Not Good Enough
Conversations with Jesus Not Good Enough John 3:1-21 Pastor Pat Damiani February 3, 2019 NOTE: This is a manuscript, and not a transcript of this message. The actual presentation of the message differed from the manuscript through the leading of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it is possible, and even likely that there is material in this manuscript that was not included in the live presentation and that there was additional material in the live presentation that is not included in this manuscript. Except for the break we took for Christmas, we’ve been dealing with some pretty deep theological issues in our study of the book of Romans for a while now. The concepts that we’ve studied in Romans 8-11 are no doubt what Paul and some of the other Biblical authors would refer to as “spiritual meat”. And I think it’s really important for us to feast on that kind of meat if we want to develop a faith that is deep. But at the same time, if we’re not careful, going that deep all the time could cause us to begin to think that the gospel is a lot more complicated than it really is. And unfortunately, one of the effects of that kind of mindset is that it hinders our ability and our desire to share our faith with others because we are afraid that we might not have all the answers. So one of our goals as a church this year is to help us to gain, or maybe regain, a sense of the simplicity of the gospel. And one of the best ways I know to do that is to spend some time in the gospel accounts written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - something that we really haven’t done a lot for the last several years. So from now until Easter, we’re going to be taking a look at some conversations that Jesus had with people who were largely ordinary people just like us. And we’ll see that in those conversations, Jesus had a real knack for being able to boil the gospel down to its basics. Before we begin with the first conversation, I want to make a general observation about what we’re going to discover. In almost every case, what we have recorded for us in these four gospel accounts are probably only brief tidbits or excerpts from conversations that probably lasted much longer and included much more than what is recorded in these accounts. But that is fine because we can trust that the authors were guided by the Holy Spirit to write down exactly what is important for us to know from each of these conversations. This morning, we’ll begin with a conversation that provides the context for what is undoubtedly the most well-known verse in the entire Bible – John 3:16. So go ahead and open your Bibles to John chapter 3. John is the fourth of the four gospel accounts and you’ll find it right after Matthew, Mark and Luke. Before I begin reading, I want to ask how many of you have a “red-letter” Bible, one that has the words of Jesus in red? If you do, you’ll notice that other than the words of Nicodemus, the entire section from verse 1 through verse 21 is in red letters, indicating that these are the words of Jesus. But we really can’t know for sure when the words of Jesus end and John’s commentary on the conversation begins. There just isn’t anything in the text that would give us a clear dividing point. And, not surprisingly, there are Bible scholars who actually spend their time arguing about where that dividing point is. I only bring that up because if you study this passage on your own, you may very well run into some of those arguments. Personally, I don’t really care because I believe what Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3 – that “all Scripture is breathed out by God” and since Jesus is God, everything in the Bible is Jesus’ words. So maybe we ought to just make all the text in the Bible red. Although I’m going to focus on the conversation in chapter 3, we need to set the stage by reading the end of chapter 2. [Read John 2:23-25] While Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover Feast, He did many signs and many believed in Jesus because of that. But Jesus didn’t believe in them because He knew the true condition of their hearts. Remember that in the original text there were no chapter breaks. So it’s not surprising that we find a clear connection between the last part of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter three that is accomplished with the use of the word “man”. At the end of chapter 2 we read that Jesus “knew what was in man” and then chapter three begins with “Now, there was a man…” The implication here is that Jesus could see what was beneath the religious veneer of Nicodemus and know what was in his heart. That is an important connection that will help us understand what Jesus is going to say to Nicodemus. [Read John 3:1-15] At first glance, Nicodemus might not seem like an ordinary person, given his religious credentials. But I think we’re going to see that he is a lot more like us than we might think. And because of that, he is going to illustrate for us the main idea that I want us to take away from today’s message: Nicodemus appears only in John’s gospel and he shows up two more times – once in chapter 7 where he comes to Jesus’ defense before the other Pharisees and again in chapter 19 where he accompanies Joseph of Arimathea and anoints the body of Jesus for burial. We know that he was a