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Lesson 13: Does Jesus Believe in You? (John 2:23-25)

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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 (, “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.

Application Questions

  1. Discuss: Since genuine faith must be tested, is it wise to try to give assurance of salvation to someone who has just believed?
  2. Does Jesus’ knowledge of what is in your heart make you uncomfortable? How can you change your feelings on this?
  3. 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?
  4. 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

Related Topics: Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 14: Why Religion Can’t Save You (John 3:1-7)

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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).

Application Questions

  1. Why is religion so appealing to so many people? What’s the draw?
  2. Is there a difference between “making a decision to accept Christ” and “being born again”? If so, what is the difference?
  3. Someone asks you, “How can I know if I’ve been born again?” How would you answer?
  4. 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.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 15: Why You Need the New Birth (John 3:6-13)

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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.

Application Questions

  1. 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.)
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 16: How Jesus is Like a Snake (John 3:14-15; Numbers 21:4-9)

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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 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?

Application Questions

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 17: God’s Shocking Love (John 3:16-18)

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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.

Application Questions

  1. 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?
  2. Why is it necessary to distinguish the different aspects of God’s love (as Carson does)? What errors can ensue if you don’t?
  3. Why is it important when sharing the gospel to emphasize eternal life and the judgment to come rather than the temporal benefits of salvation?
  4. 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.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christology, Faith, Love, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 18: Why People Reject Christ (John 3:19-21)

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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 (, “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!

Application Questions

  1. 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)?
  2. How can you determine whether a person’s intellectual objections are genuine or just a smokescreen?
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Man (Anthropology), Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 3: The Study of God

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To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement. ― Church Father, Augustine


The Triqueta shown above is an ancient Celtic symbol that Christians used to try to communicate the concept of the Trinity: three persons but one God symbolized by three separate ovals that are linked into one shape. Where does the doctrine of the Trinity come from? The word Trinity itself never occurs in the Bible but the teaching has been a part of the Christian church since the early centuries of its existence.

The word theology means the study of God and that is in essence what this lesson is about in an introductory way. Sometimes this area of study is called theology proper. Theology may seem intimidating, but anytime we form an opinion about God or make an assertion about him or look to him for anything we are in essence doing theology. If we say God is good, that is a theological proposition. If someone curses God, they are saying God is bad. If we say a prayer to God, we are implying that he not only exists, but that he acts in our lives in a personal way. Therefore, most of us are theologians whether we think we are or not. This lesson will be divided into four separate sections: 1) sources of knowledge about God, 2) the basic names of God, 3) the attributes/perfections of God, and 4) the evidence and explanation of the Trinity.

Sources of Knowledge of God: Natural Revelation

The source of all knowledge about God comes from God himself and this can be divided into two areas: natural revelation (i.e., the creation itself) and special revelation (primarily, God’s words recorded in the Bible and in the incarnation of Jesus Christ).

There are at least five passages the Bible that speak of the natural revelation that God gives through his creation. The first is in Psalm 19. It reads: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky displays his handiwork. Day after day it speaks out; night after night it reveals his greatness. There is no actual speech or word, nor is its voice literally heard. Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth; its words carry to the distant horizon” (Ps 19:1-4). This passage says that every day people can see the glory and magnificence of God. Everyone day and night 24-7 can understand the greatness of God.

The second passage occurs in Romans 1. It reads, “for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse” (Rom 1:18-20). Here Paul states that another thing we can learn from creation is how powerful God is. A vaguer expression relates to the divine nature of God, which is seen as well.

Thirdly, in Matthew, Jesus makes a statement that relates to this topic. He states, “But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:44-45). In arguing that disciples of Jesus need to love their enemies, Jesus mentions that the blessings of the sun and rain go to all people whether they are righteous or unrighteous. This would imply that God’s love toward all is seen in these blessings, which is sometimes referred to as common grace. In a similar passage, Paul addresses the topic of God’s goodness as witnessed in the blessings he gives to all people. Luke records the speech: “In past generations he allowed all the nations to go their own ways, yet he did not leave himself without a witness by doing good, by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying you with food and your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:16-17).

The last passage is from Genesis 1. “God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). Since God is a spirit and man is created in God’s image, there must be something about the immaterial nature of man that is reflected in God. The question though is: what part of God’s image is there? Both God and man are personal, relational, moral, and rational. These seem to be some of the inferred characteristics that both God and man share.

So what can we understand about God through natural revelation? The following characteristics are evident: 1) God is glorious; 2) God is powerful; 3) God loves all; 4) God is good to all and; 5) God is a personal, relational, moral and rational being. One must also notice what is not understood though natural revelation, which is God’s plan of salvation.

Sources of Knowledge of God: Special Revelation

As good as natural revelation is, special revelation was needed to communicate more specific truths about God and his plan of salvation for man. Paul states regarding the gospel that it needs to be preached and heard: “And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them (Rom 10:14).” This suggests that no one is going to understand God’s plan of salvation by looking at a star. Even understanding what natural revelation communicates comes from special revelation found in the Bible. Special revelation is God speaking to man through signs, dreams, visions, manifestations of God, inspired verbal messages, inspired written messages and also the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The focus of special revelation centers on two areas: the written word of God (the Bible) and the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

The Bible speaks about God and is inspired by God. Every scripture is inspired by God as Paul states (2 Tim 3:16). Over and over in the Old Testament the prophets speak: “This is what the Lord says.” The Bible speaks about who God is and what God does and what he wants people to do. For example, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). Apart from such statements, mankind would be very much in a fog of knowledge about God and his actions.

The second major area of special revelation is God the Father revealed by the Logos (translated as “Word”) who is his son Jesus Christ. John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. The Word was with God in the beginning. . . . Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory . . . . No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known (John 1:1, 2, 14, 18). Later Jesus stated, “The person who has seen me has seen the Father!” (John 14:9). The author of Hebrews states that God has spoken by his Son, who is the exact representation of God (Heb 1:1-3).

The Names of God

One good way to start to understand God is through the names of God as recorded in the Bible. Names have meaning attached to them and the names of God are no exception. The meanings of God’s names give us instruction as to who God is and what he is like. The first reference to God in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word Elohim (Gen 1:1). Sometimes this fuller name is abbreviated to El. The root meaning of this Hebrew word is to “Be strong.”1 The Greek translation of the Old Testament normally translates these Hebrews words as theos, which is the basic Greek word for God Elohim is used 2,310 times for the true God in the Old Testament.2 One interesting point about this name is that it is a plural word in Hebrew. A common explanation for this is that it is a plural of majesty indicating the manifold greatness of God. It has also been suggested that it allows for the later revelation of the Trinity.

There are also compound names for God with Elohim: 1) El-Shaddai means God Almighty, which indicates God’s omnipotence (Gen 17:1); 2) El-Elyon means God Most High (Gen 14:19), which stresses God’s supremacy and sovereignty; El-Olam means The Everlasting God
(Gen 21:33), which communicates his timelessness or eternality; El-Roi means The God who Sees (Gen 16:13), which is an indication of his omniscience.3

The personal name for God in the Old Testament is the Hebrew YHWH (יהוה) or Yahweh. The four consonants are sometimes referred to as the tetragrammaton. The first occurrence of YHWH is in Gen 2:4 and it occurs about 5321 times in the Old Testament.4 This name is probably related to a Hebrew word which means “to be or exist.” The name Yahweh was considered so sacred in Israel one was not allowed to speak it. As a substitute when the Old Testament was read, Adonai was spoken. Adonai is the Hebrew word for Lord. The Jewish people had other ways of referring to God that avoided verbalizing God’s name. For example, instead of saying Yahweh will bless you, one could say the Lord or heaven will bless you. One could also put a statement in the passive voice “you will be blessed” with Yahweh as the understood agent of the blessing. Following this respect for God’s personal name, the Greek in the Old and New Testaments translated the divine personal name as kurios, which means lord in Greek as Adonai did in Hebrew.

