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John, over at the Reformation Theology blog, posted an excerpt from Eric Alexander’s book, “What is Biblical Preaching?”  Here is a sample of the posted excerpt:

“Left to ourselves, we may do many things with a congregation. We may move them emotionally. We may attract them to ourselves personally, producing great loyalty. We may persuade them intellectually. We may educate them in a broad spectrum of Christian truth. But the one thing we can never do, left to ourselves, is to regenerate them spiritually and change them into the image of Jesus Christ, to bear his moral glory in their character. While that is the great calling of the church of Christ, it is essentially God’s work and not ours.

So it is possible to be homiletically brilliant, verbally fluent, theologically profound, biblically accurate and orthodox, and spiritually useless. That frightens me. I hope it frightens you, too. I think it is of this that Paul is speaking when he says, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (I Cor. 3:6-7). It is very possible for us to be deeply concerned about homiletical ability and fluency and theological profundity and biblical orthodoxy, but to know nothing of the life – giving power of God with the burning anointing of the Holy Spirit upon our ministry…”

You can read the whole post here http://www.reformationtheology.com/mt/mt-tb.cgi/1306 .

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For various reasons (most importantly my understanding of regeneration), I do not give an altar call at the end of worship services where I am presiding as pastor / preacher.  I often invite people to speak with me after the service if they have questions regarding anything in the sermon… not simply issues of salvation… but I do not call people forward at the end of the service to “do business with God” (as I have often heard it described.)  Coming from a Baptist tradition, this has often been challenged by well-meaning and godly Christians who are concerned about how people will come to Christ apart from an invitation to “come forward.”  Without being oppositional, I typically try to summarize my reformed understanding of the gospel and response to the gospel and explain why I feel it is dangerous (and confusing) to unbelievers to have an “altar call.”  However, my explanations have never been as clear as those of given by Ryan Kelly at Desert Springs Church in Albuquerque.  Thank you to Zach Nielsen over at the “Take Your Vitamin Z” blog for posting Mr. Kelly’s thoughtful responses to why they do not give an altar call at their church.  Even if you do not agree with Mr. Kelly, his article provides a well-written explanation for why some of us choose not to have an altar call in church and, therefore, it is worth reading.  You can find the article here http://takeyourvitaminz.blogspot.com/2007/11/10-reasons-we-dont-do-alter-calls.html

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The following is a sermon preached at Sunnyside Baptist Church on the morning of September 7, 2008.

Who do people say Jesus is?

Some think He was a good teacher?  Or a Prophet of God?  Or a legendary figure who is larger than life?

What does the world around us believe about Jesus?

More importantly… what do you believe about Jesus?

The answer to this question is of the utmost importance…

John 2:23-3:15 (ESV) – 23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. 1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Our text here today picks up right on the heels of Jesus cleansing the temple in Jerusalem.   He was new on the religious scene in Jerusalem, performing miracles and standing up against the abuses which took place in the temple.  And this didn’t go unnoticed.  He drew a lot of attention from the people.

We are told here that when He was in Jerusalem during the Passover Feast… “many believed in His name when they saw the signs that He was doing”.

What signs is this referring to?  We don’t know for sure.  It could be the cleansing of the temple, which we saw last week was prophesied by both the prophet Malachi and Zechariah (Malachi 3:1-4, Zechariah 14:21), but we can’t know for sure.  None of the gospel writers tell us any of the signs which He did in Jerusalem prior to this.  But we are told here that He was continuously doing signs which declared to the world who He is.  And many believed in Him… but what did they believe about Him?

We are told here that when He was in Jerusalem during the Passover Feast… “many believed in His name when they saw the signs that He was doing”.

We don’t know for sure what “signs” John is referring to.  However, the Greek implies that He was continuously doing signs which declared to the world who He is.  And many believed in Him… but what did they believe about Him?

This is an important question, because notice that, although they believed in His name, He did not entrust Himself to them.  It is the same verb in verse 24 as in verse 23.  Literally “He didn’t believe Himself to them…”  In other words, although they believed something about Jesus… He didn’t believe in their belief.

This tells us something right off the bat about believing in Jesus, namely that it is important that we get it right.  What we believe about Him is important, because it is possible to “believe” in Jesus and yet not be saved.

