Ministry Matters: A Prayer for Fruitful Ministry // Ephesians 3:14-21

Ministry Matters 4

Text: Ephesians 3:14-21

Introduction:

This title of this morning’s sermon is “A Prayer for Fruitful Ministry” because really this is what a pastor wants for his church. This is what an evangelist wants for the people that he witnesses to. This is what a Bible teacher wants for his Bible students. It doesn’t matter how much people give, it doesn’t matter how many people show up in the pews, it doesn’t matter how much your church cares about the community, if Christ isn’t dwelling richly in your heart by the Holy Spirit then none of it matters.

Another thing that I want to note just by way of introduction is that anytime Paul writes a letter to a church and he uses the pronoun, “you.” It’s always a corporate “you.” When he’s addressing a church, he’s addressing them corporately, he doesn’t address them individually unless he mentions people by name, but he talks about them as being one body, one unit.

So, when Paul prays for them to know the love of God in this manner, he’s wanting them to know that in the context of life together.

“Where is that love to be experienced? We experience it with all God’s consecrated people. That is to say, we find it in the fellowship of the Church. John Wesley’s saying was true, “God knows nothing of solitary religion.” “No man,” he said, “ever went to heaven alone.” The Church may have its faults; church members may be very far from what they ought to be; but in the fellowship of the Church we find the love of God.” – William Barclay, Daily Study Bible

So, as we look at the text, I want us to ask three questions:

  1. Who Is Included In This Prayer For?
  2. What is This Prayer For?
  3. What is The Result of This Prayer Being Answered?

Who Is Included in This Prayer? (v. 14-15)

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.” – Ephesians 3:14-15, NRSV

First of all, Paul mentions that every family in heaven and on earth takes it’s name from the very God that he is praying to.

  • When you’re born, you’re born with a family name. It’s your last name. It indicates your family and your lineage. And it’s the same when you become a Christian. You take Christ’s name on yourself by being identified as a Christian and you identify with His dead and resurrection in the waters of baptism. Colossians 3 says that your life is hidden in Christ.

And Paul says that this truth applies to people in heaven and on earth. So, I want us to think about this idea: our Christian family isn’t just made up of those with us on earth, it’s also made up of those who are in heaven, and we’re still a family. Death doesn’t separate Christians forever.

Hebrews 12:1 says that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. The saints in heaven are just as alive as you and I are. Who knows? They’re probably more alive than you and I are. In Heaven, they live to die no more, and we are identified with them as a family. So, in this prayer, Paul mentions the saints of the past as those that we are identified with.

Then, he prays for his people in the present.

  • My wife and I started reading 1st Thessalonians a chapter at a time together out of David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament and we were talking about how most of the time Paul would let whatever church he was writing to know that he was praying for them and he was thankful for their service.

And in Ephesians, Paul has already done that in chapter 1:15-23, but he’s praying a slightly different prayer. This isn’t an “atta-boy, keep up the good work” prayer, this is deeper. Paul wants them to comprehend the love of God.

  • You might think, “Yeah, I know all that love of God stuff, I learned that in Sunday School.” If that’s your attitude, then you no nothing of the love of God, but we’ll get to that in a few minutes.

How do you wrap your finite minds around something as infinite as the love of God? You don’t. And I think that’s the point. You are supposed to live your life dwelling on the love of God. I think that’s what Jude means when he writes at the end of his letter in Jude 21, “Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.”

That’s the thing you should keep in forefront of your mind as you live the Christian life. Why do we need to always keep that at the forefront? Because God is the standard by which we should love, and He loves perfectly.

  • By the showing of your hand, how many of you love perfectly? None of us. That’s why we need this prayer.

In verse 18, Paul says that he wants this for “all the saints.” Maybe I’m reading too much into the text, but I think this is something that Paul isn’t just praying for in Ephesus at that time, but maybe it’s something that Paul is praying for for all saints in all of time. This is something that he wants for future saints to come.

In John 17:20, Jesus specifically prays for those who will believe later through the message of the disciples. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Paul had in mind future saints to come as a result of the churches that were being planted in that time.

So, we see that Paul mentions the saints of the past in heaven, and he prays for the present saints in Ephesus, and it’s possible that he’s including the future saints in his prayer.

