Christ’s Response to Unbelief
Text: John 3:11-13
Once again I wish to emphasize to you that the analogy used by the Lord in John 3 to depict what is necessary in order to enter the kingdom of God, is deliberately one which shows our lack of contribution. Just as you had zero influence in the matters of your first birth, so it is with the new birth. Spiritual life is monergistic, not synergistic. Every human being in heaven is and will be a Lazarus. A dead person brought to life by a call from the voice of God. It is a divine summons, and it is known as the effectual call of God.
That idea of being called by God is everywhere in the Bible. In fact the greek word for church, ‘ekklesia’ literally translates as ‘the called out ones’. Did God ask for our permission to call? Did God need our help to call? “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light; Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.” 1 Pet 2:9-10
Those who struggle with this idea of God’s absolutely sovereignty think it’s a violation of our will. They depict God dragging sinners kicking and screaming against their desire. But every one of the elect who has come to maturity of mind before salvation, has come to Christ because they wanted Him. They desired His mercy. They longed for His pardon. They rejoiced in His love and embraced Him. Why? “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power” Ps 110:3
So we are dead, blind, and unwilling by nature. And the first thing life from above does is change our will. Does that mean if you’re unsaved I’m saying you don’t have free will? No, you have freedom to choose whatever kind of lifestyle you want that doesn’t please God. You have freedom to roam in spiritual darkness. You have no freedom to come to the light because you do not desire the light, and you will never desire the light until God calls. That’s the point.
Now Nicodemus should have known this. He had reached the peak of religion in this world, and yet was rightfully concerned that he hadn’t done enough, and in spite of all he achieved, he comes to the Lord and is the only Pharisee we find doing so. The more involved people are in their religion, the less likely they are to be interested in Jesus Christ.
And that’s why this interview is so important. It wasn’t just His disciples who could see the uniqueness of Jesus and His ministry, it was even being testified by those who hated Him most; the Pharisees. “We know…”
He could perceive that Jesus was no ordinary person, and yet he could not see the truth Jesus preached in all his study of the OT. v10 – Nicodemus should have known. It is inexcusable that Nicodemus didn’t know. He should have known only the flesh produces flesh. He ought to have known his depraved state by studying Ps 51, Is 64, Jer 17. So salvation is undoable by man. But it is also unstoppable by man. That’s where the analogy of the wind comes in.
From v11 onwards there’s a shift in the language of Jesus. Instead of addressing only Nicodemus, the pronouns are now plural. So while it appears Nicodemus was still there, Jesus speaks to everyone who may have been there then, as well as to all who would ever read these words. The topic also changes. It shifts from the topic of birth to the topic of belief. Right on the back of Jesus’ greatest exposition of the powerlessness of man in salvation, Jesus begins to deal with the responsibility of man in salvation. Thus, while man struggles with reconciling God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, Jesus didn’t.
So we have this fascinating reality that while man can’t believe, man must believe. Or to put in another way, he has said no one can be saved without the divine call, but now he is saying anyone can be saved who believes.
For some, your pride has already been put in the dust about this matter. You’ve resigned yourself to the fact that you don’t get it, but you’re content enough, except perhaps possessing a glimmer of hope that some great preacher will resolve it for you. Let me say, that’s not going to happen. This cannot be resolved, only accepted. They are both revealed to be believed, without being resolved.
I. HE EXPOSES THE FOLLY OF IT BECAUSE OF THE MESSENGER – v11
“Verily, verily”…. again we see this phrase used. The fourth time in the gospel, and the third time in this chapter. It is used to deal with truths of crucial importance.
i) The Character of the Messenger – “We speak…” – Who?
Commentators debate it and good men differ. Is it the Trinity? Is it Jesus and John the Baptist? Is it Jesus and the prophets? Just Jesus? Initially my thoughts considered it was Jesus and the prophets, because the language of the new birth should have drawn Nicodemus to the prophets, especially Ezekiel. But according to John the Baptist in 3:32, the rejected all authoritative testimony is Jesus.
There may be an argument also that Jesus uses the term “we” to refer to Himself with the understanding that when Nicodemus used the term “we” in v2, he was only really referring to himself. Nicodemus used “we” to speak of what he knew, and Jesus uses “we” to speak of what He knew back to him. The important thing isn’t so much who is meant by the “we” as it is to recognize that the “we” is an infallible witness. It is a credible witness. And yet Nicodemus was yet procrastinating in unbelief.
ii) The Credibility of the Messenger – “know…seen”
The messenger is not speaking on hearsay, but on the basis of intimate, personal knowledge of the facts. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that He is not sharing with him second-hand information. This further strengthens in my mind the fact the “we” does not refer to the prophets, otherwise it could be levelled that Christ is speaking something He had merely received. But what Jesus is doing here is differentiating His knowledge from Nicodemus’.
