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Sunday morning sermon preached in Westminster Chapel, January 9, 1966.
I should like to call your attention to the incident that is recorded in the first part of the third chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, the incident concerning the man Nicodemus. We are continuing our studies in this Gospel, but let me make it quite clear that we are not working systematically through the Gospel as such and dealing with every part and portion, but rather selecting the great theme that I would suggest is the main object and purpose of this Gospel. And I have suggested that the real key to the understanding of John is in the sixteenth verse of the first chapter where he says, "And of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace" (John 1:16).
Now we are concentrating on that particular theme because, after all, that is what is meant by being Christian. This, it seems to me more and more, is the greatest need of the hour, that we should all realize what a Christian really is and is meant to be, and there is no better definition than this one. It involves, of course, believing certain things. There is the creedal element; that is vital. But Christianity is primarily life receiving of his fullness, and if we forget that, we miss the greatness and the glory and the splendor of it all. Our danger always, even as Christian people, is to be reducing this life — eternal life — to something that is merely a point of view, a teaching, a philosophy, a theology, or whatever. We must never do that. Its essence is that it is a life, and that means receiving of his fullness. This is the greatest thing in the world, the greatest thing that any of us can ever realize.
So I make no apology for asking at the beginning of a new year and as we resume these studies, do you know that you have received of this fullness? Are you receiving of it, "grace for [upon] grace"? Is it going on; is it increasing? Are you living on a past experience or a past decision? Or are you in the position that you know that you are linked to the Head and that life from the great Head is coming down to you and permeating the whole of your being? This, I emphasize, is Christianity, and it is only as the church is manifesting this life and this "fullness" that she really functions as the church and counts at all in the world.
Now I need not take time to remind you that the church counts so little today, it counts less and less, alas, and ultimately it is all due to this. The church cannot live on activities, on her own efforts and organizations. She has been trying to do so, but it does not work. It is an astonishing thing, it is the paradox of the faith in many ways, that the world outside, in its ignorance and darkness and death, recognizes one thing only, and that is life. That is the whole story of the book of Acts, indeed of the whole of the New Testament. So I say again that the great question that all of us should be concerned about is this: Do I know that I have received of his fullness? Is it my greatest desire, my highest ambition, to receive more and more of him?
So I suggest that the great purpose of this Gospel of John is to instruct us in this one great matter. Of course, it gives us historical details, and we thank God for that. But they are surely meant to help us and to act as illustrations. There are difficulties about this question, but it is we who make the difficulties. It is because we are not sufficiently childlike, not sufficiently simple. We are all so sophisticated, so clever, so philosophical. That is always the greatest hindrance of all. Our Lord said, "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3). We create and make these difficulties. And so we are given these records and accounts of people like ourselves — how they blundered, how they went astray, how they had their false notions and ideas. And we must thank God for this because, through looking at and seeing the pitfalls and the errors into which others have fallen, we are warned and we are instructed, and so we are able to look again more positively at the whole subject.
Now after laying down the great doctrines, particularly in the first eighteen verses of the first chapter, John has then gone on to give us the testimony of John the Baptist. Then, at the end of the first chapter, he has given us a series of men who came to our Lord and who were brought to him. And in these men who subsequently became apostles we have learned great lessons. Then in the second chapter, in various ways our Lord gave further instruction. He did so even at the marriage feast of Cana in Galilee, in connection with the miracle of turning the water into wine. He also did it when he went up to Jerusalem and saw what was happening in the temple. And then he did it again when certain people came to him when he was in Jerusalem — people who "believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. But Jesus did not commit himself unto them" (John 2:23–24). And in all these ways John shows the particular error, the particular fault in those various approaches, and how they all have messages to convey to us. And what is so interesting is that we see the variety and the number of mistakes that we can make in connection with this matter. Each one of them has a particular point to emphasize, a particular aspect of the truth to bring out and to put before us, and so we continue with this study of John's Gospel.
I am anxious to emphasize this point, but I am not doing so merely out of a theoretical or academic interest. I did not just decide to expound the Gospel according to St. John. The thing that came to me and gripped me was this great question of life, the life of God in the soul, this supreme need, this supreme glory of the Christian life. And all these passages are given to us just to help us to arrive at that. There is nothing so fatal as to approach the Bible as just a textbook that you get to know; that is not its business. Its whole object is to bring you to him in whom is all this fullness of which we stand in need.
