If you say you know Jesus and yet everything hasn't changed for you, you've got this factual sense but not a personal understanding of who Christ is. Walk with Him. Nicodemus got it. The questions is, will you?
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John the Baptist: A Witness to the Word, an Example to Us
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The Word: Not What You Think... But Even Better
We're going to take a look at one of the most famous sections of Scripture. We're going to get right up to probably a verse that most of you in this room know, and you've never tried to memorize. We're going to spend a whole week on that one verse next week. Today, we're going to set all the context of it.
You may not know this, but when the Bible was written, when the Scripture was given, when Paul wrote letters, when Moses recorded history, when prophets spoke truths, they did not break up their writings into chapter and verse. That was a later insertion in order that we might, in corporate times like this, reference quickly together where we might be.
About the thirteenth century is where things were broken up into chapters. Then really about the sixteenth century (the 1500s) is where verses were put in the Old Testament and the New Testament, so we could very quickly say, "Let's just turn here to John 2:23." That's where I want you to turn right now.
There's an unfortunate break sometimes on where those insertions were made. They do a decent job by and large, but because we are so used to learning the way we learn, we a lot of times, think something has been completed, and now we're moving onto the next part of the story. There is much more continuity than that.
One of the unfortunate chapter breaks that's in the Scripture is right there between John 2 and John 3 because you need to really know where we've been in order to get a sense of why we're about to have this little discussion about this guy named Nicodemus. Let's just remind ourselves of where we were in chapter 2.
We have one who has now shown back up into this institutionalized religion that had become something God never intended it to be. Not just the corrupt part of it, but a means to an end as opposed to an illustration of God's provision. What do I mean by that? What I mean is that God never intended keeping the law to be a means through which you earned entrance into heaven, or even earned favor with him.
The law was to show us how holy God was and what his standard of righteousness was. There is morality that he gives us because he's a loving Father, and he knows if you just go outside the guardrails of this highway of life, you're going to fall over into this great abyss of pain and death and be bludgeoned by your own choices. God gave us moral law because he loves us, not because he's trying to rip us off. He knows that if you jump outside of that, there's a problem.
He gave us ceremonial law to teach us certain things about his character. One of the very first things we see is this is one holy God. He is concerned about detail, and he's concerned about how you approach him because he is nothing like we would ever make him out to be.
Somewhere in that little explanation, we lost our way. We really saw it as a ladder that would make us righteous as opposed to a lesson that would show us our lack of righteousness and make us cry out for mercy. We've been climbing this little stairstep thinking we're getting better and better. Because even though we slide back three steps, we scramble back up and even cover up our missteps by running quickly for a while up this ladder of righteousness.
That was never to be the case. In fact, the only ladder we really see in Scripture is a ladder that God himself comes down to provide grace for those who need it. That whole picture had been lost. As a result of that, God's physical presence had left the people. So because they had left him, he left them alone to their devices. That meant they were no longer divinely protected. It means they were no longer divinely provided for.
So there was a time where they were actually, even as a nation, captured and hauled off to be slaves again. These people that God had set free had been brought back into bondage. There was no temple, and there was no presence of God in their midst. God, in his grace, brought them back, tried to remind them again of why that happened, and they rebuilt this temple. But the glory of God was not in it. It had been, if you will, vanquished. Even though now the old form came back, but with a vengeance, because they missed the point.
They had a group of folks who showed up who became leaders of the people. They were called Pharisees. It was really the middle class, but they were really going to take God's word seriously. If you're around Jewish people, the Torahis really the first five books of the Old Testament. What they did is they had a rabbinic tradition. Rabbi just means teacher. So there were guys who would teach in those five books.
For instance, in Exodus 20, there are two verses. It says, "You have to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Why did God put that in there? Because he didn't want you to work yourself to death. He wanted you to be reminded that he was your provision, and so that you don't need to always be getting out there. "I want you to rest and focus on your relationship with me. Not just work seven days a week and work every day of your life in order to find more comfort. I am your comfort."
What the Pharisees did (let's just assume they were well-meaning) is they then extrapolated, for instance, those two verses that say, "Just be still and know that I'm God. Focus on me. Focus on each other. Love each other. Don't try to make more money. That's not going to bring you fullness." They would pass down an oral tradition of how you observe the Sabbath. It continues the craziness to this day.
Within the Mishnah, the rabbinical teaching…Mishnah basically means to recite, which is another word to say to learn…was an oral tradition that was eventually written down. There were 24 chapters of pharisaical oral tradition that told you how to keep that Sabbath. It became a great burden.
Instead of just not plowing on the Sabbath, it told you were really stuck if your chair was not the right distance from the table because the rabbi said you can't plow. So if you're on a dirt floor and you pull your chair back, and it makes a little groove in the dirt, that's plowing. So you can't pull your chair back. You're also in a problem because you can't lift a chair up and move it back and put it down because that's carrying a burden.
They have 24 chapters of this nonsense, which is why when Jesus came, he never contradicted the law, but he did take on the Mishnah. Then you have the Talmud, which is a commentary on the Mishnah to tell you how to understand that. So there's this law upon law and burden upon burden. Christ really took on this idea that the way you approach God is through obeying the law instead of by trusting in God's gracious provision of a sacrificial system which makes up for where you are lacking.
