This is part-5 in a 23-part study on the book of John. Below is a modified transcript from the audio lesson.
We want to keep in mind that there’s a direct link with the end of chapter 2 and recalling that the text itself never had the original verse and chapter divisions. The last phrase in John 2 said, “Because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” It’s interesting because the word anthropos is used right there. He knew what was in anthropos.
Now there was an anthropos of the Pharisees. He’s inviting us to see what it means for Jesus to know what was in man. You see it’s a case in point. The Greek causes us to see- here’s a perfect illustration of a man who might come for various reasons but it turns out that he’s going to get insights he could never have known. Nicodemus came to Jesus for various reasons at night. I think in part because he didn’t want to be publicly associated with this very controversial figure. He certainly didn’t want to be associated as one of His disciples though there’s more to it than that because of John’s nuances- light and darkness- the idea of night and not really being able to comprehend the light and the light overcomes the darkness but that there is a spiritual warfare in these regards as well.
A friend and I were talking after I taught last time how in John 2 the water becomes wine, then we move from that to wine symbolizing blood. The blood really leads to and is the basis for eternal life and this eternal life is really a river of living water. You have this imagery- one thing pointing beyond itself and that there’s a connection. All these terms link and connect together.
The rest of this gospel will illustrate the truth of John 2:25. This is very, very clear in the dialogue with Nicodemus and also it goes on to be clear in the dialogue with the woman at the well in John 4. He knows in a way that she finds startling. How could He know me through and through? This is an interesting point because there’s nothing in us that can really be hidden from the present gaze of the living God. I want to stress something, I’ve mentioned this so many times before, the One who knows you best is also the One who loves you the most. That’s an important thing to keep in mind. He knows us through and through but at the same time He wants to embrace us and draw us to Himself. He goes to great pain- infinite pain on the cross- in order to make it possible for us to in fact become His friends. Remember in John 15 we’re going to see that text where Jesus says, “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.” There’s this idea of intimacy. We’re given this invitation to intimacy. He knows us through and through.
Now Nicodemus initially was attracted to Jesus because of the various signs that He did in chapter 2:23-25. It mentions that there were people who were in Jerusalem at the Passover during the Feast and many believed in His name. They observed His signs, which He was doing. John doesn’t detail those signs but evidently there were enough signs where Nicodemus says in verses 1 and 2, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus 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.” So it’s an allusion back to the fact that he’s seen remarkable things that cannot be fully understood- this concept of signs.
Right away we’re going to hear Jesus tell him that he must be born again. Immediately there’s going to be a misunderstanding. That’s a motif in John- for example we hear about a misunderstanding concerning the temple in chapter 2. They take it literally and Jesus is speaking about the temple of His body. There’s also confusion in this chapter as well. In John 3 we’re going to have the confusion about birth and about the fact that Jesus is speaking about spiritual birth. Nicodemus is taking it on a literal level and of course it wouldn’t make any sense to go back into your mother’s womb and be born a second time. It’s a grotesque image.
Again it will happen in chapter 4 with water. Jesus will be speaking about this living water that He’s offering and she’s going to be thinking that He’s offering her water that she can actually bring up and drink. So we have another confusion.
It’s happens again with food because the disciples think He’s speaking of literal food when He says, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” (John 4:32) He’s actually speaking about the food, which is to do the will of the Father. We see it also about food in John 6 when they confuse what He’s saying- again He’s speaking in a spiritual level and they’re taking Him on a literal level. In John 6 He says, “I am the bread of life.” They take it literally. He’s speaking in a spiritual way. This is not an accident.
About His departure- where’s He going to go? Does He know some place where He can hide and we’re not going to find Him? Jesus was referring in John 7 and 8 about His departure to the Father. They’re taking it as if He’s going to hide Himself literally.
It happens concerning His identity- they are confused and they stumble in John 7, 8, and 10 about who He really is. He’s claiming to be something more than they may fully grasp. They are saying who are you to make yourself out as if you know God in some special way? He’s actually claiming that the one who has seen me has seen the Father- to hear Me is to hear Him- to believe in Me is to believe in Him- to obey Me is to obey Him- to reject Me is to reject Him- an integral connect.
Finally there’s confusion even about death in John 11 concerning the issue of Lazarus. They think Jesus is saying that he’s merely fallen asleep- if he’s asleep then someone will wake him up. He says our friend Lazarus has died- again this imagery. Why so many confusions?
I think part of the reason that John illustrates these, is that the natural mind does not accept and appreciate and grasp the things of the Spirit of God because they are spiritually received and appraised. It’s the I Corinthian 1 imagery. There is something that must be revealed to you concerning these signs; the divine signs are ambiguous without God’s aid. A person can see the sign but unless God interprets it to you and opens up your mind and your heart, you won’t be able to really grasp it.
