The Midnight Theologian - John 3:1-16
Today we come to the most famous verse in the Bible. The Bible contains 30,000 verses, but John 3:16 has captured the imagination of American culture. At sporting events all over the world you’re sure to find someone holding up a sign that says, “John 3:16.” You’ll find “John 3:16” printed on the bottom rim of every drink cup at In-and-Out Burger. World class driver Devin Jones tours with Monster Jam and has “John 3:16” painted on the side of his monster truck. Country music singer Keith Urban included “John 3:16” in his hit song, John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” Charles Schultz wrote the reference into a Peanuts comic strip. And in 2009 Tim Tebow, QB with the Florida Gators, painted “John 3:16 onto his eye black before a televised championship game.
Three years - to the day - Tim Tebow played in an NFL playoff game (he was the Denver QB by then) against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tebow had a great game and won. After the game Tim was approached by the team’s PR rep, Patrick, who asked excitedly, “Tim do you know what happened?” Tim responded, “Yeah we just beat the Steelers.” “No - that’s not it. It’s exactly 3 years since you wore John 3:16 in black. Now, 3 years later in this game, you threw for 316 yards, your yards per completion were 31.6, your yards per rush were 3.16, your ratings for the night were 31.6, and the time of possession was 31:06… during the game 91 million people Googled John 3:16 - it’s the #1 trending thing on every platform!”
Perhaps John 3:16 is popular and well known in our culture because that’s exactly what God wants it to be! So let’s examine this most famous verse in context and try to understand the 15 verses that precede it. I think we’ll discover 5 important truths about our faith.
#1 - Jesus welcomes all EXPLORATIONS to Christianity.
“Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.” John 3:1
Nicodemus was a Pharisee - a member of the Jewish ruling council. This was the same ruling council that would send Jesus to the cross and to his death 3 years later. Jesus knew this group of leaders would be opposed to his ministry. This is the same group that Jesus later described as “white washed tombs.” Yet he welcomes the questions of Nicodemus.
We must ask ourselves: Who are we certain that could never become a Christian? Who is so evil, so opposed the Christianity, that could never become a follower of Jesus? We must be careful in our presumptions. Not only did Jesus welcome Nicodemus, but Jesus turned the Christian killing Saul into the Christian making Paul. Who in your life have you given up on but maybe Jesus is still welcoming?
“He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’” John 3:2
We tend to be critical of Nicodemus for being a “midnight theologian,” only willing to seek out Jesus and his teaching at night, when no one else will see. I don’t think Jesus cared about that - so maybe we shouldn’t care so much about that. Clearly Jesus launches right into the theological discussion in the next verse without any quibbling. But before we go to Jesus’ incredible message to Nicodemus (and to us), let’s not miss the point that Jesus welcomes the exploration - no matter from whom or when it is. Jesus is not afraid of those who are truly seeking answers. Jesus is the truth to all who are genuinely seeking it.
So who in your life asks the hard questions about your faith in Jesus? Who is it in your life that flusters you with questions to which you may not know the answers? Seeking is good. Exploring Christianity is good. Don’t give up on anyone, even when their exploration journey is different than yours. Keep praying for them that they will find the true Jesus.
#2 - Becoming a Christian requires a 2ND BIRTH.
“Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’” John 3:3
I fear we have heard this and read this so often that we lose the shock value that Jesus intends and that Nicodemus experiences. Have you ever been to the birth of a human being? You’ll never forget it. Pretty obvious statement to any mother. Maybe not to the same degree, but clearly true of anyone not a mother who has been present when a baby is first born. Birth requires labor. It’s hard. It’s messy. It’s emotional. It’s a turning point for everyone involved. The day of birth is remembered for the life of the one born as well as for the one giving birth.
And Jesus says this is true of being born again, being born from above, as a Christian. Notice how he doesn’t say becoming a Christian is like being born. He is crystal clear - this is another birth, a second birth. So requires labor, is hard, is messy, is emotional, is a turning point, is remembered.
For many who call themselves a Christian, but think only of it as being a part of a Christian family, or receiving a baptismal certificate, or just being more “Christian” than anything else - like I’m an American because I was born here… none of that fits with Jesus statement that ”no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again!”
What about you this morning? Do you know for sure that you’ve been born again? There should be no doubt. This wouldn’t be an unremembered, “I’ve just always been Christian.” This would be dramatic, never-forgotten event - a before and after marker in the calendar of your life.
