The early theologian Irenaeus, writing about 100 years after the apostle John, said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” God isn’t out to make us religious. He’s out to make us alive in Christ. Verse 15: “. . . that whoever believes may have eternal life in him.”
Why did we get in our cars and drive down to church this morning? Not for religion, but for life. This man Nicodemus had religion. He even had a high view of Jesus. Verse 2: “You are a teacher come from God.” But Nicodemus did not have life. He was close, but something was missing, and he knew it. Nicodemus would fit right in here in our religious city. The most urgent question in our city today is this: Is our religion Christianity? Is our Jesus the real Jesus? Or are we missing the real thing?
In the old classic The Pilgrim’s Progress, two men come to their dying day. Christian and Hopeful walk down to the river of death. They have to cross it, to get to the Celestial City, to heaven, on the other side. They’re wading into the river, they’re swimming across, and Christian panics as death washes over him. He’s so aware of his sins and shortcomings. But his friend Hopeful holds Christian’s head above the water and says to him, “Be of good cheer, Jesus Christ makes you whole.” Then Christian shouts, “Oh, I see him again!” They make it over to the other side, and they enter safely into the Celestial City. Then another man appears. His name is Ignorance. He too enters the river of death, and he gets across with no problem. But on the other side, he finds the gate to the Celestial City closed and locked. But there’s a little hole in the riverbank nat far away, and Ignorance falls into it and disappears forever. And the author writes, “Then I saw that there was a way to hell even from the gates of heaven.” Ignorance got close to heaven. But he missed it. Christian clung to Christ, though he was a fearful man by nature. Hopeful clung to Christ, though he was a cheerful man by nature. Ignorance made his own way. And he got close. But there is a way to hell even from the gates of heaven. That’s Nicodemus – a good man, a religious man, a Nashville man, but his religion kept him ignorant at the very point of his greatest need.
Some of us here today who are clinging to Christ are fearful by nature, and we need to be cheered up. Others of us are looking to Christ and confident and bubbly by nature, and we need to set the tone. Still others of us – so much good can be said about us, but we are ignorant of Christ and on our way to hell even from the very gates of heaven. We need to lose our religion and cling to Christ alone.
Nothing can settle us into peace with God except leaning on Jesus alone. We may fast and obey and serve, all of which are good things. But we enter into peace with God and eternal life only by coming to Jesus as guilty sinners – and immediately we are forgiven, we are received, and we live by him! Have you received Jesus with the empty hands of faith? Will you go on with him on that same basis – holding out the empty hands of faith moment by moment? His endless fullness of grace is how you live.
Three insights for every one of us here in John 3:7-15. One, real Christianity is obvious (verses 7-8). Mysterious, but obvious. Two, real Christianity eye-opening (verses 9-13). Biblical, but eye-opening. Three, real Christianity is life-giving (verses 14-15). Unimpressive, but lively and invigorating.
Real Christianity is obvious
“Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:7-8
What is the Lord talking about? He’s talking about a newly alive you that only God can create. This new you is so new, it’s like being born all over again. But born-again people are obvious. They’re not hard to read.
Being born again takes us way beyond religion. Religion is about us turning over a new leaf. There is value in that, at the level of social benefit. The world would be better off if everyone would choose very decidedly to do the right thing. The whole world could stop doing bad things and start doing good things, and the internet would blow up with how society is improving – but nothing would change deep inside. Jesus didn’t come to patch us up on the outside. He came to make us alive from the inside out with a new us from God. And here in John 3, Jesus says to this well put-together man Nicodemus, “You shouldn’t be surprised by what I’m saying. You can see what I’m talking about in my people. The wind of the Holy Spirit blows not on religious people but on dead people. You can see his impact, his stirring, his moving. He’s mysterious. You can’t control him. But he’s obvious in people newly alive by a power not their own.”
If you’ve never experienced God like that, if you’re still negotiating reality with the you you’ve been all your life, then you’re Nicodemus. You’re a nice person, a sincere person, using the raw materials of you to create a better you by the power of you. How’s it going?
