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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
John 3:16. The Gospel-in-a nutshell. You have seen it plastered on billboards, tagged on buildings, spray painted on railroad cars, printed on eye black strips, and held up in the endzone of a nationally televised football game. This verse has become a public fixture of Christian efforts to evangelize the world. By putting this verse out there, people hope others will read the Bible, encounter Jesus, and believe God sent His Son into the world to save them.
This is good. Anything that puts people into contact with God’s Word is a good thing because the Spirit works through the Word. But today, we come and encounter this Word in church. Here, it is not plastered on a billboard or held up in the endzone. No, here, it is spoken privately in a late-night conversation.
Sometimes, God’s Word works in a private and personal way. When you see this verse painted on a building, it is public and, unfortunately, impersonal. You do not know who put it there or for whom it was intended. It is not part of a conversation. It is present in an environment, kind of like advertising or trash. Someone may pick it up if they are interested. But, when you read this verse in context in John’s Gospel, it is private and personal. It must be dealt with.
Jesus had frequent encounters with the Pharisees, the work-righteous and often hypocritical Jewish religious elite. Usually, the Pharisees sought to discredit Jesus. They didn’t really want an answer but sought to trap Him, publicly, in His words, much like the gotcha questions we see in today’s politics.
But this time one of them comes alone, secretly, at night. He is Nicodemus, also a leader of the Jews, a member of the ruling council (Sanhedrin). As a Pharisee and ruler, Nicodemus undoubtedly knows the Old Testament well. But he has some legitimate questions he really wants good answers for. He has been listening to Jesus’ teaching, but he does not understand it.
Nicodemus, unlike the others, comes sincerely seeking the truth. Jesus’ teaching and signs have impressed him. He knows that Jesus has come from God because Jesus does miracles no one could do without God. Still, Nicodemus doesn’t know what to make of this teacher, so he has come to see for himself.
Jesus gets right to the point: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). To Nicodemus, Jesus is talking in riddles. He senses a deeper meaning, but what is it? So he asks, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4).
Jesus again emphasizes the solemn truth of His response: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6). Water and Spirit work together in the new birth.
Jesus is speaking of Baptism, through which the Spirit works saving faith. We need this heavenly rebirth to enter God’s kingdom, or even see it. God’s kingdom is God’s rule of grace in our hearts. Through Baptism, the Holy Spirit connects us with God’s ruling love. He works a new birth, birth from above, a birth that makes a person a child of God and a member of God’s kingdom. The apostle Paul describes it this way: “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
Two births—one is physical and one spiritual. One is flesh born of flesh; the other spirit born of Spirit. All of us alike come into this world outside of God’s kingdom. Contrary to what some teach, even infants begin their lives under sin’s condemnation. Babies may look as pure as spring water, but the source is polluted. But there is a water that purifies, the water that brings with it God’s Spirit. As Ezekiel prophesied of the Lord: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean… “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you… And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes and be careful to obey My rules” (Ezekiel 36:25-27). The Spirit works the new birth through the water of Baptism.
Nicodemus has a hard time understanding this. So, Jesus continues: “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8).
We human beings can understand the working of God’s Spirit as little as we can predict the wind blowing on us. We know when it blows, and it affects us. But we don’t see it. We can’t be certain when or from what angle it will come. So no one can fully understand how God sends the Spirit. We just know He does.
Jesus makes one imperceptible change in His words here. When He says, “You must be born again,” He uses the Greek plural “you.” Clearly, He is not speaking only about Nicodemus, but of all people.
Nicodemus remains incredulous. He asks again, “How can these things be?”
In His reply, Jesus first rebukes Nicodemus, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe in the heavenly things?” (John 3:10-12).
Jesus has just spoken to Nicodemus of the spiritual activity that takes place in this world, “earthly things.” The new birth happens in a person’s heart here on earth. Repentance, Baptism, and faith happen on earth. But Nicodemus still does not believe. How then can he possibly believe if Jesus is to tell him of spiritual activity that takes place in heaven, “heavenly things.” Is Nicodemus ready to learn about God’s eternal plan for the world’s salvation and about Jesus, God’s Son, who was with God in the beginning?
In this way, Jesus prepares Nicodemus to hear the even more wondrous “heavenly things.” “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13). Jesus has the knowledge and authority to tell Nicodemus of heavenly things because He alone came from heaven. He is the Word, who was with God when the plan of salvation was determined. And He has become a perfect human being, the Son of Man, to execute the plan.
