Ruin, Regeneration and Redemption

Heavenly Father, we pray that by your Holy Spirit you will open your Word to our hearts and our minds, and our hear minds to your Word, for Jesus’ sake. Amen

We’ve come this morning in our series in John’s Gospel to John chapter 2.1-15. As we study these verses I have three headings, which come from three words that Bishop J. C. Ryle, the first, and great, bishop of Liverpool believed summarize the Gospel. And they fit our passage this morning. They are, first, Ruin; secondly, Regeneration; and, thirdly, Redemption.

1. RUIN (John 3.1-3) and Nicodemus.

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 that you do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’

Nicodemus was a leading Pharisee and pahrisees formed a minority group in the Sanhedrin (the Jewish governing council) but with great influence. Well, Nicodemus had been impressed by Jesus ministry and the signs (or miracles) Jesus performed but he wanted to know more. So he came to Jesus by night. Whether he went after dark because he wanted his contemporaries not to know about his visit; or whether he judged Jesus freer in the evening for a decent time for discussion, we don’t know. But whatever his motive, he ‘opened’with polite pleasantries. Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him. But Jesus got down to basics for he knew Nicodemus had a real problem he (Nicodemus) hadn’t dreamt of.

Now it maybe that Jesus had some disciples with him and John witnessed all this conversation. More probably Jesus was alone (as is in the next chapter about Jesus and the woman at the well) and so Jesus reported this conversation privately to all the disciples, or to John personally, after the event. And John is picking out faithfully, as a good journalist, key points or phrases which take only a few minutes to rehearse, but from a meeting that lasted much longer.

So Jesus isn’t being rude by not letting Nicodemus have his say, in asking questions. For John is wanting to cut to the chase and tell us what we need to know about Nicodemus and for ourselves, to achieve his objective, as he tells us in John 20.31, that:

…you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you have life in his name.

And we heard last Sunday morning that Jesus knew every one, inside out. For he, Jesus, (John 2.25):

…needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.

So he knew Nicodemus through and through. And he knew that Nicodemus would think he, Nicodomus was OK with God, now and ultimately at the last day, so long as he tried to keep the Jewish law and the Jewish sacrificial system. But Nicodemus probably had no idea of the seriousness of sin, and that since the original Fall of man, as 1 John 5.19 tells us:

the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.

This, of course, is so different to the the view of the French Philosopher Rousseau. For Rousseau successfully persuaded too many in the modern world that children are born perfect. It’s their parents and their environment that then ‘ruin’ them (to use Ryle’s word). So salvation, it is alledged lies in evolutionary progress and education. But Jesus and the Bible teach the very opposite. They teach that all of us are born morally and spiritually ‘ruined’ and the only hope is to listen to Jesus and what he said to Nicodemus (John 3.3):

Truly, truly, [that is to say, the following is doubly or trebly underlined… ‘truly, truly’] I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

And that, therefore, brings us to our second heading:

2. Regeneration (the long word for “being born again) and John 3.4–8:

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?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, 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.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

Well, what do we need know about regeneration? Six things at least.

i. It is absolutely necessary. John 3.7, Jesus said:

Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’

And in John 3.5 he had said:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

So new birth is not something marginal or optional in the Christian life. It’s a “must”. And Jesus implies that unless you are born again you are positively ‘shut out’ from the kingdom of God.

ii. New birth was predicted in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 36.24-27):

I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

And Nicodemous should have known that passage. And that explains Jesus’ mild rebuke in John 3.9-10, where we read:

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?

He should have known that passage from Ezekial. So:

iii. Regeneration is all about the heart and having a new heart - the heart being the word that expresses the centre of our desires. And what the heart desires, the will chooses and the mind justifies (as Archbishop Cranmer taught in the 16th century). But by nature we all have hearts that are turned in on ourselves, and so we desire and will and justify what we want, rather than what God wants. And no amount of trying will give you a God-directed heart and Godly desires for we have to be born again with a new heart. So:

iv. The metaphor of “birth”, which Nicodemus found difficult to understand, indicates that we can’t initiate our own new birth. We didn’t cause are own natural birth, it needed our parents to do their pleasurable duty, so spiritual birth needs God the Holy Spirit to take the initiative. Look at John 3.8:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit

By the grace of God, the Holy Spirit takes the initiative. And that John 3.8:

v. Teaches how the process of new birth differs from person to person. For the Spirit’s work, as we heard is like the wind:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.

