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Unfurling the flag

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Unfurling the Flag

John 2:23-3:16

Theme: Jesus firmly plants His Father’s flag into solid ground and in so doing calls us to its standard.

Introduction: John 3:1-16, the Nicodemus discourse, is called “The most famous conversation in the Bible” by Max Lucado. Out of this discourse comes John 3:16. This verse is taught in backyard Bible schools, during vacation Bible school, during witness training classes and delivered to large groups during revivals, evangelistic sermons and alter calls.

No matter what the age, it is difficult to find anyone in just about any church that has not heard, read or memorized this verse. "For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) It might be more difficult to find someone outside the church family who has read or memorized it but many have heard it from one translation or another. Just look at various sports programs on TV and you will eventually find a poster proclaim John 3:16. Not much else but the book, chapter and verse need to be printed on the poster for everyone to understand what is being said.


Back up to John 2:23 and read the first few verses of our passage and we are provided the setting and main characters. We are in Jerusalem during the feast of the Passover with Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus was performing signs and many were trusting in Him. Nicodemus was looking for the Christ as he studied the signs he read about from the scrolls.

However, Nicodemus was also looking for Jesus. Hearing about His works, hearing the stories that were being passed around about the signs He was performing, Nicodemus had to hear the truth for himself. Wondering, waiting and working until it was night, Nicodemus came to Jesus and said, "Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher, for no one could perform these signs You do unless God were with him."

This opening statement by Nicodemus suggests that we should hear an exchange of pleasantries between Nicodemus and Jesus. As Max puts it, “we listen for a kindred salutation from Jesus: ‘And I’ve heard of you, Nicodemus.’” We can almost hear Nicodemus as he starts out with some platitudes of what good works Jesus has been performing but we can also hear buried in there a self-compliment. It must take someone who is educated and paying attention to be able to recognize that an uneducated carpenter is able to teach others with such knowledge. Only someone as educated as Nicodemus normally does this and it takes him to be able to recognize the level of understanding Jesus exhibits.


After having been identified as a character in this discourse, Jesus now steps into His position of being the teacher. “Jesus makes no mention of Nicodemus’s VIP status, good intentions, or academic credentials, not because they don’t exist, but because, in Jesus’s algorithm, they don’t matter.” (Lucado, chapter 1) This is critical teaching that Jesus has for Nicodemus and the small pleasantries will only get in the way of the teaching.

Jesus jumps right into the heart of the matter by telling Nicodemus that “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3 NKJV) Max calls this “the Continental Divide of Scripture, the international date line of faith.” It is essential to understand what He is teaching because it defines which side of the divide you are standing on. Standing on one side is Nicodemus and on the other is Jesus.

This divide is one of philosophies. On one side is Nicodemus with his works and efforts to reach into heaven. As Max puts it, “Nicodemus inhabits a land of good efforts, sincere gestures, and hard work.” The focus is on Nicodemus wanting to learn what he can do to gain entrance into heaven or making sure he has secured his seat already. Jesus response is simply that no matter how good the deeds, thoughts or actions he falls short of earning his way in. However, there is still a way in which requires a rebirth.

Nicodemus states that obviously Jesus is good and because of that God is working through Him but Nicodemus wants to be recognized as being good also. Jesus wants him to see that good, even great, isn’t good enough. There isn’t anything that will ever be good enough.

We are told in Romans chapter three that, “…we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one’” and “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” as well as in 1 John chapter 1, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” If Nicodemus can grasp that no matter how good he lives, no matter how well he obeys the law he is still short of God’s perfection then he can accept Jesus’ statement that he must be reborn. Works will never get us to where God wants us to be. Galatians 2:16 reads, “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by the faith in Jesus Christ …” Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

Jesus wants Nicodemus to understand that it will require God and God alone to get him into heaven. Since his birth required God to be acting then a rebirth will require God to be acting again as well. Nicodemus asks the question everyone wants to know. How is it possible to be born again? Max points out that we have all wanted to have another start, “a do over.” Another chance to get it right this time. Maybe at some point you have thought you would like to go back to the last job you had and do it again but this time with the knowledge you now have gained, or maybe re-do high school. Even as we think these thoughts we know they can’t happen, no matter how deeply we wish or dream. So how is it possible to be born again and what does that mean?

