Sunday 17 November 2013

Born again (John 3:1-15)

Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.
John 2:23-25

Jesus was popular. That’s what we see in these opening verses: Many people admiring him from afar. Crowds amazed by his miracles and even, verse 23 says, believing in his name as a result of these miracles. And yet, verse 24 reminds us, Jesus perceived his newfound popularity as a bad thing. “Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men”. Again, in verse 25: “He knew what was in a man.”

Jesus knew there was a difference between those who saw him as a celebrity and those who saw him as their Saviour. There is a difference between his fans and his followers. And it is possible for our admiration of Jesus to keep us from putting our faith in Jesus.

We see this under three headings from today’s passage: (1) Being impressed by Jesus; (2) Being surprised by Jesus; and finally (3) Believing in Jesus. Three different reactions; three different responses to Jesus; only one is genuine. Only one leads to eternal life.

Impressed by Jesus

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no-one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
John 3:1-2

We meet a guy who is a fan of Jesus, a man called Nicodemus; who respectfully addresses him as Rabbi; who says he’s seen the miracles and who concludes that Jesus must therefore be a man from God. Verse 2: “For no-one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

But notice how Nicodemus is first introduced to us in verse 1: A man of the Pharisees and a member of the Jewish ruling council. It is saying that Nicodemus was pretty famous himself. He was a high-ranking bishop in the church. Even Jesus recognises him (in verse 10) as “Israel’s teacher”. This was a formal academic title, something like Professor of Divinity here at Cambridge.

So for Nicodemus, a theologian, a leader, probably someone older and more experienced in ministry than Jesus, to come knocking at Jesus’ door in the middle of the night, expressing friendship and admiration, you would think that Jesus would be enthusiastic about his support and say something like, “Come on in, Professor Nick. What took you so long to come to your senses?”

Instead, what Jesus says to him is, “You don’t have a clue you are talking about.” Verse 3:

In reply, Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
            John 3:3

“It’s not the miracles, Nicodemus. It’s something called the new birth that qualifies you to talk about the kingdom of God.” Jesus says to him.

Nicodemus answers like a true academic. Verse 4: “How can a man be born when he is old?... Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb!” For Nicodemus, born again means being born all over again. Or he thinks it’s a theological debate on the human condition - the need to be reborn, as it were. Either way, Nicodemus says, “It’s impossible! It can’t be done!”

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus says in verse 5, “no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” Here, Jesus clarifies an important point. Born again does not mean turning over a new leaf like when you make a new year’s resolution to give up chocolates. It’s not a second chance at fixing the problems in your life. It’s more radical than that. Born again (or the phrase can mean born from above) means being transformed by God’s Spirit. “The Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (verse 6)

Today, a born-again Christian is akin to a committed Christian; someone who is serious about religion. Newspapers use “born-again Christian” to describe celebrities like Jeremy Lin or George Bush - not in a positive sense - but as a way of saying, “These guys take their faith way too seriously.”

But Jesus is not saying to Nicodemus, “You have to be more serious about your faith.” Quite the opposite, Jesus is saying to him, “You’re not in the Kingdom,” or to put it even more bluntly, “You’re not a Christian.” Why? Because Jesus says, “You must be born again.” It’s not an optional extra. You must be born again.

Now that’s brutal. Many people would call that offensive - to open the door, to welcome a visitor into your church who is enthusiastic about joining your bible study - and to say to that person, “I don’t think you’re a Christian.” But that’s what Jesus does to Nicodemus. Why? Because Nicodemus sincerely and yet mistakenly thinks that he is.

Aside from being honest with Nicodemus, I want you to see that Jesus is being loving. He is telling him the truth. “It’s not about how smart you are or how sincere you. Being a Christian is not something you do. It is something only God can do for you by his Spirit.”

What about you? I remember years ago when I was beginning to look into the Christian faith, a good Christian friend who was loving enough to ask me, “Are you a Christian yet?” I think he asked me this for six months! To be honest, it was OK in the beginning, because it challenged me to think seriously, “Do I really believe the evidence about Jesus in the bible?” But towards the end of the six months, when I had already become a Christian, to hear my friend say to me, “Are you a Christian yet?” was frankly quite annoying! “Why are you still asking me this?” As I look back to those days, I thank God for my friend who was loving enough to ask me that eternally important question because fewer and fewer have been willing to do so since then. It is a loving question. It shows a concern for the big things. We casually ask ourselves non-essential questions like Lei Sek Fan Meh? (Have you eaten?) Are we concerned about one another enough to ask the big questions? Questions like: What has God been speaking to you in his word today? What does mission look like in your life? Have you been born again through the cross-work of Jesus Christ?

