GOD SO LOVED John 3
“God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).John summed up Jesus’ talk with Nicodemus in the most famous verse in the Bible: the “Gospel in a nutshell,” John 3:16.
Jesus explained “born again” to a leading member of the Sanhedrin (3:1–14). John summed up the Gospel, and defined the critical role of faith (vv. 15–21). He reported the Baptist’s delight in Jesus’ growing popularity (vv. 22–30), and commented on the primacy of Jesus Christ (vv. 31–36).
Understanding the Text
“A man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus” John 3:1.
Nicodemus reminds us that while the Pharisees were generally ranged against Jesus, there were good and godly men among them. Through this interview Nicodemus remained courteous, though obviously puzzled. Later references to Nicodemus suggest that he became one of Jesus’ followers (7:45–52; 19:38–42). It’s a mistake to judge individuals by their class alone. In Jesus’ time most people had intense respect for the Pharisees. Jesus showed that those of this class who opposed Him were hypocrites. Yet Nicodemus was honest in his desire to please God, as were many other Pharisees who later became Christians (cf. Acts 15:5; 23:6). As John pointed out in this chapter, the great dividing line between human beings is not race or class, but whether or not they believe in Jesus Christ (John 3:18). “He came to Jesus at night” John 3:2. We shouldn’t make too much of this phrase, though some have suggested Nicodemus sneaked in to see Jesus for fear of criticism. Social visits often took place in the late evening: most folks in first-century Judea worked during the daylight hours. What’s important is Nicodemus’ admission that “we know You are a Teacher who has come from God.” Even the few miraculous healings Jesus performed in the early stages of His ministry were recognized by the ruling class as a divine authentication. Jesus’ miracles did not produce faith. Later, members of the ruling counsel condemned Jesus to death despite many more miracles! What the miracles did was to win Jesus a hearing. They produced a kind of “pre-faith”: a realization that this Man must be heard. There’s a miracle that wins us a hearing today too. It’s the miracle God works within us, making us loving, caring people who reflect Jesus’ concern for others. This miracle will win a hearing for the Gospel. But don’t be surprised if the message of Jesus provokes opposition as well as faith. “Born of water and the Spirit” John 3:5. The meaning of this phrase has long been debated, with some insisting the “water” refers to water baptism. It does. But it refers to the baptism of John, in which water was a symbol of repentance. God saves no one against his or her will. While the new birth is a work of God within us, God just doesn’t grab folks around the neck and make them hold still while the Spirit inserts new life! No one can give themselves new life, but each person must acknowledge his or her sins, as John’s baptism symbolized. By a change of heart and mind we must open ourselves to God’s work within us. And so we are born again, by water and the Spirit. We acknowledge our sins and turn to the Lord. And He works His miracle within us. “As Moses lifted up the snake” John 3:11–14. Jesus told Nicodemus the source of His authority to promise a new birth: He had come down from heaven, and so He knew. To help Nicodemus understand what He had said, Jesus referred to an Old Testament incident. Once during the Exodus the Israelites disobeyed God, and were punished by an infestation of poisonous serpents whose bite was fatal. Moses made a bronze snake—a symbol of their judgment—and raised it on a pole. The people were then urged to simply look at the serpent, and were promised life. Soon Christ would Himself be lifted up on another pole, at Calvary. His death would symbolize the judgment all human beings deserve. And ever afterward, all people would be urged simply to look to Jesus, and receive new life. As the hymn writer says, “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain. He washed it white as snow!” “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned” John 3:15–18. Here the Apostle John left off his report, and on his own commented. “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” This, undoubtedly, is the most famous verse in Scripture. It links what God has done with what we must do. God has provided eternal life in Jesus. Our part is to believe. In John 1:12 the apostle defined “believe” in terms of “receive.” In John 3:15 “believe” is defined in terms of “repent.” Other images follow in this book that has been called the “Gospel of Belief.” Both repenting and receiving