As an example, you can know an awful lot and not grasp it. When I have led tours in Israel, my experience was so different from the guides who were unbelievers- whether Palestinian or Israeli. There were guides who were truly believers versus those who were not believers. The interesting thing about the ones who were not believers was that they often knew the gospels better than most Christians. They knew the stories. They can go to Capernaum and they can give a five century discourse about exactly what was going on there. They can actually quote all Jesus’ messages about this because this is part of how they were learning it. They put it together and they know that material very, very well. A lot of Christians often think it’s their mission to convert these guides but I promise you they’ve heard it all before and what it comes down to are the issues of truth. One seminary professor knowing that that was an issue asked, you know more about the gospels than most Christians do, what’s your view concerning them as to the issue of truth? Could they possibly be true? His response was- “I’m a Jew. His statements are interesting but they don’t have any meaning for me.” What does that tell us? Clearly there are Jewish believers and there are Gentile believers. There are Jewish unbelievers and Gentile unbelievers. There’s the issue really of whether the Spirit breaks through because a person can know the gospel extremely well but intellectual knowledge is not the same thing as a response personally.
That’s what is going to be a part of the issue in this text. Jesus is going to be talking about the need, not only for a person to be born from above but also for a person to confess the truth that He is in fact who He claims to be. The discourse we’ll find here beginning in verse 16 and moving on to verse 21 invites us to make a choice as to what do we do with this Man? Frankly the final question for all of us will always have to be the question, “Who do you say I am?” You cannot ignore it in the end.
You can either call Him the One who was deceived about what He was saying or that He was in fact deceiving others or you can say that what He said was true. The old liar, lunatic or Lord trilemma has been developed. The concept that either Jesus was right or He was wrong. If He was wrong and He knew it that would mean He was quite a deceiver and liar. If He was wrong and He didn’t know it, He was a lunatic. When you think about the things He claimed about Himself which are so extreme, in fact it could be utterly unique, He’d have to be a complete madman. The third option is that He wasn’t wrong, He was right. In which case He is who He claims to be, the Lord of all.
A fourth option that people have opted for and more popularly these days is that it was a legend. That He really didn’t say those things. More and more competent New Testament scholarship is dismissing that alternative and really a simple look at the gospels as primary historical narratives even apart from buying into their interpretation would cause us to see that there is great warrant both in the gospel narratives and also extra-biblical resources that tell us about Him. There’s no warrant for saying He was some kind of a legend. The dates of these writings including the epistles are just to near to the fact for them to have been legendary.
Now there are others who claim that He was a fifth El for a lama. In other words He went off to the East and what they do in the New Age teaching, the new religious synthesis, or whatever you want to call it, is to redefine His teaching and try to do it in an Eastern or more Gnostic form. John Turner has written an article for us and we’ve posted it on the Reflections Ministry website (Reflections Ministries.org) concerning Elaine Pagels two popular books, Beyond Belief and The Gnostic Gospels. The books are basically claiming that Jesus really was more of a Gnostic kind of a teacher who was very influenced by Eastern oriented thought and that there were other accounts that were available in the first century that the church originally suppressed. However the evidence for this doesn’t work. The evidence shows that these are late second century forgeries that were not available for, at the least, 75 years after the gospels were written. The church didn’t have another set of options or repress them. That’s a myth that is now being propagated as it is also by the DaVinci Code. I invite you to go to Reflections Ministry.org and type in the search bar Elaine Pagels and the article can be found. I encourage you to read that.
I want to argue that Jesus, at the end of the day, cannot be ignored.
Now this Nicodemus in verse 2 was genuinely impressed by what Jesus said and did. Again John is using the particularly Johannine word for Jesus’ supernatural works- not dunamis for works of power- but semeion which is the idea of a sign. Unlike those Pharisees that would attribute Jesus’ extraordinary power to Satanic influence, Nicodemus is recognizing Jesus as One who has done what? “You’ve come from God as a teacher.”(Part of verse 2)
Now he being a Rabbi would be a very curious teacher because as you know, a Rabbi would be very interested in carrying on oral authorative traditions. A Rabbi would interpret the text as a teacher and that is why they had this oral tradition that was later written down in the form of what would later be called the Talmud. The Mishna, which was the commentaries and the commentary on the commentary, was the Gamara. He’s thinking of Him as a great Rabbi, some teacher, who has insights and he wants to know more about Him.
