Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Greatest Sentence Ever Written (John 3:16)

In the history of human language, there have been some amazing words spoken and written. When we think of great sentences, we may think of someone like the ever quotable Winston Churchill who said during the Battle of Britain, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” We remember John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address in which he said the famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetorical brilliance could be heard as he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” We may look to the famous words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” And then we could look at literary giants like Shakespeare, Milton, or Tennyson, and almost pick lines at random that would rival any other written words in history. But the words of R. A. Torrey seem to be true, as he said, “All the greatest sentences are in … one Book. The Bible has a way of putting more in a single sentence than other writers can put in a whole book.”[1]

If we restrict our search for the greatest sentence ever written to the Bible alone, our work would still be cut out for us. There are over 31,000 verses in the Old and New Testaments, and many of them consist of multiple sentences. If you were to ask folks to name their favorite portion of Scripture, you would likely get several different answers. For the great Reformer Martin Luther, it was Romans 1:17, “The righteous shall live by faith.” For John Newton, the former slave trader who wrote the great hymn “Amazing Grace” following his conversion, it was Romans 5:20, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”[2] But I suppose that if you could poll the whole world, the vast majority of people would say that the greatest sentence in the Bible, perhaps the greatest sentence ever written, is John 3:16: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For many, this was the first verse of Scripture we ever memorized. For some, it is the last words whispered before death. For others, it was this verse that first opened their eyes to the truth of the Gospel.

You might have learned it from your parents, your pastor, your Sunday School teacher. I was first introduced to John 3:16 by Rollen Stewart when I was a young boy. Rollen Stewart used to attend every major sporting event in America wearing a rainbow colored wig and carrying a sign that said, simply, “John 3:16.” I recall asking someone, “What does that mean?” And the response was, “I don’t know but I guess it is in the Bible.” And I searched for a Bible and looked it up and read it. It was ten years or more until the truth of it sank into my heart. For those who are too young to remember Rollen Stewart and his rainbow wig, John 3:16 has had another prominent spokesman in recent years. When Tim Tebow took to the field for the 2009 NCAA National Championship game, he had “John 3:16” inscribed on his eye-black strips. In the 24 hours following that game, “John 3:16” accounted for 94 million Google searches. No matter how we first learned of John 3:16, there are a vast number of people on the planet today who would agree that this is the greatest sentence ever written. I believe this is so because it expresses the greatest fact that the world could ever know; it describes the greatest gift that has ever been given; and it offers the greatest choice a person could ever make. So let’s consider these ideas as we examine this single verse carefully.

I. John 3:16 is the greatest sentence ever written because it expresses the greatest fact the world could ever know. (God so loved the world)

When I was young, I remember a popular country song by Johnny Lee called “Lookin’ for Love in All the Wrong Places.” Some of us have found ourselves looking for love in all the wrong places, and we’ve seen countless others make shipwreck of their lives looking for love in the wrong places. God created us to need love, but not just any kind of love. He created us to know His perfect and infinite love for us. Until we experience this kind of love, we have, as it were, an enormous hole in our lives that we try to fill with all sorts of substitutes. We chase after relationships; we take up behaviors that become habits, and then become addictions; we go to outlandish lengths to be noticed and appreciated by others. And when these fail to satisfy us, we go even further and faster in the wrong direction, or else we become paralyzed by despair. But all the while, ultimate satisfaction lies within reach. If we could only grasp the greatest fact that we could ever know: God loves us. God, the greatest, the most holy and perfect being, the one who created us and knows us more intimately, inside and out, than anyone else, has made us the objects of His perfect and infinite love.

We know that we are included in the scope of His love, because He loves the world. He has not restricted His love to a specific ethnic group, contrary to the assumptions of ancient Israel. He has not restricted His love to only those who are lovely or who deserve to receive His love. When the Bible speaks of “the world,” using the Greek word kosmos, it can refer to the entire created realm; but in most contexts, the connotation is the world as it now exists, corrupted by human sinfulness. Thus, D. A. Carson says, “God’s love is to be admired not because the world is so big and includes so many people, but because the world is so bad.”[3] So, you do not have to do anything or be anyone or anything other than yourself to be loved by God. He loves you as you are, as much as He loves anyone else in the world, in spite of how unlovable we are. He loves us because it is in His nature to love, not because it is in our nature to be loved. First John 4:8 says that God is love. Now this does not mean that love is His only or His primary attribute, and we want to stay away from the error of assuming that this means that “love” is in itself some kind of  god. But it does mean that God loves us because it is in His divine nature to do so, even when we are least deserving of His love. Our sin has affected and corrupted our nature. It has not affected His nature. He is love, and He loves us in spite of our sin.

This is like no other kind of love than we can experience. Several Greek words are commonly translated as “love” in English. One is the word phileo, which is a kind of fondness that exists among friends. Another is the word eros, which is a kind of romantic love. Another is the word storge, which describes the kind of affection one knows in a family. These are all what we might call “natural loves,” something that people can experience on their own apart from God. But with these kinds of love, there are conditions (strings attached), and these loves can be violated, forfeited, or lost by any number of factors. Our own sin, or the sin of the one we love, can ruin these loves. Death can rob us of it. Another love can enter in and rival it by taking precedence over it. These loves are often cherished for selfish reasons – we cling to them because they bring good benefits with them, or they make us feel good. They reward us, and when they no longer reward us, we feel the desire to cast them aside. But none of these words is the one used here in John 3:16.

Jesus says here that the love God has for the world is agape love. This is a higher love. It is not selfish – there is really nothing in it for the lover. It does not necessarily reward the lover or pay him back in any way. It is sacrificial – the agape lover is always giving, even when nothing is received in return. And it is unconditional. Nothing can be said or done to make the agape lover cease loving in this way. And this is God’s love for you. You cannot be good enough to make Him love you more, and you cannot be bad enough for Him to love you any less. You need not fear that you will wake up tomorrow to discover that He no longer loves you in this way. His love for you is bound up in His nature, and the only way it could change is if He changed. And He is the eternally unchanging God. All of our efforts to find love and be loved by other people fall short of the glory of being the recipient of this kind of love. It is a supernatural love. It can only come from God. And once we receive it from God, we are able to love others, and indeed, love Him in return, with the same kind of love. But until we know His perfect, selfless, sacrificial, unconditional agape love, we are all looking for love in all the wrong places. We are trying to be ultimately satisfied with those loves which will only perpetually disappoint. But Jesus says here that we are loved with the most perfect kind of love already – the love of God. And that is the greatest fact the world could ever know. That’s one reason why John 3:16 is the greatest sentence ever written. But there are other reasons.

II. John 3:16 is the greatest sentence ever written because it describes the greatest gift ever given (He gave His only begotten Son)

My wife and I were privileged to have Dr. Gary Chapman lead us through some pre-marital workshops when we were members at Calvary Baptist Church. Dr. Chapman has written many best-selling books on marriage, family, parenting, and other relationships, the best known of which is called The Five Love Languages. Chapman’s premise in that book is that we all have ways (or “languages”) of showing and receiving love. The five languages he describes are quality time, physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, and giving gifts. In his research, Chapman observed that every culture of humanity values gift-giving as an expression of love. He says, “A gift is something you can hold in your hand and say, ‘Look, he was thinking of me.’ He goes on to say that gifts are visual symbols of love, but these visual symbols “are more important to some people than to others.” Often the gift is appreciated regardless of its value, unless the gift is “greatly out of line with” what the giver can afford. For instance, Chapman says, “If a millionaire gives only $1 gifts regularly,” one may question “whether that is an expression of love.” But if one’s finances are limited, “a $1 gift may speak a million dollars worth of love.” But then Chapman says, “There is an intangible gift that sometimes speaks more loudly than a gift that can be held in one’s hand.” This is “the gift of self or the gift of presence.”[4]

Now, the same thing could be said of the love of God and the gifts He gives to humanity. He has given humanity many gifts, but one gift stands above them all as the greatest gift. And when the greatest giver gives His greatest gift, we can be assured that it is the greatest gift ever given. God has unfathomable resources, beyond those of the wealthiest mega-millionaire, and He has not given us $1 gifts. He has given us a gift that no price could ever evaluate. He has indeed given us the gift of Himself, the gift of His presence. John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world.” It’s an interesting little word there, “so.” Most often we have understood the word “so” here to mean, “God loved the world this much.” But, “God so loved” could also be understood to mean, “God loved the world in this way.” That is how the translators of the Holman Christian Standard Bible have worded John 3:16. Whether we are talking about the great extent or the particular expression of His love, the point is this: out of His love for all of humanity, including you and me, He has given “His only begotten Son.”