When was the last time someone asked you - right here in the Chinese Church - “Are you a believer?” “Are you a Christian?” I have yet to meet someone new who is offended by that question in all the years I’ve asked that of visitors here at the Chinese Church. And yet I suspect that some of us old-timers might be offended if we were asked the same question: Are you a Christian? “Of course, I am. Don’t you know how long I’ve been here?”

Friends, I’m not saying that we should go around questioning one another’s faith and knocking the assurance of our brothers and sisters here in the Chinese Church, don’t get me wrong. What I am saying is that it’s unloving to assume someone’s a Christian when they’re not; and moreover, to leave them thinking that they are simply because they’ve been coming here for so many years. You know, a sign of true revival in the church is not simply when lots of non-Christians come to faith but when lots of people within the church realise they, too, need to repent and trust in Jesus.

In case you have forgotten, all of us - all of us - start out being outside the kingdom of God. All of us need to be born again in order to enter the kingdom of God. All I am saying is: Has this happened in your life? For some of us, it is a wonderful opportunity to reply, “Yes,” and testify to the goodness and grace of God and to encourage those around us with the love of Christ. But for some of us, we might honestly have to say, “I’m not quite sure.” That too, is an opportunity to come to the bible and listen to how we can be sure of our salvation in Christ alone through grace alone.

Which brings us to our second point: You should not be surprised by Jesus.

Surprised by Jesus

“You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
John 3:7-8

Jesus says, “Nicodemus, you should not be surprised.” The reason he says that Nicodemus should not be surprised - or rather, not too surprised - about what Jesus is saying about the new birth is because none of this was new. Everything Jesus said is covered in the Old Testament.

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and you do not understand these things?”
John 3:9-10

Now when Nicodemus says, “How can this be?” what he means is “How can this take place?” Or, “How will God do this thing?” That is, Nicodemus isn’t as clueless about the new birth as we might think. He gets what Jesus is saying about the need for radical transformation. No, his question is: How will God do this?

Now, it’s Jesus’ turn to be surprised with Nicodemus: How can say that and call yourself Israel’s Teacher? Jesus was not at all impressed with Nicodemus. Here was a guy who wrote books about the bible but hasn’t a clue about what the bible was saying.

Sure, Nicodemus could go into deep discussions about the Kingdom of God. And yet for all his advanced learning, this professor of theology had lost touch with the basics. “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows where it pleases.” The word for wind, which in Greek is pneuma (where we get the word for pneumatic tires) is the same word for spirit. Wind or air or Spirit are all interchangeable words in the bible, both in Hebrew and Greek. And here Jesus uses the illustration of the wind to describe the work of the Holy Spirit. Verse 8: “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Meaning, you can’t control the Spirit any more than you can control the weather. But that doesn’t mean you can’t feel its effects.

Studying theology is not a bad thing. Those who do PhDs in theology can be of great service to the church and a great encouragement to believers. But if what Jesus is saying is true, then those of us in the business of applying our minds into the things of God must be careful to humble ourselves before the word of God. The amazing thing is Jesus speaks to Nicodemus in such a way that a six-year old could understand. That’s something, isn’t it? Try explaining the Holy Spirit to a classroom of six-year-olds. The Cambridge Professor turns up with his powerpoint slides and uses technical jargon. Jesus gives each six-year-old kid a kite. “What does it mean to be born by the Spirit? It’s like holding out a kite in the park on a really windy day.”

It’s obvious. That’s the point Jesus is making. When God transforms the life a new Christian, you will look at that person and go, “Only God could have done this.” But for Nicodemus, there is something more, especially in that rebuke about him being Israel’s Teacher. Jesus is hinting that Nicodemus that this illustration comes from the bible itself.

The specific Old Testament reference Jesus has in mind comes from the book of Ezekiel.

