Please open up to John 3:1–21.
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter 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 marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.’”
What is a Pharisee?
If you recall, last week we covered the passage just before this one that acts as a sort of introduction to the next section of the Gospel. It’s a sort of paragraph header in the midst of the chapter division that comes through the sign miracles, meant to key us into seeing a change in perspective, but not really a change in theme or signs.
Jesus has taken the torch from His forerunner John the Baptist, has inaugurated His kingdom at the Wedding in Cana, and has cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem during the time of the Passover. While He was there, the Jews demanded a sign, but Jesus refused them – and went on to perform other signs for those around Jerusalem who weren’t demanding it of Him. It was a pretty substantial kickoff to His earthly ministry and we’ve talked a lot about it.
Last week John, the author of the gospel tells us that though a lot of people believed in Jesus, Jesus didn’t believe in them, because “he himself knew what was in man”. We covered that a lot last week, but we need to remember it as we enter into the story of Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is introduced as a “man of the Pharisees… a ruler of the Jews.” The Pharisees were known as the “separated ones”. Not that they isolated themselves from others, but that they were extremely zealous for ritual and religion and considered themselves better than everyone else. They followed the Mosaic Law to a ridiculous degree, even adding 613 of their own laws and regulations on top of it to make it even more stringent.
For example, God had written into the 10 Commandments that no one was supposed to break the Sabbath, right? Work 6 days, and then set aside the seventh day for rest and worship. The Pharisees heard this and came up with 39 extra rules so that no one would accidentally break the Sabbath – and Jesus broke them all the time. In John 5:10 Jesus heals a lame man and tells him to pick up his bed and walk home. The Pharisees were upset because they had made a law saying no one was allowed to carry anything on the Sabbath. In John 9:16 Jesus heals a blind man by mixing dirt and spit. This broke the Pharisaical law about not making mixtures. In Luke 13 Jesus heals a disabled woman who was bent-over for eighteen years. The Pharisees were angry because he had broken the law about not straightening a deformed person’s body – and maybe even the one where they weren’t allowed to untie knots. And these rules got weird. For example, they were allowed to eat an egg that had been laid on the Sabbath – but only if they killed the chicken who laid it the next day for violating the Sabbath.
At the time, there were about 6000 Pharisees around. They were mostly middle-class people and had a great influence on the common people because the Pharisees not only made up these crazy laws but enforced them. If they saw you tie your shoe or even grab a bit of grain to eat as a snack, they would get you publically embarrassed, punished, and maybe even kicked out of your synagogue.
But Nicodemus wasn’t just a regular Pharisee, he was a “ruler of the Jews”. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, their 71 members “Supreme Court”. Rome had given them civil and criminal jurisdiction over people. They weren’t allowed to use capital punishment (as we learn from Jesus’ trial and crucifixion) but they were the most powerful group in the whole of Judaism.
You can begin to see why this man came to Jesus after dark. Jesus had been causing trouble in the Temple and defied the Sanhedrin, but had also shown Himself to be a powerful miracle worker and teacher. Nicodemus was curious but cautious. His whole life, and likely going back generations, he had known only the strictness of religion as the way to please God – and here stands a powerful Rabbi, teaching things that seem contradictory to everything he holds dear – but is also able to do amazing miracles. How could this be?
There are a lot of people like Nicodemus today. People who think they have it all figured out, who have worldly power and influence, who have (what they believe to be) a rock-solid understanding of reality, of spirituality, of how life works. Whether its atheism, deism, spiritualism, some other religion, or a version of Christianity that they grew up with or have created in their own head, their brain-cement is set. If you ask them the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” they’ll give you some kind of answer. It may be nihilism or some version of karma. It might be self-actualization or pseudo-spirituality. It might be traditionalism or moralism or humanism. Whatever it is, they’ve got it all figured out – right up until they hear about Jesus.
Many people here today either suffer from or have recovered from this. You have your own version of God. You have your own version of Jesus. You have your own version of how life, and work, and church works. You have your own rules about how marriage and family works. You may use the same words as people around you, but they have wildly different meanings.
For example, if I said the word “submission”, it would conjure up a certain picture in your mind. What does it mean to be a submissive Christian? Who are Christians supposed to submit to? James 4:7 says, “Submit yourselves to God.” Everyone is on board with that. But what about Ephesians 5:21 which says we should be “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Does your definition of “submission” extend to submitting to the people around you today? What about the next verse in Ephesians 5:22 which says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Wives, does your submission to God, submission to Jesus, extend to humble submission to your husbands? Husbands, do you understand how to respond to that submission, by, as verse 25 says “lov[ing] your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”?
And further, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 says Christians are to,
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…”.
Does your submission to God extend to all the laws of the land and those who have been elected to government or positions of authority above you? Ephesians 6:5-8 tells us to submit to our employer and work for them as we would work for Jesus. Does your submission to God include humble submission to your boss?