The phrase “only begotten” tells us that there is something unique about the gift that God has given. It is true that the Bible teaches that God has many sons and daughters. Yet all of His sons and daughters are such because they have been adopted into His family by faith. Only one Son can be called begotten. Jesus Christ is the unique Son of God. The idea of Him being a begotten Son of God has caused much confusion for many centuries. Some have misunderstood this to mean that there must have been a time when Jesus did not exist, since He was begotten. And some have misunderstood this to mean that Jesus, as the “Son of God,” is something slightly more than human, but still somewhat less than God. But in John’s Gospel, the very opening words debunk both of these errors. John 1:1 tells us that the Word, the Logos, existed in the beginning (that is, from eternity past), and that the Word was with God, and in fact, was God. And the Word, this Logos, which was in the beginning with God and which was God became flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son (cf. John 1:1, 14, 18). So, to rightly understand the nature of Jesus as the only begotten Son of God, we must understand that He is God Himself, who became incarnate in human flesh at a specific point in time in history, who is fully God and fully man in one being. He can be called a “begotten Son” in a way that suggests that He is of one nature, of one substance, with God the Father. Boice writes, “When God gave Jesus, He gave the best gift in the universe. … When God gave Jesus, He gave Himself. To give oneself is the greatest gift anyone can give.”[5] God gave this gift by taking upon Himself human flesh, while maintaining His perfect and eternal divine nature.

This gift of God, giving us Himself, makes every other gift ever given pale in comparison. The Apostle Paul exclaims in utter awe and wonder, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” (2 Cor 9:15). One of the reasons this gift is so indescribable is that we are so unworthy of it! All that we can rightly claim to deserve from God is judgment and wrath because of our sin. But God has given us far beyond what we deserve because He loves us. In His love, He came to dwell among us; He came to be one of us; He came to live a perfect life for us; He came to die a sacrificial death for us; He came to conquer death for us. Leon Morris notes that God has “given” His Son to us in two senses: “God gave the Son by sending Him into the world, but God also gave the Son” by sending Him to the cross.[6] You see, it is on the cross that God’s love for us becomes most evident. There, God proved that He loves us in spite of our sin, and that His love for us has prompted Him to meet our greatest need. There, Jesus took our sins upon Himself and died in our place, so that we could be forgiven and reconciled to God. You have no greater need than to be made right with your Maker and Judge. And that need was met for you, out of God’s great love for you, on the cross. Romans 5:8 says that God demonstrated His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Have you ever wanted proof that you are loved? Look to the cross. There you will see, though you may not be loved by anyone else, though no other gift may ever be given to you, you are loved by God Himself, who has given the great gift of His Son, Himself, for you.

John 3:16 is the greatest sentence ever written because it describes for us the greatest gift ever given. But there is one more reason (at least) why it is the greatest sentence ever written.

III. John 3:16 is the greatest sentence ever written because it offers the greatest choice you could ever make.

One of my friends who lives overseas recently came to the States for a brief visit and commented to me about the overwhelming array of choices that we have in our supermarkets. If someone sends you to the store for milk, you better ask them to be specific, because there is whole, 2%, 1%, skim, soy milk, almond milk, organic milk, and three or more brands of each variety! And that is just one of many choices that we have to make every day. But we would have to confess that most of our daily choices—what to wear, what to eat, which road to take to get somewhere, and things like this—have little importance beyond the moment in which they are made. There are choices that have longer lasting importance: what career path we will choose, who we will marry, how we will raise our children, and things like these. But ultimately there is one choice, and only one choice, that affects our eternal destiny. And that choice is what we will do with Jesus.

There are only two options available to us in this choice. Either we will believe in Him or we will not. To believe in Him is to believe in who He is – the eternal and infinite God-incarnate – and to believe in what He has done – He has lived the life we cannot live, and died the death that we deserve, and conquered death on our behalf in order that He might take our sins upon Himself and grant us His righteousness in exchange. And so, with sins forgiven and clothed in His righteousness, those who believe in Him are granted eternal life with Him in the glory of heaven.

But what if we do not choose to believe in Him? The alternative is spelled out in no uncertain terms. To not believe is to not receive eternal life, and thereby to perish eternally. To perish is to spend eternity apart from God, apart from His love, apart from His grace and mercy, receiving forever the just penalty for our sins. Know this for certain, all sin will receive its just penalty. But Christ has come to present us with an option: we can allow Him to receive that penalty for us on His cross, or we can choose to receive it ourselves in hell. But there is no third option. To refuse Christ is to choose hell. Some will say that this is not fair, that eternity ought not be based on one simple decision like this, that it is not right for God to punish someone eternally for refusing to accept Christ. Please understand, the penalty and punishment that will occur in hell is not solely for the simple rejection of Christ. It is for every sin ever committed. That is why John 3:18 says, “He who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” In other words, the condemnation has already been pronounced based on what each person’s sins deserve. The gift of Jesus for the world was an offer to redeem humanity from that well-deserved penalty. So, to refuse the gift is to accept the consequences, and those consequences are severe. As Carson says, “The Son of Man came into an already lost and condemned world. He did not come into a neutral world in order to save some and condemn others. He came into a lost world … in order to save some.”[7] And those “some” who are saved are those who recognize Jesus for who He is, and believe in Him on the basis of what He has done. Their sins are paid for with His cross. They are rescued from the hell they deserve. But those who do not believe receive only what they have deserved because they refused to allow Christ to cover their sins. They have chosen to deal with their sins themselves, and to do that is to perish.

God has not lavished His great love upon us, and granted to us this greatest gift, in order that we might respond with a yawn of indifference. The gift of His Son forces a choice upon us. A decision must be made, and to not decide is to decide against Him. It is the greatest choice anyone can make. I have no doubt that many in this room today have made the choice to believe in Jesus, to cast themselves upon His mercy and receive His saving grace. These have believed that Jesus has dealt with their sins for them on His cross. But I also fear that there are some who have not made that choice, and in so doing have chosen the alternative. In Christ, God has made a way of escape, but those who will not receive Him by faith will find no other way of escape. The end of their journey is eternal destruction. Some have substituted faith in Christ for membership in the church, or the activity of organized religion, the company of moral friends, or the ceaseless effort to try to do better in life. But these things are powerless to remedy our greatest problem: that of our sin. In the final reckoning, it will not matter if you have joined a church, been busy with religious tasks, or kept yourself from doing certain nasty things while trying hard to do other good things. What will matter is what you have done with Jesus, because only He can bear your sin for you. If you choose to bear it yourself, the only alternative is hell.

I truly believe that John 3:16 is the greatest sentence ever written. But it can only be that if it is true. Your decision to believe it or not believe it does not make it true or false. If it is true, it is true whether or not you believe it; and if it is false, your believing it will not make it true. So, what do you say about it? Are you willing to believe it, and to therefore believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ to save you? As Boice has written, “When God calls upon people to believe what He tells them, He calls upon them to do the most sensible thing they will ever do in their lives; that is, believe in the only being in the universe who is entirely reliable.”[8] And this One who is completely trustworthy is the One who loves you in a way that no one else can. And He has proven His love for you in giving you the greatest gift ever given, so that you might make the most important choice of all eternity. No one can make that choice for you, and no other choice can make up for the wrong choice on Jesus. So, today, if you never have before, I pray that you will believe what God has spoken in His Word, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. And then you will know by faith and by experience the truth of this, the greatest sentence ever written.

[1] http://articles.ochristian.com/article10674.shtml. Accessed July 25, 2012.
[2] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John, Volume 1: The Coming of the Light, John 1-4, (An Expositional Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 226.
[3] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 205.
[4] Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages (Chicago: Northfield, 1995), 73-78.
[5] Boice, 235.
[6] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 229.
[7] Carson, 207.
[8] Boice, 242. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Lifted Up That We Might Live (John 3:14-15)

Audio (Sound quality normalizes at 6:25 mark)

Back in April, my family and I were hiking the trails around Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky when suddenly I looked down and noticed a snake by the side of the trail. I took a picture of it, and then quickly left the scene. I showed the picture to one of the Rangers and asked if he could tell me what kind of snake it was. He said that there were two similar snakes in the area, one poisonous and one not, and the only way to tell the difference was to look for a distinctive shape on the underbelly of the snake. I said, “In other words, they’re all poisonous.” I’ve had the opportunity once in my life to look inside of the mouth of one of the world’s most deadly snakes – the African Black Mamba. It was during a presentation by some local herpetologists in Kenya. They held the mouth of the Mamba open so we could see its fangs and its tongue, and then they quickly returned it to its box. One bite from that snake can kill a man in under 20 minutes unless the anti-venom can be administered immediately. Recently I learned about Tim Friede, a herpetologist in Wisconsin, who is immune to the venom of the black mamba. By injecting himself with increasing doses of the venom over time, he has allowed his body to create its own anti-venom. Now, he is able to withstand the full venom dosage of a black mamba bite, and he hopes that soon he will be able to be involved in new medical developments that would prevent the deaths of thousands of people who die in Africa each year from black mamba bites.[1] When it comes to the most deadly snake bites, it seems that the only known cure is made from the very venom that will kill you.

