“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:18)
Last week, we looked together at what must surely be the best known, best loved verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Three Observations from John 3:16
1. God loves you.
You can say this to every person—without qualification and without exception. And here’s how you know that God loves you…
2. God gave his Son for you.
You will not come to know the love of God by looking at the world, or by looking at your own experience in this world. Your experience of life in this fallen world will always be confusing.
We walk by faith not by sight. So you can never come to a settled assurance of the love of God by looking at the world or by looking at yourself. Here’s how you know that God loves you—by looking at his Son—“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
3. God calls you to believe in his Son.
We saw that believing in Jesus means not trusting in yourself or in your own attempts at pleasing God. It means looking to Jesus to do for you what you cannot do for yourself.
With news this good, why does everybody not believe?
Some do not believe because they have not heard. “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard” (Rom. 10:14). For this reason, we are to go and tell the good news of Jesus to every person on the face of the planet.
This is the Great Commission that is given to the church. Go tell every person there is good news for you! God sent his Son into the world that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
But many who have heard do not believe. Christ “came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11). The Gospels make it clear that many of the people among whom Jesus ministered did not believe in him. Some did and some did not. He was rejected by the Scribes and Pharisees, and after he performed a miracle in their town, the people of Decapolis asked him to leave their area.
Then there were people who professed to believe in him for a time, but then turned back. They were part of the group that said, “Yes, yes, we believe in Jesus,” but it did not last. You have this at the end of John 2, where we read that, “Many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people… he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:23-25).
You see it again in John 6:66. The people hear teaching from Jesus that they find hard to take: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). Why do some people not believe? Why do some turn back from believing?
I decided to stay with these verses for today because it seems to me that Palm Sunday confronts us with this question: Why would the crowds in Jerusalem that cheered for Jesus on Sunday call for him to be crucified by Friday?
If your boss praised you on Monday and fired you on Friday, you would not say that he or she believed in you! You would say, “Whatever good was said about me on Monday didn’t amount to much because by Friday they had decided that they didn’t need me, didn’t want me, and I was out the door.”
Palm Sunday reminds us of a strange phenomenon that often happens in the church. People will say that they believe because they are swept along in a tide of emotion, carried along with their friends. But in the cold light of day, they are not serious about being cleansed and renewed: Their minds have not yet processed what their hearts were feeling and so after a while they return to the unbelief they had never truly left in the first place.
The verses that are before us today deal with the question of why some people do not believe and why some who give a profession of faith turn back to the unbelief that they never truly left. They give us a pathology of unbelief. They explain what lies behind not believing.
There is an important difference between unbelief and doubt. Doubt is faith in two minds. Doubt is a questioning of faith and so, by definition, it is something that only believers can do. Always remember, doubting Thomas was a disciple of Jesus.
Unbelief is different. Unbelief is a settled refusal to believe. We are going to take a look behind unbelief today. When a person says, “I don’t believe! I won’t believe! I can’t believe!”
What lies behind that? What is the pathology of unbelief?
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:18)
So the issue here is that some do not believe. Why do they not believe? What lies behind a person’s unbelief? “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light” (John 3:19).
The roots of unbelief lie in loving the wrong things.
God made us to love. He made us to love him and to love each other. All his commandments are summed up in these two things: Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.
The effect of sin is that we love the wrong things. Paul says that in the last days people will be “lovers of self, lovers of money… [and] lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:2-4). This will be the effect of sin getting into the human bloodstream.
If you love self, or money or pleasure, you will not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, because he calls you to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him. So long as you love yourself, your money, or your pleasure more than you love Jesus, you will not believe and follow him.
Jesus says, “The reason why some did not believe is that they loved the wrong things. They loved darkness rather than light.” It’s about what you love the most. But why did they love the darkness?
The root of what we love lies in what we do.
“People loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”
Notice what our Lord is teaching us here. Why do people love the wrong things? Answer: What we do shapes what we love. People loved darkness “because their works were evil.”
