Lesson 44: Fear and Faith (Luke 8:40-56)Related Media
Summary by Seth Kempf, Bethany Community Church Staff
Lesson 45: Proclaiming the Coming Kingdom (Luke 9:1-9)Related Media
Summary by Seth Kempf, Bethany Community Church Staff
Lesson 11: Jesus Cleans House (John 2:12-17)Related Media
May 5, 2013
Probably most of us do not enjoy cleaning our houses or apartments, but if you don’t do it regularly, pretty soon you’re living in a pigsty. When I was a pastor in California, I once visited the home of a couple from the church there. When I walked in the door I saw boxes and piles of stuff stacked everywhere. The place was a disaster! I almost said, “Oh, are you moving?” Thankfully, before I said anything I realized, “This is the way they live!” I’ve been in other homes where there was so much clutter that there was literally no place to sit down. I was in another house where the shower was unusable because it was piled high with stuff!
Imagine how those people would have reacted if I had walked in and started throwing their stuff into the trash can! They would have shrieked, “What do you think you’re doing?” After all, it wasn’t my house or my stuff. Even though it needed to be cleaned up, I had no right to do it because it wasn’t mine.
In our text, Jesus goes into the temple in Jerusalem and starts cleaning house. He didn’t begin by opening Scripture and teaching everyone the proper use of the temple. He wasn’t polite, either. He didn’t ask, “Would you mind moving your animals outside the temple? Could you please carry your coin boxes and tables outside the gates?” Rather, He saw what was going on, made a scourge of cords, and drove the animals and their owners out of there. He dumped out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those selling doves, He commanded (2:16), “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.”
As could be expected, the Jews asked Him, in effect, “What right do you have to do these things?” In the vernacular, “Who do you think you are? Do you think you own this place?” John wants us to understand, “Yes, Jesus owns this place! The temple belongs to Him.” Thus,
As the Lord of the temple, Jesus has authority to cleanse it and restore it to its proper use.
In our last study, the disciples got an initial glimpse of Jesus’ glory when He turned the water into wine and they believed in Him (2:11). They had already believed in Him, but when they saw more of who He really is, they believed in Him again, in a deeper way. After Jesus’ resurrection when the disciples remembered this incident, the result was the same: “they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken” (2:22). And John writes these things so that we might get a deeper understanding of who Jesus is so that we might believe in Him as the Christ, the Son of God, and through believing, we might have life in His name (20:30-31).
Before we look at the main event in our text, note that verse 12 is a transitional verse from the last incident: “After this He went down to Capernaum, He and His mother and His brothers and His disciples; and they stayed there a few days.” Capernaum was on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, about two miles west of where the Jordan River flowed into the sea. It was the home of Peter and Andrew. After John the Baptist was imprisoned, Jesus moved there from Nazareth (Matt. 4:13).
This is the last time that Jesus’ mother is mentioned in this gospel until she is at the cross (19:26). We will encounter Jesus’ brothers again in 7:3-10, where John informs us that they did not at that point believe in Jesus. Some (usually Roman Catholics) believe that these could not be Mary’s children because they assert that she was perpetually a virgin. They say that these were either Jesus’ cousins or else Joseph’s children from a previous marriage. But there is no biblical reason to deny that these were the children born to Joseph and Mary after Jesus was born. Matthew 1:25 states that Joseph kept Mary a virgin until she gave birth to Jesus, implying that after that time they had normal marital relations.
Regarding the cleansing of the temple, most liberal scholars and even a few conservative ones argue that there was only one cleansing of the temple, not two. The Synoptic Gospels all report that Jesus cleansed the temple after His triumphal entry during the last week of His ministry (Matt. 21:12-13). John alone reports this cleansing at the outset of Jesus’ ministry. William Barclay (The Gospel of John [Westminster], 1:107) makes the ridiculous statement, “John is more interested in the truth than in the facts” (as if we can have truth based on factual error!). Some say that John puts the event out of chronological order at the beginning for theological reasons. But the chronological sequence of 2:11-13 is pretty tight (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/ Apollos], p. 177). Other than a liberal bias, it is most natural to conclude that there were two cleansings.
All Jewish males were required to go up (Jerusalem was at a higher elevation than the surrounding territory) to the temple three times a year for the great feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. On this occasion, Jesus went up for Passover.
Within the temple compound was a spacious courtyard called “The Court of the Gentiles.” Gentile proselytes could worship in that area but were threatened with death if they went beyond the four and a half foot dividing wall (Paul refers to this in Eph. 2:14). It was in this area that the merchants and money changers had set up their operation. As Jesus approached this area, which was to be a place of worship and prayer (Isa. 56:7; Matt. 21:13), He would have heard the commotion of the marketplace, with merchants crying out to hawk their wares and the smell of animals.
The pilgrims who walked great distances to Jerusalem to worship needed sacrificial animals—sheep, oxen, and doves. They could bring their own animals from home, although it would not be easy to do. But, the animals had to be without blemish and had to pass an official inspection, which cost money. So to avoid the hassle of bringing their own animals and the risk of having the animals rejected, a person could simply buy one of the already certified animals from a vendor at the temple. These vendors paid the high priest for the privilege of selling at the temple. So it was a nice business for the high priest and the vendors. And, it provided a convenient service for the worshipers.
Also, foreign money was not acceptable in the temple. To buy their animals or to pay the half-shekel temple tax, worshipers had to get their money changed into the proper coinage, again for a fee. If you’ve ever traveled overseas, you know how this works. In every foreign airport and city, money changers will trade your American currency for the local currency for a nice fee.
There is scholarly evidence that these merchants and money changers had operated around the Mount of Olives, outside of the temple precincts, under the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin for some time. But just prior to Jesus’ ministry, Caiaphas, the high priest, had brought some of them into the Court of the Gentiles to compete with those outside. Jesus’ indignation was not necessarily against selling these animals or changing money per se (although gouging people with exorbitant rates for personal profit was wrong), but rather at the audacity of bringing these merchants into the only place where the Gentiles could worship (William Lane, Commentary on the Gospel of Mark [Eerdmans], pp. 403-404). Their business should have been carried on outside the temple.
Why didn’t the temple officials arrest or physically restrain Jesus from carrying out this extreme action? There were probably several factors. First, there was a general public outrage against this corrupt and evil system. The people knew that they were being charged exorbitant rates. The high priest and the vendors knew that there was only so much that the public would bear. If they had used force against Jesus, they might have faced a public rebellion. Second, the consciences of the vendors themselves may have been a little uneasy. Their setting up shop in the temple precincts defiled the temple because it brought animal excrement into that sacred space. Also, Jesus’ action could have been viewed as a fulfillment of Malachi 3:1-4, which prophesied that Messiah would come to His temple and purify the people like a refiner’s fire.
Leon Morris points out (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 194) that it was not so much Jesus’ physical force that drove these merchants out of the temple, but rather His moral power. So rather than physically arrest or restrain Jesus, the authorities challenge His authority or right to do what He did (2:18). We will have to wait until next time to examine Jesus’ reply and the disciples’ response (2:19-22). For now, let’s look at five lessons from Jesus’ housecleaning of the temple:
1. As the Lord of the temple, Jesus has authority over it.
Several things in the text establish Jesus’ lordship and thus His authority over the temple. First, He calls it “My Father’s house,” not “our Father’s house.” Morris notes (ibid., p. 195, note 66), “Jesus never joins men with Himself in such a way as to indicate that their sonship is similar to His (cf. 20:17).” He adds, “Jesus’ words are a claim to deity.” If Jesus is the unique Son of God, the heir of all things (Heb. 1:2), then He is the rightful Lord of the temple.
Also, the citation of Psalm 69:9 shows that this “action is not merely that of a Jewish reformer: it is a sign of the advent of the Messiah” (Hoskyns, cited by Morris, p. 196). John is showing us that Jesus is the Christ (20:31). Morris adds, “It is one of John’s great themes that in Jesus God is working His purposes out.”
John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 91) raises the question, “Why didn’t Christ begin with teaching before He took this drastic action?” He answers that Jesus wished in some way to take possession of the temple and to give a proof of His divine authority. Also, this dramatic action would awaken everyone to pay attention when He later began to teach.
This reminds me of a story that P. G. Wodehouse told (America, I Like You, cited in Reader’s Digest [July, 1984], p. 113). A member of the British Parliament was standing in the lobby of the House when a tall, distinguished-looking old gentleman asked for a moment of his time. He said, “I have heard of you as one who takes up unpopular causes and I should be extremely grateful if you would listen to my story.”
It was a sad story. By hard work and thrift, he had amassed a large fortune and now his relatives had robbed him of it and, not content with that, had placed him in a mental home. This was his day out. “I’ve put the facts in this document,” he concluded. “Study it and communicate with me at your leisure. Thank you, sir, thank you. Good day.”
Much moved by the old man’s exquisite courtesy, the Member of Parliament took the paper, shook hands, promised that he would do everything in his power, and turned to go back into the session of Parliament. As he did so, he received a kick in the seat of the pants which nearly sent his spine shooting through his hat.
“Don’t forget!” said the old gentleman.
So after Jesus “kicked the vendors in the seat of their pants,” they wouldn’t forget Him or His teaching!
It’s easy to sit here and enjoy the story of Jesus cleaning house on the temple, but it gets a bit uncomfortable when we remember two things. First, the church is now the temple where God dwells. In 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, Paul writes, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.” The context indicates that Paul is speaking of the church. Also, in Ephesians 2:21, he states that the church is growing into a holy temple in the Lord.
Second, every believer individually is a temple of the Lord. Paul writes (1 Cor. 6:19-20), “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.”
This means that Jesus has authority over this church and over every individual in it. He is the rightful Lord of the church. He owns each member because He purchased each one with His blood. Thus He has the right to cleanse the church and to cleanse every person in it. Everything else that I’m going to say applies both to the whole church and to each of you individually.
2. As the Lord of the temple, Jesus examines and judges it in light of its purpose.
Jesus knew that the temple was not to be a place for business (2:16). It was a place for worship, for prayer, and for offering sacrifices. It was the place to meet with God and seek His face (see 1 Kings 8:22-53; Isa. 56:7). It was the place to gather for the three annual feasts (Deut. 16:16). The Passover, which Jesus here went up to celebrate, was a time to remember God’s miraculous deliverance of Israel from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. But it had degenerated into a business opportunity for the high priest and all of the merchants and money changers. No doubt they rationalized their activities: It was a useful service for the worshipers. But they were prostituting God’s purpose for the temple.
God’s purpose for His church is that we would glorify Him by growing in fervent love for Him and for one another (the two great commandments) and by proclaiming the gospel to the lost (the Great Commission). We need to keep on task by evaluating all that we do in light of these purposes. Individually, each of us should seek to glorify God by everything we do (1 Cor. 6:20; 10:31). If we live for anything else, the Lord of the temple will examine us and purge out that which has diverted us from His purpose for us.
3. As the Lord of the temple, Jesus hates certain things that go on in it.
Jesus is zealous for God’s house and that zeal means that sometimes He is not “nice.” He didn’t politely go around to each stall and suggest to the proprietors that perhaps they should move outside the temple precincts. Rather, He made a whip and drove them out with force. He angrily upended their money tables and scattered their coins.
Does that fit with your picture of Jesus? Yes, He was gentle toward sinners (Matt. 11:29; 12:20). He gives “grace upon grace” (John 1:16). He so loves us that He gave Himself for us on the cross (John 3:16). But He also baptizes with fire. “His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor” (Luke 3:17). “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). As we’ve seen (1 Cor. 3:17), “If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.”
Jesus hates sin because sin destroys people He loves and sin among God’s people drags God’s holy name through the mud. This means that first, we should hate our own sin and be quick to repent of it so that He doesn’t have to clean house for us (Rev. 3:19). Judge, confess, and forsake your sin on the thought level and it won’t go any farther. If you’ve already sinned in word or deed, turn from it, ask God to forgive you, and ask forgiveness of those you’ve sinned against.
Also, if you know of a brother or sister who is in sin, zeal for God’s house should override your fear of man and your aversion to confront anyone. After prayer, in humility, go to your brother and seek to restore him to the Lord (Gal. 6:1). It is the Christlike thing to do. Jesus never avoided confrontation if it was necessary to do the will of God. Don’t dodge your responsibility. It’s a necessary part of biblical love to hate sin.
4. As Lord of the temple, Jesus cleanses it.
A sober question to ask is, “What would Jesus do if He visited our church?” Would He be pleased with our worship? Would He smile as He looked at our relationships? Would He approve of our heart for the lost? Would He commend our giving and the way that we use the church’s funds? Would He say that our prayer life reflects our total dependence on Him?
Ask the same question on an individual level: Lord, is my life pleasing to You? Is my love for You genuine? Do I reflect the fruit of the Spirit? Is my thought life pure in Your sight? Where would You clean house in my life if I gave You full rein?
Note that Jesus didn’t work out a compromise with the stall owners and money changers: “If you guys will tithe your profits, I’ll let you keep doing business in the temple.” He cleaned out the entire operation. He doesn’t let us keep a little bit of sin if we’ll just give up a few other sins. Jesus cleans it all out. And, yes, it’s painful and costly. I’m sure that the whip stung when it hit. The money changers probably lost a few coins. Their future business suffered. It may cost you in many ways to do business with Jesus. But the long term benefits are worth it.
5. As the Lord’s temple, we must submit to His cleansing, even if it costs us dearly.
Hebrews 12:6 reminds us, “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.” He adds (12:11), “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” And so we should not regard His discipline lightly or faint when we are reproved by Him, but rather be subject to the Father of spirits and live (12:5, 9).
Also, once Jesus has cleaned our house for us, we need to keep it clean so that He doesn’t have to do it again. Not long after this first cleansing, they set up shop again, so that Jesus had to do this a second time three years later. Then His zeal for God’s house did consume Him—it led to His death.
It’s good every so often to examine yourself to make sure that you’re in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5):
- Have you lost that first love for Christ (Rev. 2:4)? Do you spend time with Him often in His Word (Psalm 119) and in prayer (1 Thess. 5:17)? Are you actively seeking to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18; Phil 3:8-10)? Do you seek to please Him with your thoughts, words, and deeds?
- How are your relationships with others, especially with those you live with (Matt. 22:39)? Are you fervent in your love for others (1 Pet. 4:8)? Do you deny yourself and seek to build others in love (Mark 8:34; 1 Cor. 8:1)? Do you love gathering with His church (Heb. 10:25)?
- Do you spend your time in light of His kingdom purposes (Matt. 6:33)? Are you a conscientious steward of the resources that He has entrusted to you (Luke 16:10-13)? Do you view yourself as the Lord’s servant, seeking opportunities to be used by Him (Luke 17:10)? Are there any hidden or open sins that you need to confess and forsake (1 John 1:9)?