The people described here believed in His name, but He did not entrust Himself to them.  Why not?  Because Jesus knew all people and He did not need anyone to tell Him what is inside of people, because He already knew.  He knew what was in their hearts even better than they did.  He knew exactly what they believed about Him and He knew that it was not a saving faith.

What did they believe about Him?

What is necessary for Jesus to entrust Himself to someone so that they might be saved?

We find the answer to these questions as we continue on into chapter 3

Most Bible translations begin verse 1 with the word “Now.”  It is the simple Greek conjunction δ… and it implies that what follows is connected to what precedes it.  In other words… what we see in John 3 is a continuation or explanation of what we have just seen in chapter 2:23-25.

Here we meet a man named Nicodemus and we are told 3 distinct things about him: 

1)      We are told that he was Pharisee.  This was one of the strictest religious sects among the Jews.  They were diligent students of Scripture, although they entirely missed the point of the Law.  They held firmly to the belief that it was possible to keep the Law of Moses and, therefore, be saved.  In other words…like many people we encounter today… they thought it was possible to be “good enough” to earn their own way to heaven.

2)      On top of this, we are told that he was a “ruler of the Jews”, meaning that he was a member of the Sanhedrin council.  He was part of the ruling class in Israel.  This is slightly unusual for a Pharisee.  There were some Pharisees on the Sanhedrin council… men like Gamaliel (Acts 5:34)… but most of the rulers among the Jews were Sadducees, who were the more liberal theologians of their day.  Nicodemus was not just a religious man, he was an important man.

3)      In addition to this, in verse 10, Jesus calls him “the teacher of Israel.  Don’t miss the definite article there.  He is “the” teacher of Israel.  This implies that he was a well-known and highly respected Jewish theologian and Bible teacher of his day.

Nicodemus is an important individual in Jewish religious life coming to see Jesus with questions.  But notice how he comes to Jesus.  He comes to Him “by night.”

There has been a lot of ink spilled over the significance of this little phrase… “by night.”  What is John getting at here?

It could imply that Nicodemus was coming to Jesus in secret.  He didn’t want anyone to know he was visiting him.  Perhaps he was afraid of the consequences if someone found out that he had come to see Jesus.

It could be that Nicodemus was just seeking a private audience with Jesus.  After all, Jesus was constantly surrounded by people and… by coming at night… he could avoid the crowds and discuss theological matters with Jesus privately.

Or this could be symbolic.  When John speaks of “night” in his gospel… it is typically a metaphor for being in spiritual darkness.  Could it be that John is saying that Nicodemus is just like those who believed something about Jesus… but were not saved?  Is he saying that Nicodemus is still in darkness when he comes to Jesus?

It is hard to know for sure, although there is probably some truth in all of these interpretations.  However, it is clear that Nicodemus is still in the dark regarding who Jesus is, because notice how he addresses Jesus as “rabbi.”  This is pretty amazing in and of itself.  Nicodemus is one of the premier theologians and Bible scholars of his day, yet he addresses Jesus as a peer… calling Him a “Teacher come from God.”  In other words, he believes that Jesus is a prophet… a messenger of God… because there is no way a person could do the signs Jesus was doing unless He was from God.

This is the same reason given for the belief of those described in John 2:23-25.  They believed the signs Jesus was doing.  Nicodemus does as well.  Just like them, Nicodemus sees the signs and believes something about Jesus, but He isn’t believing rightly in Him.  He thought He was simply a good teacher… a prophet of God…

Isn’t that what most people today think about Jesus?

If you asked people on the street about who Jesus is… most people would say that He was a good teacher.  They might confess that He was a messenger from God, but not much more.

What a person believes about Jesus is of the utmost importance, because those who do not believe in Him as He truly is are not saved.

But notice here that something is necessary before a person can believe rightly in Jesus.  Something mysterious and miraculous must take place first.  Jesus tells this teacher of Israel that, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Unless there is a miraculous new birth which takes place… a person cannot “see” the kingdom of God.

What is the kingdom of God?  It is the full experience of the rule and reign of God.  It is to enter into His presence and experience the blessing of God for all eternity.  In John’s gospel it is pretty much the equivalent of eternal life.

Unless one is born again… he can’t even “see”… or begin to experience what those blessings are.

Nicodemus is confused by this, but he is not quite as dumb as he seems here.  He recognizes that Jesus is speaking figuratively, but he doesn’t quite get what Jesus is saying.  So in verse 5, Jesus describes this new birth in greater detail. 