What is This Prayer For? (v. 16-19)

“I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” – Ephesians 3:16-19, NRSV

Notice, first of all, the Trinitarian nature of the prayer.

Paul prays for us to be strengthened in our inner being by the Holy Spirit, then he prays for Christ to dwell in our hearts through faith, and in knowing the love of Christ, we are filled with the fullness of God the Father.

I’ve heard a lot of Jesus-lovin’ good ol’ boys tell me, “Preacher, servin’ the Lord just keeps gettin’ gooder and gooder.” And this is why! It’s Paul’s prayer being answered.

So, there’s three things that ultimately Paul prays for: power from the Spirit, love from the Son, and fullness from the Father.

And really when you look at this in the context of Ephesians as a whole, then Paul is praying for them to experience what he’s talked about up to this point. He wants them to personally experience the fact that they have been predestined to a salvation that is a result of grace alone through faith alone. He wants to them to personally experience the fact that they’ve been adopted into a family of people that’s made up of people not like them (we’re dealing with Jews and Gentiles here), and not physically with them (they are connected to all believers in Jesus across time and space.)

Paul wants us to be strengthened with power from the Holy Spirit. We need more power. We need more strength. Both of those things come from the Holy Spirit dwelling on the inside of us as believers.

Paul also wants Christ to dwell in our hearts. Dwelling doesn’t simply mean inhabiting, it’s means ‘to settle down.’ To make an abode somewhere.

In his book, Praying with Paul, D.A. Carson says, when Christ takes up residence in a believer, it is like a couple who purchases a home that needs a lot of work. Over time they clean it up, repair it, and eventually say, “This house has been shaped to our needs and taste and I really feel comfortable.”

Then Carson says, “When Christ by his Spirit takes up residence within us, He finds a moral equivalent to trash, black and silver wallpaper, and a leaking roof. He sets about turning this residence into a place appropriate for Him[self], a home for which He is comfortable. . . . When a person takes up long-term residence somewhere, their presence eventually characterizes that dwelling. . . . When Christ first moves into our lives, he finds us in bad repair. It takes a great deal of power to change us; and that is why Paul prays for power. . . . [God is] transforming us into a house that pervasively reflects his own character.” [1]
This isn’t just true individually either, this is true corporately. You remember last week we talked about how God is building us a church into His house.

And why does Paul want all of this for us? Ultimately, it’s so that we can be filled with the fullness of God.

The idea of spiritual fullness is a common theme among Paul’s writings. John Stott points our that, “In Colossians Paul tells us not only that God’s fullness dwells in Christ, but also that in Christ we ourselves have come to fullness. At the same time, he makes it plain in Ephesians that we still have room for growth. As individuals we are to go on being filled with the Spirit, and the church, although already the fullness of Christ, is still to ‘grow up into him’ till it reaches his fullness.” [2]

So, there’s a lot of paradoxical ideas about fullness in Paul’s writings, but the it all comes down to this: are you filled up now? Is there more room for God in your life?

I remember a few years ago my grandpa preached at a revival about being filled up with the Holy Spirit, and he might have even used this text. But as an illustration he got a water bottle and he filled it up with pebbles that he got out of the church driveway, and he asked the congregation, “Is this bottle full?” No one quite knew how to answer so he started his message, and then in a little bit, he put sand in it and asked again, “Is full now?” We all thought, “Yeah, that’s got to be full now.”

He said, “Nope.” So, he put water in there, and you could see the water filling up the bottle between the grains of sand, and he made the point that that was Christian life – getting more and more filled up with God. And that’s what Paul wants. He wants us to be filled with the fullness of God.

Finally, I want us to see the result of this prayer being answered.

What is The Result of This Prayer Being Answered?

Now, to look at this, we’ll have to go to the next chapter in Ephesians 4.

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” – Ephesians 4:1-3, NRSV

Notice verse 2 – There’s three things we all need more of: humility, gentleness, and patience. And we need those things if we’re going to bear with one another in love.

We need humility because we could easily be in someone else’s shoes and doing a lot worse than they’re doing.

