All these religious activities that you are doing down here are not going to get you into heaven.
Thank you for that worship this morning. God is so good, and He is so worthy of all of our praise and our worship.
If you have your Bibles, I invite you to turn to John, Chapter 3. If you’re using one of our pew Bibles, I think it’s on page 1051 or somewhere in that general page range, but John, Chapter 3.
We’re in a series of sermons that we’ve entitled Come and See. John the Evangelist, the writer of this book, has a theme woven through this book of people who come to see Jesus – who come, and they have heard about Jesus. They’ve come to check out Jesus, and Jesus Himself offers the invitation in chapter one, come and you’ll see. Come, and you’ll see Who I am. Come, and you’ll see what I’m going to do, what I’ve done, and the whole idea is come and see so that we would believe. That’s the whole purpose of the entire Gospel of John is to learn Who Jesus is so that we would believe and that by believing, we would have eternal life.
Now, that theme of belief is what is strong throughout the whole book, but probably the most famous passage in the history of Christianity is found in John, Chapter 3, right? John 3:16. Now, we’re not going to get there today. We’re going to kind of walk our way through chapter 3 and this conversation over the course of several weeks, but this is a very powerful chapter that introduces us to and gives us insight into a conversation that Jesus had between Him and one other person.
If you think back to chapter one, Andrew and the unknown disciple that we think is John, they were following Jesus, and Jesus says, come and hang out with Me, and they spent all night, all day with Jesus. But we’re not told what that conversation was like. All we’re told is that after that conversation, Andrew said we found the Messiah. I imagine that the conversation Andrew had with Jesus is similar to what Jesus is going to have with Nicodemus, and so we get this insight into what Jesus has come here to teach.
Nicodemus is a religious man. He is a well-respected man. He may be the most well-respected teacher in Israel. And he has heard about Jesus. And he’s come to see Who Jesus is. And as we look at this idea this morning of a new birth, we’re going to see that religion will never restore us to what God has created us to be. We will not find restoration in religion. We won’t find our relationship with God strengthened through religious activities.
Religion will not restore our relationship with God, and I think many people throughout the history of the world have asked one simple question. How do I know God? How do I know God? Or, I want to know God; tell me how to know God.
Chuck Swindoll tells a story of a young man who was a child. As a child, he desperately wanted to know God. So, this little boy thought if the only way I can know God is to join the church and be baptized, so he was. But as often happens, that little boy turned into a teenager and as he turned into 13, 14 and 15, the desires of his heart changed. He got caught up in the wrong crowd. He found himself doing things that he shouldn’t be doing, but at the heart of all, this young man says I still want to know God.
So, he tries something different. Really the same thing, just a different church. He goes to a new church, walks down the aisle, and is baptized. The difference is this church is very dogmatic. This church teaches that to know God, you have to give up stuff so this young man gave up his drinking. A young teenager drinking? Yeah, he was. He gave up his drinking. He gave up his smoking. He gave up gambling and playing cards. He gave up dancing. That’s the Baptist four, right? There’s one more. He gave up dating. Now, that’s hard for a 15-year-old, but he wanted to know God, so he was going to do what this church told him to do.
For two years, he lived a dogmatic lifestyle, and every time he messed up or every time he gave in, then he felt guilt. He felt shame, and he still asked the question, how do I know God? Eventually this young man, as he’s going off to college, says you know what? I’m tired of this. And so, he just begins to live that wild lifestyle that many college students live. He goes off the rails, does his own thing, goes to the military, serves his country well in between the drunken benders, gets out of the military, gets married to quickly find his marriage is falling apart. And all the while, he still asks the question. How do I know God?
He’s beginning to come to a point where he’s going to lose his job, he’s going to lose his wife, he’s going to lose his kids, he picks up a Bible and he starts to read Matthew. And he struggles with Matthew. He finds himself kind of in that same dogmatic way. But then he turns to the Gospel of John. And he just happens to turn to John, Chapter 3. And this man at the age of 27, who had struggled since he was a kid on how to know God, reads an interaction between Jesus and this individual named Nicodemus, and he realizes that he doesn’t need religion. He needs rebirth. He needs a relationship.
This young man prayed a very simple prayer after reading John Chapter 3 and Chuck Swindoll records it for us. It says, Lord, if you accept me like I am, then I will accept You like You are. And I will expect You to give me new birth.
