The crucial question that faces every person isn't how we can become a better person, but whether we've been born again. In this message from John Chapter 3, Alistair Begg examines Jesus' encounter with Nicodemas and explains that regardless of religious background, only the Spirit of God can give spiritual life. When we take this truth to heart, our efforts in evangelism will be fueled by confidence in God, who is at work to save sinners.
Now, John chapter 3, and we’ll read from verse 1:
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know [that] you are a teacher who[’s] come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.’
“In reply Jesus declared, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’
“‘How can a man be born when he[’s] old?’ Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!’
“Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows [where] it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’
“‘How can this be?’ Nicodemus asked.
“‘You are Israel’s teacher,’ said Jesus, ‘and [you do] not understand these things? I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, [so] that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
“‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.’”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
A brief prayer before we look at this together:
We come, gracious God, to our Bibles in the firm conviction that by the Holy Spirit you speak to us as we turn to the Scriptures and seek to read them rightly and to understand them properly and to teach them faithfully and to believe them trustingly. We come in earnest and sincere need of your help at this point in the week and at this opening session of our conference. And we look away from all and everyone to you, the living God. And we seek you in the name of your Son, the Lord Jesus. Amen.
Well, the theme for the conference is found, as you will have already deduced, in Paul’s exhortation to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:5, where he encourages him to “keep [his] head,” to “endure hardship,” to “discharge all the duties of [his] ministry,” and right in the midst of that, to ensure that he is doing “the work of an evangelist.” And we’ve determined that this opening session should turn our gaze to the one who is the supreme example of evangelism—to look together at Jesus, who is the Evangelist.
John tells us that God has not sent his Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved. When Jesus steps onto the stage of human history, his opening phraseology following upon his baptism, as Mark records it, is “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” There is a sense in which we might say reverently, he doesn’t waste any time at all in getting about the business that he has been dispatched from eternity to take care of. And his love for people, his compassion for the crowds, his instinctive interest in the least and the last and the left out, is virtually palpable when we read the Gospels, and certainly when we read them upon our knees.
Calvin says, “Although there is nothing in the world deserving of God’s favour, He nevertheless shows He is favourable to the whole lost world when He calls all without exception to … faith [in] Christ, which is indeed entry into life.” And when we read each of the Gospel writers, we find that the emphasis is clear. “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” was the question posed by the Pharisees when they found him attending the meal at the house of Levi. And the answer came clearly: “I haven’t come to put together a group of righteous people. I have come,” said Jesus, “for sinners and to call sinners.” And when people sought for an explanation as to what had happened to this little man who’d been up the tree hoping for a chance to see the Lord Jesus, Jesus explained, “Let me tell you what has happened today: salvation has come to this house, for the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” And still the complaint came from the religious authorities as they followed him and tracked him and jumped out from behind hedges to accuse him; they said disparagingly, “This man welcomes sinners and [he] eats with them.” And that, of course, was their great complaint. And while the Pharisees muttered in this way, Luke tells us that the tax collectors and the sinners gathered round to listen to him, because they recognized, not only in the compassion of his eyes but in the truthfulness of his words, that he was unique and that he had come on a particular mission.
And as Jesus tells the stories in Luke 15, he makes it perfectly clearly that not only does God welcome sinners, but he is actually keenly engaged in seeking them out and in bringing them home. So much so that if you took, as it were, the vital signs of Jesus—if you were to take, as it were, the spiritual pulse of Jesus—you would find, as Sinclair Ferguson has observed, that “the pulse beat of [the heart of God] has an evangelistic rhythm.” “The pulse beat of [the heart of God] has an evangelistic rhythm.” Where would we then find the pulsebeat of God? Well, we would find it in the Son of God—he who is now incarnate, revealing to us all that it is possible to know in human form of the eternal God himself.
Now, we could spend our time profitably, although somewhat tediously, ranging just around the Gospels, looking for little snippets that would reinforce for us what we are saying here is true. But I don’t want to do that. In our second study, to which we’ll come on Wednesday—that is, the second one that I am privileged to provide—we will look at the encounter between Jesus and a religious nobody that is recorded for us in John chapter 4. This afternoon, we are considering this encounter between Jesus and a religious somebody. In chapter 4, it’s a lady, and it takes place in the noonday sun. In chapter 3, it’s a man, and it takes place, apparently, under cover of darkness.