In John 3:3, “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” He just completely diverted Nicodemus’ track because Nicodemus is not expecting that. He may have wanted to ask Jesus a question similar to that perhaps of the rich young ruler about qualifications. What do You say we need to do to enter eternal life? Or maybe he was like the scribe who was trying to figure out what the supreme commandment of the law was because Jews were debating these issues. I don’t know exactly what question Nicodemus had in mind but I promise he didn’t get his question out. The whole subject changed. Maybe he supposed that Jesus could’ve been or was even possibly the inaugurator of the kingdom of God. I don’t doubt that he was expecting that was going to be coming and maybe that he’d have it right because of his loyalty to Pharisaic traditions. But as soon as he paid his compliments to this unprofessed Rabbi, Jesus just completely cuts out all from under his feet- all ground for self-satisfaction. The fact that he keeps Torah, the fact that he keeps temple worship, the fact that he’s involved as the teacher of Israel, none of that really matters too much compared to what Jesus is saying.
Again John is looking at the various institutions of Judaism, the temple, the rabbinic system, and their devotion to Torah, the sacrificial system, the priesthood and in each of these he’s showing that He Himself is the fulfillment that brings a higher understanding. John is developing this one level at a time. We see here that no one, regardless of race or piety, can experience the reign of God apart from the experience of this new birth. If you want to be concerned about the kingdom, neither racial privilege nor religious observance will eliminate the sin, which is in every child of Adam.
This is the first of four illustrations of salvation. The first one is that of birth. In John 3 we see this image of being born and it says, “Unless one is born again.” That word anothen can be used not only for again but also means from above. I think he’s using it in two ways as so often occurs. He’s got to be born from above as well as being born a second time. We see a picture here of Jesus’ claim that a person must receive a new form of life. We’ve often said that biological life is something all of us receive at birth but nobody has spiritual life. That is a gift of God and it requires the new birth. We weren’t born with spiritual life, what the bible calls zoe, we were born with bios- biological life.
By the way, I’d like to point out that when Jesus says truly, truly the word is amen, amen. That is how we would translate verily or truly to amen. Unlike the synoptic gospels where Jesus would say, truly I say to you, John has Him saying it twice. I think it’s adding solemnity and underlining the truth of that which follows.
In other word it means believe Me when I say this. I want you to listen very carefully to what I’m about to tell you here. I assure you that to be born again you’ve got to be willing to receive the gift that God offers. You’ve got to abandon every attempt to become righteous by the things that we typically do to try to earn favor with God, which is what religion seems to be all about. You need to instead be willing to receive a free gift of grace. John Calvin said that this claim, that we must be born again, reveals that there is nothing in us that is not defective. In effect he’s saying you don’t need a makeover, you need a completely new birth. You’ve got to start all over again. It requires a totally new kind of life than the one you have now. This is a complete reorientation. It’s really something you can liken to physical birth because it’s an emergence from darkness into light. The point here is that being born from above is a whole new radical experience.
Naturally what does Nicodemus say when he hears this startling claim? John 3:4, “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?” So for all his theological learning, Nicodemus lacks spiritual insight. He sees Jesus’ words in a very literal and therefore absurd way. He’s got to learn that God’s creative power isn’t just limited to the material and the physical but rather it extends to the spiritual as well. It’s not to say that one is less important than the other but the scriptures affirm the goodness of the created order.
That is to say, there’s another level that it’s true in nature as it’s true in the scriptures. You cannot understand the lower levels without grasping the higher. We can understand from the top down but bottom up will never work. For example, the mindset that we are the product of impersonal processes and that eventually leads to rationality- a bottom up explanation that doesn’t work because there’s a higher category that’s not even implicit. Frankly if you look at the organism as a whole, the atomic material, the DNA, is totally indifferent to life itself. DNA is not life. It’s not alive by itself. The chemistry is indifferent to the life. There’s something bigger than the chemistry that cannot be accounted for on the basis of the biochemical material. The upper can explain the lower but the lower can never account for the higher.
So it is also in the spiritual realm. If we try to project nature on to God as Freud and others would do, they’ll try to tell you, aww, he’s just a God projection, some father figure. What you’re trying to do again is you’re trying to explain the higher in terms of the lower. You’ll always reduce it down to a two-dimensional flat interpretation. It’s what C.S. Lewis called, “nothing buttery.” By nothing buttery he meant that’s nothing but this and this is nothing but that. Frankly there’s something bigger. We must come to see that the higher level will always help us to grasp the lower, a total reorientation.
John 3:5, “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of the water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” He’s not dealing really so much with baptism. In fact, water baptism in the New Testament is connected with death not birth. Something we need to keep in mind in association with baptism is that we were baptized into His death- there’s an image of dying. In fact baptism is a marvelous image because what happens when a person is dunked in that way is that they kind of die to the old and then they are raised to newness of life. I don’t think that’s what is being concerned here.
