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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Christ calls the religious person to saving faith in him
Text:John 3:9-15 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 115:1-3

Hymn 82:3 (after the law)

Psalm 70

Hymn 37

Psalm 21:1-4

Scripture reading: Numbers 21:4-9

Text: John 3:9-15 (begin reading at verse 1)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

There once was this Reformed minister.  Like his father before him, he was a minister in a Reformed church, but he didn’t believe the biblical gospel.  He didn’t think he was a great sinner in need of a great Saviour.  He didn’t have a true faith in Jesus Christ.  When he was in seminary, one of his professors denied the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection and he literally stood up and applauded, along with all the other students.  Now look, this minister was a religious man.  He said and did many of the right things on the outside, he even believed in God in some sense, but he was not really a Christian.  That minister was Abraham Kuyper, one of the most important figures in our Reformed church history. 

Abraham Kuyper began serving as a pastor in the Dutch village of Beesd in 1863.  There were faithful Christians in this Reformed church and to them, his preaching sounded hollow and superficial.  They didn’t hear the voice of the Shepherd, they didn’t hear the gospel.  One of them was a single woman named Pietje Baltus.  Rev. Kuyper was making his acquaintance visits and a neighbour told her that the minister would soon be at her door.  Pietje scoffed and said to her neighbour, “I have nothing to do with that man.”  But then the neighbour said, “But don’t forget, Pietje, that our minister too has an immortal soul, and that he too is travelling towards eternity.”  Pietje was convicted.  She opened her door to the new minister.  And as they visited she shared the gospel with him.  She witnessed to him of her hope in Jesus Christ.  She told him that he must have the same hope or he would perish eternally.  God used this church member to bring her lost minister to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Abraham Kuyper was supposed to be a leader in Christ’s church.  And yet, up to that point, he hadn’t really turned from his sins and believed in Jesus Christ.  He had been a religious man in many outward ways, but he wasn’t a Christian.  You might say that what Abraham Kuyper had was “churchianity” rather than “Christianity.”

Here in John 3 we encounter a similar situation.  We have Nicodemus.  He’s part of Israel, God’s Old Testament church.  He’s a leader.  He’s a very religious man.  Nicodemus knows all the right things to say and do.  But then Jesus comes into his life and some of his most fundamental beliefs are radically challenged.  Christ teaches him that being outwardly religious is not the same thing as being on the way to eternal life.  At the beginning of John 3, Jesus impressed on Nicodemus and us the need for new birth.  As the encounter continues in our passage for this morning, we’ll see that Jesus also impresses upon Nicodemus and us the need for saving faith in him. 

I preach to you God’s Word this morning as we see how Christ calls the religious person to saving faith in him

We’ll consider:

  1. Nicodemus’ skeptical question
  2. Jesus’ confronting answer

Many of us have grown up in the church.  We’ve been raised in church-going families.  Perhaps not everyone here has, but for many of us this has been just like the air we breathe.  Just like you don’t really think about air, so also you don’t really think about all the assumptions behind our upbringing.  That’s just natural. 

If it’s natural for us, it was also natural for someone like Nicodemus.  We have to remember who he was.  He was not an average person in the Roman Empire.  He was Jewish.  He traced his ancestry back to Abraham.  He had been circumcised on the eighth day.  He had been raised with a knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures.  He was part of God’s covenant people, part of what was God’s church at that time. 

As part of the church of that period, Nicodemus had various assumptions that he didn’t really think about or question.  Because the church had some wrong assumptions, Nicodemus had them too.  Nicodemus assumed that you get into the covenant through grace, but you have to maintain your place through good works.  As a Jew, he was a child of Abraham and he had not earned that.  He knew that.  That was grace.  But in order to maintain God’s favour in the covenant, Nicodemus assumed that he had to work hard at his obedience.  It was up to him.  The assumption was that law-keeping was the most important way to enter the kingdom of God, to receive eternal life.  Your personal righteousness depended on you doing your best for God.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee and the Pharisees were renowned for their righteousness.  They were good at being good.  Remember that the apostle Paul had been a Pharisee.  In Philippians 3, he says that when he was a Pharisee he had blameless righteousness under the law.  His assumption had been that he was making his own way before God – he didn’t need a Saviour.  As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have been thinking the same way.

