Well, let me start with an apology, which is: that I'm not Graham Daniels – who, if you weren't here, is the passionate Welshman we had speaking last week, whom I personally could listen to all night. And he spoke on that bit from the Gospels where Jesus says,
"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself…" (Mark 8.34)
And, as Graham said, that means: my 'self' has to go out – and stop calling the shots, and Jesus has to come in. And in the process, I need to trust him to forgive me everything he should hold against me.
And my job is to pick up the baton from there, and talk about what it means to trust in Jesus, to have faith in Jesus.
Some of you know that my Mum came to faith in Jesus two years back, in the last year of her life. But before that she had lots of misunderstandings about faith.
So for example, one time she said to me, 'Ian, you don't go around telling Muslims about Jesus, do you?' (And I could tell how much she wanted me to say, 'No, of course not.') And I said, 'Well, yes I do – why wouldn't I?' And she said, 'But they already have a faith. Shouldn't you stick to people who have none?'
And there are two common misunderstandings there.
One is the idea that some people have no faith. But that's not true. After all, atheists may say, 'I have no faith because there is no God to have faith in.' But that's not a fact they can prove – they haven't searched all of reality and shown us there's no God. It's something they choose to believe, it's a faith.
And the other misunderstanding is that any faith will do – that the important thing is to have faith, but that it doesn't really matter what your faith is in. So Muslims have faith in Allah. Hindus have faith in Krishna. Christians have faith in Jesus. And it's a bit like that number in the musical Joseph – 'Any dream will do'. Many people think 'Any faith will do', too.
But that isn't true, either. Because the question is: which faith (if any) can actually bring us into relationship with God?
And the Bible says: only faith in Jesus can – because he's done something to put us right with God that no other religion offers. So other religions offer you trying to be good, so that God will accept you. And they offer you rituals and religious stuff to do, so that God will accept you. Whereas Jesus offers you forgiveness for how you're unacceptable, so that God will accept you.
So we're going to look in the Bible where Jesus himself tackles misunderstandings about faith, and tells us what kind of faith he wants us to have. So would you turn in the Bible to John chapter 3, and look down to verse 1:
"Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, 'Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs [in other words, miracles] that you do unless God is with him.'"
So what do we know from that about Nicodemus? We know he had faith in God. And that he had some kind of faith in Jesus – he thought he was "a teacher come from God". And the Pharisees believed the Bible – at least, the Old Testament (the New Testament wasn't written yet) – so we know Nicodemus had faith in the Bible, too. And from the few mentions of him in John's Gospel, he was trying to live up to its standards, he seemed sincere. So it looks like if anyone has faith that makes him OK with God, it's Nicodemus. But the very first thing Jesus says is that he's not OK. And the first thing we need to learn is:
1. What Faith Has to Admit (verses 1-8)
Look on to verse 3:
"Jesus answered him, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.'"
So, being in "the kingdom of God" simply means having Jesus as your King – remember last week? Self out, Jesus in – that's what it means to be in the kingdom of God. And Jesus says to Nicodemus, 'That'll never happen unless you're born again.' Verse 4:
"Nicodemus said to him, 'How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?'"
So I think that's incredulity. He's saying, 'Come off it! Are you serious?' But Jesus plays an absolutely straight bat:
"Jesus answered, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit [in other words, cleaned up and sorted out by God] he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, "You must be born again".'"
If you're ever here in the morning you'll know that babies are arriving in our church family all the time. So I'm often having the conversation that goes something like this:
'Congratulations. Isn't she a sweetie? What's her name?'
And the rather pointed answer is, 'Thomas is his name.'
So there's a slight cooling of relations and you try to recover by saying who he looks like (Mum's hair, Dad's nose, etc).
But imagine you said, 'Gosh! He's got really oversize ears. And his eyes are too close together. And his head's a bit asymmetrical. He could really do with being born again.' How offensive would that be?
And when Jesus says to us, 'You must be born again', it's equally offensive. Because he's saying there's something so wrong with us from the first time we were born, it needs a work of God to put us right.
And what's sobering is that he even said that to Nicodemus – who was about as good as humanity gets. Because he had faith in God, and some kind of faith in Jesus, and faith in the Bible – which he seemingly, sincerely tried to live it out.
And Jesus basically says to him, 'But you haven't. Because you're not in the kingdom of God, yet. And under the surface you're still saying to God,'I don't want you to be God in my life.''And that's the attitude the Bible calls sin.