And so John introduces us: “Now there was a man, and this man was a man of the Pharisees, and his name was Nicodemus, and he was a ruler of the Jews.” Wonderful start to everything, isn’t it? Makes us want to read on. And what happened? Well, he came to Jesus, and he came at night. And then John records for us the opening gambit.
I’ve never been very good at chess. I’ve always been completely enthralled by people who are good at chess, particularly those who can play chess without a chessboard. I had some friends at school in Ilkley who could do that. Miserable creatures they were, making one feel horribly inadequate in every way. I could hardly play it when the pieces were there; they could play it when there were no pieces there. I remember going on a journey, and they played an entire game, apparently, all the way through to checkmate. And they always had these opening moves that if you weren’t ready for them, they’d take you down in an instant. And all that “pawn to king 4” business and everything else, I tried my best with it, but I was no good.
And what we have here is quite an amazing opening gambit: “Rabbi, we know you’re a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform the miraculous signs you’re doing if God were not with him.” And Jesus might have said, “And a jolly good evening to you as well, Nicodemus!” For it’s a very nice greeting, isn’t it? It’s a wonderful start.
John has told us at the end of chapter 2 that there were people who had begun to believe in Jesus, but in an inadequate fashion, so much so that he tells us that Jesus, knowing what was in a man, did not “entrust himself to them.” They had made a tentative approach to Jesus. Jesus, recognizing where they were really coming, from them, has not fully disclosed himself to them. Nicodemus now arrives with sufficient knowledge to be able to admit that this man, this Jesus, is “a teacher … come from God.” But of course, to say that someone is a teacher come from God is a far cry from declaring him to be the Promised One for Israel, in the same way that in our dealings with people in interpersonal relationships today, it’s not uncommon for an individual to say, “Well, we believe that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God,” as if somehow or another that would perhaps end the discussion.
In the case of Nicodemus, the signs apparently are sufficient to have initiated this conversation. You will notice he refers in the plural to miraculous signs: “No one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing…” We know from the Gospel of John that we only have the record of one sign to this point—namely, the turning of water into wine. But we also know from the end of John that there were many other signs and things done by Jesus and said by Jesus that were “not recorded in this book.” But, John tells us helpfully, all of these things have been recorded—the signs, the indications—in order “that you [might] believe … and that by believing you [might] have life in his name.” So that the evangelistic purpose of John is clear, and at the very heart of it is this great evangelist—namely, Jesus himself.
But when you think about this and you realize that there is a background to Nicodemus which is not filled in for us, there is a context out of which he came—presumably a house, perhaps a wife, maybe children. Did he bid them farewell after the evening meal and say, “I’m just going to slip out for a little while”? Did he tell them where he was going? What mysterious providences are involved in bringing this significant ruler of the Jews in the nighttime to Jesus of Nazareth? Are we to assume, as most people suggest, that he comes in the night simply on account of fear? I’m not so sure of that interpretation. There would be no surprise if he came, not wanting to have his colleagues realize where he was going, what he was asking. But I found this little quote from Edersheim quite helpful; perhaps you will as well. Says Edersheim,
It must have been a mighty power of conviction, to break down prejudice so far as to lead this old Sanhedrist to acknowledge a Galilean, untrained in the Schools, as a Teacher come from God, and to repair to Him for direction on, perhaps, the most delicate and important point in Jewish theology.
“It must have been a mighty power of conviction.”
Isn’t it amazing when someone comes to see you? I had a telephone call such as I haven’t had in some time just about eleven days ago—a contact from a Starbucks with a person who had a son who would come to Parkside and watch the video machinery, the mother in Starbucks an avowed atheist, tolerating her son’s engagement in religious things, concerned lest he get sucked into something. And in personal encounters with member of the congregation, this particular Starbucks individual, very keen to simply say that her son is here, but she doesn’t really believe a thing that he’s being exposed to; a real load of twaddle, she said it was. But I liked her, and others liked her. And probably twelve or fourteen months has elapsed since ever my wife and I had seen her, until eleven days ago and the telephone call: “I want to talk to you.” And she came, and I won’t tell you the details of the conversation, but I met her on my day off. That’s how interested I was to help her.