A key passage regarding God’s personal name is found in Exodus 3. There Moses said to God, “If I go to the Israelites and tell them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ – what should I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am that I am.’ And he said, ‘You must say this to the Israelites, I am has sent me to you.’ God also said to Moses, ‘You must say this to the Israelites, ‘The Lord [Yahweh] ( – the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and this is my memorial from generation to generation’” (Exod 3:13-15). One thing to notice in this passages is that Moses was instructed by God to verbalize God’s name = Yahweh to Israel. Saying the name itself was even commanded by God so that people would know what his name was.

As with the name El, there are also compound names for God with Yahweh. Yahweh Jireh means, The Lord Will Provide (Gen 22:14); Abraham named God this after God provided a ram as a substitute for Isaac who was one altar and about to be offered as a sacrifice. Yahweh Nissi means, The Lord is my Banner (Exod 17:15); Moses named God this after a defeat of one of Israel’s enemies. Yahweh Shalom means, The Lord is Peace (Judges 6:24). Yahweh Sabbaoth means The Lord of Hosts or Armies (1 Sam 1:3). Yahweh Maccaddeshsem means The Lord your Sanctifier (Ex 31:13). Yahweh Roi means The Lord my Shepherd (Ps 23:1). Yahweh Tsidkenu means The Lord our Righteousness (Jer 23:6). Yahweh Shammah means The Lord is There
(Ezek 48:35).5 These names indicate the greatness of God and how he concerns himself in meeting our needs in various situations we face. Someone once well said, “God is the answer now what is the question.”

The Attributes/Perfections of God

What is God like? The names of God start to address this question but there is much more. God is the subject but what is the predicate? God is . . . . . what? What are the characteristics or attributes of God. Some like to refer to these attributes as perfections since God has the full or perfect expression of them. For example someone might be a loving person but is that person perfectly loving with no flaw? God is perfectly loving with no flaw. God is the fullest or perfect expression of all his characteristics. Also, one must be careful when studying the attributes of God as these attributes relate to each other. As Enns points out, “In the study of God’s attributes it is important not to exalt one attribute over another; when that is done it presents a caricature of God. It is all the attributes of God taken together that provide and understanding of the nature and person of God.”6 The following is only a survey of some of God’s attributes or perfections and the implications of these for us.

God is all powerful, that is omnipotent. Jeremiah states, “After I had given the copies of the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah, I prayed to the Lord, ‘Oh, Lord God, you did indeed make heaven and earth by your mighty power and great strength. Nothing is too hard for you!’” (Jer 32:17 cf. Job 42:2). The New Testament echoes that with God all things are possible. This should give us Christians comfort that nothing is out of God’s reach and ability; it’s only a matter of his will. A philosophical question is sometimes asked: “can God create a rock so big he cannot move it?” God’s omnipotence extends to the things that are logically possible and not logically impossible. It also only extends things that are consistent with God’s nature, not to things inconsistent with his nature. Can God be unjust? The answer is no because it’s not consistent with his nature.

God is everywhere, that is omnipresent. A very good passage on the omnipresence of God as it relates to us is found in Psalm 139. It reads, “Where can I go to escape your spirit? Where can I flee to escape your presence? If I were to ascend to heaven, you would be there. If I were to sprawl out in Sheol, there you would be. If I were to fly away on the wings of the dawn, and settle down on the other side of the sea, even there your hand would guide me, your right hand would grab hold of me” (Ps 139:7-10). No matter where we are, God is there for us, in any place in any circumstance.

God is all knowing and in control, that is omniscient and sovereign. Isaiah writes, “Truly I am God, I have no peer; I am God, and there is none like me, who announces the end from the beginning and reveals beforehand what has not yet occurred, who says, ‘My plan will be realized, I will accomplish what I desire’”(Is 46:9-10). Nothing catches God by surprise as he knows everything before it will happen. While we might be surprised at certain events, we also have to realize that God has a plan and he will accomplish what he desires.

God is unchanging, that is immutable. James explains, “All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or the slightest hint of change” (Jas 1:17). God will always act consistent with his nature. We do not have to be concerned that God will be good one day and then bad the next or that he will only sometimes be just or merciful.

God is eternal, that is without beginning or end. The Psalmist states, “even before the mountains came into existence, or you brought the world into being, you were the eternal God” (Ps 90:2). This means that God always was, always is, and always will be. God is not here today and gone tomorrow. God does not die, he only lives. For us as Christians, he will always be there for us. Revelation 1:8 confirms this with the statement, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God – the one who is, and who was, and who is still to come – the All-Powerful!”

God is just/righteous. “Equity and justice are the foundation of your throne” (Ps 89:14). Society is consistently crying out for justice in the world. Human abuses of justice are everywhere. But what many of them do not realize is that God is a just God in his nature and his actions are always just. They are just by his perfect standards. It is true that justice does not always come right away but it will come in God’s timing of things. He will right every wrong, bring evil acts to judgments, and righteous acts in his name will be rewarded.

God is holy. John states, “Each one of the four living creatures had six wings and was full of eyes all around and inside. They never rest day or night, saying: “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God, the All-Powerful” (Rev 4:8; cf. Is 6:3). The holiness of God is mentioned three times in this passage to emphasize that absolute holiness and purity of God, that he is the Most Holy.

God is good. “Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’”
(Mark 10:18). When hard times and trials come sometimes we are tempted to think that God is bad. After all, why is God doing this or at least allowing it to happen? We know from the Bible that God is using the hard times for his purposes including bringing maturity to our faith
(Jas 1:2-4).

God is true. “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us insight to know him who is true, and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This one is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). Conversely, the author of Hebrews states that it is impossible for God to lie (Heb 6:18). This would mean that we can count on all that God says including his promises. It would mean God is trustworthy. If God says it, we can “take it to the bank” so to speak.

God is merciful. Paul describes nature of God’s mercy. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us” (Eph 2:4). As Christians we deserved death but God gave us life. We deserved curse but God gave us blessing. We deserved judgment but God gave us mercy. Not only is God merciful but as Ephesians says here he is “rich” in mercy; it overflows; it is plentiful and abundant.

God is love. “The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love”
(1 John 4:8). When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was he answered by giving two: love God and love your neighbor (Matt 22:34-40). Paul stated that the greatest Christian virtue is love and that even if he gave everything he owned or his body to the flames but did not have love he was nothing (1 Cor 13).

There are many more attributes that could be given. What is interesting about all of God’s attributes is that man in a very dim way is to reflect God’s nature by becoming more godly in character. Peter reminds us of the command: “Be holy for I am holy (1 Pet 1:16).” Paul states that we as Christians are “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29). As we study what God is like, we learn more what we should be like. As people experience God in a greater way they grow to be more like him.

The Trinity

The Trinity is probably the most important doctrine in the Christian faith that defines who God is. The word “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible but it is a theological formulation of truths that are taught in the Bible. A concise definition of the Trinity is this: One God in three persons the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This theological concept could also be referred to as “Triunity”7 a term which emphasizes the “three in oneness” of God. But how is this teaching communicated in the Scripture?

