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Sermon September 15, 2019

Princeton Presbyterian Church (EPC) Sermon # 1412

September 15, 2019 John 3.1-21

Dr. Ed Pettus

(This is an extended outline, not a verbatim transcript.)

 

“Heavenly Things”

 

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 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.”

9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 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. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

 

  • Those Late Night Talks

 

Remember when we were young enough to stay up past 9:30pm and talk about things of life until the wee hours of the morning. Remember when we might even jump in a car with friends for a road trip late at night and talk for hours on the road. Remember when you went on a date and talked and talked about the things that interested you and you seemed to never get tired! Ok, maybe our memories are not that good either. There were times when we were that young. There were times when we were energized for such activities.

When I look at the time of night Nicodemus went to see Jesus, I don’t know the hour. All we know is that it was by night. It was a time shrouded in darkness. It was a hidden time late when few were still awake. I doubt seriously that Nicodemus was a young man either. But somehow he had the alertness at night to go to Jesus. He was energized to talk late into the night if necessary.

 

  • Nicodemus Speaks

 

There are possibly two or more motivations for Nicodemus to come to Jesus by night. One is that Nicodemus does suspect that there is something more to Jesus than just a prophet and Nicodemus wants to find out more. Another might be that Nicodemus is simply being a typical Pharisee and seeking favor with God by acknowledging that God is with Jesus. He does speak a rather confident and confessional statement about Jesus. God must be with Jesus for Him to be able to do what He does. Jesus must be a teacher come from God. I like to think that Nicodemus is one of the Jews who may already believe or at least suspect that Jesus is who He says He is. Something is stirring in Nicodemus’ heart. “Rabbi” -a term of respect. “Teacher come from God” -for a Pharisee there would be no higher praise. “God is with him” -recognition of Jesus power to work wonders and signs.

 

Nicodemus comes in the night but he is quite aware of the signs Jesus has done. The first sign recorded in John is the turning of water into wine at Cana. John’s gospel focuses heavily on the signs Jesus performed: healings, feedings, walking on water, you know, those kinds of things! Nicodemus speaks of signs but Jesus jumps right into new birth. Jesus is not interested in signs at the moment. Jesus controls the conversation. Signs are great, but people so often see a sign and they want more signs, more miracles, more proof. Jesus could do millions of signs and still there would be unbelievers. People are stubborn. People can be hard-hearted and hard-headed. What people really need are not signs but rebirth. What the world has always needed is new life in Jesus Christ.

Nicodemus also comes with a level of respect that most Pharisees did not share. To state that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God is to grant respect. This is a powerful comment coming from one who was responsible to teach the Jews about the Torah and to lead the Jews in the ways of God. Nicodemus does return to the gospel narrative later in John’s gospel. Could it be that Nicodemus began to see at some point? It is Nicodemus who pleads with the religious leaders to give Jesus a fair hearing (7:50-51) and it was Nicodemus who bought myrrh and aloes for Jesus’ burial (19:39). We do not hear from Nicodemus again, so we will have to wait till heaven to find out.

 

  • Jesus Responds

 

Nicodemus says nothing about the Kingdom of God or seeing it or about new birth. He does not even ask a question. He makes a statement about confidence that God is with Jesus. Jesus sets the agenda for the conversation from the very start. He makes a statement that seems to have nothing to do with what Nicodemus said, except that Nicodemus said something about God with Jesus. Jesus then talks about seeing the kingdom of God if we are born again.

We have been looking to Jesus and the conversations he has with people in order to help us have similar conversations about Jesus. We have read in 1 Peter about being ready to defend the hope that is within us and last Sunday we considered some strategies Jesus used like responding to a question with a question, telling a story, or allowing some space within the conversation. Here in John three we have a conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus – one on one.

I want to suggest a few things we might learn from Jesus in this conversation. First, Jesus knew what Nicodemus needed. Jesus knows what Nicodemus needs to know before Nicodemus knows himself. Perhaps this is why Jesus set the agenda from the start. How do we discern what another may need? Nicodemus needed Jesus. Nicodemus needed to see more of what Jesus was about. Three things I think everyone needs and certainly Nicodemus needed. 1) Everybody needs Jesus; 2) Everybody needs someone who cares enough to tell the truth; 3) Everybody need someone to love them and someone to love. So, first thing, Jesus knew what Nicodemus needed. He knew that Nicodemus needed to move beyond his Pharisaical views and into the heart of heavenly things. That is also something everyone who does not know Jesus needs, to move from the earthly view of things to a heavenly view. This leads to our second point for conversations.

