By Ben Owens | July 20, 2019
Recently, I argued that before you form an opinion on the Bible, you should read it. This ought to be self-evident. But, for many, it isn't. As I wrote previously, "Millions of people have formed an opinion on Christianity based on nothing more than a National Geographic special or a bad experience with an idiot coworker. That's foolish."
In response, I made a suggestion: "Don't be one of those people. Read it for yourself. Start with [The Gospel of] John." A simple reading of John, I argued, will dispel so many of the silly myths we've been told about Christ and Christianity. I promised to "illustrate how John's account of Jesus cuts through the haze of confusion and presents the Jesus of reality." So here we are.
What follows is a small peek at the rich and vibrant portrait of Jesus that John's Gospel offers. But I hope you'll agree, that even a peek proves insightful. To learn more, you'll have to read more. I hope this essay piques your interest in doing so.
From the first words of this book, John aims to convince his reader that Jesus is not more of the same. He's not just another prophet or teacher. He's something special. He stands apart. And so throughout the unfolding story, we find John making bold claims about Jesus and then substantiating those claims by recounting a series of remarkable events from Jesus' ministry.
At the conclusion of chapter two, John makes a curious claim about Jesus' divine knowledge. He says that Jesus "did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person (John 2:25)." In other words, Jesus never needed any advisors. He never needed to run a background check. When He met someone, he knew them. Inside and out. Their fears, their faults, their dreams. He knew it all. That's a big claim. You'd have to be Somebody special to have that kind of knowledge. John knows it's a big claim. So he sets out to give us evidence.
As chapter three begins, Jesus is approached in the night by a man called Nicodemus. Nicodemus was among the most respected men in Israel. He was a devout religious scholar, a powerful government official and an esteemed rabbi. His coming by night likely indicates some apprehension to be seen with this controversial new young teacher. Nicodemus almost certainly intended to set the pace for this conversation. Certainly the elder scholar ought to evaluate the younger.
Yet before Nicodemus can even pose a question, Jesus interjects: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. ” Nicodemus is confused: “How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus begins to explain that He's not calling for physical womb re-entry. Nor is this a baptism reference. He's talking on a spiritual level. Jesus answers, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit." Jesus is describing the necessity of a complete spiritual rebirth. The contrast is between water/flesh on the one side and Spirit on the other. According to Jesus, the fluids of physical birth are not a sufficient condition for entry into heaven.
To put it another way, not everyone who is born makes it into God's kingdom. The bar is higher than that. God requires a second birth, a spiritual birth, a re-birth. Elsewhere, the New Testament refers to this rebirth as regeneration. This idea is central to the Christian faith.
Years later the Apostle Peter would write about the transformative power of this spiritual rebirth: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade."
The idea is just as central for the Apostle Paul. In his letter to Titus, Paul reminds Christians how this act of regeneration totally transformed their lives. "For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior," (Titus 3:3-6).
According to the Bible, this is not just rhetoric but reality. This is what it means to be a Christian. Regeneration is not an odd metaphor for a fresh start or a new perspective. It is an event wherein God directly imparts new spiritual life where there was only death. Hence, Paul's declaration in 2 Corinthians: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new."
The lesson for Nicodemus is a hard one. None of his efforts have been sufficient to transform his own heart. None of his credentials qualify him for entry to heaven. Jesus sees beyond the veneer of respectability. He knows his heart. He knows the reality. Nicodemus is a scholar but he can't study his way into a spiritual rebirth. He's a disciplined teacher of morality but there is no amount of discipline that can raise the dead. And Nicodemus is dead. He's a sinner. And sin brings spiritual death. That's the ugly truth. In the book of Romans, Paul explains that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." What's more, "the wages of sin is death."
According to the Bible, what's true of Nicodemus is true of us all. It's the universal human condition. We're all sinners. If we're honest, we know this. But the second point is harder to swallow. Our sin has rendered us spiritually dead in God's eyes, unfit for heaven and unable to fix ourselves. That is why Jesus speaks in universal terms: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” No one.
So, in a profound way, Nicodemus illustrates our common predicament. If a guy like Nicodemus can't save his own soul, where does that leave the rest of us? If we're to have any hope of heaven, we all desperately need this new spiritual life. So how do we get it? How do we access this power of regeneration?