First, the Bible teaches there is one God. “Listen, Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!”
(Deut 6:4). And in the New Testament, “For there is one God . . .” (1 Tim 2:5). Second, the Bible teaches the Father, Son and Holy Spirit all are God and they all have the characteristics that are unique to God. To make this point, one supporting verse for each member of the Trinity will be given. For the Father: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!” (Rom 1:7). For the Son: “But of the Son he says, Your throne, O God, is forever and ever”
(Heb 1:8). For the Holy Spirit: “But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back for yourself part of the proceeds from the sale of the land? . . You have not lied to people but to God!’” (Acts 5:3-4). The Great Commission illustrates the “three in oneness” by using the singular word “name” with all three members of the Trinity. There Matthew states, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).8

There is no perfect illustration for the Trinity. But some analogies have been used to try and communicate the concept.9 It is reported that Saint Patrick used the three leaf clover as an object lesson in teaching about the Trinity. Three leaves in one clover equals the concept of one God in three persons, the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. One might wonder what he would have done though if he picked up a four leaf clover!

Conclusion and Summary

God is a great and awesome God. He is the answer to life’s questions and needs. He has communicated himself to mankind through his creation and special revelation he has given. John Piper states, “People are starving for the greatness of God. But most of them would not give this diagnosis of their troubled lives. The majesty of God is an unknown cure. There are far more popular prescriptions on the market, but the benefit of any other remedy is brief and shallow.”10

Discussion Questions

  1. How much can a person learn about God just from looking at creation?
  2. Which name of God has meant something to you? Explain.
  3. Is one attribute of God more important than another, for example God’s love or God’s justice?
  4. How does the doctrine of the Trinity affect how we define other religions or cults?
  5. Can someone be a Christian and not believe in the Trinity?
  6. How does or should our theology affect how we live?

1 Peter Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (2nd ed; Chicago: Moody Press, 2008), 201.

2 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1986), 45.

3 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 46.

4 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 47.

5 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 47, Peter Enns, Handbook of Theology, 201-202.

6 Peter Enns, Handbook of Theology, 192.

7 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 53.

8 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 53.

9 For example, there is the egg that has three parts shell, white and yolk but is one egg. Or the sun that has light, heat and mass but is one sun. 

10 John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 13-14.

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Character of God, Christology, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Revelation, Theology Proper (God)

Lesson 19: A Lesson in Humility (John 3:22-30)

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July 14, 2013

In a “Peanuts” cartoon, Linus tells Charlie Brown, “When I get big, I’m going to be a humble little country doctor. I’ll live in the city, see, and every morning I’ll get up, climb into my sports car, and zoom into the country! Then I’ll start healing people… I’ll heal people for miles around!” In the last frame, he exclaims, “I’ll be a world famous humble little country doctor!”

Charles Schultz, the cartoonist, was poking fun at how difficult it is for us to be humble. We may start out with the goal of being a humble little whatever, but before we know it, we’re into being a world-famous, humble little whatever!

Pride is arguably the most deadly and evil of all sins because it’s at the root of all other sins. Pride was probably Satan’s original sin, when he said, “I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa. 14:14, assuming that this in some sense is describing Satan). Pride was the bait Satan used to tempt Eve, when he set aside what God had said and assured her that if she ate of the forbidden fruit, she would be like God (Gen. 3:1-6). Whenever I sin, I am arrogantly asserting that I know better than God knows what is best for me. Thus, as Christians we must constantly battle pride and grow in humility. And if you think you’ve attained any measure of humility, you’ve got to be on guard against being proud of your humility!

If anyone easily could have fallen into the trap of pride, it would have been John the Baptist. Who else in human history (apart from Jesus Himself) could claim to have been filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15)! No one else in human history had the important role of being the forerunner of Messiah (Luke 1:17, 76). John enjoyed immediate popular success, as all Jerusalem, Judea, and those from surrounding areas were going out to him in the wilderness to confess their sins and be baptized (Matt. 3:5-6). Even Jesus testified of John that he was the greatest man in human history (Matt. 11:11). All these things could have fed the pride of this young prophet, barely in his thirties.

Yet in our text John gives his disciples and us a basic lesson in humility. In the face of Jesus’ growing popularity and his own waning popularity, John gives us a one-liner to live by (John 3:30): “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Those words are a convenient outline in reverse of John 3:22-36: “I must decrease” sums up 3:22-30; “He must increase” sums up 3:31-36. To the extent that John’s motto is true of us, we are growing in humility.

The story begins by describing two thriving ministries that were taking place close to one another. We don’t know the exact location of Jesus and John as described here, but both were somewhere along the Jordan River, which they were using for baptisms. As John clarifies in 4:2, Jesus was not actually performing the baptisms, but His disciples were. These were not Christian baptisms at this point, but rather public confessions of sin followed by immersion in water, which symbolized cleansing from sin. It’s interesting that even John Calvin, who practiced baptism as sprinkling, admits that the reference to “much water” indicates that Jesus and John were “plunging the whole body beneath the water” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 130)!

The apostle added the comment (3:24) that John had not yet been thrown into prison because he knew that his readers would have read Mark’s gospel, which makes it seem that Jesus’ ministry began after John the Baptist was arrested (Mark 1:14). The apostle John wants us to know that the events recorded here happened before John the Baptist’s imprisonment.

At this juncture (“therefore” in 3:25 is better translated “now” or “then,” indicating a transition to something new), John reports that a dispute or discussion arose between John’s disciples and a Jew (some early manuscripts read “the Jews,” but the singular is probably original) about purification. The apostle does not give us any further clarification, so we can only guess at the nature of the discussion. Probably it had to do with whether John’s baptism was superior to the Jewish rites of purification. John mentioned those Jewish rites with the water pots at the wedding where Jesus turned the water into wine (2:6). In the present context, Jesus is the bridegroom (3:29). He comes to bring people into a joyous relationship with Himself, not to haggle over Jewish ceremonies. It’s not outward Jewish ceremonies that purify one’s heart, but rather, the new birth from above. So John may want us to see here that Jesus’ ministry went beyond the ceremonial legalism of Judaism.

At any rate, the debate between John’s disciples and this Jew may have included the Jew’s comment that the Baptist’s ministry was being eclipsed by Jesus’ growing ministry. This led John’s disciples to come to him with their concern (3:26), “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold, He is baptizing and all are coming to Him.” Their exaggeration, “all are coming to Him,” was no doubt spawned by resentment or jealousy (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 210). They were jealous on John’s behalf against Jesus’ growing ministry. This sets the stage for John the Baptist’s reply (3:27-30), which is a great lesson in humility. We learn:

Humility stems from understanding who God is and who we are.

John the Baptist clearly understood God’s sovereignty, who Jesus is, and who he (John) was. Thus he didn’t have inflated views of himself. He wasn’t out to build his self-esteem or to promote his own ministry or reputation. His aim was to exalt Jesus. He found great joy in his role of handing off the bride to the bridegroom.

1. Humility stems from understanding who God is.

We see this both with reference to John’s view of the Father and his view of Jesus Christ:

A. Humility stems from understanding that God is absolutely sovereign (3:27).

John replies to his disciples’ worried report (3:27), “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” That truth applies to all spiritual matters, including our salvation (Luke 10:21-22). As Jesus emphasizes (John 6:65), “No one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” But here it has special reference to our ministries and the relative fruitfulness of those ministries. He is saying that his role as the forerunner was given to him by God, and he must stay within that role. His words also apply to Jesus: Any popularity or success that He enjoyed in ministry came from the Father.

Paul applies this to us as gifted members of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:4-6): “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.” He adds (12:11), “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.” In other words, God gives different spiritual gifts, ministries, and results according to His sovereign will. Humility stems from recognizing that this is God’s prerogative as God and bowing before His sovereign will.

B. Humility stems from understanding that Jesus is the Lord and Christ (3:28-29).

In 3:28, John reminds his disciples that he has said, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent ahead of Him.” Clearly, John knew that Jesus was the Christ, the promised Messiah. Then in 3:29, John uses an illustration from a Jewish wedding: “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full.” John knew that Jesus was the promised bridegroom and that the bride belongs to Him. John’s role was that of the friend of the bridegroom, sort of like our “best man.” His role was to take the bride to the bridegroom and then get out of the way. The focus of the wedding was not on the best man, but on the bridegroom and bride.

