1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
At the end of John 2, John described a large group of people who “believed in [Jesus’] name” because they witnessed Him perform miraculous signs. Instead of being good news, however, John lets his readers know that their belief wasn’t genuine. It was unbelieving belief. John tells us that Jesus knew their true (unbelieving) hearts and for that reason, “Jesus…did not entrust himself to them.” We covered all of that in last week’s sermon.
In our passage for this week, John recounts the particular story of one of the unbelieving believers. That is, what John stated in principle in 2:23-25, he gave an example of in 3:1-15. In the man, Nicodemus, and his interaction with Jesus, we are given a picture of what unbelieving belief looks like in real life.
And in the story of Nicodemus, John provides us with a few signs of unbelieving belief as well as the means to overcome it. Signs of unbelieving belief include coming to Jesus in secret, coming to Jesus merely because of His signs, and leaving Jesus more confused and discouraged. And the means by which God has given for His people to become genuine believers is new spiritual birth. New birth is needed to see and enter the kingdom of God, it comes from the Spirit, there is mystery in it, and it means that the kingdom of God is already and not yet.
Let’s pray that God would grant the unbelieving believers among us the ability to recognize the signs of unbelieving belief in order that they may turn from it to believing belief. And let’s pray that God would help us to see the manner in which unbelief and unbelieving belief alike are transformed into genuine, saving belief.
SIGNS OF AN UNBELIEVING BELIEVER
Again, this is a story intended to help us see what the unbelieving belief of 2:23-25 looks like and how to overcome it. First, what it looks like…
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
The unbelieving believer was named Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee. This means two main things for our purposes. First, it means that he was well trained in the Word of God and held a position of power and influence over the children of Abraham. Second, it means that he had a lot to lose in the eyes of the world by associating with Jesus. Remember, this was early in Jesus’ public ministry. He was just starting to make waves. The religious leaders were not yet sure what to do with Him, but after the cleansing of the temple, performing signs, and beginning to teach, it wouldn’t take long for Jesus to become public enemy number one in the eyes of Nicodemus’s fellow Pharisees.
Combined, in worldly terms, all of this means that Nicodemus had almost nothing to gain if he were to truly trust in Jesus. Even giving the appearance of believing in Jesus would likely have cost him dearly—socially, financially, and religiously.
Nicodemus knew all of that and so he hardened his heart to anything but unbelieving belief. He’d seen and heard enough to be impressed by Jesus and to want to meet with Him, but in the end Nicodemus considered the cost of following Jesus to be too high and was unwilling to pay it.
Seeing in Nicodemus and the “many” of 2:23-25 how easy it is to be an unbelieving believer and not even know it, we’d be right to want some diagnostic tools to check for it in ourselves and those we love. Indeed, in Nicodemus’s encounter with Jesus we find three signs of unbelieving belief. Let’s consider them and then be on the lookout for them.
He Came by Night
First, like the chief priests and Pharisees would on the night before His crucifixion, Nicodemus came to Jesus by night—that is, when he was least likely to be noticed and the stakes were lowest.
2 This man came to Jesus by night …
Unbelieving belief is willing to follow Jesus only when it costs little and nothing permanent. It is willing to be associated with Jesus only around people who are also associated with Jesus. Unbelieving belief will only go to Him in secret. Unbelieving belief counts Jesus as a small amount of gain, but not much compared to wealth and health.
While going to Jesus might otherwise seem like belief, the fact that Nicodemus went in the dark is the first sign that he was actually an unbelieving believer.
We’re right to check our own hearts here. Are you more willing to align with Jesus when His adversaries are least likely to notice? Are you embarrassed to be associated with Jesus around certain groups of people? Do you have your own version of coming to Jesus “by night”?
His Belief Was Rooted in Signs
The second sign that Nicodemus was an unbelieving believer is that his belief was rooted in Jesus’ signs. We can’t miss the parallel between 3:2 and 2:23.
In 2:23 we read, “Many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.”
In 3:2 we read, “This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’”
Again, on the surface, both of these look like genuine belief. But both are rooted in witnessing the “signs” of Jesus. And signs, as we saw last week, by themselves, are not sufficient to generate genuine belief. We’ll see this more and more as we work through John. Just listen to what John wrote in chapter 12.
John 12:37-43 Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, 38 so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” 39 Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, 40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.” 41 Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. 42 Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.
Nicodemus will pop up again in chapter 7 and he’s even around at Jesus’ crucifixion (chapter 19). It’s hard to say whether he ever truly came to faith or not. At this point, however, it’s hard to imagine a diagnosis more appropriate for Nicodemus than the one found in 12:42-43, ” many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.”
