Due to “Technical Difficulties” the audio of this sermon is not great, but we wanted to make sure you would have the chance to hear what you can. The notes are posted below.
Close Encounters with Jesus – John 3 – 9.23.18
I want to start off this morning by asking the question what is your favorite dish to make? What is something you love to prepare and eat? And I’m not just addressing all of the chefs at our church-because I think each one of us can theoretically cook or bake something even if it’s a grilled cheese sandwich. So turn to the person next to you and answer that question what’s your favorite dish to make? So is everybody hungry now? Maybe you’re inspired to cook it this week. One of my favorite dishes to make is from a recipe I found online a few years ago. It’s from the Pioneer Woman-maybe you’ve seen her show on the Food Network-but it’s actually from a friend of hers-Pastor Ryan’s Bolognese sauce. When I found it I figured that as a fellow pastor I ought to try it-and it is delicious. If you’re in the mood for spaghetti this week I highly recommend it. It’s one of those pasta sauces that you let simmer for over 2 hours so the entire house smells phenomenal-but it’s just full of goodness-meat and red wine and a bunch of secret ingredients that you wouldn’t expect-carrots, Worcestershire sauce, and wait for it-milk. You’ve got to trust the recipe-this guy is really onto something with this sauce! If he wasn’t a pastor, I’d say he missed his calling to be a chef. But it’s fun to make-and the reason it tastes so good is that it comes from scratch. This doesn’t use store-bought marinara or meat sauce, it’s not coming out of a jar-this is homemade sauce using actual tomatoes. I suppose when you’re in a rush it’s easy or convenient to use sauce from a jar-but the homemade stuff in infinitely better and makes all the difference in the world, doesn’t it? Or what about chocolate chip cookies or apple pie-who doesn’t love it when it’s made from scratch? When offered a freshly baked cookie hot out of the oven you don’t opt for mass-produced, prepackaged cookies that have been sitting in your pantry for months-you go with grandma’s made from scratch cookies. But the reason I bring this up is not just to make us think about food and have our stomachs growling-but to say that in our spiritual lives we have to start from scratch too. Being a believer and following Jesus isn’t something we add into our life-like adding another ingredient to a dish-let me add in some more oregano or pepper. Nor is following Jesus the secret ingredient we add in. Instead, it’s a complete transformation of our lives and becoming someone completely new. Being a follower of Jesus is abandoning and leaving our old self behind. It’s starting from scratch as we follow Him. That’s the essence of the next encounter that Jesus has-as we continue our series Close Encounters.
So open your Bibles to John 3 and over the next two weeks we’ll be zeroing in on some specific conversations that Jesus has with 2 very opposite people. Next week we’ll look at a conversation that happened at midday with a completely unexpected person. But this week we’ll be looking at a conversation that happened at midnight with a very expected person, the type of person we would assume would be talking to Jesus. What’s unexpected, however, are the answers Jesus gives him. So look at how this encounter begins-John 3:1-2a. So here’s this guy named Nicodemus who’s entering into a conversation with Jesus. Now I don’t know too many people named Nicodemus these days. But just the sound of his name is intelligent and intimidating-like a great scholar or professor. Whenever I read about Nicodemus I picture Dumbledore with a long beard and robes who’s the headmaster. And that’s basically what the text is telling us about Nicodemus. He was a high ranking Pharisee and ruler. Now it’s easy for us to hear the term Pharisee and think bad guy. And basically they were the bad guys of the Bible-the ones who tried to trap and arrest Jesus. Their self-righteousness and rejection of Jesus soon becomes evident in John’s gospel. But at this juncture, what we know about the Pharisees is that they were the group of people most passionate and zealous for being religiously pure and morally upstanding. The Pharisees were the group of people who took religion very seriously and dedicated their lives to being as holy and righteous as possible. Not necessarily a bad pursuit-however that became their identity and source of pride; it became the way they looked down on others and elevated themselves-and ultimately this is what Jesus is going to challenge in Nicodemus’ thinking. Because Nicodemus wasn’t just a Pharisee-but as the text says-a ruler of the Jews. This means that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the main ruling council of the day-sort of like the supreme court. So Nicodemus is a guy with a sparkling career as a Pharisee-one who’s risen through the ranks and serves as a judge and ruler. He’s made it to the top of what religion can offer him. This guy has arrived. If anybody is a shoe-in for heaven it’s someone like Nicodemus. And yet look at how this encounter unfolds-v. 2. As a highly educated ruler of the Jews, Nicodemus already realizes that this seemingly untrained Jesus has been doing some impressive things. Jesus might not have the resume and education as the other Pharisees-but it’s as though he’s saying to Jesus-You deserve this title Rabbi-and we’re ready to welcome you into our club. But how does Jesus respond? He doesn’t say-thanks for noticing-glad to be a part of the club, can you hook me up with a good position in the ruling council? Instead look at his statement-v. 3.