And further, Hebrews 13:17 tells the church to,
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
Does your submission to God include humble submission to the church leadership and eldership?
Pretty much everyone here today says they believe the Bible and want to do what God says – but most people here also have a different interpretation of who God is, what God wants, what God said, and how far they are willing to go in that obedience.
Pretty much everyone here would say they agree that “submission” to God’s will is important to them. If I asked for a show of hands as to who is willing to submit their lives to God’s will and God’s word, I would see a lot of hands.
Here’s the thing: The Pharisee would have raised his hand. And every single person in our church, every single person in Jerusalem, would have said that there was no one better at submitting to God than Nicodemus – everyone except Jesus. Why? Because regardless of how confident he was, how popular he was, how much affirmation he received from other people, how deep his traditions went, and how powerful his influence was, his understanding of God’s will and priorities was totally out of whack. And his understanding of “submission” was radically different than God’s.
He prayed loudly in the streets, tithed with trumpets, and lorded his power over people to force them to be like him. But God wanted him to pray in his closets, give secretly, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” with Him. (Matt 6; Mic 6:6-8) The Pharisees weren’t humbly submitting to God and holding up a high standard for God’s people to follow. They were proudly, arrogantly, willfully, though perhaps unwittingly, destroying their religion and driving a wedge between God and His people.
Consider Jesus’ woes in Matthew 23. One said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15) Everyone they converted to their version of the faith wasn’t closer to God – they were closer to Hell. Jesus spent a lot of His ministry untying the knots the Pharisees had wrapped the people in.
Jesus Knows Nicodemus
The Pharisees had hundreds and hundreds of laws that were designed to please God and make them “separate” and better and holier than everyone else, and all kinds of people were patting Nicodemus on the back for how knowledgeable and spiritual he was. And all these laws did was “separate” Him from God. And I’m convinced that He felt it. I think that’s why he walked up to Jesus that night. Jesus had a connection to God that Nicodemus longed for, but had never been able to achieve through a lifetime of Pharisaism. It reminds me a lot of the story of Martin Luther.
As Nicodemus walks up to Jesus, Jesus knows exactly what’s on his heart. Jesus knows why Nicodemus came. He knows his past, his preconceptions, his confusion, and his greatest need. Remember, Jesus “[knows what is] in man” (2:25)
Nicodemus opens with “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (3:2) I don’t know who the “we” is but it could be either him invoking his position as a member of the Sanhedrin, or that he was perhaps sent by a few curious Pharisees to see what was so special about Jesus. He’s respectful, even acknowledging him as a Rabbi, a teacher, who is clearly connected to God. That’s what brought him out that night. How could Jesus, the one who overturned tables in the temple and drove out the money-changers, who defied the Sanhedrin and then scorned them with His words, teach and perform miracles with such obvious spiritual power. No one in the Jewish ruling class had this kind of power, and none of them taught with such conviction and authority. What made Jesus different? What gave Him this connection?
Jesus cuts to the chase. Nicodemus wants access to this kind of power, conviction, authority, and relationship with God. Jesus answers His question. You want to know what it takes? “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” (3:3)
Have you ever sat in a conversation with two people who obviously knew way, way more than you about something, or who had spent a lot of time together, and the longer they talked, the more jargon they used, the more they finished each other’s sentences, the more shorthand and half-stories they mounted up, the less you understood – but you knew that they were 100% understanding one another? That’s sort of what was happening here. They were using rabbinical shorthand.
Jesus cut to the chase and answered the question that Nicodemus hadn’t even asked yet. “Nicodemus, I know what you want – and you need to know that it requires a complete spiritual transformation, a total regeneration that can only come by the power of God. You need to reject everything you think you know about religion and God and the path to salvation – all of the outward things you think are right, all the hypocritical rules, all the grasping at power – everything you have been thinking up until this point needs to be dumped out and you need to realize that the change you are seeking, the power you are seeking, the connection to God you are seeking, the salvation from the wrath of God that you fear deep in your heart, only comes if you are “born again” (or “born from above”). It is only produced by God doing something inside of you – not by anything you can do yourself.”
Now, remember Nicodemus isn’t dumb. The question that he asks next sounds dumb, but it’s not. It’s how rabbis talked. Nicodemus totally gets what Jesus is saying and responds with, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (3:4). It’s not that Nicodemus misunderstood what Jesus was saying, it was that Nicodemus knew exactly what Jesus was saying but had no idea how he was supposed to start his whole life over again. Jesus had just told him that everything he thought he knew about God, all the ways he’d been trying to achieve holiness and salvation, all the good works and religion, all the self-denial, were utterly futile, and now he didn’t know what to do. What he was really saying is, “How can I possibly start over now? I’m old, set in my ways, a public figure, an important member of the Sanhedrin. Doing what you say would cost me – everything. My own group would turn against me. I would be removed from my own Synagogue and kicked out of the Temple. If I believe what you say, my life is over. How can I begin again now? I’d have to start from scratch, with nothing.”