We have two parents for a physical birth so also in effect there are two for a spiritual birth. They are the Spirit of God and the Word of God. 1 Peter 1:23, “For you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.” James 1:18, “In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.” We have the Spirit and the Word birthing components that bring us into the kingdom.
As I see it then, we have an emphasis in this chapter on the idea of believing especially in verses 14-21. Salvation comes as a gift through faith so that there is a response to the truth.
John 3:6-7, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.”
This brings us to a second illustration and it’s the idea of the wind. He’s going to be using the wind in a parallel way to speak about the work of the Spirit of God. Just as the Spirit of God births us so also the Spirit cannot be predicted or understood just like the wind. There’s a mysterious dimension to Him. John 3:8, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going, so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” He connects those two images of birth and wind. As you know the word for Spirit is also the word for wind in both the Hebrew and also the Greek. There’s a double use once again of that kind of image. We see here that this picture of the mysterious process of the new birth of the Spirit is something unpredictable. Something about the behavior of the person who experiences it becomes unpredictable like the effects of the wind. They are undeniable and it moves with a power. This is telling us in a way that we’re not fully under the dominion of nature but that there is something new about us that cannot be accounted for merely on the basis of the lower. The higher can account for the lower but the lower can never account for the higher, not without reducing it down and eliminating truth.
Nicodemus is still wrestling with this issue. Again he’s trying to take it in a literal way on the physical level. Jesus is speaking about another kind of a level, a higher perspective. John 3:9, “Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?”
John 3:10, “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” Don’t miss the article “the”- the teacher of Israel. It assumes a very specific place for him. This is not some ordinary Rabbi. He is recognized as “the” distinguished teacher of Israel. He has an authority. That’s one of the reasons why he came by night because he doesn’t want to be caught with this controversial figure. It could compromise his position as the teacher of Israel. And yet, and here’s the thing I want to stress, that this man is willing though to breakout of some darkness. That is to say he’s willing to evaluate, consider and move into some truth. We have a person who is at least willing to wrestle with spiritual truth in this way. I want us to understand at least this man asks questions, makes inquiries and takes the risk.
I would like to mention something about verse 8 and the wind. There’s something powerful that Jesus may be alluding to as well in Ezekiel 37 where there is a valley of dry bones. Nicodemus, as the teacher of Israel, would’ve known this text. Ezekiel 37:1-5 speaks about the Spirit of the Lord who put him down in the valley full of bones and caused him to pass among them and round about. There were many on the surface. How could these bones live? The Lord said to prophecy over them so that they will hear the word of the Lord. And thus says the Lord God to these bones, “Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life.” Do you see the imagery there? There’s already actually a hint about the word being prophesied, about the Spirit that would come upon them and about that, which is dead, coming to life.
Ezekiel 37:6, “I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive, and you will know that I am the Lord.” It’s an image of decay in reverse. It’s a fascinating picture.
Ezekiel 37:7-8, “So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, sinews were on them, and flesh grew and skin covered them; but there was no breath in them.” That must’ve been a scary thing to see- you see a skeleton come together and then you see the musculature on them, then the skin covers it up- but they’re still dead. They are pictures of unanimated beings. They look like they could be alive but they’re not.
Ezekiel 37:9-10, “Then He said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord God, ‘Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they come to life.” So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and the breath come into them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.”
Ezekiel 37:13-14, “Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people. I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken and done it,’ declares the Lord.”
So the teacher of Israel surely must’ve read this text many times but he didn’t put it together. This is the image of an extraordinary picture and it’s also found in Ezekiel 36:25-27. This is another text speaking about God’s promise to take them from the nations- to take the scattered people who have been scattered as a consequence of their rebellion against God and be gathered from all the lands and brought into their own land. Verses 25-26. “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” Those are the kind of texts that I think Jesus was alluding to when He says in John 3-10, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things.”
There’s a part of us though and we understand, that so many texts that were concerning Jesus the disciples didn’t understand and recall until later on. Then as they reflected on it they saw that that was a prophecy of scripture. They put it together and they began to see the whole.