Now someone like Nicodemus would have clearly been anticipating the kingdom of God-that place where God’s people are resurrected in order to dwell with Him forever. The coming kingdom is what the whole nation has been anticipating from the prophecies of Daniel and Isaiah-and yet the predominant thinking of the day was that the physical lineage of being a Jew and keeping the right religious externals of the law qualified them for entrance into the kingdom. But this is where Jesus goes straight to the heart of the issue-because He’s not talking about externals but something internal. Jesus isn’t addressing laws we have to keep but an identity of who we are. And that’s this term born again. No doubt you’ve probably heard it before. It’s an amazing term-an incredible truth-but, unfortunately, it’s also become a religious term-a born again Christian. As if there’s such a thing as a non-born again Christian (which there isn’t). But take the term at face value-what do you think of when Jesus says born again? Obviously, we were born once-so it forces us to think about what would it be like to be born again? What would you look like? Where would you live? Would you grow up differently? Or would you have the same parents? Maybe you imagine being born to a new set of parents in a completely different country-as if you could be born again to parents in France and grow up in Paris. But that’s what Nicodemus is thinking about the physical realities about being born again-or really the physical impossibilities of it-v. 4. He’s saying-Jesus, I don’t get your analogy. This doesn’t make sense. Almost as if Nicodemus is purposely highlighting and playing off of the absurdity of Jesus’ analogy. So as an old guy my mother is going to give birth to me again-I’m going to be a little baby again and suck my thumb-I don’t think so! But of course Jesus isn’t talking about something physical that happens to us externally, He’s talking about something spiritual that happens to us internally-v. 5-6. Jesus is saying that because of Him there’s a radical breakthrough of God’s kingdom-and it requires nothing less than a supernatural birth for you and me. Did you notice that word unless it’s so important! We might say things like unless you eat all your vegetables there’s no desert; unless you study you’re not going to pass this exam, unless you beat traffic you’re not getting to work on time. There’s something that needs to happen first in order to achieve the desired result. Jesus is saying that unless we’re born again of the Spirit we’re not entering the kingdom of God when life is over. That’s what needs to happen first. So What Did Jesus Say? Entering God’s kingdom is about starting over from scratch. He wasn’t telling Nicodemus to start being a better person. He didn’t say to read his Bible more or be more obedient and faithful to God. He didn’t tell him to work on a few areas in his life or iron out a few rough patches. There was nothing Jesus told Nicodemus that he could do. Jesus was just giving him a statement of fact-unless you’re born again you’re not entering God’s kingdom. Unless you are no longer you but someone new-you’re not getting in.
And that’s an incredible thing to say to a guy like Nicodemus-because of all people who should be in-it’s Nicodemus. Here he is as a faithful, pious, hard-working, obedient, dedicated Pharisee who’s well respected and become a ruler of the Jews. Nicodemus is at the top of the spiritual ladder, people don’t get any higher than him. If God was a coach picking out the top recruits to be on His team-Nicodemus is a 1st round draft pick. As we said earlier, he’s a shoe-in for heaven. And yet what does Jesus tell him? You’ve got to start all over, Nicodemus. He didn’t tell him that he was close. He didn’t tell him that with a few more good deeds he’s there, just show me a bit more dedication and you’re in. He said-Nicodemus, you have to become someone new. That despite all your religious knowledge and accolades you have to completely start from scratch and be born all over again. And is that something Nicodemus can do? No. Think about it no one can control their birth. Did any of us have a lot to say about our first birth? You know-I think it’s about time for me to born and enter this world. It’s time for me to show up and bless planet earth with my presence. Hardly-we were just born and the next thing we remember is preschool. We can’t even remember our first birth-much less control it. And that’s precisely the point Jesus is making to Nicodemus in this passage. Look at how He continues-v. 7-which is undoubtedly what Nicodemus is doing. He’s thinking-How in the world am I supposed to do this? I can be a good God-fearing Jew and try to keep the law as best I can. But to have a spiritual birth and become reborn? How can I possibly do that? And Jesus is saying-you can’t-but God can. Look at His words-v. 8. Jesus is emphasizing the sovereign work of God in salvation; that being born of the Spirit is something He does, it’s the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. He’s the one who makes it happen and brings us from spiritual death to spiritual life. He’s the one who regenerates our hearts and makes us new. Just as we can’t get ourselves born the first time, so we can’t get ourselves born again. It is God who does that work in us-being born again is a gift of His grace.
