**Sorry, no audio this week due to technical issues (of me not changing the batteries in the mic…🙄)**
Let’s turn back to our passage from last week, John 5:1–18.
“After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’
This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”
Last week, I began with the reminder to try to put ourselves into the passages we are reading, especially with those who Jesus interacts with, because if we are careful and willing, we will see ourselves reflected there. But the scriptures aren’t about us… they’re about Jesus. So in the forefront of our mind must always be not just “What is this saying about me?” But more importantly, “What is this saying about Jesus?”
Quick Review of the Structure of John
Remember, that’s John’s intention when writing this gospel – to paint a portrait of who Jesus is through story, symbolism, contrast, and reflection.
If we go back that that first graphic we looked at when starting this series, you’ll remember that John uses a lot of 7s in his book. In chapter 1, the introduction to the book, as Jesus gathers His first followers we see seven different titles for Him: “Lamb of God”, “Son of God”, “Rabbi”, etc. Then, in the first half of the gospel we see seven miracles, or “signs”, that point to important revelations of who Jesus is and designate the author’s divisions of thought: water into wine, healing the centurion’s son, healing a paralyzed man, feeding the 5000, healing a man blind from birth, and raising Lazarus from the dead. And peppered throughout the whole book are two sets of seven “I am” statements from Jesus, where He either make a claim about Himself, or simply uses the divine name that God gave to Moses, YHWH, as His own name. As I said before, there’s a lot of intricate story weaving in this book.
In the first four chapters (our chapters, not John’s), which we’ve already covered, we see Jesus interacting with five different types of people: a small gathering of Jewish people at a wedding, a larger gathering of people and Jewish leaders at the Temple, a one-on-one talk with a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, a one-on-one talk with a Samaritan woman at a well, and then Jesus talks to all of them while talking to a gentile, Roman centurion, about healings and signs.
In each of these interactions, Jesus shows something important about Himself. At the wedding, Jesus is inaugurating His Kingdom, kicking off His earthly ministry with a celebration, generosity, and all the symbolism that comes along with wine (which we talked about already). At the temple Jesus reveals that He is the true “temple of God” where heaven and earth meet, and declares Himself to be the Son of God, Messiah, and King. When meeting with the Rabbi in the middle of the night, He declares that He is the One sent by God to be a sacrifice for sin, and anyone who believes in Him must give up their religious hypocrisy and be born again with a new heart, through faith in Him alone. And then, all of those revelations come crashing together as he tells the most unlikely person, a sinful, socially rejected, Samaritan woman, that He is the Living Water, the Source of Eternal Life, the Perfect Rabbi, the Messiah and Christ – and she runs into town sharing Jesus claims with the other Samaritans and many are saved.
Last week, we moved into another sort of division where John shows us another sign, with more subdivisions. The sign, the miracle that designates the change in the story is the healing of the lame man at the Sheep Gate pool, but the subdivisions this time aren’t about connecting with people groups, but interacting with the important Jewish celebrations and religious feasts. And now, instead of Jesus going from place to place being accepted and followed – like the first four interactions were all about – now we see a whole bunch of rejection. The same groups that accepted him during the first section of the book all start to turn away until everyone is arguing about Jesus, the Jewish leaders do everything in their power to arrest, stone, and kill Jesus, and the only people left following Him are the twelve disciples. In fact, the opposition gets so fierce that right before the final miracle of the seven, the raising of Lazarus, as Jesus is about to walk back into Judea, the Apostle Thomas is so convinced their walking into an antagonistic hornet’s nest, says to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (11:16) And the story of Lazarus leads directly into the second half of the book, all about Passion Week, the last seven days before Jesus was crucified.
Jesus, the Sabbath, and the Pharisees
So, as we turn back to the story we are looking at today, the healing of the man at the Sheep Gate Pool, we have to ask ourselves, “What does this say – what are we meant to see – what is the sign pointing to – about Jesus?” and “What is this saying to us?”