What, I think, Jesus is really implying here is something so radical that we could only call it the morning of a new eschatological era. Don’t you love that word? I love the word eschatological. Eschatos is just the word that means last. Logic- logos- means the study of. Eschatology simply means the study of last things. So when you put the word into and make it eschatological it means you’re looking at God’s work in the future but there’s a sense in which His future work is already becoming realized in the present tense. We’re between two ages. Right now, you and I dwell in two ages. We dwell in the present age but we also in some other way dwell in the age to come. How can that be? Because He put His Spirit within us and He’s animated us inside out there’s that in us now which is actually the stuff of the age to come. That’s already alive in us. We become now people who are participants in God’s kingdom even though the full manifestation of that kingdom awaits the future. There’s a sense in which we have one foot in this age and the other in another. It’s an anticipation of what God is going to do. So it is with the power of the Spirit of God who implants the life of Christ in us and causes us as Paul says, to be transformed and he can truly say that our dwelling place is now at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 1) That is a radical concept. I don’t’ know how often you think about yourself being there. Does this occur to you often? That’s where you really are. It’s not the stuff that we would normally meditate on and reflect upon but He says it is so and it is true.
Answer:If you are living and walking in the Spirit, you are actually manifesting the power of the age to come in the present tense. This is another word I’ll give you- proleptic. You’re living proleptically which means before the time. These aren’t bad words! These are good words and you shouldn’t be afraid of good words! You should learn these words. To live proleptically is to be a person who actually hints at the age to come. So as one person likes to put it and I like to quote it although I don’t know where he got it from (You know we have very few original thoughts in our lives. The key is to quote from the best!) It is, “The spiritual life is manifesting it so that wherever you walk you are spreading the geography, the invisible geography, of the new creation wherever you go.” You see that concept? The kingdom is there. He says as you walk you manifest the kingdom. There is a sense that even now anticipated proleptically (repetition is the mother of learning), the power of the age to come- you’re anticipating the power of the coming age. That is to walk in the Spirit and not to walk in the flesh. It is to walk now as we truly are by faith, believing what God tells us about ourselves is true even though we don’t feel that way or haven’t fully experienced that. He’s inviting us to choose to embrace that truth and to live accordingly.
I so often want to tell you that you will live out your understanding of yourself. Your understanding of your identity will be the way you live. If you see yourself as merely a person who is really in a position where they’ve got to merit favor with God and kind of win Him over and all that or if you see yourself as a worm, worm theology, you’ll live that way. You have to see yourself as something bigger than that and to see and embrace the truths about who you are. Romans 6 and 8 for example are good to read.
Now on to John 3:11, “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony.” I think the plural “we” seems to include the disciples and the plural “you” in this verse and the next verse may address the majority of the Jews who disbelieved.
John 3:12, “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things.” We see here that the religious leaders are really in the dark. They would not submit to the authority of Christ’s witness. That becomes a growing theme in John’s gospel.
Frankly and here’s another scary thing, He’ll tell them later on why one of the reasons you don’t respond to the light and my claims is because they love the praise of men more than the praise of God. That’s a frightening word. Look at John 12:43, “For they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God.” Another powerful verse along those lines is John 5:44, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?” My conviction here is that the audience to whom you play will shape your belief system. The audience you play to will actually shape your beliefs. If you want to play to the world and get the approval of men a great way to do that then is to buy into what the world teaches. It’s an easy thing for us to do.
We have to decide who are we playing to and who’s opinion are we treasuring? I promise you to treasure the truth of scripture and the authority of Christ above the authority of this world system will not make you that popular in the eyes of the world itself. There’s going to be a struggle that we’ll have. Certainly that would be especially true in academic professions. Where, for a person to confess Jesus as the Lord won’t help your academic career very well. Or if you believe for example in creation rather than just basically atheistic evolution, non-directed evolution, any hint that you may be a creationist and you won’t get past the referees in scientific journals. That’s just the nature of it.
You have to understand that if you come out and express your commitment to Christ that it can be a very real problem in the way in which you are received by the world. You have to choose whose opinion you treasure more. It will shape the way you live. You can rationalize your compromised belief if you choose to do that but who will that honor?
In Verse 12 Jesus is talking about earthly things or a human analogy, which can point to heavenly things or spiritual truths. But there are heavenly things where there is no earthly analogy. Look at Romans 5:7-8 for example of a truth that doesn’t have much of an earthly analogy where Paul says, “For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” There’s no natural parallel. You won’t find people naturally and willingly die for a person that they are opposed to. You might die for your buddy, someone you love, but you won’t willingly die for a person who is your enemy, not in this world. And yet God says He sent His Son in such a way that while we were at enmity against Him, He still died for us. We have spiritual things and truths that are so high that we hardly have any analogy for them and we can hardly understand them.