So now we come to this third chapter and to this particular interest, and we shall see that there are very fundamental and basic questions raised and put before us that will show us some of the difficulties with regard to this matter. It is often the case that people have regarded the story of Nicodemus as evangelistic, and in a sense, of course, it is that, as we shall see. But at the same time it has a great deal to say to many of us who are Christians, and I trust we shall see, as we analyze this case, further difficulties that lie in the way of people experiencing this fullness of his and receiving it more and more.
Let us look then at Nicodemus. The first thing that strikes you here is that he is a different case and a different problem. Back in the second chapter we see the Jewish leaders and how they had abused the temple and so on, and other Jews came and said to our Lord, "What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?" (John 2:18). The people who had not seen the significance of his miracles were asking for some startling, outstanding phenomenon. And then we see the people at the end of the chapter, the credulous people who came rushing to him, carried away for the time being by the spectacular nature of his work.
But here in the case of Nicodemus we are looking at a man who does not fit into any of those categories. He is quite a separate and a distinct type. And I am concerned to hold him before you because he does seem to me to represent a very definite type at the present time. So the important thing for us is to discover the characteristics of this man, because the whole object of the record is to show us that he was entirely wrong. That is the astounding thing. Not in the same way as the others, but in his own particular way.
What, then, are the characteristics of Nicodemus? The first, obviously, is that he was a very religious man. In addition to that, he was a very able man, a master, a teacher in Israel; he was a man whose whole lifework and occupation was to be religious and to study the Scriptures and to teach and instruct others. It is very important that we should remember all this about him. I take it that the people described at the end of the second chapter were heedless, thoughtless people, part of the crowd in Jerusalem who, when something startling happened, crowded together and were ready to believe anything that was said and to join any new movement.
Now Nicodemus is completely removed from all that. Here is a man who is a great man in many ways, a highly religious intellectual teacher. And another thing that one must add about him is that he is a man who is obviously free from prejudices. We have evidence of the prejudice against our Lord in these religious leaders. That is why they demanded a sign of him. "This man who suddenly appears and who takes this action in the temple is not a Pharisee. What right has he to do and to say these things?" Nothing is so obvious about the Pharisees, as you read the Gospels, as their prejudice against our Lord, a kind of instinctive prejudice. They were intolerant, always waiting for opportunities to trip him in his words and in his teaching and to prove that he was wrong.
Now Nicodemus seems to be entirely free from all that, and this is a wonderful thing. The harm that is done by prejudice is incalculable. It is always based on ignorance, of course, and the lack of clear thinking. But it is a terrible thing because it is deep and it is emotional and it can do great damage. But here is a man who is obviously entirely free from all that. His whole attitude toward the Lord is unlike that of the majority of the Pharisees, and as you read about him later on in this same Gospel, you find that this same trait in him continues to manifest itself. So all honor to him for these things.
There then is Nicodemus as it were by nature, there he is in general. But there are certain special, peculiar virtues in him that I must emphasize because the thing that he illustrates so perfectly is that a man can be so right and yet be all wrong. And there are many such people. I have known many who are genuinely and honestly seeking God's blessing, but they never get it because they belong to this particular type, and I suggest there are many like this at the present time.
So what are these special virtues? The first one we must emphasize is the one that is put before us in the words of Nicodemus himself. We are told that this man "came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, 'Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him,'" (John 3:2). In other words, here is a man who sees the real meaning of the miracles. Now you see the contrast with the previous people in chapter 2 who did not. There were some who did not see it at all, and others saw it in a credulous, superficial manner. Not so here. Nicodemus is not just interested in the spectacular; he sees that there is something deeper here. He has watched these miracles, and he has said to himself: These miracles show quite plainly that this is no ordinary person; here is a man who has been sinless in a unique manner and is used of God and blessed by God. There is something special about this man.
In other words, he makes a true appraisal of the miracles and does not merely look at our Lord as a miracle worker, a wonder, a phenomenon; he says, "You must be a teacher come from God." We know that; it is indisputable. "For no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him." In other words, he is a thinker, he thinks beneath the surface, and he is sufficiently enlightened spiritually to see the real meaning of these miracles worked by our Lord.
But then beyond that, obviously Nicodemus detects something in the person and character of our Lord himself. He comes to him and says, "Rabbi ..." Though Jesus is just a carpenter he calls him teacher, master, and in using the term he is revealing the fact that he has sensed — I do not know how deeply — that there is something here quite unusual and exceptional.