In the Old Testament, Yahweh is often pictured as the bridegroom (or husband) and Israel as His bride. For example, in Isaiah 54:5, the Lord tells Israel, “For your husband is your Maker, whose name is the Lord of hosts.” Isaiah 62:5b declares, “And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so your God will rejoice over you.” In Hosea 2:16, the Lord tells Israel that in the future, they will call the Lord, “My husband.” He promises (Hos. 2:19), “I will betroth you to Me forever….” Jesus used this analogy of Himself when He explained to some of John’s disciples why Jesus’ disciples did not fast (Matt. 9:15): “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” The same analogy carries over to the New Testament epistles, where Jesus is the bridegroom and the church is His bride (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 19:7; 21:2; 22:17).

Now, if Yahweh is Israel’s bridegroom in the Old Testament and John the Baptist proclaims Jesus as Israel’s bridegroom here, then it’s an affirmation that Jesus is Yahweh. Jesus is God. Whether or not John the Baptist put the two halves of this equation together, it is evident that the apostle John through the Holy Spirit wants us to put them together: If God is the bridegroom and Jesus is the bridegroom, then Jesus is God. (James Boice makes this point, The Gospel of John [Zondervan], one-volume edition, p. 223.)

The lesson in humility for us is: humility stems from knowing who God is. The clearer our vision of His majesty and greatness and power and glory, the more we will be humbled in His presence. As I’ve said before, this is one of the main lessons that I came away with the first time I read Calvin’s Institutes [Westminster Press]. He presents such an exalted view of God, whom he often calls “the Majesty,” that you just bow yourself in the dust before Him. In Calvin’s words (1.1.3), “Man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.” You realize how little you are in His holy presence. That’s the second lesson that John the Baptist teaches us:

2. Humility stems from understanding who we are in God’s presence.

Calvin begins The Institutes (1.1.1) with the profound sentence, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” John McNeill, the editor, explains (p. 36, note 3), “These decisive words set the limits of Calvin’s theology and condition every subsequent statement.” Calvin expounds on our knowledge of ourselves (1.1.2): “It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” He goes on to say that pride is innate in us all and cannot be dealt with until we look to the Lord.

In our text, we see that John was clear about who he was in the presence of Christ:

A. Humility stems from understanding that I am not the Christ.

People were wondering if John was the Christ, which he emphatically denied (1:20), “I am not the Christ.” Now he reminds his disciples of what he has repeatedly said (3:28), “You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’”

You may think, “Well, there’s not much danger that I’m going to start thinking that I’m the Christ.” But as I’ve often said, one of the most basic lessons that we all have to learn—and learn again and again—is that God is God; I am not God. When things don’t go the way I’d prefer, I have to learn to bow and acknowledge, “God, You’re God; I’m not God.” Also, although I’ve never had to deal with it (and probably never will), when your ministry is popular and you’ve got crowds of people thronging to hear you speak, you need to keep in mind, “I’m not the Christ; I’m just His lowly slave, sent to point people to Him.”

B. Humility stems from understanding that everything I am and have has been entrusted to me by God to be used for His purpose and glory.

This lesson stems from John’s comment (3:27), “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.” John recognized that his unique role in history was not something that he had achieved by his own brilliance or hard work. Rather, God had graciously given it to him so that he could point people to Jesus. It had nothing to do with anything good in John. It had everything to do with God’s sovereign, gracious purpose for John.

The apostle Paul reminded the arrogant Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:7), “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” When Pilate, frustrated that Jesus would not answer him, told Jesus that he had authority either to release Him or crucify Him, Jesus replied (John 19:11), “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above ….”

This is such an important lesson to keep in mind at all times: All of my gifts, abilities, and opportunities come from God by grace alone. Everything! Do I have a sound mind? That came from God, who wants me to use it for His purpose and glory. Do I have money? That came from God, who wants me to use it for His purpose and glory. Do I have a ministry or place of service? That, too, came from God, who wants me to use it for His purpose and glory. John knew that he was the forerunner of the Messiah, and he sought to fulfill that ministry which God had given him.

A. W. Pink (Exposition of John, online at points out that John continued preaching and baptizing, even as he saw his influence waning in comparison with Jesus’ ministry. The point is that humility does not mean that we slack off and then blame our lack of results on God’s sovereignty. We should seek to use to the fullest what God has entrusted to us to the best of our ability, giving all glory for any results to Him.

C. Humility is maintained by having a proper definition of success in ministry.

There are two things here:

(1). Success in ministry does not necessarily mean having the largest following.

John’s disciples were concerned because the numbers in his following were going down, while the numbers following Jesus were going up. And John didn’t seem to be doing anything to correct the situation. But when they talk to John about their concerns, he explains that their cause for concern was his cause for great joy. John wasn’t trying to build a following for John, but rather a following for Jesus.

Sometimes a man’s disciples are more zealous for his reputation than he is. On one occasion when the Spirit came on two young men in the camp of Israel so that they prophesied, Joshua, who was Moses’ helper, said (Num. 11:28), “Moses, my lord, restrain them.” But Moses replied (11:29), “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!” A similar thing happened when the apostle John saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and tried to prevent him, because he wasn’t part of their group. But Jesus replied (Mark 9:39), “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me.”

The lesson is, we aren’t in competition with other churches or other ministries. If they’re preaching the gospel and teaching God’s Word, then we’re on the same team. We can rejoice that the Lord’s work is prospering, even if our work is not as large as the other work. Our responsibility is to be faithful with what the Lord has given us to do.

(2). Success in ministry is to exalt Christ and bring others to do the same.

John’s aim and his joy was to bring the bride to the bridegroom. By the way, you probably don’t think of John the Baptist as a joyful man. He was the austere prophet who thundered (Matt. 3:7), “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He was angry when the religious hypocrites did not follow Jesus. But he was full of joy when he heard the bridegroom’s voice and could bring the bride to Him. If people followed after Jesus, John’s purpose had been fulfilled. His joy was full.

Under the glass on my desk I have this quote from Robert Murray McCheyne: “I see a man cannot be a faithful minister, until he preaches Christ for Christ’s sake—until he gives up striving to attract people to himself and seeks only to attract them to Christ.” We always need to keep in mind that it’s all about the bridegroom and not at all about the best man. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Finally,

D. Humility recognizes that I am expendable and my role in God’s program is temporary.

This is implicit in John’s motto, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Like the morning star, John was fading from view as the sun rose in the sky. John’s being expendable also implicit in the parenthetical comment (3:24), “For John had not yet been thrown into prison.” When you get thrown into prison, it’s easy to wonder about God’s sovereignty and about your role in His plan. John himself began to wonder as he sat in prison, “Was I mistaken? Is Jesus really the Christ?” He sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus (Matt. 11:3), “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” In other words, “If You’re the Messiah, why don’t You get Your forerunner out of this miserable jail?” Jesus replied (Matt. 11:4-6), “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.”

It’s important to remember that being a faithful servant of the Lord does not guarantee a trouble-free life. John the Baptist was the faithful, God-appointed forerunner of Messiah, but he got thrown into prison and had his head cut off in his early thirties. We aren’t guaranteed long lives or impressive results in our ministries. The Lord could take me out of the picture today and His work would go right on according to His plan. He owes us nothing. It is our great joy if He uses us in some way to exalt Christ and to bring others to exalt Him, too.


Andrew Murray (Humility: The Beauty of Holiness [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 12) writes,

Humility, the place of entire dependence on God, is, from the very nature of things, the first duty and the highest virtue of the creature, and the root of every virtue. And so pride, or the loss of this humility, is the root of every sin and evil.