Paul says that if we clean house ourselves, the Lord won’t need to do it for us. Before we partake of the Lord’s Supper, he instructed us (1 Cor. 11:28), “But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” He adds (1 Cor. 11:31-32), “But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.” So if you need to clean house, don’t procrastinate! The Lord doesn’t want you to live in a spiritual pigsty!
- Does Jesus wielding a whip fit your image of Him? Why is it crucial to know Jesus as the Bible reveals Him, not necessarily as we might want Him to be?
- Work through the questions in the conclusion of the message. Prioritize two or three that you most need to work on. Jot down some practical ways to begin.
- Study some of the verses pertaining to helping a brother or sister who is in sin (Gal. 6:1; Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Thess. 5:14; Rom. 15:14; 2 Tim. 2:24-26). What are some principles that you can apply? Is there someone you need to help restore?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Lesson 12: How to Come to Jesus (John 2:18-22)Related Media
May 12, 2013
You’ve probably had the experience of talking to a skeptic about Christ only to have him say, “If I could see a miracle, I’d believe.” But that’s not true. The problem with the skeptic is not a lack of evidence, but rather his love of his sin. He suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18).
Years ago, the most popular course on a college campus was a first-year chemistry class, taught by a renowned professor, Dr. Lee. Each year before Thanksgiving, Dr. Lee would lecture against prayer. He would conclude the lecture with the challenge: “Is there anybody here who still believes in prayer?” He would add, “Before you answer, let me tell you what I’m going to do and what I’m going to ask you to do. I will turn around, take a glass flask and hold it at arm’s length. If you believe that God answers prayer, I want you to stand and pray that when I drop this flask, it won’t break. I want you to know that your prayers and the prayers of your parents and Sunday school teachers and even the prayers of your own pastors cannot prevent this flask from breaking. If you wish to have them here, we will put this off until you return after the Thanksgiving recess.”
No one had ever stood up to Dr. Lee’s challenge until a Christian freshman learned about it. He sensed that God had given him the conviction to stand up to Dr. Lee. When the skeptical professor threw out the challenge, this brave young man stood up.
“Well,” said the professor, “this is most interesting. Now we will be most reverent while this young man prays.” Then he turned to the young man and said, “Now you may pray.”
The young man lifted his face toward heaven and prayed, “God, I know that You can hear me. Please honor the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, and honor me, Your servant. Don’t let the flask break. Amen.”
Dr. Lee stretched his arm out as far as he could, opened his hand, and let the flask fall. It fell in an arc, hit the toe of Dr. Lee’s shoe, rolled over and did not break (Richard Harvey, Seventy Years of Miracles [Horizon House], cited by Bill Thrasher, A Journey to Victorious Praying [Moody Publishers], pp. 48-50).
The book where I read that story doesn’t report the professor’s response, but I seriously doubt that he fell to his knees, repented of his sins, and trusted in Jesus Christ as His Savior and Lord. Skeptics who demand a miracle don’t need a miracle to come to faith. They need to repent of their sins.
Our text reports the aftermath of Jesus’ confronting the sin of those who authorized the selling of sacrificial animals and the changing of money inside the temple precincts in Jerusalem. They came to Jesus and demanded a sign (John’s word for “miracle”) to validate His right to cleanse the temple. In effect, they challenged Jesus, “Who do you think you are to do what you just did? Do you think that you own this temple?” John wants us to see, “Yes, Jesus owns the temple. He is the rightful Lord of it. He has every right to cleanse it from corruption.”
Our text shows us how not to come to Jesus when He confronts your sin and how to come to Him:
When Jesus confronts your sin, don’t challenge Him, but believe in Him as the crucified and risen Lord as the Scriptures testify.
1. Jesus is in the business of confronting all sin that undermines the true worship of God.
God created us to glorify Him in all that we do, but especially when we gather in worship. All sin may be summed up as falling short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). As we saw last week, Jesus confronted the merchants and money changers in the temple because they were perverting God’s purpose for the temple, which was that His people might worship Him. It was to be a house of prayer for the nations (Mark 11:15), but they had turned the only part of the temple where Gentiles could worship into a place of business.
Jesus was especially incensed with religious sin because these people professed to know the Scriptures. They purported to be obedient to God and to worship Him, but their hearts were far from Him (Mark 7:6-8). No doubt they would have rationalized their temple business by arguing that it provided a needed service for the worshipers. But they were using religion as a cloak to cover their greed. So Jesus zealously drove them out of His Father’s house and upended their money tables.
If you want to stir up someone’s zeal, offend what he loves. If you want to get me stirred up, offend my wife. Because I love her I will defend her if you put her down. Jesus loved the Father and the Father’s house, where true worship was to take place. So when He saw this perversion going on in the temple, it stirred up His righteous zeal (John 2:17), so that He drove them out.
But in so doing, He offended what they loved, namely, their money (Luke 16:14) and their position of authority in the temple (Matt. 23:6-7). So they responded to Jesus’ confrontation by challenging His authority to do what He had done. But that was the wrong way to come to Jesus!
Before we look at their challenge to Jesus, let me ask: Has Jesus confronted your sin? You can’t walk with Jesus, who is holy, without at some point having Him confront your sin. He does it gently with those who are weighed down with the burden of their sin. But with self-righteous religious hypocrites, He gets pretty tough. But wherever you’re at on the spectrum, there is no such thing as having real contact with Jesus without having Him confront your sin. When He does, don’t respond as the Jews did when He cleared their business out of the temple:
2. When Jesus confronts your sin, don’t come to Him by challenging Him, asking for a sign.
John 2:18: “The Jews then said to Him, ‘What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?’” Note 3 things:
A. To challenge Jesus when He confronts your sin is to dodge the main issue at stake.
The reason the Jews challenged Jesus was that He had just upset their nice little corner on the religion market. There is no sign of repentance on their part for how they had defiled the temple. They didn’t come humbly and say, “Jesus, you were right. We were wrong to sell our goods in the temple. Thank you for helping us correct that.” They knew that He was right, but rather than face their sin, they dodged it by challenging Jesus’ right to do what He did.
When skeptics say, “Show me a miracle and I’ll believe,” they’re dodging their sin. They don’t need more evidence to believe, because they aren’t seeking to believe. They don’t want to believe in Jesus, because they know that He would confront their sin.
A campus worker talked with a student who claimed that the Bible was packed with mythology, although he admitted that he had never read it. So the worker challenged him to read Isaiah, which contains prophecies concerning Christ, and Matthew, which records the fulfillment of those prophecies.
He thought that he would never see him again, but the next day he came up and said, “I read Isaiah and Matthew. It was interesting literature. I think it speaks the truth.” “That’s great!” said the worker. “Are you ready to trust Christ for eternal life?”
“No way,” said the student, “I have a very active sex life. I know Christ would want to change that. I don’t want anyone to change that.” (Cliff Knechtle, Give Me an Answer [IVP], pp. 88-89, cited by Lee Stroebel, Inside the Mind of the Unchurched Harry & Mary [Zondervan], p. 113.)
B. To challenge Jesus is to assume superiority over Him.
Jesus was the Lord over the temple. It was His Father’s house and He is the heir of all things (Heb. 1:2), so He owned it. By cleansing the temple and calling it His Father’s house, Jesus demonstrated His deity. Jesus’ reply to them (John 2:19) shows that He knew that He would be killed and raised up the third day. He knew His own future before it happened.
You don’t come to the omniscient Lord of the temple as if you are the lord of the temple, demanding answers from Him or implying that you know more than He does. You must assume the position of a subordinate in the presence of Jesus or you will not receive anything from Him except judgment. The problem with skeptics who challenge the truth of the Bible is that they set themselves up as lords over the Word of God. But Jesus doesn’t respond kindly to such critics:
C. If you challenge Jesus by asking for a miracle, He will give you enough truth to condemn you, but not enough to save you, because you aren’t seeking salvation.
On at least two other occasions, the Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign, and both times Jesus gave them basically the same answer that He gives here. Matthew 12:38-40 records,
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
Again in Matthew 16:1, “The Pharisees and Sadducees came up, and testing Jesus, they asked Him to show them a sign from heaven.” He replied (16:4), “‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah.’ And He left them and went away.”
Both times, Jesus gave the same reply: a cryptic reference to His upcoming death and resurrection. So in John 2:19, “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” They thought that He was speaking literally of the Jerusalem temple, but John clarifies (2:21), “But He was speaking of the temple of His body.”
Rather than humbly admitting that they didn’t understand and asking Jesus to explain, they challenged Him again (2:20), “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” Some reputable scholars (Andreas Kostenberger, John [Baker], pp. 109-110; Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics [Zondervan], pp. 560-561) argue on grammatical, linguistic, and historical grounds that this should be translated, “This temple was built forty-six years ago.” The point then was, “This impressive building has stood the test of time here for 46 years. How could you possibly rebuild it in three days?” But however you take it, it’s clear that these men were not humbly seeking truth from Jesus. Rather, they were challenging His authority.
But Jesus never threw His pearls before swine (Matt. 7:6). When the disciples asked why Jesus spoke to the multitudes in parables, He said (Matt. 13:13), “Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” His parables served to reveal truth to those who humbly sought it, but also to conceal truth from skeptics. He gave such critics enough truth to condemn them on judgment day, but not enough to open their eyes and save them (Matt. 13:14-15).
It’s interesting that at Jesus’ trial, the false witnesses who obviously didn’t understand Jesus’ words here tried to use it against Him. They stated (Matt. 26:61), “This man stated, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.’” Then as Jesus hung on the cross, Mark 15:29-30 reports, “Those passing by were hurling abuse at Him, wagging their heads, and saying, ‘Ha! You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself, and come down from the cross!’” But Jesus had never said that He would destroy the temple. Rather, He made a statement of future fact: “[You will] destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
What did Jesus mean? His reply had a double meaning. On one level, they would destroy the temple of Jesus’ body and He would raise it up in three days. Scripture indicates that all three members of the Trinity had a part in Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2:24; Rom. 1:4; 6:4; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:15; John 10:17-18), just as they did in creation. But on another level, through their unbelief and rejection of the Messiah, they would destroy the Jerusalem temple (fulfilled in A.D. 70). It would be replaced by the risen Savior, who is our new temple or dwelling place of God with men. Our worship now centers in Him, not in any building. The sign that these things are true is the bodily resurrection of Jesus on the third day, which is the supreme authentication of His person and work.
Thus, Jesus is in the business of confronting all sin that undermines the true worship of God. When He confronts your sin, don’t come to Him by challenging Him, asking for a sign. Rather,
3. Come to Jesus by believing in Him as the crucified and risen Lord, as the Scriptures testify.
The Jewish skeptics and the disciples both saw the same person, heard the same teaching, and were given the same sign of Jesus’ resurrection. But the skeptics refused to repent of their sins and eventually crucified the Lord of glory. The disciples’ response was quite different (John 2:22): “So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.” That’s the response that John wants us to have. Note four things:
A. All of Scripture centers on the substitutionary death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
John doesn’t specify exactly which Scripture the disciples believed after Jesus’ resurrection. He could have been thinking of Psalm 16, Psalm 22, and Isaiah 53. But I think he wants us to realize that all Scripture points to Jesus as our sacrifice for sin, whom God raised from the dead. After the resurrection, Jesus encountered the two men on the Emmaus Road. Luke 24:27 states, “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” Later, Jesus said to the disciples (24:44), “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Luke adds (24:45), “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” Being there would have been worth more than all the seminary courses in the world!
The point is, to believe in Jesus, look for Him in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. You need to read the entire Bible, asking God to reveal Christ to your soul (see my message on Rom. 15:4, “Why You Need the Old Testament”).
B. Scripture is our only source for the truth about who Jesus is and what He did.
Beware of conjuring up a “Jesus” of your own liking! Many do that. They pick their favorite verses or stories about Jesus and His love, but ignore the parts that show Jesus in His holiness and wrath against sin. The Bible is our only source of God’s revelation concerning His Son, and we need the balance of taking it all in.
Here’s one example: In Matthew 11:28, we all love Jesus’ invitation, “Come unto Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” But some don’t like what He said just before that. First, He pronounced judgment on the unrepentant cities that had not believed in Him (Matt. 11:20-24). Then He thanked the Father for hiding spiritual truth from the wise and intelligent and revealing it instead to infants (11:25-26). Then, just before the invitation that we love, He asserted His sovereignty (11:27): “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” My point is, we need to embrace these difficult verses just as much as we embrace our favorite verse of invitation. God inspired all Scripture for our spiritual good.
C. Scripture shows that by virtue of Jesus’ death and resurrection, He is the new temple.
I already mentioned this, but we need to understand: since the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, there are no “sacred” buildings or places. Jesus Himself is our temple, not a cathedral or church building. We meet with God in Jesus. We dwell in Him and He dwells in us. The church (people, not the building) is growing into a holy temple in the Lord (Eph. 2:21).
D. As God opens our eyes through the Scriptures to see truly who Jesus is, we should believe more and more in Him.
Believing in Jesus is not a blind leap, where you vaguely hope He catches you before you hit the bottom. Rather, faith in Jesus is a step (not a leap) where you put your trust in the credible witness of Scripture and the apostles to the person and work of Jesus Christ. They were eyewitnesses of His glory (John 1:18). Peter testifies (2 Pet. 1:16), “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” The apostolic testimony is recorded for us in the New Testament, corroborated by the Old Testament.
Also, as we’ve seen, faith in Christ is not a once-for-all decision in the past. Rather, the disciples believed in Christ when they first began to follow Him (John 1:50). They believed again when they saw His glory when He turned the water into wine (2:11). Now, after the resurrection they reflect back on Jesus’ words here and “they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.” John puts Jesus’ words on a par with Scripture. What Jesus said, God said. The point is, as we understand more and more from the Scriptures of who Jesus is, our faith in Him grows.
Note also that it takes time for spiritual truth to sink in. The disciples didn’t connect all the dots at first. They couldn’t understand Jesus’ predictions about His death and resurrection (Luke 9:44-45; 24:45). But later they remembered what Jesus had said and it all made sense. So if you don’t understand something in the Bible, don’t give up. Keep asking, seeking, and knocking, and eventually the door will be opened for you.
A story is told of a godly but poor old Christian woman who lived in a run-down house. But she was always praising the Lord. An old atheistic man lived next door, who was always trying to prove to her that there is no God.
One day as he walked by the house, he saw through an open window that the woman was kneeling in prayer. He crept near and heard her pray, “Lord, you’ve always given me what I’ve needed. Now you know that I don’t have any money, I’m out of groceries, and I won’t get another check for a week. Somehow, Lord, can you get me some groceries?”
The atheist had heard all that he needed to hear. He ran down to the store, bought several bags of groceries, set them down on her doorstep, rang the bell, and hid beside the house. When the old woman saw the groceries, she threw her hands over her head and began shouting, “Thank you, Jesus! I was without food and you provided the groceries! Praise the Lord!”