The glory of God had left the temple, so Jesus comes into the temple we saw. He does two things. He certainly says, "There's some corruption here, even in the sacrificial system that was the original system that was set up. You've now corrupted this to exploit one another. Let's get rid of that."
But he also announced, "Even the old system is about to be done away with because it was only there to show that there was something coming that would be the perfect sacrifice to get away from the bulls and the goats and all those things that showed you you needed a Savior. The Savior is here."
The glory of God came back into the temple. This time not in the form of a pillar of a cloud or a pillar of fire but in a different manifestation, in the very person of the Messiah. He said, "Guess what? I'm going to come, and I'm going to change the way you worship me. There's going to be a new temple, a new priesthood. There's going to be a new covenant. There's going to be a new way which is a fulfillment of the old in order to find relationship with me.
It's been well said that in the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and in the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed. Christianity is not a new sect. It is not a new idea. It is not a Hail Mary pass at the end of Christ's life when he was rejected and the disciples were scrambling because they didn't know what to do because this rabbi was crucified.
You're going to see again and again through the book of John that Jesus knew he was going to be rejected. He knew he was going to give his life away, that he was going to claim it back again and be resurrected because he satisfied the wages of sin, which is death. He knew there was going to be a new priesthood. He knew there was going to be a new way to approach God. All that new was was the fulfillment of what the old anticipated. That's basically what Christ is revealing in the book of John.
You're always going to find that people who aren't spiritually appraised have to take everything at face value. So there was this constant running confusion when Jesus would say some things that had a double entendre. They go, "By what authority do you clean this temple?" He said, "I'll tell you what. You tear this temple down, and three days later, I'll take it back up again." They go, "It took 46 years to build this temple."
They did not know, the Scripture says, that he was talking about his own body. Christ knew right away that he was going to give himself away. He knew he was going to be rejected because men were engrained in their traditions, but Christ came to reveal truth and break traditions and reveal grace. If you're here today and you hate religion, you are in the right spot. So do I. So did Jesus. He came to give grace and truth.
Religion is men working their way to God. We are about regeneration and redemption and relationship, which comes when God does what we could never do. I want to make this point very quickly. As we look back at last week, what's interesting is that Christ really said, at the end of the day, this is where the rub is going to come.
"You're going to have to figure out who I am. Ultimately, my resurrection is going to be the thing which separates whether or not I'm just deluded, whether I'm a flat-out liar, or whether I am very God of very God." He said, "When you tear this temple down, I'll put it back. No one takes my life. I lay it down. It won't even be you who destroys this temple. It'll be me accomplishing my perfect eternal will."
Christ, after he cleansed out that temple, went out and stayed in Jerusalem during the Passover, and he did many other signs. They're not laid out by John, but other folks saw them. Look with me at John 2:23. Here's really the beginning of the next major section. It says, "When he left that temple that we talk about him cleansing last week, during the feast, many saw the signs which he did and they believed in his name."
What's that mean? That means they believed in the facts about Christ. That that guy is doing some things. That guy is somebody who is claiming to be the Messiah, but Jesus, on his part, was not entrusting himself to them for he knew all men. John puts this in here because that is a very God-like quality.
Psalm 139:4 says, "O God, you know what my words are even before they're on my tongue." In other words, "You're omniscient." God knew, Jesus knew the condition of men's hearts. Jeremiah 17:9-10 says, "The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?" The Lord understands the heart.
That's why, by the way, God tells us to not try and sort out, of those who go to church, who is really a believer and who is not. He says, in fact, "If you try and say, 'This one is real, and this one is not,' you're going to cause a great deal of trouble." He said, "It's like trying to pull out what's called tares from a wheat field." It looks a lot like wheat, and even if you pull out the tares, it's going to damage the wheat. You're not going to get it done just right.
He says, "You let that go until the harvest. At the harvest, it will be easy to separate them. That won't be your job. Your job is just to sow truth that will produce wheat." I like to say it this way. It's not my job to see through you to find out if you just have some intellectual assent or if you're just going through some external motion. My job is to see you through to greater faithfulness and all that God wants for you.
That's why we call you to connect here, that we might encourage you day after day. Jesus knew what was in the hearts of men, that they responded to things that were of benefit to them. This is key. Jesus always spent time with individuals who wanted to really discourse with him. He discouraged people who came to him because he was putting out the goods.
In fact, many times he walked away when folks were saying, "Do more of this. Do more of this. Where are you? Everybody is looking for you." They want more of you can provide for them. God says, "What I really want to provide for them is salvation." I'm going to give you a quick story. When Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, he goes to a town called Jericho. There are lots of people there who want a piece of him because they heard about the signs that he had done.
There was one whose name was Zacchaeus, who climbed up in a Sycamore tree. He said, "I want to know you. I want to have relationship with you. I am a man who needs to understand how I can be forgiven." Zacchaeus was an untouchable. He was unclean. He heard that Jesus was the one who was offering forgiveness and redemption for sins.
