The Search for Grace

John 3:1-18

October 3, 1999 | Brian Bill

This past week I had the opportunity to lead chapel services at a retirement center.  Since I was scheduled for every day this week, I decided to speak on the theme of grace.  On Monday, when I was meeting with the piano player before the service to pick out some hymns, I told her that I’d like us to sing, “Amazing Grace.”  She said, “No, I don’t think so.  We’ve sung that one so much that we’ve worn it out.”

I think I understand what she was saying, but it struck me that there is no way anyone can wear out God’s Grace.  None of us should become so familiar with God’s grace that we stop searching for it or appreciating it – so I’m glad we sang it this morning.  I don’t think I could ever wear that song out…

Being a father in the 90’s is not easy.  There’s a lot of pressure on us dads to be in the Delivery Room when our babies are born.  I think my dad had it easier in the 60s when he just paced the floor in the Waiting Room.

When Emily was born, I was totally into the Lamaze stuff.  My wife and I took classes together, and I had my role down cold.  I did pretty well in the delivery room but got a bit dizzy by the end and had to be helped to a chair.  I don’t understand why women say that they have the hard job in giving birth – it’s pretty tough on us dads, too.

When Beth was expecting Lydia, I took a much more laid-back approach.  No birthing classes for me.  I knew what to do.  It was no big deal.  When Beth went into labor I just called her a cab so I could go back to sleep…just kidding.  When we got to the hospital, Beth settled into her comfortable bed while I sat next to her in a hard, uncomfortable chair.  See, it’s tough on us fathers, isn’t it?  I looked around for the remote control and started channel surfing.  I finally settled on a good show but had to keep turning the volume up every couple minutes when Beth would get a contraction.  Finally, Beth grabbed the remote and said, “Hello, I’m in labor here!  Could you give me a hand?”

You know, there’s nothing like the birth of a baby.  I will forever remember the births of each of our girls – though I hope Beth forgets how I acted in the delivery room.

Are You a Real Christian?

This morning we’re going to take a look at what Jesus said about another kind of birth – if you have your Bibles, please turn to John 3, where we will learn what it means to be born spiritually.  I want to begin with a very personal question: Are you a real Christian or are you just a religious person?   It’s one thing to be religious, it’s another thing to be a real Christian.  I’d like to draw your attention to the story of a man who came to Jesus one night.  Take a look at John 3:1:  Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 

In order to understand this birthing class, we need to know two things about Nicodemus.  First, he was a Pharisee.  If you’re a student of the Bible, you probably have a negative view of the Pharisees.  You may think that they were legalistic hypocrites who hated Jesus.  But that’s not entirely true.  

In the first century the Pharisees were widely respected for their intense piety and deep scholarship.  They were men who devoted their lives to the study of the Torah and its application to daily life.  They truly wanted to obey God’s law.  That meant studying the Bible diligently, praying two hours a day, giving a tithe of all they possessed, and in general, being scrupulously concerned about morality.  There were only a few thousand Pharisees because not many men would make that kind of personal sacrifice.  Those who did were held in high esteem and honored for their commitment.

Having said that, the Pharisees made a couple basic and very tragic errors – they externalized their religion and they believed that if they just worked hard enough they could make their way to heaven.  Some of you may be on that same path this morning.

Second, Nicodemus was a member of the 70-member Jewish ruling council.  They adjudicated various disputes and settled legal matters so that the Romans wouldn’t have to get involved.  As you might expect, only the leading men were elected to such a prestigious position.   In 20th century terms, he would be like a college professor, a judge on the Supreme Court, a United States Senator, and a bishop in the church – all rolled into one.

Nic at Night

John 3:2 reads, He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God.  For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.’   Since he came to Jesus after dark, I was tempted to title this sermon, “Nic at Nite” but thought better of it.  Why did Nick come at night?  Perhaps because he knew that Jesus was controversial and he couldn’t risk being seen publicly.  Or maybe he wished to have time for a lengthy personal interview.  I’m sure there were elements of curiosity mixed with a sense of duty.  After all, this upstart rabbi had been gaining followers by the day.  As a leader, he had an obligation to find out more about this man. 

There’s probably more to the story than that.  The fact that he risked his own position to come to Jesus speaks of his own personal need.  Notice what he said, “we know you are a teacher who has come from God.”  Nicodemus here admits that Jesus has been sent from God.  He is no mere man; He’s more than just a teacher from Galilee.  

Being religious is never enough

This leads me to an important conclusion: Being religious is never enough.   If it were, Nicodemus wouldn’t have had the time or the interest to meet Jesus.  But he comes because, despite all his religious activity, there is still an aching void in his heart.  

That brings us to the answer Jesus gives to this cultured, educated, well-respected religious leader: In reply Jesus declared in verse 3, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” 

Let’s focus on the key phrase “born again.”  In the original language it has a double meaning.  The word can mean “again” or “above.”  In this case, both meanings apply.  Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the only way to find what he is looking for is to be born again from above.  Despite all his learning, Nicodemus is utterly baffled by this thought. 

Notice verse 4 we see that Nic is ready to head back to the Delivery Room.  “How can a man be born when he is old?  Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”   Nicodemus misses the point – Jesus is not talking about a second physical birth, but about a completely different kind of birth – a spiritual birth.  You are born once physically.  That physical birth introduces you to the physical world.  But if you want to enter the kingdom of God (the world of spiritual reality), you need a spiritual birth.  Nicodemus is expecting a negative answer to his question but he gets far more than he bargained for.