At that point, the old man jumped out and said, “I’ve got you now! I told you that there is no God. It wasn’t Jesus who gave you those groceries—it was me!”
“Oh, no,” the woman said. “Jesus got me these groceries and He made you pay for them!” There are two ways of looking at things, aren’t there! The point of our text is, when Jesus confronts your sin, don’t challenge Him. Rather, believe in Him as the One who was crucified for your sins and raised for your justification.
- If a skeptic says, “Evolution is a proven fact,” how should you respond? Should you debate the point or confront his sin?
- Does submitting to the authority of Scripture mean that we are to put our brains on the shelf? Can we ask the hard questions and yet be in submission to the Lord?
- Discuss Matthew 13:10-17. Why did Jesus speak in such a cryptic manner to certain people?
- Why is it important to form our view of God (and Jesus) based on all Scripture, not just on our favorite parts?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Lesson 13: Does Jesus Believe in You? (John 2:23-25)Related Media
May 19, 2013
It seems to me that there is an epidemic of superficial or false faith in America. Over the last few decades, polls have indicated that between 30 to 40 percent or more of Americans claim that they have been born again. If one third of our nation was truly born again, the moral condition in our land would be vastly different!
While only God knows the true condition of people’s hearts, Jesus said that we can know a tree by its fruit (Luke 6:43-44). We should be able to spot a Christian by his godly behavior and lifestyle. Genuine faith results in good works (James 2:14-26). As 1 John 2:3 states, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” He does not mean that Christians never sin (see 1 John 1:9; 2:1). But his point is that the overall pattern of a true Christian’s life will be one of obedience to Jesus Christ, not a life of sin (1 John 3:4-10).
I bring up these matters because in our text we read about a situation where many believed in Jesus, but Jesus didn’t believe in them. The word translated “entrusting” (2:24, NASB) is the same Greek verb as “believed” (2:23). We could rightly translate it, “Many believed in Jesus, but Jesus didn’t believe in them.” While I found a couple of commentators who argue that these people had genuine faith, I agree with the overwhelming majority of scholars who argue that John intends for us to understand that these people had superficial faith.
As we’ve seen, John’s purpose for writing was (20:31), “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” In the prologue (1:1-18), John immediately sets forth the glory of Jesus Christ as the eternal Word, the Creator of all that is. He is the source of light and life. We saw in 1:12, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” In 1:14, John writes, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
In 1:50, Nathanael is the first one in this gospel who is said to believe in Jesus. In 2:11, the disciples, who had already believed and followed Jesus, believed again when they saw His glory when He turned the water into wine. In 2:22, John tells us that after Jesus resurrection, “His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.” So John is drawing a portrait of Jesus as the glorious manifestation of God with us, the one in whom everyone should believe for eternal life. He has given us examples of early faith in the disciples.
But now we read (2:23), “Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing.” You would expect John to move on, leaving this as another example of saving faith following the earlier examples that he has given. But instead we read (2:24-25), “But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” Why would Jesus refuse to entrust Himself to those who believed in Him? I agree with John Piper, who explains (desiringGod.org, “He Knew What Was in Man”):
What it says, in essence, is that Jesus knows what is in every heart, and so he can see when someone believes in a way that is not really believing. In other words, Jesus’ ability to know every heart perfectly leads to the unsettling truth that some belief is not the kind of belief that obtains fellowship with Jesus and eternal life. Some belief is not saving belief.
So while most of us (I hope) would say, “I believe in Jesus,” we all need to ask, “Does Jesus believe in me? Has He entrusted Himself to me?” (We’ll look at what that means later.) These verses teach us that…
We need to believe in Jesus in such a way that He believes in us.
These verses conclude the story of Jesus’ first ministry visit to the temple, but they also introduce us to the encounter with Nicodemus. John 2:25 emphasizes “man” (used twice) and then in 3:1, we read, “Now there was a man….” Also, 2:23 mentions the signs that Jesus was doing in Jerusalem during the feast, and in 3:2 Nicodemus acknowledges the signs that Jesus was doing. It’s obvious as the interview progresses that Jesus knew what was in Nicodemus’ heart and what he needed, namely, the new birth. So the story of Nicodemus helps us to understand these verses (and vice versa).
1. There is such a thing as superficial faith that does not result in salvation.
The disciples may have been initially enthused over the response of the people and then puzzled by Jesus’ seemingly aloof response to them: “If He’s the Messiah, why doesn’t He welcome all of these people who are believing in His name?” The reason was that He could see their hearts. He knew that their faith was based on seeing the miracles that He performed, but they weren’t repenting of their sins and trusting in Him as their Savior from sin.
Chapter 6 reports a similar incident. After Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, we read (6:14), “Therefore when the people saw the sign which He had performed, they said, ‘This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.’” “The Prophet” was a Messianic term (Deut. 18:15). The disciples no doubt thought, “Great! These people get it! They’re acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah!” But the next verse says that Jesus perceived that the people were going to take Him by force to make Him king, so He withdrew to the mountain by Himself alone. Jesus knew that the people superficially believed in Him, but He didn’t entrust Himself to them. Let’s look further at superficial faith:
A. Superficial faith in Christ is based on the spectacular or on what He can do to relieve your problems, not on Jesus as Savior and Lord.
These “believers” (in 2:23) were impressed with Jesus. They had seen Him clear out the merchants and money-changers from the temple. During the visit to Jerusalem, He had performed some other signs that John doesn’t specify (2:23). Maybe some of them had been healed or knew those who had been healed. They were ready to sign on with Jesus.
But they really didn’t understand the truth about who Jesus is and what He came to do. Like Nicodemus, they probably thought, “We’re good Jews. We’re God’s chosen people. We keep the Law of Moses. We just observed Passover.” They didn’t understand that they were sinners who needed a Savior. They didn’t know that Jesus is the Lord and that He commands His followers to take up their cross and follow Him. They were amazed at His signs, but they weren’t committing themselves to Him as Savior and Lord, so He didn’t commit Himself to them.
We see an example of superficial faith in Acts 8. A magician named Simon had built quite a following in Samaria, claiming to be someone great (8:9). When he saw the miracles that God was working through Philip, Simon believed and was baptized. He continued on with Philip, being constantly amazed by the miracles that he saw (8:13). Then, when Peter and John arrived and prayed for the people to receive the Holy Spirit, Simon was impressed. He offered money to the apostles so that he could obtain the same powers. But Peter strongly denounced him (8:20-23), “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.” Clearly, Simon’s faith was not saving faith.
B. Superficial faith may have a high view of Jesus, but it is not high enough.
These people were impressed with Jesus. They had seen Him cleanse the temple and thought, “He must be a great prophet!” They had seen Him do miracles and thought, “He must be a great man of God!” Nicodemus is an example of this. He calls Jesus “Rabbi,” acknowledges that He has come from God as a teacher, and that God is with Him (3:2). But he didn’t understand that Jesus came to impart the new birth or that he even needed the new birth. He didn’t understand that Jesus would die as God’s provision for sinners to receive eternal life (3:14-16). While I believe that he later came to faith, at this point his view of Jesus was high, but not high enough.
We see the same thing in John 10:31-33, where Jesus’ critics acknowledged that He did good works, but they were ready to stone Him for blasphemy, because He made Himself out to be God. They had a high view of Jesus as a good man, but not high enough. They didn’t see Him as God.
Muslims have a high view of Jesus as a great prophet, but their view is not high enough, in that they think that Mohammad was a greater prophet and they deny Jesus’ deity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses affirm that Jesus is the greatest of all created beings, but their faith is not saving faith because they deny His deity, which also denies His ability to atone for our sins. The same is true of the Mormons. Their “Jesus” is not the Jesus presented to us in the Bible, who is fully God and fully man. Superficial faith thinks highly of Jesus, but not highly enough.
C. Superficial faith may be the starting point of genuine faith, but the test is whether it perseveres and bears fruit.
Believing on the basis of signs (miracles) is better than not believing at all. In John 10:37-38, Jesus tells His Jewish critics, “If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.” But believing because of miracles will not result in salvation unless it is accompanied by repentance. Simon the magician believed, but he had not repented of his pride and love of power over the people. He was not saved. In the parable of the sower, it is only the seed that endures and bears fruit that is genuinely saved. (See, also, Matt. 24:13; Rom. 11:22; 1 Cor. 15:2; Col. 1:23; Heb. 3:12-14; 1 John 2:18-19.) Faith that perseveres sees with growing clarity the glory of Christ and what He did for us on the cross so that it perseveres when trials or persecution hit.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones (The Path to True Happiness [Baker], pp. 159-161) points out that there are some who “believe” in Jesus intellectually, but their hearts and their wills have never been touched. They may be scholars, but their knowledge has never changed their lives. Others have their hearts touched, but their minds have not been in operation. In fact, they have been told that they should not try to understand. Often, they have not submitted their wills to Christ. Experience is everything. There is a third group where their Christianity is almost entirely a matter of the will. They don’t bother to understand and they aren’t interested in their feelings. They just want to be doing things to serve God.
Lloyd-Jones argues that all three types have superficial faith because they have only picked out what appeals to them and believed in that. They haven’t seen themselves as lost sinners and Christ as the only one who can save them. Their faith is partial, based on what they like about Jesus. But when things don’t go the way that they envisioned, they fall away.
Many of us believed in Jesus with a shallow or superficial faith. We trusted Him because we wanted healing or success or something other than salvation from sin. But to go on and develop into genuine saving faith, you have to see yourself as the Bible portrays you and see Christ for who He is.
2. Saving faith begins with God by accepting His evaluation of our fallen hearts.
The reason that Jesus didn’t entrust Himself to these “believers” was that He knew what was in their hearts. But the implication is that they didn’t know their own hearts. Since this section serves to introduce the interview with Nicodemus, he is an example. He thought that he was a good Jew, but Jesus stunned him by telling him that he needed to be born again. His goodness was not good enough to get him into the kingdom of God. Note two things:
A. Only God truly knows the human heart.
In 1 Samuel 16:7, the Lord tells Samuel, “For God sees not as a man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Solomon prays (1 Kings 8:39b), “For You alone know the hearts of all the sons of men.” (Also, see 1 Chron. 28:9; Ps. 139:1-18, 23-24; Jer. 17:10; Heb. 4:13.) So when John tells us that Jesus knew all men and knew what was in man, it is a witness to His deity. Jesus could peer beneath the surface and evaluate the thoughts and motives of hearts (1:47-48; 4:17-19, 29; 6:15, 64 16:30; 21:17; Luke 16:15). Now, here’s the scary part:
B. We need to ask the Lord to reveal His evaluation of our hearts to us.
Proverbs 21:2 states, “Every man’s way is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the hearts.” Jeremiah 17:9 says, ““The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” When the Lord saves us, He gives us a new heart (2 Cor. 5:17), but the old man or flesh is not eradicated. There still lurks within us the bent to do evil. The problem is, we don’t realize just how powerful and deceptive this monster within really is.
That’s why Peter denied the Lord. He thought that he was stronger than he was. In fact, he denied the Lord’s prediction of his denial because he thought he knew more than the Lord did! Later, when the Lord restored Peter with His threefold question, “Do you love Me?” the third time, Peter replied (21:17), “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” The Lord knows our hearts better than we know our hearts. We have to allow Him to reveal our hearts to us. He does this gradually (thankfully—we couldn’t bear it all at once!) as we read and study God’s Word. The more you see how weak and prone to sin you really are, the more you’ll trust in the Lord to deliver you from temptation and sin.
If you’ve never done so, you must ask God to change your heart through the new birth. Christianity is primarily a matter of your heart before God, not of rituals or keeping rules. As you walk openly before the Lord, letting His light shine into the dark places of your heart, you will grow in grace. If you’re hiding some secret sin from others, remember, you aren’t hiding it from the Lord. But you won’t gain the victory over it until you expose it to Him. Until then, you’re just playing games with yourself, because God knows the true condition of your heart.
So, we need to be careful because there is such a thing as superficial faith that does not result in salvation. Saving faith begins with accepting God’s evaluation of us on the heart level.
3. Saving faith means having a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting Him as the One who saves you from your sins.
Many people make a decision to follow Christ, but that decision is not an indicator of the new birth unless it springs from the right motive, namely, a desire to have our sins forgiven through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. R. V. G. Tasker (The Gospel According to St. John [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 65) wrote, “[Christ] regarded all belief in Him as superficial which does not have as its most essential elements the consciousness of the need for forgiveness and the conviction that He alone is the Mediator of that forgiveness.”
So, what does it mean for Jesus to believe in you, or to entrust Himself to you? It has to do with a personal relationship. Trust is at the heart of all relationships. If you don’t trust someone, you will not be close to him. You will keep him at arm’s length, or just cut off all contact. To entrust yourself to someone, you must trust him. For Jesus to entrust Himself to you, He must trust you.
But how can He do that in light of our propensity to sin? First, there has to be the new birth where He imparts new life to us through the Holy Spirit. Only then is there anything in us worth trusting. Jesus did not entrust Himself to these superficial believers because He did not see their faith as the work of God stemming from the new birth.
Then, we need to walk in obedience to Him. In John 14:21, Jesus states, “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” He adds (14:23), “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.” The Lord entrusts Himself to those who obey Him and it is only those who have been born again who are able to obey Him from the heart (Rom. 6:17).
Some of the scariest verses in the New Testament are Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’” These people professed faith in Jesus. They called Him “Lord.” They were even involved in impressive ministries. But Jesus didn’t know them personally. Their disobedience showed that although they “believed” in Jesus, He didn’t believe in them. At the final judgment, Christ’s evaluation of us will be the determinative factor.
My aim in this message is, I hope, the same as John’s aim for including these verses in his Gospel: to get us all to believe in Jesus in such a way that He believes in us. Or, in Paul’s words (2 Cor. 13:5), “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?”
Some people were touring a mint where coins are made. In the smelting area, there were caldrons of molten metal. The tour guide said that if a person dips his hand into water, someone could then pour the molten metal over his hand and he would not be injured or feel any pain. He asked a couple if they would like to prove the truthfulness of what he just said.
The husband quickly replied, “No, thanks, I’ll take your word for it.” But the wife said eagerly, “Sure, I’ll give it a try.” Putting her words into action, she thrust her hand into a bucket of water and then held it out as the molten metal was poured over it. The hot liquid rolled off harmlessly, just as the guide had said it would. He then turned to the husband and said, “Sir, you claimed to believe what I said. But your wife truly trusted.” (Adapted from, “Our Daily Bread,” 12/84.)
You don’t want to stand before the Lord and hear Him say, “Your faith was only superficial; I never entrusted Myself to you.” Genuine saving faith means having a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting Him as the One who saves you from your sins.
- Discuss: Since genuine faith must be tested, is it wise to try to give assurance of salvation to someone who has just believed?