Last week we covered the miracle. Jesus walks into the Sheep Gate, sees a superstitious, hopeless, old man who has been an invalid for thirty-eight years, heals Him, and says in verse 8, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” (5:8) That’s critically important. Verse 9 says, “And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.”
The next line reveals what this story is all about. Not only is the miracle a chapter division, but John here reveals that his subdivision theme is changing too. We’ve already been introduced to “the Jews” (which in John always means the “Jewish Ruling Class”), but now we see an other critical piece of information that leaps off the page. “Now that day was the Sabbath.”
That would be an “oooooohhhh…” moment for anyone reading. The Sabbath was a pretty famous Jewish peculiarity. No other people in the world took a whole day off – including their servants and slaves – to stop working, selling, cooking, farming… just to worship and rest. Everyone else had a 7 day work week. But for the Jews, everything stopped on Friday night and didn’t start again until the appearance of at least three stars in the sky on Saturday night.
If you recall the story of Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, you’ll remember in Chapter 13, after the walls and gates had been rebuilt, when the Sabbath came around, Nehemiah commanded that all the gates of the city be shut and locked until after the Sabbath. All the merchants and sellers from all over the land came up to the doors, and for the first time in decades, couldn’t get through. Let me read that portion to you, because it’s great:
“As soon as it began to grow dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath. And I stationed some of my servants at the gates, that no load might be brought in on the Sabbath day. Then the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice. But I warned them and said to them, ‘Why do you lodge outside the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you.’ From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath. Then I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the Sabbath day holy.” (Nehemiah 13:19–22)
If you think that’s serious, then fast-forward a few hundred years to the birth of an extremist group called the “Pharisees”, or “the separatists”, the “separated ones”. Essentially the “we’re better than everyone else and God love sus more” group.
By the time of Jesus there were three different groups that were in charge of the Jewish people. John summarizes them by just calling them “the Jews”, but he’s referring to the Jewish Ruling class: the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes. Essentially these groups were the lawmakers, police, and lawyers of the time, and therefore pretty much everything in Jewish society – except for what their Roman government dictated – ran through them.
And this group took it upon themselves to decide not only that everyone had to keep the Sabbath or get in trouble – but exactly how the Sabbath was to be kept. So they made and enforced a whole bunch of extra laws that make sure no one would ever break the Sabbath again. No planting, or plowing, or reaping, or sorting, or chopping vegetables, or mixing anything together, or cooking, or laundry, or tying knots, or untying knots, or hunting, or smoothing, or chopping, or writing, or erasing, or making things, no starting a fire, or putting out a fire even if your house is going to burn down, and definitely no carrying things outside – or “transferring anything between domains”, and especially not “transferring anything through a public thoroughfare”. Well, technically, if you absolutely had to move something, you were allowed to move it 4 cubits (or 6 feet).
Remember, none of this was in the Old Testament Law, it was all invented by the Pharisees as a way to make sure everyone “kept the Sabbath”. God had created a day for His people where they could rest, worship, enjoy each other… where they weren’t expected to produce anything, but just had to remember that God was their provider, God had everything under control, and the whole point of existence wasn’t to do work, make money, produce things… but to connect with God and be with the people you care about.
But the Pharisees had taken the God-given gift of the Sabbath and turned it into a huge burden. Now people dreaded the Sabbath because they couldn’t do anything. It wasn’t enjoyable. Now, around every corner was a Pharisee watching to see if you’d pick anything up, make yourself a snack, write a note, smooth out a wrinkle, or – you know – prevent your house from burning down. It was awful. But the Pharisees had a huge amount of power. If you broke their laws, you could be kicked out of the synagogue, shunned by your community, arrested, beaten, even threatened with death.
That’s what makes verses 8-9 such a critical part of the story. Jesus commands the man to break the Pharisees Sabbath rules, and then sends him to walk through a public thoroughfare with his bed under his arm. You can imagine how that would be received.