Nicodemus was a teacher, and the language of v10 could be translate “the master of Israel”, so he is perhaps the leading teacher among the Pharisees, and yet Nicodemus merely taught what he had received. Jesus spoke of what He knew on the basis of what He had seen.
And what had He seen? v13 – He had seen salvation from the perspective of being an omnipresent being. i.e. He spoke as one who by His divine essence had seen and therefore knew everything there is to see and know. I speak of what I eternally know and have eternally experienced. The response to the character and credibility of the messenger? “ye received not our witness”
Shocking. “Ye” – plural. You and all the Pharisees and the vast majority of your country men. As John said in the prologue, “he came unto His own and His own received Him not”. Nicodemus stood face to face with the most powerful, authoritative, competent teacher that ever uttered a word speaking from a mind that knows all things, and he rejected it!
So this further confirms the impossibility of salvation without divine life. Humanly speaking there could be no greater testimony for man to believe, but without the new birth man continues to walk in darkness. Thus, we should not be surprised when those around us continue in darkness.
And this is the immediate result of the conversation. Nicodemus continues in unbelief. We will discover he doesn’t stay that way, but he doesn’t immediately receive it like we will discover the woman in John 4 will. Jesus has shattered everything the greatest teacher of the Pharisees knew, and he couldn’t process it. The sinking realization of not only being mislead but misleading others, was shattering his whole world, but he wasn’t ready to believe.
II. HE EXPOSES THE IGNORANCE OF IT WHEN FACED WITH THE MESSAGE – v12
Unbelief breeds ignorance. Unbelievers always misrepresent the gospel message. Whether it’s the unbeliever in the street or the unbeliever on the stage, they always misrepresent the God and the Bible. And Nicodemus had been guilty of that.
For most of Nicodemus’ life, he had been told how great a teacher he was. How profound his understanding of the Law was. He had not reached the heights he had without commendation from all around him. But now Jesus shatters his pride again, just as he did in v10.
Jesus basically says, ‘it is pointless for me to continue talking with you, Nicodemus’. With all your learning, you don’t get it. Your unbelief is blinding you. Yet, I believe Jesus says this while going on to deal with some of the heavenly things he says Nicodemus won’t grasp. This is a tactic of a good teacher, tell the keen student that he won’t grasp something if you tell him, and you’ll get him to listen better when you do tell him.
“earthly things” and “heavenly things” – the meaning of these terms is admitted by most commentators to be unclear. I think earthly must refer to his teaching of the new birth. Now there’s a sense in which that is heavenly, so that’s the confusing part. But I think we get the meaning of the Lord if we look at it this way -“earthly” the work of the Spirit in sinners “heavenly” the work of the Son for sinners If Nicodemus could not grasp the first steps of spiritual life, how could he ever grasp the lofty truths of Christ’s redemptive work? And that’s what Jesus goes on to deal with in v14. If you can’t understand that salvation begins with God, you will never understand that salvation is entirely provided by God through the Son.
III. HE EXPOSES THE BLINDNESS OF IT WHEN FACED WITH A MIRACLE – v13
I’ve said it to you before that unbelief will not be overcome by miracles. Luke 16 is an outstanding example, but it’s also here. The language was to contradict Jewish claims of those who had been to heaven and come back to reveal divine. If I can paraphrase it in light of v12 and the heavenly things Jesus bares testimony to, Jesus essentially says, ‘No man has ever ascended to heaven and returned to speak of heavenly things, but the one who is in heaven came down to speak of heavenly things.’
So all those books about people going to heaven and coming back, not true. Any of the scriptural references to those who died, give no indication that they had a heavenly message to bring. The only one who speaks of it is Paul, and he said he “heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” (2 Cor 12)
Unlike modern charlatans, who claim trips to heaven and visions of God, Paul gave no sensational, detailed description of what he saw or experienced in heaven. What God wants known about heaven is revealed in the Bible. That’s it. Jesus is the only one who miraculously came down from heaven to earth to bring a heavenly message. A message that salvation is not by works. And Nicodemus, facing this messenger from heaven, refuses to believe the message in spite of the miracle that God came down out of heaven to deliver it as man.
Close – Turn to Heb 3:12-19. Unbelief is not a position of neutrality. It is a position of rebellion. It is a wickedness you must turn from. You must look to Christ now as a matter of urgency, lest you perish in your sin.