Here’s a true story about the difference God makes. There was a preacher in the last century named Harry Ironside. He was preaching in San Francisco one day. A well-known skeptic came up to him afterward and introduced himself and invited Ironside to a public debate on the topic “Agnosticism versus Christianity.” Ironside accepted the challenge, on one condition. He said, “I will debate you, if you bring to the debate two people – one man and one woman who have been transformed by agnosticism, two people who can stand up in public and say, ‘I tried to be a decent person. But I failed. I was giving up. Then I came to one of these agnostic meetings, and I was so stirred that I walked out thinking, ‘This wonderful agnosticism is for me!’ And through skepticism a new power has entered into me. The degradation I once loved I now hate. The dignity I had thrown away I got back, and better than before. I look at myself now with amazement. I’ve been reborn. And I owe it all to skepticism!’” And Ironside said to the man, “If you bring two people like that to the debate, I will bring 100 people who will stand up to say, ‘Jesus is making me new.’ Is it a deal?” And the agnostic declined the opportunity.
Nicodemus is no agnostic. He believes in God. He even has a high opinion of Jesus. But he has never experienced what God can give to both the religious and the anti-religious because it isn’t a matter of religion one way or the other. Jesus is saying here – if I can paraphrase him – “Do not marvel. This goes beyond everything in your background. I’m talking about a miracle from above. You can’t understand it. But you can see this new life in my people. And it can be yours. Will you receive your new birth by my power? It will cost you. You’ll have to lose your religion. But the Spirit of God has a better you for you – if you’ll open up.”
Real Christianity is eye-opening
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 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. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” John 3:9-13
Nicodemus probably knew vast portions of the Old Testament by heart – in Hebrew. He knew a lot – more than you and I do. But Jesus claims to have the very insight religion blinds us to. Verse 11: “Truly, truly I say to you, we speak of what we know.” That “we” is Jesus himself. Back in verse 2 Nicodemus had said, “We know that you are a teacher come from God.” Now Jesus matches that “we know” with his own “we know” here in verse 11, referring to himself. Jesus is claiming to be the world’s only expert on heaven and the afterlife and eternity and ultimate reality: “We speak of what we know . . . what we have seen.” Then he corners Nicodemus in verse 12. Here’s the gist of what he’s saying: “I’ve spoken to you about the new birth. The new birth is an earthly thing. You experience it here in this world. You must experience it here in this world. But Nicodemus, you don’t accept what I’m saying. So how could you believe me if I start telling you about heavenly things, far beyond your experience in this world?” Jesus is claiming to know the final answers that religion is only groping for. And what are his qualifications to back up this claim? Verse 13: “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man,” referring to himself.
Do you see what Jesus is saying? No one has ascended into heaven. No one knows from direct personal experience about the afterlife – no one but Jesus: “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” In other words, all our knowledge of heaven is one-way – downward, from heaven. Not upward, and then back down. Only downward, from Jesus. He is claiming to be the world’s only knowledgeable person about heavenly things.
That matters, doesn’t it? As our lives become more uncertain and more precarious and our world becomes more unstable and violent, we start looking beyond this world. We want to know what’s out there. And there are plenty of people who claim to tell us. For example, you can find at amazon.com best-selling books about near-death experiences in which people claim they went up to heaven and came back down to tell us about it. What are we to think? How can we have discernment? We don’t want to believe the wrong things. Too much is at stake.
You need to think it through for yourself. Don’t let me tell you what to believe. You’re responsible for yourself. So who are you going to listen to? Jesus himself gives us two ways to know, two criteria for assessment, two questions to ask of every book and every movie and every claim about heaven. In these verses Jesus gives us two “musts.” When Jesus uses the word “must” – well, he never exaggerated. The first “must” we’ve already seen in verse 7: “You must be born again.” The second “must” is in verse 14: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” So, that person who claims to have gone to heaven – does the person come back from heaven urging us with these two “musts”? Is that person saying, “I’ve been to heaven. I’ve seen God. I know what’s out there. And here are the two things uppermost on my heart to tell you. You must be born again. And Jesus Christ crucified must be lifted up. Nothing else matters. What God looks like, what the angels are doing, the family members I saw up there – all that is interesting. But heaven taught me that two things matter most – you must be born again, and Jesus must be lifted up”? Is that the message you get from that book you’re reading? If anyone, however sincere, can talk about heaven and leave out the very things Jesus emphasized – the new birth by the Spirit, and the atoning death of Jesus – if any story of heaven downplays what Jesus demanded, then you face a decision. To whom will you give more credit – someone who claims to have visited heaven, or Jesus who claims to have originated in heaven? Who do you believe? Which vision of ultimacy will land on you with personal urgency?