Now that's obviously the problem under the surface of the atheist – who's saying, 'I don't want to live God's way, so I'll say he's not even there.' But it's also the problem under the surface of the sincere Muslim, or the sincere Hindu, or the sincere church-goer, or your sincere non-Christian family member or friend or neighbour who is such a lovely person. Because under the surface, consciously or subconsciously they're still actually saying to God, 'I don't want you to be God in my life or to live your way.'
I said that in a talk a while back. And someone said to me afterwards, 'That just isn't true. I'm a good person and can't see how God wouldn't accept that.' And so we talked about God's standards from the ten commandments and what Jesus taught. And then I wrote three things on the back of a service sheet:
I have not kept God's standards.
I cannot keep God's standards.
I don't even want to keep God's standards.
And I said, 'How about the first one – I have not kept God's standards? Would you tick that?' And he said, 'Yes.' So I said, 'What about the second? – I cannot keep God's standards? Have you ever consciously tried to change in the areas where you fail the standard, but found you couldn't?' And after more talking he said, 'Yes, I'd have to tick that one, too.' And so I said, 'What about the last one – I don't even want to keep God's standards. If you agree with his standards but can't keep them, isn't the best explanation that, deep down, you don't even really want to?' And after more talking he said, 'Yes, I guess I'd have to tick that one, as well.'
And that's what faith has to admit. It has to admit that you've been saying to God, 'I don't want you in my life.' And that that leaves you outside his kingdom and under his judgement.
And you also have to admit: there's nothing you can do to put that right. Which is why Jesus talked about being born again – because none of us gave birth to ourselves, did we? Our mothers, heroic women that they are, had to do that for us. And, likewise, we can't come back into relationship with God by ourselves. God has to do something for us. Which is what Nicodemus asks about next. So look on to verse 9:
"Nicodemus said to [Jesus], 'How can these things be?'"
In other words, 'How can this new birth possibly happen?' So Jesus tells him where faith has to look for it to happen. And that's the second thing here:
2. Where Faith Has to Look (verses 9-17)
And what Jesus did first was to answer Nicodemus' attitude – because he needed humbling before he could hear the answer. So verse 10:
"Jesus answered him, 'Are you the teacher of Israel [one of the bishops of his day] and yet you do not understand these things?'"
In other words, 'You of all people should know from the Old Testament how sinful you are; and how you need a work of God to put you right; and how he promised you a Saviour one day to do that. But you don't seem to see that or feel any need of that.'
A friend of mine called Mark came to faith in Jesus at uni. And humanly speaking, it was because one Christian who'd talked to him a lot finally said, 'Mark, what do you think's holding you back from becoming a Christian?' And Mark said something or other. To which this Christian friend said, 'I think what's holding you back is that you're too proud to become a Christian.' Now you have to know someone well to be that bold, and I don't suggest that as a regular line to try when sharing the gospel. But Mark said it was just what he needed to hear – because it really offended him. And he realised that was because it was true. And it sent him to the Bible to find out about God's standards and what God really wants from us. And the more he did that, the more humbled he was.
And once we're humbled – if we're humbled – then we can hear the rest of Jesus' answer about how the new birth happens. Look on to verse 13. Jesus said:
"No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man."
So that's Jesus talking about himself – God in heaven become human on earth 2,000 years ago. If you'd been there you could have seen him. Verse 14:
"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man [that's Jesus] be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."
So, what has to take place for this new birth to happen? Well, Jesus said he must be "lifted up" – by which he meant lifted up to die on the cross, and from there to rise from the dead and return to his Father in heaven. And in verse 14 he gave us a picture of what his death on the cross would do for us. He says:
" … as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up"
That may not be immediately obvious to you, but Jesus was referring back to an Old Testament incident – Numbers 21.4-9 – where God was leading his people through tough territory, and they were speaking against God and saying he didn't care about them and wasn't worth trusting. And as a judgment on their attitude, God allowed an outbreak of snakes which left numbers of Israelites bitten and dying. And Numbers 21 says:
"And the people came to Moses and said, 'We have sinned… Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.' So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, 'Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.' So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live."
So Jesus was saying, 'Imagine yourself as one of those bitten, dying, helpless people. You were experiencing the judgment on your attitude to God. And yet in his love, God promised to save you from that judgment – if you would simply look to that bronze snake and trust him.'
And Jesus was saying, 'It's going to be like that with my death on the cross – because as I am lifted up there, I'm going to save you from the judgement you deserve by taking it on myself instead. And to benefit from that and be saved, all you'll need to do is: look to what I've done and trust in it.'
So what's the picture of faith there? The picture is that faith is looking away from myself. So, away from thinking that any good I do can 'make up for' the bad I've done. Faith is looking away from thinking I can bring something to make myself acceptable to God – like being really sorry for what I've done wrong, or really determined to do better in future. No, it's looking away from myself, and looking solely to what Jesus did for me on the cross – and trusting that that was enough to pay for the forgiveness of every sin I have ever committed or will ever commit.