Jesus’ response is to say, “Yes. It will cost you everything. You don’t have the power to do this. No one does. It must come from above.” “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter 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 marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5–8)
“You don’t know how to do this anymore than you can predict where the wind will blow next. All of the things you’ve been trying to do are human efforts, fleshly works. Don’t be surprised when I tell you that if you have a spiritual problem you need a spiritual solution. You’re powerless against sin, not connecting with God, can’t get rid of your guilt, can’t teach with power, totally misunderstand what God wants. How can you be surprised that no human effort can fix this? A spiritual problem need a spiritual solution! You cannot be fit for the Kingdom of God unless you are utterly changed from the inside out.
This reminds me of another of Jesus’ woes to the Pharisees in Matthew 23. He says,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” (Matthew 23:25–26)
The solution to your problems isn’t more work, more elbow grease, more good works, more rules – it’s submission to God’s Will, God’s Way, God’s Spirit, and allowing Him to do the work in your heart that you cannot.
When Jesus said, “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus knew Jesus was talking Ezekiel 36:25.
Turn with me to Ezekiel 36:22 and let’s read the context. Notice that it is God who does the saving, and notice especially verse 25.
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
Who does the work? God. Who does the cleansing? God. Who does the saving? God. Who does the washing? God. Who removes the heart of stone and replaces it with a soft heart of flesh? God. Who gives the Spirit to convict, encourage, strengthen, and help His people obey these ever-so precious “rules” the Pharisees were so concerned about? God.
This world is ripe with self-help books and inspirational blogs and Instagram posts telling you how to fix your soul, life, marriage, family, finances, guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, depression, work, and church. And they’re 99.99% wrong.
Jesus is so clear here. The only way to be saved is not through willpower, education, politics, religion or finding your own path to God – it is submitting to Jesus and asking the Spirit of God to fix your heart. The only way to have a good marriage is to submit to God and allowing the Spirit of God to change your heart and cause you to love your spouse with the love of Jesus. The only way to be a good citizen in a land as confused as ours is by wholly submitting to the Spirit of God for hope and guidance. The only way to be blessed through your work, and have your work be a blessing to others, is if you completely turn it over to God, submit every job to Jesus as your boss, and give your employer the respect God requires of you – even if you don’t feel like it.
The only way to be a godly church, grow into a godly church, reconcile our relationships, to see the schemes of the devil for what they are and be the church that Jesus wants us to be, is not to try to arrest control from Him for ourselves, or start up a zillion ministries, or to keep one foot out the door in case something goes wrong, or ignore problems, or tighten our financial fists – but to wholly submit ourselves, our church, our plans, our ministries, to God’s Spirit and God’s Word. Salvation has never been a “reward for human works”. We must realize that whatever we do in the flesh is going to be of no account, and ultimately harmful, but whatever is done by the Spirit – by prayer, by study, by humility, by submission – will produce fruit.
Let’s close out this section of the story by turning back to John 3:9. What’s Nicodemus’ response?
“Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’”
John MacArthur once wrote,
“People have always stumbled over the simplicity of salvation.”
And I would add that people have always stumbled over the simplicity of the whole Christian life. We are forever trying to complicate things, when God keeps trying to simplify it.
We are presented with a problem – in our heart, in our relationships, in our work, or in our church – and we immediately make it complicated. We make calendars, plans, committees, appointments, lists and more lists. We run far and wide, googling our hearts out, amassing books and articles and videos and counsellors. We jump ahead with emails and phone calls and travel plans and requests for money. We take out loans and get credit cards.
Before it even crosses our mind to pray and seek God’s will, we’ve already done 40 things to help the situation – and then we hit our knees and tell God to bless what we’ve come up with.
That’s not how it works. It’s actually very simple.
Stop. Pray. Wait. Read scripture. Pray. Wait. Talk to a mature Christian. Pray. Wait. Go to church and worship and listen. Go to the prayer meeting and pray and listen. Go to small group and learn, and pray, and talk, and listen.
We’ve talked many times about “the ordinary means of grace”, about how unexciting, uncool, but how profoundly simple and effective they are. Prayer and Fasting to cleanse the soul and connect to God. Obediently attending church so you can hear the Word of God and connect to fellow believers. Being baptized and attending the baptisms of the people in your church so you can be mutually encouraged and show your commitment to Christ and one another. Take the Lord’s Supper as a reminder of what your salvation cost, how much Jesus loves you, and as a reminder to get right with those who you’ve sinned against or who have sinned against you. Meet in each other’s homes regularly for times of celebration and support, and visit the sick and needy. Meet with your spiritual elders for training and teaching and wisdom.
The Christian life isn’t complicated and so many of our spiritual problems are solved by submitting to these simple things regularly and obediently.
 The Gospel According to Jesus, John MacArthur, Pg 53.
 The Gospel According to Jesus, MacArthur, Pg 56.
 The Gospel According to Jesus, MacArthur, Pg 56.