This morning we find ourselves jumping right back into the middle of a conversation Jesus is having with Nicodemus. Because not all of you were with us last Sunday, let’s re-read the first nine verses of John chapter three and then very quickly recap the necessary details to give you context before we dive back in beginning with verse ten.
John 3:1-9, “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 and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, 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, ‘Most assuredly, 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 the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus answered and said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’”
John sets the scene in the first two verses by telling us, after Jesus had cleansed the Temple and spent a week during the “feast of Passover” teaching and preforming miracles, that “a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, came to Jesus by night.”
Because of the nature of the conversation that ensues John wants us to know a little bit about this man “Nicodemus.” We’re told he was both a “Pharisee” (a political party in Israel) as well as “a ruler of the Jews” which would have made him a member of the Sanhedrim.
As a Pharisees Nicodemus would have held to a strict, literal reading of the Old Testament Scriptures. Being a fundamentalist, he would have also believed God’s people were required to rigorously obey every nuance of the Mosaic Law - in addition to their manmade, religious traditions. Keep in mind Nicodemus was staunchly and devoutly religious!
As a member of the Sanhedrin there is also no question Nicodemus would have been politically connected and profoundly influential. Nicodemus likely grew up in a noble Jewish home, was incredibly wealthy, and educated in both Jewish law as well as Greek culture. For context, Nicodemus would have been one of the 70 most powerful men in all of Israel.
Aside from all of these things we also can surmise from his decision to come and speak with Jesus that Nicodemus was deeply inquisitive and genuinely interested in weighty spiritual matters. Over the past week Nicodemus’ interest in Jesus increased the more he was exposed to the Man and His ministry. At some point something so stirred in the depths of Nicodemus’ soul that he had to come and personally meet with Jesus.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night” (likely because it was the only time they could have a private conversation) and greets Him saying, “We know…” Sadly, while he was not the only member of the ruling establishment that saw Jesus as an anointed “Rabbi sent from God,” it was only Nicodemus who allowed his curiosity to manifest into an encounter.
It’s evident from the text that the topic Nicodemus came to discuss with Jesus centered upon “the kingdom of God” and more specifically how he would be able to experience it!
While the Jews were looking for a physical kingdom whereby the Messiah would rule the world from Jerusalem (which was not an entirely incorrect understanding), we realize “the kingdom of God” to be much more than this. It was also a spiritual kingdom whereby Jesus would first rule over the hearts of man through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit.
This is why in verse three Jesus begins this conversation by immediately explaining to Nicodemus that “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Jesus is crystal clear that it is only through the rebirth of man (a birth originating from a higher place) that man will be imparted the power to experience the kingdom of God.
Not only does this unique phrase “born again” imply a work done on your behalf as neither your conception nor birth demands your involvement, but the idea intimates a fundamental change or transformation of self. This was such a radicle concept for Nicodemus that Jesus continues by explaining this new birth occurs in the spirit of man and not his flesh.
In verse six Jesus adds, “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” He’s telling Nicodemus that the transformation of man essential to “enter the kingdom of God” occurs not in the flesh (the outward man, what man does, his religious works), but internally - in his spirit! New birth and new life (change) happens automatically in a person filled with God’s Spirit!
In verse seven Jesus again reiterates this point to Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” Jesus couldn’t have been more emphatic that “being born again” was absolutely essential for any person to experience “the kingdom of God.” Aside from this how shocking it must have been for a pious man like Nicodemus (who’s entire worldview was based on his strict religious performance) to hear Jesus explain what he had to be-come, not do!
Friend, new birth (“being born again”) is something you “must” experience through a work of God. It happens to you, it’s not something you can do or manufacture. It’s a work of God preformed on your behalf through the indwelling of His Spirit! This whole exchange not only left Nicodemus “marveling,” but he’s left wondering, “How can these things be?”
Keep in mind that, while in verse 14 Jesus will begin to specifically tackle this question by taking Nicodemus back to Numbers 21, He’s going to first issue a challenge to this religious scholar in four of the most radicle verses in the entire New Testament. Let’s dive in…
John 3:10-13, “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.
If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.”
Before He answers Nicodemus’ inquiry Jesus begins with a rhetorical question of His own, “Nicodemus, you wonder ‘how can these things be,’ but aren’t ‘you the teacher of Israel?’ Shouldn’t such a learned man as yourself ‘know these things?’ Shouldn’t an expert in the Scriptures already know ‘how these things can be?’ I shouldn’t have to explain them to you!”