And this was the thing that struck me. She had these strange, disparate pieces of information and encounter which by themselves would be hard to quantify and put together; they were foundationally mysterious. She told me that in Cleveland Heights some months ago, she was walking alone on a street, and a lady walked past her, and as she passed, the lady simply said to her, “Are you trusting in Jesus Christ?” She had never seen the lady before in her life or anything about it. And she said to me, “What…?” I can’t actually quote what she said to me, but it had to do with the reverse of heaven. And you know, “What does that mean?” she said. “What’s up with the lady?” And this lady’s not a crazy person. She then went in, and she brought out a paper, and on the paper she had a phrase. And she said, “And what does this mean?” And she read it out, and it said, “Are you pleading the blood of Christ?” She said, “What … does that mean?” I said, “Who gave you that?” She said, “I was in a restaurant, and another lady wrote it down and gave it to me. And I’ve been carrying it around, ’cause I thought it was so bizarre. What does it mean?” So I said, “Well, it was a very interesting way the lady put it, but what she was really asking you was simply this.” And then I explained to her what it means to trust in Christ and so on. But I walked away from it saying, “What mysterious providences, what strange encounters, that bring people…” Just as Nicodemus shows up at night.
And the real darkness, actually, was not the darkness of the night. The real darkness was actually the darkness of his own night, which Jesus knew was the case, because “he knew what was in a man,” at the verse at the end of chapter 2. And it is important for us to recognize, just in passing, that in our dealings with other people, we don’t have the omniscience of Jesus, but when we deal with these individuals in the task of interpersonal relationships and evangelism, there are things that we know even about them that they don’t necessarily know about themselves. So that devout and upright and knowledgeable religious individuals are, says the Bible, without any kind of spiritual life, they are unable to rectify their predicament, and they’re actually without Christ, and they’re without hope in the world. In other words, they are in need of a radical change—the kind of change that can only be explained in terms of that which is akin to the revolution, the transformation, of birth: not a renovation but a transformation; not the disbursement of information but rather the encounter that involves regeneration.
And it is this which comes out, isn’t it? After his opening gambit, he’s on the receiving end of a striking reply. Verse 3: “In reply Jesus declared…” Now, Jesus was a kind and compassionate person. We know that. So he’s not being dismissive of the introduction that he has been on the receiving end of. But once again, Christ goes to the matter at hand. And whatever expectations Nicodemus, as a devout Jew, shared with his friends and colleagues about the kingdom of God, he surely must have been unprepared for this kind of statement. Doubtless, it knocked him back on his heels: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
We don’t have a lot on the kingdom of God in John’s Gospel. We don’t have it in the same way as it unfolds in Mark, or in the Synoptics. But Jesus here is essentially doing with Nicodemus, in this encounter, what we find at the beginning, for example, of Mark: “Here I am. The time has been fulfilled. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” “I can see you’re a teacher to come from God. No one could…” “I tell you the truth, the kingdom of God is near. This is what you need to do, Nicodemus.” Some of us would take an hour and a half and three days and fifteen encounters before we even get to the issue of the matter of the new birth, but not Jesus. No. “Let’s just get straight to the business.”
So he points out that instead of everybody coming together at the end of the age, with entry guaranteed to the religious Jew—because that was the expectation—Jesus is referring now to the presence of the kingdom, and quite remarkably, he’s saying that there is no entry into this kingdom apart from the fact that an individual is born “from above” or is “born again.”
Now, just imagine for a second what it was like for Nicodemus to find himself there. He obviously had a sense of inquiry in his heart, and he had begun, as we say, in a very gentle kind of fashion. And Jesus says, “Well, I have to tell you that unless you’re born again, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven, Nicodemus.” It must have been very important, mustn’t it, to be so straightforward and so forceful, and so soon?
And the reaction of Nicodemus makes it clear that he hasn’t a clue what Jesus meant by this—which is often the case, again, when we’re engaged in personal evangelism. We tell somebody something, and they come back as Nicodemus comes back: “Well, how can a man be born when he’s old? Surely he can’t enter a second time into his mother’s womb!” Is he simply saying that he can’t see how, given his age and stage, he can make a new start, he can turn over a new leaf?