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

There are different interpretations of this verse and I’m not going to bore you with all of them, but there are a couple of points which are quite clear here in the text about what Jesus is saying…

First of all, whatever being born of water and the Spirit is… it is the same thing as being born again, because the two phrases are in parallelism with one another.  This is important, because it tells us that Jesus is talking about a single rebirth here… not multiple births by water and then by the Spirit.

Secondly, this is something which Jesus thought Nicodemus should have understood.  We know this, because, in verse 10, Jesus rebukes Nicodemus for not getting His point.  This leads me to believe that Jesus is talking about something present in the Old Testament.  In fact, it seems that Jesus is speaking of the New Covenant promise which is recorded for us in Ezekiel 36:25-27

Ezekiel 36:25-27 (ESV) – 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

 In this passage, God promises to sprinkle clean water on His people and cleanse them from all their sin.  He also promises to give His people a new heart… a new inner man… and all this would take place when God would place His Spirit within us.  The result of this would be an entirely new creation… a person wholly dedicated to God.

This is what it means to be born again… to be transformed by God… to be recreated by the power of His Spirit in our lives so that we can be set apart to God forever.

Why is this necessary?  Because naturally… we are all inherently sinful and defiled…

Genesis 8:21 (ESV) – 21 …the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth…

Ecclesiastes 9:3 (ESV) – 3 …the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

Romans 8:7 (ESV) – 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.

Ephesians 4:17-18 (ESV) – 17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.

Jesus is explicitly clear that there is nothing we can do to cause ourselves to be born again.  It is solely the work of the Holy Spirit… “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

There is a play on words here in the Greek.  The word translated “wind” is πνεμα in the Greek.  It can also be translated “spirit.”  Jesus is likening the work of the Spirit of God to the presence of wind.  We can’t see it… but we can feel it.  We don’t know where the wind comes from. We don’t know when it will come or when it will go away. 

This is how the Spirit works in causing people to be born again.  He is completely sovereign in this work.  He blows where He wishes… when He wishes… and how He wishes… and nothing that we do can change that.

But when He comes, He causes those who are in the night of unbelief to be born again, cleansing us from sin and creating within us a new heart… a new will to know and serve God.  He re-creates us, so that we can see and enter into a relationship with God in Jesus Christ.

This is the same thing which Paul is talking about in II Corinthians 4:3-6

2 Corinthians 4:3-6 (ESV) – 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Naturally… in the flesh… we are blind to the gospel and we cannot see the glory of God in Jesus Christ.  And the devil works over time keeping us that way.  It is only when God moves in creative power and causes His light to shine in our darkened hearts by His Holy Spirit that we can finally see Jesus for who He is and begin to believe rightly in Him in order to be saved.  Apart from this… no one can be saved.

Nicodemus doesn’t get this yet.  How can these things be?”

Jesus rather strongly rebukes him here.  It is as if He is saying, “How can you not understand this?”

These things are absolutely true… and Jesus assures Nicodemus of this.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you… (plural in the Greek… meaning Nicodemus and those like him)… you do not receive our testimony.” (verse 11.)

This is not speculation.  Jesus has seen this and knows this.  But “you”, Nicodemus, and those like you, do not receive this testimony.

Do you see what Jesus is getting at here?  It doesn’t matter that they believe Jesus is a good teacher… or a prophet from God.  That isn’t enough.  They must receive to themselves the full testimony about who Jesus is… and that is only possible if God first does a work of re-creation in them.

This is foundational to the Christian life.  If a person doesn’t get this… which Jesus calls “earthly things” in verse 12… then they will never be able to understand “heavenly things”… which is what Jesus seems to be describing in verses 13-15

Notice in verse 13, Jesus calls Himself “the Son of Man” and He states that He has descended from heaven.  Jesus seems to be equating Himself with the Son of Man described by Daniel in Daniel 7:13-14

Daniel 7:13-14 (ESV) – 13 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

It is hard to imagine that Nicodemus didn’t get what Jesus was driving at here.  They have just been talking about the kingdom of God and then Jesus describes Himself as the Son of Man… the One who receives the kingdom of God in heaven.

The tough part for Nicodemus to understand would have been how Jesus could be the Son of Man, since the Son of Man is described as being divine…

1)      He rides on the clouds which in the Old Testament are referred to as being God’s “chariot” (Psalm 104:3.)

