Let’s look at John 3:1-15 where we return to the remainder of the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus.
3:1 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.
Here’s a brief review of what we’ve noted so far in our study of this passage in the weeks previous.
We found Nicodemus in the first few verses of this chapter coming to Jesus by night to inquire of him. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, a man of much learning who was a prominent scholar of the Old Testament Scriptures.
But even though he’s a man of great learning who has seen Jesus’ miracles and admits that Jesus must be from God, Jesus plainly tells him, verse 3, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Then in verse 5 Jesus says, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
The challenge to Nicodemus from Jesus is this. Jesus is making it plain that though Nicodemus was ultra-religious he still was not a part of the kingdom of God, he was still not a child of God. To enter the kingdom of God, to be a child of God, he had to be born again. He had to be regenerated spiritually.
Then Jesus further clarified that this was not a work Nicodemus performed himself, it was a work of the Spirit of God. Only the Holy Spirit brings new life. Only God’s Spirit brings regeneration. But Nicodemus was still confused — even as Jesus pointed to Old Testament truths that with all his knowledge of the Old Testament he should have grasped. So when we come to verse 9 we hear this from Nicodemus.
“How can these things be?”
Why could Nicodemus not make sense of the things Jesus was telling him? Why doesn’t Nicodemus understand?
Jesus tells us. After Jesus expresses his surprise at Nicodemus’ failure to understand, he says in verse 11 that you do not receive our testimony. What’s the trouble Nicodemus is having understanding why he must be born again? He hasn’t received, or we could say he hasn’t believed, in the testimony that Jesus and others are delivering.
We saw it back in John 1:12 that to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. People were believing in Jesus name, they were receiving him, but Jesus just made it clear that Nicodemus wasn’t one of them.
The trouble is Nicodemus wants to know more about this new birth but he can’t grasp these truths. Jesus explains in verse 12.
12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
Jesus is telling Nicodemus here that he can’t grasp these truths about being born again. Jesus has already given him all the explanation he can.
The problem isn’t with Jesus’ explanations. The problem is with Nicodemus’ unregenerate heart. Because a heart that hasn’t received Christ, a heart that won’t believe, can’t attain the heights of these truths about being born again.
What Jesus has been telling him is that being born again is something that no man can create, or begin in himself. Regeneration, a work of the Spirit, comes like the wind and can’t be controlled or explained. It’s a spiritual work.
Jesus knows that Nicodemus isn’t understanding because he’s unregenerate. He’s still, spiritually, a walking dead man. But Jesus hasn’t written him off or sent him away. He’s not done with him yet. What Nicodemus needs is an illustration. And Jesus gives him one. That’s what we see in verses 13-15.
Jesus begins by giving a little insight into his authority for making the statement we see coming in verses 14 and 15. Look at verse 13.
13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
This may seem like a confusing statement, but note that Jesus is simply setting up the statement he’ll make after this. He’s making clear his authority to say what will come next in verses 14 and 15.
D.A. Carson explains,
The Judaism of Jesus’ day circulated many stories of bygone saints who had ascended into heaven and received special insight into God’s ways and plans. Many of these stories focused on Moses. Jesus insists that no-one has ascended to heaven in such a way as to return to talk about heavenly things. Only in heaven can true wisdom be found. But Jesus can speak of heavenly things, not because he ascended to heaven from a home on earth and then descended to tell other of his experiences, but because heaven was his home in the first place, and therefore he was ‘inherently the fulness of heavenly knowledge’. He is the one who came from heaven; he is the revelatory Son of Man. (The Gospel According to John, D.A. Carson, pp. 200-201)
So here in verse 13 Jesus is essentially telling Nicodemus that he could tell him heavenly things, he came from heaven, but Nicodemus can’t receive these heavenly things. But Jesus is going to show him the way to be born again. And he’s going do it by using an Old Testament example that was a foreshadow of Christ.
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.
Nicodemus needed to know that this is why Jesus came. He needed to know that the way had been made possible for his rebirth and it was no doing of his own. Rebirth is only possible because Jesus Christ came to be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Jesus says, pointing to the account we find in Numbers 21:4–9, that the new birth, salvation, eternal life, comes in the same way it was for those whose lives were saved when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. What’s that about? Listen to Numbers 21:4–9.
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
Let’s note some things about this Old Testament text. Did you notice here that the people lashed out at God and spoke against God and against God’s servant Moses?