After this rhetorical question/rebuke of Nicodemus, Jesus then for the third time uses the phrase “most assuredly” which as noted last Sunday was a duplicate word reaffirming what He’s just said. In effect Jesus doubles down on His rebuke! There was simply no excuse for Nicodemus (a religious expert) asking a question with such an obvious answer.
So why was Nicodemus so ignorant? Jesus answers His own question, “I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.” Right from the bat you can’t help but see a parallel in this statement to Genesis 1:26 when we’re told, “God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.’”
Jesus’ use of the pronouns “We” and “Our” not only intended to emphasis the Triune nature of God, but demonstrate His deity. Don’t forget Nicodemus’ initial confession in John 3:2 was that Jesus was “a teacher come from God” and that “God was with him.” Now, in order to justify His larger point, Jesus wants Nicodemus to see Him for who He really was - God!
And what point was Jesus making that demanded Nicodemus see Jesus as divine? The Hebrew people had “not received” the “witness” of God! It’s as though Jesus is saying, “Nicodemus, you want to know why you don’t know the answer to the question of ‘how can these things be’ (which you should know as a student of Scripture)… Well, you, along with the entire Jewish people, have been constantly rejecting My revelation in times past!”
Though I don’t have time to elaborate on this point, please understand no concept in the New Testament doesn’t first originate in the Old Testament. The sin nature of man, inability of man to be righteous through his works, ineffectiveness of the sacrificial system, necessity of faith in a Savior for salvation, God’s grace, even the promise of new birth occurring through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit were all explained. Here’s one example…
In Ezekiel 36:26-28 God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land; you shall be My people, and I will be your God.”
Jesus testifies that the reason Nicodemus was ignorant concerning these elementary principles was because he had “not received” the “witness” of God in His previous dealings with Israel. In the Greek this word “received” means to take with the hand or lay hold of. Nothing Jesus had said was new. The truth is that the people simply refused to accept it.
Jesus then makes another incredibly mind-blowing statement, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.” While Jesus was standing in front of Nicodemus, he says “the Son of Man” was also “in heaven.” Jesus uses a present participle articulating the fact He was in both places at once.
You can’t escape the implications… Jesus is clear as God He “came down from heaven,” but was presently still “in heaven.” Though undoubtedly a mystery, it’s important to never forget that while Jesus was fully man (“Son of Man”) He remained fully God (“Son of God”). The triunity within the Godhead was not broken through the incarnation of Jesus.
Until a singular moment on the cross when “He who knew no sin became sin for us” and Jesus cried out “My God, My God why have you forsaken me,” Jesus always maintained and enjoyed a particular communion and connectedness with the Godhead.
Once again, in light of a statement like this, there are really only two logical conclusions you can reach about Jesus: Either He was a Loonie Tune or He was actually who He claimed to be! It’s one or the other. Now Jesus will address the question, “How can these things be?”
John 3:14-15, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Nicodemus is still stuck on the “how” behind this new birth. So in order to answer his question Jesus takes him back to a familiar story in the OT - specifically in Numbers 21:4-9. I love the fact Jesus uses Scripture as the authority for what He’s discussing!
The Israelites had been freed from Egyptian captivity, but they’re wandering the wildness when we’re told, “Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way.
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 our soul loathes this worthless bread.’ So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died. Therefore 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.
Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”
The plain-reading of the story is fairly straight-forward. The people were ungrateful at God’s deliverer Moses (“the people spoke against God and against Moses”) and they were complaining at God’s continue provisions (“there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread”). So ungrateful we’re told, “The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people and many died.” What a no-nonsense judgment!
Well, it didn’t take long for the people to recognize these “fiery serpents” as being the judgment of God, so they rightly come to Moses, repent, and plead for salvation. After a time in prayer God instructs Moses to make “a bronze serpent and put it on a pole” adding that “if a serpent had bitten anyone” they were to “look at the bronze serpent” in faith and live.
While the plain-reading of this text is simple enough, Jesus uses the underlying imagery and principles outlined in the story to answer Nicodemus’ question. Fundamentally, Nick wonders… How are we “born again?” How are we changed through the indwelling of the Spirit of God? How do we avoid “perishing” and “have eternal life?” Is there a remedy for sin?