- Does Jesus’ knowledge of what is in your heart make you uncomfortable? How can you change your feelings on this?
- Did you originally come to Christ because of “a sign” (something spectacular that He could do for you)? What helped your faith to mature and grow?
- Have you ever thought about Jesus trusting in you? Why is trust at the heart of all relationships?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Lesson 14: Why Religion Can’t Save You (John 3:1-7)Related Media
June 2, 2013
One of the greatest lies that Satan has foisted on the human race is that religion can save you. By “religion,” I mean adherence to the beliefs and practices of a religion in the hope that your performance will gain you right standing with God. Whether it is Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, or even Christianity, there have always been millions who mistakenly thought that obedience to their religion would earn them eternal life.
The four Gospels make it clear that the most difficult people to reach with the gospel are not the notoriously wicked, but rather the outwardly religious. There are numerous accounts of corrupt tax collectors and immoral people coming to salvation. They knew that they were sinners and that they could not save themselves. But it was the religious crowd that opposed Jesus and eventually crucified Him. They were blind to their own sins of pride and self-righteousness. Their religion served not to save them, but to condemn them.
But Jesus Christ did not come to promote religion. He did not flatter those who were religious by saying that He was glad to see their religious activities and that He, too, was a religious person. When the religious leaders complained that Jesus socialized with sinners, He replied (Luke 5:31-32), “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” He was not saying that some are righteous enough to get into heaven by their own good deeds. Rather, by the “righteous,” He meant the self-righteous. Their pride blinded them to their sin and kept them from coming to Jesus for forgiveness and salvation.
In our last study, we looked at John 2:23-25, where many believed in Jesus as they saw the signs (miracles) that He was doing, but Jesus didn’t believe in them, because He could see the true condition of their hearts. As I explained, those verses serve as an introduction to the story of Jesus and Nicodemus. John connects the stories by using the word “man” (or “men”). John says (2:24) that Jesus “knew all men,” and then adds (2:25), “and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” Remember, there were no chapter breaks in the original text, so the next verse (3:1) continues, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus….” There is also a connection between the people who observed Jesus’ signs (2:23) and Nicodemus’ opening statement to Jesus (3:2), “no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” A further connection is that Jesus’ knowing all men and what was in man is evident in His reply to Nicodemus. Jesus could see beneath Nicodemus’ religious veneer. He knew that Nicodemus’ religion could not save him. He needed the new birth. This encounter teaches us that…
Religion can’t save you because to enter God’s eternal kingdom you need the new birth by the Holy Spirit.
The story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus runs from 3:1-21, but somewhere after 3:12, Nicodemus fades out as John records Jesus’ words about the Son of Man being lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Probably the direct words of Jesus fade away after 3:15 and John’s commentary runs from 3:16-21. Today we can only look at 3:1-7.
1. Religion can’t deal with the fundamental human need, to be reconciled to the holy God and enter His kingdom.
John begins by telling us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and adds that he was a ruler of the Jews. This means that he belonged to the Sanhedrin, the ruling council in Jerusalem that consisted of 71 members from the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Sadducees were almost all from the aristocracy and were more political than religious. They held to some heretical religious beliefs. The Pharisees were largely middle class businessmen who were concerned about following the Jewish law and had separated themselves (the word Pharisee probably comes from a word meaning to separate) from the common people by their strict adherence to their many regulations and rules (Donald Hagner, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible [Zondervan], ed. By Merrill C. Tenney, 4:747). Nicodemus was apparently a leading Pharisee, because Jesus calls him “the teacher of Israel” (3:10). He must have been a recognized religious authority.
John reports that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. There have been many speculations about why he did this. Perhaps the most likely is that he was afraid of what the other members of the council would think of him. He seems to have been a rather timid man (John 7:50-52; 19:39). Some suggest that since most of John’s references to “night” have a spiritual symbolism, he may be hinting at Nicodemus’ spiritual condition. Although he was a religious leader, he was in spiritual darkness (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 186).
Nicodemus seems to have been impressed by Jesus and the signs which He was doing. For a leader of the Sanhedrin to come to the quarters of an uneducated Galilean carpenter, address Him as “Rabbi,” and acknowledge that He had come from God was no small matter. Perhaps Nicodemus uses the plural “we” to refer to a few of his colleagues, but he may also be hiding behind them a bit so as not to signal too much interest on his own part (ibid., p. 187). But in spite of his complimentary greetings, Nicodemus’ view of Jesus fell far short of acknowledging Him as the Christ, the Son of God, which is necessary to receive eternal life (20:31).
The basic error of the Pharisees was to externalize religion (William Hendriksen, (John [Baker], 1:131). They invented all sorts of manmade regulations to add to the Law of Moses and took pride in their observance of them. Jesus blasted them for their hypocrisy as they fastidiously cleaned the outside of their cups and dishes, but neglected to deal with the sin in their hearts (Matt. 23:25-28).
As we saw in John 2:23-25, the important thing with the Lord is what is in our hearts. He sees and judges “the thoughts and intentions of our hearts” (Heb. 4:12-13). Later, when the Pharisees questioned Jesus about why His disciples did not wash their hands according to their traditions, He blasted them (Mark 7:6-8):
“Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”
Those who are into religion deceive themselves by thinking that their outward rituals and rules will impress God, while at the same time they dodge dealing with the sin that is in their hearts. But, of course, God sees right through it all. He requires “truth in the innermost being” (Ps. 51:6). So religion cannot gain anyone access to heaven because it only deals with external matters. No amount of rule-keeping or adherence to religious rituals can reconcile a sinner to the holy God.
You would think that Jesus would be elated at the prospect of winning a member of the Sanhedrin as one of His followers. This guy could be a key disciple! Think of his influence! Think of how his testimony would impress the other religious leaders, not to mention the common people. But Jesus showed no excitement, no deference, and no eager politeness. There was not even any attempt at persuasiveness or accommodation. Jesus was no respecter of persons. Rather, He cut to the quick by telling Nicodemus:
2. To be reconciled to God, you must be reborn from above.
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.’” Jesus “answered,” but Nicodemus hadn’t asked a question! B. F. Westcott (cited by Andreas Kostenberger, John [Baker], p. 121) remarked, “The Lord answered not his words, but his thoughts.” Jesus knew what was in Nicodemus’ heart and answered him accordingly.
Three times (3:3, 5, 11) in this interview Jesus uses the phrase, “Truly, truly.” It transliterates the Aramaic, “Amen,” which came from a verb meaning “to confirm.” It was used to give assent to the words uttered by another, as we still use it today. Jesus used the phrase to give added significance and attention to what follows. Leon Morris explains (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 169), “It marks the words as uttered before God, who is thus invited to bring them to pass.”
The point that Jesus wanted to hammer home to Nicodemus is, “You don’t need further instruction in religion. You need to be born again! You need to see yourself as a sinner who needs more than moral or religious improvement. You need nothing less than new life from God!” As Jesus will go on to say, in effect (3:14-16), “You need to see Me as more than a religious teacher. You need to see Me as your Savior, lifted up on the cross to bring salvation to sinners.” Morris puts it (p. 212), “In one sentence He sweeps away all that Nicodemus stood for, and demands that he be re-made by the power of God.”
“Born again” is ambiguous and may also mean “born from above.” Both are true and John may intend that we understand both meanings. William Barclay (The Gospel of John [Westminster], 1:120) captures both meanings with “reborn from above.” The idea is that just as we were born physically, so we need to be born spiritually. Such a birth requires the power of God. Nicodemus, as a Jew and a Pharisee, would have been proud of the fact that he was not a Gentile, but had been born as a Jew. But Jesus shows him that being a Jew, even a religious Jew, is not enough. He needed a new birth as a spiritual child of God (John 1:12-13).
Jesus says (3:3) that we must be born again to “see the kingdom of God.” These verses (3:3, 5) are the only reference to the kingdom in John (except 18:36, with Pilate; 6:15, “king”). It’s a major theme in the Synoptic Gospels. Here it refers to the Messianic kingdom for which all Jews hoped. Ed Blum explains (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John F. Walvoord & Roy Zuck [Victor Books], 2:281), “The kingdom is the sphere or realm of God’s authority and blessing which is now invisible but will be manifested on earth (Matt. 6:10).” To see the kingdom (3:3) is basically equal to entering the kingdom (3:5), with the slight difference that “see” implies spiritual perception (1 Cor. 2:14). Carson (p. 188) explains, “To a Jew with the background and convictions of Nicodemus, ‘to see the kingdom of God’ was to participate in the kingdom at the end of the age, to experience eternal, resurrection life.”
To be a proper subject in God’s kingdom, you have to be subject to the King, and that subjection begins here and now, not in the distant future. The problem is, those who are in the flesh are by nature hostile toward God and not able to subject themselves to God. As Paul explains (Rom. 8:6-8), “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 108) infers that since our whole nature needs the new birth, there is nothing in us that is not sinful. Corruption has spread throughout.
Thus all the religion in the world cannot resolve our basic problem of being alienated from God, because religion is based on human works that stem from the flesh and feed our pride. To be subject to the King, we need the new birth that gives us a new nature that delights in obedience to God from the heart (Rom. 6:17-18). We need a radical transformation, not just some behavior modification. We need something that the natural man cannot produce. We need nothing less than to be reborn from above.
Nicodemus was amazed (3:7) at Jesus’ radical statement that he needed to be born again. He replies (3:4), “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?” It’s difficult to understand what Nicodemus meant by this question. Obviously, he did not believe that Jesus was suggesting that a person go back to the womb and be reborn physically. John MacArthur (The Gospel According to Jesus [Zondervan], p. 40) thinks that Nicodemus was really saying, “I can’t start all over. It’s too late. I’ve gone too far in my religious system to start over. There’s no hope for me if I must begin from the beginning.” He says that Jesus was demanding that Nicodemus forsake everything he stood for, and Nicodemus knew it.
That may be, but I think D. A. Carson may be more on target when he suggests that Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus was talking about at all. His amazement (3:7) at Jesus’ words that he must be born again may indicate a degree of bewilderment. In verse 12 Jesus indicts him for not believing what He has just told him. So Carson says that Nicodemus’ answer reflects incredulousness, which prompted him to answer with a crassly literalistic interpretation of what Jesus said to express a degree of scorn. R. C. Sproul (John [Reformation Trust], p. 38) goes so far as to suggest that Nicodemus was insulting Jesus by his reply: “What are you talking about? Are you suggesting that a man has to enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born? What a ridiculous idea that is.” So Jesus (in verse 5) further explains verse 3:
3. Spiritual rebirth requires cleansing from sin and new life through the power of the Holy Spirit.
John 3:5-7: Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 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.’”
The phrase, “born of water and the Spirit,” has been subject to numerous interpretations. I used to think that “born of water” referred to physical birth, so that Jesus was responding to Nicodemus’ question in verse 4, “Your physical birth as a Jew, Nicodemus, is not enough. You must also be born spiritually.” The problem with that view is that Nicodemus probably would not have understood “water” in this way. And, the Greek construction points to one birth, not two. “Water and the Spirit” (3:5) is the equivalent of being born “from above” (3:3; see Carson, p. 191).
Some think that it refers to Christian baptism. But Christian baptism didn’t exist at that point. Jesus was trying to explain things to Nicodemus, not confuse him with a doctrine which he knew nothing about. Also, to teach that sprinkling water on an infant causes the new birth would be to say that religion saves a person, which is the opposite of what is being said here!
Some say it refers to John the Baptist’s baptism. This is a possible interpretation if Jesus was referring to what John’s baptism signified, namely, repentance from his sins. In addition to the repentance of John’s baptism, a person must receive what John predicted of Messiah, that He would baptize both with water and with the Holy Spirit (1:33). But that seems like a subtle meaning that Nicodemus may easily have missed.
Others argue that “water” represents the Word of God (John 15:3; Eph. 5:25; James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:22-25). But, would Nicodemus have understood it in this way?
Others say that “water” is a symbol for the Holy Spirit, so that both terms mean the same thing. This is Calvin’s view (p. 111): “By water, therefore, is meant nothing more than the inward purification and invigoration which is produced by the Holy Spirit.” He would translate and as, that is, which is sometimes the meaning.
Since Jesus reproaches Nicodemus for not understanding these things (3:10), He was probably referring to the promise of Ezekiel 36:25-27:
Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and 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.
Ezekiel predicted a time when God would cleanse His people from their sins and give them a new heart and new spirit and put His Spirit within them so that they would walk in obedience to His Word. That promise was fulfilled in Jesus when He ratified the New Covenant with His blood and sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in all that believe in Him. Nicodemus, who knew the Old Testament, should have connected Ezekiel’s prophecy with Jesus’ words (3:3), “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Jesus is saying that there is a fundamental divide between the physical and the spiritual (3:6). Being born physically as a Jew, or in our terms, being born into a Christian family, is not enough. There must be a second birth that cleanses from sin and creates new life through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Carson puts it (p. 197), “What is in view is a new nature, not turning over a new leaf.”
Just as physical birth happens at a point in time, so with spiritual birth. But just as we don’t remember our physical birth, so we may not remember or be able to pinpoint the time of our spiritual birth. The way we can know that we’re born again is that we observe signs of new life in our hearts: faith in Christ and His promise of eternal life; love for God; a new desire for the things of God; thankfulness to God for His abundant mercy in Christ; hunger for God’s Word; love for God’s people and for all people; mourning of and hatred of sin and a desire for holiness. In short, you will have new desires for God that you did not have before the new birth. It is not that you will never desire again to sin, but rather that the new direction of your life will be marked by these new desires that come from the new birth.
Years ago, Bishop John Taylor Smith, a former chaplain general of the British army, was preaching in a large cathedral on the text, “You must be born again.” He said, “My dear people, do not substitute anything for the new birth. You may be a member of a church … but church membership is not new birth, and ‘except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” The rector was sitting on his left. Pointing to him he said, “You may be a clergyman like my friend the rector here and not be born again, and ‘except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” On his right sat the archdeacon. Pointing at him, he continued, “You might even be an archdeacon like my friend here and still not be born again, but ‘except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” You might even be a bishop like myself and not be born again, but ‘except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’”
Several days later he received a letter from the archdeacon which read, in part, “My dear Bishop: You have found me out. I have been a clergyman for over 30 years, but I have never known anything of the joy that Christians speak of. I never could understand it…. But when you pointed at me and said that a person could be an archdeacon and not be born again, I understood what the trouble was. Would you please come and talk with me?” Of course, Bishop Smith did talk with him and the archdeacon responded to Christ’s call to salvation (H. A. Ironside, Illustrations of Biblical Truth [Moody Press], pp. 49-50).
What about you? You may be religious, but religion can’t save you. You must be born again. Don’t settle for anything less. Cry out to God that He would cause you to be born again (1 Pet. 1:3).