Do you see that? That’s a very simple prayer, and some might pick apart the prayer a little bit, but what he’s saying is God, this is who I am. I want to know You. I want to be with You, and I just need you to accept me the way I am. And if you accept me the way I am, then I’ll accept you as my Savior. You can flip that a little bit. I don’t want you to read into any theological mistakes with his prayer. But he just says, I will let You give me rebirth. I will let You transform me from the inside out. What this young man realized at the age of 27 is that he didn’t need religion. He needed regeneration.
Religion will not restore your relationship with God.
If you want to know God, then you have to be reborn by God. Here’s what we read in John Chapter 3. Let’s start in verse 25 of chapter two.
John 2:25 – 3:8 – 25 and because He did not need anyone to testify about man; for He Himself knew what was in man. 3 There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Him at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher Who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs You do unless God were with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4 “How can anyone be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is Spirit. 7 Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. 8 The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus is a religious leader. Now, I want you to remember the pattern that I shared with you several weeks ago. The pattern that leads someone to making a decision to follow Jesus starts with a presentation of Truth, right? There’s always a presentation of Truth. God has to move first in our hearts and through the presentation of the Gospel.
After a presentation of Truth, there is an initial response. Everybody who hears about Jesus has a first response. Sometimes it’s outright rejection, like the religious leaders we talked about last week. Sometimes it’s yes, I’m going to immediately follow Jesus, and other times people want to know more about Jesus. That’s the experience I’ve had in my life with people is they want to hear more; they want to learn more. They want to study more, and then after that, they make a decision to surrender their life and follow Him.
Nicodemus, I am 100% confident because of his status as a Pharisee, he would have seen Jesus cleanse the temple. That is what we talked about last week. He may have been among those leaders who stepped out to confront Jesus, but we also know that at the end of chapter one, Jesus is performing signs and He’s teaching, and don’t you just wish we knew everything.
I was talking with Teresa our secretary about it this week. I wish we would know everything Jesus ever did, but if you read the end of John, John says that if he wrote everything down, we wouldn’t have enough room in the world for all the books.
So, in Jerusalem over Passover, Jesus is teaching. He’s doing signs and miracles, and it catches Nicodemus’s attention. He has heard the truth. The truth has been presented to him, and now he’s coming at night to see who Jesus is. He wants to learn more about Jesus. Nicodemus is an extremely religious individual. It says he is a Pharisee. A Pharisee is passionate. He is completely committed to keeping God’s laws. There are 613 Old Testament commandments. There are 248 “do this.” There are 365 “do nots.” It’s one for every day, right? So if you did that yesterday, don’t do it today. And then you’re good for tomorrow. That’s a joke. That’s not right. 365 do nots, 248 do’s, and the Pharisees said we’re going to keep them all.
As the Pharisees grew over their history, they began to develop ways to keep these commandments. They’re like, well, we need to make some definitions, and we don’t want to break this commandment, so the one that always gets pointed out to a lot of people is the Sabbath. The Bible says to keep the Sabbath holy.
Day 7 is a day of rest and relaxation. The Pharisees, committed to keeping the Sabbath holy said, what does that mean? And they had oral traditions. They wrote a book. The Pharisees had a book called the Mishnah. 24 chapters on how to keep the Sabbath. And that’s one of the 613 commands. This I find interesting. Key question, are you allowed to tie a knot on the Sabbath? Yes and no. Now, you are not allowed to take a rope and tie a knot to a bucket and lower the bucket into the well to get you a drink of water. But if you’re a woman and you need to tie a knot in your clothing, you’re good. Tie the knot. So, I suppose if you’re thirsty, grab a woman’s dress, tie a knot, and get your bucket of water, right!?
Now, I’ll be honest with you. I read a lot of these laws. I could be here all day talking about some of these things, but the fact was that these were religious people. They were going to do this because God says it, and this is how we can have a strong relationship with God, and this is how we can please God. This is how we can do these things. And so they kept adding and adding and adding to God’s original laws. That’s a Pharisee.
John also says Nicodemus is a ruler of the Jews. That leads us to speculate and to believe strongly that he’s a part of the Sanhedrin, which is the ruling Council of the Jews. Here’s what the Sanhedrin is. Take the United States Senate compare them with the United States Supreme Court. Put them together. That’s the Sanhedrin – roughly 70 plus guys who are doing legal things, but they’re also governing at the same time. Nicodemus is probably the most well respected of these men. He’s probably the most influential of these men, because it also says down in verse 10 that he is, the CSB says, a teacher of Israel, who in the Greek is the definite article where Jesus says you are “the” teacher of Israel.