The ancient Israelites, during their experience of wilderness wandering between the Red Sea crossing and their entrance into the Promised Land, had a rather unpleasant experience with snakes. It was recorded in Numbers 21. As they wandered through the desert, on several occasions the people resorted to grumbling and murmuring against God and against Moses. Their sin was dealt with in various ways as often as it happened, but in this particular instance, the Lord sent an infestation of what the Bible calls “fiery serpents” among the people, and their bite was lethal. It was not without positive effect. The people recognized their sin and repented and turned from their sin. Moses took their matter before the Lord and was given the instruction to make a figure of a serpent and erect it on a pole, so that all who had been bitten who would look upon it would be healed and live.

As a teacher of Israel, Nicodemus would have been well familiar with this passage. And so, in order to explain to Nicodemus how sinful human beings can be born again, reconciled to God, and have eternal life, the Lord Jesus calls this account to the mind of the teacher. Now, this was more than just an illustration or a parable. Jesus knew that the account of the serpents in the wilderness was a visual prophecy, if you will, a picture that would find its ultimate fulfillment in His mission of salvation. In Luke 24, we read that following His resurrection, Jesus taught His disciples and “He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (v45). Luke tells us that “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (v27). He was attempting to do that here with Nicodemus, as if to say, “Nicodemus, do you remember the story about the snakes in the wilderness? Well, that story was really about Me!” On the surface of it, it is hard to see the similarity, but Jesus says that it is there. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” As the serpent was lifted up so that those who had been bitten with the deadly venom of the serpents may have life; so Jesus would be lifted up, so that all who had been bitten with the deadly venom of sin might have life. So, we have here a reminder of the deadly poison of sin, and we are redirected toward the divine provision of salvation.

Consider the first of these:

I. We are reminded of the deadly poison of sin.

There are a lot of crazy things done in churches around the world. But I don’t know of anything crazier than what you find in some areas of the Appalachians where people are known to handle poisonous snakes as an act of worship. If you are visiting with us today, I want you to know that you will never witness that here at IBC. We had a bat in here some time ago, and it turned into a rather comic adventure that Jim Keathley can tell you about. I’m not proud of the fact, but I will acknowledge to you that I screamed like a little girl and ran away leaving Jim to fend for himself. So, no chance we’re going to be breaking out snakes any time soon. In May of this year, one preacher in West Virginia died from a timber rattler bite during one of these bizarre snake-handling services, ironically, the same way his father had died almost 20 years ago. But a few weeks after that senseless death, USA Today ran a story about the increasing popularity of snake-handling among a younger generation in the region. A 21-year old pastor that was interviewed for that piece said regarding the practice, “It is the closest thing to heaven on earth that you could get.”[2] I am not sure that the Israelites who experienced the outbreak of snakes in the wilderness would agree with that sentiment. They might say that it was nearer to being hell on earth. The Bible describes the snakes that tormented the people as “fiery serpents.” The “fieriness” of those serpents most likely describes the intense pain of their deadly bites. But more troubling than the presence or danger of these snakes is the source of them. The Israelites had not aimlessly wandered into snake territory. The Bible says that “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people” (Num 21:6). They were the active judgment of God against the people’s sin. The snakes bit the people, and they died very painful deaths. Those divinely appointed serpents brought upon the people a physical experience that paralleled the spiritual effects of sin in our lives.

What had the people done to deserve such a judgment as this? To quote Indiana Jones, “Why did it have to be snakes?” We often ask questions like that, but underlying those questions is a minimizing of what we might call the “sinfulness of sin.” Various sins have varying effects on others, but all sin has the same effect on us and the same offensiveness against the holiness of God. Because He is infinitely holy, our sin is infinitely heinous and infinitely deadly. So, when we read in the Bible about a particular calamity, or read about a seemingly senseless tragedy in the world, we need to resist the temptation of saying, “What had they done to deserve that?” Jesus talked about people who were slaughtered at the hand of Pilate and others who were killed when some towers fell upon them, but He said we must not think that they were worse sinners than any of the rest of us. He said the lesson we should take away from it is, “Unless you repent you will likewise perish.” If God were to only give us what we deserved, we would all be in miserable condition.

The sin of the Israelites that prompted the episode with the snakes was their continual murmuring against the Lord and against Moses, whom God had appointed as their leader. In Numbers 21:5, the Bible says that they spoke against God and Moses, saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.” Consider what they are saying. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?” Simple answer: Because you asked Me to! Because I love you! Because I have better plans for you than you can imagine! “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” Simple answer: I didn’t! I brought you out to take you into a land where you can have a better life than you have ever known! “There is no food and no water!” Really? Did God not bring water from a rock to quench your thirst and turn the bitter springs sweet for you? Did God not provide manna and quail to feed you along the way? But you didn’t like it and you complained about that, even as you are doing now! Notice they say, “There is no food,” but then they say, “we loathe this miserable food.” In other words, there is food, but it is not to our liking. That miserable food that they loathed was manna – a miraculous food that God made to appear on the ground every day for them. But because it wasn’t steak and potatoes, they complained about what God had provided. And when they complained about Moses, they were complaining that God had not given them a fit leader. And this was not the first time they had grumbled and murmured against Moses and the Lord. It had become habitual for them. Their sinful hearts were destroying them spiritually. Death was setting in, not as a result of being in the desert, but a result of being in rebellion. So the Lord sent the snakes, that they might experience physically the reality that was taking place in their souls. A painful process of death and decay brought about not by the deadly poison of snakes, but by the deadly poison of sin.

Now, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:6 that the things that happened to Israel in the wilderness serve as examples for us. He says that we must not “try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents.” Their sin in the wilderness is really a picture of our own sin. We grumble and complain against God and against one another, despising the Lord for our circumstances and refusing to acknowledge His goodness and grace. We chase after the lusts of our own flesh rather than enjoying what He has freely given. Every time we sin, we are saying, “I prefer my own desires, my own way, my own agenda, than that of the Lord.” And our sin manifests itself in rebellion against God and murmuring against the people God has placed in our lives. It is a deadly poison! It is destroying us from the inside out. It is the spiritual equivalent to dying a slow painful death of snake bite.

I am sure that the Israelites thought their grumbling and murmuring was no big deal. The snakes showed them differently. When they could see what their sin was doing to them, they were brought to repentance. They didn’t see their deeds as mere indiscretions or minor faults. They repented in Numbers 21:7, saying, “We have sinned because we have spoken against the Lord and against you [Moses]; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.” They recognized that God and God alone could remedy their situation.

In speaking to Nicodemus about this, Jesus was saying that all of humanity is afflicted with a condition just as severe as the Israelites in the wilderness. You may not see venomous snakes encircling your feet flashing their deadly fangs, but Jesus says that we are all in a similar state of peril because of the deadly poison of sin. What a nightmarish predicament! Has the reality of it set in? Has it brought you to a place of repentance? Has it brought to realize that the Lord, and He alone, can provide the solution you need for the deadly poison of sin?

That brings us to the second reality here in this portion of John 3:

II. We are redirected toward the divine provision of salvation.

The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is one of the most well known personal interactions of the Lord Jesus with another person in the Bible. Another is found in Matthew 19 when Jesus spoke to a man we call “the rich young ruler.” After that young man walked away from Jesus grieving and unwilling to surrender himself to Jesus, the Lord said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” Have you ever seen a camel? Have you ever seen the eye of a needle? You look at that and say, “No way!” That’s what the disciples said to Jesus that day. They said, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus said, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” This is true not only of camels and needles and rich young rulers. It is true of every person. It is impossible for us to save ourselves from the deadly poison of sin. But with God all things are possible. There is salvation, but only one way, from only one source. If God provides salvation then His way is the only way. If He does not, then there is no way. But He has made salvation possible in His own way.

