“How can these things be?”
“Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you [of] heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, [even] the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.” (John 3:9-21)
In this 3rd chapter of John’s Gospel God the Holy Spirit has recorded for us a conversation between our Lord Jesus Christ and one of the most learned, well-taught, and highly respected religious leaders of his day, Nicodemus. This is one of the most important passages in all the Bible. Its doctrine is both profound and essential. Nowhere in Scripture are we given stronger statements about the new birth and salvation by faith in Christ than are found here.
In the first part of our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus he declared the necessity of the new birth, asserting that we must be born again, because until we are born again we cannot see the kingdom of God and cannot enter into it. Without the new birth, no one has the capacity and ability to understand anything spiritual (John 3:3). And without the new birth, without a new, righteous nature being created in us by God the Holy Spirit, we cannot enter into God’s heaven (John 3:5, 7; Hebrews 12:14; Revelation 21:27). — “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again” (v. 7).
Then, in verse 8 our Savior showed Nicodemus, and shows us that the new birth is a sovereign act and work of God the Holy Spirit. — “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
The wind is invisible. We cannot see the wind; but we can certainly feel the effects. Even so, we cannot see the Spirit of God; but his power and the results of his work are evident.
The wind is sovereign in its actions. It is beyond man’s control. The wind does not consult with us and is not regulated by us. So it is with the Spirit of God. The wind blows when it pleases, where it pleases, and as it pleases. So it is with the Spirit (Exodus 33:19; John 5:21).
The wind is irresistible. When the wind blows in its power, it sweeps everything before it. It is so with the Spirit of God. When he comes in the fulness of his power, he breaks down man’s prejudices, subdues his will, conquers him, and sweetly forces him into the arms of Christ. — “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power” (Psalm 110:3). — “Blessed is the man whom thou choosest and causest to approach unto thee” (Psalm 65:4). — “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).
Our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus continues in verses 9-21. His doctrine of regeneration is immediately followed by his doctrine of justification. Here he tells us how sinners obtain God’s salvation by faith alone. After declaring the necessity and nature of the new birth to Nicodemus, — “Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?” (John 3:9) — Our Lord Jesus answers the question in verses 10-21.
The first thing set before us in this passage is a glaring display of spiritual ignorance. Here is a man who was “a master in Israel,” learned in all matters of religious thought, fully acquainted with all the theological trends of the day, a man of letters and degrees, who was utterly ignorant of all things spiritual (vv. 9-12).
When he was told about the new birth, Nicodemus immediately exclaimed, “How can these things be?” This question reveals the spiritual ignorance of all men by nature, even well-trained, academically superior, highly honored men. Nicodemus was very well educated, very religious, and of high moral character and reputation. — “A Master in Israel!” Yet, he was spiritually ignorant. If we would understand the things of God, we must have something more than education, morality, and sincerity. We must be taught of God.
Even though God became incarnate and spoke in human language, men understood him not (Proverbs 4:19; Ephesians 4:18). Even preachers, teachers, religious leaders, and theologians may be ignorant of Divine truth. The fact that a preacher has graduated with honors from some theological center is no proof that he is a man taught of God (John 6:44-45).
Nicodemus was one of those pastors in Israel who had ceased to feed the people with knowledge and understanding. The blind were leading the blind, and both were falling into the ditch (Matthew 15:14). The successors of such men are found in every age; and they are abundant today. Let most any preacher or religious leader of our day comment on anything spiritual, and you will have a glaring example of Paul’s declaration in 1 Corinthians 2:14. — “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
Look at the next verse. After chiding Nicodemus for his ignorance, our Lord shows him the reason for it. It was because he refused to receive the Savior’s witness. — “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness” (v. 11). The reason sinners do not know the things of God is twofold: First, they are without the ability to discern anything spiritual. Second, they refuse to believe God’s revelation of himself.
None are so blind as those who will not see! As we believe God’s Word, he gives us understanding of what we believe. As we walk in the light revealed, we are given more light. But, if you receive not the witness of God, you have yourself to blame for your ignorance (John 5:40-44).
Earthly Things and Heavenly
Verse 12 might seem a little confusing. What are those earthly things and those heavenly things our Savior speaks of here?
“Earthly things” refer to the new birth, which takes place on earth, and to the “wind,” by which he illustrated the Spirit’s operations of grace in regeneration. These things Nicodemus ought to have known about from Ezekiel 36:24-27. If he did not believe God’s Word about these earthly things, it would be useless to tell him of “heavenly things,” of things pertaining to the counsels of God, the mysteries of grace, and the things God has prepared for them that love him (1 Corinthians 2:9-10).