2)      He approaches the throne of God… fully worthy in and of Himself to be crowned as King of kings and Lord of lords…

Jesus… standing before Nicodemus… veiled in human flesh… is claiming to be God Himself… descended from heaven.  And if that wasn’t startling enough, He says that He descended in order to be “lifted up.”

When Jesus speaks of being “lifted up” in John’s gospel, it is always a reference to the crucifixion (Jn 3:14, 8:28, 12:32, 12:34.)  And John 12:34 makes it clear that this imagery was understood by the people as referring to death.

Do you see how amazing these “heavenly things” are?  The Son of God… has left His heavenly abode… and is willingly giving up His life on a cross on behalf of sinful people like us.  That is amazing!!!  No wonder if a person doesn’t believe in earthly things… like the work of the Spirit of God to bring new life to dead sinners… then how could a person believe such an amazing thing?

But no matter how hard it is to believe this, it is of the utmost importance, because whoever believes in Him will have eternal life.

Jesus gives us a powerful illustration here of what it means to believe in Him by referring back to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness in Numbers 21:4-9

In this passage, God punished the Israelites in the wilderness for their sin by sending fiery serpents among them.  They bit the people and many died.  This is a picture of God’s justice and holiness and His hatred against sin.

But God also demonstrated His grace to them.  He provided a way of salvation for them.  He had Moses make a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole and those who would look upon it in faith would be saved.  Not that there was anything magical in the serpent itself… God was the One saving them… but they had to “see” it… they had to look upon the serpent lifted up and have faith in the God who had given them this sign of His grace.

Jesus says that those who look upon Him as the Son of Man… very God of very God… who died upon the cross for our sin… and believe in Him alone… they will be saved forevermore.  They will enter into the kingdom of God and enjoy eternal life in the presence of God.

Notice that this offer of salvation is held forth to all… “whoever believes in Him may have eternal life”…

But only those who “see” Him as He truly is will believe in Him as He truly is… and this is impossible apart from the sovereign work of God by His Spirit in causing us to be born again.

Did Nicodemus experience this new birth?  Did the Spirit of God blow upon Him and open His eyes to see the Son of Man lifted up for his sin?  We don’t know for sure… but we do see Nicodemus two more times in the gospel of John…

1)      In John 7:45-52… he sticks up for Jesus in a meeting of the Sanhedrin Council…

2)      And more importantly… in John 19:38-40… he and Joseph of Arimathea take the body of the crucified Son of Man and bury Him after He had been lifted up…

Did Nicodemus trust in Jesus to save him from his sin?  We don’t know for sure… but more importantly… have you trusted in Jesus Christ to save you from your sin?

What do you believe about Jesus?

Do you believe that He was simply a good teacher?  A prophet from God?  A legendary figure who is larger than life?  Or do you believe that He is the Son of God who left heaven to die for your sins upon the cross?

Have you been born again?  Has the Spirit of God blown across your heart and made you a new creation in Christ Jesus?

If you are not trusting in Jesus Christ to save you, then I urge you to do so.  Call upon the name of the Lord and be saved.  Confess your sin and turn away from your sin and plead with God to save you based on the work of Jesus Christ.  Do this and be saved for, apart from Him, you can never enter into the kingdom of God and receive the gift of eternal life.

 

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Mark Driscoll recently interviewed J.I. Packer and one of the topics of discussion was areas of study which should be emphasized by young, Christian leaders in today’s cultural context.  Here is Dr. Packer’s list of four important topics for study:

1) Regeneration.

2) God-centered Theology.

3) Godliness begins at Home.

4) The Doctrine of the Trinity.

Read the whole thing here http://theresurgence.com/node/1091

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2 Corinthians 4:3-6 (ESV) – 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Romans 10:17 (ESV) – 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

“…two things are necessary for saving faith to emerge. One is to use our perception and our mind to hear and see and understand and validate a testimony to the truth of Christ.  The other ist that we must apprehend and embrace the spiritual beauty and worth of Christ through the illumination of the Holy Spirit.  Without this compelling spiritual taste of Christ’s captivating excellence, a person’s conviction about a testimony may be no more than the devil’s useless assurance that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  He ‘believes’ it, but he does not apprehend it as beautiful and precious and wonderfully suited to accomplish good and holy purposes.  He assents in one way, but not with a hearty, or, as the Puritans say, ‘cordial’ assent.  He does not taste Christ as compellingly attractive.  He ‘faith’ is dead because it is not animated by the essential thing: spiritual apprehension of spiritual beauty” (John Piper, “Future Grace”, page 202.)

