sitting room was full of pictures, paintings, and various things. I don’t recall if the wall had wallpaper or paint. The truth is you could hardly see the wall itself. Well, anyways on this wall I always remember a little flat ceramic piece, oh maybe 7 inches by 4 inches. It said “Hippocrates of Kos.” Maybe you don’t know of Hippocrates of Kos, the Greek physician, but you’ve probably heard of his “Hippocratic Oath.” This is the oath that doctors take. In short it is “Do no harm.” Doctors swear this oath saying “I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm.” On this ceramic piece at my grandfather’s house there was not only the words “Hippocrates of Kos” but there was also a picture of a snake wrapping itself up a pole. Now, you’ve probably seen this coiled snake picture. It is on the Volunteer Ambulances just down the road. This is a sign used in many places to designate medical services. And so when you are sick or injured you look for that snake on a pole. But this isn’t actually a reference to Greek mythology, this is in the Bible. We’ll get more to that reference at the end of our passage today. Hippocrates said “do no harm” but he Bible tells us something much better: those who look to Jesus Christ find eternal life.
We’ll be looking at the passage in 4 points:
I. FAITH IS NOT SAVING WHEN IT IS NOT FAITH IN CHRIST
II. YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN
III. BEING BORN AGAIN IS A WORK OF THE SPIRIT
IV. WHOEVER BELIEVES IN JESUS CHRIST WILL HAVE ETERNAL LIFE
I. FAITH IS NOT SAVING WHEN IT IS NOT FAITH IN CHRIST
Our first point is that “Faith is not saving when it is not faith in Christ.”
Chapter 2, verses 23 to 25 is a section perhaps easily overlooked. It is questioned whether this section fits better with the previous passage or the following one, but it might best be called a transition or a bridge. That is, it bridges the material from the previous passage (that of the cleansing of the temple) to the next passage (the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus).
Lets read it again:
23 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.
In this transition we find that, having seen the miracles of Jesus, some come to faith. BUT this faith is not enough for salvation. There is something wrong with it. It is a spurious, false, or non-saving faith. Though the people are said to have believed in the name of Jesus, Jesus did not entrust himself to them. The text says that they believed, and they certainly did believe in something. But what was it that they believed, and why did Jesus not entrust himself to them? The problem was not the way in which they believed, but the object of their belief. The problem is that they believed merely in the authority or power of Jesus to do the signs and wonders. They might have concluded that Jesus was a teacher or a prophet sent from God, but they did not believe that he was the Christ, the very Son of God. From seeing the signs alone they did not (and even could not) conclude rightly who Jesus Christ was. For this they would need to look to the Scriptures or to have the truth revealed to them. Ultimately, they did not have saving faith in Jesus Christ because they did not have the Holy Spirit in them.
This makes for the transition to the next passage as we find Jesus telling Nicodemus that “you must be born again” and explaining that this birth is a birth of the Holy Spirit. True saving faith requires the operation of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus knew what was in man. Man alone—sinful man—cannot believe.
Now there was A MAN of the Pharisees named Nicodemus …
II. YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN
Here we find our second point: You must be born again.
The Pharisee Nicodemus was a man just like the rest. He was no more sinless than is any other man. Even the religious leader like Nicodemus have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. No man can have saving faith apart from the work of the Holy Spirit.
You MUST be born again. It is a necessity.
We find Nicodemus coming to Christ at night for fear of being seen and he says 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.”
At this point the extent of the faith of Nicodemus is the same as that of the people of Jerusalem who saw the signs that Jesus performed at Passover. Nicodemus believes merely that Jesus is a teacher come from God. He does not know that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.
To this lacking belief, Jesus says in effect, “there must be something more.”
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
And Jesus explains this more at length when he says:
“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.’”
Indeed, you must be born again.
Jesus says this not to some lowly peasant sinner, but to a leading religious man. YOU must be born again. None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. Not even Nicodemus. He must be born again. And if Nicodemus must be born again, then surely YOU (my beloved congregation) must be born again. If none are righteous, then all must be born again.
But have you ever heard, as I have, of people disparaging the term “born-again Christian?” They might say in effect “I am a Christian, but not one of those born-again Christians.” But God says “because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Truly there are no Christians who are not born-again. You are either a born-again Christian or you are not a Christian at all. You must be born again.
III. BEING BORN AGAIN IS A WORK OF THE SPIRIT
But what does this mean? What does it mean to be born again?
The answer to this question makes for the third point of today’s sermon: Being born again is a work of the Spirit.
The text explains that to be born again is to be born of the Spirit. That is, to be born of the Holy Spirit of God, the 3rdperson of the Trinity. It is God alone that gives us faith. Faith is a gift, not an act for which we are to receive praise, but a gift of God so that no one can boast. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit can we believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. You must be born again. You must have the Holy Spirit at work in you.
Later in the Gospel of John, in one of my favorite passages in chapter 6 the disciples ask Jesus “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” And Jesus answers them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
The faith, the belief that we have is a work OF God. In having faith we are born of the Spirit OF God. And no one can have faith unless the Spirit works in him. To be born again is to have faith in Jesus Christ. And this faith comes only through the work of the Holy Spirit in you.
To be born again is not something that you have done. It is not your testimony or your confession, but it is a work OF God.
