Expository Sermon on John 3
Bellevue SDA Church 9/8/2018
©2018 by Maylan Schurch
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Please open your Bibles again to John chapter 3.
This is still another sermon in a series I’ve called “Red Print.” Since the beginning of the year we’ve been looking at Jesus’ words in the book of Matthew, and now we are moving to the book of John. As you might know, Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain a lot of the same material, but John has a lot of Jesus’ sayings that the other three Gospels don’t include.
So, as we close out the year, we’ll be looking at real words Jesus actually said, from the gospel of John. This is the safest way to find out what is going on in the mind of our Creator, Redeemer, and Rescuer. If you were here for Elliott St. Michell’s dedication last Sabbath, you’ll remember that Jesus said to His disciples in John 15, “You are clean because of the words I have spoken to you.” In other words, Jesus’ words have power to cleanse – which is a good reason to spend time listening to His words.
I’m sure that many times pollsters have asked people their favorite Bible verse, and I’m sure that John 3:16 is at the top of pretty much everyone’s list. One of the first songs I remember learning in the little one room Seventh-day Adventist elementary school I attended near Redfield, South Dakota was the one that goes, “For God so loved the world, He gave His only son, to die on Calvary’s tree, from sin to set me free. Someday He’s coming back, what glory that will be! Wonderful His love to me.”
But back when Jesus spoke these words to the Pharisee Nicodemus, there were no such things as verse numbers. John 3:16 didn’t stand out by being separated from the others by numbering. It was simply part of a series of ideas Jesus was sharing with Nicodemus.
As I was studying this chapter this week, I discovered several other truths in this chapter that we really need to learn or review. I think each one is crucial to our understanding of John 3:16. Let’s take a look at some of them.
John 3:1 – 3 [NKJV]: There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 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.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
So, what is the first truth we find in the Bible’s most beloved chapter? If you’re taking sermon notes, here comes Sermon Point One.
I must be born again.
Even though that idea doesn’t show up in John 3:16, Jesus thinks it’s important. In fact, as Nicodemus begins the conversation by paying Jesus some gracious compliments, Jesus interrupts him. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth are that we need to be born again, or born “anew,” or “born from above. The Greek word can mean all three.
In other words, the first thing Jesus wants to impress upon Nicodemus is that he needs to be spiritually reborn. And in a knee-jerk response, Nicodemus slips into the rabbinic-argument mode as he tries to grapple with this idea.
Verse 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?”
He asks Jesus how it’s possible to be born again. But Jesus tells him, “You claim to be Israel’s teacher, and you don’t know this?”
Because Nicodemus should have picked up on this during his years of Bible study. Over and over in the Old Testament, God tells people that they need to have a new heart, a new spiritual experience. David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” The word “heart” even shows up at a couple of dozen times in the law-book of Deuteronomy, and most of those times God is talking about the hearts of His people, which need to be softened and changed.
And Jesus uses the idea of birth. You need to be born again, born from above.
Several years ago I had the chance to help Russian Adventist leader Mikhail Kulakov with a book on the story of his life. His father was an Adventist pastor in the Soviet Union, and the family had to move from place to place to avoid antagonizing the authorities.
During one particularly hard time, when the family had barely anything to eat, and no money, Mikhail’s mother gave birth to a new little brother. Young Mikhail literally spent hours beside the new baby, watching him, marveling at his perfect skin, his beautiful eyes, and the miracle of what had happened. It seemed that this little baby was a symbol of hope, proof that no matter how difficult their current situation was, God was still the Creator, and would use His power eventually to make everything new again, just like that little child.
As I mentioned, Nicodemus had no clue about this whole idea of spiritual rebirth, even though a changed heart was a familiar theme in the Old Testament. So why didn’t he have a clue? The answer is probably that like the other Pharisees and religious teachers of his time, Nicodemus was so focused on following God’s law, working through a checklist of everything God had said to do, that he subconsciously thought that maybe this was how you were saved – being very legalistic and trying to perfect yourself.
It’s always a good thing for us to review how salvation happens. It begins in the heart, and then in loving response, we work out our salvation by allowing the Holy Spirit permission to help us to do what the Lord wants us to do.
So how does this change happen? We find out more details as we keep reading.
Verses 4 – 8: 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?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, 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. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nowadays weather forecasters with their computer models can do a better job of tracking which way the wind blows and where it will come from. For example, forecasters had been telling us that it would rain last night. And sure enough, a little rain did fall, and it smelled so sweet.
But even though we now have a slightly better idea about wind direction, and how and where the weather will change, the Holy Spirit remains just as mysterious. As a pastor, I’ve been watching people change for decades, as the Holy Spirit works on their hearts, and it’s always a very awe-inspiring experience.