Now this is a most important characteristic. The rest of the chapter emphasizes it and goes on to deal with it, and it is basic to our whole position. People who do not recognize something of the uniqueness of our Lord are not Christians. Those who just put him into the same category as other great religious teachers have not started and have no hope of ever receiving this fullness. But here is a man who addresses him as "Rabbi" — "Master." He is aware of this strange something that he had never encountered before.
And beyond that, and this is what brings us to the very heart of this matter, Nicodemus is clearly aware that our Lord has something that he does not have. Now that to me is the great thing about Nicodemus. He watches Jesus though he is a great man and is in a high position. And though all the rest in the same position are prejudiced, this man looks on in a wistful manner. And he is struck by this and convicted, I think, by this — our Lord is not merely one who actually is able to work these miracles: he is able to do so because of some relationship to God that is special, unique, quite above the ordinary.
Now I emphasize this because this is one of the great keys to the spiritual life. It is one of the great keys to receiving this fullness and to growing in grace and in knowledge of him and receiving his fullness, which puts us into the category of men and women who know something about heaven on earth and who have foretastes of the glory everlasting.
In other words, to put it negatively, Nicodemus is not self-satisfied or complacent. This is a great and fundamental principle. He desires something greater. The trouble with so many is that they are self-satisfied, they feel they have arrived, they have it all! They have been converted — haven't they made a decision? And once they do that, well, they just go on freewheeling, as it were, and they spend the rest of their lives like that. Not so a man like Nicodemus. He has every reason to feel like that. He has arrived at a great position; he is one of the authorities; he is one of the masters of Israel. But this man is sensitive to the spiritual realm, and when he sees this strange new Person who is able to work these extraordinary miracles, what strikes him at once is, "That man has something that I don't have." There is a knowledge of God here, there is an intimacy with God — "We know that thou art a teacher come from God." Nicodemus is not only interested, he is not only intrigued by this new teacher — he is convicted in a sense, and he has a desire within him to get hold of this something extra, this further something that this new teacher so obviously possesses.
Now here is an important question that I must hold before you: Are you satisfied? Self-satisfied? Or are you dissatisfied, lacking in satisfaction? Is there a hunger and thirst within you for righteousness? Is there a longing for something bigger and greater and deeper? There is nothing better about Nicodemus than this: coming into contact with our Lord he is aware of and recognizes and acknowledges this need in himself, this lack of something, this longing for a greater fullness and a receiving of a greater fullness from God.
There is no hope in the Christian life unless we are aware of that. There is nothing that is more important to any one of us than this. Do we have a hunger and a thirst after righteousness? Do we, "as the hart panteth after the water brooks" (Ps. 42:1), long for the living God and a knowledge of him? Oh, we may have attained up to a certain point, we may look back across the years and be satisfied with our record, but do we stop there, are we content, do we feel that this is excellent? Are we always comparing ourselves with people who are obviously worse? There are many heretics these days, people who deny the truth — do we spend all our time denouncing heretics or showing what is obviously and plainly wrong, looking at the world as it is in its raucous laughter and its blasphemous godlessness at the present time?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Experiencing the New Birth"
Copyright © 2015 Elizabeth Catherwood and Ann Beatt.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Nicodemus (John 3:1–30),
2 The Essential Foundation (John 3:1–8),
3 Characteristics of the New Birth (John 3:8),
4 The Sign of the New Birth (John 3:8),
5 Marks of the Spiritual Life (John 3:8),
6 The Christian and the World (John 3:8),
7 Righteousness (John 3:8),
8 Loving the Brethren (John 3:8),
9 Knowing God (John 3:8),
10 A Personal Knowledge of God — God the Father and God the Son (John 3:8),
11 The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit (John 3:8),
12 Heavenly Things (John 3:8),
13 Assurance (John 3:8),
14 Alive in Christ (John 3:8),
15 The Love of God in the Salvation of Men and Women (John 3:16),
16 Darkness and Light (John 3:19–21),
17 The Friend of the Bridegroom (John 3:30),
18 The Baptism with the Holy Spirit (John 3:30),
19 None of Self and All of Thee (John 3:30),
20 Make the Poor Self Grow Less and Less (John 3:30),
21 He Must Increase (John 3:30),
22 Is He Everything? (John 3:30),
23 Prophet, Priest, and King (John 3:30),
24 Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise (John 3:30),
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