Well, as per usual, there’s a Pharisee lurking around somewhere nearby and the man takes, probably, like 20 steps, and some Jewish Officials jump out and say, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” (5:10)
The man, quickly dodges the accusation and deflects the blame, “Hey, it wasn’t my idea, someone came up to me after being a hopeless invalid for thirty-eight years and healed me. Then he said, ‘take up your bed, and walk’. I wasn’t about to argue with a guy that powerful!”
The Jewish Official’s eyes get all squinty and aggressive, ready to come down like a sack of hammers on that guy, ask – “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”
Pause there for a second and notice that question. Do you see anything missing? The miracle, right? It wasn’t, “Show us the one who had the power to heal you from decades of hopeless pain and misery… we’re very interested in a person like that…”. No, all they could think about was “Someone told you to break our rules!? How dare they! We need to get this guy! Arrest Him! Make an example out of Him! He’s a lawbreaker, sinner, and he’s spreading His evil among these poor, unfortunate, sick people! He’s making them break the Sabbath!” How crazy is it that a guy who had been lying around for almost 40 years, finally gets up and walks, and is told to lie right back down by the most religious, supposedly godly people in town?
Now, Jesus hadn’t told the man who He was and had already left, so there was nothing for these guys to go on, but then Jesus does something really interesting. He finds the man he healed to introduce Himself properly. “Hi, I’m Jesus, the guy who healed you. I have already demonstrated that I have divine power, and you have already demonstrated faith and obedience toward me. Look at yourself! You are well! I healed you. But I have a further message for you. I didn’t simply heal you so you can go back to a sinful life. I, your new master, the source of your new hope and new life, want more for you. I not only want you free from worldly misery, but from the misery of sin. So ‘sin nor more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’” The implication there is that the man’s condition may have been a result of his own foolishness and sin getting him into trouble.
To modernize it, imagine a semi-religious man, goes to church Christmas and Easter, is a kind of ok guy. One day he drives drunk, gets into an accident, and wrecks himself. Snaps his spine and ends up in a wheelchair. He’s in that chair for almost 40 years. Over that time everyone in his life has abandoned him, he’s tried every kind of remedy, spent all his money on treatments and pills, and now spends all day watching tv, and decides to put his hope into one of those health-and-wealth, false gospel, televangelists. He sends his last few dollars, gets kicked out of his apartment, and ends up in some kind of hostel. Jesus comes in, asks if He wants to be well, heals him, and then tells him, “Ok, I’ve healed your body, but that’s not your real problem is it? Your real problem is guilt, shame, fear, anger, betrayal, and selfishness that led you into sin, that caused this to happen, and has driven you into more and more misery, right? Your problem is sin. Now, I’ve healed you. But, I didn’t heal you so you can go back to drinking and foolishness – go live rightly, godly, as a follower of mine. Change your heart, repent of sin, put your hope in me, and live my way – or the misery that will come to you will make these last forty years look like a picnic – because you will end up in Hell. Now, go, live as a Christian.”
What is this man’s response? Well, as soon as He obeys Jesus, by picking up his mat and walking, He immediately gets into trouble. Now, I figure one of two things is happening here. Either he’s obeying Jesus by making sure He submits to the Jewish Ruling Authorities and does what he’s told – or he’s slipped back into his former pattern of self-centredness, blaming others for his problems (like he did at the pool), and immediately throwing Jesus under the bus.
We don’t know. But the application is the same here. People’s response to Jesus’ grace is often surprising. Some people are thankful, others aren’t. Some respond with obedience, others don’t. Some meet Jesus and follow Him, others just go back to their old lives. It’s amazing that Jesus’ grace doesn’t come with strings – instead it comes with an invitation.
