God’s incredible gift! – John 3:1-17
By Pastor Lee Hemen
September 11, 2011 AM
Incredible bargains! Fantastic values! Unbelievable quality! These are some of the phrases that are blared into our ears and blazoned before our eyes as advertisers try to make us believe and buy on the basis of what they have just told us. I tend to accept their acknowledgment of reckless exaggeration and keep my money in my pocket, believing the maxim: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” The Bible speaks with unrestrained enthusiasm about his incredible gift of love in Jesus Christ. It does not call it unbelievable, though, and then ask us to believe it. What God says and does is incredible; however, we can believe it!
In today’s text is relates a truth that appeared unbelievable. Twice Nicodemus, a Jewish teacher, asked how what Jesus was telling him could happen. Jesus’ words, however, were not too good to be true; they related a truth too important to ignore! The truth of God’s incredible gift!
While in Jerusalem, Jesus worked a number of miracles and “many believed in his name.” They were so shallow in their belief that Jesus did not proceed any further in revealing himself to them (John 2:23-25). One observer among the Jews considered the matter seriously enough that he determined to learn more from Jesus himself about his teaching. We meet that observer, Nicodemus, as we look closer at God’s incredible gift. Here in John’s gospel we discover…
I. An incredulous visitor! (Vv. 1-2)
1. Psalm 111:10 tells us, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.”
1) Nicodemus was “a man of the Pharisees.” “Pharisee” meant “separate or set apart.” They were known for their strict interpretation of the Law of Moses and their rigid adherence to the traditions surrounding it. Unfortunately, their zeal for the law resulted in an obsession with outward conformity rather than an inner spiritual concern “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NIV). A Pharisee would have been incredulous of Jesus!
2) Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews. This indicates that he was a member of the Jewish ruling council, or Sanhedrin. This was composed of seventy priests, scribes, and elders who exercised authority over the religious community. Yet, in spite of his distinguished position, he recognized a deficiency in his understanding of spiritual matters. He was curious about what Jesus had to say. As a ruler, he would have been incredulous of Jesus.
3) Nicodemus was in search of the truth. He tells Jesus, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Other Pharisees had brought questions designed to trap Jesus into making public statements that could be used against him. Not Nicodemus. Rabbi and teacher were terms that were precious to the Pharisees (Matthew 23:1-10). Nicodemus’ use of them was a sincere attempt at showing respect and his statement indicates that he was not alone in his beliefs about Jesus. While incredulous, Nicodemus was in search of the truth.
EXAMPLE: So what did this God-sent teacher have to offer a God-fearing Pharisee? Nicodemus had not yet asked any questions of Jesus. He did not have to. Jesus knew what the man needed to know and what was on his mind. Some students think Nicodemus came to Jesus by night out of fear. Others think he chose a time when he could have an uninterrupted and meaningful discussion with Jesus. They find him noble. Whatever Nicodemus’ reasons, this incredulous visitor would soon learn an incredible truth that would change his life forever.
Many folks are curious about Jesus. Each year we see dozens of books written about his teaching, ministry, and who he was. Yet mere curiosity about Jesus isn’t enough. You must apply what you know to your life. It is more than being good, nice, or kind. It takes an inner change that only God can provide. Nicodemus was shocked when he learned…
II. An incredible truth! (Vv. 3-9)
1. Jesus taught, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)
1) Nicodemus needed to change! Jesus’ emphatic statement, “I tell you the truth”, is a translation of the double use of “amen”. This is important to note, because Jesus was claiming that God’s kingdom could not be perceived without a radical change from one’s natural viewpoint. Jesus bluntly says, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” This change required an entirely new life, so new that Jesus described it as being literally “born from above” What an incredible truth!
2) Nicodemus took Jesus’ language literally. He incredulously asks, “How can a man be born when he is old?” then he follows up with his confusion, “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” However, Jesus affirms the incredible truth that, “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” It is a dramatic reference to physical and spiritual baptism. Paul makes a similar connection of baptism when he writes that, “[God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5 NIV) Jesus asserts that just as “Flesh gives birth to flesh… the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” For Nicodemus it was an incredible truth!
3) This incredible truth is for everyone! Jesus was not speaking to Nicodemus alone. He states, “You,” literally meaning, “All of you”, including the entire Sanhedrin and Jewish nation “should not be surprised” that something wholly unreasonable to your way of thinking is being presented. Incredibly, Nicodemus must learn that the truth of being “born again” was for the entire world!