Jesus spotted him out of this whole crowd who was paying attention and said, "I'll have dinner with you." Zacchaeus came wanting nothing other than forgiveness and to know if there was a way that he could be reconciled to God and, therefore, to man. Jesus taught him how. Today, Zacchaeus would come the way that he is taught today in many churches, so that Christ could make him two feet taller, so he could further his business and bless him in that way.
Those are the kinds of signs that folks look for from God today, so they will continue to have relationship with him. It is errant teaching which tells you if you come to Christ there is going to be material physical blessing for you now. Jesus came now to provide a reconciliation to God, and the blessing will later follow.
Jesus knew that what the Pharisees and others wanted in their Messiah was a political leader who would deliver them from the oppression of Rome, who would restore military power and economic might for Israel. The Pharisees were looking for that king. Jesus said, "You have a bigger problem than Rome. I'm here to deal with that problem, and then we'll deal with Rome."
Note to yourself. Jesus was not looking to be popular with men, and you should not either. In fact, what you should do is suffer for the sake of truth. The world is not going to embrace all that you say now because it is not spiritually appraised. The world wants that which is going to make life more comfortable for them now. The problem with that is that with sin in the world, it's never going to be ultimately comfortable. There's always going to be this constant haranguing of death, disease, betrayal, and no amount of power and money will ever give you that security.
It says this in 1 Peter 2:21-23. Jesus said at the end, "You guys treat me the way you want. I'm going to entrust myself not to popular opinion but to him who judges rightly." Later in the book of Peter, Peter says this. Watch this.
"For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return." What did he do? " … but [he] kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously."
People don't judge rightly. God judges rightly. Jesus was completely comfortable saying, "See you at the grave. See you at the end. Wisdom will ultimately vindicate itself by her deeds. You chase your path. I'll chase mine. I think you'll like mine in the end. Consider me."
Real quickly, one last application here because this is really important. He did these signs, and folks were seeing it, but they ultimately, as I said, wanted him to be a certain kind of Messiah, a certain kind of God, and did not let God reveal what had already been revealed with clarity in the Old Testament, saying, "This is what God says was coming."
You, likewise, are going to have times in your life when folks call you fools. Maybe even when you are persecuted at great length. I have a sense that sometime in our lifetime, the persecution of the church is going to be upped. You've heard me say here before, "I hope we are the first church they come after to shut down because we continue to speak the truth in love and not ultimately fear man but fear God. And I hope we're the last people to shut up. We'll do it with grace, and we'll do it with love, but we will not fear man."
When you live this way… What way? The way that Christ lived. With a great sense that there is one who judges rightly, and it's not popular opinion or philosophy or government. It will be a declaration of your faith, and it will be a sign of concern for them. Let me show you what I mean by this. Philippians 1:27 and following. Keep your hand in John.
"Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel."
Now, watch this. "In no way alarmed by your opponents , those who say philosophically debate you, those who say, "I will kill you if you do not denounce Christ, if you don't take the mark of the beast, if you don't say that Allah is God and Muhammad is his prophet… When you continue to not be alarmed that they say, 'We're going to take a machete and lop off your head,' it is a sign of destruction for them but of salvation for you and that too from God."
"For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me." In other words, at the end of the day, if you're signing off on Jesus because of the signs he does for you, the way he blesses you, then you're going to leave Christ in the same way that the folks who you're about to read in John left him. What's in your heart is this. "I'm for you, as long as it's easy for me."
Jesus says, "This is not an easy-for-you world. This is a world of sin and betrayal and death, and I've come to conquer it. I'm going to leave behind my ambassadors who know me and who believe me that I am the resurrection and the life and who do not live for this world but set their mind on the things above and not on the things that are on the earth. You are not here to lose weight, find a wife, find a husband, get a better job, or to become better looking. If you are, carry on, because I offer it not for you."
I will tell you when you order your life according to the Scripture, there is blessing. That blessing is not material, necessarily. Although, if you are a person who doesn't spend what you don't have, who loves others and isn't self-seeking, who does everything as if they're doing it for God themselves, there is going to be a corollary benefit to living that way. You also need to know that you are going to be hated and called a fool, and at one point, maybe even have it cost your life because you live that way.
I had a conversation this morning with an individual who was told because he consistently gets in conversation with people who are hurting, offering them the hope that is in Christ, that has cost him repeatedly in his career. He says, "But so be it. I try and do it winsomely. I try and do it when asked, but I will not stop doing it. If they want to lose me as a result of that, so be it."
How is John 2 connected to John 3? This way. See, they watched this Jesus after he cleansed the temple. They saw that he was doing these things, and so this Sanhedrin and specifically the Pharisees who were looking for the Messiah said, "Let's go talk to this Jesus." So they sent one named Nicodemus. Nicodemus literally means conqueror of the people.
The Pharisees thought the problem with Israel is that they were conquered by Rome. Jesus is going to say to the Pharisees, "The problem is that you have conquered the people. You have told them through oppression and intimidation that they cannot know me unless they keep every jot and tittle of the law. That was never the purpose of the law," Jesus is going to tell Nicodemus. "You're a ruler of the people. In other words, you're a leader of the people, and you need to get this right. You have conquered the people with error. You are a poor teacher."