John 3:13, “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven; the Son of Man.” This revelation about the new birth is the gateway to the kingdom of God but it becomes a revelation about Jesus Himself that He’s the inaugurator of the kingdom of God. He’s the One seen in Daniel’s vision in chapter 7 as the Son of Man who stands before the Ancient of Days. He’s the One though who is not an apparition. He has come in the flesh. He’s come to reveal in human deeds and in human words the things that could never be discovered by human guesswork or intuition. I want to stress that we are seeing a Person who gives us a disclosure that is so beyond the capacity for human imagination or wisdom that no one could’ve made it up. That’s why it’s unique. You will not find this teaching about grace or this idea of God’s sacrificing and suffering for us anywhere else. You’ll find it here because of something that ultimately comes down from above. This is truth that is actually revealed from above and so that there is a power and an authority but it must be responded to. A person still must make a choice.
Answer: To what extent did Paul influence John? I would say probably not much. Recall Paul came when John, Peter and James were pillars in the church. Paul came and brought his message to them for them to verify it in Galatians 1. They affirm that the message was in fact true. But it would be a good deal more to say that Paul may have been more influenced by John than the other way around. However, their own course of ministry was different as well so they moved off in different directions. You don’t want to reduce John to Pauline thought. It’s a different witness. It’s a different understanding yet they do comport. One is not derivative from another. They are witnesses both one to another just like Peter and James. Each of them has their own unique presentation that they can make.
John 3:14, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” We have this third image here of the serpent on the pole. You recall when the people were in rebellion in the wilderness, God sent serpents to bite them and it would lead to death unless they looked to the brass serpent that Moses was instructed to build and put up. When people came to see that and looked on it in faith they would be healed of their disease. Later on we discover, many centuries later, that they kept the thing around and it became another idol that they would worship. Just as the serpent was lifted up and those looking on it in faith were healed, so the Son of Man is to be lifted up and we look to Him in faith and will not be subjected to the death penalty which is sin.
“Lifted up” again is hupsoo, it also means to be glorified and exalted. If you look at John 12:20 you’ll see that the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. He uses that term speaking of His crucifixion and so He says there that He is the One who is going to be glorified. That is connected as well in Acts 2 and 5. It is a picture here that He is not just being crucified but He’s going back to the Father. This is all as it was meant to be. He must come. He must die so that He can be resurrected and that His sacrifice will have been something that now makes and leads to life and thus He returns to the Father from whom He came. It’s a portrait of His ultimate glorification.
John 3:15, “So that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” He’s lifted up to save us from sin and death so as we look by faith we realize just as the world’s been bitten by sin and the wages of sin is death, He is the difference between perishing and living.
The best-known verse in scripture is John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” I want to comment about this. This is by the way where the discourse begins. As I take it here, we move from the discourse with Nicodemus. In v. 16-21 it’s John’s commentary in discourse material- comments by John.
I want you to see something that many people fail to grasp. I think a lot of people somehow suppose, in spite of the truth of verse 16 and others like it, that Jesus came to appease a God who was against us. That Jesus actually has to appease us from the wrath of God and so that now God can be placated. But there’s something more profound, the cross must be seen as the Father’s work. It is God’s work. It is the Father who has loved us and who sent His Son. You must come to understand that the cross is really the expression of God’s love for us. It’s of His mind. So rather than seeing the Father as an enemy that Jesus now hat to placate, you must understand instead that the Father is the One who out of His love for us makes the sacrifice on our behalf.
The reason why that’s hard for us to embrace is because a lot of times we’ve had these deficient views of the Father- of perfectionism, of conditional love, performance based acceptance and all those things can really give us distortions. We must come to see this is the work of the Father. Look at II Corinthians 5:18-19, “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” Colossians 1:19-20, “For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say whether things on earth or things in heaven.”
So we see then as we continue on in John’s discourse verse 17, “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” He came to give them an option that they didn’t otherwise have.
John 3:18, “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” So Jesus’ presence in the world will inevitably divide humanity. Sin invariably leads the sinner to hide him or herself from God even as Adam and Eve hid themselves from Him in the garden. So the children of light versus the children of darkness become manifest in this way.
We have this portrait here of light and darkness in verse 19 picking up on this theme. “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” This is the fourth portrait, light and darkness. We have the imagery of the new birth, of the wind that blows where He wishes, of the serpent on the pole and how God makes a provision so that the people can have life rather than death but the choice must be made and we have the idea of light and darkness to illustrate the truth because the truth reveals us.
John 3:20-21, “For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”
I believe that this is John’s commentary in v. 16-21 to help us grasp the need for us to make a choice, to respond. I think it’s extremely important. Intellectual problems are only part of the reason why people don’t trust Christ. There comes a point when it’s not just an intellectual barrier, it’s a moral and spiritual barrier. I’ve known a number of people who will continue to wrestle on this issue and after awhile you can discern they’re throwing up smoke screens. The problem is not intellectual anymore. I’ve used this story before but on more than one occasion I’ve asked people when I suspected that this might be the case but I ask them, “ You know if I could demonstrate to you that Jesus really rose from the dead, would you then receive Him?” They’d say no. Now you realize it’s not just intellectual. There’s another matter as well. There is a spiritual apprehension.