EXAMPLE: God shows no racial, national, or economic favoritism. His gift is given without any reservation. Both the gift and the giver of it are completely color blind, socially and racially tolerant. A little girl sat on her porch crying. Her father found her there and asked, “What’s the problem?” she replied, “I gave Billy my new ball.” “The one you just got for your birthday?” the father asked. “Yes,” came her tearful reply, “but now he won’t play with it properly!” She explained that she wanted to play the game Four Squares with it and all he wanted to do was “bounce it all over the place!” Her father hugged her and told her, “If you give a gift, then it is a gift. It can be used however the person you gave it to wants to use it.” This is the truth of God’s greatest gift to all mankind. He gave it freely and willingly. It is our choice, if we will take it. It is our choice what we do with it. That’s why it is such an incredible truth!
We should not be surprised that we cannot grasp all the intricacies of spiritual truth as well as we would like. We cannot fully understand the movements of natural phenomena such as the wind. However, since we hear its sound and see its impact, we do not doubt that it is real. In the same way, we cannot observe the Spirit at work or actually see the processes of faith and repentance taking place, but we can see the Spirit’s influence in the transformed lives of everyone born of the Spirit. Nicodemus did not understand Jesus, but he was not giving up. He then learns about…
III. The indescribable gift! (Vv. 10-17)
1. Paul related, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV)
1) Jesus takes the indescribable and makes it understandable! Jesus first asks Nicodemus, “You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things?” Jesus begins by sharing that he indeed does speak the truth. In fact, he relates, “we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.” How could Jesus say such a thing? He continues by telling Nicodemus, “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” Jesus could speak of these things because, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.” Jesus was “the Son of Man,” the Messiah! The indescribable gift was understandable!
2) Jesus begins to describe the indescribable gift! Just as God commanded Moses to set up a brass snake on a pole, directing those bitten by the serpents to look upon it and live (Numbers 21:4-9), Jesus’ crucifixion, would bring salvation from the venom of sin to those who look in obedient faith to him. Jesus said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). Why would he do that? Simple: so “that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” The indescribable gift that all mankind had waited for was now available!
3) Jesus tells Nicodemus why God would do such an indescribable thing: because he loves us! Jesus’ death was the result of the fact that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” so that “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life!” Before Jesus, we were doomed to perish; but now we can have eternal life! Every word in this verse is stretched to the full capacity of its meaning: God … loved … the world … whoever believes … will not perish … eternal … life. You cannot grasp this on the run. You have to linger and let its truth soak in. Take the time to substitute your own name in place of the word “whoever” and delight in this indescribable gift!
EXAMPLE: I remember when an older member at another church got so distraught about the church remodeling he went and sat in a chair and wouldn’t move. Then an older and wiser man reminded him that he was focusing on the wrong thing and that “buildings were never to be more important than people.” Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a sect that collectively had become so enamored with the form of the law that they had lost sight of its substance. What happens when Christians lose sight of the substance of their faith and see only the form? What happens when we forget about this indescribable gift of God? That he so loved each of us that he gave his Son to die for our sins!
John 3:16 is the most familiar verse in the Bible. It has been quoted and lauded as “the New Testament in miniature.” It may come as a surprise, then, to learn about a preacher who, given liberty to choose whatever text he pleased as the basis for what would surely be a once-in-a-lifetime sermon, chose John 3:17 instead of John 3:16. It was on June 2, 1850, that Alexander Campbell spoke from John 3:17 to both houses of the United States Congress in the chamber of the House of Representatives. Although he spoke for some ninety minutes, it was said that during this time, Campbell held his audience “in the most fixed attention.” How vital to know that God did not send Jesus to condemn the world, but to save it!
We have looked at an incredulous visitor, heard an incredible truth, and learned about an indescribable gift. Now, let me ask you, what will you do with what you have heard?
Pastor Lee Hemen has been the outspoken pastor of the same church for 25 years in Vancouver, WA. He writes regularly on spirituality and conservative causes and maintains several web blogs. This article is copyrighted © 2011 by Lee Hemen and is the sole property of Lee Hemen, and may not be used unless you quote the entire article and have my permission.