Jesus knows what's in the heart of men, so he does not trifle long with Nicodemus. Nicodemus comes to him by night. Why? If you think about this, the Pharisees are looking for the Messiah. So Jesus is an individual who is bold, he is popular, he is zealous, he is powerful, and if you're a Pharisee, you go, "We could use this guy. We're looking for this figure who will help us rise up and chase out Rome so we can be the people who God wants us to be."
They went to him. They said, "We weren't real thrilled with what you did in the temple, but we have noticed what you are able to do. We can't pull off those tricks. We don't have that power. There does seem to be some manifest power in you. The people love you. You are clearly not intimated by authority. We don't want to be oppressed by Rome. The question is, will you be useful to us?"
Nicodemus goes, as a ruler of the Jews, at night. He was sent there, likely, by a group of them. We know that because he uses, "we," as the question. So in John 3:2, they had seen these signs. Do you see how this is tied together?
" This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, 'Rabbi [which means teacher] , we know that You have come from God as a teacher." Why? "For no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.'" And Jesus says this, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." This is not exactly a nice way to start a conversation.
This week I was in a conversation with a gentleman who some friends wanted me to meet. He was one of the leading Orthodox rabbis in this entire region and one of the most respected Jewish scholars in all of America. It would've been a lot like me, had I done this. We had a great time together. I walked through his synagogue with him. He showed me the mikvah there, which is the place they go to get ceremoniously cleansed as men and women so they can continue to be right before God.
It had been like if I'd met him, and he said, "Todd, it's a pleasure to meet you. I've heard much about your place over there. I'm curious about what's going on at Watermark," and I said, "Your mikvah will be of no use to you, and neither will any of your other little obsession with keeping of the law." "Well, nice to meet you."It was rather strong. It would be like meeting a Catholic priest and saying, "I don't care how many times you keep mass. That's not going to cut it. Mary will be of no use to you at the grave."
Wow. That's a rather hard entrée. But that's exactly what Jesus did. "Do you want the kingdom to come? The kingdom is going to come when you acknowledge that you can't bring the kingdom through your own human effort. Jesus uses a word here that's very important. This phrase born again has become so used and overused and misused in popular culture. Folks go, "Are you born again?"
I've said this I don't know how many times at Watermark. Whenever somebody asks if I'm born again, I always go, "Tell me what you mean by that." They go, "You know. One of those self-righteous, homosexual haters who always votes Republican and thinks he's better than everybody else. I go, "Nope. That's not me. I'm not that."
If they say, "Somebody who believes that unless God does a miraculous work in your life which is really accomplished through what Christ did on the cross and your faith in that. You're trying to respond to it with fullness and love God with all of your heart and serve other people and walk in humility and compassion, speaking the truth with kindness and reverence, and knowing that ultimately your sanctification is only accomplished by God as a gift of grace," I would say, "Yes, I pray so. I pray that's me."
Really, the word born again should be born. In fact, many of your Bibles in the margin, you'll see a little one by the word again. The Greek word is anōthen, which basically means from above. The reason we translate this again here can maybe go both ways. It's interesting. Most of the time in the book of John, when you see this word anōthen, it's used for, "from above."
It's used in John 19 when Pilate said to Jesus, "Won't you speak up?" Jesus says, "I'm not going to speak up. I don't need to speak for myself right now. You have no authority over me. You just told me that you could deliver me. You can't deliver me. You have no authority except that which my Father has given you from anōthen [from above]. I'm just going to trust him. This is part of our plan."
One of them you'll see all through John is that from the very beginning, Jesus knew who he was, knew he was going to be rejected, knew the resurrection was coming ("I will take this body back up in three days"), knew that he was going to get rid of the old temple and institute a new temple, knew he was going to get rid of an old people and institute a new people who were children of Abraham by faith, knew that he was going to have a new covenant. This is no surprise. This isn't a last-ditch effort to somehow redeem his rejection. This was the deal from the beginning.
When it says, "Truly I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven," Christ is saying, "You can't do this on your own. God has to do a work in you. This is not going to happen through your own effort." This is really important stuff.
Nicodemus said, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?" Now, watch this. This is why now folks go back and go, "They thought that Jesus must have said, "Born again," because Nicodemus, whenever God and Christ used a temporal finite illustration that was speaking of a greater spiritual truth (people who were not spiritually appraised), always looked at the finite.
"You can destroy this temple. Three days later, I'll pick it back up."
"You can't build this temple. It took 46 years to build it."
"Unless you're born again, you can't enter into the kingdom of God."
"I can't crawl back in my mom's womb. I'm a full-grown man."
"Woman, if you knew what well that I drew from, you would ask me for living water."
"Where is this water that I might drink of it?"
"Unless you eat my body and drink my blood, you will not enter the kingdom of God."
"Well, he wants us to eat himself."
All throughout John this continues to happen. What Christ is doing is he is using accessible metaphors that talk about some temporal reality that is a greater spiritual truth. Not to confuse people but to let them know. What do we know about being born? When you're born, you have nothing to do with your conception. You weren't there, thank goodness. How many of us go, "I'm glad I wasn't there. I can't even imagine that happening between my mother and father. I had nothing to do with that."