May I tell you, even when you come to faith in Christ, even now, as a believer, you’re going to sometimes resist the conviction work of the Spirit of God because the more you love the darkness, the more you’ll want to avoid His convicting work in your life. We just have this natural disposition. We want to have autonomy. We don’t want Him to invade us too much. We don’t want to completely lose control or so we think. We have this issue just as we come to faith in Christ. Now there are still a moral and spiritual preliminary and you do not just grow in the intellectual knowledge of Him. You can do theology that way but you don’t come to know Him experientially. You’ll only know Him in a cognitive way. There’s another kind of knowledge, an experiential knowledge, that’s born by receptivity and a willingness to do His will and to receive Him in that way.
Nicodemus at this juncture fades out of the narrative and we have no record of the reaction to the challenge presented to him here by Jesus. John, the Evangelist, focuses on what the life and death of Jesus means for all men. But we do learn more about Nicodemus a little later and we do discover that with Nicodemus, he eventually, as I take it, the wind of the Spirit does accomplish the purpose for which it was sent. As one writer put it, he apparently finally passed from the midnight of confusion to the sunlight of confession. The idea is that he identified with Christ at Calvary. I think in chapter 19 there’s an intimation of that.
This idea of a conversion experience, as I do believe Nicodemus later had, is an important theme we don’t want to overlook. I think we need conversion stories. We need to review and it’s good to hear about a person’s new birth and to hear their testimony, which is a powerful story about where they were while it’s fresh in their memories. It’s a very healthy thing for us to hear and review again and again. There’s an authority and an authenticity about conversion stories that can be very powerful.
In John 3:22-36, we have a different account. We have the account of John the Baptist’s final witness to Jesus. In those verses we see that there’s a parallelism here - just as Jesus came from above, (v. 3) and unless one is born from above (v. 31). He who comes from above is above all. You see a parallel here- just as in John 3:12-13, He was descended from heaven we also see that in v. 31-32, He’s the One who comes from heaven. You have a parallel also between the Jewish leaders in the first half of John 3 and then you have this Jewish prophet in the second half of John 3. There are similar discourses and themes that are going on here.
We have in verses 1-15 the story of Jesus and Nicodemus and then in verses 16-21 we have John’s discourse. Similarly in verses 22-30 we have the story of John the Baptist and in verses 31 -36 we have another discourse, John’s commentary. There’s a parallelism in the literary structure that invites us to see similar themes, which are being developed in both halves of John 3.
John 3:22, “After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing.” But notice in John 4:2, “(Although Jesus Himself was not baptizing but His disciples were).” At the most it would appear that He baptized His disciples but later delegated this function to the twelve. You can imagine the problem that you’d have of elitism, hey; Jesus Himself baptized me. You see He wisely avoids that problem as you can see there were problems later on when people were saying, I am of Paul- I am of Apollo. We’re just this way. We want to take these little things and then our pride just overwhelms us.
John 3:23, “John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and people were coming and were being baptized.” Aenon in Salim means springs near peace and we don’t know precisely where that was but it appears that there are some springs in the area that are not far from Samaria
John 3:24, “For John had not been thrown into prison.” Verse 24 presupposes the synoptic story because he doesn’t discuss that here but the synoptics tell us about John being thrown into prison. It’s one of those places where John assumes that his readers are familiar with the synoptic gospels. This text tells us something the synoptic gospels don’t tell us, namely there was some overlap between John and Jesus’ ministry until John was arrested. Then Jesus had to go up to Galilee because of the pressure there. It fits. The Galilean incident recorded in chapter 2:1-11 is not regarded as part of the public ministry of Jesus.
So we have this picture particularly in verse 25 with this discussion concerning what John was doing. “Therefore there arose a discussion on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew about purification.” See, this is troubling. Baptism was something that you do with Gentiles when they became converts or proselytes but the Jews wouldn’t be baptized. They would have cleansing. That’s why they had these mitvos, which were ceremonial baths that would be taken before prayer or sacrifices. They were ceremonial cleansings for purification. But the idea of baptizing a Jew- they didn’t have any kind of category for that. They’re discussing this issue. What’s he trying to do? Is this a ceremonial washing or what?
John 3:26, “And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold, He is baptizing and all are coming to Him.” Actually I think that this text is included here because as we know, there was a problem later on in Acts 19. A number of people were disciples of John but they weren’t disciples of Jesus. The Church Fathers tell us this went on for a few generations and maybe John was addressing this issue in this very text that would say, “Look, get your eye off of John because John himself would not of wanted you to do that.” Instead, follow what John said, “He must increase and I must decrease.”(v.30) They were concerned about this.