We need to just keep praying for family or friends who need that change. We need to trust that the God who knows our hearts knows how to get through to those hearts. He won’t force our will, but the Holy Spirit is tremendously powerful if He is given permission to work.
But here, Jesus gives us a very important truth, which I’m going to make Sermon Point Two. What’s this second important truth we learn from John three?
Not only must I be born again, but I become born again through water and the Holy Spirit.
For many years, when I read this verse, I asked myself, “Why did Jesus insist on including water here? Isn’t it most important that we be spiritually reborn by the help of the Holy Spirit? Water is such a physical thing. Why would Jesus put these two together?”
I believe the answer is that salvation has never been totally internal, never totally mental. God did not create us merely as minds sitting in tanks in a laboratory, doing nothing but thinking. The ancient Greeks used to believe that the soul was something conscious, able to take up residence in a body as its house for a while. And when the body died, the still-conscious soul would go someplace else.
Well, that is not what the Bible teaches. I don’t have a soul inside me. I AM a soul. When God created Adam and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, Adam became a living soul. God did not insert an already-conscious soul into Adam, but God’s breath of life, or spark of life, combined with Adam’s body, so that both together became the soul.
And as Adam opened his eyes, and blinked them a couple of times, and sat up, God probably pointed to a nearby grapevine, and told Adam to take a grape and see what he thought of it. God didn’t feed the grape to Adam – Adam needed to reach out his hand and get it for himself.
That’s the way God created us. We learn something, and we respond to it. It’s always fun to think about our teenagers who are learning to drive. Driving is a learn-and-respond skill.
I always tell kids that I have only two pieces of driving rule advice for them, and if they remember those rules, it will help them avoid the most serious problems. My first rule is to stay far enough back from the car in front of you. My second rule is to change lanes very slowly, and only after double and triple checking the lane you’re moving into both in your mirrors and over your shoulder.
In other words, what we’re talking about is follow-through. Jesus says I become born again through both water and the Holy Spirit. “Water” is talking about baptism. How do we know that Jesus thinks baptism is so important? First of all, He set the example for us – He Himself was baptized. Second, He said to be baptized. Third, He sent His followers out into the world to baptize people.
Baptism is just another example of follow-through. All through the Old Testament, Israelites knew that in order to have their sins forgiven, they needed to confess those sins, but also bring an animal sacrifice. In other words, they needed to follow through, and do what God said to do. Because God always has a reason for asking us to do something.
In Acts 2:38, after the Holy Spirit had stirred the hearts of the people who listened to Peter preach on the day of Pentecost, the people urgently asked Peter what they should do. Peter could have simply said, “Repent,” and left it at that. Instead, he followed what Jesus said to do, and told them “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you.” In other words, salvation contains physical follow-through.
Shelley and I look back fondly on a lady we knew back when we were at the Shoreline church. Betty was her name, and by the time she started attending church, she was very disabled, and used a wheelchair. Betty lived in a care facility, and she was not even able to get out of her wheelchair and into her bed by herself – her caregivers had to lift her up.
Betty had been a growing Christian before she started attending our church, and the more she thought about her relationship with Jesus, the more she said to me, “I want to be baptized.”
At that point, our church didn’t have its own baptistery. The Adventist congregation had moved into a Free Methodist church building, and since baptism by immersion wasn’t as important to them, they hadn’t built a baptistery into the sanctuary design.
But Betty kept asking me to baptize her. I would say, “Well, Betty, we can find a place to do this, but this is going to be pretty difficult for you. Remember, the thief on the cross who accepted Jesus wasn’t able to be baptized. The Lord will understand.”
But Betty would not take no for an answer. She said, “I really want to be baptized.”
So I made arrangements with the Everett Seventh-day Adventist church to use their baptistery for Betty. I haven’t looked at the Everett church baptistery recently, but I imagine it’s the same as it was back then. The person being baptized had to ascend a long flight of steps up to the baptistery level, and from there, step down into the baptismal pool.
So what we did on that Sabbath was put Betty in a room with some deaconesses, who helped her get into a baptismal robe. And then, two strong deacons carried Betty up that long flight of steps, and they actually walked down into that baptismal pool with her. And when I said, “I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” those deacons lowered Betty into the water, and brought her back up again.
And Betty was overjoyed. Betty felt the joy of totally following through on what Jesus asked. I think if I were in her situation, I would have been petrified with fear. Would those deacons drop me, going up that flight of stairs? And even worse, would they drop me into that water and not be able to get me out right away?
But Betty fearlessly set her heart on following Jesus all the way, doing exactly what He had said to do. And because she insisted on being able to follow through on everything Jesus said to do, Betty lived the rest of her life as a happy, joyous, fulfilled Christian woman.