very religious man. He is identified here as a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews and in verse 10 Jesus calls him “the teacher of Israel”. Because of how Jesus often addresses them, we tend to think of the Pharisees in a negative light, but in the first century they were actually widely respected for their study of the Torah and their devotion to obeying God’s law. Josephus, the Jewish historian who may have been a Pharisee himself, estimated that there were only around 6,000 Pharisees at this time, which indicates this was a pretty exclusive group. As a “ruler of the Jews” Nicodemus would have also been a member of the 70-member Jewish ruling council called the Sanhedrin which adjudicated and settled both civil and criminal matters among the Jews so that the Romans wouldn’t have to get involved. That was also a highly respected position in the Jewish religion. We are told here that Nicodemus came “at night” but we’re not really told why. There are a number of possible reasons for that. It’s certainly possible that Nicodemus was afraid of being seen with Jesus. Maybe he just wanted to come when he could spend some uninterrupted time with Him. But that’s all just speculation. What is clear here is that Nicodemus realized that his own external religiosity wasn’t enough. There was still something missing in his life and he believed that Jesus had the answers. Undoubtedly, Nicodemus was one of the people who had seen the signs that Jesus had performed and had come to believe in Jesus to some degree. So he is intrigued enough by what he has seen to see if Jesus can help him discover the missing piece in his life. And apparently, he also approached Jesus as some kind of emissary for a group of people who had also observed the signs that Jesus was doing and were also curious about Him. That is indicated by the fact that Nicodemus uses the plural personal pronoun “we” in verse 2. Nicodemus begins with flattery, calling Jesus “Rabbi” and acknowledging that no one could do the things He was doing unless God was with Him. But Jesus, as we’ll see Him do time after time, has a way of seeing past the surface and getting to the real heart issue. So even thought Nicodemus hasn’t actually asked a question, in verse 3, John writes that Jesus “answered him”. Jesus begins his answer with a phrase that we see three times here in John 3 and one which He uses frequently in some form in many of the conversations He has with others – “Truly, truly…” “truly” = Greek amen = Hebrew āˈmēn = “so be it” In modern use, we usually use that word to end a prayer, but Jesus used it before making a statement. He was not only claiming that what He was about to say was true, but that He had firsthand knowledge it was true. “truly, truly” = “I know firsthand this is true.” Jesus then proceeds to give Nicodemus the answer to the question that Nicodemus really wants to ask, but either he is afraid to ask or he doesn’t even realize that is the question he needs to ask. Jesus makes it clear that Nicodemus’ religion, no matter how sincere or devout it might be, is just not enough to get him into the kingdom of God. The only way he can see the kingdom of God is to be “born again”. That is probably a phrase that we’re all familiar with. We might even call ourselves “born-again” Christians. But I wonder sometimes if we’re just as puzzled about what that really means as Nicodemus was. If you’re using the ESV translation, you have a footnote that will help you understand why Nicodemus is so confused here. The Greek word translated “again” is an ambiguous adverb that has three different possible meanings. It can mean: 1) From the beginning. Luke uses the word like that in Luke 1 2) Again, in the sense of a second time. 3) From above, which is the way it is used in verse 31 here in John 3. All three senses are present in what Jesus says here. To be born again means to undergo such a radical change that it is like being born for the first time. It is being born again in the sense that this spiritual birth happens after our physical birth. And it is certainly from above, since it is not the result of any kind of human achievement. But Nicodemus chooses to focus only on the second aspect and comes up with what seems like a ridiculous question in verse 4 about entering into his mother’s womb a second time. It’s really hard to know here if Nicodemus is just being sarcastic or if he is truly wanting to understand what Jesus is saying here. But Jesus does not get sidetracked by this rabbit trail. He gets right back to reminding Nicodemus why he can’t rely on his religion. He tells Nicodemus that no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of “water and the Spirit”. Up until I did some further study this week, I always believed that the reference to water here was a reference to one’s physical birth, which would mean that Jesus was speaking here of the need for both a physical and spiritual birth. But the underlying grammar here indicates that water and Spirit are parallel and not distinct ideas. And in verse 10, Jesus indicates that as the teacher of Israel, this is something that Nicodemus should have understood. So Jesus must be referring to something that is revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures that Nicodemus would have been familiar with. This passage from Ezekiel 36 seems to be relevant here: 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. 