And this is why the analogy of being “born again” is so appropriate. Did you play any active role in your natural birth? Did you chose the time or the place? Did you chose who your mother and father would be? Did you chose anything about it? No. You were entirely passive if your natural birth. Likewise, being born of the Spirit is entirely a work of God. Man is passive in regeneration. You did not chose the time or place of your Spiritual birth. The Holy Spirit is the Author of this second birth.
This is not something man controls or even understands. Hence Christ says, “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.”
Though Nicodemus does not seem to understand what Jesus is telling him, there is an Old Testament passage he should have known that well foreshadows this teaching of the new birth. I’ll read from Ezekiel 36:24-27 and I want you to notice especially that there God says “I will put my Spirit within you.” This is equivalent to being born again, being born of the Spirit. Ezekiel reads:
[Eze 36:24-27 ESV] 24 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.
“And I will put my Spirit within you.” That is the promise. And that is what it takes to be born again.
IV. WHOEVER BELIEVES IN JESUS CHRIST WILL HAVE ETERNAL LIFE
We come now to the fourth point of the sermon: whoever believes in Jesus Christ will have eternal life. This is the result of what God has done in you. He gives you the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of faith, and through those he gives another gift, eternal life.
Jesus continues his dialogue with Nicodemus. Here he explains that he alone gives knowledge of “heavenly things”—the knowledge of the way of salvation. He says to Nicodemus:
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 last time we heard these terms “ascended” and “descended” was at the end of chapter 1 in which Jesus says “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” And I mentioned that this is related to the story of Jacob’s Ladder in the Old Testament. Jesus is seen as that ladder, that bridge between heaven and earth.
Now, Jesus is not only the bridge, but he himself has descended from heaven to give testimony of heavenly things since no man is able to ascend to such a knowledge apart from Christ.
And so this passage concludes with a final comment to look to Christ, to believe in Him alone since it is in him alone that we have eternal life.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
He has in mind here a passage from Numbers, chapter 21 about the serpent being raised up on a pole. There is then an analogy made between this passage and the role of Christ in salvation.
[Num 21:4-9 ESV] 4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
Analogies are powerful tools of explanation, but they can easily be taken too far. So we want to know what the right points of comparison are between the Numbers story and the words of Jesus. The commentator William Hendriksen does a good job in giving us four points of comparison:
a. In both cases (Numbers 21 and John 3) death threatens as a punishment for sin
b. In both case it is God himself who, in his sovereign grace, provides a remedy
c. In both cases this remedy consists of something (or some One) which (who) must be lifted up, in public view.
d. In both cases those who, with a believing heart, look unto that which (or whom) is lifted up, are healed.
For our purposes, the most important of these is the final one. We are to look to Jesus Christ to be healed. We are to have faith in Jesus Christ for eternal life. This is the Christ’s promise. Whoever believes in him has eternal life.
Take this to heart. In all of your daily struggles. In all of your internal, emotional, and intellectual struggles, take to heart this promise. All who believe in Jesus Christ are promised eternal life.
Nicodemus didn’t appear to have faith in Christ at this juncture, when he came to Christ at night to talk to him. Nicodemus might have wondered if Jesus was the Messiah, but he did not believe in him. It seems most likely, however, that Nicodemus did later become a believing disciples of Jesus.
We find in John 19:38 that Nicodemus joined Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body of Jesus for burial. We can’t be certain, but perhaps this indicates that Nicodemus was a disciple of Christ.
And it is not outrageous to think that such a Pharisee, even a ruler of the Jews, could become a believer. Acts 6:7 tells us:
7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
And Acts 15:5 even mentions “some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees.”
So Nicodemus the Pharisee may have become a follower of Jesus Christ.
But this is all academic, because the real question is, are you a follower of Jesus Christ?
If you are, if you believe in Christ and are thus born again, praise God that He through His Holy Spirit has worked in you to give you that faith.
No one can make it on their own. No one can appease God. You must be born again. If Nicodemus needed to be born again, so do you and so do I.
Now what does this look like? [REPEAT] Being born again produces a complete change. And this is what we need. We need not a simple change, we need a complete one. Christ rescues us from the domain of darkness and transfers us to the Kingdom of his beloved Son. This is a complete change from darkness to light. Believing in Christ, we are to arrange our whole lives based on the truth of His word and what He has done for us. We are blessed. Not only has the Holy Spirit come to give us a new birth, but Christ has been resurrected promising that we will also be resurrected and have that new life one day.
Now I want to look at an application about doubt and assurance.
Maybe you think “I am not so completely changed.” “I am a sinner.” And maybe this leads you to doubt your salvation. While we are “completely changed” in the eyes of God, and seen as holy for the sake of Jesus Christ, all Christians do continue to sin while yet in this life. That complete change to sinlessness does not occur until our glorification in heaven with the Lord.
To remove doubt then, and to have assurance of salvation, realize that since you believe in Christ you are promised salvation. You are a sinner, but you are a believer. And it is on that basis – not your sin, but the faith God has given you through the Holy Spirit — on that basis you can be certain of your salvation. No one can believe in Christ unless the Holy Spirit is working in him. So, if you believe in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is in you, you are born-again, AND you will have eternal life. [REPEAT: If you believe in Jesus Christ you will have eternal life.)
So in thankfulness to God for his gifts of salvation and of Faith and eternal life we praise Him Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each day saying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” Amen.