The great truth of salvation that people too often hide
Whatever you are, whatever you have done, have not done, whatever good you’ve done, whatever evil you’ve done has no bearing on this. Your connection to religion has no relationship to this. Your connection to morality has no relationship to this. You’re asking for something to happen to you that comes from God by sovereign power. But that’s what Jesus told him. And I’m convinced that we far too often hide that great truth.
Salvation explained in the OT
Now Jesus holds him (Nicodemus) responsible for not knowing that. He says in the end of that opening section, verse 10, “how can you be the teacher in Israel and not know this?” He should have known this because the message of divine, sovereign salvation is given clearly in the Old Testament, in the New Covenant passages in which Nicodemus would have been very familiar (Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36, Ezekiel 37). How is it you don’t know that a relationship with God is something God does miraculously from heaven, it comes down?
This is what you tell someone who asks; what do I do to be saved?
So our Lord stops the sinner in his tracks. And I commend to you this approach. If somebody would come to you and say, “What do I do to be saved?” The answer is…What?…nothing. There’s a sense in which you say this is a divine miracle, this is a work of God according to His will; as verse 8 says, the Holy Spirit does it when and where He will. And as we’ve been saying all the way through those opening verses, all you can do is ask, all you can do is ask.
Human responsibility Re: your unbelief
Now last week we made a transition into the section verses 11 to 21. New birth was mentioned five times in the opening verses; belief is mentioned seven times in verses 11 to 21. So now we came to that second parallel track, you remember that? If you weren’t here last week, you might want to get that message. The second parallel track, human responsibility. You can’t do anything about it on the one hand, but on the other hand, you are responsible for your belief or unbelief. So the message to a sinner is, You can’t do anything to gain your salvation. You can’t make a contribution to it, but you are required to believe what God has done to provide it, to believe what God has done in Christ to provide salvation as a gift of grace.
A fact about unbelief
Let me tell you something about unbelief. Unbelief produces ignorance. If you want to hear ignorant representation of the Bible, listen to unbelievers. They will misrepresent the Scripture constantly. I never expect to hear any unbeliever rightly represent the Bible. A lot of the time I don’t even expect believers to rightly represent the Bible, but I certainly don’t expect non-believers to rightly represent the Bible. Why? Because unbelief locks them in ignorance, because that’s 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural man understands not the things of God.” What are they to him? Foolishness; to those who are perishing, they are foolishness.
Unbelief produces ignorance
…a very prominent preacher by the name of Charles Templeton. Some of you may remember that name. He was one of the founders of Youth for Christ, along with Billy Graham.
And he was believed at that time to be the greatest of the preachers. Billy was kind of the second preacher.
He was the great mind, he was the great presence, he had all the drama. He had it all–brilliant mind, all of that, and he became a great preacher and a great evangelist and preached to stadiums full of people and he was carrying the weight of that kind of Graham/Templeton duo in the early years. And people fell at his feet. People loved to listen to him. He was…he was basically targeted for massive success.
Little by little it began to surface that he misrepresented Scripture. And he began to a little more, a little more out about what he thought about Scripture. It all came to a culmination when he wrote a book. The title of the book is a biography of his spiritual journey, and the title is Farewell to God by Charles Templeton. He ended up a journalist in Canada, a novelist, writer, television personality; Farewell to God.
What he does in that book Farewell to God is attack the Bible. And it’s amazing for someone who was trained and who prepared and who preached. He gets everything in the Bible wrong, everything. His view of everything is warped and skewed, and that is the legacy of unbelief. The legacy of unbelief is ignorance.
That is why if you go to a university and you listen to unbelievers talk about the Bible, they’ll get it wrong. If you go to a seminary and you have unbelieving professors talk about the Bible, they’ll get it wrong. And here was Nicodemus, he was one of those. Unbelief produces ignorance. And so we see the passage open with this really startling confrontation of the condition of the heart of Nicodemus and the universal condition of every unbelieving heart, that it is locked in and it is prisoner to spiritual darkness, spiritual ignorance.
…What can the sinner do? All the sinner can do, according to verse 15, is believe, but that is enough. That’s enough.
People who have gone to heaven and come back
There were some exceptions. There are some people who have come back from heaven. Really? Yes. Lazarus, John 11; he was dead for a few days and he was somewhere and he came back. And then when the Lord died on the cross, do you remember the graves were opened and the saints came forth, so they came back. And Paul, 2 Corinthians 12, had a short trip to heaven and came back. But here’s the important part. That exception proves the rule. Those are very rare, very, very rare. Elijah went to heaven, but really only came back in the moment of the Transfiguration. Very rare.
Explanation of the snakes verse in John 3 (Re: Christ lifted up)
I am the one that has to be lifted up. And in saying that, there is a reference to His crucifixion. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
What is that about?
Back in Numbers 21 the children of Israel in their disobedience were punished by God. God sent snakes, remember, to bite them. And they were bitten with this toxic and deadly poison and they were in a panic. They cried out to God and what did God do? God in His compassion and His mercy said to get a pole, put a bronze serpent on the pole, and for anyone who looks up at the pole, I’ll provide immediate healing. That’s just a story from Israel’s past, and it’s an analogy.
It’s not an allegory; it’s just an illustration. In the same way that the children of Israel, carrying about the deadly poison of the bite of this snake, could be delivered from death by looking up at a brazen serpent, so it is that sinners carrying the poison of the arch serpent and the sin that he perpetrated on the human race can be delivered from death by looking up at the crucified Savior.
Christ lifted up
What a beautiful analogy. That’s the first time we know that there’s a certain lifting up of Christ.
We haven’t heard how He’s going to die. But we do know from Psalm 22, some of the features of His body–we know about His thirst, and we know about His wounds. And from Zechariah we know He’ll be pierced. And from Isaiah 53, we know that He will be beaten and again that He will be pierced for our transgressions. We know that He’s going to die.
Already chapter 2, verses 19 to 22, Jesus said, “Destroy this body and I’ll raise it up.” But now all of a sudden, we’re getting another perspective here and the perspective is that His death will be a death in which He’s lifted up.
But there’s more to this than just being lifted up in His death. It means that you give Him all your attention. You elevate Him above all others, over all others, as the pre-eminent one and you look to Him in faith and Him alone for salvation.