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. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25–27 ESV) Ezekiel had predicted a time when God would cleanse the people from their sins, using the illustration of water. That same imagery of our sins being washed away is picked up frequently by the New Testament authors as well. And when God did that, He would also put His Spirit in them to enable them to live a life that is consistent with His purposes, plans and ways. And Nicodemus, who was a student of the Scriptures, should have been able to make the connection between being “born again” and Ezekiel’s prophecy. But the problem was that his religion, which was focused on external morality rather than the heart, kept him from seeing the connection. So Nicodemus shows us that… While it’s easy to sit here and fault Nicodemus for letting his religion get in the way of truly being “born again”, the fact is that we are prone to do the very same thing. It’s even possible that some of you here this morning are depending on your religion to make you right with God and you don’t even recognize that. You figure that as long as you come to church on a regular basis, give your offering each week, participate in the Lord’s Supper when we have it, and read your Bible and pray regularly that makes you right with God. Maybe you even go a step or two beyond that and you’ve been baptized or joined this church or you participate in a Bible study each week. Now all of those are religious activities that are good. Most of them are either commanded or encouraged in the Bible. But while they are good, they are not good enough to allow you to enter the kingdom of God. And it’s even possible for those of us who have committed our lives to Jesus to fall back into relying upon our religion and religious activities and become just like the Pharisees who thought their religion was their ticket into heaven. In fact, because we are so prone to do that, later this year, we’re going to have an entire sermon series titled “Modern Day Pharisees” that is going to focus on that idea. So how do we make sure that we don’t rely on religion that is good but not good enough? To answer that question, we need to read the last part of today’s passage. [Read John 3:16-21] There is so much that we could take away from these 6 verses. But since our goal in this series is to focus on the simplicity of the gospel, I’m going to attempt to leave us with just one gospel takeaway each week in this series. So that means we won’t have time to cover every single detail of this passage or any of the other ones we’ll be studying over the next nine weeks. Instead, we’re going to focus on the parts of the passage that are most relevant to that main takeaway. Not only is that going to reduce how much you have to write down each week on your outline, but I’m also hoping that it will make it much easier for you to make application of the message in your life each week. So here is… TODAY’S GOSPEL TAKEAWAY 1. What I believe is more important than what I achieve. Let me address the last part of this idea first – the idea of what I can achieve. Let me ask you all a question. How many of you were responsible for or were involved in your own birth? Being born is not something you can do on your own, is it? You don’t conceive yourself and you don’t deliver yourself. Someone else does all of that. I think that is why Jesus uses the metaphor of birth here. He wants to make it clear to Nicodemus, who thinks that all his religious activity is going to get him into the kingdom of God, that the act of being born again, or being born from above, is not something we can do on our own. And it’s why the verb “born” is a passive verb every time Jesus uses it in this chapter to indicate that this is not something I can achieve on my own, but something that must be done to me or for me. Not surprisingly, this is exactly what we’ve seen in our study of Romans, right? There Paul was continually making the same point that Jesus is making here – there is nothing that I can do to achieve favor with God or which will give me entry into His kingdom. Now let’s move on to the “what I believe” aspect of our gospel takeaway. The verb “believe” has been central to this entire section: • In John 2:23 we saw that the people “believed” in Jesus’ name when they saw the signs that Jesus was performing. But we also saw there that Jesus knew that their belief was inadequate for the to enter the kingdom of God, a truth which is then illustrated by Nicodemus. • In verse 12, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he does not believe the earthly things that Jesus has told him and therefore he cannot believe heavenly things. • And then in verses 14-15, when John compares Jesus to the serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness, he reminds them that it was those who believed that were saved that day and that in the same way those who believe in Jesus will receive eternal life. So after setting the stage with that common thread of belief throughout that whole section, this passage reaches its pinnacle in verse 16, where Jesus reveals that the way to be born again is to believe in Him. But what exactly does that mean? The idea of believing is central to John’s gospel. He