When the Israelites were plagued with deadly snakes, they repented and asked Moses to intercede with God for them and ask Him to take the snakes away. I suppose God could have done that—just make the snakes go away. But what would that do for those who had already been bitten? It would only help those who had not been bitten, while those who had already been bitten would still die. God did not do this. A great number of people were nearing death by the second, and many had already died. What could be done? God gave Moses instructions: “Make a fiery serpent” (that is, “Make a replica of the serpents,” which Moses made from bronze), “and set it on a standard” (a tall pole that all could see), “and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live” (Num 21:8). You have to admit, this prescription seems rather absurd, as I am sure it did to many of the Israelites. One says, “I’ve been bitten! I am dying! Help me!” And Moses is there to say, “See that bronze serpent on the pole? Look upon it, and you will be healed!” You can imagine that person saying, “No, seriously! I am dying here! I need real help!” But this was real help. However, it would not work for everyone. It would only work for the ones who knew they had been bitten, who knew that they were dying, who believed that God had spoken and would act through this way of saving of them. If they refused to acknowledge their condition, and refused to believe God’s promise, and refused to receive what God had provided through the bronze serpent, then they would die in their misery.

God did not tell them to mix up a salve for their wounds. He did not tell them to do a better job of avoiding snakes in the future. He did not advise them to form a snake-killing party to rid the community of snakes. He told them simply to recognize their own condition, and to look with faith toward the remedy that He had provided for their condition. And those who did were healed and lived. But there is a subtle implication that is easily missed in Numbers 21. It says, “It came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.” That suggests that some were not bitten, and among those who were, there were some who did not look to the bronze serpent. And they died. But those who looked by faith toward that twisted and impaled serpent were healed and lived! The snake brought death. And the image of the snake impaled upon the lofty pole brought life to those who believed God and looked to it in faith.

Jesus told Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” There are some who mistake Jesus’ words here about being “lifted up” to mean something figurative, like “lifted up in praise,” or “exalted in worship.” But this cannot be, for Jesus says that He must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Moses was not lifting up the serpent to worship and praise the serpent. The serpent was lifted as an image of the deadly poison that was killing the people. The replica of the snake was impaled as a figure of death being put to death. And that is what Jesus said MUST happen to Himself if we would have eternal life. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be impaled, pierced, run through and raised up on a standard for all to see.” And this occurred on the cross.

As the Israelites were dying from the deadly poison of serpents, so we all are dying from the deadly poison of sin. What hope or help do we have? Only what the Lord Himself will provide. And as the serpent lifted up represented the putting to death of death itself, so the Lord Jesus on His cross was taking upon Himself the sin of us all, receiving in His very being and body the venom, the sting, the poison, and the death that it brings. His death becomes for us the death of death itself. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 we read that God made Him who knew no sin (the Lord Jesus) to be sin on our behalf. So on the cross, the deadly poison of sin was being put to death in Him. And this was so that “we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” He took our sin into the valley of death and destroyed it, and rising from death, He covers us in His own perfect righteousness.

This is God’s divinely provided means of salvation. And it is the only hope of salvation we have. Jesus said that He must be raised up as the serpent in the wilderness. There simply is no other way. This had to happen for us to be saved. And having happened, there is no other way to be saved. But this does not mean that all will be saved. With the Israelites, the exalted serpent would only save those who knew that they were dying from snakebite, and who believed and trusted in God to save them, and who looked upon the serpent as His divinely provided means of salvation. So with us, Christ will save all who recognize that they have been infected with the deadly poison of sin, who have realized that they cannot save themselves by their own effort, but who believe that God has provided Christ as the means of salvation, and look to Christ crucified by faith.

What do you see when you look at the cross? If you see there God’s one and only remedy for your terminal condition, then you can be saved. If you see Christ taking your sin upon Himself and putting it away forever so that you can be forgiven and have life, then you will be saved! The deadly poison of sin can only be remedied by the divine provision of salvation. And that provision is found in Christ and in Him alone. Jesus took the venom, to provide you with the anti-venom. Look to Him with the eyes of faith, and find in Him eternal life!

A young Charles Spurgeon walked the snowy streets of Colchester, 60 miles northeast of London, one Sunday morning on his way to church. When the snow became so heavy and the air so cold that he could go no further, he ducked down a side street and entered the first church he came to, where only a small handful of people had gathered for worship. Even the pastor had been snowed in and was unable to be there, so at a certain point in the service, one of the laymen ascended into the pulpit and began to preach. Spurgeon’s recollection of the man is not flattering. He speaks of him as “a very thin-looking man, a shoemaker or tailor or something of that sort, … this man was really unintelligent. … He did not even pronounce the words correctly.”[3] But as this unimpressive man read his text on that snowy Sunday morning, Spurgeon said, “Now there’s a glimpse of hope for me in that text.” And what was that text? Isaiah 45:22, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” Spurgeon recalls that as the man preached, he seemed to look at him straight in the eyes and said, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.”

Spurgeon said, “I saw at once the way of salvation. … It was similar to when the brazen serpent was lifted up, and the people only looked and were healed; so it was with me. … That instant I could have sung with the most enthusiastic of them about the precious blood of Christ and the simple faith that looks alone to Him. … Between half-past ten o’clock, when I entered that chapel, and half-past twelve o’clock, when I was back again at home, what a change had taken place in me! I had passed from darkness into marvelous light, from death to life. Simply by looking to Jesus, I had been delivered from despair. … Yes, I had looked to Jesus as I was, and I had found in Him my Savior. … I looked and lived and leaped in joyful liberty as I beheld my sin punished upon the great substitute and put away forever. I looked unto Him as He bled upon that tree. … Looking unto Him, the bruises that my soul had suffered were healed; the gaping wounds were cured; the broken bones rejoiced; the rags that had covered me were all removed; my spirit was white as the spotless snows of the farr-off North. … I was saved, washed, cleansed, forgiven through Him who hung on the tree.”

Charles Spurgeon went on to be the greatest preacher, pastor, and theologian of his generation. But he often reflected on that snowy day when he looked and lived. He said, “My soul can never forget that day. Dying, all but dead, diseased, pained, chained, scourged, bound in fetters of iron, in darkness and the shadow of death, Jesus appeared to me. My eyes looked to Him. The disease was healed, the pains removed, chains were snapped, prison doors were opened, and darkness gave place to life. What delight filled my soul!”[4] He said, “I sometimes think I might have been in darkness and despair until now if it had not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm on Sunday morning.”[5]

It is far from being a snowy morning in Greensboro, but the same promise that Spurgeon heard that Sunday morning in Colchester is still true today. Look to Jesus, lifted up on the cross for you, for your sin, and for your salvation. Cast yourself fully upon Him and be saved. "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.”

[1] “Rubber Band Man” (Season 1, Episode 7), Stan Lee’s Superhumans. History Channel. September 23, 2010.
[2] http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2012-06-03/snake-handlers-pentecostal-tennessee/55354206/1. Accessed July 19, 2012.
[3] Charles Spurgeon, My Conversion (Springdale, Penn.: Whitaker House, 1996), 35-36. Subsequent quotes herein can be found on pp 35-41 of the same work.
[4] Ibid, 9.
[5] Ibid, 35. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

It's Not About the Numbers, It's About ...

In this message from last Sunday, Dr. Jack walks through Acts 8 and the account of Philip, while also challenging the church to not focus on the past or on the numbers, but on what God desires to do in and through us today.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Testimony of the One Who Came From Heaven (John 3:11-13)

You can’t believe everything you read. You’ve heard that before haven’t you? It was even the subject of a segment on a rerun of 60 Minutes last weekend, chronicling the scandal circling around Greg Mortenson and his bestseller Three Cups of Tea. Many people have believed every word of Mortenson’s book, and sent him gobs of money, but now things are coming out which make it seem like he has embellished, exaggerated, or worse, perhaps even flat-out lied, about some of his experiences in Central Asia. John Krakauer has written a book about it, and I would read it, but then I’d have to decide who’s telling the truth, and I don’t want to spend the energy on it. There’s really only one book in which I believe everything I read: the Bible. But all the others need a critical eye and a healthy sense of discernment. Apart from the Bible, you just can’t believe everything you read.

I think deep down, we all know this. But sometimes, we let our guard down and become gullible, believing everything we read in some popular books. Recently, I’ve been noticing this happening with a lot of books that describe people’s experiences with temporary visits to heaven or hell. The genre is not new. “Near Death Experience” stories have been popular for a long time. I’ve known of many bestsellers in recent decades, but even in the ancient and medieval world, there were stories being told about people visiting heaven and returning to share their experiences. But in recent years, it seems that the subject has gained a renewed interest, especially among Christians. One book describes an author’s 23 minute visit to hell. Another describes a man’s 90 minute visit to heaven. And most recently, we have the story told in a book entitled Heaven is For Real about the experience of a four year old boy who visited heaven when he flatlined during surgery, but came back to life with a story to tell about his experiences.