Jesus replies in verses 5-6 that unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

Let me clarify that “born of water” does not mean baptism.  Although Jesus commands His followers to be baptized, and we’re going to have a baptism service on November 14, baptism has nothing to do with salvation.  The water Jesus speaks of here symbolizes purification.  This is how Nicodemus would have understood it from the Old Testament – he would have been familiar with Ezekiel 36:25-26: “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean…I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.”

You Must Be Born Again

To make sure that Nic does not misunderstand this truth, Jesus adds an important fact in verse 7: “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’” Notice the tense of that statement.  You must be born again.  The new birth is not optional for any of us.  Jesus didn’t say, “I recommend that you be born again” or “You should be born again if after investigation it seems to meet your personal need” or “I think it would be a good idea to be born again.”   No!  Jesus used the urgent language of forceful command: You must be born again. 

Before we go on, let me remind you that Jesus spoke these words not to some immoral outcast, but to one of the most religious men of his day.  By any human standard Nicodemus was a very good person and certainly a man we would admire for his intense devotion to God.  Yet Jesus told him, “You must be born again.”

If he needed to be born again, what about you and me?  Do any of you have the religious pedigree that Nicodemus had?  I doubt it.  The truth of the matter is that we are much less religious than Nicodemus was.  If he needed to be born again, we surely do as well.  Question: Have you ever been Born Again?

Just in case I haven’t made myself clear, I’m not asking about your church membership, your baptism, your giving record, your Sunday School attendance, or your personal morality.  Nicodemus had all those things down cold, but Jesus said to him, “You must be born again.” 

One day this week, when I was at the retirement center, I decided to bring our 5-year-old Becky with me.  I’ll never forget the image of watching these sweet seniors shaking Becky’s hand.  The old giving grace to the young.  A child teaching older adults about grace.  Her young hand, with no wrinkles or blemishes, shaken by hands that have been weathered by both labor and time.  This past Friday, I used this same passage of Scripture.  As I looked at these sweet people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, I said to them, “It doesn’t matter how old you are, if you are not born again, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  You need to be born again, just like me and my daughter.”

If we want to go to heaven, we must be born again. If we’re not, we won’t see the kingdom of God. 

Before I say this next sentence, I want to make sure I have your attention: Nicodemus represents each one of us.  He stands in the place of every good, decent, law-abiding, upstanding citizen who ever lived.  He was a good man who knew about God but he didn’t know God personally.  That’s the enigma of his personality.  His story reminds us that religion is good, but it’s not good enough.

You see, if our relationship with God depended upon being righteous and good, we would never make it.  Our best efforts simply aren’t enough.  We can’t work our way to heaven.  Here’s what the new birth teaches me.  I cannot get to heaven on my strength.  I can’t just make some incremental changes and hope that it will be enough.  

I need a brand-new start, a fresh beginning.  In short, I need God’s grace.  Grace is God giving to me something that I cannot obtain on my own.  Grace is being accepted by God even though I do not deserve it, even though I am not worthy of it.  The Bible teaches that I receive grace on the basis of my belief and trust in Jesus as my sin payment.  I’m granted grace when I’m given new life through the new birth. 

Be Like Nic

We need what Nicodemus needed because we stand in exactly the same place.  That brings me to the central issue of this sermon.  If you want what Nicodemus found, you must do what Nicodemus did. 

1. He admitted his need.  

He did that by taking a personal inventory of his life and realizing that despite all his best efforts, something vital was missing on the inside.  In summing up his virtues — which were many and genuine — this good man came to the conclusion that he needed “something else” in his life.  He didn’t know what it was, he couldn’t put his finger on it, but deep within he sensed that his religion — sincere though it was — could not fill the gaping hole in his heart. 

As long as you go blithely on your merry way thinking that everything is OK with your life, you can never be born again

I pause to say that nothing else matters until you come to the same conclusion about your life.  As long as you go blithely on your merry way thinking that everything is OK with your life, you can never be born again.  It simply cannot happen to you because you do not feel your need for God’s intervention in your life.  You must start in the same place that Nicodemus started — with a sense of your own desperate need of God.

2. He came to Jesus personally.

Nicodemus came on his own, by himself, individually, man to man.  He sought and found the Son of God.  He could not have sent someone in his place.  Nor could a committee have met his need.  Salvation involves a personal, individual commitment of your heart to Jesus Christ.  No one can do it for you and you can’t make that commitment for anyone else.

3. He trusted Christ completely.  

I realize the text doesn’t reveal to us the fact of his conversion but I think it may be implied from the fact that Nicodemus helped Joseph of Aramithea take the dead body of our Lord down from the cross in John 19:39.  This means he had “crossed the line” and was now willing to identify with Jesus publicly.  

The most famous verse in the Bible — John 3:16 — occurs in this passage and promises eternal life to those who “believe” in Jesus Christ.  To believe means to rely on Christ so completely — to trust Him so totally — that you are casting all that you are, and all that you have, and all that you hope to become, on Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord.   Nicodemus did this.  So must you if you want to be born again.

Let me come back to the question I asked at the beginning: Are you a real Christian or just a religious person?

  • A religious person goes through the routine but doesn’t have the reality inside.
  • A real Christian knows Jesus Christ because he or she has been born again.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?