- Why is religion so appealing to so many people? What’s the draw?
- Is there a difference between “making a decision to accept Christ” and “being born again”? If so, what is the difference?
- Someone asks you, “How can I know if I’ve been born again?” How would you answer?
- Who is the easier one to witness to: A convict in prison or a lifelong member of a Christian church who has not been born again? How should your approach to each one differ?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 15: Why You Need the New Birth (John 3:6-13)Related Media
June 9, 2013
It would be a tragedy to spend your life studying the Bible and yet end up perishing on judgment day. What a waste to be a Bible scholar and yet miss the central message of the Bible! James Boice (Does Inerrancy Matter? [International Council on Biblical Inerrancy], p. 9) told of a gathering of ministers where an evangelical pastor argued a point based on the Bible’s teaching. He referred to Jesus’ words and to His promise to return.
When he had finished, a professor from a leading Protestant seminary stood up to counter what the pastor had said. He said, “You cannot appeal to the teaching of Jesus Christ, because we do not know what Jesus really taught. The Gospels are contradictory at this point. Each of them has been written to correct the others. So far as Christ’s return is concerned, we have simply got to get it into our heads that Jesus is never coming back and that all things are going to continue on as they have from the beginning.”
Dr. Boice added that it would be nice to think that such views are held only by a few liberals. But he cited a survey of over 7,400 clergymen in five major denominations. One question was, “Do you believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God?” This was not asking whether they believed the Bible to be without any error, but rather only if they believed the Bible to be inspired by God in some undefined sense. But in spite of the level at which the question was asked, 82% of the Methodists, 89% of the Episcopalians, 81% of the United Presbyterians, 57% of the Lutherans, and 57% of the Baptists answered, “No”! Dr. Boice wrote that booklet in 1979. I would guess that things have not improved much, if at all, in the three postmodern decades since then.
In our text, Jesus is talking with a leading religious teacher in Israel (Jesus calls him “the teacher of Israel in 3:10) who does not understand the basics of spiritual truth. Nicodemus had devoted his life to the study of the Scriptures, and yet he did not understand Jesus’ words (3:3), “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” To gain entrance to God’s eternal kingdom Nicodemus was counting on the fact that he had been born as a Jew and that he was not just an average Jew, but a Pharisee. But Jesus yanked the rug out from under his feet and said, in effect: “Your natural birth, your religious devotion, and your religious studies mean absolutely nothing. You must be born again!”
The main reason you need the new birth is so that you can see and enter God’s eternal kingdom and avoid His judgment (3:3, 5). Without the new birth you’re spiritually dead and cut off from God. If you die without the new birth, you will perish (3:16, 36). But the verses that we are considering today also teach that …
You need the new birth so that you can understand and respond to spiritual truth.
Nicodemus had studied the Old Testament and yet he didn’t get what Jesus was saying because he was not born again. Most scholars agree that by the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus had come to faith, as evidenced in his courage in helping with the burial of Jesus (19:38-42). But at this point, he had not been born again and so he was spiritually confused, in spite of his years of religious studies and devotion.
Perhaps the apostle Paul (a former Pharisee) had talked with Nicodemus or knew about this story when he wrote (1 Cor. 2:14), “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” We can learn four things:
1. There is a fundamental divide between the physical and the spiritual (3:6).
John 3:6: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Jesus draws a sharp line between physical birth and spiritual birth. By “flesh,” He is referring to human nature or the natural man. As we saw in Romans 5:12-19, because of Adam’s sin, we’re all born in sin, separated from God, and unable to submit to God (Rom. 8:6-8). Cute as they are, little babies are not born spiritually neutral, much less with an inclination toward God. We’re all born alienated from God and so we need God’s Spirit to impart spiritual life to us so that we can become God’s children. As John 1:12-13 says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
So there is this divide between what is born of the flesh and what is born of the Spirit. As Jesus says (John 6:63), “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.”
“O Lord,” muttered Alexander Pope one day, “make me a better man!” His spiritually-enlightened servant replied, “It would be easier to make you a new man!” (In A Frank Boreham Treasury, compiled by Peter Gunther [Moody Press], p. 67.) God must intervene to give new life. Otherwise, all you have is the flesh trying to improve itself. But the flesh can never give itself new life that comes only from God. Thus,
2. It is absolutely essential that you experience the new birth (3:7).
John 3:7: “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” “Must” is a strong word of necessity. It’s not an option. Genuine Christianity is, as Puritan Henry Scougal titled his book, nothing less than The Life of God in the Soul of Man [Sprinkle Publications]. Scougal wrote that book in 1677 when he was 27; he died of tuberculosis when he was 28.
In the early 1700’s, a 21-year-old Oxford student realized that his debauched, wicked life needed to be reformed. He resolved to change. He denied himself every luxury; he wore ragged clothes; he ate no foods except those that were repugnant to him; he fasted twice a week; he gave his money to the poor; and he spent whole nights in prayer, lying prostrate on the cold stones or the wet grass. But he felt like he was putting a coat of paint on rotten wood. His outward deeds only hid his inward corruption.
Then a college friend, Charles Wesley, gave that struggling young man, George Whitefield, a copy of Scougal’s book. Whitefield read Scougal’s book with amazement and delight. It told him that true Christianity is the union of the soul with God. It is Christ formed in us. Whitefield said (In A Frank Boreham Treasury, p. 66),
When I read this, a ray of divine light instantaneously darted in upon my soul; and, from that moment, but not till then, did I know that I must become a new creature. After having undergone innumerable buffetings by day and night, God was pleased at length to remove my heavy load and to enable me, by a living faith, to lay hold on His dear Son. And oh! with what joy—joy unspeakable and full of glory—was I filled when the weight of sin left me and an abiding sense of the pardoning love of God broke in upon my disconsolate soul!
Whitefield’s favorite Scripture became John 3:3 (KJV), “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” He went on to preach more than 18,000 sermons, often on that text, sometimes to outdoor crowds of over 20,000 people (with no microphone!). He made many trips to America and was used greatly in the First Great Awakening. In one of his final sermons, he said (ibid., p. 70), “I am now fifty-five years of age and I tell you that I am more than ever convinced that the truth of the new birth is a revelation from God Himself, and that without it you can never be saved by Jesus Christ.”
A friend asked him one day, “Why do you so often preach on Ye must be born again?”
“Because,” replied Whitefield solemnly, looking full into the face of the questioner, “because ye must be born again!”
How can a person know if he or she has been born again?
3. The effects of the new birth are unmistakable (3:8).
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.”
Jesus and Nicodemus may have been sitting on the rooftop to catch the cool evening breezes. Perhaps as they felt the wind blow gently, Jesus said, “Did you feel that, Nicodemus? You can’t see the wind, you can’t control it, and you can’t understand it. It goes where it pleases. But you can observe its effects. See the curtains moving and the leaves rustling? So it is with the Holy Spirit. You can’t control Him, because He works according to His sovereign will. You can’t understand Him. But you can see His effects when He brings the new birth to a soul. The changes aren’t external, like wearing certain garments or phylacteries. Rather, it’s an internal change brought about by new life within. Where the Spirit works, the effects are plain to see.”
What are the effects of the new birth? John wrote his first epistle to show the early church some genuine marks of salvation, so that they could be on guard against many false teachers. Here’s what he says:
1 John: 2:29: “If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him.”
1 John 3:9: “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.”
1 John 3:14: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death.”
1 John 4:7: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”
1 John 5:1: “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him.”
1 John 5:4: “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
1 John 5:18: “We know that no one who is born of God sins; but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.”
John is not referring to a sinless life, but to a life that sins less. In other words, all whom the Spirit saves, He sanctifies. It takes a lifetime, but they progressively grow in holiness, without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). Those born of the Spirit develop the fruit of the Spirit as they learn to walk in the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
J. C. Ryle, a 19th century Anglican Bishop, observed the thousands of nominal cultural “Christians” in his day. He asked (A New Birth [Old Paths Gospel Press], p. 88),
What do they like best, when they have a choice? What do they enjoy most, when they can have their own way? Observe the manner in which they spend their Sundays. Mark how little delight they seem to feel in the Bible and prayer. Take notice of the low and earthly notions of pleasure and happiness, which everywhere prevail ….
Then he asks his readers to ponder this question: “What would these people do in heaven?” In other words, if you don’t delight yourself in God now, you would not know what to do with yourself in heaven!
Jesus has shown Nicodemus that there is a fundamental divide between the physical and the spiritual. Thus it is absolutely essential that you experience the new birth. Though you may not understand exactly how it happens, when it happens you can see the effects of the new life in the one who has been born again.
4. The only way to understand spiritual truth is to believe the testimony of Jesus (3:9-13).
Jesus makes two main points here:
A. Religious learning is useless apart from the new birth (3:9-10).
John 3:9-10: “Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?’” Several commentators prefer the translation, “How can these things happen?” For years, Nicodemus had taught others that the way into God’s kingdom was to keep the commandments and the traditions of the elders. But now Jesus is telling him that this is the wrong approach. A person needs nothing less than new life imparted by the Spirit of God.
Jesus’ retort to Nicodemus makes it clear that he should have known these things from the Scriptures. As we saw last week when we considered Jesus’ meaning for “water” in 3:5, He was probably referring to Ezekiel 36:26-27: “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and 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.” In Ezekiel 37, the prophet has the vision of the dry bones taking on flesh and coming to life when God’s Spirit breathes upon them. God says (37:14), “I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life….”
Also, in Joel 2:28-29 (which Peter cited on the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2:17ff.), the Lord says, “It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.” The prophet Isaiah often prophesied of the time when God would pour out His Spirit (11:2; 32:15; 44:3 59:21).
So Nicodemus should not have been amazed at Jesus’ teaching. But the point is, apart from having God’s Spirit dwelling in you through the new birth, you can study the Bible for years in the original languages and still miss the main point of the Bible. As Jesus later rebuked the religious leaders (John 5:39-40): “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” Jesus then makes a second point:
B. Jesus is the infallible revealer of spiritual truth because He came down from heaven (3:11-13).
John 3:11-13: “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. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.” For the third time, Jesus introduces his statement with, “Truly, truly.” He is emphasizing the fact that His testimony is absolutely reliable and true. If you reject what Jesus is saying about your need for the new birth, you’re arrogantly asserting that you know more about spiritual things than He does, even though He came down from heaven and knows what He’s talking about.
But that was precisely the problem with the Jewish leaders: Jesus’ testimony about God and the only way to have sins forgiven and get eternal life was an affront to their religious pride. They did not see themselves as sinners who needed a Savior (John 8:33, 41; 9:34). And so they rejected the true testimony of the only One who has come from heaven to earth to tell us how to be right with God.
There are a couple of difficulties to try to resolve in these verses. First, why does Jesus shift from the first person singular (“I say to you”) to the plural (“we speak of what we know…”)? Probably it was because in Jewish thought, true testimony is established by two or three witnesses. In John 5:31, Jesus tells the Jews, “If I alone testify about Myself, My testimony is not true.” He meant that it would not be admissible as legal evidence. But He goes on to say that the Father testifies of Him, John the Baptist had testified of Him, Jesus’ works testified of Him, and the Scriptures testified of Him. Here in John 3, Jesus may have been referring to the witness of John the Baptist or of the Father. But since He is rebuking Nicodemus for not knowing these things, I think that He is referring to the witness of the Old Testament prophets.
A second difficulty is, what does Jesus mean by “earthly things” and “heavenly things” (3:12)? I think that Calvin is on target when he says that Jesus is referring to His manner of teaching. He used two earthly illustrations, birth and the wind, to explain basic spiritual truth about receiving new life from God. If Nicodemus couldn’t understand these simple illustrations, how would he ever be able to understand if Jesus explained the Trinity or His incarnation or His substitutionary death for sinners?
A third difficulty is how do we read and understand verse 13: “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man”? Some translations accept a textual variant that adds to “the Son of Man” the phrase, “who is in heaven.” Some scholars argue that it was in the original text because it is a difficult reading that no later scribe would have added. They contend that a later scribe may have dropped it to avoid the suggestion that Jesus was at that moment in heaven. But the majority of scholars think that a later scribe may have added it to reflect later Christological development (Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [United Bible Societies], pp. 174-175). It seems unlikely to me that Jesus would have told Nicodemus that He was currently in heaven as He spoke to him on earth.
By His words in verse 13 Jesus is asserting that no one besides Him has ever ascended into heaven to be able to report heavenly truth on earth. He alone has come down from heaven. By the “Son of Man,” He is saying that He is the one Daniel prophesied of in Daniel 7:13-14, whom he saw in heaven with the Ancient of Days. Thus Jesus uniquely understands and can reveal heavenly mysteries. To reject Jesus’ witness is to reject God’s primary source for spiritual truth. We have that witness in the entire Bible, which tells us about Christ and points us to Him (Luke 24:27, 44).
The late Bible teacher, H. A. Ironside, told of visiting a godly Irishman, Andrew Fraser, who had come to California to recover from tuberculosis. The old man could barely speak because his lungs were almost gone. But he opened his worn Bible and, until his strength was gone, he simply, sweetly opened up truth after truth in a way that Ironside had never heard before. Before he knew it, Ironside had tears running down his cheeks. He asked Fraser, “Where did you get all these things? Could you tell me where I could find a book that would open them up to me? Did you learn these things in some seminary or college?”
Fraser answered, “My dear young man, I learned these things on my knees on the mud floor of a little sod cottage in the north of Ireland. There with my Bible open before me, I used to kneel for hours at a time, and ask the Spirit of God to reveal Christ to my soul and to open the Word to my heart. He taught me more on my knees on that mud floor than I ever could have learned in all the seminaries or colleges in the world.” (H. A. Ironside, In the Heavenlies [Loizeaux Brothers], pp. 86-87.)
That’s a major reason why you need the new birth. When God’s Spirit takes up residence in your heart, He will open up to you the sweet truths about Jesus as you read and study the Word in prayerful dependence on Him. As David said (Ps. 19:10), these truths are more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey to your soul.
- If God gives us a new nature that cannot sin, why do we sin? Why is sin such an ongoing battle for Christians? (See Romans 7; Gal. 5:16-23.)
- Look over the references to the new birth from 1 John (in the message). Should we use these qualities to gain assurance of salvation (see 1 John 5:13)? Should a person living in sin have assurance of salvation?
- Some super-spiritual folks say, “I don’t need commentaries to understand the Bible. I just pray and God shows me the meaning.” Why (from Scripture) is this fallacious?
- How would you respond to a critic, such as the seminary professor who said, “We do not know what Jesus really taught”?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)
Lesson 16: How Jesus is Like a Snake (John 3:14-15; Numbers 21:4-9)Related Media
June 16, 2013
If I were to compare the Prophet Mohammed to a snake, Muslims who heard of it would be out to kill me for blasphemy. It would be an insult to their revered Prophet. The same would be true if I said it of any religious leader. And so it sounds like blasphemy to say that Jesus is like a snake—except for the fact that Jesus Himself drew that comparison!