Here’s the principle: You do what you love and you love what you do. Now I want us to see how this works today, so let’s try and work this out in a couple of real life examples.
Think about how this works in the life of a person who is an alcoholic. For anyone in the congregation who struggles with alcoholism or some other addiction, we have a ministry in this church called Celebrate Recovery. It is a community of people who are trusting in Christ and helping each other. I commend it to you. Please check it out on the website.
How does a person become an alcoholic? How does any addiction begin? A person drinks alcohol. It produces an effect that is pleasing. It may be that it dulls some pain or lessens some inhibition, and so they drink it again. Over time a pattern develops. The deed produces the love and the love produces the deed. And when the pattern accelerates, a habit, and then a dependency is formed.
This remains true even when you wish it were not so. At some point the alcoholic says, “I hate this thing. I do not want to be like this! But now there is a love of this thing that keeps driving me back to it.”
This pattern is true of any sin. The deed produces the love and the love produces the deed. You will do what you love and you will love what you do. This is a great question to ask when you feel driven in any area of life: What love is driving what I’m doing?
Let me give you another example. Jesus ministered to people in every circumstance of life, and here he is speaking with Nicodemus who, as we saw before, was a highly successful man. What happens when you have success is that people praise you. That’s true in business, sports, the arts, education, and even in the church. Nicodemus was a highly successful person and he would have attracted a lot of attention. It was who he was.
In John 5, Jesus is back in Jerusalem, speaking to people just like Nicodemus: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). That’s why it is possible to be in a bible study, studying the Bible, and still not believe.
What stops a person from coming to Jesus and receiving the life that he gives? What is the pathology of this unbelief? “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God” (John 5:44)?
Jesus says, “What is holding you back is that you love the wrong things. The big stumbling block in your life is what other people think. You receive glory from one another, and that gives you pleasure.”
Here’s how this works: God gives you some success in your career, your family or your ministry and people praise you: “It is really wonderful what you did.” What you did produced an effect that you liked, so you push yourself to do more of what you did to get more of what you liked.
This can start early: You get an ‘A’ in your exams and you are praised for it. Because the praise feels good, you feel that you must always get an ‘A,’ and you are driven by it. You can translate that into the world of sports, business, raising a godly family and even into the world of ministry.
What happens is that your life gradually becomes about creating an impression. You become like Nicodemus—a successful person with an empty and a hungry soul. And here you are today wondering if Jesus might have something for you.
Surely this is why Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. He is a well-known leader. He has a reputation. What will people think if they see this great man sitting at the feet of Jesus? So he comes to Jesus in secret.
Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, “If your life continues to be about impressing other people you will remain in your unbelief and you will miss out on all that I can give you.” How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another? This is the great love of your life. That’s what is driving you. That’s what is holding you back.
Unbelief crumbles when we dismantle the support structure that lies beneath it. It is no use shouting “Believe! Believe!” to an unbelieving person. The roots of unbelief lie in what we love and in what we do. To overcome unbelief, you need to deal with the sin under the sin.
That happens in two ways.
Recognize what you need to receive from Jesus.
Unbelief is the fruit of loving and doing the wrong things. Change what you do and you will change what you love. Change what you love and you will change what you do. How do you break that pattern? Where do you start? Clearly there has to be a change in both places—a change in what you love and a change in what you do.
This is exactly what Jesus is talking about when he said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again. You must be born of water and of the Spirit. You need a new birth that cleanses and renews, a changing of your heart and a washing of your life.”
Nicodemus was right on it when he said, “How in the world can that happen? How am I supposed to change my heart and cleanse my life? I’m no spring chicken. How can a man be born when he is old?”
We saw how Jesus answered that question: “Nicodemus, I am going to be lifted up. I am going to lay down my life, and if you will put your trust in me, I will do for you what you cannot do for yourself.”