are aspects of a true belief in God. Biblical belief is turning from ourselves and our old ways to God, and trusting God enough to open our hearts to the gift He wants to give us. If you have turned to God and you trust His promise to give you new life in Jesus, you have eternal life, now! “Whoever does not believe stands condemned already, because he has not believed” John 3:18. Don’t suppose God condemns a person because he or she hasn’t believed. That’s not John’s point. John said a person “stands condemned” because he hasn’t believed. Suppose you and a friend are standing on a train track, and the train is coming. You jump off and live. He doesn’t move and is killed. In one sense he was killed because he didn’t get off the track. That would have saved him. But in another sense he was killed because he stood on the track in the first place. John wasn’t saying that God punishes people for not believing. He says that people who deserve punishment can avoid it only by faith in Christ. Sin puts people on the track along which God’s judgment is coming. Belief in Jesus gets them off the track and out of the way. If they are condemned it won’t be for not believing. But it will be because they did not believe. Don’t let folks confuse you on this. Jesus didn’t come to condemn anyone. He came that all who would believe might be saved. “Men loved darkness instead of light” John 3:19–21. Why, when people hear the Good News of God’s gift of eternal life, do so many of them not believe? John said that they love darkness. To come to Jesus means repentance: it means admitting that our deeds are evil and that we need to be born again. Some people are repelled by the Gospel because the evil within them dreads exposure. How foolish. And how tragic. One day every man’s deeds will be exposed anyway. And those who have not found forgiveness in Jesus will be condemned. “He must become greater; I must become less” John 3:22–30. How great a protection John’s attitude is from the Christian’s greatest temptation: pride. Even the little man is tempted to be proud that he’s so humble. And the Christian who knows success is in danger indeed! John wasn’t concerned about the smaller crowds that came to hear him when Jesus was preaching in the same district. His great joy was that Jesus become greater, and he himself less. The person who is ready to accept a John—like role in life will, like John, find himself often “full of joy” (v. 29). “Placed everything in His hands” John 3:31–36. Again the author broke off his report to comment. Why did Jesus deserve the priority that John the Baptist acknowledged? What a list of reasons he gave! Jesus has priority because He is above all (v. 31). Because He comes from heaven (v. 31). Because He knows by experience what He is speaking about (v. 32)-and all who accept His words discover personally just how truthful He is (v. 33). Jesus has priority because He speaks the words of God (v. 34). Because God gives Him an unlimited supply of the Spirit (v. 34). Because the Father loves Him (v. 35) and has placed everything in His hands (v. 36). Because He is the source of eternal life for all who believe (v. 36), the only way to escape the coming wrath (v. 36). This Jesus, who is preeminent, must have priority in our lives.
You Must Be Born Again(John 3:3–10)
This passage is the source of what today is the prime evangelical catchphrase: “Born again.” Most folks don’t really understand, though polls show a large percentage of our population claims a “born-again experience.” Running up against it for the first time, Nicodemus was totally confused. Yet according to Jesus, he should have understood (v. 10). As “teacher of Israel” this member of the supreme Jewish council should have grasped the meaning of Old Testament prophecies about the new birth. Take for instance Ezekiel 36:26–27. There God said, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit in you and move you to follow My decrees and be careful to keep My laws.” This is what it means to be “born again.” It means to experience a spiritual rebirth: to know an inner transformation of the sin-hardened heart; a redirection of the life toward God. Only a supernatural work by God the Holy Spirit within us can accomplish so dramatic a change. And so when Jesus says, “You must be born again,” He simply means that to enter His kingdom, you and I must let God into our lives, to work there as He pleases. When we do, eternal life will be ours—now—and through the miracle of the new birth our life on earth will become fresh and new.
Don’t simply accept new life in Jesus. Live it!
“The elect are the ‘whosoever wills’; the nonelect are the ‘whosoever won’ts.’ “—D.L. Moody