When 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper (not to be confused with John Piper, no relation), was all the rage, someone purchased a copy of it for me as a gift and said I would be encouraged and blessed if I read it. I admit, I was skeptical before I began to read it. But a few pages in, my skepticism evolved into frustration and outrage. There were internal contradictions in his own recounting of the events, but more importantly there were numerous descriptions of heaven which flatly contradict what the Bible tells us about heaven. Most shockingly, Don Piper says that during his 90 minute visit to heaven, “I didn’t see Jesus, but I did see people I had known.” Yet, in Scripture, nearly every passage that speaks about heaven makes much of the reality that there we will be in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, precious little is said about our relationships with each other in heaven. And when I read the book of Revelation’s description of heaven, I find it hard to believe that someone could tour it for an hour and a half and never stumble upon Jesus. So, did this happen or didn’t it? Is it a lie concocted to sell books? Was it a dream, a hallucination, or some other physiological or psychosomatic phenomenon? Was it a satanic delusion? We don’t know. We just know that the heaven described in that book bears little similarity to the heaven described in the Bible. In the more recent book, Heaven is for Real, some elements of Colton’s recollections seem to align with biblical descriptions of heaven and others that do not.

I’ve been a bit dismayed by the uncritical, undiscerning acceptance of these books by the Christian community, and frustrated that they have fostered the perception outside of the church that these are accurate representations of the Christian perspective of heaven. Two months ago, my closest friend died suddenly and unexpectedly. And within 24 hours, a well-intentioned soul who I do not believe is a Christian, attempted to console me by saying, “If you need some comfort while you are grieving, or have any questions about heaven, I’d suggest you read Heaven is for Real.” While I was grateful for the sentiment and obvious concern that was shared by this person, I could not help responding in a perhaps inappropriately direct way. I said, “I want you to know that I have already been engulfed in a great comfort from God Himself and the promises of His Word. His Word has answered every question I have about heaven and has told me all that I need to know about it. So, I would suggest that perhaps you turn to the Bible as a basis for your own comforts and hopes.”

Of all the books that describe near death experiences, temporary sojourns in heaven or hell, and the like, relatively few are written by Christians; most are written by followers of other religious systems or new age mystics. All of them tell stories that differ greatly in detail. One says heaven is like this, another that it is like that. One says he didn’t see Jesus. Another says he sat on His lap. Who is telling the truth? We can never really know. But thankfully, we have God’s Word. I know that heaven is for real, not because I know or read about someone who went there and came back to tell us stories. I know that it is real because I know Someone who came from there and told us about it, and has returned there. That is what Jesus says in John 3:13. “No one has ascended into heaven but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.” You can believe Jesus, or you can believe what has been written by others. But they can’t all be right, and as a follower of Jesus, I am going to commit my allegiance to His testimony.

The text before us today has a broad array of applications. It must not be separated from its context. It is part of a longer conversation that we began exploring several weeks ago between Jesus and Nicodemus. The crux of the conversation is the repeated insistence on the part of Jesus that in order to see or enter the kingdom of God, one must be born again. Nicodemus struggled to accept these teachings. He questioned Jesus repeatedly, finally asking in verse 9, “How can these things be?” And the words we are looking at today are part of Jesus’ answer to that question. While the context drives us to apply this to our understanding of heaven and the new birth, the applications go far beyond this to a variety of important aspects of living by faith in Christ. We won’t exhaust them all, but we will touch on some of them. Here we have the testimony of the One who came from heaven. Jesus speaks of His own unique and ultimate authority to address the issue, the sufficiency of His testimony on heavenly things, and the problem of human disbelief.

I. Jesus is the unique and ultimate authority on heavenly realities (vv11a, 13).

I am scheduled for jury duty tomorrow. I don’t know why I just dread this. There are probably lots of people who enjoy this kind of thing and would welcome the opportunity, but I am not one of them. As a juror, you have to listen to witnesses testify about a thing that happened, and then go lock yourself in a room and determine who is telling the truth. And some will believe this one and others will believe that one. But there is one, and only one, witness whose testimony is always reliable. We can always take His word as truth. That witness is Jesus. When He speaks, we have good reason to believe what He says.

After speaking at length with Nicodemus about the necessity of a new, spiritual birth, Nicodemus has responded with incredulity, “How can these things be?” In verse 10, Jesus suggests that as the teacher of Israel, he should be aware of these truths which have been revealed in God’s Word. Jesus uses a solemn statement of authentication as He speaks to Nicodemus: “Truly, truly” (in the Greek, it is Amen, amen), “I say to you.” The word amen means “to affirm or agree.” Jesus is saying that His very own perfectly divine nature is the ground for the truth of what He is saying. And then He says, “We speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen.” Nicodemus is struggling to believe what Jesus is saying, and Jesus assures Him that He is giving a true testimony, because He is an eyewitness of these heavenly things. He is speaking of things that He knows and that He has seen.

But how can Jesus know these things with such certainty. After all, Proverbs 30:4 asks rhetorically, “Who has ascended into heaven and descended?” The answer is, “No one.” [Make sure you catch that, NO ONE!] And Jesus says the same here in verse 13: “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.” We’ve talked at length before about how Jesus uses this phrase “Son of Man” to refer to Himself as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Daniel 7 about the coming Messiah. Here He seems to be saying, “If you don’t believe what I am telling you about heavenly things, who will you believe? No one else can speak to you about it with eyewitness accuracy, because no one else has been there. No one, that is, except Me, because I came from there.” Jesus did not ascend to heaven from a home on earth and then come back to earth to tell others of what He saw and did. Heaven was His home in the first place.

I only know one person from the state of North Dakota. When he meets someone new, he often says, “Have you ever met anyone from North Dakota?” And most people say, “No, I never have.” He says, “Well you just did!” That’s kind of like what Jesus is saying. Jesus is saying, “Have you ever met anyone who’s been to heaven? Well, you just did. I am from there originally!” No one else has been there to tell us about it. He alone came from heaven to earth to enlighten us on heavenly realities. That makes Him the unique and ultimate authority on heavenly matters.

II. Jesus’ testimony of spiritual truths is sufficient (v12).

I like pizza. Do you like pizza? In fact, let’s just call Dominos and order a bunch of pizzas right now, and they’ll have it here by the end of the service. But I can remember a time when I didn’t like pizza. I was in high school, and I worked at a pizza restaurant. Every afternoon and evening, I was making pizza, and every afternoon and evening I was eating pizza. I ate so much pizza that I eventually quit that job and it was a long time before I could eat pizza again. Now I have it about once a week or so, and I eat a few pieces, and I think to myself, “Oh this is so good, I could eat the whole pizza,” but then I remember, that a few pieces is all I need. It may not be all I want, but it is all I need.
Sometimes we are like this with the Bible. We enjoy what we read in it, and we think, “Wow, this is really great stuff, I wish there was more of it! I wish I could know more about this or that subject!” I think that is what is driving the craze in the publication of these books about heaven. We want to know more than what the Bible tells us. So, let’s read what a 4-year-old has to say, and what a middle-aged man has to say, and here’s a guy who went to hell, so let’s see what he has to say, and here’s some other folks who saw the light on the O.R. table, and let’s hear about what they saw! And somehow, we think that is better. It tickles our fancies, it scratches our itches and satisfies our curiosities. But what we are really saying when we run to these books and things is that God’s Word is not enough. The fact is, if what we are reading in these books is saying the same thing that the Bible says, then we don’t need it, and if they are saying something contrary to what the Bible says, then we don’t want it. Here’s an interesting thing, maybe a coincidence, or maybe God inspired this knowing that we’d be inundated with all these books. Earlier I referenced the rhetorical question in Proverbs 30:4, “Who has ascended into heaven and descended?” And in the very next two verses, Proverbs 30:5-6, it says, “Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge Him. Do not add to His words or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar.” Right after telling us that no one has been there from here and come back down to tell us about it, the Holy Spirit is telling us to NOT add to God’s Word. I think that is fascinating. Don’t you?