And that’s what Nicodemus is trying to figure out-v. 9-10. As a teacher of Israel Nicodemus would have clearly understood the OT-and what does it say there-Ez 36:26-27a;Ps 51:10-12. This is what David wanted God to do within him. Or look at Jer 17:9. And that’s the reason why we have to be born again of the Spirit. Our hearts have been poisoned by sin; sin will eventually eat our hearts up and bring spiritual death. We’re beyond cure-unless God starts from scratch and gives us a new heart. It makes me think about cooking-and earlier I said the secret ingredient in Pastor Ryan’s sauce was milk. Well what if he pulled out a cup of milk that had spoiled and gone rotten-like it just chunks out into the sauce? You can’t fix that! You can’t try hard to remove the spoiled milk and save the sauce. To keep your dinner guests from getting sick you’ve got to throw it out and start all over again. And that’s exactly what has to happen to our hearts-Pt1. You may look the same on the outside. Being born again doesn’t mean your appearance is different-but who you are on the inside is radically different. Sproul Bible, 1514. God doesn’t deal with merely the symptoms. He goes right to the core of our being, to the deepest part of our souls. And the reason He does is because our sin is so poisonous and deadly, like a serpent’s venom.
And that’s precisely the biblical analogy that Jesus points out to Nicodemus. Here’s Nicodemus-a great scholar and leader of the Jewish people who would have known his OT backward and forwards and yet Jesus points him to an OT passage that ties all this together and finds it’s fulfillment in Jesus. I love this connection-v. 14-15.
This is a very interesting phrase. It might be natural to assume that when Jesus says lifted up He’s speaking about His resurrection and being lifted up or raised up from the dead. But that’s not what He means. Jesus is saying that He must be lifted up on the cross; that as the cross is pounded into the ground, and the nails are pounded into His hands and feet, Jesus is lifted up. This is done to Him. He’s not lifting something-the cross has lifted Him up in pain and torment for all to see. And if you notice the context it refers to serpents in the wilderness. Who likes snakes? Or to ask it better who’s afraid of snakes? I think of Indiana Jones who said I hate snakes. But Jesus is referring to the time when the Israelites became impatient and grumbled against God, wrongly thinking that He’d brought them out to the wilderness to die-which wasn’t the case. God had rescued them-but look at what happened-Num 21:4-9. And that’s such a vivid foreshadowing of Jesus; such a great visual of what He’s come to do which is why He’s making this connection. The bronze serpent is fulfilled in Him. Because just like the Israelites, we’ve sinned, we’ve grumbled against God and rebelled against Him. We’ve been bitten by sin’s bite-and it’s just as deadly as those serpents! The venom of sin has coursed through our hearts and infected us so that as Jeremiah said-we’re beyond cure. We’re ready to die in our sins and face the punishment we deserve-were it not for something lifted up for us to look at and that’s not a bronze serpent-but Jesus on the cross. What Must We See? Our Savior lifted up on the Cross. By bearing our sins upon Himself as He hung there, He absorbed all the penalty of our sin, He drew out the sting of death as He died for us, so that by looking to Him we might be saved. Back to v. 14-15. Just as the Son of Man must be lifted up, so we must look to Him in order to have eternal life and enter the kingdom of God. That’s the part we’re called to do. We can’t get ourselves saved-but we can look to the One who can save us and that’s Jesus. We can look to the One who can give us new hearts and cause us to be born again. So the big question to ask yourself is if you’ve looked to Jesus with the eyes of faith. Have you lifted up your eyes and trusted in your dying Savior who can bring you new life?