We need gentleness because we’re all fragile really. We like to think that we have thick skin, but we get just as offended as everyone else does, our buttons are just in different places.

So, we need humility because we could easily be in someone else’s shoes, we need gentleness because we’re all fragile, and we need patience because we’re all still growing in Christ, and if we’re growing together, then we’re all going to experience growing pains.

And the only opportunity you have to express patience in when you’re annoyed.

As general rule, people make life more complicated. However, dealing with people is a necessity in life. So, it’s a double edge.

  • Jesus tells us to love our neighbor. Well, loving your neighbor would be a lot easier if you didn’t have neighbors, but at the same time you wouldn’t have anyone in your life to connect with.

So, I think Paul foresees all of this because let’s face it, people have changed that much over the last couple thousand years so he starts chapter 4 by giving us advice how to live with one another in love and unity. And then all of chapter is just him expounding on the idea of living the Christian life within the context of Christian community.

And then he ends chapter 4 with these words in verses 31-32.

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
– Ephesians 4:31-32, NRSV

See, this is where the rubber meets the road.

It’s easy to be bitter, it’s easy to have malice, it’s easy to be hurtful, and the reason those things are easy is because we don’t naturally drift towards holiness. Sanctification is a fight. A lot of us believe in progressive sanctification, but some days you’re going to feel like your sanctification is more regressive than progressive. And the reason you’re going to feel that way is because you’ve been hurt, and you’re angry.

But in the middle of your hurt, God is kind to you. God is loving to you, and God is faithful.

And because He has been kind and faithful to us, we should be kind and faithful to one another.

I’m going to pray for us, and we’re going to sing Great Is Thy Faithfulness, and we’re just going to use our voices.

Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, I thank You for being kind to us by sending Your Son to die on the cross for our sins. I thank You for raising Him back to life to declare victory over all of our sins including our bitterness, anger, and hostility. Lord, I thank You that Your Word is stronger than the walls we try to build around ourselves. This morning, I ask that You strengthen and renew our hearts by the power of Your Spirit, and that You would release us from every hindrance that stands in the way of us loving each other as You have loved us. In the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Ministry Matters: Realism & Optimism // 2 Corinthians 4:7-15

Ministry Matters 2

Text: 2 Corinthians 4:7-15

This morning we’re going to continue our series entitled, “Ministry Matters” by looking at the Apostle Paul’s perspective of his ministry.

Normally, I don’t like checklists, but I think the one we’re going to have this morning is going to be helpful. All I really want us to do is walk through the text and see what Paul says about his own ministry that he’s been given and I want us to apply that to the ministry that we’ve been given.

Ministry isn’t just for the pastor, it’s not just for those that have been ordained as elders. Ministry is for every single person that has been born again. Paul goes on to explain this later in 2 Corinthians 5:18-19.

“Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, 19that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” – 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, NKJV

The word ‘reconciliation’ means ‘to bring together’ so our job is to go out and let people know that God has come down to where we are in Christ for the purpose of closing the gap that stands between God and man.

  • And according to what we just read, God has committed this task to us. So, God volunteered you for this work.

  • Don’t you just love it when people volunteer you for stuff? “I told [so and so] you’d be more than happy to so that for them.” Well, this is what God did when he saved you. He volunteered you for a work. He put you where you are (the neighborhood you live in, the job where you work, the people you interact with), God put you where you are so that you can improve the lives of others by telling and living out the word of reconciliation.

And I think our text this morning in 2 Corinthians 4 tells us how we should view that task.

Be Realistic About Who You Are, But Optimistic About Who God is (v. 7)

“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” – 2 Corinthians 4:7, NKJV

The Vessel
Listen, you are not that great… but God is.
You are weak, but He’s strong.
You are frail, He’s mighty.
In the places where you fail, God shows His power.

That’s what Paul is getting at.

“The pottery lamps which could be bought for a copper or two in the Corinthian market-place provided a sufficient analogy; it did not matter how cheap or fragile they were so long as they showed the light.”[1] – F. F. Bruce

“The marvel of Paul’s statement is not to be overlooked. The gospel minister is a vessel made of common, run-of-the-mill clay—fragile and easily broken. And yet God has entrusted the treasure of the gospel to such a vessel… Why does God do this? According to Paul, he does it to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. God uses what is fragile and yet serviceable so that there might be no mistaking the origin of the gospel minister’s power.”[2]
– The IVP New Testament Commentary

One of the most striking things to me about the commentary is where the author says, “God uses what is fragile yet serviceable.”