We're glad that happened. "I had nothing to do with it." It happens outside of our power. We cannot, when we're in the womb, say, "I'm coming out." When we come out, we need care and grace all the way through the process. Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, "You need care and grace all the way through the process. This is a supernatural thing that needs to happen to you. You need to start all over. This is something that God must do for you, or you cannot have it done."
Every time you look in the Old Testament at what God did for Israel, it was never God saying, "I'll tell you what you need to do, Israel. You get this done. You go get yourself a mile out of Egypt, and I'll get you the rest of the way. You kill this many of your enemy, and then I'll kick in." The idea that God helps those who help themselves is thoroughly unbiblical.
The idea in Scripture is that God helps those who realize that they are helpless, and they look to him for mercy. They say, "Nicodemus, here's your problem. You think you're going to institute the kingdom through your own conniving, through your own conspiracy. You think you're going to impress God that he ought to use you through your own effort to keep the law. No. Your dead works are of no use to God because he is holy, and you are not.
Watch what Christ says here when Nicodemus says this. He goes on to say, "Truly, truly, I say to you…" Which means, "I have absolute authority in and of myself." Most rabbis, when they get going with an idea, they usually quote another rabbi. Jesus says, "No, I will tell you with absolute authority. Let me let you into a secret." " … unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."
A lot has been made about this. Some people think it's baptism and belief. Other people think it's physical birth (when a woman's water breaks). Later, you have to have your heartbreak. Some have said water in the Scripture is evidence of the Scripture cleansing you. Let me tell you what I think this means and, frankly, is the clearest and most obvious interpretation of what this means.
He is telling Nicodemus, "This has always been the case. What I am bringing as the Messiah, as the Christ, Christianity (now that it's been labeled this way) is not some new sect. It is a natural outflow of your Old Testament. The new is in the old concealed, and the old is in the new revealed. All I'm going to do is help you see what you have not yet seen, and it is there, Nicodemus."
What Jesus does is he makes reference back to a section of Scripture that is a very venerated and long-anticipated section. It comes in Ezekiel 36. Keep your hand there in John if you want. Go back to Ezekiel 36. Watch this. In Ezekiel 36, this is what God says to the nation as he's telling them how this is going to happen.
" [Behold] …house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD, 'It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went. I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD,' declares the Lord GOD, 'when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land." Ezekiel wrote during that 70-year period I mentioned earlier. Then he said,
"Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from 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 be careful to observe My ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God."
What's he saying? "I'm going to sprinkle you clean with supernatural water. I'm going to do a supernatural work in you. My Spirit will regenerate you. It's not something you're going to do. It's going to be done for you. This is called the new covenant blessing. In the New Testament, it shows up in Titus 3:5. "He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior…"
This is not a new idea. This has been accomplished through Christ by the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit. Let me tell you, Nicodemuses, you are living in deception and under oppression if you believe that you can ever present yourself to God on your own. You have to be born from above. You have to acknowledge that if God is holy and you are not, there is no way you can ever have peace, no matter how much you try and keep the law.
When you come back into relationship with God, everything will change. You will be spiritually appraised at that moment. You will start to see clearly and live differently because you will be reconciled to God. But Nicodemus was not getting this. Watch what Jesus goes on to say.
In verse 6, he says, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." In other words, "Nicodemus, you're keeping your flesh trying to defeat your flesh. But your flesh is corrupt, so no matter how much your flesh does what it wants to do to make itself right, it can't make itself right because it's wrong.
It's like a guy, one man has said, who digs out of a jail cell and thinks he's going to break free, only to dig himself up and pop up into another jail cell. So he digs out again, and he comes up in another jail cell. That's why reincarnation is a completely unbiblical idea. You're going to be brought back into flesh, and your flesh is going to fail again. Your flesh can never beget righteousness.
It's the law of creation that creeping things bring forth creeping things, cattle bring forth cattle, beasts of the field bring forth beasts of the field, sinners bring forth sinners. All of us. And sinners can't make themselves righteous. We are totally depraved, unable to save ourselves. It doesn't mean everything we do is bad. It means that nothing we can do can ever make that which is broken right. What are you going to do with that? You have to go back to the God who created you and wanted you to walk with him in life that you left, so you moved from life to death.
You have to say, "Unless you're willing to give me another go at this thing, unless you're willing to make provision for that which deserves judgment, I could never be reconciled to you. I'll spend my life trying to please you, and I'll never get it done because your standard is perfection. If you take my imperfection and meld it with your perfection, you'll be corrupt. You're not corruptible because you're God. Therefore, I am in trouble. Unless you're a God of grace. Unless you love me. Unless you would do for me what I can't do for myself." First words out of Christ's mouth, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God."
I'll tell you, this idea of reincarnation being totally unacceptable to God… There's a great little cowboy poem written by Wallace McRae about reincarnation.
'What does Reincarnation mean?'
A cowpoke asked his friend.
His pal replied, 'It happens when
Yer life has reached its end.
They comb yer hair, and warsh yer neck,
And clean yer fingernails,
And lay you in a padded box
Away from life's travails.