Unfortunately, I think it’s far too easy for people to look down than up. I do this all the time when I go for a run. I look down at the ground and stare at my feet. When what I need to do is lift up my eyes and look ahead. But that’s the same thing we do spiritually. We constantly look down at ourselves and either think we’re not too bad, haven’t sinned too much, we’ll be okay-and trust in our own efforts. Maybe we think we’re like Nicodemus with a good, strong religious background and upbringing and that with a little more effort and dedication we’ll make it in. Or we look at ourselves and think it’s hopeless; that we’ve sinned too much, our hands are too dirty, we’re a lost cause and we’re done for. It’s way too easy to look down. Or maybe we look around and compare ourselves to others, and think I’ve done more good things in my life than those people-at least I’m not like that guy (cause there’s always another guy who’s worse) and conclude we’re not too bad. Or we get caught up looking around at all the other things in life we think can bring us fulfillment and serve as our “savior”-whether that’s our spouse or family or our next vacation or a promising career. We can be easily blinded by what we see around us or we can be easily discouraged by what we see looking down at ourselves. But what are we commanded to see? Where are we told to look? Up. To look up and see the One who was lifted up for us because only through Him and His death will we be saved and born again. Have you looked up and seen Jesus on the cross? That’s what we’re called to do-to look up and believe.
And here’s where we come to the most famous verse in the Bible-v. 16. This is what Nicodemus is commanded to do and it’s what we’re commanded to do. We can’t get ourselves born again-we can’t cure the sinful venom that’s coursing through our heart-but by looking to Jesus we believe that He can. That’s what this encounter with Him is all about. Not that we would work harder or try harder to save ourselves, but instead believe in the One who has already come to save us and give us eternal life. I love what the next verse says-v. 17. Do you believe that? Contrary to popular opinion, God’s not out to condemn us-and He sent His Son Jesus to prove it. But I think too many of us believe that God is like that teacher in school who only points out our mistakes-you got #3 wrong, #5 wrong, #6-7 are wrong, and it looks like #9 is wrong-like our homework paper is a war zone covered in red ink with a big F on it. Now the reality is that in our sin we have flunked the test of God’s righteous standard, a big F is what we deserve-and yet God didn’t send Jesus to condemn us and say this is a disaster and walk away. Jesus doesn’t show up and look at the mess we’ve made of our lives and say-What in the world happened here? Good luck fixing this! I’ve done that when our kids’ bedrooms are messy-Wow-what a mess in here! And I walk right back out not sure where to begin! But unfortunately, I think this is easy for us to do as people-particularly good church-going people-to fall into the trap of condemning others. Look at that mess they made-wow did they sure dug themselves into a hole! And what are they actually thinking-I hope they get what they deserve, suffer the consequences for what they have coming to them, good luck getting out of that mess. It’s easy to condemn people and walk away-it’s not hard at all to elevate ourselves and somehow think we’re better than others. But the truth is we’re not. Every one of us is in the same dire predicament-bitten by the serpent of sin with the venom of death coursing through our hearts-and each one of us needs to look to the cross to have our condemnation and guilt forgiven. What Do We Learn? Because of Jesus, something so bad (the guilt of our sin) is forever removed. That’s what this is saying-v. 16-17. Jesus hasn’t come to point the finger and condemn us; shaking his head at us in disgust. He’s come to give up His life for us and forever take away the sting of death that’s held us captive. You see Jesus is in the business of saving lost sinners, of giving hope to the hopeless, of offering us life when we deserved death and bringing us grace when we desperately needed it. Look at Rom 8:1. And it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’ve come from-whether you think you’ve done it all right like a Nicodemus or if you’ve made a mess of things. By believing in Jesus you’re no longer condemned, but forgiven and made new.
There’s a story in this book by Jerry Bridges that talks about two men. One a condemned criminal, and the other the judge who convicted him. Gospel for Real Life, 111. You see this man, this judge realized the very truth that Jesus is communicating in John 3. That despite all his perceived goodness and morals and religious upbringing, he was still lost and needed to be born again. He needed to look to the cross and see Jesus lifted up to have his sins forgiven. And that’s what you and I have to realize too. No one is born a Christian. No one automatically gets in and enters the kingdom of God by virtue of themselves or their family or their spiritual resume. If that was the case Nicodemus would have been in. But Jesus says we have to start all over, to start from scratch and be born again. And that only happens as you believe in Him-v. 18. There’s nothing more clearly stated that you need to do then to stop believing in yourself or anything else-and believe in Jesus-the only Son of God. He’s it! He’s the only Savior there is-and yet He is all we need. All our hope rests in Him because in Him we’re born again and made new.