  • Other than God, no one knows your brokenness like you do.
  • You’re the one that has to live with your own dark thoughts.
  • You’re the one that really knows all the pain that you’re feeling.
  • You’re the one that knows your struggles with your own sinful nature, and even more so, God knows all of that too, and as long as you’re serviceable, God will use you, and He will use you to pour that treasure that’s in you into another broken and fragile vessel.

It’s okay to be honest about who you are. Paul was even honest about who he was. In Romans 7, he kept saying over and over again that the good that he wanted to do, he couldn’t do, and the evil he wanted to refrain from doing, he did anyway. And he didn’t understand it, but he finally broke down and said, “but thank God I have victory because there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ.” (Romans 7:25-8:1)

So, you have to be honest about who you are, but you also have to be optimistic about who God is. Paul says that the whole reason God puts His treasure in broken and fragile vessels is so that people don’t get confused about which is more valuable – the vessel or the content.

This is why John says, “greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” (1 John 4:4)

The Content
If you were to read and follow Paul’s logic, you would see that the treasure that Paul specifically says is inside of us is “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” mentioned in verse 6.

That’s what it all comes down to. God has given us the light of the knowledge of the Gospel and that’s what makes us valuable.

Last week when we looked at Nicodemus in John 3, he didn’t have this kind of knowledge that Paul talks about. He has his own knowledge based only off of what he could see. Remember, he said, “We know you are a teacher sent from God,” but what he didn’t know is that Jesus was the Son of the Living God, and that kind of knowledge can’t be seen by simply observing Jesus’ miracles, it has to be given to someone by the Father. That’s why when Peter gives his confession, Jesus tells him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17)

Peter had seen the miracles, but that’s not what convinced him, it was knowledge and faith that had been imparted to him by the Father.

And that’s the treasure that God puts inside of us, and that’s more valuable than anything this world can offer us.

Not only should we be realistic about who we are and optimistic about who God is, but we should also be realistic about our circsumstances and optimistic about the outcome.

Be Realistic About Your Circumstances, but Optimistic About the Outcome (v. 8-9)

Notice the things that Paul says, “We are hard-pressed… we are perplexed… we are persecuted…. Struck down.”

That’s real. He’s being honest. And I feel like sometimes we’re afraid to be this honest because if we do, we’ll have some prosperity-preaching evanjellyfish say, “Now, you can’t say that, your words have power and you have to speak life and think happy thoughts.”

Paul really was in trouble, he shipwrecked several times, people were out to kill him, he was imprisoned several times. But throughout everything, he could still say that he wasn’t crushed, he wasn’t in despair, he wasn’t forsaken, and he wasn’t destroyed.

It’s okay. We can be honest and say that we live in a post-Christian society. This might have been a predominantly Christian nation at one time, but it’s not now. We can admit there are Christians dying overseas for their faith, but we have to have hope and believe that it’s not always going to be that way.

  • We already believe that one day God will make everything new, but do we believe that God is already in the process of doing that? We should.

  • The end times didn’t begin when John Darby came up with that dispensationalism stuff, the end times began with the resurrection of Jesus because the resurrection of Jesus is God’s promise that everything will be made new, and death will not have the final word, but resurrection will.

“The resurrection of the Lord Jesus was no isolated event. His return from the dead brought with it, in principle, the resurrection of all things from the dead. The power of death, which had held the entire world in thrall, was reversed at that point, two millennia ago, and the power of His new life has since then been working through the world, the way yeast works through a loaf of bread. For this reason, we are children of hope.”[3] – Douglas Wilson, Heaven Misplaced

And so we are children of hope, and we are (or at least we should be) optimistic about the outcome of God’s work through us in the world, but in the meantime it looks dark, but the darkness is only temporary, and if you’re a Christian then things are already looking brighter.

It’s easy to see all the things that are wrong with the world, but if you can’t see that God is at work then you’re not trying to look hard enough.