It would certainly be meaningless for our Lord to tell him of those things he had accomplished as the covenant Surety and Mediator of his people. It would be meaningless, that is, unless the Lord himself was pleased to make the Word effectual. Yet, having said that, the Lord proceeds to tell him of heavenly things in verse 13. — “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.”
These are heavenly things indeed! Here our Savior asserts that he, the God-man, and no other man but the God-man had already ascended up to heaven. He then asserts that he had come down from heaven. And third, he says that he was in heaven, even while he walked upon the earth. Obviously, our Savior is talking here about that which he accomplished before the world began, when he stood forth and was accepted as our covenant Surety, as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. In a word, our Lord here declared to Nicodemus that the work he came to do on earth was already accomplished by him in heaven (Romans 8:29-30; 10:4-9; Hebrews 4:3).
It is true that both Enoch and Elijah had ascended up to heaven; and all those who had died in faith were already in heaven. But all who are there, and all who ever shall be there are there because of the efficacy and merit of Christ, the God-man Mediator, our Substitute.
Read our Lord’s words in verse 13 again, and rejoice. — “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.” If no man but Christ ascends to heaven, then all others, except Christ, are shut out of heaven. Is that not right? How, then, can we enter heaven? The Church of God’s elect, the whole election of grace, is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12). We and our Savior, the Church and her Head are one Christ! We are described as “the fulness of him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).
Our Lord Jesus spoke of the necessity of the new birth. — “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” The new birth is a new creation, the imparting of Divine, or eternal life. It is having a new, righteous nature imparted to us and created in us by God the Holy Spirit. But, before any sinner could be granted such grace, before any could be born of God, something else had to be done. So, secondly, our Savior spoke to Nicodemus about another necessity. Before God could do anything for us, he must do something for himself.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (vv. 14-15)
If eternal life is to be bestowed upon us, it must be bestowed upon us righteously and justly. Eternal life could never be bestowed upon men, except by the satisfaction of Divine justice. The Son of God must be lifted up. Eternal life must come out of his substitutionary death. The sacrificial work of Christ is the basis of the Spirit’s operations and the ground of God’s gift of life (Isaiah 53:4-6).
It is the Son of man who must be crucified, for atonement could be made only by one in the nature of him who sinned. Only as man was Christ capable of taking upon himself our guilt and its penalty. The Jews expected the Messiah to be lifted up or elevated to the throne of David; but before this, he must be lifted up on the cross of shame, enduring the judgment of God upon our sins.
To illustrate the character, meaning, and purpose of his death, our dear Savior refers to the well-known incident of the brazen-serpent in Numbers 21:6-9. The people were bitten by fiery serpents, dying, and without hope. Moses made a serpent in the likeness of the cause and lifted it up. Those who looked in faith lived. Christ is made in the likeness of sinful flesh and crucified. The only animal upon whom the Lord God specifically pronounced his curse was the serpent. So our Lord Jesus who was made sin and made a curse for us was rightly represented by the cursed thing. All who look to him in faith shall live (Isaiah 45:22).
By being “lifted up,” our Lord meant nothing less than his own death upon the cursed tree. That death, he would have us know, was appointed by God for “the life of the world” (John 6:51). It was ordained from all eternity to be the great propitiation and satisfaction for the sins of his people throughout the whole world. It was the payment of our debt, by an Almighty Substitute and Representative of infinite worth and merit. This is God’s scheme of grace and redemption. In infinite wisdom and goodness he purposed to save sinners by the sin-atoning death of his dear Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, on the cross.
When Christ died upon the cross, our many sins were laid upon him. He was made “sin” for us. He was made “a curse” for us (2Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13). By his death he purchased complete pardon for our souls and obtained eternal redemption for us.
The truth set before us here is the very foundation-stone of our faith — Substitution. Christ’s death is our life. His cross is our title to heaven. Christ “lifted up” and put to shame on Calvary is the ladder by which we “enter into the holiest” and ascend at last to heavenly glory. We are sinners, but Christ has suffered for us. We deserve death, but Christ has died for us. We are guilty debtors, but Christ has paid our debt with his own blood. This is the good news we preach. This is the gospel we believe. On this let us lean while we live. To this let us cling when we die. Christ has been “lifted up” on the cross, and has thrown open the gates of heaven to poor sinners!
