John Lesson 7 - Reborn . . . the Declaration
What did Jesus mean when He told Nicodemus that he must be born again? Was He referring to a physical miracle, a spiritual miracle, or something else entirely? In this message Stephen investigates the meaning behind Jesus' most radical and telling description of salvation in all the Gospels.
There isn't any doubt that certain books of the Bible are more well known than others. I'm sure that if I took a survey not many of us would know any event or theme from the book of Habbukuk; if our lives depended on it, I doubt we could quote a verse from the book of Haggai. I'll bet even Mr. John Cooper would be hard pressed to quote a verse from Haggai. (you made that up!)
Well, for the "rest of us" who aren't as fluent in Haggai, when we come to the Gospel of John and chapter 3, the stories are more familiar - many have heard the story of Nicodemus and many of us have either memorized or sung or at least heard about the most familiar verse in the entire Bible - John 3:16. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life."
Now I have a confession for you - having arrived at chapter 3 in our study through this Gospel, my first thought was - well, I'll just hit the high points and move on - one sermon on the first 21 verses, that'll do it . . . this is familiar territory!
But then I began to study and the Holy Spirit began to convict my mind and heart and remind me that I had, open before me, the most precious truth of all time. . .how dare I skim through it?!
I had initially planned to hand you a pair of flippers and a snorkel when before us is nothing less than a wonderful ocean of truth.
My prayer and hope now, is that to those of you who know these truths, they will simply bathe over you with refreshing newness and to those of you who are unaware or unbelieving, that you will be reborn!
And so, for the next few weeks, we are not going to snorkel through John chapter three, we are going to go deep sea diving.
The fable is told of a young Arab who was riding his donkey down the road when he came upon a samll bird, a sparrow, lying upon his back in the road. There he was, a small object with his two thin legs pointed skyward. At first the Arab thought the sparrow was dead. When he found that the bird was alive, however, the Arab got down drom his donkey and went over to speak to him. "Are you all right?" he asked. Yes! "Then what are you doing lying on your back with your legs pointed up at the sky?"
The sparrow replied, "Haven't you heard the rumor? They say that heaven is going to fall." The Arab laughed, "Surely you don't think you're going to hold it up with those two scrawny legs do you?" After a long puase, thebird looked at him with a solemn face and retorted, "One does the best one can."
I want to introduce you this morning to a man who, if it were humanly possible to hold up heaven by the legs of human achievment, it was this man.
John begins the story by giving us, in resume fashion, all the impressive qualities of a man who seemed to have it all together.
John 3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus,
a ruler of the Jews.
Now let's break it down. First of all, John gives us Nicodemus's religous passion - he's a Pharisee.
In many ways the Pharisees were the worst people in the world; they were cold and legalistic. At the same time, the Pharisees were the best people in the whole country - they were the holy men who kept the law; they pursued purity with a passion and wanted nothing more that to live lives that pleased God. They were sincere, albiet sincerely misguided.
There were never any more than 6,000 Pharisees in the country. They were known as the chaburah - the brotherhood. They entered into this brotherhood by taking a pledge in front of three witnesses that they would spend all their lives observing every detail of the scribal law. That was the problem!
You see, the scribes had created the Mishna - the writings that codified scribal law. Then there was the Talmud - which is the commentary on the Mishna. I've read of a Rabbi who spent nearly 3 years studying one chapter from the Mishna.
A perfect illustration is seen in the simple Sabbath law. The Bible clearly told the Israelite, don't work, don't bear burdens, but rest and keep it a holy day.
Well, work had to be defined; carrying burdens had to be defined.
!milk enough for one swallow
!spoon weighing no more than one fig
It was the scribes and Pharisees who were embroiled over the discussion as to whether or not on the Sabbath a woman could wear a brooch; a mother pick up her child or if a man could wear his wooden leg . . . these were burdens.
Now the Bible said we were to rest on the Sabbath - not work!
Clear enough? No. Work had to be defined. Well, in this agrarian setting, it was decided that tying a knot was work. But a knot had to be defined, "The following are the knots the making of which renders a man guilty; the knot of camel drivers and that of sailors; and as one is guilty by reason of tying them, so also of untying them."
Furthermore, "A woman may to tie up the strings of her cap and those of her girdle."