  • One of the oldest abortion clinics in Ohio shut down this week, and it looks like more in that state may close down soon too. [4]

Clearly, we see God at work, and we don’t have to wait until the return of Christ to see things turn around. We can experience renewal now. It all starts with God opening our eyes to see the kingdom at work, and to see that we are the workers of the kingdom.

Be Realistic About Death, but Optimistic About Life. (v. 10-15)

Notice, what Paul says right after he says that we are struck down, but not destroyed.

“always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. 11For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12So then death is working in us, but life in you.

13And since we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed and therefore I spoke,” we also believe and therefore speak, 14knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you. 15For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God.”
– 2 Corinthians 4:10-15, NKJV

Paul says that as we work for the Lord under these circumstances, then death works in us, but not only does death work in us, life is at work in those around us because as I mentioned earlier, death doesn’t have the final word, resurrection does.

Simply put: our suffering gives life to others.

Think about the suffering of Job. We just studied Elijah on Wednesday nights. Think about all the of the Apostles being slaughtered for the Gospel. I mentioned Paul’s sufferings earlier.

Why is it they suffered the things that they did? It’s so that we could recall their personal pain and glean life from it.

And since you’re a witness to Christ, your suffering can be a conduit of life for someone else.

    • But I’m going to add this as a caveat – If you’re going to suffer then do so for the right reasons. Suffer over the things that matter, and here’s what I mean by that.

    • I’m thinking of 1 Peter 2:18-20, and Peter is addressing people who are employed as bondservants.

 

  • “You who are slaves must submit to your masters with all respect. Do what they tell you—not only if they are kind and reasonable, but even if they are cruel. 19For God is pleased when, conscious of his will, you patiently endure unjust treatment. 20Of course, you get no credit for being patient if you are beaten for doing wrong. But if you suffer for doing good and endure it patiently, God is pleased with you.” – 1 Peter 2:18-20, NLT

 

To show you the modern application, imagine Peter is talking to you as an employee, and imagine the master mentioned here is your employer, and since your employer can’t beat you like a master could beat a bond-servant, imagine that he reprimands you.

So, Peter says, “If you’re suffering because you’re doing the right thing, then God is pleased, but if you’re suffering because you’re being stupid then you deserve it.”

With that caveat in mind, make sure that you’re suffering for something that’s important because that’s the only kind of suffering that people can glean life from.

On my bookshelf, I have a two volume set of books about martyrs. It’s called, “Jesus Freaks.” And one of my favorite stories is about Saint Maria of Paris.

  • Mary Skobtsova (a.k.a. Saint Maria of Paris) made a rented house in Paris her “convent.” It was a place with open doors for people who were escaping from Nazi Germany and other refugees. It was also the center for service to the poor and needy, and theological discussion. In Saint Maria’s eyes theology and service went hand in hand.

    After the fall of France in 1940, many Jews came asking to receive baptismal certificates, but she and Fr. Dimitri Klepinin were eventually caught and arrested by the Gestapo. She was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. On Holy Saturday, 1945, she failed a selection and was sent to the gas chamber to die.

One of her last prayers was, “Lord, I am your messenger. Throw me like a blazing torch into the night.” That’s the kind of determination we need if we’re going to lights in the world.

I realize that it hasn’t been very long this morning, but I feel like we’ve been equipped. We’ve been fed by Jesus at His table, and we have read God’s Word. We’re ready to face the world until we meet again next week.

I’m going to pray for us, and we’re going to sing one more hymn.

Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, You are so kind to us. We are cracked earthen vessels and you fill us treasure from Your storehouse and then you tells us to out and pour into other earthen vessels the gift You’ve freely given to us. We ask You to make pliable before You so that You can use us to bring life to others and bring glory to Your name. In the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

_____

[1] Bruce, F. F. New Century Bible Commentary. Wm B Eerdmans, 1980.

[2] The IVP New Testament Commentary. InterVarsity Press, 1994.