Are you working at growing in humility and pouring contempt on all your pride (to use Isaac Watt’s line, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”)? If I’m growing in humility, Christ is increasing and I’m decreasing. If I’m growing in pride, self is increasing and Christ is decreasing.

I recommend three short books: Andrew Murray, Humility (75 pages); C. J. Mahaney, Humility ([Multnomah], 172 pages); and, Stuart Scott, From Pride to Humility ([Focus Publications], 31 pages, which is a chapter from his book, The Exemplary Husband.) Or, if you’re up for it, read Calvin’s Institutes ([Westminster Press], the first three books, which are the most spiritually rich, are 1008 pages). He favorably quotes (2.2.11) Augustine, who cited a public speaker who said the chief rule in eloquence is “Delivery.” The second rule is, “Delivery.” The third rule is, “Delivery.” So Augustine said, the three precepts of Christianity are first, second, and third, “Humility.” Make John the Baptist’s motto yours: “Jesus must increase, but I must decrease.”

Application Questions

  1. For the past 40 years, Christian authors have promoted the need to build your self-esteem. Is this supported in the Bible? Isn’t self-esteem directly opposed to biblical humility?
  2. Discuss the implications of the truth that pride is at the root of all sins. How does this truth help us fight selfishness, greed, lust, anger, jealousy, and other deeds of the flesh?
  3. John the Baptist was bold as a lion and yet humble. He was no Caspar Milquetoast! How does boldness fit with humility?
  4. Andrew Murray (Humility [CLC], pp. 40, 43) states, “The chief mark of counterfeit holiness is its lack of humility…. There is no pride so dangerous, because none so subtle and insidious, as the pride of holiness.” Discuss these statements.

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

Related Topics: Character of God, Christian Life, Discipleship, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Sanctification, Spiritual Life

Lesson 20: Once More: Why Believe in Jesus? (John 3:31-36)

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July 21, 2013

I’ve been grieved lately to hear of several young adults who formerly were a part of this church, who professed faith in Christ and in some cases served in this church, but now do not go to any church. I’ve heard that some of them have renounced their faith in Christ. One of them that I recently had lunch with now claims to be an atheist.

What a tragedy! Why does it happen? The reasons are probably as varied as the individuals who fall away. Behind it all is the enemy of our souls, who prowls about as a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Pet. 5:8; Luke 8:12). Sometimes the person believed in Jesus for superficial reasons: he hoped that Jesus would give easy relief from some problem, but it didn’t happen. In the parable of the sower, Jesus told about those who believed and found sudden joy, but they didn’t have roots, so that when the hot sun of trials came out, they wilted and died. Others, He said, seem to grow for a while, but the thorns of worries and riches and the pleasures of this life choked them out (Luke 8:13-14).

I think that there are also two common problems behind those who make a profession of faith and then fall away. First, they have a shallow understanding of their true moral guilt before the holy God. They don’t understand that as sinners they are under His wrath and that their good deeds will not erase or ease His judgment against their sins. So they don’t see their desperate need for salvation. Second, they don’t understand who Jesus is and what He did for them on the cross. As I’ve often said, the entire Christian faith rests on the correct answer to Jesus’ question (Matt. 16:15), “Who do you say that I am?” If you get that question right, everything else is secondary. If Jesus is who the Bible proclaims Him to be, then you must believe in Him as your Savior and Lord or you will face judgment. Either Christ died for your sins and is risen from the dead or not. If He is not who He claimed to be, then you’re wasting your time being a Christian (1 Cor. 15:13-19).

John is clear about why he wrote his Gospel (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.” I titled an earlier message from John 1:15-18, “Why You Should Believe in Jesus.” In our text, John hits it once more (and it won’t be the last time!): Why believe in Jesus?

Because Jesus is God’s Son from heaven who testifies to God’s truth, your eternal destiny hinges on believing in Him.

As I said last time, these verses expound on the first half of John the Baptist’s motto, “He must increase.” Although some Bible scholars think that verses 31-36 continue the words of John the Baptist, I’m inclined to side with those who argue that they are the words of John the apostle. The original text did not have quotation marks. As we saw earlier in this chapter, probably Jesus’ words end at 3:15 and John’s comments follow in 3:16-21.

A couple of things point us in this direction here. First, the Christology (view of Christ) seems to be more in line with later, more developed understanding than with that which John the Baptist would have had. Also, these verses are clearly Trinitarian. It would be highly unusual for a Jew like John the Baptist at this point in history to have had such well-defined views.

But, whether these are the words of John the Baptist or John the apostle, they are equally inspired by God, given for our spiritual profit. John makes four main points to show why we should believe in Jesus:

1. Jesus has a heavenly origin and is above all (3:31).

John 3:31: “He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all.”

John seems to be commenting on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus (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.”

John is repeating the point that Jesus’ existence did not begin when He was born to the virgin Mary. The eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Jesus came to this earth from heaven, where He dwelt eternally with the Father. Through the virgin birth Jesus took on human flesh so that He could bear the penalty for our sins. But now He is again exalted on high, “above all,” a point that John repeats twice for emphasis (some manuscripts omit the second repetition, but it is probably original).

John is not the only apostle to affirm that Jesus is now above all. In Ephesians 1:20-22a, Paul says that after God raised Jesus from the dead, He seated Him “at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet ….” The apostle Peter affirms (1 Pet. 3:22) that Jesus “is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.” And, the author of Hebrews spends the entire first chapter of that letter asserting that Jesus, the Creator of all things, is over all the angels.

In our text (3:31) John contrasts Jesus with John the Baptist, “who is of the earth, is from the earth and speaks of the earth.” He is not nullifying the testimony of John, but rather pointing out its limitations by contrasting it with the superior testimony of Jesus. While John the Baptist was a faithful witness of all that God entrusted to him, he was nonetheless human. He only had a limited understanding of the things of God, as all humans do to one extent or another. But Jesus dwelt eternally with the Father (17:5). Because Jesus came to earth from heaven and is now back in heaven, exalted above all others, we must believe everything that He has told us about God and heavenly things.

2. Jesus has a heavenly message (3:32-34).

John 3:32-34: “What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure.” John affirms three things in these verses:

A. Jesus’ testimony regarding heavenly matters is true because it is eyewitness testimony (3:32a).

John 3:32a: “What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies ….” We hear stories these days of people who supposedly went to heaven, came back, and wrote a book about it. A lot of what they write contradicts what the Bible says about heaven, but people buy their books and receive it as true because the authors claim to have eyewitness testimony. It’s interesting that none of the people in the Bible who were raised from the dead wrote books or set up speaking tours to tell everyone what they saw up there! The apostle Paul had a vision of heaven (some think it may have been when he was stoned and left for dead), but he only spoke about it hesitantly 14 years after it happened (2 Cor. 12:1-10). And he adds that because of the surpassing greatness of that revelation, God gave him a thorn in the flesh to keep him humble. Paul missed a huge opportunity to cash in with a best-selling story about what heaven is like!

But John’s point in our text is that Jesus can testify truthfully about heaven because He is telling us what He has seen and heard. He wasn’t speculating or philosophizing about heaven. He was speaking the very words of God, telling us what the Father is like and how we can have eternal life. His witness is reliable and certain.

This isn’t the only time that John asserts this. In John 7:16, Jesus said, “My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me.” In John 8:28, He 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.” In John 14:10, after telling Philip that if he has seen Jesus, he has seen the Father, Jesus adds, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works.”

D. A. Carson (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apol­los], p. 213) sums it up: “Jesus so completely says and does all that God says and does, and only what God says and does … that to believe Jesus is to believe God.” The converse is also true: To reject Jesus’ testimony about God is to reject God (see John 12:44-50). Even worse, to reject God’s testimony about Jesus is to call God a liar (1 John 5:10): “The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son.” So it’s a very serious matter to set aside Jesus’ testimony as recorded in the Bible!