 

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Psalm 53:1-3 (ESV) – 1 The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good. 2 God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. 3 They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.

I am often a fool.  We all are.  This is our natural state… to be foolish.

The Psalmist here describes foolishness as saying in our hearts… not necessarily out loud, but in the inner recesses of our being… that there is no God.  Be careful here.  This is not intellectual atheism.  This is experiential atheism.  This is more than believing there is no God.  It is living as if there is no God.

The result of inwardly denying the existence and presence of God is sin.  The fool is corrupt and defiled.  He commits abominable iniquity.  And we are all guilty.  “There is none who does good.”

This is important for us to note. What we think about God matters.  It affects everything else in our lives.  I can only speak personally here, but the times when I stumble into sin are almost always marked by a forgetful attitude toward God.  Or… even worse… my sin is the result of my willful belief that God is either not watching or that He is not going to act against my sin.  (Forgive me, Lord!)

Psalm 139 is clear that we can never get away from the presence of God (just ask Jonah if you are not convinced!)  Here in Psalm 53:2, we are told that God is watching.  He continuously looks down from heaven to see if there are “any who understand.”  The Hebrew verb here rendered “understand” (שָׂכַל -pronounced saw-kal) means to be prudent, understanding or wise (Strongs, שָׂכַל.)  In the parallelism of verse 2, being wise or understanding is described as “seek[ing] after God.”  A wise man, in contrast to the fool, seeks the God he knows is there.  Rather than denying His presence and existence and going his own way, the wise man is constantly pursuing the God who is there.

Unfortunately, there is no one who fits this bill.  We are all fools.  Verse 3 tells us that “They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”  Without exception, we are all fools.  Sin is a universal problem because we all lack a true knowledge of God.  We are all sinners because, on some level, we all inwardly deny the God of the Bible and fail to seek Him passionately at all times.  Compare this to Romans 1:19-22

Romans 1:19-22 (ESV) – 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them (i.e. all humanity), because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they (i.e. again… all humanity) are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools,

What is the problem described here in Romans 1?  The same as in Psalm 53:1-3.  We know God is there, but we tell ourselves He is not.  The result is foolishness and sin.  (Keep reading Romans 1 and see how corrupt and abominable our deeds become…)

Sin is not only the cause of our separation from God.  Sin is also the result of our separation from God. We are all sinners because, on some level, we all inwardly deny the God of the Bible and fail to seek Him passionately at all times.  Unless God does something gracious and miraculous and changes our hearts and reconciles us to Himself, we can never be right with God.  This is the great promise of the New Covenant purchased for us by the blood of Jesus Christ upon the cross:

Ezekiel 36:25-28 (ESV) – 25 I (God is speaking here…) will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.

It is God who overcomes our foolishness.  He changes our hearts and causes us to grow in personal holiness so that we commit fewer and fewer acts of corruption and iniquity (i.e. “walk in my statutes.”)  And the end result of this change of heart is a personal and permanent relationship with God (“you shall be My people and I will be your God.”)  The final result of this inward change produced in us by God is that we do not say, “there is no God”, but we rejoice in the fact that we are His people and He is our God!

On a practical level, this teaches me that my knowledge of God and my personal, ongoing relationship with Him has a direct impact on my life.  When I am actively trusting in Him and acknowledging His presence in, around and through me and seeking Him passionately… then sin will be less prevalent in my life.  I say less prevalent because I will never be able to do this perfectly in this life.  But I can strive for this… trusting in the promise of God to give me a new heart and cause me to walk in His statutes (Ezek 36:25-28.)

I need to remember that naturally… apart from God… I am a fool.  How about you?

 

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The following is a sermon preached at Maranatha Baptist Church on the morning of June 22, 2008.

Who do people say Jesus is?

Some think He was a good teacher?  Or a Prophet of God?  Or a legendary figure who is larger than life?

What does the world around us believe about Jesus?

More importantly… what do you believe about Jesus?

