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There is a group of people in the Bible who get a bad press. A group of people who opposed everything about Jesus, he clashed with them, and he called them out for their pretence and spiritual superiority . He called them hypocrites and whitewashed tombs. Their very name has become synonymous with hypocrisy — I’m talking of course about the pharisees. This group of leaders and their opposition to Christ has informed how many in the church feel about church leadership, and particularly “trained leadership” today.

I have encountered people who have a belief that says something like “you shouldn’t get any theological training, and trained people are certainly not the people who should be leading churches because they are just like the pharisees in the Bible and only interested in rules and traditions, and will oppose the work of the Spirit among the people of God”.

I have two opening comments to make about this:

Firstly, religious leaders in Biblical times had a very different role and standing in the community to your average local pastor or vicar today. They were not just religious leaders, they were community leaders and had quite significant legal and political power and influence in society. In fact the “scribes and the Pharisees” have far more in common with your local councillor or politician than they do with your local vicar.

Secondly, The view that ALL the religious leaders of the time were opposed to Christ, and the implication that religious leaders nowadays always try to stifle the work of God today, is simply not true. Not all the religious leaders were against Christ — the Bible gives several examples of pharisees and religious leaders who didn’t oppose Jesus, in fact they believed. Here are just a few examples:

  • Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38) was “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders”
  • Jairus (Mark 5 / Luke 8 & Matthew 9) who is “the synagogue ruler”.
  • Crispus the synagogue ruler, Acts 18:8 and his whole household came to faith.
  • Acts 6:7 tells us, “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”
  • John 12:42 tells us that “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him.”
  • Acts 5:34–39 records Gamaliel, a pharisee defending Peter and John, and though the Bible doesn’t say he became a believer some Christian traditions says that he did.

These were all religious leaders who saw Jesus differently to their colleagues.

We are walking this morning with another religious leader who had both respect and regard for Jesus. Nicodemus, who came to Jesus in the middle of the night:

Read the account: John 3:1–21 (NIV)

There are a few things I want to draw out from this narrative

Fear

The first thing to note is the fact that Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night.

One of the similarities Nicodemus has with all the other religious leaders who believed and followed Jesus is his fear, evidenced by the secrecy of his visit.

Nicodemus was typical of some religious leaders of his day. To be John 12:42 describes the fear the religious leaders had of their peers: “they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue”, and as we’ve already noted Joseph of Arimathea also was a secret believer – because of fear.

Fear is something which controls us.

Here are a few things which fear of men makes us do … Fear can have a focus in a particular danger either embodied in a man or in a situation, or it can just be there, a vague feeling of fear and dread which we cannot put a finger on.

Here are a few examples from the bible which affect what people do.

  1. The very first mention of fear comes right at the beginning of human history. Adam and Eve allow themselves to fall to the temptation of the serpent, and practically the very first thing they do is hide. Adam says why: “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” Genesis 3:10 (NIV). Fear causes us to hide from God. (I’m going to come back to this later).
  2. In Judges 6 and 7 we encounter Gideon, who although described in the narrative as “mighty warrior”, he was a fearful man, he is first introduced to us threshing in a wine press. He’s hiding from the Midianites. Then, even after God reveals himself to Gideon, Gideon does what God says — but in the middle of the night. Fear is still controlling his actions. The focus of his fear switches from fear of his enemies to fear of his neighbours. Fear causes us to hide who we truly are from people around us
  3. In Genesis, Abraham, and Isaac hide their relationships with their wives because they are afraid of what might happen (in fact Abraham did it twice!), so we read for example in Genesis 26:7 that when he was asked about his wife, Isaac tells the people, “She is my sister,” because he was afraid to say, “She is my wife.” Fear can make us conform to the expectations of others.
  4. In Matthew 2:22, we are told that “Joseph was afraid to settle in Judea”. Fear can dictate our long-term decisions. In this case it was where to live, but fear can stop us taking a particular career path, or marrying a particular person, any number of life decisions can be controlled by our fears.
  5. After Jesus’ crucifixion, we are told that the disciples met in secret because they were afraid: “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” (John 20:19)

This isn’t a preach about fear, so I can’t do much more than hope I have opened a window for you and challenged and encouraged you that fear of man is something we have to overcome if we are to live a fulfilled life.