B. You can’t judge the truthfulness of Jesus’ testimony by taking a poll (3:32b-33).

John 3:32b-33: “and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true.” Obviously, in context, the first half of that statement is a generalization, because the second half indicates that some do receive Jesus’ testimony. It’s similar to what we saw in 1:11-12: “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. 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.” The general response to Jesus when He came to this earth was rejection. John 3:19, “Men loved darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” But, by God’s grace alone, there have always been some who have responded by believing. These affirm (“set their seal to this”) “that God is true.”

It’s interesting to contrast John’s statement in 3:32, that “no one receives His testimony,” with the report of John the Baptist’s disciples (3:26) that “all are coming to Him.” Jesus had a large popular following because He healed people and they found His teaching fascinating. They enjoyed His stories. They liked the fact that He spoke with authority, not like the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 7:29). But, the same fickle crowd that shouted “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday on Friday shouted, “Crucify Him!” Their views about Jesus changed with the popular tide of opinion.

The point for us is: the reason we should put our trust in Jesus is because we have come to the firm conclusion, based on the apostolic witness, that God is true and that Jesus spoke the words of God. He is who He claimed to be. He is the Christ, the Son of God, sent from heaven to redeem us from our sins. By setting your seal to this, John means that you fix in your mind and heart that Jesus is the promised Redeemer, your personal Savior and Lord. Even if all others forsake Him, you will be faithful even unto death.

The truth is, it’s easy to ride on the coattails of your parents’ faith or your friends’ faith or of popular opinion. Perhaps you went to an evangelistic meeting and all of your friends went forward at the altar call as the congregation sang an emotional hymn and the preacher pled for everyone to come forward. Under a flurry of emotion, you went forward. You felt great about it at the time and even shed tears of joy as the counselor shared with you that you now have eternal life and that it can’t be taken from you.

But, then a few weeks or months later, the glow faded. Stubborn problems reared their ugly head. Rather than answering your prayers for deliverance, things got worse than they were before you went forward. Meanwhile, a lot of your friends who are not religious are saying, “I told you it wouldn’t work!” An atheistic professor gave a lecture ridiculing Christianity. If your faith rests on popular opinion, it will crumble in time.

I grew up in a Christian home and made a profession of faith at a young age. But I remember that when I got to college, I realized that there are a lot of other options out there on what to believe. As I thought it through, I realized that if my faith was going to endure, it had to be my faith, not my parents’ faith and not my friends’ faith. It had to be based on the truth about Jesus.

C. Jesus’ testimony regarding heavenly matters is true because God sent Jesus and gave Him a full measure of the Holy Spirit (3:34).

John 3:34: “For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure.” The truth that God sent Jesus to this earth is repeated about 39 times in John’s Gospel, which affirms His deity and His heavenly origin (Ed Blum, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck [Victor Books], 2:283). It also underscores Jesus’ authority, which John emphasizes in the next verse (3:35).

“For He gives the Spirit without measure” explains why Jesus spoke the words of God: During Jesus’ earthly ministry, God the Father gave Him the full measure of the Holy Spirit (Isa. 11:2; 42:1; 61:1; Luke 4:18). As John the Baptist testified (John 1:32), “I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him.” This brings out the full humanity of Jesus. As a man, He had to rely constantly on the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth (John 14:17; 15:26), which enabled Him to speak the true words of God. In this, He modeled for us how we are to live in dependence on God’s Spirit.

There are two applications for us in this verse. First, while only Jesus could infallibly speak the very words of God, every pastor and Bible teacher should strive to be faithful to the Word of God. My aim in every sermon is that when I’m done, you should be able to look at the biblical text and understand what it means and how it applies to your life. This means that sometimes I have to teach some difficult truths (as I will do in a moment when we get to the subject of God’s wrath in 3:36). If I water down or dodge the difficult truths, as many pastors do, I am not being faithful to God. And if you sit for very long under a pastor who waters down the Word, you won’t be faithful to God.

Second, while Jesus is unique in having the complete fullness of God’s Spirit, we all should repeatedly ask God for more and more of the fullness of the Spirit. Early in my Christian life, I was taught that I could claim the filling of the Holy Spirit by faith. The implication was that either the Spirit fully controlled my life or I was in control. But the reality is, we grow in our capacity to be filled with the Spirit and in this lifetime, we never will experience the complete fullness of the Spirit that Jesus experienced. While the fruit of the Spirit can be evident in our lives, there is always room for more love, more joy, more peace, more patience, more kindness, more goodness, more faithfulness, more gentleness, and more self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Thus I need constantly to entreat God for more fullness of His Spirit.

Thus, Jesus has a heavenly origin and a heavenly message.

3. Jesus has heavenly authority (3:35).

John 3:35: “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand.” The love between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit is eternal and perfect. At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descended on Him and the Father proclaimed (Matt. 3:17), “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” Because the Father loves the Son, He has given all things into His hand. Jesus affirmed (Matt. 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.” Just before He ascended into heaven, as He gave the Great Commission, He again affirmed (Matt. 28:18), “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.”

That’s an astounding claim! If any mere man said such things, we would know that he was crazy. But Jesus could make such a claim with full credibility, because of who He is. This means that as we proclaim the gospel, we can appeal to Jesus to open blind eyes and reveal the truth to those who are lost. He alone has the sovereign authority to fulfill His Word with power. Finally,

4. Therefore, your eternal destiny hinges on believing in Jesus (3:36).

John 3:36: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” There are two and only two options: Believe in Jesus and have eternal life; or, do not obey Jesus and be under God’s perpetual wrath. Both options are present realities that extend into eternity. Right now, you either have eternal life or you are under God’s wrath. Whatever state you are in when you die continues forever after you die (Matt. 25:46).

You might expect that John would say that whoever believes in Christ has eternal life, but the one who doesn’t believe is under God’s judgment. But instead, he uses a different word, saying, “he who does not obey the Son will not see life.” He does this for two reasons. First, not to believe in Jesus is to disobey God, who calls on all to repent and believe. Second, genuine saving faith is obedient faith, whereas false faith claims to believe, but denies that claim by disobedience (Matt. 7:21; Luke 6:46; Titus 1:16; James 2:18-24; 1 John 2:3). Of course, none of us can obey God perfectly, but the overall direction of our lives should be that of obedience to Christ.

This is the only mention of God’s wrath in John’s Gospel, but it’s a frequent theme in his Revelation (6:16-17; 11:18; 14:10; 16:19; 19:15). God’s wrath is His settled, holy hatred and opposition to all sin. All sin must be punished, or God would not be holy and just. As Jonathan Edwards argued so forcefully in “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 1:669), sin against an infinitely holy God is infinitely heinous and thus worthy of infinite punishment. Those who refuse to believe in Christ are presently under the curse of sin and death. If they die unbelieving, they will experience the fullness of God’s wrath throughout eternity. Thus our eternal destiny hinges on believing in Christ or disobeying Him.


I am greatly concerned that all of you believe in Jesus for the right reasons: Because He has a heavenly origin—He came from above and is above all; because He has a heavenly message—He testifies of the Father; and, because He has heavenly authority—the Father has given all things into His hand. Because of who Jesus is, your eternal destiny hinges on believing in Him.

I close with this quote from J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:172), which sums up why we should believe in Jesus: “We can never make too much of Christ…. We can never have too high thoughts about Christ, can never love Him too much, trust Him too implicitly, lay too much weight upon Him, and speak too highly in His praise. He is worthy of all the honor that we can give Him. He will be all in heaven. Let us see to it, that He is all in our hearts on earth.”