And did you notice that God judged them. Verse 6 says, that the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.
And did you notice that as a result the people came to Moses admitting their sin in speaking against God and his servant?
And did you see that God’s answer to Moses’ prayer was to make a fiery serpent and put it on a pole. And what happened to those who were bitten by a serpent?
Verse 9 says, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. He would look and live — that’s it.
Do you realize that God is justly punishing those who were speaking out against him? And the he sends the way of relief — he sends the way of rescue from his own punishment?
Do you realize that the Old Testament is full of examples like this that are a foreshadow of Christ? Jesus saw it this way and points this Old Testament scholar, Nicodemus, back to it to make a point — it’s the answer to his question about how he could possibly be born again.
Jesus tells him that the only way possible for a sinner to be born again who deserves the just wrath of God for his sins is to look to Jesus. 14 …so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Jesus makes it very clear to Nicodemus, and to all mankind, that the only way to be born again, the only way to see the kingdom of God, is to declare your utter dependance on Christ, you must look only to Christ. You must believe in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice for you on the cross and his rising from the dead on the third day for your justification if you want to have forgiveness of sins and eternal life, if you want to see the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus needed to look to Jesus and believe and be born again. There’s a wonderful illustration of this truth in the personal testimony of Charles Spurgeon’s own conversion. Spurgeon gives the following account in his autobiography which occurred on January 6, 1850, when he was almost 16 years old.
I sometimes think I might have been in darkness and despair until now had it not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm, one Sunday morning, while I was going to a certain place of worship. When I could go no further, I turned down a side street, and came to a little Primitive Methodist Chapel. In that chapel there may have been a dozen or fifteen people. I had heard of the Primitive Methodists, how they sang so loudly that they made people’s heads ache; but that did not matter to me. I wanted to know how I might be saved, and if they could tell me that, I did not care how much they made my head ache. The minister did not come that morning; he was snowed up, I suppose. At last, a very thin-looking man, a shoemaker, or tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach. Now, it is well that preachers should be instructed; but this man was really stupid. He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was, —
“LOOK UNTO ME, AND BE YE SAVED, ALL THE ENDS OF THE EARTH.”
He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter. There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in that text. The preacher began thus — ”My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pains. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just, ‘Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to College to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look. But then the text says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Ay!” said he, in broad Essex, “many on ye are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. You’ll never find any comfort in yourselves. Some look to God the Father. No, look to Him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Some on ye say, ‘We must wait for the Spirit’s workin’’ You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, ‘Look unto Me.’”
Then the good man followed up his text in this way: — “Look unto Me; I am sweatin’ great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hangin’ on the cross. Look unto Me; I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend to Heaven. Look unto Me; I am sittin’ at the Father’s right hand. O poor sinner, look unto Me! look unto Me!”
When he had gone to about that length, and managed to spin out ten minutes or so, he was at the end of his tether. Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I daresay, with so few present, he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart, he said, “Young man, you look very miserable.” Well, I did; but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, “and you always will be miserable — miserable in life, and miserable in death, — if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.” Then, lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist could do, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.” I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said, — I did not take much notice of it, — I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, “Look!” what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and at that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to Him. Oh, that somebody had told me this before, “Trust Christ, and you shall be saved.” Yet it was, no doubt, all wisely ordered, and now I can say, —
“Ever since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.”
I do from my soul confess that I never was satisfied till I came to Christ; when I was yet a child, I had far more wretchedness than ever I have now; I will even add, more weariness, more care, more heartache than I know at this day. I may be singular in this confession, but I make it, and know it to be the truth. Since that dear hour when my soul cast itself on Jesus, I have found solid joy and peace; but before that, all those supposed gaieties of early youth, all the imagined ease and joy of boyhood, were but vanity and vexation of spirit to me. (Spurgeon’s Autobiography, Volume 1, pp. 87-88; Banner of Truth, Edinburgh. 1962)
This 4th of July, this Independence Day that we celebrate as a nation, would be a wonderful day for you to declare your dependance on Christ, declaring your dependance on his shed blood for the forgiveness of your sins. Look to Jesus and live.
That’s a word for every believer here today as well. Look to Jesus and live. Because you never outgrow your need to look to Christ, for daily dependance on Christ and his finished work on the cross for you is how you live today.