“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.’” (John 3:1–21)
Last week we ended our study of this section at verse 9 where Nicodemus, marvelling at what Jesus has just told him, says, “How can these things be?” The whole concept of being “born again” or “born from above” was blowing his mind. For his whole life, he had been told and had taught that the way to please God, get forgiveness, be holy, and have a blessed life, was through rules and religion. He was a Pharisee, a “separated one”, a member of the Sanhedrin, one of the top-dogs of Israel, famous for being a man who not only followed and enforced the Mosaic Laws but all the other extra laws that the Pharisees had since come up with. He was 100% sold out to the fact that it was through stricter and stricter obedience and enforcement of the rules that Israel would be saved.
But Jesus, this newcomer on the scene, who spoke with authority like they’d never seen and backed up His words with great signs and miracles was saying something very different. He was saying that salvation doesn’t come from trying harder and being more religious. He was saying that all of our human efforts to please God through religious fervour were actually working against Nicodemus’ relationship with God. His rules and religion was putting a wedge between him and God, him and others, and was actually leading people into damnation, not salvation. And I think Nicodemus knew it.
When he looked at himself and his fellow Pharisees he didn’t see men that oozed the love of God. He saw people who were harsh, unloving, unkind, ungracious, and who were always worried that God was mad at them because they hadn’t done enough. People who lived in a constant state of either prideful arrogance for being such awesome people – or in fear and deep doubt because they were never sure if they’d done enough. What a terrible way to live. But they were locked into it. Their devotion to traditions, their lust for power, their whole comprehension of God, was locked into this pattern. And I’m convinced Nicodemus felt it.
And here stood Jesus saying that everything he believed was wrong. Jesus said that the only way to find forgiveness, blessing, salvation, and reconciliation with God is to give up being a Pharisee – to totally repent of that way of living and thinking – and to simply ask God to change his heart. I said last week that Nicodemus immediately knew that Jesus was talking about Ezekiel 36 & 27, and I believe that’s what gave Nicodemus the epiphany.
But an epiphany wasn’t enough. It’s one thing to hear the truth – another to submit to that truth. So Nicodemus says in verse 9, “How can these things be?”
The Five Solas
Another way of saying this would be, “How could we get this so wrong for so long? How could everything we’re saying be wrong? Surely there must be some middle ground? I can’t believe that all of my religious fervour, all my hard work, all the self-denial, all the work I’ve put into showing people how to be a good person – counts for nothing?”
This is the problem a lot of people have with Christianity. Christians, atheists, and other religions all take issue. There is something deep inside of us that believes that we can save ourselves, impress God, and earn the right to go to heaven. There’s something deep inside the human spirit that refuses to believe that all our efforts, our good deeds, our self-sacrifice, our worldly success, our passion, our knowledge, our study, our “work for God”, our church attendance, our donations record, our all amounts to nothing in the end.
This was the great work of the reformers like Luther and Calvin who saw the state of the Christian Church – how corrupt and Pharisaical it had become – opened up their Bibles, saw the truth, and began to preach it. They came up with the Five Solas of the doctrine of salvation – the five “Alones” – that were in exact opposition to everything the Roman Catholic Church had been teaching and doing. Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria. The Salvation that God offers is by Scripture Alone, by Faith Alone, by Grace Alone, through Christ Alone, and to the Glory of God Alone.
The Salvation Jesus offers is described and understood only through the scriptures, the Bible. It doesn’t matter what “makes sense to you” or how you “feel”. God has outlined the way that people are saved from sin and death and the path of salvation is clearly outlined in scripture. Anything different than that is a lie. That salvation is by faith alone, not by any human endeavour. It is given from God by grace alone, not because we deserve any of it, but because, as Ephesians 2:4-5 says,
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…”
And who does scripture point to? Who must we have faith in? Through whom did this grace come? Through Jesus Christ alone. Acts 4:12,
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” [NIV]
And why did God do it? Why did God make us, let us fall, send prophets, write scripture, save some and condemn others? Why does humanity exist at all? For the glory of God alone. We read that last week in Ezekiel 36. The Reformers weren’t coming up with anything new – they weren’t creating a new church – they were “reforming” the church back to the way it was supposed to be.
Jesus says it this way to Nicodemus in John 3:10-15,
“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.’”