The answer to this question is of the utmost importance…

John 2:23-3:15 (ESV) – 23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. 1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Our text here today picks up early in Jesus’ earthly ministry.  Jesus was new on the religious scene in Jerusalem.  He was performing miracles and standing up against the abuses which took place in the temple and he drew a lot of attention from the people.

We are told here that when He was in Jerusalem during the Passover Feast… “many believed in His name when they saw the signs that He was doing”.

We don’t know for sure what “signs” John is referring to.  However, the Greek implies that He was continuously doing signs which declared to the world who He is.  And many believed in Him… but what did they believe about Him?

This is an important question, because notice that, although they believed in His name, He did not entrust Himself to them.  It is the same verb in verse 24 as in verse 23.  Literally “He didn’t believe Himself to them…”  In other words, although they believed something about Jesus… He didn’t believe in their belief.

This tells us something right off the bat about believing in Jesus, namely that it is important that we get it right.  What we believe about Him is important, because it is possible to “believe” in Jesus and yet not be saved.

The people described here believed in His name, but He did not entrust Himself to them.  Why not?  Because Jesus knew all people and He did not need anyone to tell Him what is inside of people, because He already knew.  He knew what was in their hearts even better than they did.  He knew exactly what they believed about Him and He knew that it was not a saving faith.

What did they believe about Him?

What is necessary for Jesus to entrust Himself to someone so that they might be saved?

We find the answer to these questions as we continue on into chapter 3

Most Bible translations begin verse 1 with the word “Now.”  It is the simple Greek conjunction δ… and it implies that what follows is connected to what precedes it.  In other words… what we see in John 3 is a continuation or explanation of what we have just seen in chapter 2:23-25.

Here we meet a man named Nicodemus and we are told 3 distinct things about him: 

1)      We are told that he was Pharisee.  This was one of the strictest religious sects among the Jews.  They were diligent students of Scripture, although they entirely missed the point of the Law.  They held firmly to the belief that it was possible to keep the Law of Moses and, therefore, be saved.  In other words…like many people we encounter today… they thought it was possible to be “good enough” to earn their own way to heaven.

2)      On top of this, we are told that he was a “ruler of the Jews”, meaning that he was a member of the Sanhedrin council.  He was part of the ruling class in Israel.  This is slightly unusual for a Pharisee.  There were some Pharisees on the Sanhedrin council… men like Gamaliel (Acts 5:34)… but most of the rulers among the Jews were Sadducees, who were the more liberal theologians of their day.  Nicodemus was not just a religious man, he was an important man.

3)      In addition to this, in verse 10, Jesus calls him “the teacher of Israel.  Don’t miss the definite article there.  He is “the” teacher of Israel.  This implies that he was a well-known and highly respected Jewish theologian and Bible teacher of his day.

Nicodemus is an important individual in Jewish religious life coming to see Jesus with questions.  But notice how he comes to Jesus.  He comes to Him “by night.”

There has been a lot of ink spilled over the significance of this little phrase… “by night.”  What is John getting at here?

It could imply that Nicodemus was coming to Jesus in secret.  He didn’t want anyone to know he was visiting him.  Perhaps he was afraid of the consequences if someone found out that he had come to see Jesus.

It could be that Nicodemus was just seeking a private audience with Jesus.  After all, Jesus was constantly surrounded by people and… by coming at night… he could avoid the crowds and discuss theological matters with Jesus privately.

Or this could be symbolic.  When John speaks of “night” in his gospel… it is typically a metaphor for being in spiritual darkness.  Could it be that John is saying that Nicodemus is just like those who believed something about Jesus… but were not saved?  Is he saying that Nicodemus is still in darkness when he comes to Jesus?

It is hard to know for sure, although there is probably some truth in all of these interpretations.  However, it is clear that Nicodemus is still in the dark regarding who Jesus is, because notice how he addresses Jesus as “rabbi.”  This is pretty amazing in and of itself.  Nicodemus is one of the premier theologians and Bible scholars of his day, yet he addresses Jesus as a peer… calling Him a “Teacher come from God.”  In other words, he believes that Jesus is a prophet… a messenger of God… because there is no way a person could do the signs Jesus was doing unless He was from God.

This is the same reason given for the belief of those described in John 2:23-25.  They believed the signs Jesus was doing.  Nicodemus does as well.  Just like them, Nicodemus sees the signs and believes something about Jesus, but He isn’t believing rightly in Him.  He thought He was simply a good teacher… a prophet of God…

Isn’t that what most people today think about Jesus?