#3 - When I am born again, I receive the HOLY SPIRIT.
“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” John 3:8
Being born again is to become a son or daughter of God and it is no small thing! At that moment of spiritual birth we receive the Holy Spirit of God. Every person we read about in the Bible who was born again as a Christian was also a receiver of God’s Holy Spirt. All the disciples and all the very first believers experienced the Holy Spirit filling them at Pentecost.
Being a Christian but not possessing the Holy Spirit can be likened to a still birth. Just like the very breath of life must be present for someone to be physically alive, the Breath of the Holy Spirit must be present for someone who is spiritually alive.
This leads us to talking about what it’s like to be a Spirit-filled, alive Christian. Jesus says, “you cannot tell where [the Holy Spirit] is going or where it is going - so it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Our very life course changes when we become a Christian. We now follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, and we can very honestly say that we never know exactly where we are going. We are following God’s lead.
And, by the way, we would never want it to be any other way. We would never want to go in a different direction. We would never want to be without God’s Holy Spirit. For with the Spirit, there is life, strength, power, wisdom, discernment, comfort and confirmation. Literally, there is the voice of Jesus within us and we are eager to hear his voice and to follow his direction… which is the perfect transition to #4:
#4 - My map to Heaven comes from JESUS’ HOLY SPIRIT.
“Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.” John 3:11
We have a very deliberate language on the part of Jesus as well as the gospel writer, John. Notice at the beginning Jesus speaks personally and singly - “Very truly I tell you…”. But then the next four self references are in the plural: “we speak…” “… of what we know” “and we testify…” “to what we have seen…” You don’t “accept our testimony.” What’s going on here?
I believe that even at this early place in Jesus’ ministry, He is speaking on behalf of the Trinity - God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Certainly it is the last two - that when you hear from God the Son (Jesus) as is here with Nicodemus, you are also hearing from God’s Holy Spirit. And more apropos to us today, when we are hearing from God’s Holy Spirit within us, what we often refer to as that still small voice, we are indeed hearing from Jesus Himself!
That’s super important because we need the guidance of Jesus if we want to arrive to Heaven. He knows the way. He’s been there!
“I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things. No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven - the Son of Man.” John 3:12-13
A few years ago Mary Kay and I, along with our friends Roc and Kim, enjoyed a vacation to the beautiful island of Antigua. It may be as close to the beauty of Heaven as I’m likely to see on this side of Paradise. However, when we went out for a day trip together we would have been quickly lost without the help of a guide. The roads were small and winding with lots of switchbacks. We might think we were on a road north but at the time heading south. On top of all that, the driving was on the left hand side of the road. Every assumption I’ve ever made in 50 years of driving a car worked against me in Antigua.
The same is true of our journey here on Earth on our way to Heaven. We need the help of a guide - Someone Who knows the way - Someone Who has been there - Someone Who knows that sometimes the direction is the opposite way than the way our earthly training would suppose. That Someone is Jesus and He guides us through His Holy Spirit - the same royal WE He uses in John 3:11. When the going is tough and the direction confusing, have faith. Jesus is the ONE Person Who can be trusted to speak to us BOTH of heavenly and earthly things.
#5 - All this is true because of GOD’S GREAT LOVE FOR US.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
And this entire passage now leads us the most famous verse in the Bible - the gospel in the nutshell. If there was any doubt, by the way, of the John 3 reference to the Trinity, it could be dispelled here. For it was God the Father Who so loved the world. It was God the Father who gave His one and only Son. And if we believe in Him - God’s one and only Son, Jesus, then there are two miraculous promises given to us - two sides of the same coin. One - these faithful believers shall not perish -but rather, second, will have eternal life. What a promise! What a miracle!
John 3:16 is the famous verse. But it should be received within the context of all the verses of John 3 that come before it. Jesus welcomes your questions and your explorations. The Christian faith is not a blind faith. Ask. Seek. Knock. Check it out. At some point a revolution of unknown proportions will happen in your life that can only be understood within the context of a brand new birth. Because those who become a Christian become a whole new person - a person who is now filled with Jesus’ Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit resides within us and guides us. He gives us direction when we are confused and lost, which is easy to do here on Earth. But know this - our direction is nowhere close by. Our ultimate destination is Heaven itself. And so we will need the help of Someone Who has been there and back. And all this is made miraculously possible by God Himself. Wow! Are you celebrating God’s great love for you today?