Here in the South we have a semi-Christian religion that loves Jesus the way it loves mama and the family dog. This false religion can sing songs like “In the sweet by and by”:
In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore
In the sweeeet by and byyyyy, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.
What’s wrong with that song? It’s about heaven. That’s good. But what’s wrong is, it never mentions Jesus. You can sing that song til your dying day and stay a Nicodemus who isn’t ready to die. Ed Stetzer said it well: “Bible Belt people need to be saved from their salvation, and come to Jesus.”
Here’s one of many ways you can know if you’ve come to Jesus. It’s in how you sing. In a few minutes we’re going to sing “Oh the love of my Redeemer.” If Jesus is, to you, just one voice about heaven, one source of information to be factored in along with others, you’ll sing that song, but not with passion, because his love is, in your life, ornamentation but not salvation. But if the dying love of Jesus is your only eternal hope, then you’ll sing with passion, because the Holy Spirit has given you a new heart.
Real Christianity is life-giving
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes may have eternal life in him.” John 3:14-15
What is this about? Back in the Old Testament, in Numbers chapter 21, the people are out in the desert, and God is there, but life isn’t easy, and the people panic and turn on God. They think any minute now God’s plan is going to fall apart, and they’ll be left out there forsaken. So they gripe and complain and murmur. And God sends in among them poisonous snakes, with a bite that sets their bodies on fire with pain. Many of them die. The real problem was that they had offended God. But they didn’t feel that. They felt entitled to their complaints. Religious people always do. Nothing is ever good enough for religious people. Anyway, God sent these snakes with a painful bite, to alert the people to the real problem they were oblivious to – their sin against God. They thought their problem was their hard life in the desert. Their real problem was their hard hearts toward God. And the pain of these snake bites got their attention. So they asked Moses to intervene. And God had mercy. God told Moses to make a serpent out of bronze, set it up on a pole, lift it up high where everyone can see, and anyone who looked at the serpent was cured of their snakebite. They didn’t have to get healthy first. They could be sick and poisoned, and all they had to do was look at what God’s grace had provided.
That’s a strange story. But it gets more strange. Centuries later in the Old Testament, a wise king named Hezekiah destroyed that bronze serpent (2 Kings 18:4). The people had kept it, the way we might put a national treasure in a museum. But over time they started treating the bronze serpent like a rabbit’s foot, as if the object itself had power to heal. But God had given it merely as an instrument of his blessing. So Hezekiah had to destroy it, to keep the people looking to God himself.
Do you see the relevance to us today? What God did through the bronze serpent was a picture of Jesus. At the cross, he identified with us in our sin and in our pain. He made himself the serpent: “He who knew no sin became sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Our only part is to look at him there lifted up on his cross. That look of faith is all he asks. It’s all we can do. But even a paralyzed person can turn his eyes and look. We don’t need to invent our own remedy. God is calling us today to look at Christ crucified for sinners with the thought, “There on the cross is all my hope.” And God will never say to us, “You’ve taken Jesus too far. This is getting out of hand. You’re making too much of his dying love for sinners. So I’m going to destroy him, to rescue you from your laser focus on him, and I’m going to give you a better Savior.” God will never do that. Why? Because Jesus is not the instrument of God’s healing; he is God’s healing for poisoned sinners and sufferers. And we will never trust him too much. Who else can remake us? Who else knows about heavenly things? Who else can give life to people who have sinned their way beyond self-remedy?
The glory of God is man fully alive, not man religious. So increasing your religious commitment will not help. In fact, the more religion you have, the more poisoned you are. But if you will look to Jesus alone, and just keep looking to him, his power will make you alive, now and forever.