So, Jesus acknowledges that Nicodemus is the teacher of Israel, which means not only has he kept all these 613 plus commandments, but he also knows how to teach other people. He knows how to open up God’s Word and explain it for people to understand it. He is the teacher of Israel. He probably has the entire Old Testament memorized from cover to cover. This is a religious guy. In fact, if your search committee would have got Nicodemus’s resume, I wouldn’t be your pastor because Nicodemus, he’s perfect. And your pastor is not, right?! I mean, this guy is the man! He probably comes from a wealthy, well-known family. When people walked around and they saw Nicodemus, they were drawn to Nicodemus.
And yet, Nicodemus has something stirring in his heart where he is drawn to Jesus. Maybe Nicodemus is beginning to realize that he can’t keep all these 613 commandments. Maybe he realizes that religion is not really the answer. Do you know what religion is? Religion is defined as the worship or the belief in a superhuman controlling thing like a god or gods. That is just the general, standard definition of religion. By that definition, Christianity is a religion. We are a religion. There’re lots of religions. Nicodemus is getting ready to find out the difference between religion and Christianity. You see almost every other religion, whether it’s Islam and even some parts of Judaism, even though Hinduism and Buddhism don’t believe in heaven, they still share the same mentality that humanity works for the deity. Humanity has to earn Nirvana. Humanity has to do their part. When you think about Islam, people have to work to earn Paradise. We serve the deity in order to please the deity, to meet the needs of the deity. That’s the other religions, but Christianity is different.
Christianity says no, the deity has worked for you. The deity has provided a path of restoration for you. You don’t have to do that. And so as soon as Nicodemus sits down and greets Jesus, Jesus, right out of the bat, knows his heart. He says, truly, I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. You need to understand this would have been slapping Nicodemus absolutely in the face. This would have caught him totally off guard. It would have been something he had never heard of before because he’s a Pharisee. They’re getting into heaven.
When Jesus says the Kingdom of God, Nicodemus would have understood it as the end of the age. Nicodemus would have understood entering the Kingdom of God as something at the end of time – at the end of the age when people were resurrected, they would spend eternity with God, and there was a belief, by the way, that all Jewish people would get there unless you had some egregious blasphemy or egregious sin, and so the Pharisees are like, well, there’s no way we’ve committed a sin because we’re perfect. We’re guaranteed to get in. This would have hit him square in the eyes.
Jesus, what do you mean? What do you mean I’m not going to get in? And Jesus says, unless you are born again, you will never see the Kingdom of God. That phrase “born again” has two meanings. It’s funny when you read the next phrase, it appears that Nicodemus translates that word in his mind as “again,” but the word itself could also mean “born from above.” Some of your English translations may have that, and people wrestle with what is John saying. Is it born again, or is it born from above? The answer is yes.
John is masterful as he writes his Gospel to take these Greek words that have two meanings, and he uses them to mean both. So, what Jesus is saying is you have to be born again, and it has to be from above. All these religious activities that you are doing down here are not going to get you into heaven. You have to be born of God. You have to understand that God sent Me to do the work. God sent Me to save you. From above, you will find a restored relationship with God.
Nicodemus doesn’t understand. He takes it very literal. Don’t give him a hard time. If you’re sitting there, I used to make fun of Nicodemus for this next little thing. Let’s don’t make fun of him, cause if I was sitting there talking to Jesus, I probably would have said the same thing. He’s like, how can an old man get back into his mom’s womb? Now, there’s a lot going on. But I think what Nicodemus is really saying here is OK, Jesus. I’m tracking with you. You got to be born again. How do I do that? I think he’s still thinking religion. He’s still thinking, what can I do? How can “I” go back into my mother’s womb? How can I get back into my mother’s womb and be born again? See, still how can “I” do this?
He doesn’t understand, and so Jesus is now going to try to explain it to him. Jesus says, truly I tell you, unless someone is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus’s mind probably would have immediately went to Ezekiel 36. Ezekiel 36:25-27 says this – the prophet speaking as if God is speaking – 25 I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow My statutes and carefully observe My ordinances.
