Timothy Keller writes in his book Center Church, “Christians typically identify two ways to respond to God: follow him and do his will, or reject him and do your own thing. You can reject God by rejecting his law and living the way you see fit. And you can also reject God by embracing God’s law so as to earn your salvation. The problem is that people in this last group look as if they are doing God’s will. There are not just two ways to respond to God but three: irreligion, religion, and the gospel.
Irreligion is avoiding God as Lord and Savior by ignoring him altogether. 'Religion', or moralism is avoiding God as Lord and Savior by developing a moral righteousness and then presenting it to God in an effort to show that he ‘owes’ you. The gospel, however, has nothing to do with our developing a righteousness we give God so he owes us; it is God’s developing and giving us righteousness through Jesus Christ.”[i]
Our text for today is John 3:1 – 7 (Read).
Verse 1: Nicodemus – Very little is known about Nicodemus because there is little about him in the Gospel accounts. It is believed Nicodemus was an actual Pharisee who was a member of the Sanhedrin who comes to Jesus in the night hour to dialog with him. The Pharisees were men who prided themselves on keeping the laws of God to the “T”. They may not have been overly moral in character but they were fastidious in keeping and know thing law. This was their “righteousness”. They felt as though they were “more holy” than others because of their understanding and enforcing the laws of Moses.
Verse 2: We are unsure what his motives in talking to Jesus were since he actually never gets to ask Jesus anything. He did encounter Jesus in the undercover of the night probably because as a respected Jewish leader (an older man) he didn’t want others to know he was going to Jesus to learn from him or even associate with him. We can assume at this time that Jesus hadn’t made enough enemies with the Jewish leaders since he was still at the beginning of his public ministry… So there is a possibility that coming to Jesus at night was not because of fear of what others may think. Some have suggested he went in the evening because this was the time Rabbi’s and teachers studied, while others have suggested the night was symbolic of his spiritual state. He may have come at night because he was living in spiritual darkness and wanted to inquire of the light (Jesus).
He says, “We know you are a teacher who has come from God…” Some believe the “we” implies that he came with a group of leaders or that it probably means the general consensus among the leaders that he was a teacher who had the hand of God in his life and ministry. Nicodemus was acknowledging that Jesus was certainly a man with God’s hand on his ministry because of the miracles and wonders (plural) he saw Jesus perform. The rulers knew there was something special about Jesus but they (Nicodemus) certainly were not proclaiming that Jesus was a prophet, THE Prophet or even the Messiah. Regardless he knew there was something unique about Jesus and I am sure he wanted to talk to Him about this.
Verse 3: Before Nicodemus can even ask a question Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter (quite possibly because he knew Nicodemus’ motive, inquiry or just needed to tell him the truth right up front). Jesus says, “Unless a person is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
In Jesus’ statement there are two items we need to look at in order to get a grasp on what is being said by Jesus and what is implied by Nicodemus…“Born again” and “Kingdom of God”.
Kingdom of God
This term only exists in the NT however much of the OT points to the concept, reality and anticipation of the Kingdom of God. In the OT the implication of the Kingdom of God was a future day when God is the sovereign ruler of all nations and over all of creation. The prophets longed for the day when God would physically bring peace to the nations of Israel and Judah (They would be one again) and justice, peace and mercy would spill over to all nations and over all of creation.
“Seeing the kingdom’ is equivalent to the more familiar expression in (the Gospel of) John of eternal life.[ii] The kingdom or eternal life is the central message of Jesus Christ in NT. It is mentioned twice in John (3:3,5 & 18:36) and is defined as the rule, reign and sovereignty of God over all. Since the Kingdom is equivalent to eternal life and the future reign of God as sovereign king. At the time of this writing Jews and Christians lived under Roman rule and the Apostle Paul, Peter and Jesus all say that the world is in the grasps of the evil one (often times Rome was considered all that is evil and other times the devil). This does not mean that God is not the true ruler of the world it just means the world is in bondage to Satan and evil because of sin and the fall of humanity. We continue to live in a sinful world where it seems as though evil is running rampant and Satan seems to be the god of the world. However this is a false perception in part because God is sovereign (Supreme Rule) today and his Kingdom has already begun on earth through us (those who believe in Jesus and are obedient to His call). This Kingdom was inaugurated in the person, works and message of Jesus Christ. Eternal life starts now thus God’s Kingdom is now. This however, does not negate the reality that there will also be a future day when Jesus physically returns to set up His Kingdom here on earth and rule and reign sovereignly over all nations and creation.
On the other hand one cannot see, enter or even be a part of this Kingdom unless one is born again. This term is just as confusing to some today as it was to Nicodemus back then. Some may even respond as Nicodemus does… “Can one be born a second time? One certainly cannot enter the womb (as a grown adult) and be reborn!”
There are two interpretations to Nicodemus’ response…
Jesus was saying you must be born again in order to enter the Kingdom of God. It wasn’t about keeping, enforcing and living the law; it was about being re-born (or as the Greek states, “Born from above). Rebirth or regeneration means responding to Jesus and trusting in him for your salvation, thus being cleansed from sin, and the heart is transformed thus becoming a new creation in Christ. Regeneration does not mean that we become better versions of ourselves it means that we are new versions of ourselves in Christ. In short Jesus says, unless one is cleansed from sin (through confession and repentance) and reborn in the Spirit of God (faith in Christ and becoming a new creation) one cannot enter or see the Kingdom of God.
Verses 7: “Do not marvel…” Jesus’ words are clear you (the you is actually plural which properly interpreted is ‘you all’) MUST be born again. This is THE central message of Jesus in this passage and it is certainly a central message for us today.
Nicodemus’ encounter continues as Jesus proceeds to explain to him the plan of salvation of God and the redemption of his people through Jesus (We are all familiar with John 3:16). God’s love for the world is so evident to us through the physical giving of his unique Son Jesus Christ as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of humanity. The true Gospel is foundational in the love of God. Jesus’ mission and purpose was to be “lifted up” (see verse 15); his death, resurrection and ascension were in the plans since the creation of the world. They were not knee jerk reactions on God’s part because humanity got so out of control over the centuries and God needed to sort things out for humanity to be save. This was the plan, the mission, the purpose of Jesus Christ coming to the world since the beginning of time. As a gift to the world God sovereignly gave his best gift, his unique and beloved Son.
On this evening Nicodemus was forever changed because he could no longer use his “law keeping”, “Morals” or intellect as his means (or what he thought) of supposed righteousness before God. We, like Nicodemus, no longer have an excuse for rejecting Jesus in our lives. We now know in order to inherit the Kingdom of God (eternal life) you must be born again. There must be a transformation of the heart and a cleansing of sin and iniquity. You have to become a new creation in Christ, not just a better version of your old self. A Spirit-filled believer in Christ acknowledges the sovereignty of God in his life and anticipates the future day when God will establish his Kingdom of peace, justice and mercy here on earth and we will be partakers in this Kingdom.
The challenge for today is simple… Ask yourself… Are you born again? Have you been washed and cleansed by the blood of Christ? Do you have a transformed heart and are you a new creation in Christ? Does God have complete (not just some) but complete rule and reign in your life? Have you experienced the new (second) birth in Christ? I pray you are and you have to all the statements above. This is one encounter with Christ that we must respond to in our lives. It is the central message of Jesus Christ and it is available to all of us today. The Kingdom of heaven is at hand… Are you part of this Kingdom.
[i] Keller, Timothy J (2012). Center Church, p.63 Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
[ii] Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Jn 3:1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.
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