That’s the man, but let’s get back to the Jewish Rulers. Look at what’s going on here, because it’s really ironic. A man who has been unable to move, or work, or mix, or tie or untie anything, who has probably been technically keeping the Sabbath perfectly for 40 years because He was unable to move, meets Jesus, the rightful King of the Jews, the one who gave the law to Moses, the perfect Rabbi, the Messiah, the true temple of God, the source of Eternal life – and completely heals this guy and sends him out on a mission. Did Jesus do anything wrong? No. Did He have the right to tell that man to “take up his bed and walk”? Absolutely! Did Jesus know how the Sabbath works? Yes, it was His idea in the first place.
But Jesus sets up this confrontation on purpose so that He can reveal something about Himself to all these people, especially the Pharisees. Look at the titles of the next sections and you’ll see what. In the ESV they are, “Jesus is Equal with God” and “The Authority of the Son”.
He took that man from invalid to missionary in an instant. Then He offered to save the man’s soul. And then, after demonstrating His power, and declaring His authority, He confronts the Jewish leaders with a huge speech about who He really is: Look down to verse 39-40, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
Jesus set up a confrontation where He said, in no uncertain terms, that He is the Lawgiver, the Perfect interpreter, the Son of God, and equal to God Himself. That He alone has the right to pass judgment and decide who lives and dies – not them! He is the perfect interpreter of God’s will – not them! That He is the real Jewish Ruler – not them. And they should be bowing down and obeying Him, not everyone bowing down and obeying them.
He says, “You guys think you know so much about the Bible – but God Himself is standing in front of you and you can’t even see it. Instead you reject and persecute me.” And he gives them, in much more detail, the same message He gave the man he healed, “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”
Again, Jesus gives grace. He doesn’t judge and condemn them immediately but gives them the truth and then some time to accept it. And again, that grace is presented with an invitation – this time to the Pharisees. “Repent, submit, be healed, or be damned.” Needless to say, that didn’t go over too well.
Let’s leave it there this week, but draw out a couple applications.
The first application is that Jesus is gracious and kind, giving favour to everyone on earth. Matthew 5:45 says, “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” But that miracle, that grace, comes with an invitation and a warning: Deal with your sin before the worst possible thing happens to you. The first application is a reminder that Hell is real and Jesus’ invitation is urgent. If you aren’t a Christian today, then you must realize that you are living on borrowed time, that every moment you’ve been alive has been an act of undeserved grace, and that it can end at any time. You are alive today because Jesus keeps you alive and is giving you time to repent, deal with your sin, and turn to Him as your Lord. You don’t know when that grace will end, so you must take your spiritual reality, the condition and destination of your soul, seriously.
The second application is that many of us make the same mistake as the Pharisees do. Some of us, because we’re stuck in our own ways, rules, religion, mindset, tradition, or whatever, look at someone who is obeying Jesus, and because they’re not doing things our way, not following our path, not doing things the way they’re supposed to be done, we judge, condemn, and persecute that person.
Some of you here have looked at God’s perfect will, His design and plan for someone else’s life, and you have judged it as wrong. You condemned that person, and therefore condemned God. When confronted with your reasoning for why you disliked, judged, attacked and reviled that person, you talked about your feelings and then twisted God’s word to fit your conclusion – and in doing so, condemned God’s will, harmed a follower of God, and did Satan’s work for him. And just like the Pharisees, you need to repent and ask forgiveness of God and the person you wrongly judged.
And the third application, which leads from the previous, is that Jesus is Lord, Jesus is God, and Jesus is the one who gets to interpret scripture – not us. In other words, you cannot expect to come away from a Bible study, class, or personal bible-reading time, with the right interpretation and application of scripture without having first repented of sin, humbled yourself before Jesus, invited the Holy Spirit to show you the truth, and then submitting your interpretation to the counsel of godly Christian elders, teachers and mentors.
Reading the bible alone, in a vacuum, prayerlessly and/or without asking a diversity of more mature, trained believers to help you, is spiritually foolish and dangerous. You will be led astray by your feelings, and turn into either a judgmental, hyper-religious Pharisee, or into a false teacher who accepts sin and error, leading others – and encouraging others – towards sin, idolatry, and licentiousness.