Jesus says to Nicodemus in verse 12, “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” Jesus has been talking about spiritual realities that are unfathomable to the human mind. He uses earthly realities to illustrate them. He is talking about the regeneration of a spiritually dead sinner into a living child of God, so He uses the imagery of a child being born, and He says we must be “born again.” This is accomplished miraculously, sovereignly, mysteriously by the power of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus says this is similar to how the wind operates in the world. It blows wherever it wants to blow, and you don’t know where it is coming from and where it will go next, but you see the effects of it and hear the sound of it. He says the Holy Spirit moves like that. He moves as He wishes, and you cannot see Him, but you see the effect He has on those to whom He gives this new life. Nicodemus can’t wrap his head around these things, even though Jesus has used earthly realities to illustrate them. Maybe he’s thinking, “Let’s stop talking about babies and wind, and talk about real spiritual matters.” But Jesus is saying, “What I have told you is enough! If you don’t believe these foundational truths, simplified and illustrated by undeniable earthly realities, how will you believe if I start talking to you about unfathomable spiritual realities?”

Our problem is not that we don’t have enough information. We have, in God’s word, all the information we need in order to know God, to trust God, to obey God, and to serve God. This is what we mean when we talk about the sufficiency of Scripture. If there was more that we needed to know about heaven, about salvation, about eternal life, about living by faith and obedience to Christ, then the Bible would have told us. Over the last 35 years, evangelical Christians have fought many internal battles over the truthfulness and authority of God’s Word, and thankfully in many circles, including among Southern Baptists, we have concluded that God’s word is true and authoritative. But it seems that we have been avoiding an equally important question: “Is God’s Word enough?” Many churches and individual believers seem to live and believe as if it is not. We need to be developing a stronger confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture. All that we need to think and believe about essential doctrines is laid out for us there. All that we need to do to be obedient to God is there. And if God’s Word is enough, then we must add no words to it, and give no other words equal value to it. To depart from God’s revelation is to enter into man’s speculation. At least four times in the New Testament, we are warned against the dangers of human speculation because our faith needs to be anchored in the revealed truth of God’s Word.[1]

I was reading Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology the other day on this subject of the sufficiency of Scripture. I love that book, but it isn’t the Bible. I trust Grudem, but I know that Grudem can be wrong, so I measure everything he says with what Jesus says and what the rest of Scripture says. But here’s what surprised me as I was reading Grudem. He was talking about how cults and false religions will claim to trust the Bible, they actually demonstrate that they do not trust the Bible by assigning equal value to other writings. But then he says, “in Christian churches a similar error is sometimes made when people go beyond what Scripture says and assert with great confidence new ideas about God or heaven, basing their teachings not on Scripture but on their own speculation or even on claimed experiences of dying and coming back to life.”[2] That was not a reaction to the recent wave of publications. Grudem published that in 1994, before any of the books whose titles you would recognize were published.

I think this is what Jesus is driving at with Nicodemus. “Nicodemus I know you want to know more, and you think you need to go deeper than what I am telling you, but if you don’t believe what I have already said, then you won’t believe if I tell you more.” You might say, “Well, I might agree with that when it comes to Jesus, but you are talking about the whole Bible, and the whole Bible is not a record of Jesus speaking.” Actually, in a sense it is. The entire Bible is the written revelation of the Word of God. There is no dichotomy between Jesus’ words and the words of Moses, David, Paul, or John. We read in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God.” The Greek word there is theopneustas, and the NIV translates it literally: All Scripture is God-breathed.

Jesus Himself taught this repeatedly, but one particular passage of interest is in Luke 16 as He is telling the story about the eternal destinies of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. That rich man was crying out from hell, in agony and torment, asking if Lazarus might be permitted to come to give him a drop of water to cool his tongue. And when this was denied, the rich man said, “Then I beg … that you send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” But the response from heaven is this: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” In other words, “They have the Scriptures, the Word of God.” But the rich man protested, “If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” And again the answer from heaven is, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.” The perspective of heaven and those who are there is this: all that anyone needs to know to find eternal life has been revealed to us in Scripture. The perspective that says, “It is not enough! We need to hear from those who have been there and returned,” is the perspective of those in hell.

We must trust that the Lord has told us what we need to know in order to know Him, to trust Him, to obey and serve Him, in His Word. Are you content with what God has  revealed for you in His Word? There are some things that the Bible doesn’t address at all, and others that it only addresses briefly, but we have to bear in mind what Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the Lord.” We must accept that God has revealed to us in His Word exactly what He deemed sufficient for us to know on these matters.

This brings us to the final truth here in the testimony of Jesus, the One who came from heaven:

III. Jesus’ testimony is believable, even when we can’t understand it (v11b-12)

I recall being in Introductory Hebrew at seminary one day and feeling like my brain was going to explode. It was only a few weeks into the semester. I’d barely learned the alphabet when I ran across this sentence in my textbook: “The letter nun may appear after the normal vocalic endings. This special form, when it appears, is usually at the end of a sentence or paragraph and is called a paragogic nun.”[3] And that was it, and then the author moved on and started talking about another subject. I get this cramping feeling in my brain just thinking about it. I read and reread that sentence over and over again, and couldn’t make sense of it. In fact, I couldn’t explain it to you even now. But I never once had the thought, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I don’t believe him. I reject the notion of a paragogic nun altogether.” I didn’t understand it, but I believed what the author said because I trusted that his grasp of this language was significantly higher than mine, and respected him as the authority on the subject.

Sometimes, we encounter spiritual truths in God’s Word that we do not understand. Nicodemus did in that conversation with Jesus. But we must not jump from failure to understand to failure to believe. Jesus says that is the problem that Nicodemus has, but not only Nicodemus. The word “you” that occurs from the middle of verse 11 through verse 12 is plural in the Greek. It is best translated “ya’all.” Jesus is saying, “I have spoken of things that I know and things that I have seen and you should take My word for it because I am the only resident authority on the subject of heavenly realities. But ya’all do not accept this testimony!” In verse 10, Jesus questions how Nicodemus can be such a prestigious teacher and not understand these things. That is a problem. But the bigger problem is beyond his lack of understanding. It is in his lack of belief. He and many others like him do not believe what Jesus has said about the kingdom of God and the new birth, and more information is not going to change that fact.

It is one thing to not understand the truth of God. I mean, there are some matters that are just beyond the grasp of the finite human mind. But it is something altogether different to reject those things simply because we do not understand them. Carson writes, “The failure to believe was more reprehensible than the failure to understand, since it betrayed a fundamentally inadequate appreciation of who Jesus is.”[4] Nicodemus came in talking about Jesus being this great, godly teacher, but now, because of his disbelief, he is essentially saying, “I was wrong about you being a great, godly teacher. You are in fact a deluded liar.” And ultimately, this is what it comes down to. We can say all the nice and positive things about Jesus that we want to, but if we do not believe what He has said, this proves what we really think of Him. That is why Jesus said in John 8:31-32, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

You may say, “But I cannot believe what I do not understand.” Perhaps you should consider the example of one of the most brilliant scholars in Christian history, Anselm of Canterbury. His motto was I believe in order that I may understand. There are many who would condemn this statement as “intellectual suicide,” but that would be to misunderstand Anselm’s point. If you read Anselm, you will not come away thinking that he has committed intellectual suicide. You will recognize that you are in the presence of human brilliance. But Anselm’s idea of faith seeking understanding would lead us to begin at the starting point of believing that God’s Word is true because of His very nature and the nature of the Person of Jesus Christ. We believe, because God is believable. He is true and trustworthy. And so we approach His word with confidence, even when we struggle to understand it. And believing, we work toward understanding by comparing Scripture to Scripture, and taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). But if we begin in unbelief, as Nicodemus seems to do here, then we shall never come to understanding, because we will not allow the Holy Spirit to enlighten us to His truth.

Therefore, we have no need to reject His word, simply because at times it towers above our ability to grasp it. We have no need to accentuate His word by giving the works of others equal value. Rather, because God is completely true and trustworthy, we can accept His word, believe it, hold fast to it, and be content that what we have in it is sufficient for us to live a life a faith, trust, and obedience to Him. If you want to know what heaven is like, turn to the Bible. It gives us a sufficient description of it. And more importantly, it tells us precisely what is required to get there. Jesus says, “You must be born again.” Because of His sinless life, His substitutionary death for our sins on the cross, and His glorious resurrection, we can be forgiven of our sins, made righteous before God, and receive this brand new spiritual and eternal life. It is a life that even death cannot destroy, for it shall go on forever in His presence in the glories of heaven. You can take Jesus’ word for that. After all, He’s the only one who’s truly been there, and who has come from there, to tell us about it.