Jesus says the key in this is fear of God. He says: “do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Luke 12:4–6 (NIV)

Going back to the garden of Eden, we read about Adam and how one of the primary effects of his sin was fear of God, and the Bible says that fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10)

Here are some other things which the Bible tells us come to those who fear God …

Proverbs 16:6 says that it is fear of the Lord that drives a man to avoid evil. Fear of the Lord leads us to righteous actions, it shows up in our integrity, so we have for example Nehemiah placed Hananiah in charge of the citadel because: “he was a man of integrity and feared God more than most people do.” Nehemiah 7:2 (NIV). Fear of God also drove the Hebrew midwives to disobey Pharaoh’s instruction to kill the Hebrew babies: ”The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.” Exodus 1:17 (NIV). This action we read resulted in God’s blessing on them, Exodus 1:21 says because they feared God he gave them babies of their own. Psalm 115:13 tells us that God will bless those who fear him, and Ecclesiastes says it will be better in the end for those who fear God than for those who do not …

Although a wicked person who commits a hundred crimes may live a long time, I know that it will go better with those who fear God, who are reverent before him. Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow.  Ecclesiastes 8:12–13 (NIV)

So fearing God more than man is something which marks us out as his, and ultimately leads us to a place of forgiveness and salvation.

  • God’s mercy extends to those who fear him (Luke 1:50);
  • there is forgiveness that you may be feared (Psalm 130:4);
  • His salvation is near to those who fear him (Psalm 85:9);

In Ephesus we read about how some Jewish priests tried to invoke the name of Jesus as a formula to do an exorcism, but failed badly and we read: “When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honour.” Acts 19:17 (NIV)

Fear drove Nicodemus to come to Jesus in the middle of the night. Is that us too? Do we come to Jesus in the middle of the night? Are we frightened of what people might say? Let’s not judge Nicodemus too harshly, the disciples themselves hid for fear of the authorities, there is evidence that the church in the first few centuries was a secret church, that they met in secret and hid their faith. In many countries nowadays people are secret believers in the “underground” church because of persecution of Christians (far too many countries).

What is great about this story is that even in the secrecy of the middle of the night, Jesus meets with Nicodemus, he doesn’t turn him away. Despite the verse which describes Jesus as saying “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” Matthew 10:32,33 (NIV)

If you are frightened for fear of what others might think and do, come to him anyway and let him minister to you.

The bottom line is this, if you have to be frightened of something, make it God! Fearing man is a snare which will trap us, fear of God drives us to an altogether better future which lasts into eternity!

As Proverbs 29:25 says “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe.”

Understanding

Secondly, we have a discussion about understanding. Jesus actually says to Nicodemus, “you are Israel’s teacher and yet you don’t understand these things?” (John 3:10)

Many of us struggle with aspects of our faith that we don’t understand. To a degree, that’s what preaching and teaching is about – it’s about helping us to understand our faith.

Some Bible verses on understanding and points about them …_ Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. _ 2 Peter 3:15–16 (NIV)

Peter is saying that Paul writes stuff that is hard to understand, and that ignorant people distort Paul’s teaching for their own ends. This presses home the importance of getting our understanding right. We must work to understand our faith so that when people try to distort the things the Bible says, we can recognise it as a distortion and hold fast to the truth. “Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position.” 2 Peter 3:17 (NIV)

Secondly, we have another thing we must understand – we must understand the culture we live in. 1 Chronicles 12:32 talks of Men of Issachar who “understood the times and knew what must be done”. It seems to me that in our current culture, the need for people who can understand what is happening and how we can answer the challenges to our faith that it brings is crucial for us. Such people are indispensable.

Paul calls us to understand what the Lord’s will is, which he contrasts with foolishness: “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” Ephesians 5:17 (NIV)

The Bible also tells us that there are things we have the help of the Spirit to understand:

Colossians 2 tells us that in Christ are all riches of wisdom and knowledge:

”My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”. (Colossians 2:2,3)

Peter’s confession of who Christ is in Matthew 16, we are told, is given not from men, but God: “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven”. (Matthew 16:15–17)

1 Corinthians tells us that one of the reasons we are given the Spirit is for our understanding: “What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.” (1 Corinthians 2:12)

If you and I struggle to understand the Bible, we don’t have to worry, firstly, we can look at Nicodemus and take comfort from the fact that he was Israel’s teacher and he didn’t understand! We can also look at Peter and take comfort from the fact he didn’t understand Paul’s writings.

The key to understanding the things of God is to rely on God, who will give us the resources we need to understand. Isaiah calls the Holy Spirit the Spirit of wisdom and understanding (Isaiah 11:2), and Jesus says he is the Spirit of truth who will lead us into all truth (John 16:13).

Faith

Jesus explains to Nicodemus about the nature of faith and the two responses that we can have to the gospel.

Nicodemus had faith – Firstly, as a Jew he would have believed in God and he would have recited the Shema daily: “Hear O Israel the Lord your God the Lord is one”. He believed in Yahweh, Jehovah God, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. In fact, unlike many of his contemporaries, he acknowledged that Jesus came from God (v2), whereas they said “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” (Matthew 12:24)

However, Noicodemus’s faith fell short. To only believe that Jesus comes from God will not save you – any more than believing that God exists will (see James 2:19). Saving faith, as Jesus explains, has two elements – and they can be summarised in verses 3 & 5.