Jesus says, “You’ve read, memorized, and taught every verse in the Hebrew Bible and you don’t still understand God’s will. Your mind is trapped on earth and all the things you think you can do here to try to climb your way to heaven. Take it from me, the only person who has ever come down from heaven, that there is only one path. Remember the story (Num. 21:4-9) of when all the people spoke against God and Moses, and the Lord sent fiery serpents to poison everyone? No one was going to be able to good-deed their way out of being poisoned. They were cursed and already dead – it was just a matter of time before the poison finished them off. Do you remember how they saved themselves, Nicodemus? What did they do? Did they pray a bunch, sacrifice animals, give tithes? No. What was their path of salvation? God told Moses to make a bronze image of the serpent, set it on a pole, and raise it high in the air so that anyone who looks on it, the moment He sees it, would be saved from the poison that was killing them. That’s how it works. Except in this case, the poison is sin and I’m the One who is going to be raised up – on a cross – and everyone who looks to me will be saved – but not just in this life – they will be given eternal life. Do you understand what I’m saying, Nicodemus? You cannot save yourself by any means because you are poisoned with sin. All of your good deeds are corrupted by sin. Your thinking is corrupted by sin. Every convert you make is doubly corrupt because they are following you! There is only one way to be saved. You need that poison dealth with. You need to look to me.”
And Jesus continues explaining this to Nicodemus in verse 16, the most famous verse in the Bible.
“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.” (John 3:16-17)
The Pharisees were all about judgment and condemnation. They loved popping up behind people, catching them breaking one of their rules (not God’s, theirs) and then using their position of authority to judge and condemn them. Read through the gospels again and see how many times Jesus is walking around, teaching, hanging out with his disciples, and then a Pharisee just jumps out of nowhere and starts condemning Him. It’s quite ridiculous once you see it.
But when God did finally send His Son, the Messiah, the Son of Man, the one the whole Old Testament prophesied about, He didn’t act like a Pharisee. He didn’t come and zap all the bad people left and right, killing Israel’s enemies, blasting everyone who didn’t perfectly follow the law, and passing out health, wealth, and power to all the good and obedient Pharisees. He did exactly the opposite. God the Father sent Jesus the Son to save people, not condemn them. Jesus came with an extended hand, not a closed fist. God loved the world so much – Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, Romans, Pagans, Tax Collectors, Prostitutes, Adulterers, Drunkards, and yes, even Pharisees – that He was willing to raise up His perfect, beloved, Son on a cross for them.
And instead of the path of salvation being an impossible list of rules that no one could keep. He showed that the Law only had the power to condemn (Rom 8:4), but He – the only person who would ever keep the entire Law, perfectly – had the power to forgive and exchange Himself for sinners. Just as anyone who looked to the serpent was saved, so would any who look to Him. Just as the Israelites in Egypt believed that the blood sacrifice of the spotless lamb would allow death to Passover them, so the blood of Jesus would do the same. Just as anyone who believed that on the Day of Atonement, the bloody death of bulls and goats, and the sprinkling of their blood on the altar, mercy seat, and people, would atone and mane propitiation for – or make reparations for and appease God’s wrath for their own sin – so the blood of Jesus would do the same.
Jesus wasn’t there to bring final judgement. Not this time. He was coming to offer salvation to any who would believe in Him.
Nicodemus’s mind must have been reeling at this point because it went against everything he had ever believed. All the words of the prophets he’s memorized must have been racing through his mind with new understanding, new interpretation, knowing that Jesus was speaking the truth. His guilt and shame for being so wrong must have been immense. But there was that human side that made him want to refuse Jesus’ words, refuse to believe he wasn’t at least partly responsible for his own salvation.
And Jesus doubles-down in verse 18,
“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.”
Zero wiggle room. Salvation comes by the Word of God alone, through faith in Jesus alone, by the grace of God alone, through the Son of God alone, and for the glory of God alone. No other options.
Turn with me to John 14, but keep your thumb in John 3. Jesus is in the upper room preparing his disciples for what is going to happen that night. He will be leaving them because he’s about to be betrayed, falsely accused, condemned, and murdered. They’re obviously freaking out and Jesus says, “‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:1–7)
I’m the way, Thomas. You can’t get there unless I take you there. You can’t know truth unless I tell it to you. You can’t have life unless I give it to you. No one can come before God, no one can be saved unless I am the one who brings them.”
That’s what Jesus was telling Nicodemus too.
Turn back to John 3. The natural question that comes to most Christians at this point, I think, is “Why would anyone reject this message?” It’s beautiful, simple, and generous. People everywhere struggle with guilt, shame, and fear. They want to be right with God and others. They want to know forgiveness and hope. They look at their lives and know that this isn’t all there is, that their habits are ruining them, and all the stuff they are amassing is empty. All the things they’ve tried to do to kill the pain, ignore the shame, and distract from the emptiness and hopelessness they feel, isn’t working.
