January 19, 2003
Only in recognizing the greatest gift can we receive the greatest prize.
I. You must be born again (John 3:1-15)
II. You must come into the light (John 3:16-21)
III. Jesus must increase in your eyes (John 3:22-36)
MessageRabbi Jacob Neusner, Professor of religion at Bard's College, recently wrote a book entitled A Rabbi Talks With Jesus. "Imagine walking a dusty road on Galilee nearly 2,000 years ago and meeting a small band of youngsters, led by a young man. The leader's presence catches your attention: he talks, the others listen, respond, argue, obey: care what he says, follow him. You don't know who the man is, but you know he makes a difference to the people with him and to nearly everyone he meets. People respond, some with anger, some with admiration, a few with genuine faith. But no one walks away uninterested in the man or what he says and does."
Rabbi Neusner then says, "I can see myself meeting this man, and, with courtesy, arguing with him. It is my form of respect, the only serious tribute I pay to the people I take seriously. I can see myself challenging Jesus on the basis of our shared belief in Scripture. I can also imagine saying, "Friend, you go your way, I'll go mine. Yours is not the Torah of Moses, and all I have from God, and all I ever need from God, is that one Torah from Moses." Neusner concludes, "We would meet, would argue, would part friends, but we would part. He would go his way, to Jerusalem and his fate; I would go my way, home to my wife and children. He would have gone his way to glory, I my way to my duties and my responsibilities."
What intrigues me about Neusners book is that once upon a time a Rabbi did talk to Jesus, and came to different conclusions than Neusners. That first century Rabbis name was Nicodemus, and if Nuesner had followed his lead, he might have seen that Jesus offers something more than duty and responsibility, something the Law and the Prophets only promised: new life, pure life on the heart level, and eternal life. Today in John 3 were going to learn what Neusner didnt, that when we recognize Jesus as Gods greatest gift we receive Gods greatest prize - eternal life.
I. You must be born again (John 3:1-15)
Let me begin by reading you the Nicodemus version of A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. John 3:1-15. Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2He 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." 3In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." 4"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!" 5 Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' 8The 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." 9"How can this be?" Nicodemus asked. 10"You are Israel's teacher," said Jesus, "and do you not understand these things? 11I 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. 12I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven--the Son of Man. 14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
The end of chapter 2 told us that many people, saw or heard of the signs Jesus performed, and at least nominally believed. This chapter tells us that some of the Pharisees were also intrigued by what Jesus was doing. Nicodemus, for one, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, who seems to have come to Jesus on their behalf: Rabbi, we know you are a teacher sent from God. But they werent willing to admit this openly: they sent Nicodemus by night, as if trying to hide their interest. Night can also represent spiritual darkness. Carson says: Doubtless Nicodemus approached Jesus at night, but his own night was blacker than he knew.
In verse 2 Nicodemus says that Jesus miraculous signs show God is with him. His implied question is Right? Its really the same question they asked John the Baptist Who are you? Jesus answers by telling him hes not qualified to ask the question: the only one who can see the kingdom of God or assess my role in it is the one who has been born again, or begotten from above. The Greek word could mean either again or from above - and maybe Jesus was implying both things - that this second birth had to be a birth initiated not on earth, but in heaven, by God himself.
Nicodemus chooses to hear the word as again and apparently he doesnt understand what Jesus is saying. Like most Jews of his day, he probably felt that entrance into the Kingdom of the End Times was automatic for Jews. Hes incredulous that Jesus impose any other requirement, and he chooses to respond with a little bit of sarcasm, and with a literal interpretation of what Jesus had said: how can a man enter a second time into his mothers womb to be born. So Jesus tries again. In verse 5 he restates what he said in verse 2: I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Seeing the kingdom of God in verse 2 is parallel to entering the kingdom of God here. Being born from above is parallel to being born of water and the Spirit.
But what does this mean? What does it mean to be born of water and spirit? I think the key is that Jesus expected Nicodemus, as an Old Testament scholar to understand what he said. Verse 10 makes that clear. So we need to look for our understanding in the Old Testament. Nicodemus knew all about the law and the promised Messiah, but he seems to have missed a whole stream of teaching which says that individuals must be cleansed, purified, and transformed in heart.
When Nicodemus and his friends taught that simply being a Jew qualified you to part of Gods kingdom they overlooked this need for individual regeneration, for cleansing and renewal by the Holy Spirit, a need clearly established in the Law and the Prophets. Not even considering the whole sacrificial system think about Psalm 51. David recognizes his sin and says Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow and Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. He sees his need for cleansing from sin and the renewal of his spirit by Gods Spirit.