Firstly, faith is a spiritual rebirth “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” John 3:3 (NIV)

Secondly, faith in God is a spiritual response to him “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” John 3:5 (NIV)

Some of you will be aware of an expression “born again Christian” which comes from this passage. I must confess this particular description really irritates me. Because calling someone a “born again Christian” implies that there is another type of Christian, that is one who is not born again, and it suggests that it is possible to become a Christian without being “born again”.

I believe the teaching Jesus gives to Nicodemus in this passage is pretty clear on the subject. He says “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again”. Nicodemus does not understand what being “born again” means, so Jesus helpfully spells it out for him, and therefore he spells it out for us too!

Nicodemus was right. It is impossible for any baby to get back inside its mother’s womb and physically be born again (even if mum would allow it!). Jesus describes it as being born of “water and the Spirit” – it is an “inward” change.

Ezekiel 36:25–27 describes this change too, he likens it to a cleansing, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 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” and I have known people describe the feeling of feeling clean that comes when they come to faith in Christ. They described feeling “dirty” as a non-Christian, and then an awesome sense of being cleansed, of feeling clean.

Titus describes coming to faith as washing and rebirth and renewal and says “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour,” Titus 3:5–6 (NIV)

So being born again describes the change that happens in you when you decide to follow Jesus – a change so radical that you quite literally become a different person, the Bible also describes this change as becoming a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:7)

So, what responses does Jesus say there are to the gospel?

You can find the answer to that question in v18 and it is this:

  • either you believe, or you don’t.
  • either you are condemned or you are not.

This division is then expanded and illustrated in verses 19–21, ”Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”

The light and darkness motif is quite common in John, and here it clearly says that we have a choice to make, and man chooses the darkness in preference to the light.

Illustration A story is told that When the Bastille, the castle-like prison in Paris, was about to be destroyed in 1789, a convict was brought out who had been confined in one of its gloomy cells for many years. But instead of joyfully welcoming his liberty, he begged to be taken back. It had been such a long time since he had seen the sunshine that his eyes could not endure its brightness. His only desire was to die in the murky dungeon where he had been a captive.

Far too frequently we are just like the prisoner and prefer to live in the darkness.

Why?

The Bible says it is because our deeds are evil. There is some truth in that – we none of us want others to see the bad things we have done in our lives. I am ashamed and embarrassed about some of the things I did before I was a Christian. I know that when I come before God, and my life, all the things I’ve done are put before me, that I will be so ashamed. The only comforts for me are:

  • I’m a Christian, and those things are already forgiven me because of Christ.
  • Everyone else will be so embarrassed about their own lives that they won’t even think of looking at my life!

Throughout the Bible, living in the light is seen as synonymous with being one of God’s people, and conversely living in darkness, or being a people of darkness is seen as being at odds with God.

In summary this passage has a certain logical progression:

  1. Prior to receiving the Gospel, all people live in darkness – and are by implication at odds with God.
  2. To become a Christian, you must come into the light. In other words, let your life come under the scrutiny of God – a painful but necessary step.
  3. But as a result of this coming into the light, we believe in the son (vv15,16) and live in the light.

By Contrast

Unbelievers live under condemnation because of their unbelief (v18), which is seen by the way they live their lives (v20)

This is not God’s ultimate purpose, or even his pleasure – but it is the result of not living in the light.

The amazing thing is that even though we are in the darkness and at odds with God, He makes the offer of light to all, not just to a select few. In addition, even as we hesitate, 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that God is patient, why, because he doesn’t want anyone to perish, but all to come to repentance – into the light would be the language John would use.

So far I’ve avoided the most translated verse in all of scripture which appears in this passage. John 3:16 has been translated into 872 different languages at this point, and it has been described as the Gospel in a nutshell.

“For God so loved the world” – describes the love of God and the extent of his love

“That he sent his only son” – describes the essence of the incarnation and the ministry of Jesus

“That whoever believes in him” – describes the response which we should make to God, the only response that is important

“Shall not perish but have eternal life” – describes the outcome, the eternal outcome of our faith in Christ.

So…

The question which this passage implies is surely “do I live in the light – do I believe in Christ?” can I honestly say I live in the light? Or am I more like the unbeliever who prefers to live in the darkness? Do I know that my deeds are such that I really don’t want them to be seen – i.e. I will not come into the light for fear my deeds will be exposed? – are you that person who thinks that God could never forgive me that?

Do you just see Jesus as some kind of mythological figure, or just a Good man, or a prophet? Even believing Jesus is from God is not enough, you must consider and answer these questions?

Have YOU responded to the son of God?

Have YOU believed in Jesus?

Have YOU been born again?

#Gospels #John

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