Now comes the teachings from heaven. Jesus directs Nicodemus to his well-studied Scriptures for understanding: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Jesus draws an analogy between Moses lifting up the brass serpent on a pole in the desert (Numbers 21:8, 9) and His own saving work for the world on a cross. Everyone who looked in faith at the snake was healed from the bite of deadly snakes. Everyone who looks in faith at Jesus will be saved from the bite of eternal death and have eternal life. This is the life that begins with the new birth by the Spirit.
Jesus is now ready to teach Nicodemus God’s eternal plan of salvation. In simple terms, which most Christians today know from memory, Jesus sums up the plan: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
God loved the world He had created, even though the crown of that creation had gone bad and ruined it all. Our sins did not stop God from loving us. He offers the ultimate sacrifice for the world He loves. He gives His one and only Son. This giving, however, means more than having Him born of a virgin mother and hailed as Savior. God gives His Son as the necessary sacrifice for the world’s sins.
Then Jesus repeats what God’s gift means: “Whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Faith saves. But not just any faith—faith in the Son of God, who was given as our sacrifice. Those who believe in Him shall not perish; they shall not die eternally. Believers live on forever with Jesus. We enjoy life with Jesus now already, but after death we will know life in full glory.
When Nicodemus came to see Jesus that night, he could not have known where his questions would lead. Jesus lays out God’s plan of salvation for Nicodemus. No human being could have devised such a plan. No one would have imagined it. It could not work without God. But here is God, revealed in His triune majesty. God the Father loves the undeserving world so much that He sends His Son to save it. God the Son, present here in the person of Jesus, comes to fulfill the Father’s will and win eternal life for all people. God the Spirit comes to work the faith people need to receive the gift of eternal life. He brings about a new birth.
Notice the way this relationship with Jesus moves Nicodemus from a private conversation at night to a public witness of his faith in the world. Here, Nicodemus questions Jesus privately. Later, Nicodemus questions his fellow religious leaders, asking them whether or not they have given Jesus a fair hearing (John 7:50). Then, finally, at the end, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus comes out into the open, bringing 75 pounds of spices to anoint Jesus and provide Him with an honorable burial (John 19:39). By faith, Nicodemus gives public witness to Jesus. It takes time for Nicodemus to move from private conversation to public witness—time and the gracious working of God.
That gracious work is something we need to remember today. With the growing hostility toward the Christian Church in our country, public conversations are more difficult. People disagree with many of the moral teachings of the Church. They resent the privileged position the Church has had over the years and want to create a public realm where other views are heard and accepted. Some go so far to suggest that the Christian voice is dangerous and should be silenced.
What this means is this most public of verses might again need to be encountered in private ways. It is in our relationships with people where God will work through His Word. Those late-night conversations are not easy. To hold up a sign at a sporting event, all you need is to go to Walmart and buy some poster board and markers. You can make the sign and then hold it up. To enter into a private conversation with another, however, you need to cultivate a relationship of trust. You need to have a place where another person feels comfortable asking you questions, knowing you will listen to them before asking them to listen to you.
The night that Nicodemus went to see Jesus, it couldn’t have been easy for him. Jesus had just cleared the temple of those who had turned His Father’s house into a market. Contact with Jesus was not desirable for any Pharisee at this point. It goes without saying that the Sanhedrin would not be inviting Jesus to speak for their next prayer breakfast. Yet Nicodemus ventures out at night to meet with Him.
I wonder how many evenings Nicodemus stewed over this decision before he actually worked up the nerve to go. What intrigued him so much about this man from Galilee that he was willing to risk everything by going to Jesus?
Nicodemus was driven by a desire to know the truth. He did not yet know Jesus is the Son of God, the promised Messiah, but he saw something at work in Jesus, and he had to find out more.
You, too, will attract others who do not yet know that Jesus is the Christ. There will be those who see the hand of God in your life and desire to know more about the faith that you hold. But you never know when that’s going to happen, so you must always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15).
And who knows how God will work through your witness. The Holy Spirit works when and where He wills. You’re not called to convert anyone. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. You’re called to faithfulness. Just simply listen, pray for a teachable moment, respect where they’re coming from, and then firmly and lovingly share God’s Word of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life in Jesus Christ that you have come to know for your own life. And then let the Holy Spirit go to work. You never know what may happen. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.