Now you have to remember that as he’s visiting with Jesus on this night, Nicodemus is probably an older man.  That’s implied in his question back in verse 4 about a man being born when he’s old.  That means that he’s spent most of his life with these assumptions.  Now he’s meeting with Jesus of Nazareth and these assumptions are being questioned.  He’s heard that seeing the kingdom of God requires a sovereign work of God.  He’s heard that entering the kingdom requires the Holy Spirit to give a new birth.  Coming to eternal life requires one to be born again or regenerated.  That’s speaking about initial regeneration.  Nicodemus is hearing something he’s never heard before.  His whole life he’s been thinking that entering the kingdom requires careful obedience, that it requires intense religiosity.  Now he hears that it requires being born again.  This is turning his world upside down.

That’s what’s behind the question in verse 9.  Nicodemus says to Jesus, “How can these things be?”  This is a skeptical question.  It’s skeptical – that means Nicodemus is doubting and unsure.  After all, this is a radical departure from everything he’s believed and taught up to this point in his life.  If he is going to affirm and believe what Jesus has been saying, it will mean throwing away many of the key assumptions that he’s believed and taught up to this point.  Again we could think of the apostle Paul and how his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road overturned so much of his former thinking and believing.  In Philippians 3 he says that he threw it all away, counted it all as rubbish, so that he could have the righteousness of Christ that depends on faith. 

Nicodemus asked his skeptical question because his assumptions were being challenged by Christ.  Loved ones, what happens when our assumptions are challenged by Christ in his Word?  There are different ways one can respond.  One would be just to assume that all of our assumptions are biblical because we hold them.  We believe it, therefore it must be biblical.  But that’s backwards.  A better approach is found in Acts 17. 

In Acts 17, Paul and Silas first went to Thessalonica and preached in the Jewish synagogue.  Some of the Jews there believed, but others became enraged at the way their most cherished assumptions were being challenged by the gospel.  Paul and Silas next went to a place called Berea.  There too they went to the Jewish synagogue to preach.  They went to people who had grown up with the same assumptions as Nicodemus.  But listen to what it says in Acts 17:11, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”  That’s the better approach.  When your assumptions are challenged, go back to the Word of God and study the Scriptures.  Check if your assumptions really are in line with God’s Word.  The Word had to be the standard for Nicodemus and it has to be our standard too.  All of our theological assumptions have to be measured against the Bible.  And when we see that there’s a disconnect between the Bible and things we assumed were true, we have to discard those assumptions and follow what the Bible teaches.  Loved ones, the Bible alone is our standard. 

That conviction is what led Jesus to his confronting answer to Nicodemus beginning in verse 10.  Christ expresses surprise at Nicodemus’ question.  He says, “You are the teacher of Israel,” and by that he means to say that Nicodemus is a highly-respected biblical scholar in the church of his day.  In our day, we would say that he was the same as a well-known and widely-published seminary professor.  He’s a theologian, an acknowledged expert in biblical studies.  “And yet,” says Jesus, “you do not understand these things?”  How can that be?  How can a biblical scholar of the calibre of Nicodemus fail to get these basic truths?  You see, Nicodemus is not only a man of great religious fervour, but also a scholar of the Scriptures.  He not only has commitment to his religion, he also supposedly has a great depth of knowledge of the Bible.  If you know so much about the Bible, “Dr. Nicodemus,” then how come you don’t understand this?  That’s a confronting question.  When he spoke about the new birth, Jesus was just restating what the Old Testament said in places like Ezekiel 36.  But “the teacher of Israel” failed to see that. 

In verse 11, Jesus again uses that solemn affirmation, “Truly, truly…”  or “Amen, amen.”  Again, that urges whoever is listening or reading to take this seriously.  Then Jesus says, “We speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen…”  Why does Jesus say, “we”?  Remember, this meeting is between Jesus and Nicodemus.  Nobody else appears to be there.  But yet Jesus says, “we.”  Why?  The best explanation is that Jesus is speaking in terms of his relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit.  In other words, he uses “we” because he is part of the Trinity.  This is supported by how Jesus speaks elsewhere in John’s gospel.  For example, in John 8:18, “I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.”  Christ has been sent from God to bring revelation.  He has been sent to bring a witness.  He has been sent to convict people of their sins and their need for a Saviour.  God knows this need and has seen it, and Jesus speaks of it.  People need to hear about the way to enter the kingdom, the way to have eternal life.  That’s the message Christ has come to bring. 