“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.
A couple weeks ago we started a series going through the final week of Jesus life His resurrection on Easter Sunday. We’ve already covered the events of Palm Sunday and Monday where we saw the Triumphal Entry, the Cursing of the Fig Tree and The Cleansing of the Temple. Today we will talk about what happened an even more eventful day – Tuesday.
Many people call the this time in Christ’s life “Passion Week”. It is so named because of the passion Christ showed during His march toward the cross to pay for the sins of His people. It could be argued that it was during Passion Week that Jesus preached the most stirring, emotional, difficult, and controversial teachings of His entire ministry. But He wasn’t the only one showing passion – so were His enemies.
I’m a child of the 80s and 90s, so the events of Tuesday remind me of when I used to watch the Royal Rumble during WrestleMania as a kid. For the uninitiated, the Royal Rumble is when they take a whole bunch of very large men, dressed in tights and other forms of weird clothing (and who call themselves “wrestlers”), stick them in one ring and let them pretend to beat the tar out of one another until one man remains. The rules were that two men would start in the ring and then every couple of minutes they send in wrestler after wrestler, 28 more, until one man stands victorious.
That’s what Tuesday is to Jesus. He’s taking on all comers. We read about group after group lining up to try to trick, trap and publically scandalize Jesus through all sorts of devious questions. But when the day comes to an end, He’s the only one standing.
Mark 11:20-13:37 give us the events of events of Tuesday, but I would like to park on the section where Jesus is confronted in the Temple, starting in verse 27. Before we dig into any application, I want to look at the attacks that come against Jesus, and who from:
“And they came again to Jerusalem. [that is, Jesus, His Disciples, and probably a growing group of followers] And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him…”
What we see here is the group called “The Sanhedrin”, which was the Jewish executive, legislative and judicial council. It consists of 70 members, plus the High Priest. Now, this wasn’t the entire Sanhedrin, but probably a delegation sent from it. They met every day (except on Festivals and the Sabbath) and had a lot of power in Jerusalem. They were the ones to whom all questions of the Mosaic law were finally put.
To understand what’s going on here, picture Jesus walking into church only to find a delegation of lawyers, judges and politicians, sent from the Supreme Court of Canada, standing in his way. Remember, Jesus had just caused a major scene the day before by throwing out the merchants and money changers from the day before. This was a group of powerful, angry men who were sent to question Jesus regarding His actions.
The First Volley
We already know from verse 18 that this group was planning on killing Jesus, but they couldn’t figure out how to do it since they were afraid that the crowds would turn on them if they did. Jesus was still immensely popular. They needed to turn the crowds against Him before they could eliminate Him.
“…and they said to him, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?’” (vs 28)
Jesus has only taken a few steps into the Temple, surrounded by a group of disciples that is growing every minute, when these men stop Him and ask Him for His credentials. There’s almost no doubt that after Jesus’ actions of the day before, they had convened a council to try to figure out what to do with Him, and they had come up with a plan: publically discredit Him so most of the crowds would stop following Him, capture him during the night when no one was watching, and then trump up some charges against Him – a plan that eventually succeeds, with Judas’ help.
Their first attempt was a well-laid trap. They wanted Jesus either to publically admit that He believed He was the Messiah, the Son of God, and that His authority came straight from God so they could accuse Him of blasphemy which was punished by death – or say that everything was by His own authority so they could accuse Him of being a megalomaniacal fanatic.
But Jesus knows their hearts. He knows they couldn’t care less about what authority Jesus speaks and performs miracles by and so He turned the question back on them to expose their cowardice. Verse 29:
“Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.’ And they discussed it with one another, saying, ‘If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?’—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’” (vs 29-33)
He reveals their motives and weakness to everyone around, and then Jesus goes even farther. Keep in mind that they aren’t in a private place with only 12 disciples and the delegation from the Sanhedrin. They are surrounded by a large, and ever growing, crowd. Jesus was already very popular, and now he’s in a Title-Fight with some of the most educated, influential and powerful people in their whole culture.