[1] Romans 1:21; 2 Cor 10:5; 1 Tim 1:4; 2 Tim 2:23.
[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 131.
[3] Paraphrased from Allen P. Ross, Introducing Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 131.
[4] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 199. 

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Necessity of New Birth (John 3:1-10)


Last week, as the Southern Baptist Convention gathered in New Orleans, the most heated debate took place regarding one particular resolution. Resolutions are the public statements of opinion or conviction of the Convention on a particular current issue. The one that stirred up the most controversy was concerning something that we commonly call “the sinner’s prayer.” This phrase refers to a prayer that is often used in leading a person to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, in which a person prays (often reading words off of a printed page or repeating, phrase-by-phrase, after a person leading them) acknowledging that they are a sinner, that Jesus died for their sins and rose again, and asking Jesus to come into their hearts as Lord and Savior. I imagine that most of us in this room have prayed a prayer similar to this in our lives. The reason for the heated debate is that, in spite of the popular usage of prayers like this in evangelism, there is nothing in the Bible about praying this particular prayer. Some would encourage us to not use these kind of “canned prayers” at all, while others would urge great caution in so-doing, and yet others would say that such a prayer is effectual in and of itself, and should be used indiscriminately as we try to reach others for Jesus.

Pastor and Messenger Jared Moore articulated the sad reality very well when he expressed, I live in a community where everyone has asked Jesus to come into their hearts and none of them are at church. Many of them live contrary to Scripture. They’re not repenting and having faith in Christ, yet they asked Jesus to come into their heart. … I have to get them lost before I can get them saved.”[1] I can identify with Moore’s concern. I have pastored three churches in three very different communities, and can attest that in each congregation and community there are multitudes of people who have “prayed the prayer.” They can remember the day and the time when they prayed the prayer, but if you were to ask them on what they base their hopes of the forgiveness of sin and eternal life, you would find that they are not trusting in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to save them from their sin and its consequences. They are being told that they are saved because they “prayed the prayer,” but in reality, they are lost. So the resolution that we ultimately affirmed at our Convention this year denies that praying a specific prayer is necessary or sufficient for salvation, but rather that repentance and faith are necessary for salvation, and can be expressed in a prayer such as the “sinners prayer.” However, the resolution makes clear that a “sinners prayer” is “not an incantation that results in salvation merely by its recitation and should never be manipulatively employed or utilized apart from a clear articulation of the Gospel.”[2]

In our text today, we find a very familiar encounter between the Lord Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. Three times in these ten verses, Jesus tells Nicodemus precisely what is required of him in order to be saved and have eternal life in the Kingdom of God. And in none of these statements does Jesus say, “You must pray a prayer.” Rather, He says over and over again, “You must be born again.” There are many who have been born again who have never prayed a specific sinner’s prayer, and there are, frighteningly, very many who have prayed such a prayer and never been born again. They are like those described in John 2:23, who have come to some level of belief in Jesus, but of whom it is written in John 2:24 that Jesus did not entrust Himself to them, because He knew that their faith was not genuine. As a case in point, we are introduced to Nicodemus here in John 3:1. He has come to Jesus at night. Why did he come at night? Oh, you can read all kinds of ideas in the commentaries and hear lots of opinions in sermons, but the fact is that we are not told why he came at night, and it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that he came to Jesus and that he heard from Jesus. What will matter even more for Nicodemus is what Nicodemus will do about what Jesus has spoken to him. But for us, what happens to Nicodemus is not of the utmost importance. When we stand before God at the end of life, the matter of greatest significance will be whether or not we ourselves have personally been born again. It is a fundamental necessity. And Jesus urges that necessity upon us three times in the text.

Notice first of all how the Lord Jesus insists that …

I. Human achievements do not negate the need for a new birth (vv1-3)

As a whole, we as human beings like the idea of being impressive. We might boast of our accomplishments, drop names, pad our résumés, talk much about some things, remain totally silent about other things, all in an effort to impress others. I suppose it is our inclination to value “impressiveness” that leads us to think that we can impress God at times also. Now, if any human being could have ever impressed God with his résumé and accomplishments, Nicodemus is a likely candidate.

Nicodemus was a religious man. Not only was he a Jew, a member of the chosen nation which had been blessed by God for 2,000 years since Abraham, but he was also a Pharisee. Most of us have been trained by our reading of the New Testament to see that as strike against the man, but you have to understand that at one time in Israel, these men were viewed as the most holy and righteous of all people. They were an elite group. There were never more than six thousand of them at any given time.[3] To become a Pharisee, a man had to take a vow before three witnesses stating that he would devote his entire life to complete obedience to the law of God. They were biblically and theologically conservative, and held to strict literal interpretations of the law. In order to ensure that they kept the law in exact detail, they made numerous other rules and regulations to keep them from even getting close to violating the law. If you knew a Pharisee, you knew someone who was serious about religion, and who morally upstanding, at least in terms of the outer workings of his life. You could not easily point your finger at a Pharisee and accuse him of a sin.

In addition to being a religious man, Nicodemus was also an intelligent man. Although a pious Jew, he had a Greek name. That was something of a rarity among Pharisees, and it indicates that his parents had likely prized Greek intellectualism and provided a well-rounded Greek education for him.  So intelligent was Nicodemus that he had become a teacher, in fact perhaps the preeminent teacher of his day. Jesus addresses him in verse 10 as “the teacher of Israel.” The first statement he makes to Jesus is about what he knows. And he seems to know a lot about Jesus. He knows He is a Rabbi, or a teacher. He knows He has come from God. He knows that He performs signs, and He knows that God is with Him.

He was religious, he was intelligent. And he was wealthy, too! Nothing is said about that here in John 3, but when we see Nicodemus in John 19, he has brought a “mixture of myrrh and aloes,” weighing about a hundred pounds for the purpose of anointing the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. Only a man of significant means could afford this.[4]

Not only was Nicodemus religious, intelligent, and wealthy, he was also powerful. Verse 1 tells us that he was “a ruler of the Jews.” This means that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest legislative body in Israel. To put it in terms we can relate to, if you combined all the powers of the President, the Congress, and the Supreme Court in America, that is the kind of authority the Sanhedrin had in Israel. Of course, by this time, they operated under the overriding authority of Rome, but as Jewish politics go, he was on the top of the ladder. He has quite an impressive pedigree in the eyes of men. He’s rich, powerful, smart, and religious. But Jesus is not impressed.

Though he came with an impressive set of qualifications, and approached Jesus with seemingly the utmost respect, Jesus spoke to him with an answer (v3). That’s odd that Jesus would give him an answer; Nicodemus hadn’t even asked a question. But remember, that John 2:24-25 said that Jesus “knew all men,” that He “did not not need anyone to testify concerning man,” and that “He Himself knew what was in man.” And He knew that within Nicodemus was a burning question. Maybe it was something like this: “With all the impressive accomplishments that I have achieved, is it enough to gain entrance into heaven?” Whether that was his question or not, the answer that Jesus gives is the answer to the most important question that any human being could ask. As Morgan writes, “He said to him the thing which is true of every one.”[5] He says in v3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Maybe you or someone you know thinks that life amounts to a set of accomplishments and achievements. Maybe you have embarked on the pursuit of the American Dream and have achieved it! You are well-educated, successful, wealthy, powerful, religious and morally upstanding. You know a lot about Jesus – you have read your Bible pretty thoroughly, maybe been in church or Sunday School most of your life. Nicodemus was all of those things. But Jesus says very pointedly that Nicodemus and those who are like him are disqualified from even seeing the kingdom of God. Why? Because these things do not impress Jesus. He knows what is in every person. And He can say of even the most impressive of us, “You must be born again.” So, if you or someone you know thinks that all of your achievements and accomplishments will certainly impress the Lord and gain you heaven when life comes to an end, you are sadly mistaken. The Lord Jesus says, “You must be born again.” Your achievements do not negate that fact.

II. Human generation could never replace the need to be born again (vv4-7).

If you’ve ever been puzzled by something Jesus said, you are in good company. Even the distinguished teacher Nicodemus was puzzled by this expression about being “born again.” Jesus is talking theology, but all Nicodemus can process is biology. Notice his question in verse 4: “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?”