Application Questions

  1. Have you known people who professed faith in Christ and later fell away? What were the causes of their spiritual failure?
  2. Why is it important to base our faith in Christ on who He is and not just on what He can do for us?
  3. How can we know that the apostles faithfully reported the life and words of Jesus? How would you answer someone who claimed that they just made up the story?
  4. As difficult as the doctrine is, why must we believe in God’s wrath? Consider Leon Morris’ words (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 250): “Unless we are saved from real peril there is no meaning in salvation.”

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

Related Topics: Christology, Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 21: Living Water for a Thirsty Woman (John 4:1-14)

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July 28, 2013

One of the wonderful things about the good news that Jesus brings is that it meets the basic need that all people have. You can go to the highest halls of learning and talk with a man with multiple Ph.D.’s. Although he is highly educated, the message he needs to hear is that Christ died for his sins and was raised from the dead, and that he can trust in Christ and receive eternal life as a free gift. Take the message to the most primitive, illiterate tribesman in some remote jungle and he needs to hear the same good news. Since all people are sinners who need to be reconciled to the holy God, the same gospel applies to all: Jesus saves sinners who trust in Him.

John 3 gives the account of Jesus’ interview with the Pharisee, Nicodemus. As a religious leader and a moral man, he was no doubt shocked by Jesus’ opening words (3:3), “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus’ religion was not sufficient. He needed the new birth. John 4 gives the account of Jesus’ encounter with the immoral Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Jesus skillfully shows her that she needs the living water that He can give. It’s the same basic message with a different metaphor.

Nicodemus and the unnamed Samaritan woman are as different as they could be. He was a Jewish man; she was a Samaritan woman. He was educated and orthodox in the Jewish faith; she was uneducated and heterodox. He was an influential leader; she was a nobody. He was upper middle class; she was lower class. He was morally upright; she was immoral. He sought out Jesus because he recognized His merits; she had no idea who the stranger at the well was, who sought her out. He came to Jesus at night; Jesus and the woman met at noon. Nicodemus responded slowly and rationally; she responded quickly and emotionally. But Jesus loved both of them. He came to seek and to save all types of people.

In 2010, I did two messages from John 4 from the perspective of how Jesus teaches us to witness, which you can access online if it would be helpful. But in this and the next few messages, I’m going to work through the text section by section, trying to bring out whatever lessons are there. In John 4:1-14, we learn that…

Jesus is the Savior who can give living water to all thirsty sinners.

Background: In 4:1-3, John gives us the reason why Jesus left Judea and headed toward Galilee, namely, to avoid any conflict with the Pharisees, who were closely monitoring the ministries of both John the Baptist and Jesus. Jesus was never one to avoid conflict if it was in the Father’s will, but He knew that the time was not yet right for direct conflict, so He left (the Greek word means “abandoned”) Judea in the south and headed north toward Galilee until He knew that it was the hour for the cross.

John 4:2 clarifies that Jesus was not actually baptizing people, but His disciples were. This baptism was based on repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as practiced by John the Baptist. Frederick Godet (Commentary on the Gospel of John [Zondervan], 1:418) observes, “By baptizing, He attested the unity of His work with that of the forerunner. By not Himself baptizing, He made the superiority of His position above that of John the Baptist to be felt.” Also, perhaps Jesus knew that if He actually did the baptizing, people would later boast, “I was baptized by Jesus Himself!” So He let His disciples do the actual “dunking.”

We can draw three main lessons from John 4:4-14:

1. Jesus seeks sinners who aren’t even seeking Him.

John 4:4: “And He had to pass through Samaria.” This was the shortest route from Judea to Galilee that many Jews used, but it wasn’t the only route. Some strict Jews, who didn’t want any contact with the despised Samaritans, would take a longer route, crossing the Jordan River to the east, traveling north, and then going back west into Galilee. Since Jesus was probably already at the Jordan River, where they were baptizing, He could have taken that route, but He didn’t. So the word translated “had to” probably indicates more than geographic necessity: Jesus had a divine appointment in Samaria. (John uses the word of Jesus’ divine mission in 3:14; 9:4; 10:16; 12:34; 20:9.)

Sychar was located about 30 miles north of Jerusalem, approximately half-way between Jerusalem and Nazareth, at the base of Mount Gerazim, the Samaritans’ “holy mountain.” Jacob’s well was about a half mile outside the village. John mentions that Jesus was weary from His journey, so He was sitting by the well at about the sixth hour. The disciples had gone into the city to buy food. The distance from where Jesus had been baptizing to Sychar was about 40 miles by road. Jesus and the disciples had walked a full day and a half to arrive there about noon (Colin Kruse, John [IVP], p. 129). Some scholars, to avoid a chronological problem in John 19:14, argue that John followed Roman time, which began at midnight. But there is scant evidence for that view. We’ll wrestle with the chronological problem when we get to chapter 19. But here, John almost certainly means noon, not 6 p.m.

The hostilities between the Jews and the Samaritans went back centuries. After the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C., they deported most of the Jews and replaced them with foreigners, who intermarried with the remaining Jews. Their religion was a mixture of their foreign gods with Judaism (2 Kings 17:24-41). When the exiles from the Southern Kingdom of Judah returned from Babylon, the Samaritans offered to help them rebuild their temple, but the Jews viewed them as foreign enemies and refused their offer (Ezra 4:1-5). The same thing happened later when Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 4:1-3).

Then, in about 400 B. C., the Samaritans built a rival temple on Mount Gerazim. The Jewish leader John Hyrcanus burned it down in 128 B.C., which didn’t improve relations between the two groups! Also, the Samaritans only accepted the Pentateuch (the first five books of Moses), not all of the Jewish Scriptures. So the Jews viewed the Samaritans as biological and religious half-breeds. All of these events and factors had led to intense hostility between the Samaritans and the Jews by Jesus’ day. We can’t properly understand this story unless we keep this hostile history in mind.

The normal time for women to get water was either early morning or later in the afternoon, when it was cooler. The well was a place where women gathered to talk as they filled their water pots. We can’t say for sure why this woman came to the well at noon, but it may be that because of her immoral life, she was not liked by the other women. She wanted to come when she would be alone. But she encounters this Jewish man, who has the audacity to ask her for a drink of water. It would be like a white man in the South years ago, where they had separate drinking fountains for whites and “coloreds,” asking a black woman if he could have a drink from her canteen! Add to this that it wasn’t socially acceptable for a Jewish man, much less a rabbi, to speak to any woman in public. The rabbis thought that even Jewish women should not be taught the Scriptures. So for Jesus to go beyond asking for a drink, which was shocking enough, and direct the conversation into spiritual things with this Samaritan woman was off the charts (4:27)!

It wasn’t that this woman said, “Sir, you look like a Jewish rabbi. I’m hungry to know your God. Can you tell me how to do that?” She was just going about her daily chores, minding her own business, when this stranger asked her for a drink and then steered the conversation into spiritual matters. She wasn’t seeking to know God. Her guilt over her current live-in boyfriend and her five marriages, which had probably ended because of her multiple adulteries, caused her to keep her distance from God. The only explanation for this story is that Jesus was seeking a sinner who wasn’t even seeking Him.

The application for those of us who know Christ is: If we want to be like our Savior, we should be seeking out unlikely candidates for salvation and try to turn the conversation to spiritual matters so that they can come to know the Savior. I confess that all too often, I size up someone who seems to be far from the Lord and think, “He wouldn’t be interested in spiritual things.” So I don’t attempt to steer the conversation to the place where I can tell him the good news.

But maybe I’m speaking to someone who has a notoriously sinful past and right now is living in sin. The application for you is that Jesus seeks after just such people as you to be His disciples. Jesus said (Luke 19:10) that He came “to seek and to save that which was lost.” He saved the thief on the cross. He saved the chief of sinners who was persecuting the church. He saved this immoral Samaritan woman. He wants to save you!