As soon as Jesus said, “water and spirit,” Nicodemus would have gone right here, because he’s a religious, smart guy. What the prophet is telling us is that the water, and a lot of people get confused with this verse, don’t let it trip you up, the water is very symbolic of cleansing. Think about baptism. When people are baptized, the baptism itself doesn’t save anybody, but it represents a cleansing. It symbolizes a cleansing that we are being cleansed of sins. We are dying to ourselves, and we are being reborn.
This idea of spirit is very supernatural. Where Jesus is saying, I’m going to give you a new spirit; I’m going to put My Spirit within you. My Spirit is going to work inside of you to do this work of rebirth. Now we don’t understand that. We don’t understand how the Spirit works. We don’t understand how God comes into us and transforms us from the inside out.
This week while studying, I came across a hymn. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before, but I love some of these lyrics. It says, “I know not how the Spirit moves, convincing men of sin. Revealing Jesus through His Word, creating faith in Him. I know not how saving faith to me did impart, or how believing in his Word brought peace in my heart. But I know Whom I have believed.”
Jesus says you have to be born of water and Spirit. My spirit has to come inside of you because what is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of Spirit is Spirit. And in that phase, we’re told why we have to be reborn. From the moment of birth, we are born sinful. We have a flesh nature, a sin nature, and no matter how hard we work, no matter how hard we try, we cannot cleanse ourselves. We have to be born of the Spirit. We have to let God into our hearts, to transform us from the inside out.
He illustrates it. Listen, you can look outside right now. How do you know the wind’s blowing? The trees are moving. You see, I think Jesus is sitting there, and He’s looking at Nicodemus, and He looks over at maybe an olive tree or some other tree. He says, Nick. He probably didn’t call him Nick, but I am. Nick, look at that tree. Why is it blowing? Why is it moving? Ah, the wind. We don’t know where the wind comes from. We don’t know where the wind is going, but we know it’s there because we can see the results. What Jesus is saying is, look, you may not understand how the rebirth process works. But when My Spirit lives in you, you’ll see the results of the rebirth.
Now this is important. Religion will never save you. Religion will never cause you to restore your relationship with God. You can never do enough, but religion and religious activities is an absolute result of that restoration. Do you see the difference? Reading your Bible – that’s a good thing. We make fun of the Pharisees a little bit but let me tell you something. Knowing and memorizing God Word, that’s a good thing.
Going to church every Sunday, being in a Sunday school class, reading your Bible every day, sharing the Gospel – those are not bad things. Those are essential things, but they are a result of your faith, not the reason for your faith.
Restoration comes through rebirth when you put your faith in Jesus.
The result is that you will have a desire in your heart to obey what the Lord has told you to do. That is vitally important to understand. So, this morning, there’re some of you sitting here, maybe you’re like Nicodemus. We hear this a lot in Christian circles where people will say, I’m going to die soon. I hope I get in. You ever heard somebody say that? I hope I get there. Let me tell you something. If you’re reborn, you know you’re going to get there. But if you’re hoping to get to heaven because of your religious activities, you will not get there.
But when you say yes to Jesus, when you step out and say I’m going to follow You. I’m going to believe in You. I’m going to repent. I’m going to follow You. I surrender my life to You. In that moment, you don’t have to say I hope I get here. You know you’re going to get there. 100%. All because you’ve said yes to Jesus.
But the other question I ask you this morning is if you’ve made that decision, and if you know you’re going to get there, how’s your life? Are you living in obedience? Do you love the Lord enough to keep His commandments or to try to keep His commandments? Do you love Him enough to do what He says? Do you love Him enough to follow Him so closely that the dust from His sandals kicks up on your clothes? How’s your life?
What Nicodemus learns in the first part of this conversation is all his religion does not restore him. But through his rebirth or through the rebirth, restoration is not only possible, it’s guaranteed. And it can change his life. The next thing Nicodemus says is how can these things be? You have to come back next week to find out.
Let’s pray together, Father, we thank You so much for giving us a picture of this conversation between Jesus and this man. Father, a man who was seeking You, a man who was wanting to know more, and we don’t know what decision he makes. But it’s a clear picture of the decision we need to make – that we need to be reborn by Your Spirit, that we need to say yes to Jesus. And this morning, during this last song of invitation, if there is anybody who is here who does not know You, has not put their faith in You, if there’s anybody here who says I don’t know if I’m going to get there or not, may You draw them today to surrender so that they can know for sure that they are saved. Father, help all of us in the light of what You have done for us, in light of our love for You, help us to have a desire to do what You have told us to do. Father, we love You and we thank You. In Jesus Name, Amen.