Now, suppose a man wanted to let down a bucket into a well to draw water on the Sabbath day. He could not tie a rope to the bucket, for a knot on a rope was illegal on the Sabbath; but he could tie the bucket to his wife's girdle and then tie a rope to the girdle and let it down into the well, becuase any knot associated with a girdle was legal. . .thank goodness.
One the one hand - how ridiculous - yet on the other hand, here is a man who has committed himself to the incredible inconvience of keeping thousands of regulations in order to please God! On one hand, who tragic. . .on the other hand, passionate.
It was the scribes, who had expounded and developed all of the written law into thousands of regulations. It was the Pharisees who dedicated their lives to keeping them.
Here we are - enjoying grace and freedom - we know the truth! Yet we have little passion to please God, and even smaller desire to inconvenience ourselves . . . we silently sink into our contemporary culture withought causing a ripple of distincition.
So the first thing to note about Nicodemus is his religous passion
Secondly, Nicodemus was wealthy
That is, he had tremendous social prominence.
Travel to the tomb where Nicodemus brought for the body of Jesus a mixture of myrrh and aloes about an hundred pound weight. only a rich man could afford that!
Rabinnical tradition makes Nicodemus one of the three richest men in Jerusalem.
Nicodemus is actually a Greek name which means, "one who conquers the people". It's interesting in the days of Jesus only the rich were able to hire Greek tutors for their children - thus exposing them to Greek culture. And we know that families of the upper classes often gave thier children two names, a Hebrew name and a Greek name.
It seems that Nicodemus belonged to a distinguished Jewish family.
One commentator suggested that Nicodemus' family was the Rockefeller . . . the Eisenhower of his day!
The last part of verse 1 tells us that Nicodemus was "a ruler of the Jews."
The Greek word is archon - that is to say that Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin.
In Israel the Sanhedrin was made up of 71 religous leaders. This was Israels Supreme Court! These men were the power players and interestingly enough, one of the Sanhedrin's responsibilites was to examine and deal with anyone suspected of being a false prophet.
Now skip down to verse 10 -
Add one more quality to the resume. "Jesus answered and said to Him, are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?
The definite article "the" teacher is translated, "Arent' you the leading, the famous teacher in Israel . . . Nicodemus was evidently extremely popular, and had a reputation as a great teacher.
Nicodemus knew the facts of scripture - but he didn't know the truth!
Here's what John is setting us up for . . . here's the point.
Nicodemus was the best kind of person in Jesus' day - he had a terrific reputation; he was socially prominent and yet had chosen not to live for money but to live a seperated life in order to please God; he was a leader among the Sanhedrinists, he had a reputation for being an outstanding teacher . . . he was the best representative that religion, education and culture could produce.
If anybody was a candidate for the Kingdom, it would be this man; if anybody could have graduated from the human race with the title, "Most likely to get into heaven" it would be Nicodemus.
But Nicodemus was lost!
Now notice verse 2. This man came to Him by night, and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him."
By now, the debate was already raging as to the source of Jesus' power. Some said it came from Beelzebub. . .Nicodemus is kindly informing Jesus from the outset that he doesn't buy that argument. He's in effect saying, "Jesus, I really think you have pure motives and the power of God. . ."
But it was also a polite way of opening the door for Jesus to share with Nicodemus His primary message. "I know you've come from God and have the power of God. . .I saw you clean out the temple this morning and declare authority over the Temple . . . but what are you really trying to communicate - what's your primary message?"
Here it is - vs. 3. Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." This is a shocking statement. Why? Becuase Jesus is telling, the leading candidate for heaven that he isn't going.
He's done a lot of things right but he hasn't done the right thing!
And Nicodemus, being a faithful Jew has always assumed that he's already part of the Kingdom of God. . .he's a son of Abraham - he has a right to heaven!
This is not only a shocking statement but a difficult statment.
What do you mean "born again?"
4. Nicodemus said to Him, "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?"
Poor Nicodemus . . . can't figure it out! Neither could we without a passage like John 3.
What Jesus, the master teacher will proceed to do is provide Nicodemus, and all of us with three illustratons that explain the transaction we call salvation.
Illustration #1 is the illustration of the physical birth.
v. 5. Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. don't stop here or you'll get into trouble 6. That which is born of the flesh is flesh (out of water) and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Now just what does, "of water" refer to? !a reference to the cleansing aspect of the New Covenant !a reference to the cleansing of the Word !another reference to the Holy Spirit !a reference to John the Baptist and his baptism of repentance !a refernece to the necessity of water baptism.
