A sermon idea based on John 3:1-17.
John 3:1-17 NRSV
 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
The relevant topic I would be addressing, based on this text…
Everything about life on earth and in heaven, both now and forever, looks different when you finally come to understand how God loved the world in all of its brokenness and decided to save it through the life, death, resurrection, and ministry of his Son, Jesus Christ.
The heart of the message, a potential outline, key truths to share, special notes for interpreting the text, etc.
There are two pieces of this text with which most Christians are quite familiar. And while being familiar with scripture is a good thing, we can sometimes miss out on the real meaning of passages because we’re so committed to our understanding of them. For example…
- When Jesus tells Nicodemus, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” (verse 5, translated as “born again” in most translations).
- John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
We bring a lot of baggage to our interpretation of these texts, and of the larger passage as a whole. Some of the most common assumptions made about the text include:
Assumption #1: Nicodemus came “by night” to avoid the embarrassment of being associated with Jesus.
But the text doesn’t give us Nicodemus’ reasoning – perhaps he was just busy.
Assumption #2: Being “born again” refers to the experience of conversion to Christianity, the spiritual regeneration that happens the moment we trust Jesus.
But Jesus was using this terminology before the cross, before the resurrection, before the empowering of the church by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Assumption #3: When Jesus says a person cannot “see” or “enter” the Kingdom of God, he was talking about whether or not a person would go to heaven upon their death.
But the kingdom of God isn’t just “heaven” the way we think of heaven. The kingdom of God encompasses all that comes under the rule and reign of God and includes people and value systems that exist here and now on earth.
Assumption #4: To be born “of water” has something to do with baptism.
But Jesus was speaking before the church started baptizing at all. The context suggests that Jesus is using multiple ways to contrast that which is purely natural with that which is divinely supernatural in origin. Nicodemus seems to get the water picture as referring to natural birth.
Assumption #5: Jesus was telling us, in John 3:16, just how much God loved us.
But the point isn’t how much God loved us, but how he loved us. A better translation might be “God love the world in this way, that he gave his only Son…”
Assumption #6: When Jesus says that God “gave his only begotten Son,” he was referring to his death on the cross for the sins of mankind.
But that’s more narrow than what is implied in Jesus’ words and in John’s usage of the imagery of Jesus being “lifted up.” It isn’t just about the cross. God gave his Son Jesus to the world and then Jesus was lifted up in his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement as King forever.
Assumption #7: The phrase “whoever (or whosoever) believes in him” is referring to our embracing of the theological meaning of Jesus’ atoning death.
But the text doesn’t say, “whoever believes that his death paid for our sins should not perish…” It just says, “whoever believes in him…” Furthermore, the word translated “believes” conveys the idea of trust, not just assent. It’s not so much about having a certain understanding of the cross or acknowledging a particular theory of atonement. It’s about having a heart that trusts in Jesus and all that he is.
Assumption #8: To “perish” means to go to hell. Forever.
But “perish” just means to die. To cease. To no longer be alive.
Assumption #9: To “have everlasting (or eternal) life” means to go to heaven upon one’s death.
But we tell people all the time that eternity begins now and that what Jesus promised us was an abundant, eternal kind of life, not just a life that never ends.
Assumption #10: Those who do not trust in Jesus are “condemned already,” meaning that they are guilty of sin, deserving of God’s wrath, and bound for hell without Jesus. (This is from verse 18, just outside the Lectionary text, but belongs to the text we’re studying.)
But that’s a lot to read into Jesus’ usage of the word condemned. Further, Jesus (or the writer, John, depending on who is speaking in verse 18) doesn’t say “condemned by God,” just “condemned.”
What would happen if we really read this passage with fresh eyes? Without our prior theological training and Sunday School understanding of what Jesus is talking about.
It could be that, instead of Jesus trying to explain to Nicodemus a very modern, evangelical understanding of the gospel message or “plan of salvation,” he was really telling Nicodemus about the BIG picture of what God is doing about a lost and broken world.
In a post in which I had previously written about this passage, I offered two different paraphrases of John 3:16. The first captures a lot of our assumptions as modern readers:
For God so (oh so, so very much) loved the world (and all the people in it, or at least the elect) that he gave (in death on the cross) his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him (and therefore excluding individuals who do not believe in him) may not perish (in the flames of hell forever) but may have eternal life (in heaven, which replaces earth once it’s destroyed).
And the second, which might be more reflective of the full context of the verse:
God loved (unconditionally) the world (the cosmos – all of creation and everyone in it) in such a way that he gave the world his Son (the person called Jesus Christ, not simply the event of his crucifixion) so that when people believe in him (trust in and rely on him), they would experience life (of the highest, renewed quality) and not death, during their lives, and beyond.
To summarize, I don’t believe this passage in John 3 is about how individuals can be saved and go to heaven. It’s about what God is doing, through Jesus, to save a broken, condemned world that has gone its own way.
Further, the choice that Jesus sets before Nicodemus isn’t so much about one’s choice of whether or not to trust Jesus to be saved and go to heaven as it is about our choice to embrace the kingdom way in which Jesus is actively saving the world.
On autopilot, humanity will continue on this condemned path that leads to pain, suffering, and death. But if we allow the Spirit of God to open the eyes of our understanding and enlighten us to see the human story from the perspective of God’s kingdom, we will be able to envision how the world can be saved from its brokenness – by embracing the way of Jesus, who came to show us the love, truth, and grace of God fully and completely.
To put it another way, this passage probably isn’t about how you and I can be saved, but how the whole cosmos (world) is being saved by the person God sent, his Son, Jesus Christ.
The appeal flowing out of John 3 isn’t an appeal to individually place one’s faith in Christ to escape humanity. The appeal is to embrace, follow, and imitate the way in which Jesus and the kingdom of God are saving and renewing all that is broken in the good world God created.
The big call-to-action in the message…
The world has been lost and broken because of sin, but Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, invites us to see a new way forward. A way forward that will redeem, renew, and repair all that is lost and broken – his kingdom way. All we need to do to be part of this kingdom renewal of all that is lost is to embrace Jesus, his teachings, his example, his work on the cross, the hope of his resurrection, and his indwelling and empowerment of all who believe through the Holy Spirit.
Appreciate these notes?
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About the Cover Art: Carmody, Courtney. Whole World in God’s Hands, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
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