Then they hear the gospel. You’d think that it would come as a welcome relief to them! Hope, help, forgiveness – all for free because Jesus paid the cost. Connection to God, the gift of the Holy Spirit, a cleansed soul, and the knowledge that no matter what happens in this world, it will work out for our good and God’s glory – and that the sufferings of this blip of a life will be nothing compared to the glory that is coming (Rom 8:18). Seems pretty, “No duh.” to me.
Why would anyone reject this? Why would Nicodemus hem and haw? Why would the Pharisees condemn Jesus for this message and ultimately betray and murder Him? Why would generations of Christians after be martyred for spreading a message of amazing grace, free salvation, eternal hope, and a renewed spirit, for anyone who would believe in Jesus alone? Why, if Christians have some of the greatest philosophers, scientists, apologists, writers, thinkers, and agents of mercy of all time and in the whole world, would people reject what we have to say with such vehemence?
Jesus answers that question in verses 19-21,
“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.”
The reason is that they love their sin and themselves. They prefer darkness. God wants to expose their sin to the light, expose their deeds, expose their thoughts, and let them see how evil they are. But they want to stay in the dark because they don’t want to be exposed. Accepting Jesus’ message means admitting and exposing sin. It means saying, “I’m wrong. I’m a sinner. I’m an addict. I’m a gossip. I’m controlling. I use people. I’m lazy. I’m critical. I’m superstitious. I want glory for myself and don’t want to share. I have hate in my heart that I don’t want to let go of. I don’t want to submit to authority. I love money more than people. I want power. I want to hurt people. I want to use people for my own gratification. I want to steal things because I think I deserve them. I want to do what I want, when I want, and be the ultimate arbiter of what is good and right for me and everyone else. I don’t want God, I want to be God.”
To come to Jesus means coming to the light and having everything exposed. That’s why they won’t come.
Consider your own sins for a moment. Where and when do you do them? Out in the open? Lights on? In front of people? Or do you find a corner, turn off the lights, and get alone?
When you’re about to gossip or slander, do you speak in a loud voice for all to hear, or do you find a corner and whisper? When you want to control and manipulate someone, do you do it in front of their friends, family, and church – or do you do it alone, through e-mail, and tell them to keep secrets? Where do you keep the things you sin with; on a shelf for all to see, or tucked away in a dark place? Where have you gotten in the most trouble, and have had the most problems – with things that people did and said in the open for all to see and hear or the ones that happened during secret meetings, private messages, dark places, and back-room encounters? Sin hates the light, because the light causes it to wither and die.
If you are doing things in the darkness right now, what you are doing is not only dangerous but foolish. Your deeds are only secret from some. God knows, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the news lately, you will eventually be found out.
Isaiah 29:15 says,
“Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the Lord, who do their work in darkness and think, ‘Who sees us? Who will know?’”
In Luke 12:1-3 Jesus says,
“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” (also Luke 8:17)
I’m telling you the truth.
Turn with me to Ephesians 5 and listen to what the Apostle Paul says,
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:1–17)
I’ll leave the rest of the passage for you to read on your own time.
But let this be our conclusion today. Jesus is inviting you to the light but your sin loves darkness. I beg you to expose all your dark things to the light. James 5:16 says to
“confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
Do you want healing in your soul, your marriage, your family, your church? Start confessing your sins to one another.
Now, expect resistance. Satan really hates it when Christians do this. He’s going to give you every excuse in the world. “Now’s not a good time.” “They won’t be able to handle it.” “It’s too risky. I might lose my friend, marriage, job, position.”
Something will come to mind, maybe even now, and automatically you’ll hear, “It’s not that big of a deal. You don’t need to confess that one. It’s between you and God.” That’s Satan. Do you want to be free of that sin? Do you want salvation? Do you want healing?
“…Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
To whom? First, to Jesus. Use your voice, out-loud, and confess that sin, out-loud, to God and ask for forgiveness in Jesus’ name. God is the one you’ve offended most and who you need to deal with first.
Then, confess the one you sinned against. Confess to the people you affected. Confess to the ones who felt the ripple effects. Confess your sin to your Christian friend. Then tell your mentor, deacon, elder, and pastor. Drag that sin, kicking and screaming, into the light and keep blasting more and more light on it until it is shrivelled and dead. That’s the only way to be free.
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.