So what about you? Have you been baptized? Have you allowed the Holy Spirit to change your heart, to deepen your love for your Savior? Are you a “Betty” Christian?
Every week in the bulletin we have a little communication card. And one of the options on that card is “I would like to be baptized.” Baptism is what followers of Jesus do. So if you’d like to have that happen in your life, talk with me afterward.
As I mentioned, there’s a lot more in this chapter that we could possibly cover in one sermon. But I would like to look at one more truth Jesus mentioned. I find it really an interesting and thought-provoking one. And it plays off what we’ve just been talking about – the importance of follow-through. Let’s start down in verse 17.
Verses 17 – 19: For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
To me, those last few words are very surprising, and even disturbing. The verse says that even though light has come into the world – and this is of course talking about Jesus the Light of the world – it says that a lot of men (and presumably women too) loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
It seems to me that that’s kind of backwards. Don’t you do evil deeds because you love darkness rather than light? But that’s not what Jesus said – and I checked this out in several dependable Bible translations. It says that the reason these people loved spiritual darkness rather than spiritual light was because their deeds were evil. It’s their deeds that caused them to love darkness, not the other way around.
So what does this mean? It means that the deeds we do can have great power over us.
In fact, let’s make that Sermon Point Three. What’s another important truth Jesus tells us here in John three?
Here in this chapter Jesus tells me I need to be born again, and that this happens through both water and the Holy Spirit. And He has just told me that the deeds I do can have great power over me.
In other words, doing the deeds comes first, and then the spiritual response. Apparently, the people Jesus was speaking about loved to do their evil deeds so much that when any heaven-sent light (including Jesus Himself) came along, they hated that light because they were doing the evil deeds.
So what should I do now that I know this? It means that my deeds have such power over me that if I want to change my life in some way, I must start acting out the change. I’ve heard that runners find this true. They start to run, and pretty soon running becomes what they believe in.
My brother-in-law in South Dakota is a New York Yankees fan, even though everybody else around him roots for the Minnesota Twins. But Ron did not develop his love for the Yankees from a serious, systematic, philosophical study of the merits of both teams. He loves the Yankees because his dad loved the Yankees, and the two of them would wear Yankee baseball caps and read newspaper stories about the Yankees, and Ron would buy baseball cards with Yankee players’ pictures on them. So the deeds came first, and out of those deeds grew love and loyalty.
This “deeds come first” idea is such an important idea that Jesus mentioned it in another part of the book of John. Turn ahead to John 7. To me, this is really fascinating. It shows, again, that deeds and beliefs have a far closer connection than I used to think.
In John 7, Jesus is talking to a group of people who are very confused about Him, and not sure what to make of Him.
John 7:16 – 17: Jesus answered them and said, “My doctrine is not Mine, but His who sent Me. If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority.
Do you see that same principle at work? First, do the deeds (do God’s will), and then belief will grow. First, set your mind to doing what is right, following God’s will, and greater faith and understanding will follow.
The deeds that I do can have great power over me. If I do evil deeds, that will have an effect on what I believe, and I will resist further light from heaven. But if I do the will of God, that will reinforce my faith in Him.
I’m not suggesting that we can save ourselves with our deeds. The thief on the cross was helpless to follow through on his faith in Christ. Sometimes Jesus just reaches down and saves us, and helps us. Remember the paralyzed man who came into the presence of Jesus because his friends had brought him? The sick man couldn’t do anything for himself. And Jesus didn’t ask him to do anything. Jesus just healed him, right then and there.
So wherever you are in your spiritual walk, take courage. Step out in faith. Since Jesus tells us we need to be born again, ask Him to do that within you.
Since Jesus tells us this new birth happens through both water and the Holy Spirit, follow through. Ask Him for the Holy Spirit, and if you haven’t been baptized by immersion – the way Jesus was – ask me and I will help you fulfill Jesus’ command in that way.
And since Jesus tells us that what we do, day by day, does have a powerful effect on what we believe, let’s find out what He wants us to do, and do it. Let’s read through the 10 Commandments again, and observe them spiritually as well as physically. Because that’s how the Sermon on the Mount tells us we need to keep them. Don’t murder—and don’t even hate people. Don’t commit adultery—and don’t even lust after people.
And above all, let’s remember that our God is a powerful God. If our faith is weak, and if our deeds are feeble, we can always go to Him for strength. We can say, like the desperate father with the demon-possessed son told Jesus in Mark 9, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!”
Because God is my strong salvation. What foe have I to fear? In darkness and temptation, my Light, my Help, is near. Though hosts encamp around me, firm in the fight I stand. What terror can confound me, with God at my right hand?
That’s the first stanza of our closing song. Let stand and sing it together.
“God is My Strong Salvation” — 339