Here's how the hymn Rock of Ages puts that kind of faith into words:
Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfill your law's demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
You must save, and You alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to You for dress;
Helpless look to You for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
And if that's what we're saying in our hearts to the Risen Lord Jesus, then we have the kind of faith he wants us to have – which looks solely to what he did for us on the cross.
And if that isn't you, yet – but you're asking, 'Could God love me?', then the cross is where to look for your answer. And it says, 'Yes he could. Yes, he does. Whoever you are, whatever you've done.'
But even if you have come to faith in Jesus, you'll find yourself at least sometimes asking, 'Does he still love me?' Does he still love me despite the fact that I've done what feels like this enormously sinful, unforgivable thing? Or, does he still love me despite the fact that I keep doing the same sinful things even as I'm trying to change with his help?' And the answer is: yes he does. Because, verse 16:
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
So what we see as we look to the cross is God's love for us at our very worst – before we'd made any kind of response to him, before we were even around to. And yet we were in his mind and he was loving us – you, me – as he gave his Son to die for us.
So if he loved us at our very worst, how could he possibly stop loving us, given that we can't get worse than our worst – even though your sensitive conscience might think you have?
So if you're asking, 'Could he love me?' or 'Does he still love me?', the cross says loud and clear, 'Yes, yes, yes.' Will you believe that tonight? Or start believing it again?
That's where faith has to look. The last thing is:
3. What Faith Has to Believe (verse 18)
And it's the first half of verse 18:
"Whoever believes in him is not condemned"
In other words, has no judgement from God hanging over him or her. And verse 18 is saying: if you're trusting in Jesus and his death, that's true of you always. Right now. And tomorrow. And next week, and next month, and next year, and in ten, twenty, fifty – how long have you got? – years. It's saying: our standing with God never changes, whatever the ups and downs of our obedience.
And that's because when Jesus died on the cross, he and his Father foresaw our whole lifetime's sin – past sin and future sin – and paid for the forgiveness of it all. So there are future sins of yours and mine that will take us by surprise, and even shock us. ('How could I have been a Christian for this long and still do that?') But there's nothing that'll take him by surprise, or leave him thinking, 'Oh, I didn't see that one coming – how am I going forgive that?' No, he foresaw it all, and paid for the forgiveness of it all.
And it's so important to get this – and yet I find a lot of Christians haven't. So for example, a group I lead was doing John's Gospel. And we came to Jesus' final cry from the cross – "It is finished", literally, 'Paid', like a mortgage finally paid off and never hanging over you again. And I said to the group, 'Isn't it amazing that Jesus paid for our whole lifetime's sin – past and future – so that we can be sure God'll always accept us and never change his mind?' And that was a total revelation to one person in the group – even though she'd been a believer for years. Because she said, 'I suppose I was sure when I became a Christian that my past sins were all forgiven. But to be honest I've always been unsure about how God would treat my sins since then.' And she said, 'But it seems so obvious, now, that he saw my whole lifetime's sin coming, and did everything it took to deal with it.' And it was a game-changer for her when she really began to believe that. And I wonder if you need to, as well.
"Whoever believes in him is not condemned"
That's what faith has to believe every moment of every day – in our best moments and worst moments. Which isn't easy. Because Satan is busy condemning us for our failures. And most of us are good at condemning ourselves for our failures. And we often project all that onto the Lord and think that he's condemning us too. But if we're trusting in Jesus he's the one person who isn't, ever. Because the last and final time he expressed his condemnation of our sin was at the cross. And he's saying, 'If only you'll keep looking there, you won't find my condemnation, you'll find my unchanging love and forgiveness and acceptance.'
But we can't finish without the second half of verse 18:
"but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God."
And that's the sobering, dark other side of this coin. The top side is that God in his love has provided this extraordinary way for us to be put right and kept right with him. But the flipside is: it's the only way. Which means that if someone doesn't put their faith in it, whatever their relative goodness, whatever religion they'd tick on a census form, they stand condemned already. Obviously that can change if they do come to faith in Jesus – but unless and until they do, this is saying: they stand condemned already.
And I know that sounds a hard thing to think of, let alone say to, a Muslim or Hindu you know; or a lovely non-Christian family member or friend or neighbour. But if God has brought us to see our sin and need of Jesus, we need to remember that under the surface, they really are no different from us in their sin and need. And we need to remember that God would never, never have given his own Son for them and for us if any other way of putting us right with himself would have done.