John 3:27-28, “John answered and said, ‘A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.” John is divinely commissioned to be a forerunner of the Christ but like other human teachers, he’s earthly in origin.
That’s why he goes on to say, I must decrease and He must increase. This is true for all of us. The danger we have is sometimes the followers of a charismatic leader can put that person in such a position that they begin to defend that person so much that they almost elevate them to a position that he himself would be uncomfortable with. It often takes place this way. John is saying, “Don’t do that.” Don’t pursue factions- let Jesus increase. His servants are not meant to call attention to themselves. It’s important for us to see then that this, as Hudson Taylor put it, “We are little servants of an illustrious Master.” That’s the way to look at it. That He is the One who must increase. John the Baptist is the best man. Don’t make so much of speakers, writers and ministers that you miss out on the real issue of Jesus. The focal point must always be that, as this text would encourage us to see.
John 3:31, “He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all.” So no human teacher comes from above. This is the truth that must descend. It is something from the outside. It’s something foreign to our experience. It’s something we couldn’t of made up. It’s something that we must respond to.
John 3:32-34, “What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure.” I take it he’s referring to the giving of the Spirit without measure to Jesus and that He has given Him immeasurable possession of the divine Spirit.
John 3:35, “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand.” All that is to be revealed about God has been committed to Him and thus we need to respond by accepting His teaching.
John 3:36, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” You see to accept His teaching is to testify that God is in fact true. (v.33) To reject it is in effect to make God a liar. (I John 1:10) First John 5:10, “The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son.” Disbelief and belief in the Son of God is a matter of life and death. It’s a supreme revelation of God’s love. It brings assurance of eternal life. I sometimes put it to you as, those who are born once will die twice and those who are born twice will die once. Do you catch that understanding? There’s a need for two births that leads to one death and only one birth leads to two deaths. There’s a physical death and then there’s a spiritual death or separation. There can be no neutrality when it comes to the witness of Christ. Either He must be embraced and accepted or He must be rejected.
I want you to see the three “musts” in this chapter. There’s the must, first of all, of the sinner- you must be born again. That’s a must. In verse 14 there’s the must of the Savior- so the Son of Man must be lifted up. Thirdly, there is the must of the servant. He must increase and I must decrease.
We see that the first must is we must embrace whom He is and we must be born again. The must of the Savior is the One who is actually going to be lifted up. We must lift our eyes to Him and find our life in Him. Not to do so is to be in a position where we do not have spiritual life and therefore we are separated from Him.
You want to understand something that’s very unique. This is offering this message to all who will come to God regardless of their origin and their background. We have a picture there in that one sense it’s inclusive but there’s another sense in which Jesus is quite exclusive. He’s not inclusive, as we’d like Him to be. I invite you to read Matthew 7. There’s a way that leads to life and there’s a way that does not. There’s a path that leads to destruction.
Here’s the issue. While He’s inclusive in His offer the decision is ours to make and He will not include those who do not choose to be included. It’s a dangerous heresy to suppose that everybody gets in whether they like it or not because it’s to say there is no barrier upon what you believe, how you behave and your eternal destiny. I think the scriptures tell us otherwise.
The reason why He came to do such a radical thing was to make it possible for us to escape the wrath of God and to embrace instead the love of God. The One who deserves the love of God, namely the Son, receives the wrath of God on the cross. We who deserve His wrath receive His love on the cross. That’s a portrait of how God goes to such extreme measures in order to make it possible for us to have knowledge of Him.
Answer: Do you mean John 3:16? That’s the best-known verse in the bible and there’s good reason for it. It’s the gospel in a nutshell. I want you to notice what we often overlook , namely that God’s the One who is the initiator. It’s not Jesus wrestling salvation from an unwilling Father. Actually it’s the Father who sends Him and Jesus is on a mission from the Father. That’s extremely important for us to capture.
Let’s close in a prayer. Father, I pray that we might indeed be a responsive people. If there’s anyone here who hasn’t received the new birth, I pray that they would make a choice and respond to Your loving initiatives since Jesus cannot ultimately be ignored. We must make a choice to receive Him so that we will have the life. Those of us who already know Him, I pray that we would make daily choices to let Him increase while we decrease. The more He increases, the more we discover our true pleasure and satisfaction is in His service. We discover our true significance. It is to be found in seeking His pleasure, Your pleasure above our own. May we be a people who walk as servants because You have first served us. Now we can become servants of You and of others. We pray in Jesus Christ’s name. Amen.