Two more examples: Isaiah 44:3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. Ezekiel 36:25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Individual heart transformation is pictured as washing by water and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus emphasizes in verses 6 to 8 that this is of the Spirit and not of man. Spiritual rebirth can only come from a spiritual source, not an earthly source. Jesus compares the Spirit to a wind - its the same word in Greek. He says you dont know where the wind comes from, you cant control it, you can only see its effects. The same is true of the Spirit - you dont control when he will come or what he will do, but you can see, or feel his presence. Cleansing from sin and spiritual rebirth is our greatest need. So we shouldnt be surprised when Jesus tells us we must be born again.
But Nicodemus still doesnt understand, and with a combination of wonder and frustration he asks: How can these things be? This is when Jesus says to him You are the teacher of Israel and you dont understand? He obviously thought the connection should be clear, that the need for heart transformation was obvious. Jesus goes on to say if you dont understand what must take place here on earth when people are born again, how will you understand it if I go on to the heavenly implications of that truth? He describes himself as qualified to give heavenly information because unlike any other living person, hes actually been in the throne room of the Father.
Jesus understands heavenly things.For example, as we saw last week, Jesus understands his destiny. He uses an account from Exodus to hint at what is to come: Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. In Exodus, when the people sinned, God sent judgment in the form of venomous snakes, but those who looked to the bronze snake on Moses staff were rescued from physical death.
In the same way Jesus brings rescue from spiritual death: just as the snake was lifted up on a pole, Jesus will be lifted up on a cross in death and exalted in resurrection. In Isaiah 53 the suffering servant who bears our sins is introduced as one who is raised, lifted up and highly exalted. And even if this reference was a little obscure to his hearers, verse 15 gives the clearest explanation so far: that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. We already know that the verb to believe is common in John. It means to have faith in Jesus, to entrust yourself to Jesus. It means to be confident that as a result of all that he has done, you have eternal life.
The expression eternal life appears here for the first time. It literally means the life of the age to come, resurrection life. But in Johns Gospel that life begins now and can be experienced now, just as in the other Gospels the kingdom is something that is both now and not yet. John will teach us a lot about eternal life, but its enough to notice that eternal life is the prize - the final good granted to all who experience new birth, who enter the kingdom, who look to the Son as he is lifted up, that is, to those who believe. This prize is given not because of merit but because of faith.
II. You must come into the light (John 3:16-21)
John, the author of the Gospel, will make this even more clear in two brief comments that he includes in this chapter. The first one is found in verses 16 to 21 and shows us that we must come into the light. John 3:16 16"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. 19This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God."
Because there was no punctuation in written Greek, its hard to tell where the words of Jesus end and where the comments of John begin. Some translators would quote Christ all the way to verse 21. Others would end the quote back in verse 12. But verse 15 uses the phrase Son of Man, which is characteristically found on the lips of Jesus. Verse 16 uses the phrase one and only, only-begotten, characteristic of the author, as we saw back in the prologue. So I think verses 16 to 21 are Johns comment on Jesus words, but Im not adamant on that point.
In verse 16, of course, we have what may be the most famous statement in Scripture. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. My big idea this morning is really a comment on this verse: Only in recognizing the greatest gift - the Son - can we receive the greatest prize - eternal life.
John tells us that Gods motivation in giving was entirely his love, a love not limited to you, or to me, but one which encompasses the whole world, a love remarkable not because the world is big, but because the world is bad, because people are sinful, undeserving of love. God loved us despite our sin. He gave his Son while we were dead in sin, that we might have life. Can you recall something of the wonder we experienced at Christmas, the wonder of the incarnation, of the light of the world who became flesh and dwelt among us? All of that wonder is founded on Gods love, and because his love is real love, agape love, he took action on our behalf. He didnt just feel love for us he showed love by giving. He gave that which was most precious to him his one and only Son so we might have eternal life.
Verse 16 repeats what Jesus already said in verse 15, that he only asks us to trust him: that whoever believes shall not perish but have eternal life. Our response to Gods self sacrificing love is not some work that proves our merit, it is not some sacrifice that matches his - it is simply faith. Were called to believe. If you dont get anything else out of the Gospel of John, get that word. John will say over and over, literally, Believe on Christ - trust in Christ, entrust yourself to Christ. Faith is all that is required and Paul teaches that even the faith is a gift from God.
Notice the alternative: if we believe we receive eternal life, but the fate of all those who dont take this step of faith is to perish they will not participate in the life of the age to come. To perish is to be shut out from life, to spend eternity in darkness and anguish and separation from all that is really life, separated from Jesus and from the Father and from the fullness of all that they will provide.
John goes on to explain that God didnt send Jesus to pronounce this judgement, but to rescue those already judged. God has looked at the lives of every man and woman on this planet and weighed their deeds and the attitudes of their hearts and found that no one is righteous, no one selfless, no one guiltless when it comes to having hurt others or having done what they know in their hearts is wrong. God weighs this, and as a fair and impartial judge has already given a verdict: Guilty. Yet in mercy, he gives his Son to take the punishment of the guilty in order to save any who entrust themselves to Him. Could anything be clearer than verse 18? Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.