[3] Heaven misplaced: Christ’s kingdom on earth Douglas Wilson – Canon Press – 2011

[4] “Ohio’s First Abortion Company Closing Columbus Facility After Long Sordid History – Standard Newswire.” Was Dorothy Day a ‘Dissenting Catholic?’ – Standard Newswire, standardnewswire.com/news/95261

Ministry Matters: Receiving Ministry From Jesus // John 3:1-15

Ministry Matters 1

Text: John 3:1-15

Introduction:

Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, opened blind eyes, multiplied food for hungry people, and the list could go on, but all of these miracles pointed to the greatest of miracles – showing people the kingdom. Because once someone saw the kingdom of God at work on earth then they were born again. Their blinded eyes were opened. Why do think Paul went blind for three days and had scales on his eyes after he saw Jesus?

Was it simply because the light from Jesus’ glory was so bright that it blinded and that’s just what happens when you see Jesus? Maybe, but I think it was more than that. I think it was so people could relate to Paul’s story more.

Everyone may not know what it’s like to have Jesus personally come down and knock you off your horse, but anyone who has been saved can say with a surety that they know what’s like for scales to fall from their eyes as a result of seeing the kingdom.

  • That’s why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4 that if the Gospel is hidden, it’s hidden to those that are perishing whose minds have been blinded by the god of this world. (2 Corinthians 4:3-4)

This morning, I want us to start a new series called, “Ministry Matters,” and I want us to start it off by looking at this passage because you can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t really minister to people unless you’ve been ministered to. People can’t encounter Jesus through you if you’ve never encountered Jesus.

So, we have Jesus ministering to Nicodemus, and what is it that Nicodemus needs more than anything? He needs a complete transformation. He needs renewal. He needs regeneration.

  • If you don’t know what the word regeneration means, it’s a word that us stodgy Reformed use to describe what happens when Jesus comes in cleans house which is exactly what happens when someone is born again.

So, this morning, I want us to see that Nicodemus’ needs are our needs. His questions are our questions, and when we talk to other people, they’re like Nicodemus. They’ve got questions and Jesus has answers. They’ve got problems and Jesus has solutions.

It is no mere coincidence that this passage follows John 2:25 where John tells us that Jesus knew what is in the heart of man, then that is followed by this encounter with Nicodemus and this is followed by an encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.

We have in John 3, Jesus talking with one who represents the intelligentsia, the upper echelon of society. He’s a religious leader. He has money, power, prestige, but he does not know what it is to truly see the Kingdom of God.

We have in John 4, a woman who represents those in the lower class of society. She has had 5 husbands and now she’s shacking up with a man who isn’t even her husband. She’s broke, busted, and disgusted, all because she’s been looking for love in all the wrong places.

I think what John is doing here is illustrating his point in John 2:25. He’s essentially saying, “Jesus knows the very heart of man and if you don’t believe me, I recall a conversation He had with a man named Nicodemus, and then there was this other time with a Samaritan woman.” John is making it crystal clear that Jesus is looking beyond what we pretend to be, beyond what society says we are, beyond how everyone else sees us and He sees into our very soul and looks directly at our NEED FOR HIM.

So in this passage, we need to recognize the ways that we are like Nicodemus, and we need to see what it is exactly that Jesus is saying to us through this passage in John 3.

Ways We Are Like Nicodemus:
1. We Are Good At Being Religious
2. We Come to Jesus with What We [Think We] Know
3. We Must Listen to What Jesus Is Saying

We’re Good at Being Religious

We’ve got a lot in common with Nicodemus. First of all, we’re good at being religious. Let’s not get confused. There is a good religion and a bad religion. Good religion motivates us to serve God by caring for widows and orphans (James 1:27). There is a bad religion that even the best of us seem to fall into sometimes. It’s this kind of religion that Nicodemus is good at and a lot of us are good at. And it’s sneaky because it hides behind moralism so it looks good on the outside, but on the inside it leaves you full of dead men’s bones. (Matthew 23:27)

The good religion, the true religion that James mentions in James 1:27 is fleshed out more in the next chapter in James 2, and it doesn’t have to do with making sure your shirt is tucked in, or making sure you’ve not cussed, or making sure the Jesus fish on your bumper is on straight, it has to do with how you treat other people.

When we end up falling into Nicodemus’ religion instead of James’ ‘pure and undefiled’ religion, there’s some things that happen.