When Nicodemus asks how it is possible to be born again he is thinking of the natural birth process we each go through when created. Jesus responds by emphatically saying we each must have this rebirth but it is about entering into heaven and not entering into this world again. The again part is the work of God. The word translated again shows a repeated action but requires the one doing the act to be the same one who repeats it.

There is a required change we must go through to enter into heaven. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6 NKJV) Jesus then uses the example of the wind to help explain. The wind is known to everyone but it is not seen and is mysterious. The work of the Christ and the Spirit is similar to this. Jesus is in the world and at work and His work is seen and felt by many even if it is not understood. How is this change supposed to occur? What causes it or what will start this change?


The third character in this discourse is us, the reader. We may not be active participants in the discussion but we are invited into the rebirth process just the same as Nicodemus was. We have been a part of this discourse from the beginning. Sitting right next to Nicodemus as he asks the questions we want, coming to Jesus in the dark, waiting for those around us to be busy with their lives so they don’t see us come. The questions and disbelief that Nicodemus has are the same questions we ask and the ones we seek answers to.


Could not understand how You could

Truly free us

He struggled with the image

Of a grown man born again

We might have been good friends

Cuz sometimes I still question, too

How easily we come to You (Nicole Nordeman – To Know You)

Upon our cry of “How can these things be?” (John 3:9 NKJV), Jesus tells us that He has told us earthly things and if we cannot grasp those how are we to understand heavenly things. The earthly things that Nicodemus is having trouble understanding and what we have to come to terms with is the issue of rebirth. It relates to our situation we find ourselves in when we are standing on the other side of the Continental Divide from Jesus. Each one of us will walk to the edge of that divide and look over and see Jesus. We are all on a path that will bring us to that moment in life. We are separated from Jesus by this divide and have to come to the edge in order to understand this separation.

Standing on the other side of the divide is Jesus with His arms outstretched to us. Waiting and wanting us to let Him take us across the divide, to be reborn and enter onto His side of the divide. There is no earthly bridge we can find. Nothing we can look around for and find to construct a bridge or any other means of crossing. It is an impossible task in front of us. No matter what we do, no matter who is standing on the edge with us, no matter what we bring to the edge we cannot construct something for us to cross on. We cannot meditate enough to float across. We cannot follow any rules that while allow us to walk across. We cannot cast a spell that will let us appear on the other side. We can ask anyone we want to that is standing with us how to cross but no matter how long they have remained standing there looking they wont have the answer. We can sit down and try to pretend that where we are is on the other side but the fact remains, we are separated from God and can produce no means on our own to cross.

Then we hear Jesus’ words, “’No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.’” (John 3:13 NKJV) If we want to know how to cross then we must listen to the one and only who has crossed and knows the way. He reminds us of Moses lifting up the serpent as a means of healing those who had been bitten (Numbers 21:4-9) and compares that act of the serpent being lifted up on a pole to His crucifixion on the cross. Jesus tells us that just like the Israelites looked to the serpent for healing we should look to the cross for our healing.

Jesus firmly plants His flag into the ground on His side of the divide and invites us to look to the cross as our standard.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16 NKJV)

Our rebirth begins at the cross. The cross is the catalyst for this rebirth and like our first birth we are not active participants in it. In the birthing process the baby doesn’t birth themselves. The mother does the work and the baby gets the reward. We cannot cause ourselves to be reborn. Only God, who acted in our first birth with our creation, can act in our second birth. The act He chose is the flag that Jesus now has planted in the ground for us to see. We do not do anything in this process but simply accept it when offered.

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