If you asked people on the street about who Jesus is… most people would say that He was a good teacher.  They might confess that He was a messenger from God, but not much more.

What a person believes about Jesus is of the utmost importance, because those who do not believe in Him as He truly is are not saved.

But notice here that something is necessary before a person can believe rightly in Jesus.  Something mysterious and miraculous must take place first.  Jesus tells this teacher of Israel that, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Unless there is a miraculous new birth which takes place… a person cannot “see” the kingdom of God.

What is the kingdom of God?  It is the full experience of the rule and reign of God.  It is to enter into His presence and experience the blessing of God for all eternity.  In John’s gospel it is pretty much the equivalent of eternal life.

Unless one is born again… he can’t even “see”… or begin to experience what those blessings are.

Nicodemus is confused by this, but he is not quite as dumb as he seems here.  He recognizes that Jesus is speaking figuratively, but he doesn’t quite get what Jesus is saying.  So in verse 5, Jesus describes this new birth in greater detail. 

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

There are different interpretations of this verse and I’m not going to bore you with all of them, but there are a couple of points which are quite clear here in the text about what Jesus is saying…

First of all, whatever being born of water and the Spirit is… it is the same thing as being born again, because the two phrases are in parallelism with one another.  This is important, because it tells us that Jesus is talking about a single rebirth here… not multiple births by water and then by the Spirit.

Secondly, this is something which Jesus thought Nicodemus should have understood.  We know this, because, in verse 10, Jesus rebukes Nicodemus for not getting His point.  This leads me to believe that Jesus is talking about something present in the Old Testament.  In fact, it seems that Jesus is speaking of the New Covenant promise which is recorded for us in Ezekiel 36:25-27

Ezekiel 36:25-27 (ESV) – 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

 In this passage, God promises to sprinkle clean water on His people and cleanse them from all their sin.  He also promises to give His people a new heart… a new inner man… and all this would take place when God would place His Spirit within us.  The result of this would be an entirely new creation… a person wholly dedicated to God.

This is what it means to be born again… to be transformed by God… to be recreated by the power of His Spirit in our lives so that we can be set apart to God forever.

Why is this necessary?  Because naturally… we are all inherently sinful and defiled…

Genesis 8:21 (ESV) – 21 …the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth…

Ecclesiastes 9:3 (ESV) – 3 …the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

Romans 8:7 (ESV) – 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.

Ephesians 4:17-18 (ESV) – 17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.

Jesus is explicitly clear that there is nothing we can do to cause ourselves to be born again.  It is solely the work of the Holy Spirit… “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

There is a play on words here in the Greek.  The word translated “wind” is πνεμα in the Greek.  It can also be translated “spirit.”  Jesus is likening the work of the Spirit of God to the presence of wind.  We can’t see it… but we can feel it.  We don’t know where the wind comes from. We don’t know when it will come or when it will go away. 

This is how the Spirit works in causing people to be born again.  He is completely sovereign in this work.  He blows where He wishes… when He wishes… and how He wishes… and nothing that we do can change that.

But when He comes, He causes those who are in the night of unbelief to be born again, cleansing us from sin and creating within us a new heart… a new will to know and serve God.  He re-creates us, so that we can see and enter into a relationship with God in Jesus Christ.

This is the same thing which Paul is talking about in II Corinthians 4:3-6

2 Corinthians 4:3-6 (ESV) – 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Naturally… in the flesh… we are blind to the gospel and we cannot see the glory of God in Jesus Christ.  And the devil works over time keeping us that way.  It is only when God moves in creative power and causes His light to shine in our darkened hearts by His Holy Spirit that we can finally see Jesus for who He is and begin to believe rightly in Him in order to be saved.  Apart from this… no one can be saved.

Nicodemus doesn’t get this yet.  How can these things be?”

Jesus rather strongly rebukes him here.  It is as if He is saying, “How can you not understand this?”

These things are absolutely true… and Jesus assures Nicodemus of this.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you… (plural in the Greek… meaning Nicodemus and those like him)… you do not receive our testimony.” (verse 11.)

This is not speculation.  Jesus has seen this and knows this.  But “you”, Nicodemus, and those like you, do not receive this testimony.

