This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on March 27th, 2011. To listen to the audio of this sermon, just click on this link – Jn 3.
John 3:1-21 — HOW TO READ THE WORD OF GOD FOR SPIRITUAL INSIGHT
On this third sunday in Lent we ask for forgiveness for our violations of God’s Law and thank him for his Word. This morning we want to look at a familiar passage of Scripture in a new way. I want to look at this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus as a kind of parable that shows us how to come to the Word of God and meditate on it meaningfully – rather than coldly. As we consider what it means to move towards the cross this week (good Friday) we want to think about what it means to hear the words of Jesus in a living way.
(As you listen to the audio at the beginning of this sermon, Pete is holding up a very dead plant)
COME TO THE WORD ADMITTING YOUR NEED FOR GOD’S HELP.
Come with True Desire: Nicodemus sometimes gets a bad rap as just an ignorant Pharisee who doesn’t know anything. But the truth is that he is a noble man.
He is a stable and upright man who has become a leader among the Pharisee reform movement. He comes to Jesus at night – to be able to talk to him apart from the crowds – taking the risk of indignation from his colleagues – because he truly desires to know the truth. He addresses Jesus with respect and is clearly a thoughtful (not reactive) person. In a sense, he is like the best of us.
Pray and Admit that You Need Supernatural Intervention: Jesus says, very bluntly, “I tell you the truth, unless anyone is born from above he is not empowered to see the Kingdom of God” In other words, in order to be able to see God’s word properly – so that you are truly convicted – so that you are able to be filled with praise or joy or love for God – you need to be helped by God. Other wise, you may study God’s word – organize God’s word into helpful categories – memorize God’s word – find interesting facts in God’s word, but unless God helps you, you will not see the Kingdom – be spiritually awakened.
(Memorizing the Bible and knowing answers in grade school)
Confess that You are Spiritually Needy: Nicodemus’s words here are often misunderstood. He is not an idiot. He is not really asking if he should crawl back into his mother’s womb. Rather he is saying: Ok, I can see the new birth is necessary, but I am afraid that I am too old to change my pattern of life. I see I need the power of God, but I don’t seem to have it. I am so used to being the expert on Scripture – I am supposed to be a leader – but I don’t really know the things I am supposed to know. Am I a hopeless case?
In response, Jesus says something shocking (vs.5) – “I tell you the truth, unless anyone is born of water and spirit he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God” In other words, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he needs not only the Spirit of God – but he needs water baptism. Water baptism, at this time, was a ceremony by which an unclean Gentile became a member of the Jewish faith. The washing of water was a symbol that the unclean one was being washed – an act of humiliation for a Pharisee who was supposed to be Holy. Jesus was telling Nicodemus not only that he didn’t understand what he should understand – but that he was unclean.
We Need To Admit That We Are Needy – Blind – Hard Hearted – That We Need God To Break Through To Us: Unless we admit our need for God to reveal his word to us, we will remain spiritually insensitive. Nothing kills a passage like the notion that we already know what it is about. We need to come to the Scriptures with an openness to learn what we do not know and with an understanding that we are spiritually needy people.
COME TO THE WORD WILLING TO ACCEPT THE MESSAGE OF GRACE.
Nicodemus’ Struggle is Our Struggle: In vs 9-18 Nicodemus bares his soul and asks, “How can these things come about?”, or, “How can this happen – what do I need to do?” This is the question that has created many different types of Bible study method. We don’t seem to get a lot out of our study of Scripture and so we ask – how can I understand in a way that will bring the Scriptures to life? Usually our answer is to choose a method that looks promising.
Jesus’ answer – both to Nicodemus, who doesn’t know how to receive God’s Spirit, and to us, who don’t know how to see the Scriptures in a living way, is the same… Accept the Gospel!
Until we accept the message (the testimony) that God has loved the world (has loved us) so much that he sent his Son to die for our sin so that we could be reconciled to him – shown his favor – and receive an eternal inheritance, the Scriptures will be flat and stale and unprofitable to us. In fact, though many of us claim to believe the Gospel of God’s favor, we nevertheless come to the Scriptures as though we were doing our duty – fulfilling a quota. Jesus tells Nicodemus – “We testify to what we have seen but still you people will not accept our testimony”. The truth is that although we give intellectual assent to passages like John 3:16-17 – that describe how great God’s love is for us and his desire not to condemn – we often do not accept the testimony of grace.
Consequently we read the Scriptures as though the promises of grace and the offers of God’s love mean nothing to us – as though the righteousness of Christ were not ours. We read gracious passages of Scripture and see only condemnation. We read as though God were not speaking to us.
Accept the Testimony of God’s Love: James tells those who are seeking wisdom from God, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask god, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; being a double minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
In the same way, if we come to the word with an unwillingness to believe that the gracious message of God is for us – we cannot expect to receive anything. But if we come believing that God wants to express his love to us and give us wisdom – if we are willing to receive grace and accept the testimony of Jesus – then we receive encouragement and joy from the word.
COME TO THE WORD SEEKING TO BE CHANGED.
Accept the Verdict: “This is the verdict: That Light has come into the world, and people loved darkness instead of light because their works were evil.”
Of course, Jesus is talking about faith here: People don’t believe because to believe in Jesus’ message is to expose our Iniquity – our desire and choice to go our own way – to do as we please without regard for God who made us. But this also has a lot to do with how we approach God’s word. God’s word shows us what holiness is like and what we were meant to be like. God’s word shows us what sin is and exposes our actions as – non neutral. As long as we demand that our actions are neutral – that they are just a matter of preference – rather than sin – we are unwilling to receive the verdict of Scripture.
The Light Exposes Us as Spiritual Failures: When I come into the light I am confronted by the fact that I am a spiritual failure. I am a sinner. I cannot change myself because I do not know how and I do not have the power to change what is in my heart.
But when I come into the light as a spiritual failure then, ”… the works that God has done may be plainly seen”. I begin to see that God takes me as a sinner and shows me grace. I begin to hear the ways in which God is calling me to repentance and to joyful life.
This week, as we continue to move towards Good Friday and the cross, I want to challenge you to approach God’s word as a needy person – willing to accept the grace of God – asking God to change your life.