Again, this isn’t hard to see in Nicodemus’s actions. If he really believed that Jesus was “a teacher come from God,” then he would not have come by night and pressed back on Jesus’ teaching. He would have come by day, without fear of the implications, and he would have fallen down before Jesus in humble submission and joyful worship.
In the same way, it usually isn’t hard to see in our own thoughts, feelings, and actions either. What are you expecting or demanding from Jesus before you really follow Him? What areas of your life are you holding back from Jesus as you wait on something more than what He’s already given and revealed? Or, from the other angle, what has drawn you to Jesus to begin with? What is it about Jesus that makes you interested?
Grace, consider this carefully. Unbelieving belief is always rooted in something other than (as we’re about to see) a Holy Spirit-given new birth. Unbelieving belief is rooted in the need to see signs or hear wise sounding arguments or receive assurances of safety or promises of a certain blessing or … (all of which are things God may use, but none of which are sufficient to create believing belief).
He Was Confused by Jesus’ Words
The third and final sign of unbelieving belief we see in Nicodemus is his confusion at and reluctance to receive Jesus’ teaching. Consistent with the Isaiah prophecies we just read in the John 12 passage, Nicodemus could not see with his eyes or understand with his heart. Rather than bringing clarity, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus brought confusion. Rather than being amazed, Nicodemus sounded at least slightly annoyed. Rather than being swift to repent, Nicodemus resisted.
When Jesus said that being able to see the kingdom of God is possible only for those who are born again,
4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
And when Jesus further explained,
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
Acknowledging Nicodemus’s confusion and the fact that it stemmed from his spiritual blindness and unbelieving belief,
10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
And in one final piece of evidence against and condemnation of Nicodemus’s unbelief, Jesus explained who He was, why He came, and how that is good news for mankind.
13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Jesus explained that He was the fulfillment of the Moses’ story (Numbers 21) in that He had come from God, that He would be raised up (on a cross) to die for the children of God, and that the eternal life He came to bring came through believing in Him. The clear implication of all of this is that even though he should have as at teacher of the Israel, Nicodemus didn’t understand and therefore didn’t truly believe. A key sign of unbelieving belief is that it is primarily marked by confusion and “yeah buts” at the teaching of Jesus.
Again, we would do well to consider this, Grace. Is the Word of God a source of clarity and joy and life for you or is it a source of frustration, confusion, and dismissal? Do you say with the Psalmist (1:2), “[My] delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law [I] meditate day and night”? Or, like the fool is your delight in expressing your own opinion (Proverbs 18:2). Are you eager to sit under the preaching of the Word and study it yourself or do you find it dull and largely unhelpful? Does Jesus’ teaching energize you for obedience or does it bore you?
Three sure signs of unbelieving belief that we see in Nicodemus are coming by night, belief based on signs, and confusion at the teaching of Jesus. Look for these signs in yourselves. Look for them in your kids. Look for them in the people of Grace Church. Look for them in all who claim to believe in Jesus. Where you find those signs ask God to grant genuine belief and with it, eternal life.
Well, if Nicodemus provided a real life-example of the kind of unbelieving belief that John described in 2:23-25, is there anything in this story that helps us to see where genuine belief comes from? According to the kindness of God, yes! In this passage we are not only given the signs of unbelieving belief, but also the means by which God produces genuine belief.
HOW TO BECOME A BELIEVING BELIEVER (3-7)
How then do we become believing believers? Because Jesus knew Nicodemus even better than Nicodemus knew himself, when Nicodemus approached Jesus,
3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Confused by this, evidently believing that Jesus meant this literally (that a person would need to reenter his mom’s womb), Nicodemus understandably asked how that was possible (v.4). And in response,
5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Jesus taught here what theologians have since come to call the doctrine of regeneration (being born again). Consider with me five lessons on the new birth that we find in this passage.
First, New Birth Is Needed to See the Kingdom of God
3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
The basic idea of regeneration is that we are all born physically alive but spiritually dead. That is, because of the sin of Adam, we all inherit corrupted, sinful natures. One practical result is that we can see and understand physical things, but not spiritual things. And since believing belief is connected to belief in spiritual things, we cannot believe without God’s help.
Let me say all of that again in another way. We are born into sin and death. Apart from the mercy and grace of God, we will remain in our sin and the death it produces. John wrote his Gospel to tell us that Jesus is the Son of God, that He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in such a way that He did not inherit Adam’s corrupted nature, that He lived a life of perfect righteousness, and that He died on the cross to pay the death penalty we deserve and rose from the dead to give us His perfect righteousness and eternal life. John also wrote his Gospel to teach us that we gain access to that saving work of Jesus not by doing enough good works, but by believing in Him. Indeed, “whoever believes in Him may have eternal life” (3:15).