At the end of Jesus’ interview with Nicodemus (most scholars think that Jesus’ words to Nicodemus end at 3:15 and 3:16-21 are John’s words), Jesus answers Nicodemus’ question (3:9), “How can these things be?” Or, “How can these things happen?” Nicodemus doesn’t understand how the new birth can happen or how it can gain a person entrance into God’s eternal kingdom. So Jesus tells Nicodemus (3:14-15), “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.”
Jesus is saying that the Spirit of God cannot just brush away sin when He grants the new birth. For sin to be dealt with, God’s justice must be satisfied. The Son of Man must be lifted up to satisfy God’s wrath on behalf of sinners who believe in Him.
The background for these verses is Numbers 21:4-9. Edom had denied Israel permission to cross its land on their way to Canaan (Num. 20:14-21). God told Moses not to fight against Edom (Deut. 2:4-5). So, Moses turned the people southeast (the Promised Land was northwest) to make a long, difficult journey around the land of Edom.
At this point, the Israelites grew impatient. They had just seen a victory over some Canaanites (Num. 21:1-3). Why couldn’t they march through Edom and kill any Edomites that opposed them? So as they turned southeast, they grumbled against God and Moses (Num. 21:5), “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.” As a result of their grumbling and despising God’s gracious provision of manna and His taking care of them in the wilderness all these years, the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people as judgment, so that many died. I understand the “fiery” serpents to be snakes whose bite burned like fire before you died.
This time the people acknowledged their sin, came to Moses and asked him to pray for a remedy. People were dying. They needed relief. God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. Everyone in Israel that had been bitten would live if they would look to the serpent.
You have to admit, that’s a strange story! After all, one of God’s Ten Commandments was that His people should not make any graven images. Didn’t Moses remember how Aaron had fashioned the golden calf and the awful judgment that came from that terrible episode? These people knew the story of the detested snake in the garden that had tempted Eve and was at the root of all evil. But now God commands Moses to make an image of a snake and put it on a pole. Some must have thought, “Did God really command Moses to make a bronze snake? Had Moses lost it? What was he thinking? Of all the dumb ideas, this one takes the cake!”
But Jesus took that strange story and applied it to Himself, telling Nicodemus …
Just as those who looked in faith to the serpent in the wilderness were healed, so those who look in faith to the lifted up Son of Man will have eternal life.
As we think about how Jesus was like this snake in the wilderness, we can learn five things about why we need the new birth and how Jesus provides it for us.
1. Because of sin, all people are under the curse of death.
The people in the wilderness were dying because of their sin. They did not deserve to live, because they had rebelled terribly against God and His goodness toward them. They had a track record of 40 years of grumbling in spite of God’s gracious faithfulness. He had delivered them from Pharaoh’s army. He had provided water and protection in that barren desert. He had given them food every morning with the manna. But in spite of God’s abundant goodness, they grumbled at Him about their circumstances. And so He sent these deadly snakes among them as a judgment because of their sin.
Have you ever grumbled against God about your circumstances? Maybe right now you aren’t happy about some difficult things in your life. Perhaps you’re facing overwhelming financial problems. Maybe you’re battling a health problem. Perhaps you’re lonely and praying for a mate, but there aren’t any prospects on the horizon. Or, you may be complaining about the mate that you have! Perhaps there are issues with your children or parents that grate on you every day. The list could go on and on.
It’s proper to bring these things to the Lord in prayer and even, like the psalmist, to complain to the Lord in prayer—as long as you’re careful to acknowledge His goodness, give Him thanks, and submit to His sovereign hand. But if in your complaint, you rebel against Him and take charge of things yourself, at that point your complaining becomes sin.
But whether it’s grumbling against God or having other gods before Him or failing to love others or pride or lust or greed or selfishness, we’ve all sinned against God more times than we can count. As Paul argues (Rom. 3:10), “There is none righteous, not even one.” And (Rom. 6:23), “The wages of sin is death.”
As the story of Nicodemus illustrates, even good, religiously zealous people are under the curse of sin and death. Nicodemus thought that his Pharisaic righteousness would get him into the kingdom of God. But Jesus shocked him by saying (3:3), “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Why did a good, religious man like Nicodemus need the new birth? Weren’t his good works enough to get him into the kingdom? No, he was a sinner. He needed a Savior. He needed the new birth. His good deeds were no cure for the snake bite of sin.
This story brings out a great contrast between religion and Christianity. Religion either ignores human sin and says that God is so loving that He just overlooks our sin; or, it says that we can pay for our sins through good works or penance. But biblical Christianity recognizes that God cannot overlook sin or He would not be holy and just. And, we cannot pay for our own sins, because our good deeds are filthy rags in God’s sight. Our good deeds cannot erase the penalty for our sins, which is the second death.
2. God graciously provided the remedy for the curse.
The snake-bitten people could not do anything to save themselves. They were dropping like flies. God had to provide a way for them to be healed or they all would die. When they confessed their sin and asked Moses to intercede for them, God provided this strange remedy: Make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, and whoever looks at it will live. Even so, we’re all under the condemnation of eternal death because of our sin. No human remedy can help. God graciously provided the way of salvation for us. He sent His own Son to be like that snake, lifted up in the wilderness.
Note several things about this remedy of the snake and how it compares to the cross of Jesus Christ. First, it’s a supernatural remedy. It came from God. Moses didn’t say, “Give me a few days to think about this.” After consulting with the smartest leaders in Israel, he announced, “We’ve got it, people! I just made this bronze snake that’s up on that pole. Whoever looks at it will live!” Everyone would have thought that he was nuts!
Even so, Paul wrote (1 Cor. 1:18), “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The cross is God’s remedy. It didn’t come from the world’s most brilliant philosophers or religious geniuses. It came from God, who devised His plan of salvation before the foundation of the world.
Also, the snake on the pole was a sufficient remedy. Moses didn’t say, “Look at the snake, go home and take two aspirin, and you’ll feel better in the morning!” He didn’t say, “Look at the snake, rub some of this special oil that I’ll sell you on your wound, and you’ll be cured. We’re offering a special discount if you buy it today!” He didn’t say, “Bring your own offerings to the pole and offer them up to the snake.” There was nothing to add to it. God would heal you if you didn’t do anything except to look at that bronze snake.
In the same way, the cross of Christ is sufficient for the salvation of the worst of sinners. You don’t have to add anything to it. You don’t have to give money to the church. You don’t need to do penance to help pay for your sins. You don’t have to join the church. You don’t need to add your good works to what Christ has done. Jesus paid it all! There’s nothing for you to do, except to look unto Him in faith and He will save you.
The snake was also a sure remedy. Everyone who looked was cured on the spot. No one who looked died. It was a perfect, sure-fire cure for everyone who looked.
Even so, Jesus saves every sinner who believes in Him. As He says (John 3:15), “Whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” There aren’t any cases too difficult for God! Maybe you’re a notorious sinner. So was Paul! So was Matthew, the tax-collector! So was the woman at the well! So was the Gerasene demoniac! So was the thief on the cross! The Bible is filled with terrible sinners who looked to Jesus and were saved. If you will believe in Jesus, the remedy is 100-percent effective. He says (John 6:37b), “The one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.”
Also, this snake was a simple remedy. As I said, it was sufficient so that there was nothing else needed. Its sufficiency made it extremely simple. You didn’t have to crawl on your hands and knees over broken glass to go and look at the snake. You didn’t need to learn a difficult mantra that you had to recite perfectly as you looked at the snake. You didn’t need to take special classes to learn how to fight the snakes. No, all you had to do was to look and live. And all you need to do is believe in Jesus as the One who paid the penalty for your sin and you will have eternal life.
Also, this snake was a self-effacing remedy. You couldn’t take any credit for your cure. You couldn’t boast that you had fasted for days or deprived yourself of anything or done any good works or brought any offerings to the snake. You just needed to realize that you couldn’t cure yourself. You were doomed if God didn’t intervene. That was humbling to your pride!
Ichabod Spencer, a 19th century Brooklyn pastor, was gifted in evangelism. In A Pastor’s Sketches ([Solid Ground Christian Books], 1:152), he tells how he was going down a line of about 70 people who wanted to talk with him about salvation. He came to one young man and asked him, “What is the state of your feelings on the subject of your salvation?” The man replied, “I feel that I have a very wicked heart.” Spencer perceived, though, that the young man had not gone deep enough in feeling convicted of his sin. So he replied, “It is a great deal more wicked than you think,” and went on to the next person.
A few days later the young man came to him to tell him that he had found peace with God through faith in Christ. But he said that at first he was very angry at Spencer for his remark. He thought that he had been cruel. He felt that he didn’t care whether he was ever saved or not. But he couldn’t get his comment out of his mind. He finally realized that even though he thought his conviction of sin was very deep, it actually was very slight. If Spencer had agreed with him, his burden of sin would have been lightened, but he wouldn’t have realized how terribly sinful he was. Spencer’s comment served to drive the arrow deeper so that he realized his desperate need for Christ alone to save him.
The cross of Christ is a humbling remedy for your sin. First, you have to admit that you’re a hopelessly lost sinner. That’s a huge stumbling block for “good” people like Nicodemus. “I’m not like these publicans and prostitutes, am I? Sure, I have my faults, but I’m not a bad sinner! I’m a basically good person!” It’s humbling to realize that you are far more sinful than you ever imagined! It’s humbling to admit that you can’t do anything to save yourself. Jesus did it all. All you have to do is trust in Him. His salvation is by grace (undeserved favor) through faith so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8-9).
Thus, because of sin, all are under the curse of death. God graciously provided the remedy for our curse.
3. The remedy must be lifted up.
John 3:14: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” John uses this phrase of Jesus three other times and each time it refers to the cross: John 8:28: “So Jesus said, ‘When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me.’” John 12:32: [Jesus said], “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” John 12:34, “The crowd then answered Him, ‘We have heard out of the Law that the Christ is to remain forever; and how can You say, “The Son of Man must be lifted up”? Who is this Son of Man?’” Must occurs in two of those verses. It points to the fact that the cross was absolutely necessary to atone for our sins. If there had been any other way, Jesus would have taken it, as He prayed in the garden (Matt. 26:39). But the only way to satisfy God’s perfect justice was for the sinless Son of Man to be lifted up on the cross as our substitute.
But in his typical fashion, John sees a double meaning in lifted up. It also means to exalt or lift up in majesty. Both Peter and Paul use it this way to refer to Jesus after His resurrection and ascension (Acts 2:33; 5:31; Phil. 2:9). And, Isaiah used it of Messiah (52:13) just before the well-known chapter 53, where he describes Messiah’s being despised and forsaken of men as He bore our sins on the cross. So just as the despised snake had to be lifted up in the wilderness, so Jesus would be despised and lifted up on the cross. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf” (2 Cor. 5:21). He became a curse for us when He was hanged on the tree (Gal. 3:13). But God didn’t leave Him there, but raised Him from the dead and exalted Him to His right hand in glory.
Thus Jesus prophesied of His death and resurrection at the outset of His ministry. He also answered Nicodemus’ question (3:9), “How can these things be?” Or, “How can these things happen?” The new birth happens when sinners look in faith to the crucified, risen Son of God. Just as the snake in the wilderness gave “new life” to those who were about to perish, so the lifting up of the Son of Man will give eternal life to those who are perishing.
4. The only thing that cursed people have to do to be healed is to look in faith to God’s remedy.
God could have removed the deadly snakes, but instead, He left the snakes, but provided a remedy: Just look to the snake that Moses put up on the pole and you will live. That seemed absurd. It didn’t require anything for them to do except to look in the faith that they would be healed. Even so (John 3:15), “whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” Verse 15 shows us that believing in Him is equivalent to looking at the lifted up snake in the wilderness. The best translation has “believes” without an object and “in Him” is connected with eternal life. But in verse 16 John clarifies that our faith is to be in Jesus, the Son of God.
A couple of months ago (“Who is Jesus?” April 7, 2013) I shared with you the story of Charles Spurgeon’s conversion. A Methodist layman preached on Isaiah 45:22, which in the King James Version reads, “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” He made the point that looking doesn’t take any effort or any special status. Anyone can look. He exhorted young Spurgeon directly to look to Jesus Christ. Spurgeon says that he looked and God saved him.
But we need to be clear that looking to Christ or having faith in Christ is not faith in an idol of Jesus as a good luck charm. In the wilderness, the Israelites had to believe in God’s promise that whoever looked to the serpent would be healed. In the same way, we need to believe God’s promise that whoever looks to Jesus and His death as the just payment for his sins will be forgiven and granted eternal life. But we need to be careful not to fall into idolatry by making a charm or magic token out of the cross.
About 700 years after this incident in the wilderness, King Hezekiah had to destroy this bronze serpent because it had become an object of idolatry to the Israelites (2 Kings 18:1-4). That took some courage on the king’s part! This snake had become a sacred object of worship, but he saw that it had degenerated into idolatry. At the risk of offending, but in the sincere desire to help you understand what faith in Jesus means, if you view a statue of Jesus on the cross as a good luck charm or a sacred object that you pray to, you are not believing in the risen and exalted Savior. You’re practicing idolatry. Destroy your idol and put your trust in the living Lord Jesus to save you.
5. The result of looking was life.
Whoever looked in faith at the snake lived. Whoever believes will in Jesus have eternal life. This is John’s first of ten references to eternal life (although he has already said in 1:4 that in Christ was life, which refers to eternal life). Eternal life is not only life forever, but abundant, joyous, life in the presence of God forever, without any sorrow or pain or death or sin (Rev. 21:4). In the words of Psalm 16:11, it is to enjoy pleasures forever from God’s right hand. As Jesus says (John 17:3), “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”
In his Exposition of the Gospel of John (on monergism.org) A. W. Pink wrote:
Man became a lost sinner by a look, for the first thing recorded of Eve in connection with the fall of our first parents is that “The woman saw that the tree was good for food” (Gen. 3:6). In like manner, the lost sinner is saved by a look. The Christian life begins by looking: “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else” (Isa. 45:22). The Christian life continues by looking: “Let us run with patience the race which is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of faith” (Heb. 12:2). And at the end of the Christian life we’re still to be looking for Christ: “For our conversation (citizenship) is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). From first to last, the one thing required is looking at God’s Son.
So the question is, “Have you looked to the crucified, risen, and exalted Lord Jesus to save you from the curse of sin?” Are you still looking to Him as you run the race of faith?
- Can a person come to saving faith if he (or she) doesn’t feel any deep conviction of sin? Can the conviction come after he believes?
- In light of Galatians (especially 1:6-9) can a person who believes that we must add our good works to faith for salvation be truly saved?