Let me refer briefly to that view. Jesus was not teaching that the new birth comes through water baptism. In the New Testament, baptism is connected with death, not birth. While baptism is necessary for spiritual obedience, it is not necessary for spiritual birth.
Otherwise salvation is not simply recieved, it must be earned! Oh no! My friend, I was baptized not so I could go to be with the Lord, but so that I could show publicly that I belonged to the Lord already.
The amazing thing about interpreting the scipture is so often we overlook the commentary of the passage we're studying.
Jesus is talking about being born again - in other words, in order to get into the kingdom you have to be born twice. Look back at verse 6. That which is born of the flesh is flesh (that's the natural,
first birth) and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (that's the supernatural, second birth)
So in Jesus analogy, the fleshly or natural birth corresponds to being born of water. The greek words are ex hudatos which can be translated "born out of water." It's interesting that in the hebrew, the word "to give birth" actually refers to the rupture of the membranes.
I don't want to bore you with the details but as many of you know, I've just been through this...for the last time. We're in the labor and delivery room; they came in and broke her water. . .the baby has been floating in a sack filled with amniotic fluid; we refer to that as the water. The doctor, by breaking the sack, basically let the water out of the swimming pool (I'm obviously using layman's terms here.) And just like you would be, no one wants to swim in a pool without any water - this is the incentive for the baby to make an appearance! (FIRST SERVICE) And things really started to happen fast! Contractions came quicker and more painful - I was nervous. I am glad to report that Marsha didn't say anything to me or about me that would jeapordize my ministry as your Pastor. I was proud of her for many reasons that day.
Our little girl was literally born "ex hudatos" - out of water.
That's what verse 5 is referring to - "You must be born (physically) "out
of water". Now you might think, that's too obvious - everyone knows that in order to go to heaven you have to be born.
You're thinking like a good Jew - see they thought that birth physically was all there was - they were simply born into Abraham's family. . . that was it! SO TODAY!!!
Jesus concurs, "Yes, you have to be born physically, but I'm talking about another birth - spiritually. The first birth is not good enough! You have to belong to another family Nicodemus if you want to enter heaven.
Now the problem that Nicodemus is having at this point relates to the Holy Spirit.
You see, Nicodemus is a pragmatic realist - things need to be black and white - how can I trust someone who is invisible that I really don't undertand!
Before Nicodemus gets that argument out, Jesus provides him with his second illustration.
8. "The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know hwere it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit."
F.B.Meyer wrote, "The new life begotten by the Spirit of God is as mysterious as the wind."
What is Jesus saying? Well, for starters, he is saying that the wind and the Holy spirit are a lot alike. In fact, the greek and hebrew words for spirit and wind are identical.
The re-birth by the Spirit and the movement of the wind are similar: How? !The spiritual birth and the wind are both invisible !They cannot be seen but they can both be sensed.
!They cannot be fully explained but they can be fully evidenced
You can't see the wind blow but you can see what it does. You may not see the Spirit move; but you can see the effect of the Spirit in human lives.
H.A. Ironside, was once preaching in the open air in Chicago. He was once the pastor of Moody Church. A large crowd had gathered to hear him preach on salvation and the Christian life.
A well known agnostic was in the crowd - a man who sowed skepticm and doubt in the scriptures and the reality of a personal God. He stepped forward and handed Ironside a note - "I challenge you to a debate in the Hall of Science next Sunday afternoon." Ironside read the note aloud and then said to the Agnostic, "I will come and debate with you the reality of teh Christian life if you will do one thing . . . you must agree to bring with you one person from your sphere of influence. One person who was discouraged and defeatedby life, not knowing where to turn or what to beleive. Until that person came and heard you lecture your agnostic beliefs. And then that man, after listening to you, said in effect, "I believe what you are saying and will begin living in light of it. . ." Ironside said, "Bring one person who after hearing you speak found peace of mind, victory over temptation and a purpose for living. . .bring one and if you will, I will debate you and I will bring with me 100."
The report concluded that the Agnostic turned on his heels and marched away.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the unanswerable argument for Christianity is the Christian - a life that is under the sway and bent of the Holy Spirit.
Nicodemus was still confused - "Okay, you've told me I need to be reborn, and after being reborn I'd see the effect of the Spirit's work..but how?!
And so after a mild rebuke in verse 10 Jesus provides his third illustration.