I remember Billy Graham on one occasion saying that he had had an occasion to be in the company of Winston Churchill. And when he sat with Winston Churchill and explained the gospel to him as best he could, Churchill replied by saying, “It is too late for me now. It is too late for me now.” Is that what Nicodemus is saying here? “It’s too late for me. I’m too old and cold and settled in my ways. I’m an old Sanhedrinist Jew. How could this possibly be? I don’t see how that could happen at all.” No, I think he’s far too clever to think for a moment that Jesus is suggesting some kind of physical transformation or reconfiguration. His crass response is perhaps an attempt to distance himself from things.
Jesus follows up, verse 5: “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he’s born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, the Spirit gives birth to the spirit.” And then he says, “And you shouldn’t be surprised.” In verse 10, he says, “I am surprised that you’re surprised.” So there’s a lot of surprise going on.
Now, we have the benefit of reading this with the rest of the Gospel, so we know that we can read this in light of the prologue, John 1: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become [the] children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of [a] human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” So when we read this encounter, we read it in light of what we’ve already heard and discovered in the prologue. Nicodemus has no possibility of that. And that’s why he’s chided by Jesus, as Israel’s teacher, for not being able to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Well, what were the pieces of the puzzle? Well, if you go back to Ezekiel and to chapter 36, you find that the prophet there is looking forward to the day—and he writes of it in this way. Ezekiel 36:24: “For I will take you,” says God, “out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.” And here we go:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and [to] be careful to keep my laws.
It’s similar to the words of the psalmist, isn’t it, in Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
Now, as a ruler of the Jews, as someone who knew his Bible, he should have been aware of this prophesied cleansing, of this renewing of heart. And it is to this that Jesus is essentially referring, and he’s saying that this is the basis of entry into the kingdom—and it is the work of the Spirit.
Now, Jesus does not work all the details of this out. And I like that, because we’re often unable to work all the details out ourselves. But the big picture is clear: the experience of cleansing from the old life, symbolized by water, and the regenerating breath of the Spirit, symbolized by wind. “The wind blows where it pleases. You hear its sound.” He says, “You know that.” Perhaps the wind was blowing as they spoke, blowing up some of those narrow thoroughfares there in Jerusalem. And Jesus says, “There’s no way of knowing, really, where this started from. But its impact is unmistakable. We can see the evidences of it.” And so he says, “That is how it happens with everyone born of the Spirit.”
The hymn writer picks it up for us, doesn’t he? It says,
I know not how the Spirit moves,
Convincing men of sin,
Revealing Jesus through the Word,
Creating faith in him.
I know not how this saving faith
To me he did impart,
Nor how believing in his Word
Wrought peace within my heart.
There’s nothing formulaic about Jesus’ approach here. Indeed, there’s nothing formulaic about Jesus’ approach, as we’ll see when we get to chapter 4—an entirely different context, a different person, but essentially, at the core, Jesus is establishing the absolute necessity of new birth. The absolute necessity of new birth. And if we are going to hold to Jesus as our example, we too, in our preaching and in our conversations, must establish the absolute necessity of new birth.
Would it be entirely wrong for me to suggest that the whole notion of regeneration, spoken of, articulated in this way, has somewhat slipped to the back of many of our proclamations and our conversations, because whether we’re prepared to admit it or not, we actually have suffered rather badly from the dismissive way in which the last thirty years of American culture has pushed to the sidelines these “born again” people? “Oh, you’re not one of those ‘born agains,’ are you?” That’s enough to end any conversation. And some of us may even have been tempted, on the basis of contextualization, to let them know that “Oh, no, we’re not really. At least, we’re not a type-A born again person. We may be more of the B or the C category, but oh, no, we’re not… No, no, no, we’re not that at all.” “Well then, what are you?” “Well, we’re, um… Well, we’re just look at it a little differently, yes.” And the person says, “Well, that’s no help to me at all.”
It’s really very straightforward when you think about it, isn’t it? When you extrapolate from physical birth to spiritual birth. You don’t ever have someone say, “Well, are you a born person? Are you physically born?” “No, I’m not into physical birth. No. No.” Like the kid who comes home from school to do a study on birth set by the school: “Go home and ask about birth.” He comes home, he asks his mother, “Where did I come from?” His mother said, “A stork left you in the living room.” He asked his grandfather where his mother had come from. Same answer: stork in the living room. He had an older sister that had had a child, and he asked concerning the child. The sister told him the same story: stork in the living room. So he wrote his report, took it back to school, and went out, and the teacher read it, and she looked down at the report, and it said, “I went home and did as you asked, and I’m forced to conclude that there hasn’t been a natural birth in our family for three generations.”
