“Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? “Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” John 3:9-12
The first eight verses of John 3 speak to a concept that is not easily perceived to say the least. After Jesus explained the necessity of spiritual birth in John 3:3-8, Nicodemus’ perplexity continued on as he asked Jesus, “How can these things be?” The word for “can” speaks in the Greek to ability; it could be rephrased, “How is it possible for this to be so?”
It would seem that as the passage continues on, the complexity of Jesus’ response becomes a bit more simplified. Rather than further explain the deep nature of spiritual birth, Jesus steps into talking about belief (which we’ll see in John 3:14-16). I believe He does so, in part, because understanding the spiritual activity at work when a person is saved isn’t a prerequisite to them believing. No one has to grasp the Holy Spirit’s activity in conviction and regeneration and so forth; all they have to do is believe. Secondarily, as we’ll see further on in today’s devotional, Christ did not want to get off topic when the fundamental issue was new birth; there’s no need to further develop ideas of the “kingdom of God” if a person is not going to be seeing it lack of spiritual birth.
I strongly want to encourage you in saying that a person doesn’t need to necessarily agree with how it happened that they believed (though Scripture explains it) but they do need to have a legitimate belief (entrusting of themselves) in the finished work of Christ on the cross. Every day we all experience the effect of many processes we cannot explain; it doesn’t mean we can’t have the experience, but explaining it will be another issue. That being said, this is never a license to check out of the careful study of God’s word by permitting one’s self to mentally shut down on concepts that are explained but require some work to interpret!
Jesus responded to Nicodemus by questioning him about his place of teaching authority over Jewish people: “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” Being a “teacher of Israel” would have meant an extensive education in the Old Testament on the part of Nicodemus as a Pharisee. For all that Nicodemus had studied, he could not perceive the spiritual connections relevant to the Spirit’s work; it was not enough to be trained in the Scriptures for he still had to be reconciled to God. The word for “know” here (and it comes up so much in John) is the progressive knowledge one draws from observation, the type that comes from logical connections when learning. So much teaching of the Old Testament and yet not drawing spiritual connections: that’s what Jesus is touching upon.
A very interesting shift happens in verse 11: “Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.” Why did Jesus start talking in second person? Who has He been talking about? The Holy Spirit ought to be included in the speaking, the knowing, and the testifying. Not only does Jesus bear witness, but so does the Holy Spirit as a very active Agent in the ministry of Jesus. When Jesus says, “What we know,” it is not “what we have learned” but what they intimately and personally know. Nicodemus has essentially said in v. 2, “You came from being with God”; if that’s true, then shouldn’t he believe all that Jesus speaks?
Jesus knows the heart of the Father, as does the Holy Spirit, and they make known the will of the Father. Consider 1 Corinthians 2:10-11: “But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.” The same word for “know” in 1 Cor. 2:11 is used in John 3:11. Who knows God the Father like the Son or the Spirit? No one does and no one can; there is a deep, eternal intimacy between the members of the Trinity. Therefore, the only reason a person would not receive the witness of Christ and the Holy Spirit is to doubt their authority or their truthfulness.
“If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” In regards to v. 12, D.A. Carson writes, “Jesus says, in effect, that entrance into the kingdom depends absolutely on new birth; if Nicodemus stumbles over this elementary point of entry, then what is the use of going on to explain more of the details of life in the kingdom? The ‘heavenly things’ are then the splendors of the consummated kingdom, and what it means to lives under such glorious, ineffable rule” (Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John: The Pillar New Testament Commentary), p. 199. Leicester: Apollos Press, 1991.
My Greek teacher preached in our chapel sometimes and on one occasion said: “The older I get, the less I focus on the things I don’t know and the more I focus on the things I do.” He drew a distinction between those elements of doctrine that were supportive and those that were primary. Similarly, Mark Twain similarly once quipped, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.” It is imperative that we never lose sight of the foundation of our faith in seeking to understand other biblical concepts, and certainly so in the arena of evangelism. Think about it this way: there are many theological viewpoints potentially held by those who have gone to hell: interpretations of church government, end times, modes of baptism, etc., if faith has not been placed solely in Christ. In medieval times, some scholastics would debate over issues like “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” (Google it). Where are those people now? I am not their judge, but let it be clear that anyone found without faith in Christ will not stand confidently on the Day of Judgment and it won’t matter how eloquent they are in biblical matters.
Do you understand spiritual birth? Do you understand having a living, breathing relationship with God through faith in Christ? We can talk all we want about sins we don’t struggle with or concepts that don’t lead us to the worship of God, but where we stand with Him? The conversation of Nicodemus and Jesus, as we will see, steps into God’s love for the world, the provision of the Son, and the preservation of all who believe on Him from the wrath of God to come. Make sure this issue is settled before anything else when it comes to your exploration of the Bible.
Prayer from Pastor Sam:
God, give us the grace we need to keep our eyes on You. Help us to stand firm upon the foundation of Your word. Give us a passion for the gospel today. In Christ’s name I pray, Amen.