Now, I imagine that many of us have had moments of regret in which, looking back, we wish we could go back and relive some moments of our lives and maybe we could do it better. Some, who like myself came to faith in Jesus as an adult, may look back and say, “If only I could relive my teenage years! I would avoid the mistakes I made.” We are thinking about things like Nicodemus is here. “If only I could go back and be a baby again and start all over! I’ve made a mess of this life. I have sinned and messed up so many things. If I could be a baby again, and know what I know now, I’d do better, I just know it.” Maybe you think that if you had better parents, or a better environment to be born into, things would have turned out differently. You might have been going through life blaming all of your problems on mom and dad, and the circumstances of your childhood. But notice that Jesus says that human generation is not the answer to our problems. He says in verse 6, “that which is born of the flesh is flesh.” In other words, even if you could have a second chance to start all over again as a baby, with new parents, new surroundings, and whatever else, and relive your life, you would still be a sinful human being. That is all that a human being can generate or produce. People talk about the innocence of youth. My memories of childhood are still clear enough, and I am raising two of my own, and watching others, and I can tell you that the so-called “innocence of youth” is a myth. Every child that is born is born with a sin nature. The Bible says that, and every living person is a testimony to the truth of that statement. You might wish you could have a second chance to try again from birth, but Jesus is saying that even if you could, you wouldn’t do any better, because you would still be born as a sinner, with a body and a nature that is warped by sin, living in a world that is defiled by sin.

When Jesus says, “You must be born again,” He isn’t talking biology, He’s talking theology. What you need is not another birth experience in the flesh, but a birth experience that comes by the Spirit of God. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Two things are true of every person: we are created in the image of God, and we are radically corrupted by sin. Because we are made in God’s image, we are born with a spiritual capacity. But because we are corrupted by sin, that spiritual capacity is dead within each of us from birth. You didn’t become a spiritually-dead sinner when you first sinned. You first sinned because you were born a spiritually-dead sinner. So what we all need is for the Spirit of God to make to make us alive spiritually. This is what Paul says in Ephesians 2 – “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins … but God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Eph 2:1-5).

The Greek word that is rendered again throughout this passage, as Jesus speaks of being born again can also be translated from above. That puzzles people when they first encounter it, because it makes us wonder if we’ve been translating this phrase wrong for centuries and shouldn’t talk about a born again experience, but a born from above experience. Well, it shouldn’t trouble us. To be born from above is to be born again, and there is no other way to be born again than to be born from above – a heavenly and spiritual birth, brought about by the Holy Spirit of God. And that brings us to the final reality about this necessity of being born again …

III.  The Holy Spirit of God is alone capable of accomplishing the new birth within us. (vv5, 7-10).

It is plain to see that Nicodemus is having trouble comprehending what Jesus is talking about with the new birth. He is thinking in terms of biology rather than theology, and he seems convinced that though some people may need this experience, surely neither he nor his countrymen do. They are the descendants of Abraham, children of the promise and members of the covenant community. As Kostenberger notes, “Jews in Jesus’ day generally believed that all Israelites would have a share in the world to come, with the exception of those guilty of apostasy or some other blatant sin.”[6] But though that may have been how generations of Israelites had understood (or better, misunderstood) God’s covenant with Abraham, Jesus is informing Nicodemus that the covenant which Israel has known in the past is passing away just as the Scriptures had promised it would. Like milk, there was an expiration date on that Old Covenant, and it had come to pass.  

Nicodemus certainly knew the Scriptures. He was the teacher of Israel! And Jesus indicates that as a biblical scholar, Nicodemus should not be surprised to hear Him referring to a new birth. There must be something in the Hebrew Scriptures, that portion of our Bibles which we call the Old Testament, that would have prepared Nicodemus for what Jesus is saying. And of course there is. Among other passages that we could look at, most significant is what the Lord spoke through the prophet Ezekiel concerning the coming of a New Covenant that God would make, not with Israel only but with those who come to Him from all nations.

In Ezekiel 36, we read the Lord promising that He will “sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean.” He says, “I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” In that passage, the word “flesh” means something different than most of the occurrences of the word in the New Testament. In the New Testament, even here in John 3, “flesh” refers to the carnal, sinful nature of humanity, but here it stands in opposition to “stone.” The Lord is saying that He will remove the hard heart and put in a soft one; He will remove the one that is dead, and put in a heart that is alive and beating. And of this new spirit that He will put into man, He says, “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” So, God is promising that in the days when He inaugurates a New Covenant with His people, He will cleanse them through the washing away of their sins, and He will make them alive by placing His Spirit within them. It is this of which Jesus is speaking in verse 5, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

Jesus says in verse 10, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” In other words, He is saying that the things of which He is speaking are things that are clearly taught in the Hebrew Scriptures. And what we have just read from Ezekiel 36 clearly points to a new birth that will come with the washing away of sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “If you are going to enter the kingdom of God, it is not your Jewish birth that will gain you entrance. You must be born again, in the way that was promised before – under this New Covenant that God is making with humanity in which He will wash away sin and impart His Holy Spirit.

The provision of this new birth has broken into human history in the person of Jesus Christ. Nicodemus may think he knows a lot about Him, but he has not had that necessary personal experience with Him that each of us must have. Jesus is more than a miracle-working teacher sent from God. He is the Savior of the human race, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The New Covenant is sealed with His blood that was shed on the cross as He died for our sins. The cleansing of all of our filthiness and idolatry that was promised, which makes us as clean as having been washed in clean water, is accomplished by His blood. And conquering death through His resurrection, and ascending into heaven again, from whence He came, He has sent His Spirit to indwell all who call upon His name by faith as Lord and Savior.

But how can someone who is dead in sin call upon Him? Jesus answers that question in verse 8. “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Like a mighty wind, the Holy Spirit of God sovereignly sweeps across a human life bringing the new birth and imparting the faith that is necessary to believe upon Jesus as Lord. There is no formula, no superstitious ritual, no mantra that can be recited, no act that can be performed to produce the new birth. You are dead in sin until the Spirit moves upon your heart. And the Spirit moves where He wishes. Neither I nor anyone else has command of Him. He is sovereign. You cannot see Him, but you can see the effects that He produces. Look around you. Here and there, seated near you today, are some people whose lives have been radically transformed by this new birth. How did that happen? The Spirit invaded his or her life and birthed them anew. You didn’t see it coming. You don’t know when it might happen again. But you can see the effects; listen, and you can hear Him. Maybe you hear Him calling out to you today, saying, “Do not be surprised that I say to you, ‘You must be born again.’” And like the refreshing coolness of a sudden breeze, you find yourself feeling differently, thinking differently, believing differently. You believe things you never believed before. You come to the end of yourself and begin to see the Lord Jesus Christ as your only hope. You see His life, His death, and His resurrection, not merely as Sunday School lessons or religious and historical trivia, but as life-giving realities, and you desire to turn away from your sin and place your trust in Him. What is happening? You are being born again. It has happened to many. May God grant that His Spirit would make it happen in even more, here in this sanctuary, here in this community, here in our nation, here in our world.

Are you like Nicodemus? An impressive person: intelligent, successful, powerful, wealthy, moral, and religious. Jesus said that this kind of person still needs to be born again, born from above, by the power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t know if Nicodemus ever was. But we meet a man in Scripture who was very much like him, and he surely was born again. This man says of himself that he was a circumcised Israelite, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a zealous Pharisee, very religious and very morally upstanding. His name was Paul. And Paul met Jesus, and he was born again. And from that day forward, Paul could look back on all that he had been and say, “Whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord … (I) count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own … but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:4-9). Whatever accomplishments and achievements Paul considered worthwhile in his life, he saw fade from view when he beheld the glory of the Lord Jesus.

Maybe you are like Nicodemus, and you are thinking biology. If only you could start over, have a new set of parents, a different spouse, a changed set of circumstances, then you would give it a better shot, try harder, and do things differently. Oh no! Listen to the Lord Jesus saying that it is not a biological new birth that you need, not a turning over of a new leaf. You need to be born from above, cleansed of your sin, overwhelmed by the power of His Spirit, and gloriously made alive by faith in Christ.

Whatever your situation today, no matter how good or bad; whatever you are trusting in, be it your church membership, your upstanding moral character, your intellectual knowledge; maybe you prayed a prayer and can remember the time and date, the overarching question is “Have you been born again?” Oh, hear the Lord Jesus speaking to you of this necessity. Do not be surprised that He says to you, “You must be born again!”

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/juneweb-only/baptists-sinners-prayer.html. Accessed June 28, 2012.
[2] http://beforeitsnews.com/story/2296/759/A_Tale_of_Two_Resolutions_on_the_Sinners_Prayer.html. Accessed June 28, 2012.
[3] William Barclay, The Gospel of John (Volume 1; Revised Edition; Daily Study Bible; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 120.
[4] Barclay, 120.
[5] G. Campbell Morgan, The Great Physician (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1937), 65.
[6] Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 122.