Genuine belief in Jesus, the kind that connects us with the righteousness of Jesus, comes from being born again. And when this happens, we are given new spiritual eyes to see the spiritual truths of the gospel so that we might truly believe. Whatever measure of unbelieving belief that is in us will be driven out and replaced by genuine believing belief when we are given spiritual eyes to see and ears to hear.
The King was standing in front of Nicodemus, but he could not see. To be able to recognize Jesus for who He was, and then to believe in Him, Nicodemus needed to be born again.
Second, New Birth Is Needed to Enter the Kingdom of God
5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
The main point to understand here is that while Nicodemus would have had an understanding of the kingdom of God, it was fundamentally flawed. That’s why Jesus rebuked him for not understanding. As a teacher of God’s people, he was well-studied in the Word of God, but his studies were tragically misguided. Along with the rest of the Pharisees, Nicodemus believed that people entered God’s kingdom through obedience to the law of God. He’d given much of his life to studying and meticulously obeying God’s Word in order that he would be able to enter the kingdom. In one simple phrase, as He did with the tables of the money changers, Jesus just flipped this understanding on its head.
Just like the Jews wrongly focused exclusively on the messianic passages that described a conquering king, missing the others on the suffering servant, they focused exclusively on the passages that connected entrance into the kingdom with obedience, missing the passages that promise it as an act of God’s grace.
Ezekiel 36:25-27 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
It was all there to be seen for anyone with eyes to see, but new birth—of water and Spirit—is needed to see, and seeing is needed to enter God’s kingdom.
Third, New Birth Comes from the Spirit
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Being born in the flesh, all we are able to give birth to is flesh. The simple thing for us to see here is that new birth must come from the Holy Spirit of God. It is not something we can generate on our own. We are truly and utterly incapable of producing the new birth ourselves. It must be regenerated within us by the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit always does this regenerating work in connection with the good news (the gospel) of Jesus. That is why it is our job to preach the gospel to all without discrimination. It is not up to us to decide who is likely to respond in faith. It is always a miracle of the Holy Spirit when someone is born again—whether a child who grew up in a Christian home or the hardest Muslim terrorist.
Fourth, There is Mystery in the New Birth
7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Grace Church, the fact that the Bible clearly teaches that we need to be born again to see and enter the kingdom of God and that it comes only from the Spirit, does not mean that every aspect of it is clear. There is mystery to it. Let’s learn from the mistakes of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. As I mentioned earlier, they were really bad at highlighting only half of what God’s Word teaches. Let’s not fall into that same pit.
The Bible commands us to believe in Jesus and holds us responsible when we don’t. Likewise, it commands us to call on others to believe in Jesus and holds them responsible if they refuse (Acts 16:31). And God’s Word tells us that all who seek Jesus (Matthew 7:7-11) will find Him. God’s Word really teaches all of those things. And it teaches that all of that is only possible through Holy Spirit-given new birth. All of those things are equally true even though there is mystery in how that’s possible.
Fifth, The New Birth Means that the Kingdom of God Is Simultaneously Already and Not Yet
One final point of confusion for Nicodemus was in the fact that he believed the kingdom was exclusively eschatological, or end times, in nature. It was to come, he believed, only at the fullness of time. Of course, there is a way in which the kingdom will come in fullness in the end, but this is yet another example of missing half the story. Part of why Nicodemus was so confused by Jesus is because he didn’t even have a category for the King to be standing before him.
The final lesson on the new birth is that it allows us to participate in the “nowness” of the kingdom of God. That is, when we are born again, we see that Jesus is King, that He is with us right now by the Spirit, and that we are a part of His kingdom when we gladly come under His rule, live according to His purposes, and seek His glory. The new birth is such that it doesn’t merely prepare us to enter the kingdom at some future time. It also welcomes us in as full-participants right now. The rest of John’s Gospel will help us understand what that means.
Unbelieving belief is of no benefit at all. It cannot save us from our sins or help us live as God intends. In fact, it is often worse than unbelief, for with it be believe we believe even though we don’t. Sure signs of this are embarrassment at Jesus, belief based on signs, and confusion at the teaching of Jesus.
It is the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit alone that can overcome unbelieving belief. New birth is needed to see and enter the kingdom of God, there is mystery in it, and it means that the kingdom of God is already and not yet. By it, the Spirit opens our eyes to see God as He truly is, ourselves as we truly are, and our true need for the saving work of God. This happens through the gospel, and when it does, we will truly believe, truly find life in Jesus, and truly participate in His kingdom as His sons and daughters.
Nicodemus shows us what unbelieving belief looks like. Jesus shows us what believing belief looks like. May the grace of God cause us to turn from Nicodemus, to Jesus that we may be saved.