The Man Who Thought He Knew Everything
I want you to consider a most remarkable conversation which took place between Nicodemus and our Lord as recorded in the third chapter of the Gospel of John. Who was Nicodemus? We are told that he was a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews. This at once provides a clue—a Pharisee. This was not an irreligious man. This man was not a pagan. This man had deep-rooted religious convictions. He had been brought up in a tradition, and it was part of the warp and woof of his personality. Nicodemus was devout, religious and devoted to his religious creed—a Pharisee. He was also a leader of the Jews. That means that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the leading body of the time. Herein was a man of some outstanding qualities’ a man of unique caliber of character.
In verse 10 of this chapter, Jesus said unto him, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” The Revised Version says, “Art thou the teacher of Israel, and knowest not these things?” The suggestion is that this man was unquestionably the outstanding religious teacher of his day, there can be no doubt about that. This man thought he knew everything. He thought he was perfectly all right, but he discovered that from beginning to end, he was completely wrong. His life had been built up on a completely false philosophy and outlook on religion, and he had to begin all over again. This man whom we have pictured in our minds—a narrow-minded man, a religious man, a devout man, a devoted man, a man gripped by tradition for past years and centuries, a man who was particular and careful about all the outward observance of the forms of religion of his time, a man who was the recognized teacher of his day, the outstanding man to whom people went for reference, the great theologian of his time, the man whom people respected and admired, and many people unquestionably followed this man’s views on religion. The outstanding teacher of his day—this was Nicodemus.
We find him wending his way alone at midnight, and seeking out a personal interview with the Lord Jesus Christ. I am interested in knowing that there came a point in this man’s life, with all his philosophy, tradition, and all his background, when he felt it necessary to have a personal interview with the Saviour. I’m very interested to discover from this chapter of God’s Word, the build up in this man’s mind concerning truth; the extent to which he had developed his thinking and the convictions which had gripped him concerning the person of Jesus Christ.
God is unknowable except He be known in Christ. God has stepped into the affairs of men in order that Deity, Who otherwise would be obscure, and unknown, and unknowable, might be made known in the person of His Son. Parables are known as earthly stories with a heavenly meaning. The earthly illustration is the simple thing being placed alongside the mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven so that the one may be the means of explaining the other. God’s greatest parable is Jesus Christ. The greatest illustration and revelation of God is in the person of His Son. “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days,” says the writer to the Hebrews, “spoken unto us by His Son.” Therefore, if any man would come to know God, He must come to know Him in Jesus Christ. “No man cometh unto the Father,” saith He, “but by Me…I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
I am, therefore, interested to discover how far this man of intellectual brilliance, this man of Jewish tradition, this man seeped in his Old Testament, this man who was so particular about the observance of law and religion, how far he had moved along the path of Divine revelation, and immediately, when the conversation opened, Nicodemus betrays his appalling and abysmal ignorance. This is what he says, “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.” With all his build up and all his insight into tradition and religion, this man could get no further than to discover and believe that the One whom he was seeking out by personal interview, was no more than a teacher sent from God.
It may be there are some of you who are somewhat like Nicodemus. The surrender of your will to God is a fundamental necessity and a preparation for all Divine illumination of your heart. You cannot rationalize Deity, you cannot reason your way into the kingdom. There comes a point in a man’s experience,—I care not how brilliant, how intellectual he may be—there comes a point when, if he is seeking to grasp after Divine revelation, he comes to the end of himself and has to admit, “I just don’t know.” And if any man would step into a knowledge of God, it will never be by reason, but always by revelation. What you need, my dear friend, above everything else, is not that you might reason your way into the kingdom, but that there might flood into your soul the revelation from heaven that Jesus Christ, whom you criticize and patronize, whom you think about, and whose teachings you admire, is none other than the Son of God incarnate. What truth is not born into the human soul with burning conviction that can grip a man’s heart by reasoning and rationalization. It is born into the soul by Divine revelation. Nicodemus, therefore, with all the philosophy that he had built up in his life, with all his outlook on tradition, and all his experience of the past, when he came to the basic fact of the Christian Gospel, had precisely moved not one inch in the progress. All he could say was that he was in the presence of a great teacher.