The answer is almost astonishingly simple: believe. We turn back to Jesus' own words to Nicodemus: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved." (John 3:16-17)
To believe, in a Biblical sense, means more than agreeing to a set of facts. It's a total commitment; a transfer of confidence from ourselves to Jesus. That's biblical faith. It's trust. It's a willingness to freely acknowledge our helpless predicament and to freely admit our need for new spiritual life. And to then recognize that Jesus alone offers the answer. This side of the cross, we have the benefit of knowing exactly how Jesus would deal with our sin problem. He died in our place. He bore the death penalty on our behalf so that all who trust in Him can be saved. The proof of the efficacy of His death is His resurrection from the grave. He now offers that salvation to all who trust in Him and the perfect sacrifice He made for us.
It's simple, but not easy. Not easy, first of all, because the Bible says faith involves a willingness to turn from our life of sin. This is called repentance and it's a non-negotiable: "God ... now commands all men everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30). There is no real faith apart from repentance. Repentance is not overcoming sin and then turning to Jesus. It's a willingness to let God rescue you, so He can free you from your sin. It means you want freedom from your sin. You want to be done with it.
Imagine a man trapped in an upper room of a burning house. Outside his window, a fireman offers rescue. Repentance is a willingness to grab the fireman's hand and climb out of that bedroom window onto the extended ladder. The willingness to leave the house behind is vital to the rescue. If the man refuses to leave the house because of his great love for his favorite chair or his fondness for his record collection, things won't end well. What's more, his refusal to leave reveals he hasn't taken the offer of rescue seriously. He can profess great faith in the fireman, but until he's willing to leave behind the fleeting pleasures of a doomed life, it's all talk. That's repentance; the willingness to leave behind the fleeting pleasures of a doomed life. Not easy.
It's also not easy because it requires us to stop trusting in ourselves. We have to reject the idea that, given enough time and white-knuckle discipline, we can work it out. We can't work it out. We're dead. There's an unavoidable offensiveness in the Christian gospel. The gospel says, "Jesus did what you never could. Apart from Him you're lost and hopeless." We naturally bristle. "I beg your pardon? Not good enough?" Like a slot machine, our minds churn through lists of accomplishments, difficulties we've overcome, comparisons with people nastier than us. I've never murdered anyone. Nobody's perfect. I'm doing the best I can. This is all standard stuff. And it's all irrelevant.
We're sinners and sin kills. Only Jesus can make alive. "Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again." The Bible makes it clear that the new birth is accessed by faith alone. It can't be earned. "God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it" (Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT).
Remember our man in the burning house? Trying to earn your own salvation is like running around trying to put out the fire with a spray bottle full of gasoline. Those self-righteous efforts are part of what needs to be left behind. That's what I meant when I said that Biblical faith is a transfer of confidence from ourselves to Jesus. We have to recognize that we couldn't get the job done. Jesus can. And He did. And And He offers you the benefits.
This may seem like a lot to take in. I promised a clearer picture of the real Jesus. So I'll wrap up with a few basic takeaways.
1. Jesus knows you. He knows us all, just like He knew Nicodemus. He knows our failures, our excuses. He knows the things no one else knows about us. He knows the ways we're dishonest with ourselves. He knows that, despite all our best efforts, we're hopelessly lost in our sin.
2. Jesus has what you need. That is, regeneration: the supernatural power of God to raise your soul to life. If we're honest, most of us have moments in which we're acutely aware of our brokenness. Something is wrong with us. We can't fix it. We can clean up our act a bit. We can do a little better and work a little harder, but we can't fundamentally change who we are. Jesus can. And He wants to. He invites you to trust and be transformed.
3. Jesus offers new life to all who will believe. There's no favoritism here. No one is left out of the appeal of Christianity. The gospel is not just for religious people or people who want a little extra spirituality in their lives. It's for everyone. The story of Nicodemus teaches us that there's no one whose level of achievement places them beyond the need of Jesus' saving grace. In John chapter four, we'll meet someone from the opposite end of the social spectrum. And we'll learn that there's no one whose low status or life-defining shame puts them beyond the reach of Jesus' saving grace. The gospel is for all, without exception. That's where we'll turn our attention next time.