Church becomes somewhere we go, instead of who we are to be.
In the deep south, Bible belt culture of Arkansas, we’re good at being religious. Church is all most of us have ever known so we’re good at attending church, but we’re bad at being the Church. I know because I’m bad at being the Church. I’m going to be brutally honest. It’s much easier to ask someone where they go to church than whether or not they know Jesus as their savior.


Worship becomes the songs we sing instead of the life we live.
We always say, “Worship starts at 11 AM.” Now, we all know what that means. It means that the corporate worship service starts at 11 AM, but in reality, Worship starts when you become born-again and it continues all through eternity.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” – Romans 12:1, NRSV

The King James says, ‘reasonable service.’ Paul is saying that it only makes sense live as a sacrifice. Paul says earlier in Romans 8 that we are being killed all the day long (Romans 8:36). So, if you’re facing death, (and we all are because that’s what it means to be human) then you might as well live as a holy and acceptable sacrifice to God. You’re gonna die anyway you might as well lay yourself on the altar. 

  • That’s what it means to live a life of worship, but unfortunately we get in this habit of believing worship is simply what we do on Sunday morning.


Jesus becomes a good teacher rather than the God who saves.
So, when church becomes somewhere we go, instead of who we are, and worship becomes the songs we sing instead of the life we live, Jesus becomes a good teacher rather than the God who saves.

Nicodemus had no idea who he was talking to. “We know that you are a teacher sent from God.” He was right. Jesus was a teacher sent from God, but he was only half right. And that’s the only truth the devil likes, those truths that are half true, but they’re still whole lies.

Nicodemus was speaking to the very God who placed each star in the sky and called it by name. The same God that, by the Word of His mouth, called the universe in being, knew Nicodemus intimately, and knows us intimately inside and out, and He still loves us.

 

We Come to Jesus with What We Think We Know

Next, not only are we good at being religious, but we have a tendency to come to Jesus with what we think we know.

One of the most striking things about this passage is that the first things Nicodemus says is, “We know that you are a teacher sent from God.” And then Jesus proceeds to unravel everything.

“Nicodemus said, “We know.” Then he began to rehearse the things he knew (or thought he knew) and with which he wanted to begin the discussion: (1) that Jesus was continuing to do many miracles; (2) that these miracles were intended to authenticate him as a teacher sent from God; and that therefore, (3) Jesus was the one to whom he should listen. Unfortunately for Nicodemus, Jesus replied that such an approach to knowledge was wrong and that Nicodemus could therefore know nothing until he had first experienced an inward, spiritual transformation. “You must be born anew,” Jesus told him (John 3:7).
– James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith


Do you know what this means? It means that it’s not that tell you who Jesus is, it’s the Spirit. All throughout the Gospels, there were people who saw the miracles, and yet they still wanted to kill Jesus. Even though they saw the miracles, they were still blind. They’re the kind of people that Jesus talked about when he said, “Seeing, they do not see… hearing, they do not hear.”

There have been atheists who have said, “I’ve read the Bible cover to cover and I just don’t see any evidence for God. I just see a bunch contradictory fairy tales.” Why? Because they approach God with what they think they know because their eyes haven’t been opened to see the kingdom.

“Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
– John 3:3, NKJV

When you’re born again your eyes are opened and the whole world looks different, and you begin to see God at work. You wonder why people don’t believe in God, it’s because God hasn’t opened their eyes yet.

So far, what we have in common with Nicodemus is that we’re good at being religious, we come to Jesus with what we think we know, and finally, like Nicodemus, we need to hear what Jesus is saying.


We Must Hear What Jesus is Saying

As we go from verse 5 on down to the rest of the passage, Jesus starts alluding to some Old Testament passages that Nicodemus should know, but he’s not picking it up.

Jesus even tells him in verse 10, “How is it that you’re a teacher of Israel and yet you don’t even know these things?”

So, we’re going to see the first allusion to the Old Testament in verse 5.

Born of Water and Spirit
“Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” – John 3:5, NKJV

Jesus knows that Nicodemus had memorized the law and the prophets so He wanted to use imagery that Nicodemus would understand.