Some of us are fiddling around with a sort of insipient form of sacramentalism. Some of us are actually starting to buy some of the notions that are out there. Some of us are actually allowing a discovery of Reformed theology to dull the very edges of that which is at the very forefront of evangelism in the New Testament, where Jesus, our supreme example, says straight out of the chute, “Let me tell you… I know you’re a good guy, and I know you have a great background, and I know you’re well thought of in the community, but I have to tell you this, Nicodemus: unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. And furthermore, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. And this I’m not giving to you as some kind of peculiar theological predilection, but this is at the very heart of the whole thing. You must be born again.” Yes, I am one of those “born again” people. In fact, if you are not born again, you’re not even a Christian! For regeneration is the work of God. We haven’t signed up for a program.
So, he establishes the absolute necessity of the new birth. He also identifies the supreme tragedy of Jewish unbelief. The supreme tragedy of Jewish unbelief.
Verse 11: “I tell you the truth…” And he uses the plural, the way that Nicodemus has used it—which the commentators spent pages on; it’s really tedious. Because when Nicodemus shows up and he says, “We know,” then they say, “Well, he must have been there with some of his friends,” and then someone else says, “No, he wasn’t with his friends,” and then now Jesus, he says “we,” and then they say, “Well, it must be he has some of his friends.” It’s just a complete and utter waste of time. The fact of the matter is that Jesus is addressing this with great clarity: “We are able to testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. If I speak to you of earthly things and you don’t get it, how will you possibly believe if I speak to you of heavenly things?”
What is he speaking about? What are these earthly things? What are these heavenly things? I don’t know. If what he means by earthly things, he’s speaking about the notion of being born again, seeing and entering into the kingdom in real time in the existentialism of the encounter—“If I tell you about entry into the kingdom now, here in this moment, Nicodemus, and you don’t get that, how are you ever going to understand the notion of the kingdom in all of its consummation and a company that no one can number from people all over the world? I could never even tell you about that, Nicodemus. If you don’t get it here, you’re not going to understand that there.”
But notice again that when Jesus says this, don’t think for a moment that he is able just to walk away from it, as it were. “I tell you, we’ve told you this, but still you people do not accept our testimony.” Don’t you sometimes wish you could just hear the tone of the voice of Jesus? I don’t think this is dismissive: [in a stern voice] “And still you people do not accept our testimony.” Why not? Well, because of his compassion. Is it remotely possible that the anguish of Paul for the Jewish people expressed in Romans 9 and 10 and 11 could be a greater anguish than the anguish of Christ himself for those to whom he came? Do you understand for a moment the posts on Christian websites in the past week that have read, “Osama bin Laden, rot in hell!” On Christian websites! “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, filled up with Nicodemuses, how often would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you wouldn’t come to me. I’ve told you of earthly things; you don’t get it. If I tell you heavenly things, there’s no possibility. I’m telling you, Nicodemus!”
The sense of urgency, the sense of passion, the sense of conviction, the sense of clarity—all of that woven into the very fabric of the Lord Jesus Christ himself. The Son of Man is the only one qualified to speak of these heavenly things, because he is the one to whom belongs the highest place in heaven.
Some of these little statements are enigmatic, aren’t they? “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.” John is not saying that he came, and then he went back, and then he came again. He’s simply saying that the highest place that heaven affords belongs to Christ. He is the only one who can speak to these things. In the words of Kendrick, “From heaven you came, helpless babe; entered our world, your glory veiled.”
You see, because no one is going to see in Christ as teacher—or Christ as sacrifice victim—the Son of God, apart from the regenerating work of the Spirit of God. How else do you explain the thief on one side and the thief on the other? “The wind blow where it wills. You can’t tell where it’s coming from; you don’t know where it’s going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” How do you explain this man? “I don’t think we should speak to Jesus like this. After all, we’re getting what our sins deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Where did he get that from? “This man has done nothing wrong.” If he’s done nothing wrong, why is he up there? That’s what the other guy says: “If you’re the Messiah, some Messiah! What possible Messiah could you be up here beside us? Get yourself down. Get us down.” The other guy says, “No, no, no, wait a minute. Jesus, would you remember me when you come into your kingdom?” Jesus says, “I can do better than that. Today!”