And that message has not met with a good response from many in the church of that time.  Jesus says, “But you do not receive our testimony.”  If you look at the word “you” there in your ESV Bible, you’ll see that there’s a footnote.  The footnote reminds us that the “you” is plural, so:  “all of you do not receive our testimony.”  It’s not just a problem with one person, not just a problem with Nicodemus.  It’s a wider problem amongst the people of God in that time.  They don’t receive the message that Christ is bringing.  They don’t believe the gospel that he’s preaching.  Even when they’re like Nicodemus, very religious and highly educated in the Scriptures, they don’t believe when the Messiah prophesied in the Scriptures appears to bring them good news.  The people in the church are happy to go on being outwardly religious, even inwardly with a general belief in God, but still without Jesus as their Saviour.

In verse 12, Christ says that he has been speaking about “earthly things” to Nicodemus.  Nicodemus doesn’t believe, at least not yet.  So how is he going to believe if Christ starts really speaking about heavenly things?  Our Saviour makes a distinction here between earthly things and heavenly things. This is a distinction between things made easy, and more advanced teachings.  It’s basically the same thing as when Paul later writes in 1 Corinthians 3 about the difference between milk and meat.  Milk is for new believers, it’s teaching offered at an introductory level.  It’s the basics.  Jesus has been speaking to Nicodemus about some basic things – he calls that “earthly things.”  He’s been giving instruction at the kinder or prep level.  And Nicodemus doesn’t get it, doesn’t believe.  So what’s going to happen if Jesus starts teaching at the uni level?  How would Nicodemus believe then?  This is a scathing comment on where Nicodemus is at spiritually.  Even though he has such great learning, even though he has all the outward appearances of having it all together religiously, he’s incapable of even believing the kinder or prep teachings that come from God.  He’s missing something crucial – it’s crucial because without it, he’s not going to heaven. 

Then in verse 13 Jesus speaks of his authority to address these matters.  When he speaks, people need to listen to him because he has heavenly credentials.  That’s really the main point of verse 13.  Christ says, “No one has ascended into heaven, except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”  The Son of Man is one of Christ’s favourite ways of referring to himself.  It draws on Daniel 7.  It emphasizes his true humanity.  But here, not only is his humanity in view, but also his divinity. 

Now the words, “no one has ascended into heaven,” are open to misunderstanding.  I recently read an explanation of these words which said that this proves that no one has gone to heaven after they die.  The person who was saying that believes that when you die, you simply go to the grave and you stay there until Jesus comes back for the resurrection of the dead.  This person claimed that your soul doesn’t go to heaven after you die because you don’t have a soul.  Then this person said that John 3:13 proves it, because Jesus said, “no one has ascended into heaven.”  “See,” he said, “no one has gone to heaven after they die.”  That’s what the argument was.  It’s a very bad argument and totally wrong.  It’s easy to prove it wrong by pointing to Enoch, whom Scripture says went to be with God without dying.  You could also point to Elijah, whom Scripture clearly says went up or ascended into heaven.  You could think of the Mount of Transfiguration where Moses makes an appearance too.  Obviously Jesus is not speaking about a literal ascending into heaven.  He’s not speaking about what happens to people after they die.  So what is he speaking about?    

When Christ says, “No one has ascended into heaven,” he is referring to his unique and ongoing communion with God.  This language of “ascent” is spiritual in character.  This is a metaphor, a word picture.  It refers to his constant fellowship with God, a fellowship which continued even after his incarnation.  Even after he had taken on a human nature, the Son of God continued to “ascend into heaven” in relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  The incarnation did not break that relationship with the other members of the Trinity in heaven.   

He is the one who has come into this world.  The Son of God, because he has that unique and ongoing communion with God, he can and does speak with authority about spiritual things.  Jesus came into this world to teach, to bear witness, to bring good news.  Unlike Nicodemus, Christ is the real expert.  He knows what he’s talking about because of who he is, where he’s come from, and who’s sent him. 

And he sums up the essence of his message in verses 14 and 15.  This is where Jesus really lays it on the line for Nicodemus.  He refers back to the Old Testament again, this time to the story we read earlier from Numbers 21.  That story is from the first five books of the Bible.  We call it the Pentateuch.  Jews call it the Torah.  The Pharisees were supposedly experts in the Torah.  So now Jesus draws from the Torah to drive home his main message to Nicodemus on this night. 

During the Exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel had been wicked and sinful.  They spoke against God and his servant Moses.  Their discontent provoked God’s wrath and so he sent a plague of venomous snakes.  When the people had a change of heart and called to the LORD, he granted a way out of the certain death that would result from a snake-bite.  He commanded Moses to put up a bronze snake.  It was raised up on a pole and God said that anyone who looked to it would be saved.  Jesus says here in John 3 that this was meant to point to him.

