Who is this man Jesus? Who is He—and why should I care? Does it really matter?
This is what Nicodemus wanted to know—and, unlike most of us, he did the smart thing. He went directly to Jesus. He didn’t go around asking his fellow Pharisees who they thought Jesus was or if they agreed with what Jesus was saying. He went to Jesus and asked his questions directly. Some people criticize the fact that he went at night, but does it really matter? At least he went.
And as we begin this morning with what is probably the best known, and certainly the best loved, passage in all of Scripture, it’s important to remember that this is part of that conversation that Jesus had with Nicodemus. It was to Nicodemus that Jesus said: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
So I’d like to briefly recap what we talked about last week. Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews—he thinks he’s been doing everything right. He was trying to do everything right. But when he shows up in the dark of night wanting to know who Jesus really is, Jesus tells him that he’s been doing everything wrong—He tells him that he has to be born again in order to see the kingdom of God. He tells him that anyone who wants to see the kingdom of God must be born again. And we can’t make this happen—only God can.
Nicodemus was an expert in the Law. He knew the Old Testament Scriptures better than almost anybody and right up until that conversation with Jesus, he thought he knew exactly who was in and who was out where God’s kingdom was concerned. He’d been sure that he was in.
And now Jesus is telling him that all this effort on his part isn’t what matters. What matters is whether he believes in the “Son of Man, who will be lifted up.”
Jesus refers back to that Old Testament story about Moses: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (Numbers 21). Nicodemus certainly knew this story about the time when God got so tired of the complaints of the Israelite people against Him and Moses that He sent poisonous snakes to bite them. People started dying—lots of people. So they came to Moses and confessed their sin and asked him to pray to God to take away the snakes. And God told Moses to make a “fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Moses 21:8).
Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. It probably looked a lot like the purple cloth that we have hanging on the cross. When people were dying from snake bites, if they looked to the snake on the pole, they would live.
Nicodemus knew the story but he didn’t know anything about a crucified Savior. He didn’t know that the Son of God would be lifted up on a cross and that it was only by looking to Him, by believing in Him, that anyone could live.
He was confused—but he was also trying to understand.
And that’s when Jesus told him, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:16-18).
We’re so familiar with these words that it’s hard for us to understand just how stunning they would have been to Nicodemus. Had Jesus really said, “For God so loved the world …” The world? Surely that couldn’t be right. Surely Jesus meant “For God so loved the Jews.” But five times in four verses, Jesus uses the word world.
Nicodemus’ world is totally rocked. All his life he had believed certain things. He had believed that God was the God of the Jews, the Israelite people—if God did love anyone else, He loved them far less than He loved the Jewish people. Or He loved them only after they became a part of the Jewish people. They were the chosen ones—and surely chosen also meant favorite.
Nicodemus had always believed that the way to be a part of the kingdom of God was to be circumcised and to keep the law of Moses—to keep the Ten Commandments. Everybody believed that.
And now Jesus is saying that none of that matters—that the whole world can be saved if they will only believe in the Son of God. The whole world? Why … that would include even the Samaritans. It would include the Roman soldiers and King Herod and all the rest of the Roman government officials. It would include the tax collectors and the prostitutes.
Was Jesus right? Could Nicodemus believe what he was hearing? He’d come wanting to know if this Jesus really was the long-awaited Messiah—and if He was, then He must be speaking truth.
While it may not have happened instantly in that moment, it certainly appears that Nicodemus did come to believe Jesus. Later, in chapter 7 of John’s gospel, when there is “division among the people” about who Jesus is, when the chief priests want to arrest Him, Nicodemus defends Jesus. And in chapter 19, after Jesus has died on the cross, John tells us that it’s Nicodemus who helped Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus’ body down from the cross—it’s Nicodemus who brings the 75 pounds of spices that he and Joseph use to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. It’s Nicodemus who helps Joseph place the body in Joseph’s tomb.
Nicodemus listened to Jesus; surely he studied the Old Testament Scriptures for verification; probably he prayed about all these things—and he came to believe in Jesus. He came to know Jesus, to know that He was truly the Son of God.
What about you? Have you ever been faced with a truth that was contrary to what you’ve always believed? About Jesus? About the kingdom of God? About salvation?
Do you even know for sure what you believe?
In 2016, LifeWay Research conducted a survey for Ligonier Ministries in which they interviewed 3000 people about their beliefs. While 70% of those surveyed agreed that there’s only one true God, 64% also thought that God accepts the worship of all religions, including those that believe in many gods.
2/3 of respondents believe that, while everyone sins at least a little bit, people are basically good. This despite the fact that the apostle Paul tells us in Romans 3:23 – “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
That God tells Jeremiah in Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick—who can understand it?”
74% believe that God doesn’t care about “small” sins—and most thought that their sins were those that God included in the “small” category. Sins that He’s OK with, that He understands.
Yet 1 John 1:8-10 says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. … If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
60% agree that eventually everyone will go to heaven, even though half of those also said that “only those who believe in Jesus will be saved.”
586 of the survey takers “called the Bible their highest authority, said personal evangelism is important, and indicated that trusting in Jesus’ death on the cross is the only way of salvation.” Yet 56% of these believe that while the Holy Spirit is a divine force, He is not a personal being. Nearly half of these agreed that “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.” 2/3 of them believe that everyone will go to heaven.
The most astonishing thing about the survey was how many respondents apparently see no contradiction between their casual universalism and the evangelical understanding that salvation comes through faith in Christ alone.
It’s clear that many of us are just as confused as Nicodemus. In the wake of the tragic school shooting in Florida, people have been posting lots of things about God on social media—messages about our need for more God in our lives, for more prayer, for more calling out to God. And yet some of these people, some of those that I know personally, never go to church, they’ve never read the Bible—but they think they know God.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, these words of Jesus that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” are directly connected to his words “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3:3). And “Unless one is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (3:5)—they’re part of the same conversation.