The box and you goes in a hole,
That's been dug into the ground.
Reincarnation starts in when
Yore planted 'neath a mound.
Them clods melt down, just like yer box,
And you who is inside.
And then yore just beginnin' on
Yer transformation ride.
In a while, the grass'll grow
Upon yer rendered mound.
Till some day on yer moldered grave
A lonely flower is found.
And say a hoss should wander by
And graze upon this flower
That once wuz you, but now's become
Yer vegetative bower.'
The posy that the hoss done ate
Up, with his other feed,
Makes bone, and fat, and muscle
Essential to the steed,
But some is left that he can't use
And so it passes through,
And finally lays upon the ground
This thing, that once wuz you.
Then say, by chance, I wanders by
And sees this upon the ground,
And I ponders, and I wonders at,
This object that I found.
I thinks of reincarnation,
Of life and death, and such,
And come away concludin': 'Slim,
You ain't changed, all that much.'
This is where I want to cuss. I want to say, "You really aren't anything but horse…" I won't do it. There's a Bible verse that says in Isaiah 64:6 that your best deeds are like filthy rags. That's a menstrual rag. A bloody mess. Horse manure. We keep trying to make it right. We keep reincarnating the same mess. We're people who need grace.
Jesus is trying to set Nicodemus straight. "You have conquered the people by making them think that I'm obsessed with detail. I am obsessed with them. I love them. That's why I said, I will come and do for them what they can't do for themselves. I'm obsessed with my glory. I'm going to show you my glory. I created you. I put you in Paradise. I made it righteous and perfect for you. You left me. You betrayed me. You went after a liar and a thief. You spit in my face, and you believed I wasn't good, that my word wasn't right, and that my judgment wasn't severe.
So I will not wink at your sin. There is a penalty of death. You are separated from me, and chaos is coming to your world. Let me tell you what else I am. I am a God of love, and I will enter into your chaos and bring my glory back. I will restore what has been lost. You will marvel not just as my righteousness, because I will fully satisfy my wrath. You will marvel at my love and my provision for you.
But Adam, you must drop your fig leaves. This thing that you have made from yourself to cover up your sin. You must take my provision. I will slaughter an innocent one. Blood will be shed, and you must clothe yourself in the provision that comes from him." What did Adam get called to adorn himself in? Not his own sowing and fig leaves, but the skin of an animal. Where'd that come from? One who was slain. I believe it was a lamb.
God started right then to say, "I'm going to bring forth another Son of Man who will not be wicked but will be righteous. You will trust in him. Though the first Adam brought death into the world, this second Son of Man will be struck on the heel, but he will crush the head of the Enemy who deceived you into believing I won't be good. All who believe in him will be brought to life." Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, "The second Adam is here."
Watch this. It gets even better. Verse 7. "Do not be amazed that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." He's saying, "Nicodemus, this act of God is beyond your perception and understanding because God is at work in ways you don't understand. You can see God at work in me, but you don't know where it comes from. I'm about to tell you where it comes from."
Nicodemus goes on to say, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered and said, "Are you the teacher of Israel? You don't understand these things? You're the one who is telling folks how to come to me, and you're the one who people are supposed to learn the Scriptures and the Torah from?"
He goes on to say, "Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony." Here's the problem. You don't understand because you do not accept. This is a very interesting passage right here. He says, "If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?"
In other words, "We're having discussions about the parchments and about the scrolls. I'm trying to explain to you what is right there. You're supposed to be the teacher, and you're still confused about washings and the need for Christ to save you and the Messiah to deliver you and the suffering servant who is clear in your prophets and the anticipation from the law and Moses that another prophet would come who would deliver you.
I'm telling you stuff that we can dialogue about right here in the text. If you don't believe what I'm showing you that's already here, how are you going to believe when I tell you about stuff I can't point to any reference from?" Then he goes on to say this in verse 13. "No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man." In other words, I'm about to tell you stuff that isn't in the text. It's new. The only reason I can do that is because I've been with God." He says, "The Son of Man can teach you that stuff."
Why did Jesus use the Son of Man? This is great. The Son of Man is a phrase that's used a lot in the Old Testament, primary by Ezekiel (over 90 times). Ezekiel is always talking about the frailty of man, the finiteness of man, the brokenness of man. But there's another time the phrase Son of Man comes up. This is one of Jesus' favorite phrases for himself. In other words, the Son of Man is somebody who identifies with humanity, who is frail, who is tempted.
In Daniel 7, Daniel is having a vision of the progression of nations and God's work throughout history. He talks about how Babylon will have a season of power, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome. Then you get to verse 10, and Daniel moves away from his visions of what's going on on earth. He's saying what's happening on earth is all part of God's great redemptive program. So now, his visions go to heaven.
It talks about one who is called the Ancient of Days,and a great throng is before him. All sovereignty is his, and all of history is at this beck and pleasure. Everybody is trying to understand how they can approach the Ancient of Days, and you pick it up in verse 13. Daniel says, "I kept looking at this vision I was having, this revelation from God."