The only possible meaning is that Jesus has to be referring to the imagery of water found in Ezekiel 36 where God promises to vindicate his name and sanctify His people by sprinkling them with clean water.

“I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign Lord, then the nations will know that I am the Lord. 24For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

25“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. 26And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. 27And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.”
– Ezekiel 36:23-27, NLT

Jesus is taking Nicodemus back to this portion of Scripture because although the Old Testament never uses the words, “born again,” Ezekiel 36 shows us what it means.

  • When I was 15 years old I remember my grandfather, a Pentecostal evangelist, preaching a sermon from Ezekiel 36 entitled, “Open Heart Surgery.” As a prop, he had a Build-A-Bear teddy bear, and a rock that he had painted red to represent the heart of stone, and then he had a little plush heart to show the ‘heart of flesh.’ He spent an hour preaching faith and repentance to a packed house at a campmeeting in Reeds Spring, Missouri. 

The Son of Man Must Be Lifted Up
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:14-15, NKJV

Jesus alludes a second time to a passage of Scripture that Nicodemus should be familiar with, Numbers 21. As a matter of fact, “familiar” is an understatement. Nicodemus should be intimate with this passage because as someone who is a teacher in Israel he is required to memorize the Old Testaments scriptures front and back. Not only that, but these people being bitten by snakes were his people. His was immediately recalling this.

“Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. 5And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.” 6So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.

7Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

8Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” 9So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” – Numbers 21:4-9, NKJV

I imagine that when Jesus is saying this, that, at least for a split-second, Nicodemus is picturing this incident from the scroll containing the Book of Numbers. He’s had to memorize it, he’s had to hear it taught, it’s been passed down from generation to generation.

God’s people becoming rebellious and complaining and then they are bitten and killed by these snakes.

It’s passages like this that skeptics of the Bible look to and say, “If God is so loving, then why did he send serpents to bite and kill His own people?” When we approach something like this and say that God is not loving because he does something like this, then we start with the assumption that we, as mortal, finite beings, are the ultimate standard of what love and justice is.

That’s where we go wrong. We start trying to interpret the Bible with our own feelings and preferences. So, we must always start with God.

Sin offends God. It’s not about the offense or the sin, it’s about who’s been offended by this sin.

And ultimately, in spite us offending Him with our sin and rebellion, He gives us Jesus. Jesus takes our wrath on Himself, and if we look at our sin as it’s laid on Jesus’ shoulders, then we will live.

Think about the philosophical implications of that for a minute: The Israelites had to confront the confront the very thing that was afflicting them, but they couldn’t do it on their own terms. If they did it on their own terms, they would die, but if they just obeyed Moses, and ultimately God, and did things God’s way, then they would live. And what was required of them wasn’t hard, all they had to do was look, and that’s all you have to do. All you have to do is look at Jesus.

“Behold the man upon the cross, my sin upon His shoulders.
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice, call out among the scoffers
His dying breath has brought me life, I know that it is finished.”
– How Deep the Father’s Love For Us

“Just as the bitten Israelites were healed by a look of faith, so the sinner may be saved by looking to Christ by faith… The moment a sinner does that he is saved, just as God said to Moses, “It shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” – Arthur W. Pink

Conclusion

How Do We Become Born Again?
Look to Christ in faith! In Isaiah 45, we have the most loving command that God has ever given humanity.

“Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.” – Isaiah 45:22, KJV

All you have to do is look to Him and be saved!! Then God follows this command with, “for I am God, and there is none else.” He’s saying that there’s no one else who can save you! There’s nobody who can provide an atoning sacrifice!!

John never tells us the conclusion of Nicodemus’ story, but it does tell us the conclusion of the story those who have been born again and those who have not been born again.

“He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” – John 3:36, NKJV

If you want life, eternal and abundant, then it’s yours in Christ.

I’m going to pray for us, and we’re going to sing one more hymn together, and as we sing, these altars are our open. Let Jesus minister to you this morning, and let us pray for you.

Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we are Yours. As the old hymn says, “You have opened the life gate that we may go in” and we are grateful. This morning, I pray that You would grant us faith and repentance. Give us life and power by Your Spirit, and we’ll give You all the praise, glory, and honor. In the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.