It's the clearest illustration of all.
The first two illustrations explain the nature of the new birth, this one explains the necessity of the new birth.
It's the illustraion of the the brass serpent. John 3:14. As as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15. that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.
The verse refers us back to one of the most unique stories in the Old Testament. In the Book of Numbers we find the Israelites in rebellion against God. God sent a plague of deadly serpents, called fiery serpents simply becuase fire or a fever that ultimatley led to death was the predominate result of their bite.
The people cried out for mercy and God instructed Moses to make a brass serpent, put it on a pole and hold it up in the midst of the camp. Those who looked up at the serpent were healed; simple as that.
Why not develop medicine. . .why not require them to work for a cure?! It would have given them all something to do and would have satisfied every natural instinct of the heart to work on behalf of its own cure.
The fact that they were not told to make a human remedy is indicative of the greater fact that there is no human remedy for sin. Nothing but death awaitng them unless God provides the remedy.
Donald Grey Barnhouse wrote...That incident in Israel's history became a pre-figuring of Jesus Christ on a cross, lifted up, who became wicked sin for us. Salvation, spiritual healing, re-birth comes from simply looking at Him - in that look, believing that hope comes only from trust in Him.
My friend, you can join a society, a church, sign a pledge card, go through Bible lessons and chatechisms, give money, get baptized; and die without God.
We have been bitten by sin - and it's a mortal wound. Is there hope.
Look - on a wooden pole - a cross is the dying Savior. He descended from heaven so that he could be raised up on a cross.
Quickly go back to verse 14. "as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
The original word for "lifted up" is wonderful. It's a word that is used twice of Jesus. Once when he was lifted up upon the Cross and also when Jesus was lifted up from earth in his ascension.
There is a double lifting up in Jesus' life - the lifting up on the cross and the lifting up into glory.
Jesus Christ is the cure for the death bite of sin.
Now verse 15 says, "That whoever believes may in Him have eternal life." What does it mean to believe?
We're out of time to explain it fully but I invite you back for our discussion on John 3:16 as I've entitled it "Reborn . . . the decision".
But for now, and for the sake of Nicodemus, what was Jesus saying?
I want you to imagine stumbling into an old run down farmyard. It's windswept and nothing more than hard baked ground there is a well - over top the well is a wooden platform and an old rusty pump. You're dying of thirst.
You go over, step up onto the platform and begin to pump on that hamdle. . . it squeaks and complains with every push and pull. Nothing.
What do you do? Well, I'll tell you what makind has done. It's scraped all the rust off and painted the handle. No, better yet, it's replaced the old handle with a brass handle, shining in the son with class and dignity. People from all around have come to look at the pump - songs have been composed about it; a painter has come and painted its portrait. It looks wonderful and many people have worked to make it attractive.
But nothing can be done to that pump that will ever change the fact that it will never bring one drop of water to your thirsty lips.
Why? Because it's sitting on top of an empty well.
Nicodemus - you look good. You're the best that society and religion and culture can produce - but you're pumping from an empty well...you need to be re-planted - re-built - you need to come in contact with the well of living water.
And you come by way of a look - looking at the Son of man, who came to earth so that you could go to heaven.
It's been said, that the foot of the cross touched earth declaring that God had moved to touch you and I. The top of the cross pointed heavenward declaring their is now a bridge to cross over; the arms of the cross stretch outward as if to say, "Whosoever will may come" Even me, even you.
"In the religous fashion of our day, there would have been a rush to incorporate the "Society for the Extermination of the Fiery Serpents, known as SEFS. and there would have been badges for the coat lapel, cards for district workers, secretaries for organization branches, pledge cards and mass rallies. There would have been a publication office and a weekly journal to tell of the progress of the work. There would have been photographs of heaps of serpents that had been killed by the faithful workers. All of them feverishly trying, by human efort to overcome the serpent's bite of sin!
Let us accompany one of the zealous workers as he might take a pledge card into the tent of a stricken victim. The man had been bitten and the poison had already affected his limbs. He lies in feverish agony, the glaze of death already coming to his eyes. The zealous member of the Society for the Extermination of Fiery Serpents tells him of all that has been done to combat the serpents, and urges the man to join - the dying victim fumbles in his pocketbook for money and then takes a pen in hand. His fingers are held by the worker who helps him form his signature on the pledge and membership card, and the man signs in full and dies!
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