Jesus answers that just “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness” so that the people could be saved from the bite of the “serpent” when they look upon it in faith, salvation would come to “whoever believes” in “the Son of Man” - who would also be “lifted up.”
Though we understand this reference that “the Son of Man must be lifted up” as Jesus speaking of His future crucifixion and the completed work of atonement (something that would have been impossible for Nicodemus to understand in the moment), there were several points Jesus was making Nicodemus would have undoubtedly understood.
First, the certain death that occurred from the “bite of the fiery serpent” symbolically represented the inescapable “wages of sin.” Every man and women is born into this world with a death sentence. It’s the one destiny all men share alike. Death is a matter of when not if! In a profound sense we have all been “bitten by the fiery serpent!”
Secondly, Nicodemus would have understood the interesting comparison of the “Son of Man being lifted up” and the serpent on a bronze pole. Though in the OT Satan is often describe as being a serpent, in a broader sense the “serpent” represented sin.
Aside from this, because bronze was a metal made in fire, within Scripture “bronze” was always a typology of judgment. In this story the Children of Israel could only be saved from death when they looked to an item that reminded them of the judgment of their sin.
Though the comparison would not be completely understood until His crucifixion, in drawing upon this parallel of “the Son of Man being lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” Jesus is saying salvation from a certain death could only come when a person looked to Him and the judgment He would endure for our sins.
Finally, at a minimum, in referring back to this specific story, Nicodemus would have recognized the “how” behind the new birth - Faith! Just as the Israelites were only saved when they looked upon the serpent in faith, in much the same way, salvation only occurs through an act of faith in the “Son of Man.” Faith is the mechanism for salvation - not works!
Jesus continues by explaining the motivation behind the “Son of man being lifted up!” Which in context implies the judgment of God being poured onto the “Son” for the sins of mankind.
John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
“For God so loved the world…” What an incredible statement - especially when you look around at this world. While it doesn’t take long for you and I to grow a distain for people who make up this speck of dust - especially those who hurt or betray us, I’m absolutely amazed that God actually loves the people who fill this sinful, underserving, wicked, rebellious world. How incredible that sinners who hate Him still remain the object of His love?
Side Point: This statement that “God so loved the world” would have left an unmistakable impression on Nicodemus for it ran absolutely contrary to his religious understanding of God and the world. He would’ve expected Jesus to say, “For God so loved Israel” - not the world! Right from the beginning Jesus is clear God loved the world, not just the stock of Israel.
Understand, it’s in the context of God’s unwavering love for the world “that He gave His only begotten Son.” God’s love for this sinful world stirred Him beyond compassion or a feeling of pity to a point of action. In the presence of sin and our certain destruction God, motivated by His love, was actually willing to do something about it. God was willing to give up something to save man from his sin - namely “His only begotten Son.”
In the Greek this word we have translated as “only begotten” is monogenēs implying one of a kind. The idea being conveyed is that God the Father “gave” God the “Son.” I should explain that within Hebrew culture to be the “son of ______” meant you were of the same nature as that thing. When Jesus uses the phrase the “Son of God” He isn’t saying that He’s God’s Son, but rather that He’s of the same nature of God. It’s a way of claiming to be divine.
Aside from the claim of deity, it’s not an accident Jesus intentionally uses the Father/Son analogy to anthropomorphically illustrate the nature of their relationship within the Godhead. You see Jesus describes the interpersonal relationships within the Triune nature of God as Father and Son, because that terminology was the closest human language would afford.
In using this Father/Son imagery (which is limited because God is neither a Father nor a Son as we know these things) don’t mistake the depth of God’s love being communicated using such terms. God loves you so much He was willing to “give His only begotten Son.”
Though we know God was in actuality giving up something much deeper than we could ever imagine, at face value, the idea of a Father giving a Son is a rather gnarly idea. The love I have for my sons would absolutely cause me to lay down my life for theirs. That being said, I love no other human being deep enough that I’d willing give either of their lives to save.
Apart from His love, what would drive God to offer such a radicle gift? Jesus continues by explaining God “gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Friend, know God’s love for you motivated Him to give “His only begotten Son” for one reason: That you “should not perish, but have everlasting life!”