"And behold, with the clouds of heaven one like a Son of Man…" In other words, he looks like us. "…was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days [the Sovereign God] and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion…"
This is the Messiah. Do you know what he is saying to Nicodemus? "Hey Nicodemus, I'm about to tell you stuff because the Ancient of Days and I are like this. I look like you, but I'm not like you, brother. All dominion is mine. You want the kingdom? The kingdom is not going to come with your conspiracies and getting the people all riled up. The kingdom is going to come when I bring it. It's mine.
What you're missing is that I told you when I told you through the prophets and the patriarchs and the psalms, I will come first in grace. If I don't come first in grace, when I come to set up my kingdom, you're not going to be in it. Nicodemus, quit trying to refine yourself on the outside. I am not into masquerades. I am into metamorphosis. I am into corporal change that happens when that which informs your flesh is radically changed. You are not righteous in and of yourself. Only God is righteous. Your Spirit is corrupt. Trust mine. Cleanse yourself by asking me to cleanse you, and my Spirit will invade you. You will be reconciled to me."
How is Christ going to cleanse you? His perfect temple. The perfect Lamb of God will be slain. As evidence that that was an acceptable sacrifice to God, it will be raised up again. Now men can take that perfect provision and approach God in his name. They will then receive relationship again, which is to say they can be one, which is to say, his Spirit will now coexist with yours. You will see God for who he is. You will see how good he is, that he would save a corrupt sinner like you.
Watch. I love what happens here. Right after Jesus says this, he goes on to say, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up." What's going on there? In the book of Numbers, in chapter 20, there's a section where the people are grumbling against Moses. So God sends serpents in their midst because they're grumbling against God and his chosen leader, and death is striking them (vipers).
The people cry out for mercy, and he says, "Moses, you take a likeness of that which is destroying them, and you lift it up on a standard. When the people try and stop stomping out their enemy on their own, and look up in faith, and identify with their sin, then I will spare them." Watch what happens.
He takes a bronze serpent, a perfect likeness of that which is their death. He holds it up on a standard. What would that standard look like if you were going to wrap a serpent? It would be a pole, and it would have a crossbar on it, and a serpent would be wrapped around it. On that crossbar, there would be one who looked like the likeness of that which was their judgment. When they looked up in faith at that which had been lifted up for them, they would be spared. What's Jesus saying?
The Son of Man is going to be lifted up just like that. Again, his crucifixion was no surprise to him. "I've come to die for you, and you're going to look up at me, one who is in your likeness that the wrath of God would be poured out on your corrupt flesh. When you, by faith, look to me, you will be given what you cannot get on your own.
Verse 15. It's what it says. "You will look to me, and whoever believes in this work will have eternal life. Because Nicodemus, I don't just love Jews. I love everybody. I love the whole world. Whoever believes in me will not perish but have eternal life. Nicodemus, you can be glad that as the Son of Man I come this time not in judgment but in grace. I will return and be your conquering King. I will be all that it says in Daniel 7:13-14, but I come first as an agent of grace. Nicodemus, pursue grace."
Do you get that? Is it not worth singing about? You're done with the mikvah. You're done with the Sabbath laws. You're done with the minuscule little observances. You're done with little taxes called tithes. Now, you go, "I'm one with God. Everything I have is his because he's given everything for me. I want to live in a way that honors him. Everything has changed. Why? Because I'm no longer going to trust in myself. I'm going to start to trust in him because he's good, and he loves me."
Here's the deal. Have you believed in Jesus? Not, "Believed in Jesus," like he can come and bring your kingdom now the way you want it. That's the folks who like the signs. That's why people can say, "There's the guy with all the signs." Maybe he'll use his zeal and his power and his popularity to kill Rome. Come on. Let's throw a riot. Let's get rid of Caesar. Let's lay down our coats. Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. He's not going to rock Caesar's world. He's going to come and offer himself up as a sacrifice of my sin. I'm not really that impressed with my sin."
Pilate says, "What do you want me to do with this guy?" "Crucify him. If he's not going to take out Caesar, we have no use for him. If he's not going to change my material, present, current condition, kill him. Crucify him." Even in their rejection, he was their provision.
This is what Jesus is saying. "Nicodemus, look to me. I'm going to be lifted up in the likeness of your sin. By faith, you can have what you'll never get on your own. When you are reconciled to me, the Spirit of truth will inform you. Not the Spirit of death and tradition but of life. You'll look at each other the way I look at you, with love and grace. Your relationships will change. Your morality will change."
So what's changed? Can I say this to you? If you think you believe in Jesus and your temple is still looking like it used to look, you don't know Jesus. If you think you know Christ, and your life hasn't changed, you'd better reconsider. When you come into relationship with God, everything changes. You're no longer operating by that corrupt spirit. Why does it change? Not so that you can do things so he'll love you, but because you see he loves you, and his Spirit has invaded you.
You now recognize, "He is God. He is the Messiah. He does care for those who are far from him. He has given his life for me. He who did not spare his own Son but delivered him up for us all. How will he not also with him freely give us all things? So if he's going to call me to these things, those guardrails must not be guardrails to rip me off from the party; they must really be there because he doesn't want to see me go down to a despair of death and self-destruction."