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
Ezekiel 26:25-27

The water and the Spirit which Jesus talks about in verse 5 describes the one act of cleansing and renewal. God takes out your sin and puts in his Spirit. It’s a surgical operation. Being a Christian is like having a heart transplant with the Holy Spirit as the chief surgeon. The point is, these words were written four hundred years ago by the prophet Ezekiel and they would have been familiar words to Nicodemus. Someone like Nicodemus would have memorised these words. He might even have preached these words, “God is going to perform major heart surgery on your lives. Isn’t that amazing?”

Yet when Nicodemus says to Jesus, “How can this happen?” he is saying, “I don’t believe this can happen.” That’s scary. To know the gospel well enough to be to tell others the gospel and yet to never have responded to the gospel. It’s saying you can have a PhD and not be a Christian. You can pastor a successful church and not be a Christian. That’s scary.

“I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”
John 3:11-12

Earlier on Nicodemus says, “We know you are a teacher come from God; we have seen the miracles God has done through you.” Here Jesus turns the tables of Nicodemus, “We speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen but still … you do not believe”. “How then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” The main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things.

Nothing Jesus has said so far was new for Nicodemus. I wonder if that is true for some of us here today. You keep hearing the gospel. You keep coming to Christian gatherings. But you have never actually humbled yourself before God and said, “I’m a sinner. I need forgiveness.”

The difference between a fan of Christ and a follower of Christ is not degree. It’s not that a Christian is more committed, more experienced, more learned. No, the difference is the Christian is someone who has been born again. God radically changed him from being an enemy of God to being a child of God. God has taken out their heart of stone and he replaces it with a heart of flesh.

“Do not be surprised,” Jesus says. Nothing here new. Meaning, look out for this in your bibles. Pray to God: Show me my sin and show me my Saviour. Nothing Jesus has said is new nor surprising if the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things - We are sinful; God promises to be merciful.

But finally, what Jesus says next would have been new for Nicodemus. He says that the Son of Man must be lifted up on the cross.

Believing in Jesus

No-one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven - the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
John 3:13-15

This incident about Moses lifting up the snake in the desert comes from the book of Numbers, Chapter 21 (verse 4 onwards - page 111). The Israelites are attacked by snakes in the desert as part of God’s judgement on their rebellion.They were grumbling against God about the food, saying that God saved them from Egypt only to let them die of starvation. As a result, God judges them by sending venomous snakes into the camps.

Eventually, they come to Moses in repentance and God tells Moses to do a rather strange thing: He tells Moses to make a bronze snake and to put it up on a pole. “Anyone who is bitten can look at it,” God says, “and live.” It’s a strange solution to a serious problem. Numbers 21:9 says, “Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.”

Borrowing an illustration from D.A. Carson: Imagine two Jewish men - named Andy and Yao - in the Israelite camp that day, both of them bitten by venomous snakes and both of them about to die.

Andy rushes into Yao’s tent and says to him, “Hey, I’ve heard that God is going to heal us!”

“How?” replies Yao, nursing the bite on his leg.

“God told Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. And he says that if we go and look at it, we won’t die of these horrible snake bites.”

“Seriously?” says Yao. “I don’t know, man. These bites look pretty serious.”

“Come on, this is God we’re talking about. After all, what have we got to lose?” says Andy.

“I guess so,” says Yao rather hesitantly but decides to follow his friend’s advice, nonetheless.

Which of these two men was healed? The answer: Both of them were healed. God promised that anyone who looked at the snake would live. Anyone. It didn’t depend on their sincerity. Both these men were exercising faith when they looked at the snake, meaning, they were trusting in God’s promise to heal. The snake on a pole was a representation of their sin - hence the bronze snake - but it was at the same time, God’s solution for their sin. Anyone who looked at the snake on the pole - confident or doubtful, eagerly or otherwise - lived because God said that they would live.

Now look at what Jesus says in verse 14, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Believing in Jesus means looking to the cross, there seeing our sin and there beholding our Saviour. That’s the new birth. We are not meant to look at Jesus and be impressed by him. Still less, to be surprised by God’s solution to our sin. We are meant to look at Jesus and be healed. Jesus takes our sin and he gives us his righteousness. He takes our death and he gives us life. He puts his Spirit in us and gives us new birth.

It is an simple as that. To come to Jesus. To trust in his death for my sin on the cross. And to receive eternal life as a result of his sacrifice.

Amazing love oh what sacrifice
The Son of God given for me
My debt He pays and my death He dies

That I might live, that I might live.

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