uses the term “believe” in one form or another 92 times in his gospel and in every single instance it is a verb, not a noun. That is because in Hebrew thought, to believe is always more than just a mental assent. It is more than merely intellectual assent to a set of facts or even reciting a creed or a prayer. It is a change in thought that leads to a change in action. We can see this in the passage we’ve been looking at this morning. Go back to John 2:24, where John writes that “Jesus, on his part did not entrust himself to them.” The verb “entrust” there is the same Greek word that is translate “believe” elsewhere in our passage. The idea that Jesus did not believe them involved more than just what He thought. It also meant that He was not going to take on their worldview or to act in ways that were consistent with that worldview. He knew what was in man and knew what would happen if he adopted their mindset or their way of living. So believing in Jesus is much more than just believing a set of facts about Him or even acknowledging the fact that He is God in the flesh. The Bible tells us that even the demons believe that. To believe in Jesus means to adopt His words and actions as the foundation for my words and actions. If we want to put it in simple terms we can probably all grasp, it is betting my entire life on Jesus. While that does require a change in my thinking, it is much more than that. It is more than asking Jesus to forgive my sins or praying the “sinner’s prayer”. It means that I make Him the reliable and trustworthy guide for living and that I follow Him in every area of my life. That requires a change in my choice, desires, goals and behaviors. But it is not the same kind of focus on external behavior that characterized the religiosity of Nicodemus and the other Jewish religious leaders. This kind of belief is not optional. Look again at what Jesus said to Nicodemus in verse 7: “You must be born again.” Jesus didn’t say, “I suggest that you be born again” or “it would be a good idea if you be born again” or “you should consider being born again.” Let me suggest to you a couple ways that the idea that what I believe is more important than what I achieve ought to impact your life: First, all of us need to evaluate our own personal commitment to Jesus and determine whether we’ve really believed in Jesus in the way I just described. Have you really staked your life completely on Jesus and committed to live your life according to His desires, purposes and plans rather than your own? I know from personal experience that it’s possible to believe some facts about Jesus and even repeat the “sinner’s prayer” and still not truly believe in Jesus in the way that is required to be born again. Or maybe you’ve never really made any kind of commitment to Jesus because you’ve been depending on your religion to make you right with God. If either of those are true in your life, then I plead with you to make sure that you don’t leave hear today until you make that right with God. During our last song, some of our Elders will be standing at the back and would be happy to talk to you more about that. And if for some reason that is too intimidating, then please contact one of us this afternoon. Our contact information is on the back of your bulletin. Fortunately, I’m confident that many, or even most of you, have that kind of genuine belief in Jesus. For you, I hope that what we’ve learned today will help you be more confident in sharing the gospel with others. I encourage you to follow Jesus’ example and not get pulled off track by all the rabbit trails that people often bring up but to gently guide people back to the real issue of whether or not they believe in Jesus. When I think of rabbit trails, I’m always reminded of a story that Dennis Everson has shared. I don’t remember all the details, so I might get some of them wrong, but the story has to do with someone that asked about whether dogs go to heaven. As Dennis rightly points out the right way to answer that question is this: “Is Jesus more important to you than your dog?” In spite of all his religion, Nicodemus came to Jesus because he just couldn’t be sure that all that religion was enough. He sensed that there had to be another way, and he was right. Depending on your religion to get you into the kingdom of God is actually the most frustrating and nerve-wracking way to live because you can never be assured that your religion is good enough, no matter how much you do. But the good news is that none of us have to live like that. If we’re willing to let Him, Jesus is more than willing to cause us to be born again and make us fit for His kingdom. Discussion questions for Bible Roundtable 1. Why do you think the idea of “religion” is so appealing? What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of religion? 2. What is the difference, if any, between “asking Jesus into your heart” and being “born again”? 3. Who do you think is most likely to respond to the gospel - a religious person or someone who would be considered to be a “sinner” (a convict, an addict, a sexually immoral person)? How should your approach in sharing the gospel differ between the two? 4. How does this passage teach both God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility? 5. Explain in your own words what it means to “believe in Jesus”?