That's who we are. We're people redeemed by grace who have learned that he loves us. So we learn to live as he lives, with a new spirit. The old flesh that still loves sin is here. What's different now is there is an operating system that doesn't give in to the flesh. We're not born of our mama anymore. We're not like our daddy, who used anger as a tool. No. We are now individuals who walk with him and lean not on our own understanding because we reckon him as good, and the curse has been reversed.
We sang songs at Raise the Mark last week, and at the end of it, I asked a bunch of folks this. The song we sang is the one we're about to sing. There's a line in this song that says, "For the glory of it all, for his glory, for our good, he came." When he came, he brought us back into relationship with him. When we brought us back into relationship with him, everything changed. So I said, "Okay, let's worship. What changed?" Listen to this. This is what was shared at Raise the Mark. Folks started popping up.
"He has changed my view of myself."
"He has given me self-respect, dignity, and worth."
"He's changed my need to find my worth in illicit relationships."
"He has freed from my slavery to anger."
"He's changed who I was. He brought me to a fountain of his knowledge and delivered me from my finite understanding."
"He changed my family's destiny, character, and nature. He reversed generations of perversion and dysfunction because I started to follow him."
"He has changed everything, from despair and addiction to heroin and alcohol to life. From being a burden on society to now being a blessing to others."
"He changed me. I was a black hole of want, self-serving, and a consumer of everything. He's changed me, and now I'm a giver and a servant."
"He's changed my desires from self-destructive lust to desires for life-giving morality."
"I no longer fear death."
"He's given me the courage of my friends. Though I am mocked and laughed at, I don't live in fear of man. Now, I am free to love others. He's changed everything."
What's changed? If you're here this morning and you're religious, nothing's changed. You're just still trying to pay the tax. You can't pay the debt. But if you know the debt has been paid through this Jesus who has come, it changes everything. Now you know who God is. He is good. You now read the Bible. Not to see where you're going to be scolded. You read the Bible to see where life is.
"Lord, how do you want me to reconcile with my spouse, who has betrayed me? How do you want to forgive those who have hurt me the way you've forgiven me who's hurt you? How do you want me to use my money, not to find comfort on this earth that's really no comfort at all, but to advance your kingdom that others might know who you are? How do you want me to steward these days? How do you want me to handle temptation? How do you want me to handle everything? Because it's all changed." Have you changed? Let me say it another way? Have you believed? Have you been washed by his grace and being renewed by his Spirit?
Father, I pray that we are. May we never be called religious people, but people who, by grace, have been redeemed by the relationship that has come through Christ, who is the Son of Man given all authority and dominion, whose kingdom will reign forever, who has been lifted up as in one who is identified with that which is our death, and we look to him. He is the one who delivers us from the venom of rebellion against you.
Father, I pray that we would trust you, that we would see that you are loving and good. We'd make no mistake about your justice, but we would forever say, "Oh, you who did not spare your own Son but delivered him up for us all. How will he not also with him freely give us all things?" So we come to sing of you and celebrate that everything has changed. May we reckon you for all you are and serve you for all you're worth, not so that we might be loved but because your love has come. Amen.
Let's worship him together.
Well, that is the idea. Do you know why the world hates church? It's religion. You go, and everything is the same. Spiritual/secular divide. It's not the case when you're reconciled to God. He goes with you where you go. You never leave him because he is your lover. Too many of us have a Carl Spackler view of God. Do you know who Carl Spackler is? Bill Murray in Caddyshack.
He caddied for the Dalai Lama, who was a big hitter. On the first hole, drove his ball a long way over this abyss at the foot of an iceberg. He worked hard to caddy from those 18 holes. At the end of those 18 holes, he looks at him.
He was going to get stiffed by the Dalai Lama. He said, 'Hey Dalai, how about a little something for the effort." The Dalai Lama said to him, "On your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness. There'll be no payment, but you'll have total consciousness." Carl said, "Well, I have that going for me."
Too many of you view the gospel like that. "Okay, Jesus died. Great. On my deathbed, I'll receive total consciousness. I have that going for me." No. The gospel now. Everything changes now. Why? Because you're no longer left on your own. He loves you. You're reconciled to him. He's a good Father.
Today, God, how's the gospel going to manifest in my life for the glory of it all?
People are going to see you now. Listen. You are spiritually appraised. So you love differently because he loves you. You forgive because he forgives. You serve out of a strength that is not your own because you are reconciled to him, and life has come inside of you. If that has not been your experience, will you consider Jesus and come again the way the Bible says you should come?
This is not about consciousness on your death bed. This is about glory now. You have that going for you if you walk with Jesus. If you have never come to know him, would you not leave until we tell you how to be reconciled to him by faith? If you know him, will you go and worship him this week? For the glory of it all.
Have a great week of worship. We'll see you.
Who was Jesus Christ? A mythical man created to give a false sense of comfort after we die? Some sort of character that enables us to justify our own choices while simultaneously giving us the power to judge others? Or was He something much bigger? God, in the flesh, walking and living among His creation. A sinless man who became the sacrifice for our sins. The Gospel of John is more than Christology 101. It is an invitation to a living and active faith in Jesus Christ. Come join us on this life-changing journey through the book of John: the story of Jesus Christ.