- Some argue that “lordship salvation” adds a requirement (submitting to Jesus as Lord) to faith, which is the only requirement for salvation. Are they right? Why/why not?
- Someone says to you, “I forgive those who wrong me. Why can’t God just forgive everyone?” How would you answer?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 17: God’s Shocking Love (John 3:16-18)Related Media
June 30, 2013
Some things in this world should strike us with amazement and maybe even shock. When you look up at the dark sky from 7,000 feet elevation in Flagstaff, you should stand in awe of the Creator who spoke and billions of galaxies with trillions of stars came into existence (Ps. 33:6, 9).
Although there are thousands of visitors from all over the world at the Grand Canyon, a week ago last night, Marla and I were the only people camping at Point Sublime on the North Rim. As we drank in the scenery and watched the full moon rise, we were awed at God’s handiwork in that amazing place.
But not everyone is amazed by the beauty of God’s creation. Years ago in California, some people from our church were going to Yosemite for the first time. We had been there many times and had spent hours drinking in the grandeur of that place. So we raved to them about what they would see. Later, we asked them about their trip and the wife said, “We drove into the valley, stayed an hour or so, saw everything, and left.” We were stunned!
Later I read about an old ranger in his eighties who had spent most of his life in Yosemite. On one occasion a citified woman saw him in uniform, breezed up, and asked, “Sir, if you only had one hour to see Yosemite, what would you do?” He thought about that question for a few seconds and replied, “Ma’am, if I only had one hour to see Yosemite, I think I’d go sit on that rock over there and cry!” Even though he had spent his lifetime there, he was still awed by the spectacular beauty of that place.
They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but it also can breed boredom. That means that when we come to a verse like John 3:16, which has been called the most familiar verse in the Bible, we who have known this verse from childhood are in danger of going, “That’s nice. Ho hum!” Or, as Americans who have been steeped in self-esteem, when we hear that God so loved us that He sent His only Son to die for our sins, we think, “Yes, thanks for reminding me of how lovable I am.”
We think too highly of ourselves and too lowly of God, so we lose the shock that God who is absolutely holy would love sinners like us enough to send His only Son to die to redeem us. We forget Paul’s wonder (Rom. 5:8), “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul never lost the shock of God’s love in Christ (Gal. 2:20; 1 Tim. 1:15). Neither should we.
There is debate about exactly where Jesus’ words to Nicodemus end and John’s comments begin. Probably, verses 16-21 are John’s comments about Jesus’ words that end at verse 15. In 3:16, the cross seems to be in the past (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 228). Jesus often refers to Himself as the Son of Man (3:15), but never as God’s “only begotten Son,” which is John’s way of referring to Jesus. Also, Jesus does not normally refer to God as “God,” but rather as “the Father” (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 203). But even if these are John’s words, they are nonetheless inspired by the Holy Spirit. He is explaining why God sent His only Son to this world:
God’s shocking love for this sinful world is so great that He gave His unique Son so that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.
My prayer for this message is that if you have never responded to God’s shocking love, the Holy Spirit would jolt you with it and bring you to faith in Jesus Christ and eternal life. And, if you have known and believed this verse since childhood, my prayer is that God would bring the wonder of His shocking love to you in such a way that you would renew your first love for the Lord Jesus.
1. God’s love for this sinful world is shocking.
“For God so loved the Jews” would not have been shocking to a Jew. The Jews knew that they were God’s chosen people and that He had set His special love on them (Deut. 7:6-8; 10:14-15; Mal. 1:2-3). So there was nothing new or shocking to the Jews about the fact that God loved the Jews.
“For God so loved sinful Jews” might have been a bit more of a stretch, but if a religious Jew thought about it, he might concede the point. Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so that the sinning Jews who had been bitten by the fiery serpents could look to it and live. So, even though the self-righteous Pharisees thought that they were above common sinners (John 9:34), they might have agreed that God loved even sinful Jews.
But, “God so loved the world” was just plain shocking! By world, John’s Jewish readers would have immediately thought, Gentiles. Also, John often uses the word to refer to sinful people who were hostile toward Christ and eventually crucified Him (1:10; 7:7; 14:17; 15:18-19; 16:8, 20, 33; 17:6, 9, 14, 25; 1 John 5:19). John wants us to understand that God’s love goes beyond the Jews to Gentiles from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). And, His love extends even to those who are His committed enemies (Matt. 5:43-45; Rom. 5:6-8, 10).
But this raises a difficult theological issue: If God loves even His enemies, why didn’t He choose to save everyone? This conundrum has caused people to go in two erroneous directions, as I understand it. Some have said that since God hates the wicked (Ps. 5:5; 11:5), world in John 3:16 must be limited to the elect. If God loves the wicked, then it seems reasonable that He would have chosen to save them. So these Calvinistic brethren try to explain world as the elect from all over the world. But they deny God’s love for all sinners.
On the other hand, some take John 3:16 to mean that God loves every single human being in exactly the same way. These Arminian brethren deny that God could have a special love for some whom He chose for salvation. They say that salvation depends on the will of man, not on the will of God. Thus they err by denying or dodging the many texts that speak of God’s sovereign election.
So how do we resolve this tension? D. A. Carson wrote a helpful little book, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God [Crossway]. He explains (pp. 16-21) that the Bible speaks of the love of God in at least five distinguishable ways. (1) There is the peculiar love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father (John 3:35; 5:20; 14:31). (2) There is God’s providential love over all that He has made (Gen. 1; Matt. 6). (3) There is God’s salvific stance toward His fallen world (John 3:16; Ezek. 33:11). (4) There is God’s particular, effective, selecting love toward His elect (Deut. 7:7-8; 10:14-15; Mal. 1:2-3; Eph. 1:4-5; 5:25). (5) There is God’s conditional love toward His own people, based on their obedience (John 14:21; 15:10; Jude 21; Exod. 20:6; Ps. 103:9-11, 13, 17-18).
Carson argues (pp. 74-77) that if you take any one of these aspects of God’s love and try to force all the other biblical references into that one mold, you will sacrifice sound exegesis of those texts. He concludes (p. 77, italics his):
I argue, then, that both Arminians and Calvinists should rightly affirm that Christ died for all, in the sense that Christ’s death was sufficient for all and that Scripture portrays God as inviting, commanding, and desiring the salvation of all, out of love (in the third sense…). Further, all Christians ought also to confess that, in a slightly different sense, Christ Jesus, in the intent of God, died effectively for the elect alone, in line with the way the Bible speaks of God’s special selecting love for the elect (in the fourth sense…).
John MacArthur argues in the same fashion in The Love of God ([Word], pp. 12-20). He points out (p. 15) that as humans, love and hate toward the same person are not mutually exclusive: “We often speak of people who have love-hate relationships. There is no reason to deny that in an infinitely purer and more noble sense, God’s hatred toward the wicked is accompanied by a sincere, compassionate love for them as well.” In an endnote (p. 228) he clarifies, “What I am saying is this: God in a real and sincere sense hates the wicked because of their sin; yet in a real and sincere sense He also has compassion, pity, patience, and true affection for them because of His own loving nature.”
In practical terms, this means that we can tell unbelievers that God loves them so much that He sent His only Son to die for their sins, if they will repent and believe in Christ. At the same time we should warn them that if they do not believe in Christ, they are under God’s righteous judgment and wrath (John 3:18, 36), which will be finalized for all eternity if they die in unbelief. And, since we know that none are able to repent and believe in Christ unless God grants it (John 6:44, 65; Acts 11:18), we should be praying as we proclaim the gospel that He would be merciful in opening their blind eyes and imparting new life to them so that they can repent and believe.
In other words, we can and must offer the gospel freely to all sinners. It’s shocking, but true, that God loves even the worst of sinners so much that He sent His unique Son to make provision for their salvation. But at the same time that we tell sinners this good news, we must also tell them the bad news:
2. God’s love for this sinful world does not negate His holiness and justice.
Consider two things here:
A. God sent His only Son to die on the cross to uphold His holiness and justice.
God did not send His unique or only (better translations than, “only begotten”) Son into the world so that He could just teach us about how to live rightly. Jesus didn’t have to die on the cross to teach us morality. God sent His only Son to die because that was the only way that He could uphold His holiness and justice and at the same time forgive sinners.
Sometimes people ask, “Why can’t God just forgive us apart from the death of Christ? When someone wrongs me, I just forgive him. Why can’t God do that, too?” The answer is, because God is absolutely holy and just. If He brushed away sin without demanding that the just penalty be paid, it would compromise God’s very nature. He would cease to be God!
Although the analogy breaks down, it would be like a human judge who told a drug addict who murdered your mother so that he could get enough money for his next fix, “The court forgives you. Try not to do that again.” You would be outraged at the miscarriage of justice. The judge’s action would render human responsibility meaningless. That judge would not be just.
And so to uphold His holiness and His justice, and also to uphold the dignity of human responsibility, God must judge all sin. But because of His great love, He sent His only Son, who is eternal God in sinless human flesh, to bear the penalty that we deserve. In that way, as Paul put it (Rom. 3:26), God can “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
B. God’s love for the world does not override or negate the sins of everyone: some will perish.
Many years ago, I conducted a funeral for a man from my church in California. On the brochure that the funeral home prints for such occasions was John 3:16, cited as follows: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life.” But they left out some crucial words: “shall not perish but have eternal life”! I don’t know whether the family or the funeral home was responsible for the omission, but I didn’t let it go. I pointed out during the service that while God has provided forgiveness of sins and eternal life for all who believe in Jesus, the verse also warns that all who do not believe in Jesus will perish.
God doesn’t save the world by His love. The text does not say, “God so loved the world that He overlooked our sin.” Rather, He so loved the world that He sent His only Son to die for our sins. But His love does not eradicate the reality of hell. If Jesus’ words are true, hell is real and it is awful (Mark 9:47-48). As 3:18 states, the one who does not believe in the Son of God is under condemnation. As 3:36 states, “the wrath of God abides on him.” So contrary to a well-known book, God’s love does not win over His justice. Those who do not believe in Jesus will perish.
The cross draws a distinct line. There are two and only two alternatives: either you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior from judgment and have eternal life or you do not believe in Him and you perish. God’s great love does not override or negate His perfect holiness and justice. So the message is both comforting for those who believe, but disturbing for those who do not want to come to the light because they love their sin (John 3:19-20).
This means that when we share the gospel, we should not focus on all of the present benefits to the neglect of the eternal consequences. Yes, Jesus can give you peace and joy. Yes, He can give you a happy marriage. Yes, the Bible gives many helpful principles for successful living. But many unbelievers are content, have happy marriages, and are successful in life—but they’re going to perish! The main reason Jesus came to this earth was to die on the cross to rescue sinners from God’s eternal judgment. God’s love does not negate His righteous judgment.
So, God’s love for this sinful world is shocking. He would be perfectly just and righteous to condemn us all to hell, because we all have sinned. But He didn’t do that. At great cost, He sent His own Son to bear the penalty that we deserve. But there is one other crucial fact in our text:
3. God’s shocking love for this sinful world is only experienced by those who believe in Jesus as their sin-bearer.
Both verse 16 and verse 18 make it clear that the crucial issue on our part is to believe in Jesus. Those who believe have eternal life; those who do not believe are currently under God’s condemnation and ultimately will perish. Consider four things:
A. God’s reason for sending His only Son into the world was not for judgment, but for salvation.
John 3:17: “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” This purpose reflects God’s shocking love. We could not fault Him if He had sent His Son to clean house on this wicked world. In fact, when He comes again, He will do just that (Rev. 19:11, 15): “In righteousness He judges and wages war…. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty.” But in His first coming, He came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
But, in John 9:39, Jesus says, “For judgment I came into this world ….” How do we reconcile that with John 3:17? The Gospels make it clear that Jesus’ presence always drew a line that divided people (Matt. 10:34-37). As the Light, Jesus’ purpose was not to cast shadows, but to bring light. But the presence of the light inevitably casts shadows. Also, as Carson points out (The Gospel According to John, p. 207), Jesus didn’t come into a neutral world in order to save some and condemn others. He came into a lost world to save some. Not all will be saved (3:18-21). But God’s purpose in sending His Son was to bring salvation to all who will believe.
B. Those who do not believe in Jesus are already under God’s judgment and headed for eternal condemnation.
“Perish” does not mean that they will be annihilated or cease to exist. In Matthew 25:46, Jesus says that some “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” If eternal life lasts forever, then so does eternal punishment. Jesus referred to it as the place where “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). If you ask whether the fire is literal or figurative, my reply is that it doesn’t matter—you don’t want to find out personally! Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus makes it clear that hell is a place of awful torment (Luke 16:23-24).
J. C. Ryle comments on John 3:18 (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:163): “Nothing is so provoking and offensive to God as to refuse the glorious salvation He has provided at so mighty a cost, by the death of His only begotten Son. Nothing is so suicidal on the part of man as to turn away from the only remedy which can heal his soul.”
C. Those who believe in Jesus receive eternal life.
Eternal life does not only mean life without end, although that is one part of it. It refers to entering into a personal relationship with the living God and His Son (John 17:3): “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Eternal life with God in heaven will be perfect life, without any of the consequences of sin. It will be “abundant life” (John 10:10). It will be “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forever” in God’s presence (Ps. 16:10). It begins the moment you believe in Jesus, but it gets infinitely better when you go to be with Him. So the final matter to be clear on is: What does it mean to believe in Jesus?
D. Believing in Jesus means trusting in all that He is and all that He accomplished through His death and resurrection.
Believing in “the name of the only begotten Son of God” (3:18) means believing in all that He is and all that He came to do. Thus, believing in Jesus requires understanding who He is (the unique Son of God) and what He came to do through His death and resurrection. Based on that knowledge (which we get from the Bible), believing in Jesus means to entrust your eternal destiny to all that He did in dying for your sins on the cross. It means that you cease trusting in your own goodness or good deeds as the way into heaven. Rather, you trust entirely in Jesus and His shed blood.
A helpful illustration that I’ve used before is that of the famous tightrope walker, Blondin. Perhaps you can relate to this story in light of Nik Wallenda’s walking across the Grand Canyon on a cable last week. Blondin would walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He did it blindfolded! He did it on stilts! Once he carried his manager across on his shoulders. After they got safely to the other side and the applause died down, he turned to a man in the crowd and said, “Sir, do you believe that I could do that with you?”
The man was about the same build as the manager who had gone across on Blondin’s shoulders, so he shrugged, “Yes, I believe that you could do it.” Blondin said, “Fine, hop on!” The man quickly replied, “No way!” He “believed” intellectually, but he wasn’t willing to commit his life to Blondin.
In the same way, many say that they believe in Jesus, but they have not committed their eternal destiny to what He did for them on the cross. Some want to try to help Him out by adding their good deeds to Jesus’ shed blood. But that’s like telling Blondin that you want to help him out by holding his hand as you walk behind him! It doesn’t work! Faith that brings eternal life responds to God’s shocking love by entrusting yourself totally to what Jesus did for you when He died on the cross.