I am interested to observe the reactions of the Lord Jesus Himself to such a statement. He shattered the man’s philosophy at the very beginning of the conversation and said, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Interesting, isn’t it, that this is the only occasion in the New Testament where the Lord Jesus said that. Interesting that the whole principle of Christian faith, and the whole conception of Divine revelation, and the whole experience which leads into the Christian life, the whole thing is stated in this one verse, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Jesus didn’t say that to the man at the Pool of Bethesda who was on his back for 38 years, a helpless paralytic, because of the immoral life he had been living. He didn’t say it to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven devils. He didn’t say to some poor, twisted, broken, defeated specimen of humanity, “You’ve got to be born again”—no, to such He always said, “Come unto me and I’ll give you rest, and peace, and deliverance,” but to this man—the proud, religious Pharisee—he was right beneath armour, tackled him right at the tender spot of his own weakness in his creed and doctrine, and said, “Nicodemus, you’ve got the whole business wrong. You’ve got to start all over again.” Pretty shattering for Nicodemus to have to face that at the very beginning. “Nicodemus, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. You see, except you experience a revolution in your life, except there be a Divine revelation coming into your heart and transforming you completely, you cannot see, you cannot understand the kingdom of God. You’ve only gone as far as you have on the road, only able to admit that I am a teacher, because you have been trying to rationalize it, reason it all out. You cannot see the Kingdom unless you are born again.”
Now, I’m very glad that at that point Nicodemus didn’t just get on a his high horse, so to speak, and go off home. Instead—I don’t think in resentment, but in a spirit of incredulity—Nicodemus said to Jesus, “That’s all very well, but the thing is impossible. How can a man be born again when he is old? The thing is impossible in the physical realm. I can’t become a baby all over again and be born. I can understand, in a sense, the desirability of it. Perhaps, there are many times in my life,” Nicodemus might have thought, “when I had wished that I might start all over again. There are many times when I have wished I could make a new start and beginning, but I just can’t do it. I am what I am today because of what I was yesterday, and I was what I was yesterday because of the process of development of character, thought, and personality through the years. All these things have been the growth and process of a normal life. How can I possibly begin again?”
That may be the question that might come into your mind also—“It’s all very well to say, to talk about this business of being born again, but I don’t understand it. I am very religious, and I go to church, and although, like Nicodemus, I’ll admit I’m in the dark about some things, but I’m sort of groping my way through, and reasoning my way, I think if I keep at it long enough, one day I’ll get into the light. In any case, you talk about being born again. How on Earth can that happen to me? Too late, in my life. I’ve often wished,” you say, “that I could start again, because there are things that have happened that I wish I could obliterate from my memory completely, things that I have done of which, when I reflect upon them, I am a bit ashamed. Yes, I wish that I could begin again but, frankly, I don’t see the thing to be at all possible. I see the desirability of a new start, I see how wonderful it could be, but, frankly, I somehow feel it’s impossible.”
And what does Jesus say to the attitude of that kind? He said this, “Nicodemus, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” To you, perhaps, that statement is a mystery. It was as clear as daylight to Nicodemus. He knew exactly what the Lord meant. What did He mean? Have you ever understood the meaning of that verse of Scripture? I have no doubt whatsoever but that Nicodemus had heard of the religious revival that was taking place out in the wilderness under the ministry of John the Baptist. I have no doubt whatsoever that Nicodemus had been among the crowd; that he was aware of the awakening of religion in his day and generation; that he was conscious that there was a messenger come from God’ that there was a man with strange dress, and eating strange food; a man who preached a remarkable message, and who was attracting great crowds, and right at the very heart of this man’s message Nicodemus had heard him say this, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance; but He that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Jesus said, “except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God”…John said “I baptize you with water unto repentance…He that cometh after me…He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
When Nicodemus came from the great crowd that gathered on the banks of the Jordan, and went back to his home, and back to his house, those words rang in his ears, “What does that man mean?” He searched his Old Testament, and he searched it in vain. He couldn’t understand. “What does He mean that He’s come to baptize with water unto repentance? What does He mean that there is one coming after Him who shall baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire?” Nicodemus puzzled, perplexed, bewildered, listened to the teaching of the Master Himself, and Jesus, in that personal interview at midnight, says to him, “Nicodemus, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he can not enter into the kingdom of God.” In a moment the truth dawned and the light broke, and Nicodemus saw it.