Now, there’s something really wrong with us if in our preaching or in our personal encounters we can simply in a dismissive way acknowledge the fact that people do not accept our testimony, as if it was a matter of small import. We’re not selling life insurance or cell phones. We’re standing between almighty God and his creation.
Thirdly, penultimately, and soon-to-endly, he identifies not only the absolute necessity of new birth and the supreme tragedy that is represented in the unbelief but, thirdly, the complete sufficiency of his own death. The complete sufficiency of his own death.
And once again, he does as we might expect: he uses the Bible. Here is a ruler of the Jews. Here is someone who’s been brought up on the Scriptures. Here is someone who understands the history of the people of God. And so, in a masterful way, he says, “You remember, Nicodemus, don’t you, the story that’s recorded for us in Numbers? You remember how the people grumbled and complained against God. You remember how he sent that plague of poisonous snakes to bring about death as a judgment on sin.”
Nicodemus would have said, “Yeah.”
“Well, do you remember the bronze snake that he put on the pole? And when people looked to that symbol, their physical life was restored.”
“Well, let me tell you, Nicodemus—and this may sound strange to you—but the Son of Man is going to be lifted up in a way that will be somewhat similar to what happened in that wilderness.”
And this phraseology “lifted up” is the phraseology not only that points us to the atonement but also to exaltation in the atonement: “Lifted up was he to die; ‘It is finished!’ was his cry.” “The Son of Man will be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life”—so that all who look to him and to what is being accomplished there will actually enter into the life that is truly life.
Now, I know I say this more often than I should, and I have a strange mind—well, that goes without saying—but I just so long to meet these people to fill in the blanks for me. I know the Spirit of God has provided us with everything we need; don’t send me a note on that. But… You know, what did he say when he went home to his wife?
“Where did you go tonight, Nicodemus? You weren’t bowling again, were you?”
“No, no, I didn’t go bowling. I actually went to see the Galilean, Jesus.”
“How did that go?”
“Well, I’ll tell you, it wasn’t quite what I expected.”
“Well, tell me what he said.”
“Well, he said, ‘Unless you’re born again, there’s no way into the kingdom of God.’ Apparently, he’s the King. Apparently, as far as I could make out from what he was saying, there’s a whole sort of story of redemption that runs right from the Pentateuch all the way right to him.”
“Yeah. In fact, he was telling me about the snake. They—”
“Oh, there was a snake there tonight?”
“No, there wasn’t a snake there tonight. He was speaking about the snake in the desert. And he said that everyone who looks to the Son of Man when he’s lifted up and believes in him will have eternal life.”
And his wife said, “Did you believe?”
“Good question. I don’t know if I did or I didn’t.”
His wife said, “Then you didn’t.”
Because that’s the final observation. Jesus makes clear not only the absolute necessity of new birth, not only the tragedy of unbelief, not only the amazing wonder of the sufficiency of the death that will eventually be his, but also the personal responsibility of all who hear to believe in Jesus. “The Son of Man must be lifted up”—notice—“that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
People were not saved physically in the wilderness by being in the proximity of the pole. They were not saved simply because they were made aware of the existence of the pole. They were set free from the implications of death only when they rested all of their hopes, all of their life, all of their significance, in the promise that was attached to that symbol. Only then! Others who said, “Well, it doesn’t really matter; you know, as long as you’re in the field, as long you’re sort of in the environment of it, that’s all that really matters,” or “My dad looked to it, and so as long as my dad’s looked to it, I’m sure, you know, he can get me in. He gets me in most places; he could probably get me in there.” No, none of that at all! And we have to say to people, “And there will be none of that either, then, on that day.”
I was quoting earlier this afternoon at our seminar, quoting Calvin, where he says all that Christ has done for me is of no value to me so long as I remain outside of Christ. And I think, brethren, that some of us have got to take seriously the responsibility to press upon people the necessity of their response and their belief—that we have to say to them, “You must believe!” And not simply some kind of intellectual cognizance of facts about the gospel, but that kind of believing that says, “You know, I’m gonna die unless I believe this. I’m gonna die an eternal death unless I believe this.”