What Jesus is describing here is a most amazing exchange. God offered His Son to first rescue you from death - to save you from “perishing,” but that’s not all… In place of certain death and judgment, the Son was given so that you could then “have everlasting life!”
Sadly, the entire idea behind “everlasting life” ends up getting relegated to nothing more than a “get out of hell free card” or a “golden ticket to heaven.” And while there is truth to this reality (heaven over hell is a selling point), there is so much more being articulated here.
These two words Jesus uses “but have” indicates a present possession! “Everlasting life” isn’t just a future promise, but an immediate result. This Greek adjective we have translated “everlasting” implies a “life” without beginning and end… As such it’s a life found in God alone - a life I enter into and one that lasts for all eternity! The salvation Jesus is describing isn’t just about escaping a future death, but enjoying His life today!
And how do we receive this “everlasting life”… How are we “born again”… How are we filled with the Holy Spirit… How do we experience “the kingdom of God”… How are we saved from the death bite of sin… How do we not perish… How do we change… Jesus says the only mechanism for any of these things to occur is that you must “believe in Him!”
Friend, please know the idea behind “belief” is much more than a mere intellectual concession. The idea actually describes a person who places their complete weight upon something. Salvation only takes place when you make a decision to place your entire weight on Jesus - so much so that should He falter you’d fall apart. “Believing in Him” is to have a complete confidence in Him. A total reliance. To go all in so that nothing remains!
Because this incredible offering of God is motivated by His “love for the world” should we be surprised that this “everlasting life” is available for “whoever believes in Him?” I love the way the KJV translates this… “Whosoever believes in Him!” “Whosoever!”
What a radicle idea! The gift of God and the results of this belief in Jesus are made available to anyone and everyone! There are absolutely zero pre-qualifications required? There’s no term sheet, pre-approval process, or application. God’s love is unconditional!
Friend, you don’t have be good enough (which you aren’t), measure up (which you can’t), be deserving of (which is impossible), nor can you even earn it (so quit trying)! You don’t have to be educated or religious. You don’t have to be moral or have your act together. You don’t have to pay your dues or secure your spot before hand. My friend, “whosoever” is so broad it actually includes you - even in light of whatever your deal happens to be!
John 3:17-21, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”
The entire mission of Jesus is summarized in verse 17, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” I hope you know Jesus did not come to earth to judge. Instead, Jesus came “that the world through Him might be saved.” Jesus came to earth specifically to provide a way you could receive an “everlasting life” sin had separated you from. Jesus came to accomplish a work whereby you might have a way to be saved and reconciled with the God who so deeply loves you.
And yet, as He wraps up His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus makes two important final points: First, because of the nature of His mission, there are serious consequences for those who’d reject Him. Jesus says, “He who does not believe is condemned already.”
If in light of God’s unconditional love demonstrated in the fact “He gave His only begotten Son” you still refuse to believe in Him… Who do you have to blame on judgment day?
Secondly, Jesus is clear those who reject Him do so because they love sin! Jesus says the ultimate “condemnation” of man boils down to the fact “men loved darkness rather than light.” The truth is that people don’t reject Jesus on accident. They do so with intention. Jesus adds, “Everyone practicing evil hates the light lest his deeds should be exposed.”
No man or woman will ever be able to claim they lacked an opportunity to receive Jesus or the ability to do so. It light of all He’s done, your condemnation will be based on your refusal.
As radicle an idea as it is the truth is Jesus never sends a person to hell who hasn’t already chosen that as his destination. Judgment ends up being the concession of your decision to reject Jesus, His love, and sacrifice to save. Apart from Jesus you’re already “condemned.” If you resist His offer to save, you’ll simply remain in the state you are.
As we close, if these truths concerning Jesus strike a cord in your heart you’re willing to accept and surrender yourself to, please in the depths of your soul pray…
“Dear Jesus, I know I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself. I believe You are the Son of God who died on the cross to atone for my sins. I place my complete faith in that work as the only basis for my forgiveness, restoration, and righteousness before You. I confess that on the 3rd day You rose from the dead providing me a relationship with You today. Right now, Jesus I choose to repent of my sins and ask that by Your grace You fill me with Your Holy Spirit. Take my broken life and make it whole. Transform who I am from the inside out. Jesus, I confess You as both my God, my personal Lord, and my eternal Savior. Amen.”
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