Third, our blessed Savior shows us that the cause of all this is the love of God.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” (vv. 16-17)
The Lord Jesus declared that his death on the cross was an imperative, a necessity. He did not say, “The Son of man shall be lifted up,” but, “The Son of man must be lifted up.” There is no other alternative if the claims of God are to be met, if the demands of justice are to be satisfied, if sin is to be put away, and if the elect are to be saved, — Christ must die (Romans 3:25-26; 2 Corinthians 5:21). The law and justice of God demand it
John 3:14 declares the remedy for sin. Christ must be lifted up. Verse 15 is the result. — “Whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Verse 16 is the reason. — “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life!”
The cross is a display of righteousness, justice, truth, and holiness; but there is more in the cross of Christ than an exhibition of the holiness of God. The cross is the great display and manifestation of the love of God. John 3:16 takes us back to the very foundation of everything. God’s great salvation was provided by love. Christ came and died because God loved us and was determined to have a people like Christ, not in order to make the Father love us, but because he loved us. The atonement was not the cause but the effect of God’s love (1 John 4:9-10).
“Twas not to make Jehovah’s love
Toward his people flame,
That Jesus from the throne above,
A suffering man became.
Twas not the death which he endured,
Nor all the pangs he bore,
That God’s eternal love procured,
For God was love before.
He loved the world of His elect,
With love surpassing thought;
Nor will His mercy e’er neglect
The souls so dearly bought!
The warm affections of His breast
Towards His chosen burn;
And in His love He’ll ever rest,
Nor from His oath return.”
In this 16th verse our Lord tells us seven things about the love of God.
1. The tense of his love. — “God so loved.” He always has loved us. It is an everlasting love (Romans 5:8; Jeremiah 33:3).
2. The magnitude of his love. — “God so loved.” It is an infinite love (John 15:13).
3. The scope of his love. — “God so loved the world.” His love is not limited to the Jews only, but to all nations (Revelation 5:9).
4. The nature of his love. — “God so loved...that he gave.” Real love ever seeks the highest interest and well being of its object. Love is unselfish; it gives. God gave the greatest gift.
5. The sacrificial character of his love. He not only gave his Son to live on earth among men, but to die the death of the cross (Philippians 2:6-8).
6. The design of his love. — “That whosoever believeth on him should not perish.” God has a people who shall not perish. No condemnation or judgment shall come to them (Romans 8:33-34).
7. The beneficence of his love. — “But have everlasting life.” This is what our Lord imparts to his own: — eternal life and glory (1 John 3:1-3).
The coming of Christ was not to condemn the world; the world was already condemned (Romans 5:18). The Son of God came into the world in human flesh that men and women of all nations might be saved. The word “might” does not express any uncertainty about the fact of their being saved. It expresses our Lord’s purpose and design in coming. He came in order that the world might be saved. His person and work for sinners enabled God to be both just and Justifier of those who believe (1 Peter 3:18; Isaiah 45:20-25).
By Faith Alone
Fourth, our Lord teaches us that sinners obtain all the blessedness of eternal life in Christ by faith alone.
“He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.” (VV. 18-21)
Obviously, faith in Christ does not give sinners life. Faith is the result of life given by God the Holy Spirit. And faith does not accomplish justification. Faith is the result of that justification Christ accomplished at Calvary. Yet, no one is saved without faith; and all who are saved are saved by faith alone, because salvation is by grace (Romans 4:16). Three times our Lord repeats this glorious truth to Nicodemus. Twice he proclaims that “whosoever believeth shall not perish.” Once he says, “He that believeth on the Son of God is not condemned.”
Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is salvation. He that has faith has life, and he that has it not has not life. Nothing is necessary to our complete salvation. Nothing will give us an interest in Christ except faith in him. You may fast and mourn for sin, and do many things that are right, and use religious ordinances, and give all your goods to feed the poor, and yet remain unpardoned, and lose your soul. But if you come to Christ as a guilty sinner, believing on him, eternal life is yours and you cannot be lost. Without faith in Christ, there is no salvation; but through faith in the Son of God, the vilest sinner is saved forever.
In this matter of salvation, faith stands alone, without works. If you would know whether you are justified by Christ, there is but one question to be asked. — “Dost thou believe on the Son of God?” “He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (v.18).
For the believer there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1) because Christ was condemned in our stead (Isaiah 53:4-6). Those who believe not are condemned already. We all came into this world with the curse of sin upon us and were by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). Guilt and condemnation is increased by persistent unbelief. If any go to hell, it will be because they loved darkness rather than light. It will be because they refused to come to Christ, because they refused to believe on the Son of God (Proverbs 1:23-33; Matthew 11:21-30).
Oh, may God the Holy Spirit give you faith in Christ! May he be gracious to you and give you the gift of life, for Christ’s sake.
Listen to sermons at FreeGraceRadio.com