2. Jesus offers all sinners the gift of living water.

Note three things here:

A. The living water that Jesus gives is a gift, not something that you must earn or qualify for.

Note the emphasis on gift or give here (my italics): John 4:10: “Jesus answered and said to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, “Give Me a drink,” you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.’” John 4:14: “But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” It’s a gift, not a reward!

One of the most common spiritual errors is that we get into heaven by our good works. Every religion, except for biblical Christianity, operates on the principle that you must work for or earn salvation. This is the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (in the Councils of Trent): “If anyone says, that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, ... let him be anathema.” (Session 6, Canon 9, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom [Baker], 2:112; English updated.)

In total contrast, the Bible states (Rom. 4:4-5): “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The gospel is not good news if it requires that you must do penance, reform your life, keep a bunch of rules, do an unspecified number of good deeds, and hope that someday God might let you into heaven on that basis. But it is wonderfully good news if God offers it to you as a free gift, which He does!

But, maybe you’re thinking, “Because of my many sins, which I’d be embarrassed to make known, I’m not worthy of such a gift.” True, you’re not worthy. No one is. But …

B. No sinner is excluded from the offer of this gift.

In the eyes of most Jews, including the disciples at this point, this woman was not worthy of Jesus’ time. Just being a Samaritan excluded her. Being a woman was strike two. But being an immoral Samaritan woman struck her out: “Jesus, why don’t we move on to more important, better qualified, people who have more potential?” But Jesus took the time and the initiative to talk with this sinful woman about living water. He didn’t exclude her from offering her this gift. And He doesn’t exclude you, either!

Actually, it’s often good, religious people who exclude themselves from receiving this gift. They’re proud of their accomplishments and want some reward for what they’ve done. They don’t want to associate with people like this sinful woman or admit that they need living water from Jesus just as much as she did. But the gift is freely offered to notorious sinners and to self-righteous religious sinners. Both equally need the gift.

C. The gift of living water that Jesus offers satisfies the thirsty soul for time and eternity.

Jesus tells this woman (4:14): “But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” By “living water,” Jesus is referring to the eternal life that the Holy Spirit gives. As Jesus said (John 7:37-39a), “‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, “From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” But this He spoke of the Spirit….” “Living water” is the same thing as the “new birth,” but just a different analogy. In that hot desert climate, water was essential for life. It was always welcome and refreshing. “Living” water referred to water flowing from a spring or fountain, as opposed to that which was collected in a cistern.

Jews familiar with the Scriptures knew that the Lord Himself is the spiritual fountain of living water. In Jeremiah 2:13, the Lord rebukes His sinning people: “For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Or (Jer. 17:13), “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake You will be put to shame. Those who turn away on earth will be written down, because they have forsaken the fountain of living water, even the Lord.” (See, also, Isa. 12:3; 44:3; 49:10.)

Jesus told this woman that the water that He gives “will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” In him shows that true Christianity is not primarily a matter of rituals and ceremonies, but rather an inward, personal relationship with the living God. It must be in each person’s heart. The picture of this living water springing up points to the continual source of life that the indwelling Holy Spirit supplies to believers. It’s active and always flowing. There may be times of greater and lesser flow, but it never dries up, as so many Arizona rivers do.

When Jesus says that “whoever drinks of the water that I give him will never thirst,” He means that we who have drunk this living water are satisfied with Him in the sense that we know that He has rescued us from sin and judgment (Rom. 8:1). He has given us eternal life and that nothing can separate us from His love (Rom. 8:31-39). We’re His children, under His loving care in every situation (1 John 3:1). He has given us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:3). We have His Word, which is like water to our soul.

Jesus does not mean that our thirst is forever quenched in the sense that we cease to long for more and more of Him. We still hunger and thirst after righteousness (Matt. 5:6). Our hearts still pant after God like the thirsty deer for the water brook (Ps. 42:1). We still pray (Ps. 63:1), “O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly; my soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” John Calvin sums up both sides of this (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 151): “Although we thirst throughout our whole life, yet it is certain that we have not received the Holy Spirit for a single day, or for any short period, but as a perennial fountain, which will never fail us.”

So, how do we get this living water of salvation that Jesus freely offers to all?

3. To receive this gift of living water, you must know who Jesus is and what He offers, and you must ask for it.

John 4:10: “Jesus answered and said to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, “Give Me a drink,” you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.’” These words would have provoked her curiosity about three things: (1) What is this gift of God? (2) Who is it who is talking to me? (3) Maybe I should ask Him for this living water.

A. To receive this gift of God, you need to know what it is.

We’ve already seen that the gift of living water is the salvation that the Holy Spirit imparts. It is the Lord Himself, dwelling in believers. To Nicodemus, Jesus spoke about being born of the Spirit (John 3:6, 8). At the Feast of the Tabernacles, He invited the crowds to come to Him and drink, which John explains was a reference to the Spirit (7:37-39). Here, He invites this sinful woman to ask Him to give her this living water that will forever quench her spiritual thirst. Again, it’s important to know that salvation is not a matter of keeping rules and rituals, but rather of new life through the Spirit that brings us into a relationship with the living God. And it’s important to know, as Jesus emphasizes, that it’s a gift.

B. To receive this gift of God, you must know who Jesus is.

The woman needed to know something about this one who claimed that He would give her living water. This underscores the fact that faith is not a blind leap in the dark. Faith is only as good as its object. To have faith in an airplane, you need to know that it has flown recently and that it seems to be trustworthy. To have faith in Christ, you need to know something about who He is. This doesn’t require a seminary degree, but it does require basic information. In this story…

The fact that Jesus was tired and thirsty shows that He is human. Jesus didn’t perform a miracle to quench His thirst, although He had that power. As a man, He can sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15). He asked this woman for a drink. By being willing to drink out of her container, He was putting Himself on her level. He didn’t make her feel that He was superior as a Jew. He didn’t put her down as a woman, as many Jewish men would have done. He came across to her as He truly was, a tired, thirsty man.

The fact that Jesus is able to give living water to thirsty sinners shows that He is God. The woman asked (4:11) how Jesus could get this living water out of the well, since it was deep (over 100 feet) and He had nothing to draw with. Then she challenged Him (4:12), “You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You …?” The answer, of course, is, yes, He is much greater than Jacob! He is probably the angel of God who wrestled all night with Jacob! And the answer to where He can get the living water is, He has it within His own divine nature to supply it to as many sinners as ask for it. He has an endless supply of grace for all. Finally,

C. To receive this gift of living water, just ask for it.

Jesus says (4:10), “If you would have asked, I would have given it to you.” To ask, you have to recognize that you’re thirsty and that you can never satisfy that thirst by yourself. But if you come to Jesus and ask, He will give it. All you have to do is drink and drink of Him until you’re satisfied. But the only condition that Jesus states is, “Ask.” If you ask, He will give you an endless supply of living water.


So, have you asked Jesus for the living water of eternal life? Do you have the evidence of being satisfied with Jesus? You can continually drink from the world’s sources, but you’ll thirst again (4:13). But one drink from Jesus and you’ll never thirst again. So, why don’t you ask?

Application Questions

  1. Do you know an “unlikely” convert that you think would not be interested in the gospel? How could you approach him/her?
  2. Jesus was willing to violate cultural taboos to talk with this sinful Samaritan woman. What cultural taboos do we face that may keep us from talking with sinners about Christ?
  3. How much about Jesus does a person need to understand to be saved? Can a person who holds heretical views about Jesus come to salvation?
  4. Why is it essential to understand that salvation is a free gift? Should we welcome as fellow Christians those who say we must add our works to faith to be saved? See Gal. 1:6-9.

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

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)