Most people fall into one of two categories: Theyre either trying to save themselves, or theyve realized that they cant and that they need a Savior. People are either pursuing Gods justice or clinging to His mercy. They either expect to be rewarded or forgiven. And those two attitudes are so deeply differentthey lie in such opposite directionsa person cant pursue both at the same time. No one can try to earn Gods approval while they are receiving His mercy as a gift. Its just not possible. The heart must look one way or the other. And, I admit, there is a third option, which is some form of hopeless indifference. That person stops trying altogether and simply looks for ways to cope until death arrives. This is the saddest option of all. Some end up there because theyve stopped believing eternal life exists. Others believe it exists but are convinced theyve done something that prevents them from ever receiving it. The root problem in this third option is spiritual deception. The person is believing a lie which needs to be broken by prayer.
The conversation that took place between Jesus and Nicodemus was about the first two categories. That night a man who was sincerely trying to earn Gods favor met a Savior who offered him grace. Jesus placed in front of this Pharisee a choice: Would he stay on the path he was on, or would he abandon it entirely and follow Jesus on a new path? And you and I need to listen carefully to what they were saying because what Jesus said applies to us today just as much as it did to Nicodemus. The choice placed in front of him is a choice each of us must make and continue to make. Which path will we choose, because its impossible to walk both at the same time.
Meeting a Pharisee (Jn 3:1-2)
Most of us have never heard anyone say anything good about a Pharisee. It seems no one is ever able to explain to us who they were, but they are quite sure they were hypocrites who made everyone elses life miserable by trying to force them to keep the requirements found in their list of religious rules. And undoubtedly there were a lot of them who did exactly that. We can hear it in the way Jesus warned them: Luke 11:37-44; 12:1.
But if we realize that this religious movement probably began with Ezras godly reforms, well hear what Jesus was saying more accurately. He wasnt condemning people for trying to carefully obey Gods Word. His criticism was directed squarely at their lack of honesty in admitting that they had failed. Their hypocrisy was that they pretended they hadnt failed, and then that pride hardened their hearts. If they had been honest with themselves their failure would have driven them to seek Gods mercy, just like David did when he failed so badly. He didnt come up with a new list of rules and try harder; he turned in faith to Gods loving-kindness, to His promised love (Ps 51:16-17). Listen:
For You do not delight in sacrifice otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
David didnt respond to his failures by promising God he would try to be a better man in the future (though he would become one), he called on God for grace .
Two paths (Jn 3:6-21)
This is not an Old Testament/New Testament issue. The choice people make in how they approach God is as old as time. There have always been two paths. Either a person tries to earn Gods approval, or they admit they cant and call on Him for mercy. This is what Jesus explained to Nicodemus. Basically, this is what He said:
v6: No amount of human effort can produce this inner miracle I call being born from above or enable a person to do the works that please God. Human effort produces human results which do not please Him. The things that please God must be produced by His Spirit.
v7: So dont be surprised when I tell you God must change your heart and fill you with His Holy Spirit.
v8: Because when that happens Hes able to guide you and do His works through you instead of you trying to guide yourself by the rules of the Law. God wants people who are moved by the Spirit just like the wind blows the leaves of a tree, you cant see either the wind or the Spirit, but you can see the effect they have on things. What Im inviting you to is a living relationship with God in which He will guide and empower you.
v9: Nicodemus did not understand, so he asked: How can such things be possible?
v10: Jesus replied by asking him: How can you be a teacher of the Bible and not have seen these promises that Im talking about?
vs11-13: Nicodemus, Im not simply another rabbi trying to teach people how to obey the Law of Moses, Im the Messiah, and what I am telling you is not a matter for debate. I didnt think these things up. I actually existed in heaven before I came to earth as a man, so I am reporting to you things I have seen and heard from God the Father Himself. And if you cant understand what Im saying when I use these common earthly illustrations, you certainly wouldnt be able to understand if I told you what I know in a straight forward way.
vs14-15: My assignment from the Father, at this point in human history, is not to set up a glorious kingdom on earth, but to die. There are many symbols in the Law of Moses which God placed there to teach Israel that the Messiah would have to die and be resurrected before setting up His kingdom. One example is when Moses made a bronze serpent and held it up on a pole while people who had been bitten by venomous snakes were dying all around him (Nu 21:6-9). That moment was a picture of what is going to happen to Me (Ge 3:15). Im going to be lifted up on a cross just like that snake was lifted up on a pole, and when people see My cross and believe in Me, they too will be saved from the power of death, only now they will be saved from eternal death.
vs16-17: The reason for all of this is that God loves people, all people, and wants to save them, not condemn them. Thats who He is, so He created a way so that it would be possible to save non-Jews as well as Jews. All anyone has to do is believe in Me, believe that I am Gods only-begotten Son, that He sent Me to die for the whole world, that He wants to save people not judge them. All who look to Me with such faith will be saved, they will be born from above, they will be changed inside, they will be led and empowered by the unseen Spirit, and God will give them eternal life, but not as a reward for their works. This is why Im here. I came to rescue people, not judge them.
v18: Everybody needs a Savior. Nobody is good enough on their own. Unless people receive grace they will be judged. There is only one Savior. God only has one Son: Me. No one else could die for you.
vs19-20: When people meet Me or hear about what Ive done for them on the cross, who they are inside will be exposed. Some people are looking for God. They want to know Him. Theyre sincerely trying to please Him, so when they understand the truth about Me they come to Me. Others keep their distance because they dont want God to tell them to stop doing things they enjoy doing. They feel no need for a Savior.
v21: The person who wants to please God and is honest with themselves, sooner or later will recognize that their best efforts have failed, they need His mercy, they need a Savior. Theyll understand why I had to die. They know they should die, so My cross will make sense to them. And theyll know that all good things come from God, so theyll humbly acknowledge that whatever they did in their lives that was good was actually something He did through them. They wont take credit for anything.
Who does this sound like? It sounds like Paul doesnt it? So thats where he got his gospel; he actually understood Jesus. Like Nicodemus, Paul was a Pharisee who had tried as hard as he could to earn Gods favor. But when he first heard about the cross it made him angry because he was still too proud to admit he needed mercy. That came later, and then Paul built his life on these very truths. He knew the danger of trying to earn Gods favor and warned us that we must not let even a little bit of self-righteousness creep back in. Listen:
but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that Law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone
For not knowing about Gods righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Ro 10:3-4).
He knew from his own painful experience that a person cant trust their own good works and Gods mercy at the same time. Its either one or the other. And it only takes a trace of trusting ourselves to drive out our dependence on the cross of Jesus.
1) Were you ever a religious person who tried to earn Gods favor? How did that affect you? Did you feel close to God or far away?
2) Whats the difference between self-discipline and legalism? Name an area where you discipline yourself? What prevents that from becoming a law to you?
3) Whats the difference between worship and legalism? Name something you could do as an act of worship or as a way to try to earn Gods favor.