Do you see it? Have you not understood the meaning of what it is to be born again? Has that been merely a theological term which you have heard people use, and which has quite mystified you and made you think that people who used it were a little bit peculiar? Have you never understood this verse of John 3? Here it is. A man who has built up his religious outlook by philosophy, and reasoning, and arguments, who has got no further than making Jesus to be a teacher come from God, who is perplexed and doesn’t understand, and whom Christ faces with the demand of this new birth,—in perplexity he says, “How can this thing be?” The answer, which I trust will come like a floodlight of Divine revelation to your hearts, is just this that except a man repent and be born of the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom. That’s it.
I am putting before you, on as high a level as I can, what it means to be saved. To be born again is an absolute revolution in your life. It’s not signing a card, and deciding for Jesus, and responding to an appeal, and holding up your hand, and coming forward to the front of a meeting. Those things may be the outward expression of what has happened in your heart. Nobody is born again until he has faced the challenge of utter repentance and then has received the Holy Spirit. God is not going to give His glory to another. He is not going to give the Holy Spirit to a man who only wants to receive the gift of the Spirit in order that somehow that man may use the Spirit of God to make him great. God is only prepared to give the Holy Spirit to a man who has been absolutely smashed up at the Cross. He is going to give the Spirit of God to the man who knows what Calvary means; who knows what repentance means. He is going to give the Holy Spirit to a man who is prepared to come to Jesus in utter humility.
The Lord Jesus went on to say, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Whether the flesh, which simply means the nature within us, whether it be religious and respectable, good and decent, like in the case of Nicodemus, or whether it be like the man at the Pool of Bethesda or the woman of Samaria, is immaterial. Whatever quality or kind of nature it may be, Jesus faces humanity and says if you would enter into the kingdom you must be born again and that means you must repent. It is the costliest business in all human experience to face the reality of genuine repentance. It simply does not mean saying that you are sorry for something. It simply does not mean saying that I’m awfully sorry about it and I’ll try to do better in the future. Repentance means an absolute revolution in the man’s thoughts; it means a complete turning round in his outlook; it means an admission that he has been wrong; it means a confession that he has built up a philosophy that just won’t hold water; he has been going up the wrong street, barking up the wrong tree, that he is seeking to get to heaven completely on the wrong line, and that he has to come right back again and start again as a little child, and give his life in utter surrender to the claims of Jesus Christ. That’s repentance.
Have you ever faced it, my dear friend? Why is it that so many professions of conversion don’t stand? Why is it that in so many instances that years after professed conversion, if you look for people within the churches you can’t find them? Why is it that people go on for awhile with God and even go into training for the ministry and then lose out? Why is that time and time again professing Christians will backslide and slip away and somehow seem to be off the stream of spiritual life altogether? I’ll tell you why. It’s because they have never repented and they have never really truly been born of the Spirit of God. Behind every real experience of saving faith there is a demand from heaven of genuine, thorough, out-and-out repentance, and the place where that has to begin most of all is right inside our churches today—not outside but inside.