- Does a person born as a Muslim in the Middle East have the same opportunity for salvation as a person born in America? How would you answer the charge that God is not fair?
- Why is it necessary to distinguish the different aspects of God’s love (as Carson does)? What errors can ensue if you don’t?
- Why is it important when sharing the gospel to emphasize eternal life and the judgment to come rather than the temporal benefits of salvation?
- Why must we insist that saving faith is more than intellectual assent to the truths of the gospel (James 2:19)? Is a person who prays to “receive Jesus” necessarily saved? Why/why not?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 18: Why People Reject Christ (John 3:19-21)Related Media
July 7, 2013
Picture a guy floating downstream on a raft on a hot summer day. He’s having the time of his life, enjoying the ride as the cool water gently splashes on him. You’re on the shore and you know that there’s a deadly waterfall not far downstream. This guy is floating blissfully and ignorantly toward certain destruction! So you yell to warn him. You throw him a rope. But he rejects it and keeps floating toward certain death. Why won’t he grab the life preserver? Because he loves what he’s doing and he doesn’t want to believe your warning.
Why do people reject God’s wonderful offer of salvation through Jesus Christ? You would think that everyone would eagerly grab the life preserver that God has thrown out through the gospel (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.” Why would anyone reject such a wonderful offer? Why would anyone want to keep heading for eternal destruction? In our text, John shows us:
People reject Christ because they love their sin and they hate having it exposed by God’s light.
People don’t want God interfering with what they consider “a good time,” and they don’t believe the warnings of Scripture that they are under God’s judgment now and will face it eternally when they die. People think that they’re basically good and that God will overlook their faults and give them credit for their good deeds on judgment day. So they don’t repent of their sin and believe in Jesus Christ to save them from God’s judgment. The Greek philosopher, Plato, observed (source unknown), “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” John makes four points here:
1. The light came into this world in the person of Jesus Christ, and His presence condemned those in darkness.
John 3:19a: “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world ….” John has already introduced Jesus as the Light (1:4-5): “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Later (8:12; also, 9:5; 12:46), Jesus states, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”
In the Bible, light is used symbolically in two main ways: First, it refers to God’s absolute holiness and, by extension, to the holiness of His people; whereas darkness symbolizes Satan’s domain and sin (Col. 1:13; Acts 26:18). Paul says (1 Tim. 6:16) that God “dwells in unapproachable light.” In 1 John 1:5, the apostle declares, “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” In this vein, Paul exhorts us (Eph. 5:7-10):
Therefore do not be partakers with them; for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.
Second, light refers to the spiritual illumination or understanding that we get when we are born again, whereas darkness refers to our natural spiritual blindness before we are saved (2 Cor. 4:3-4, 6):
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God…. For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
In that sense, God’s Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps. 119:105). Proverbs 6:23 says, “For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching is light; and reproofs for discipline are the way of life ….” God’s Word gives spiritual light so that we understand God’s truth and how He wants us to live.
God’s light is embodied in Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God who took on human flesh. John has told us (1:9), “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.” When Jesus came into the world, His very presence exposed the world to who God is as holy and to the fact that we are not holy. D. A. Carson explains John 1:9 (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 124):
It shines on every man, and divides the race: those who hate the light respond as the world does (1:10): they flee lest their deeds should be exposed by this light (3:19-21). But some receive this revelation (1:12-13), and thereby testify that their deeds have been done through God (3:21). In John’s Gospel it is repeatedly the case that the light shines on all, and forces a distinction (e.g. 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:39-41).
Leon Morris (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 233, italics his) explains John 3:19,
The word translated “judgment” here denotes the process of judging, not the sentence of condemnation…. It is not God’s sentence with which [John] is concerned here. He is telling us rather how the process works. Men choose the darkness and their condemnation lies in that very fact…. They refuse to be shaken out of their comfortable sinfulness.
As we saw in 3:17-18, even though Jesus did not come for the purpose of judgment, because of who He is, His very presence brought judgment and divided people. Have you ever been in the presence of a very godly man, so that his very presence made you uncomfortable? R. C. Sproul (The Holiness of God [Tyndale], pp. 91-92) tells about a leading professional golfer years ago who was invited to play in a foursome with Gerald Ford, Jack Nicklaus, and Billy Graham. He had played with Nicklaus before, but he was in awe of playing with President Ford and Billy Graham.
After the round was finished, one of the other pros came up and asked, “Hey, what was it like playing with the President and with Billy Graham?” The pro unleashed a torrent of cursing, and said in a disgusting manner, “I don’t need Billy Graham stuffing religion down my throat.” With that he turned and stormed off, heading for the practice tee.
His friend followed the angry pro and watched him take out his driver and beat ball after ball in fury. The friend said nothing, but just sat on a bench and watched. After a few minutes, the pro had calmed down. His friend said quietly, “Was Billy a little rough on you out there?” The pro heaved an embarrassed sigh and said, “No, he didn’t even mention religion. I just had a bad round.”
Billy Graham’s presence made that golf pro feel condemned, even when Billy didn’t say a word about God! How much more would we all have felt condemned to be in the presence of Jesus Christ! Do you remember one of Peter’s early encounters with Jesus, when Jesus caused the miraculous catch of fish? Peter fell down at Jesus’ feet and said (Luke 5:8), “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”
Have you had that experience with Jesus Christ? Have you seen who Jesus is and instantly recognized, “He is holy and I am not holy! I am under God’s judgment because Jesus is Light and I am darkness!” When you’ve that kind of encounter with Jesus, you can go one of two ways. First, John presents the negative reaction:
2. People love darkness rather than the light because their deeds are evil.
John 1:19b: “… men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil.” This phrase contains several significant truths about sin. First, sin is far deeper than outward deeds; sin is a matter of our affections or desires. “Men loved darkness.” The past tense (Greek aorist) could be translated, “Men set their love on darkness” (Morris, p. 233). Loved indicates that this was not a cool, rational decision: “Having weighed all the factors involved, I think the best decision is to love darkness rather than light.” No, it was in large part an emotional choice that stems from desires that dwell in our hearts due to the fall. We love darkness rather than light.
This leads to a second significant truth about sin: Our sin problem is far deeper than we ever imagined. The Bible does not teach that we are basically good people who need to overcome a few flaws in our character. We’re not merely in need of more education or learning some anger management skills so that we can develop better relational skills. We don’t need to go through therapy to explore our pasts and figure out why our parents treated us as they did so that we can now understand why we are the way we are. All of these approaches to sin are too superficial from a biblical standpoint. The Bible shows that our root problem is that we love our sin rather than God’s holiness. It’s a matter of the heart, and the only remedy that goes deep enough is the new birth, which gives us new hearts that hunger and thirst after righteousness.
This phrase also shows us a third truth about sin: The reason that people reject Christ is not primarily intellectual, but moral. Unbelievers do not love darkness rather than light because they have thought it through carefully and concluded that darkness makes more sense. No, unbelievers love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil. The light exposes their evil deeds and convicts them of their true moral guilt before the holy God. But, frankly, they like sinning!
Aldous Huxley, the famous atheist of the last century, once admitted that his rejection of Christianity stemmed from his desire to sin. He wrote (Ends and Means [Garland Publishers], pp. 270, 273, cited in James Boice, Genesis [Zondervan], 1:236):
I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had not; and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning for this world is not concerned exclusively with the problem of pure metaphysics; he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to…. For myself … the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.
This means that when you’re sharing the gospel, don’t be intimidated by a Ph.D. who argues in favor of evolution or who cites arguments from the latest popular atheist. Don’t panic if someone says, “I don’t believe in the Bible because of its contradictions.” You can give philosophic arguments for the existence of God or scientific arguments against evolution all day long, but even if you were to convince the unbeliever intellectually, you have not dealt with his main problem. His main problem is that he loves his sin and he stands guilty before the holy Judge of the universe.
I’m not saying that we should not have good answers to these intellectual questions. But I am saying that they are usually not the real issue. You can ask the person raising the objection, “Are you saying that if I can give reasonable answers to these questions, you will repent of your sins and trust in Christ as your Savior and Lord?” Invariably, the answer will be, “Well, I have other objections, too.” The objections are smokescreens to hide the fact that unbelievers love their sin.
This phrase shows us a fourth truth about sin: Sin must be determined by God’s absolute standards of holiness, not by men’s relative standards of goodness. When John says that men’s “deeds are evil,” we may recoil and think, “Terrorists and drug dealers and pedophiles and pimps are evil. But most people are not evil. Just look at all the good people in this world!”
The Bible acknowledges that there are unbelievers who are relatively good people. Because of God’s common grace, all people are not as evil as they could be. The human race would have self-destructed millennia ago if everyone acted as badly as they could. God restrains outward evil through civil government, through social disapproval, and through the fear of shame and the desire to look good to others. But God looks on the heart. Hebrews 4:13 reminds us, “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” When God looks at our hearts, even the best of people, humanly speaking, are filled with pride, selfishness, greed, lust, and other sins that may never come into public view.
But the situation of loving darkness rather than light is far worse than just loving sin:
3. Those who practice evil hate Jesus, who is light, and do not come to Him for fear that their deeds will be exposed.
John 3:20: “For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” Unbelievers do not just love their sin; they also hate Jesus! They hate the One who out of love offered Himself on the cross so that every sinner might not perish but have eternal life simply by believing in Him! They hate Him because He exposes their evil deeds.
A teacher assigned his fourth-grade students to write a topic sentence for the following phrases: “Sam always works quietly. Sam is polite to the teacher. Sam always does his homework.” The student’s topic sentence? “I hate Sam.” (Reader’s Digest [November, 2007], p. 59)
We need to understand several things about this verse. First, John does not mean that all sinners do their evil deeds in secret. Many do, of course. Many otherwise respectable men would never frequent a strip club in their own city, for fear of being seen. But if they’re traveling far from home, where they think they’re safe, they might yield to that sin. But in our day, when people call good evil and evil good (Isa. 5:20), it’s cool to flaunt your sin. Movie stars and other celebrities go on television to tell about their immoral behavior. We have “gay pride” celebrations to boast in what God condemns as evil. John is merely pointing out that such sinners do not come to the Light (Jesus) because they know that He would condemn their behavior as evil.
Second, John does not say that those who practice evil are neutral toward Jesus; rather, they hate Him. Many unbelievers would object. They would say that they don’t have anything against Jesus; they’re indifferent towards Him. They think that Jesus was a good man. Some may think that He was a prophet. They may say that He was a good moral teacher. They might even feel bad that He got crucified for His teachings and beliefs. They recognize that that was a miscarriage of justice. But they would protest if you said that they hate Jesus. They’re just indifferent. But John says that they hate Jesus. Jesus Himself told His then unbelieving brothers (John 7:7), “The world cannot hate you, but it hates Me because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil.”
Third, John gives the reason why unbelievers hate Jesus: they fear that He will expose their evil deeds. It’s like the golfer playing with Billy Graham: just being around a guy like that makes you nervous because you’re always afraid that you’ll slip and utter a swear word or say or do something that will expose your evil heart.
When I was a new pastor, Marla and I went to look at a house that was for sale. The owner was an old codger who was smoking a cigarette as he talked with us about his house. He got around to asking me what I did for a living and I told him that I was the pastor of the church nearby. He got all agitated, threw down his cigarette, stomped on it and rubbed it out with his foot, and exclaimed, “Look at me! Look at me! Smoking in front of a reverend!” He must have thought that his smoking was a sin. But it never occurred to him that he always smoked in front of the living God!
The word translated “exposed” means to be convicted in a court of law. It was used of an attorney proving his case. Jesus uses it in John 16:8 when He says that the Holy Spirit “will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” Guilty criminals hate judges who convict them of their crimes, even though it’s not the judges’ fault. Guilty sinners hate Jesus because He convicts them of their sins.
But, because of God’s grace, not all reject Christ:
4. True believers practice the truth and come to the Light, so that their deeds are shown to have God as their source.
John 3:21: “But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” John does not mean that some have a natural bent toward practicing the truth or that doing so brings salvation. He has just made it plain that we all need the new birth and that salvation comes through believing in Jesus Christ (3:1-16).
Rather, John is describing two types of people in the world: Those that have not believed in Christ avoid the light and hate it, because it exposes their sinful deeds. Those that have believed in Christ gladly come to Him and give Him all credit for their good deeds, because they know that those good deeds came from God, who caused them to be born again (1 Pet. 1:3; James 1:18).
“Practicing the truth” is a Semitic expression which means to act faithfully or honorably (Carson, p. 207). But it also shows us that the truth is to be lived, not just spoken (1 John 1:6). “Truth” is an important concept for John He uses the word 25 times in his gospel and 20 more times in his epistles. Truth is embodied in Jesus Himself, who said (14:6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” Jesus told Pilate (18:37), “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” This has two implications:
First, there is such a thing as absolute truth in the spiritual and moral realms and you can spot believers by their obedience to that truth. Contrary to the postmodern mindset, truth is not relative to the culture or situation. All truth is in Jesus (Eph. 4:21) and He declared that God’s Word is truth (John 17:17). This means that believers are committed to the truth. We seek to understand the truth more deeply. We hold to the truth of God’s Word even when our culture goes against it.
Second, believers willingly, gladly, and repeatedly come to the light of God’s Word in order to grow in holiness and to give God glory for His work in their hearts. True believers read God’s Word over and over, allowing it to shine into the dark corners of their lives and expose the sinful thoughts and intentions of their hearts (Heb. 4:12). False believers avoid the Word and they find churches that don’t preach the Word to expose sin. False believers try to keep up a good front to impress others, but they don’t live openly in the light of God’s presence on the heart level.
J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:164) points out that eventually sinners will get what they desired while on earth: they loved darkness; they will be cast into outer darkness. They hated the light; they will be shut out from the light eternally. God will be perfectly just in condemning those who rejected Christ. They saw the Light, but hated it and turned away from it because they loved their sin.
John Piper summarizes our text (DesiringGod.org, “This is the Judgment: Light has come into the World”): “The coming of Jesus into the world clarifies that unbelief is our fault, and belief is God’s gift. Which means that if we do not come to Christ, but rather perish eternally, we magnify God’s justice. And if we do come to Christ and gain eternal life, we magnify God’s grace.”
I pray that we all will believe in Jesus and rejoice in His light, so that we magnify God’s grace!
- Why is it crucial to judge not just outward sins, but also to judge our sins on the thought (or heart) level (Matt. 5:27-30)?
- How can you determine whether a person’s intellectual objections are genuine or just a smokescreen?
- How can we determine whether commands in the Bible (e.g. women’s roles) were limited to that culture or whether they are absolute for every time and place?
- How open should we be in sharing our sinful thoughts with others? Does walking in the light require total disclosure?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.