To reinforce this John uses one of his favorite analogies, light and darkness. He already told us in the prologue that the Word, was life, and the life was the light of men. Now, in chapter 3, he explains that light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Many people dont want light: they want to remain in the darkness, choose to remain in darkness because their actions and attitudes are dark. John says Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.
Brothers and sisters, Ive sadly had to deal with a number of people over the past ten years who have claimed to be righteous while hiding secret, grievous sin. Some will do almost anything, blame almost anyone to avoid recognizing their own sin and turning from it. They always have some crisis or excuse that keeps them from confronting their sin or they are sure someone elses problem has caused theirs. Some will not come to the light of Christ even for rescue - even for eternal life because sins makes them stupid, and all they want to do is to stay in the darkness where they can get away with evil without even admitting it to themselves.
But some, verse 21, live by the truth. This doesnt mean that living by the truth is their natural habit, it means they find life because of the truth. Verse 21: whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God. Notice that contrast: the people in the darkness do their own evil, but the people in the light come into the light through God. You can stay in the darkness by your own power and choice, but you can only come into the light by Gods grace offered through Jesus to those who believe.
III. Jesus must increase in your eyes (John 3:22-36)
So weve seen that you must be born again - cleansed from sin and renewed by the Spirit. Weve seen that you must come into the light. God gave his Son, the greatest gift, so that all those who believe will receive the greatest prize, eternal life. Finally, briefly, in verses 22 to 36 well see how John the Baptist recognizes the greatness of this gift. John 3:22 22After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. 23Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were constantly coming to be baptized. 24(This was before John was put in prison.) 25An argument developed between some of John's disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. 26They came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan--the one you testified about--well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him." 27To this John replied, "A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. 28You yourselves can testify that I said, 'I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.' 29The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. 30He must become greater; I must become less.
31"The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. 32He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. 33The man who has accepted it has certified that God is truthful. 34For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit. 35The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands. 36Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him."
Only Johns Gospel says that Jesus spent time on the Jordan baptizing, and chapter 4 will tell us that it was really the disciples who did the baptizing. For some of Johns disciples that created competition between John the Baptist and Jesus as to who could baptize the most. So they used some unstated issue about baptism to bring their concern to John: Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan, the one you testified about, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.
Theyre indignant that John is taking second place. And John answers beautifully: A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. In other words, God has given me one role and Jesus another and Im not about to complain about it or to pout. Instead, I remember my mission, which is to point to Christ, to be the forerunner to Christ. Im like the best man at a wedding. I get my joy not from being the groom, but from having the privilege of being with the groom in his joy.
John concludes with one of the most remarkable, most profound, most sane statements in Scripture: He must increase, and I must decrease. This defines spiritual sanity - to see Jesus as he is, to see ourselves as we are, and without belittling ourselves to have it as our fixed goal to see him glorified, exalted, magnified. I love the song we sang earlier: I have made You too small in my eyes. O Lord, forgive me. And I have believed in a lie that You were unable to help me. But now O Lord, I see my wrong Heal my heart and show Yourself strong. And in my eyes and with my song, O Lord be magnified. Be magnified O Lord, you are highly exalted. And there is nothing You can't do. O Lord my eyes are on You. Be magnified.
We have to want to emulate that. Jesus must increase in our eyes. John expands this thought in verses 31 to 36. "The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. In the love that sent him and in the sacrifice that exalted him Jesus is as much greater than we are as we are greater than an ant or a microbe. Jesus is from above, and we are from earth. He came down so that we might go up. But John says that even when Jesus teaches this, no one accepts his testimony. For most people the exaltation of the cross is foolishness - the need for a payment for sin in order to cleanse is foolishness. Few accept it. But the few who do recognize it as Gods truth, the word of God, spoken by Jesus, who was full with the Holy Spirit without measure.
The last two verses are Johns summary of what we have seen: The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands. 36Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him. Weve already been told that God loves the world, and shows that love by sending the Son, but our author is equally adamant that the Father loves the Son with a love that has existed from eternity past. Its this love that makes the sacrifice of the cross so great - its not a business transaction, paying for our sin, its a Father seeing his Son whom he loves suffer and die because he also loves us and wants us to live.
So the alternatives are clear: when you see that Jesus is the greatest gift, the one lifted up and exalted because he suffered for us, then you will entrust yourself to him and receive eternal life. But if you dont, you have no life in the age to come, and really no life now, though you may be breathing. By not believing in the Son, not coming into the light, youve condemned yourself to darkness. As Carson says If faith in the Son is the only way to inherit eternal life, and is commanded by God himself, then failure to trust him is disobedience as well as unbelief. Gods wrath remains on the disobedient, those in rebellion against him, who, when he comes into his own world to rescue it, want nothing to do with him and will not turn to him.
The most famous verse in the Bible is famous for a reason - because it expresses so clearly the truth God so deeply wants us to hear: God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.