The Son of Man, true man and true God, would be lifted up too.  He would be lifted up on the cross.  At Golgotha, Jesus would be crucified in the place of sinners.  That had a purpose behind it: to turn away the wrath of God from sinners.  The Israelites sinned with their discontent and grumbling.  They provoked God’s anger.  They needed a way out and the bronze serpent was the way God graciously provided. 

Now here’s Nicodemus.  He’s thinking he’s a good religious person.  He’s not like those Israelites of old.  He does all the right things, he ticks all the right boxes.  What would he need a bronze serpent for?  Why would God be displeased with him?  To answer that, we could go to another passage of Scripture where Jesus speaks about one of the main problems with the Pharisees.  In Luke 18, Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  You remember this parable, I’m sure.  Do you remember how Jesus describes the Pharisee and how he prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”  Then that good Pharisee went on to list some of his accomplishments.  A very religious man.  But what was his problem?  What led Jesus to say that the tax collector went home justified rather than the Pharisee?  One was humble and the other was full of pride.  One thought he had it all together, and the other was broken and contrite before God.  One thought he had no need, and the other saw that he had nothing but need.  Nicodemus is one of these Pharisees.  He needs a bronze serpent because his heart is so full of pride.  Well, Proverbs says that God opposes the proud.  Nicodemus needs a Saviour exactly because he thinks he’s doing okay without one.  He needs a Saviour from his religion

The Son of Man would be lifted up on a cross to pay for the sins of religious people too.  That’s what verse 15 is getting across.  Jesus says that whoever believes in him will have eternal life.  You have to take note of that word “whoever.”  If you’ve got a pen and you’re taking notes, I’d underline that word in your Bible.  “Whoever” is the key.  Even Nicodemus, even this religious person who’s so prideful that he thinks he’s got it all together, even Nicodemus can have eternal life if he believes in Jesus.  If he trusts that, like the bronze serpent, Jesus is the way to have God’s wrath against him addressed, then he can have the life that lasts forever.  Having eternal life is not a matter of obeying all the right rules.  It’s a matter of believing in the right Saviour.  That’s what Christ was trying to get across.  He was calling the religious person to believe, not just to believe generally in God, but to believe in him.  He’s assuring him too that salvation is available even for people who have been enslaved by a life of trying to earn salvation from God.

What did Nicodemus do with this call to believe in Jesus?  Scripture doesn’t tell us.  Nicodemus appears twice more in John’s gospel.  At the end of chapter 7, Nicodemus speaks in Jesus’ favour before the Sanhedrin.  He said that the Sanhedrin needed to give Jesus a hearing.  The other Pharisees accused him of being from Galilee too.  Then in chapter 19, Nicodemus goes with Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus’ body.  Interesting.  That certainly indicates a high level of respect for Jesus.  It is suggestive.  Christian tradition holds that Nicodemus did become a Christian, but there is no way to know for sure before we get to heaven.

Perhaps Scripture leaves the question hanging for a reason.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit wants to leave the question open so that we would each consider our own need to believe in Christ.  Certainly this passage reminds us that being religious is not enough.  Being baptized, going to church twice every Sunday, going to a Christian school, having a Christian family, making financial contributions, volunteering on committees, going to Bible study -- all these things are well and good in themselves.  But listen carefully:  they don’t make you a Christian.  Jesus doesn’t say, “that whoever checks all the right boxes may have eternal life.”  No, he says, ‘that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  True saving faith is what everyone is called to.  Jesus called a highly religious member of the church of his day to that saving faith.  Today he still calls members of the church to saving faith.  All of us need to be called to believe in him and continue believing in him.  Loved ones, you’re called again today to be sure that you’re not hanging your salvation on anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ.  It’s not your religiosity that will save you.  It’s not your obedience.  It’s not even your knowledge of the Scriptures by itself.  Salvation is there only as you place your trust in Christ alone.  Believe in him and you will have eternal life.  AMEN.    


Merciful Father,

In the days of Moses, you provided a way of rescue with the bronze serpent.  In our day, you’ve given a way of rescue through your Son Jesus lifted up on the cross.  Father, we confess to you that we all need him.  We repent of ever having thought that anything we do could substitute for him.  We turn our backs on all our efforts at trying to earn your favour or thinking that we can do our part to earn a place in heaven.  We know that this is all a product of our pride.  It’s sinful and it’s all in vain.  How we need your grace in the only Saviour Jesus!  Father, please help us with your Holy Spirit so that we look to him and him only for our salvation.  Help us always to see our great need for him, help us always to look and depend on him alone.                                                     

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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