Do you see what Jesus is getting at here?  It doesn’t matter that they believe Jesus is a good teacher… or a prophet from God.  That isn’t enough.  They must receive to themselves the full testimony about who Jesus is… and that is only possible if God first does a work of re-creation in them.

This is foundational to the Christian life.  If a person doesn’t get this… which Jesus calls “earthly things” in verse 12… then they will never be able to understand “heavenly things”… which is what Jesus seems to be describing in verses 13-15

Notice in verse 13, Jesus calls Himself “the Son of Man” and He states that He has descended from heaven.  Jesus seems to be equating Himself with the Son of Man described by Daniel in Daniel 7:13-14

Daniel 7:13-14 (ESV) – 13 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

It is hard to imagine that Nicodemus didn’t get what Jesus was driving at here.  They have just been talking about the kingdom of God and then Jesus describes Himself as the Son of Man… the One who receives the kingdom of God in heaven.

The tough part for Nicodemus to understand would have been how Jesus could be the Son of Man, since the Son of Man is described as being divine…

1)      He rides on the clouds which in the Old Testament are referred to as being God’s “chariot” (Psalm 104:3.)

2)      He approaches the throne of God… fully worthy in and of Himself to be crowned as King of kings and Lord of lords…

Jesus… standing before Nicodemus… veiled in human flesh… is claiming to be God Himself… descended from heaven.  And if that wasn’t startling enough, He says that He descended in order to be “lifted up.”

When Jesus speaks of being “lifted up” in John’s gospel, it is always a reference to the crucifixion (Jn 3:14, 8:28, 12:32, 12:34.)  And John 12:34 makes it clear that this imagery was understood by the people as referring to death.

Do you see how amazing these “heavenly things” are?  The Son of God… has left His heavenly abode… and is willingly giving up His life on a cross on behalf of sinful people like us.  That is amazing!!!  No wonder if a person doesn’t believe in earthly things… like the work of the Spirit of God to bring new life to dead sinners… then how could a person believe such an amazing thing?

But no matter how hard it is to believe this, it is of the utmost importance, because whoever believes in Him will have eternal life.

Jesus gives us a powerful illustration here of what it means to believe in Him by referring back to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness in Numbers 21:4-9

In this passage, God punished the Israelites in the wilderness for their sin by sending fiery serpents among them.  They bit the people and many died.  This is a picture of God’s justice and holiness and His hatred against sin.

But God also demonstrated His grace to them.  He provided a way of salvation for them.  He had Moses make a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole and those who would look upon it in faith would be saved.  Not that there was anything magical in the serpent itself… God was the One saving them… but they had to “see” it… they had to look upon the serpent lifted up and have faith in the God who had given them this sign of His grace.

Jesus says that those who look upon Him as the Son of Man… very God of very God… who died upon the cross for our sin… and believe in Him alone… they will be saved forevermore.  They will enter into the kingdom of God and enjoy eternal life in the presence of God.

Notice that this offer of salvation is held forth to all… “whoever believes in Him may have eternal life”…

But only those who “see” Him as He truly is will believe in Him as He truly is… and this is impossible apart from the sovereign work of God by His Spirit in causing us to be born again.

Did Nicodemus experience this new birth?  Did the Spirit of God blow upon Him and open His eyes to see the Son of Man lifted up for his sin?  We don’t know for sure… but we do see Nicodemus two more times in the gospel of John…

1)      In John 7:45-52… he sticks up for Jesus in a meeting of the Sanhedrin Council…

2)      And more importantly… in John 19:38-40… he and Joseph of Arimathea take the body of the crucified Son of Man and bury Him after He had been lifted up…

Did Nicodemus trust in Jesus to save him from his sin?  We don’t know for sure… but more importantly… have you trusted in Jesus Christ to save you from your sin?

What do you believe about Jesus?

Do you believe that He was simply a good teacher?  A prophet from God?  A legendary figure who is larger than life?  Or do you believe that He is the Son of God who left heaven to die for your sins upon the cross?

Have you been born again?  Has the Spirit of God blown across your heart and made you a new creation in Christ Jesus?

If you are not trusting in Jesus Christ to save you, then I urge you to do so.  Call upon the name of the Lord and be saved.  Confess your sin and turn away from your sin and plead with God to save you based on the work of Jesus Christ.  Do this and be saved for, apart from Him, you can never enter into the kingdom of God and receive the gift of eternal life.

 

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