What Jesus is saying is that there’s more to believing in Him than just saying, “Yes, I believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Yes, I believe that Jesus died for my sins.”
What Jesus is saying is that if we really believe in Him, if we really believe “in the name of the only Son of God” (3:18), we’ll be reborn. We’ll look different than the rest of the world. We’ll act different—all the time. Every day—not just when tragedy strikes. Because we’ve been reborn, we’ve received a new heart.
And yet, for many of us, like Nicodemus, this is totally contrary to what we’ve always believed. Maybe even to what we’ve been taught. Because some of us have always believed that we need to earn our way to heaven—that it’s good works that get us there.
Others of us have taken this verse, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” taken it all by itself as a great promise that God sent His only Son into the world to be nailed to a cross so that we could be saved. That this is a God who is all about forgiveness, all about grace—a God who really doesn’t care about our sins as long as we believe in Jesus.
“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “Jesus said that ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ Doesn’t that prove that everyone will be saved? It doesn’t say anything about anything else, nothing about turning away from sin, nothing about living differently.”
Not in that verse it doesn’t. That’s why you have to look at it in context. Look at it and understand what an amazing gift we have been offered in Jesus. God does love the world—He loves every single one of us. He loves Nicholas Cruz, who went into that Florida school and killed 17 people and injured many more. He loves him—but unless Nicholas Cruz comes to Jesus in true and total repentance for his sin, he’ll never see the kingdom of God.
We may not think that our sins are anywhere close to the sin of this young man, but God clearly thinks differently. John, from the very beginning of his gospel, is making it clear that we are sinners—every single one of us—sinners in desperate need of forgiveness. And that our greatest sin is the one that goes all the way back to our first parents, Adam and Eve—the sin of turning away from God.
Right at the very beginning of his gospel, John tells us:
- “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him” (1:9-10)
- “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (1:11)
- 2:24 says “Jesus … did not entrust himself to them … because he knew all people, and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”
Jesus knew, God the Father knew, just how sinful every one of us is. John is abundantly clear about this. I John 3:19 says, “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”
John wants us to understand that Jesus didn’t come because we deserve to be forgiven for our sins. He wants us to recognize that it was in spite of our sinfulness, in spite of our hearts that are ever seeking evil, that Jesus came. The Father sent Him anyway. Jesus came so that every single one of us—everyone who has ever lived in this world—every single one of us might have an opportunity to be saved through Him. He told Nicodemus, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (3:18-21).
Just as the Israelites bitten by snakes in the wilderness could be saved only by looking to the snake on the pole, we can be saved only by looking to Christ on the cross. And just as it must have seemed silly to many of those ancient people that a snake on a stick could save them, so too do many today seem to think it silly that a dead man on a cross can save them.
Jesus didn’t say we had to believe in Him. He offers us the opportunity. He came not just for some, but for the world. He came not to save some and condemn others, but solely for salvation. Nevertheless, condemnation does take place—not through God’s rejection of some, but through their rejection of Him (v 18).
It’s frightening how many people reject Jesus—people who mock those who pray. People like the television personality who said that Vice President Mike Pence is mentally ill because he believes that God speaks to him in prayer.
Jesus comes and shines light on all things—and He Himself said that many of us don’t like that. Many of us like our sins—we don’t want to give them up. We don’t want to hear that they’re wrong. Some of us have convinced ourselves that we don’t sin. We just make mistakes, we accidentally slip a little.
Until Nicodemus met Jesus he believed that the message was, “Do this to become part of the kingdom of God”—keep the rules. What Jesus told him was, “If you are part of the kingdom, this is what you will look like.” That’s what Jesus is saying in verses 20-21, when He says, “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
These are Jesus’ final words to Nicodemus: “This is what you’ll look like if you’re born again. You’ll look more and more like God. God, who loves everyone, who loves the world—so much that He sent His only Son, sent Him into a world filthy with sin, a world in which no one, not a single person, deserves to be saved. Sent Him anyway, “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
This is our God. Is He the God that you know? Or is this a God you’ve never met before? If so, are you prepared to receive something new? Are you prepared to really get to know this Jesus who came into the world to show us who God is? Are you prepared to believe in Him and follow Him? To turn away from darkness and come to the light?
The rest of our gospel passage shows us what it looks like to believe in Jesus—we see John the Baptist, faithfully doing the work that God has called him to do. Jesus has come and is Himself baptizing people, but John doesn’t take this as a sign that he can retire. He keeps preaching repentance, keeps baptizing, keeps speaking truth, rejoicing in Jesus. Telling his disciples when they complain about the fact that some of John’s followers are now following Jesus, that “He must increase, but I must decrease” (3:30).
Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is what happens when we’re born again. Jesus grows—in our lives, in our desires, in our decisions, in our actions. His will becomes more important than our will. His truth becomes more important than our truth. His Word becomes more important that our ideas or plans or beliefs. Everything about Jesus increases in our lives, even as we decrease.
This is not a once-for-all happening. It’s a daily decision. Once we become a part of the kingdom of God, once we’ve been born again, we must decide every single day to follow Jesus. To put His will and His plans ahead of ours. We will continue to battle with our sinful flesh every day that we live on this earth—but we have the power of the Holy Spirit living in us, ready and willing to help—and John 3:34 says “he gives the Spirit without measure” to those who believe.
And in the final verse, we’re told that “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (3:36). Believing and obeying go hand in hand. As we go through this Lenten season, ask God to help your unbelief, to grow your relationship. And then take the time each day to make that happen. Read your Bible, talk to God. And may each one of you come to truly know this “God who so loves the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal live.”
Let us pray.