But part of the problem, you see, in our listeners is that they don’t feel any of that sense of urgency. They don’t sense any of that concern for unbelief. They don’t get from us the sufficiency of conviction that is in us concerning the absolute necessity of what Jesus has accomplished on the cross, and therefore how important it is for them to believe.
Someone asked in the seminar, “Well, how do you close your sermons evangelistically?” I said, “Well, I read Martyn Lloyd-Jones and try and do what he did.” And they didn’t think that as much of an answer. But it really is my answer! Because Lloyd-Jones on one occasion, as he’s ending an evangelistic sermon, he says, “If I cannot woo you into heaven, let me scare you into heaven,” he says. “Let me scare you in. But I so want you to be in heaven!” Half the time, our people are looking at us: “It doesn’t seem to mean that much to him at all. Why would I be concerned?”
But Nicodemus would never have thought such a thing. No, Jesus cuts to the core: “Thank you for the nice introduction, Nicodemus, but let me tell you, unless a man is born again, he can’t enter. Physical birth goes this way; spiritual birth goes this way. I tell you the truth, Nicodemus, you must be born again. I’ve told you these things. I’ve told your people these things. They don’t accept our testimony.”
The message is for everyone who believes. And salvation is not bestowed until the message of Christ’s dying in the place of the guilty sinner is actually believed. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believe[s] in him [will] not perish.” Persuading men and women of the love of God, says Iain Murray in his little booklet, is the great calling of the Christian ministry.
Well, let me end in this way. If the pulse of God is evangelistic in its rhythm, what’s my pulse? What’s your pulse? Are we really doing the work of an evangelist? This is not to make us feel unduly guilty; it’s just for us to ask the question. Are we? Can we say with [C. T. Studd],
Some [want] to live within the sound
Of Church [and] Chapel bell,
I want to run a Rescue Shop
Within a yard of hell.
Listen to Baxter. We’ll finish with Baxter:
The work of conversion is the [first and greatest] thing we must drive at; after this we must [work] with all our might. … [This] misery of the unconverted is so great, that it calleth loudest for our compassion. … I confess I am frequently forced to neglect that which [would] tend to the further increase of knowledge in the godly, because of the lamentable necessity of the unconverted. Who is able to talk of controversies, or of nice unnecessary points … while he see[s] a company of ignorant, … miserable sinners before his eyes?
And when Jesus looked on the crowd, he had compassion, because he saw them as sheep without a shepherd. And when he looked upon this religious man of significance, he looked upon him in the same way. And that’s why they didn’t just sit around and talk about the weather.
Father, thank you that we have a Bible to which we can turn. Thank you that we are able to look to you as our enabler, as our guide, as our example. Forgive us, Lord, our lethargic hearts. Stir us up in these days. Help us. You’ve brought to us your servants to stir us, to rebuke us, to reprove us, to correct us, to train us in righteousness, to enable us, to help us. Please help us, so that we might take seriously the call that has been entrusted to us. And this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Mark 1:15 (paraphrased).
 John Calvin, The Gospel According to St John: 1–10, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 74.
 See Matthew 9:10–13; Mark 2:15–17; Luke 5:29–32.
 See Luke 19:1–10.
 Luke 15:2 (NIV 1984).
 See Luke 15:1.
 Sinclair B. Ferguson, Man Overboard: The Story of Jonah (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1982), 10.
 John 2:24 (NIV 1984).
 See John 2:1–11.
 John 20:30–31 (NIV 1984).
 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1883), 1:381.
 John 2:25 (NIV 1984).
 See Ephesians 2:12.
 Mark 1:15 (paraphrased).
 John 1:11–13 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 51:10 (ESV).
 Daniel W. Whittle, “I Know Whom I Have Believed” (1883).
 See Matthew 23:37.
 Graham Kendrick, “The Servant King” (1983).
 See Luke 23:39–43.
 See Numbers 21:4–9.
 Philip P. Bliss, “Hallelujah! What a Savior!” (1875).
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.1.1.
 John 3:16 (KJV).
 Norman P. Grubb, C. T. Studd: Cricketer and Pioneer (1933; repr., Harrisburg, PA: Evangelical Press, 1943), 170.
 Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, 4th ed. (Glasgow: William Collins, 1835), 146–48.
 See Matthew 9:36.
 See 2 Timothy 3:16.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.