Remember high-school when kids would start to pick on one another, and then one would push the other? It wasn’t too long until the whole school found out and came running. Imagine Jesus vs The Sanhedrin. That would draw a crowd.
The Parable of the Tenants
“And he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” (12:1-6)
It’s almost impossible for the crowds and the delegation to miss the point of this story — this is a parable of judgement. As soon as Jesus says the word “vineyard” they know that Jesus is talking about all of Israel, because it was a well-known metaphor in the Old Testament.
Jesus uses this story to not only to illustrate the tension between Him and the leaders of Israel, but to break it wide open. This story is a condemnation of all of them, and a prophecy of what would happen in only days.
The Landlord who planted and owns the vineyard is God – and it’s a good one. It is protected by a stone wall, built by the owner himself. He cultivated it and made it fruitful enough to need a winepress. He set up a tower as a lookout for trouble and a shelter for those who gathered the grapes. The owner of the land knows what He’s doing, and has created a great vineyard.
He steps aside and leases it to some tenants to run for a time. He’ll be back, but until then He wants them to care for and grow His vineyard – which should be pretty easy since He’s already done all the hard work. All they have to do is keep it up.
And they do. They sit back and enjoy the fruits of the owners labour. Sure, they had to pull some weeds, but it was the owner’s wisdom and strength that made it grow so well.
And when all the grapes were ready to be picked, and the owner comes back to collect some, the tenants won’t give it up. Those who remember the story of the cursing of the fig tree know what the fruit is meant to represent here: worship and obedience.
They want the grapes. All of them. The tenants, who here represent the Sanhedrin and other Jewish religious rulers, won’t give them up. They want the worship that is due to God. They want the praise. They want the power. They want the glory. They want to be obeyed. They want to have what God is rightfully due – the worship of His people.
God sent His angels, prophets, kings, judges, to tell them to give up what is only for Him, but they won’t have it. Finally God sends the Messiah, the very Word, the voice of God, the face of God. The One whom Hebrews (1:3) calls “…His Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” And soon, they would reject and kill Him.
Jesus looks them in the eye and knows their heart. He looks at the leaders of Israel and knows what they have been plotting. He says in verse 7:
“But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?’” (vs 7-10)
The Sanhedrin, the elders, teachers of the Law, Pharisees, Sadducees, and the entire crowd catches on. Jesus says that “the vineyard”, which represents all the promises God made to Israel, will be taken from them and given to non-Jewish people. He will come and wipe out the Temple, the Sacrifices, and the Old Laws, and give the entire blessing “to others”.
Why? Because they rejected Him. He offered salvation – a sharing of the fruit – if they would humble themselves. But they saw Jesus as a stone that was in their way, that needed to be removed so they could build what they wanted to build. Jesus said, “No, I’m not in your way… I’m the cornerstone… and unless you build on me, everything you build will fall apart.”
If you read the accounts in Matthew and Luke you can read even more parables that Jesus told them, where He speaks of God as an enraged King who will dispatch His troops to destroy the leaders of Israel and invite gentiles into His wedding feast. Over and over Jesus issues warnings to the people and the Jewish leaders that they are on the edge of hell, and warns them against rejecting God’s plan of salvation through God’s chosen agent – Him.
See their reaction:
“And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.” (vs 12)
Exasperated and defeated, they walk away – but they’re not done. Their cronies are going to spend the rest of Tuesday playing the same hand over and over, trying to discredit Jesus and make him trip over his words. Just like in the parable, they are going to throw fist after fist, stone after stone, trying to get Jesus out of their way so they can take over the vineyard – but it’s not going to work.
Attack after Attack
“And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk.” (vs 13)
Next they send in the B-team of wealthy businessmen try to discredit him – the movers and shakers of the community. They thought they had come up with a great trap about paying taxes to Rome, where they thought they could get Jesus arrested as a traitor for saying not to pay taxes, or rejected by the people as a Roman sell-out by saying you have to support Rome. But it doesn’t work and they scurry away defeated.