We people who profess to believe so much have got to understand all over again what real out-and-out repentance means. For the Lord Jesus said, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” And there are many people, I have no doubt, who sincerely recognize their need of power, and who urgently need spiritual power in their lives—power over sin, power over temptation, power for service, power to do the will of God—and they are constantly saying, “Lord, I want power,” and the answer of God is constantly, “There is no power apart from repentance. There is no Holy Spirit except there be a turning from sin.” Wasn’t that exactly what happened in His statement with the woman of Samaria, who out of the depths of her heart cried to Him, “Lord Jesus, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw. Give me this water of life of which you speak that can be in my heart and flow out from me in everlasting life.” And what did He say to her? “Go, call thy husband.” You think that God is going to give the Holy Spirit for your ministry, my friend, so that you might become great? Do you think that He is going to give you power on a cheap basis like that? I’m telling you that no man will ever know the anointing of the authority of the Spirit of God in his ministry, in his message, in his work for the kingdom, unless he has first of all met God on a deep level of repentance.
From the moment he repents, how eagerly God imparts the Third Person of the Trinity. The moment he turns to Christ, the moment he gets on his feet and says, “I’ve sinned,” the moment he acknowledges it, the moment he changes his mind about his position, the moment he recognizes his wrong and confesses it, and the moment he seeks for the cleansing of the blood, at that moment the Spirit of God is there and the man is born again. That’s the amazing mystery of the new birth. It happens so simply that somehow when it happens, it just feels as if your whole life is being torn in fifty bits—“Lord, I see I’m wrong. Lord, I acknowledge my sin. Lord, I’ve been building my life on the wrong philosophy and wrong outlook. Lord, I’ve sinned. Lord, I repent. Lord, I come to you. Lord, I give myself to you utterly and completely. Lord, here I am.” And at that moment the Holy Spirit is there in your life.
“Oh, Master, how can these things be?” says Nicodemus. Not argumentative now, but wistful, almost with a touch of sarcasm, Jesus says, “Are you the teach of Israel and you don’t know? Fancy you standing up and teaching the crowd, and you don’t know yourself. Fancy you, the recognized authority of your day, and you don’t know. You want to know? Well, I’ll tell you,—‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,’ (the parable) ‘even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.’” And Nicodemus remembered, for he knew it only too well, a day when the people, stricken with illness because of rebellion against God, looked at a serpent that was erected on a pole in the wilderness, and as they looked they were healed—“Even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
What was the reaction of Nicodemus to that interview? Well, he went back to the Sanhedrin. I don’t find that the Lord Jesus ever asked him to do anything else. But a little time later, I listened to Nicodemus when they were discussing Jesus of Nazareth, when they were seeking to put Him to death, saying, “Does our Law judge any man except it heareth him?” and I hear Nicodemus boldly standing in defense of the Master, and a year or two later I find Nicodemus going to a place called Calvary, and finding there a body—the body of the Lord he had met at midnight, the body of the Lord who had told him that he must be born again—and as he watched that body hanging on the tree he remembered the word, “Even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” And I find Nicodemus coming with costly ointment, taking the body of the Lord to a tomb, and laying it there. I am absolutely sure that on that first Easter morning, when the tomb was empty and Jesus was risen, Nicodemus knew what it meant for the Saviour to be lifted up from the earth, lifted up on a Cross, lifted up into heaven on to a throne, and he knew that this great teacher was none other than the Son of God. Nicodemus made no immediate response. He was not aroused by any great emotion, but he showed through the future conduct of his life that he had accepted his Lord, that he would stand true to Him, that he loved Him, that he was devoted to Him, and that he would live for Him.
My friend, Jesus says that you must be born again, for unless you repent and receive the Holy Spirit you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven. Do you understand what He means? Do you understand that in order to make that possible that He was lifted up to die, that He arose from a tomb, that He has ascended into heaven, that He is Lord and Sovereign and that before Him every knee shall bow? Do you understand that Jesus Christ is going to have the last word with your life and He demands fro you repentance? If you are willing to come to the Cross, willing to repent, His answer is life, forgiveness, cleansing, deliverance, victory, the Holy Spirit. Your answer will then be, by His grace, a life which is true to Him in every issue.