The Apostle Paul had a new birth or conversion suddenly on the Damascus Road. However, the Spirit’s work with Nicodemus seemed longer. John 7.50 shows him half-way there when he argued for Jesus in the Sanhedrin. And John 19.39 shows he’s truly there; when Jesus’ Apostles forsook him and fled at his crucifixion, Nicodemus showed his love for him by helping with his burial. And finally:

vi. The wind and Paul and Nicodemus shows that being born has evidence and new birth that’s genuine needs to have evidence, however small. For the Holy Spirit is at work bringing actual change. You hear the wind and see it moving trees. Similarly the new heart means new desires and new spiritual life that wasn’t there before. True, you don’t change your personality. You’re still the old you, but with new desires to do good and to hate evil. Oh you’re not perfect, but you’re more likely to want to seek forgiveness when you do wrong. And you can now not only see the kingdom of God you can enter it. Well, so much for Ruin and Regeneration. We must press on to look at John 3.11–15 of and the subject of:

3. Redemption (John 3.11–15)

Jesus still speaking says:

Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

This tells Nicodemus and us how we receive New Birth. But, first, what does some of the passage mean? Well, it seems that the earthly things Nicodemus didn’t yet believe would have included the need (John 3.5) for being born of water and the spirit as the way to enter the kingdom of God. But water, as the Pharisees would have known from John the Baptist and Ezekiel, symbolized cleansing from sin. And the Spirit, was the Spirit with which Jesus was (John 1.33) to baptize, not symbolicly but actually and gives you a new heart. So in simple terms Jesus is saying to Nicodemus and to us, in spite of all your ritualism and religious practices, you need a new heart. Also you need to admit that you are spiritually ‘ruined’ and a sinner in God’s eyes, and ask for forgiveness and for the Holy Spirit to make Jesus real in your life.

But what are the heavenly things Nicodemus didn’t yet believe? Well, probably the fact of the end of the sacrificial system as Nicodemus had known it and the fact that Christ’s death in our place on the Cross would become the perfect sacrifice for our and the world’s sins making all other ritual sacrifices obsolete. So with that explanation, what we do to be born again for new life? Answer: simply to believe in Jesus Christ – that word in means trusting yourself wholly to him as you turn your eyes on him for John 3.14-15 says, it is:

as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up [on the Cross and then rise and ascend to Glory],that whoever believes in him may have eternal life [starting and lasting for ever].

This refers to an incident recorded in Numbers 21.4-9 when the Israelites in the desert having grumbled against God, escaped physical death from poisonous snakes sent by God as judgment. When they repented, God told Moses to erect a large bronze serpent on a pole in their encampment and by looking at it they were cured and lived. I was reading recently of a mediaeval illustration (which is at the Bodleian Library in Oxford), of that incident of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. The 19th century evangelist, William Haslam, a Cornish Anglican clergyman used it. He was famously born again preaching his own sermon! And he describes the picture like this:

The cross (or pole) on which the serpent was elevated stood in the centre…Behind the figure of Moses, is a man standing with his arms crossed on his breast, looking at the brazen serpent. He has evidently obtained life and healing by a look. On the other side, I observed that there were four kinds of persons represented, who were not doing as this healed one did, [ie looking] to obtain deliverance. First, there is one who is kneeling in front of the cross but he is looking towards Moses, and not at the serpent, and apparently confessing to him, as if he were a priest. Secondly, next behind him is one lying on his back, as if he was perfectly safe, though he is evidently in the midst of danger. Thirdly, still further back from the cross, there is a man with a sad face doing a work of mercy, binding up the wounds of a fellow-sufferer, and little suspecting that he himself is involved in the same danger. Fourthly, behind them all, in the background, is a valiant man who is doing battle with the serpents, which may be seen rising against him, in unabating persistency.

And Haslam goes on:

I observed that none of these men were looking at the brazen serpent as they were commanded to do. I cannot describe how excited and interested I became; for I saw in this illustration a picture of my life. Here was the way of salvation clearly set forth, and four ways which are not the way of salvation, all of which I had tried and found unavailing.

So writes Haslam. I must finish. I do so with a question? Who here (or watching on line) this morning has never yet trusted Jesus Christ for forgiveness and newness of spiritual life (that is for redemption and regeneration) and you know you are in a state of what can be called ‘spiritual ruin’? But you have been encouraged to respond to that wonderful promise in John 3.15 whoever believes in him may have eternal life? If so, may I invite you to turn your eyes to Jesus and pray appropriately, silently, in response our our passage as we close.

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