Second, Jesus uses earthly things to reveal heavenly things. You must be born again. Birth is earthly, human, known to Nicodemus. “Born again” is foreign, strange, confusing to Nicodemus. Jesus and Nicodemus are on different plains. Jesus is talking about spiritual matters and Nicodemus is stuck on signs that can be seen. This was a common occurrence with Jesus, He would be talking at one level and everyone else was at another level. It is why there was so much confusion and some went away from Jesus for that reason. The disciples would listen to Jesus teach something and come away more confused than ever. Then Jesus would bring more clarity for them later. It is the same pattern here with Nicodemus, but one difference is that Jesus believes Nicodemus, as a highly qualified religious thinker, should understand these things (v. 9).

Jesus first uses birth as a metaphor and then uses the wind. What is even more impressive about the wind is that it is the same Greek word for spirit and for breath. It is through the metaphor of wind that Jesus seeks to help Nicodemus see what it means to 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

The wind is the Greek word pneuma, from which we get things like pneumatic tools, powered by air pressure – wind! Pneuma has several meanings, wind, spirit, and breath. We know that meaning only by the context of the text. Here Jesus is using it is the two ways of wind and spirit. The wind blows. It comes and goes and we don’t see it. The Spirit blows in a similar manner, we don’t see it, but like wind we see the effects of the wind and the Spirit. This too is the mystery and majesty of being born again. God moves in our lives like a wind, invisible, powerful, refreshing, bending, even breaking, but always moving. I love the analogy of hoisting a sail to catch the wind. We catch the Spirit that He would lead us across the waters. We live in the Spirit that is unseen by the world and by those who cannot discern spiritual things, that is, until God does a work in their life.

Jesus uses lots of earthly things to help us see heavenly things. Bread, wine, water. Grain of wheat, mustard seed, debt forgiveness, neighborly behavior, and many more.

 

Jesus goes on from this point to clarify what Nicodemus should see, even citing Moses as evidence that Jesus is the One in whom we shall believe for new birth. Jesus is saying in paraphrase, “Nicodemus, here is one of our larger than life figures in the Jewish faith and tradition. Just as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, so it is with the Son of Man.” [Jesus says something similar in John 5.46-47 - For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”] If Nicodemus can’t see spiritual things through the earthly things, perhaps he can see from his own Scripture. Think about it, the Scriptures are earthly in the sense that we have it in our hands, but also spiritual in the sense that it is inspired and authored by God.

 

In quoting Scripture to Nicodemus, the third thing Jesus does is plant a seed. This is the next step for Nicodemus – to understand and believe that you must be born anew, that is, in believing that Jesus is the Son of God. Nicodemus needs to move on in his thinking and in his faith. It is important that we see Jesus’ play on words here. The word translated “born again” literally means “anew” and “from above”. We are born anew because we are born from above. It is God’s work of begetting. It is not up to us to be born physically, nor is it up to us to be born spiritually. This is God’s doing. We can see that Nicodemus does not understand this business of rebirth because it is a question that can only be understood through the very Spirit that makes that birth possible. But the seed has been planted.

We may not know where our time with someone fits in their journey. We might be the first to plant a seed or the last or somewhere between. We are simply placed where we are to plant the seed.

 

 

 

  • Heavenly Things

 

So here are some things for us to think about when we have conversations with others.

  1. Everyone needs Jesus. Everyone needs the truth. Everyone needs love.

  2. Think about ways to use earthly things to help others see heavenly things.

  3. Plant a seed.

 

Only God can open the heart to heavenly things. It is not our job to get people to believe, only to tell them of heavenly things. It is only by the Spirit of God that those things told will be understood. What we can do is to pray that God will open that persons understanding. We can pray that that person will think about what has been said and will himself pray for God to give him or her understanding. 1 Corinthians 2 is a great chapter on this understanding that God opens the heart to the things of the Spirit. On our own we cannot understand, but with God regenerating our hearts we can. So we can pray for people to gain that understanding from God, but let me add to that, that we pray for ourselves so that we might gain understanding to communicate heavenly things.