Next they throw out a Hail-Mary by sending in the least credible of their ranks – the wealthy, aristocratic, smart-mouthed, materialist-minded politicians: “And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question…”. (vs 18) But their question, which was about who would be married to whom after the resurrection, is so ridiculous, and so poorly framed, and so unbiblical, that Jesus easily points out to everyone that they knew “neither the Scriptures nor the power of God”. (vs 24)
Finally, we see one man, a scribe, which we would call a Lawyer, who had been impressed with Jesus’ answers, come up and asked: “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (vs 28) Jesus answers Him, and they have a discussion about the importance of loving God and loving our neighbours, and it goes well, but this man still lacked something. He knew the right answers, was an expert in the scriptures, and understood God desired not only obedience but love – but had not yet put His faith in Jesus. “And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’” (vs 34)
I think Jesus spoke tenderly to him, rather than with the intensity He had been showing defending Himself to the other groups. This lawyer was almost there, but had yet to take the step of faith in Jesus that would lead Him to the Kingdom. And Jesus was pleased with Him, but wanted Him to know that He wasn’t there yet.
Mark says at the end of verse 34: “And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.”
“Ding-ding! Knockout! Presenting the undisputed, heavyweight champion of the woooorld!” Delegations from every Jewish leadership group had come to Jesus with some incredibly tough questions, and He faced them all down. Their efforts had been fruitless and they had been the ones who ended up looking foolish. Their hatred grew and they would have to come up with a revised plan for how to kill Jesus.
And that plan would be handed them on a silver platter in only a couple of days as one of Jesus’ own followers, who had had enough, came to them to sell Him out.
When I think of what applications we can pull from what was going on in Jesus’ life on this Tuesday, I can see two important things for us to remember:
First, Jesus knows what it’s like to be under attack from all sides. Remembering that helps us in our prayer life.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)
The people and families in our little church are under attack these days – and from many different angels. Jesus was challenged about all sorts of matters from all sorts of people, so we are also being challenged. Some are struggling with physical temptations to sin with their bodies. Others are being attacked by their family and friends. Some are under spiritual oppression that is trying to drive them into a dark place. Some are feeling it financially. Other are beset with fears of loss, confusion over the future, anxiety over decisions, or the pressure to be perfect.
The first application I see here is to remember that Jesus knows what it’s like to be hit on all sides. He was tired, had only ever done good and told the truth – but they were still attacking Him. Why? Because He was Son of the rightful owner of the vineyard. Just like you are.
If you’re a follower of Jesus, then you are going to be under attack. You are a son or daughter of the king, and you are hated by His enemies. In His final meal with the disciples before He is arrested and crucified, Jesus says to them,
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
And that’s the second thing to remember. No matter what came at Him, Jesus overcame all of His adversaries. Even in the end when they crucified Him, He came back from the dead. There was no temptation, no clever trick that, no theological or religious question that he couldn’t perfectly answer.
The message of the world is “Try harder, work more, be better, and you will over come the world.” The message of Jesus is, “I have already overcome them all. Trust me. Listen to Me. Follow my Words. Those who are in my Kingdom are already victorious.”
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose…. If God is for us, who can be against us?…we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:28, 31, 37)
That requires us to depend on Jesus. To put down our own wisdom and strength and pick up His. He is stronger, wiser, kinder, more loving, and more helpful than anything else we can turn to. Not only does He know exactly what you’re going through, but He’s been through it Himself, and He knows the way out — and He’s willing to share it with you, if you’d only submit yourself to His Lordship and listen. He will forgive you because He loves you. He will guide you because He is good.
To the scribe He said, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” because he had knowledge but had not exercised faith. I implore you to allow your relationship with Jesus to take that eighteen-inch journey from your head to your heart and to make Him your true Lord and Saviour – in all areas of your life. Go to Him with everything.