Jesus Christ can re-incline your heart, and move it in a new direction. He can give you a new love that is strong enough to squeeze out the wrong loves in your life. He can wash your life and deal with all of your sin. He can re-orient your heart and change what you love the most.
You can ask him to do this for you. You can use the prayer of David: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psa. 51:7). “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psa. 51:10).
David recognizes that he needs to be cleansed and renewed, and that only God can do this for him. He is saying, “I have done the wrong things. And I have done the wrong things because I have loved the wrong things! I have loved myself, and I have been a lover of pleasure rather than a lover of God. Deliver me from this heart that lives the wrong things! Give me a heart that loves you and loves others. Cleanse my life and change my heart!”
The power of unbelief will loosen its grip on your soul as you recognize what you need to receive from Jesus. But there’s more…
Openly take your stand with Jesus.
This was where I had an ‘a-ha’ moment this week. Why does Jesus speak about “the light” in verses 19-21? He does this five times!
- “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light” (3:19).
- “Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come into the light” (3:20).
- “Whoever does what is true comes to the light” (3:21).
I believe the reason Jesus speaks about “the light” is that this is the end of the conversation with Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night. He came secretly, under the cover of darkness.
There is some discussion about where the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus ends.
Some scholars have suggested that it ends at verse 10, where Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Are you Israel’s teacher and yet you do not understand these things?”
The NIV Bible ends the conversation at verse 15, where Jesus speaks about the Son of Man being lifted up. It takes the words of John 3:16 to have been written by the Apostle John rather than spoken by Jesus. Where does the conversation with Nicodemus end?
It doesn’t make any difference whether our Lord spoke the words of John 3:16 or whether they were written by the Apostle John under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. All Scripture has been breathed out by God, and if you have a Bible with the words of Jesus in red, you need to remember that the words in black are as much the Word of God as the words in red.
I think the ESV translators got this exactly right, and that Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus all the way down to verse 21. So here’s the conversation in summary:
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. He is a very successful person, but he has an emptiness in his soul. He is drawn to Jesus and he has some questions. So he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher from God.”
Jesus jumps right in. “Nicodemus you must be born again! You need to be born of water and the Spirit, a new birth in which your life is cleansed and your heart is changed.”
“How am I supposed to do that? How am I supposed to change what my heart loves?”
“Nicodemus, believe in me! The Son of Man is going to be lifted up, and here’s why: God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him, should not perish but have eternal life.”
“Nicodemus, you come to me with your questions. You present yourself as a seeker after truth. But look at you—scurrying around in the darkness, worrying about what people will think because you are talking to me. You need to stop that and come out into the open. Come to the light. And Nicodemus, if you are ‘true’ that is what you will do!”
That’s where the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus ends. Nicodemus leaves knowing, “Jesus told me that he can change my heart and wash my life. Jesus has called me to believe in him. Now I need to make a decision.”
“Either I must do what he says, and that means coming out in the open as a committed believer and follower of Jesus, or I remain where I am, a successful man with an empty soul and many questions. What am I going to do? Stay in the darkness or come into the light?”
That’s where the story ends, except that the end of the Gospel tells us more. Nicodemus’ questions were answered on Good Friday, the day that Jesus died. It is recorded for us in John 19:38ff, that when Jesus died a man called Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for permission to take away the body of Jesus. And Nicodemus “who came to Jesus by night,” came and brought spices. Nicodemus came out into the open in the light of the cross.
“When Jesus said to me, ‘The Son of man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’ (3:14-15), I see now that these were not just words. He sealed his words with his blood. In the light of this, I can no longer be a lover of self or money or pleasure or other people’s praise. I must become one who truly loves God and loves others as he does.”
“I must come out of the shadows and take my stand with him. I must ask him to change my heart and wash my life, and I must trust him to do this. I must nail my colors to the mast, and I must do this whatever others think and whatever it may cost.”
This is what coming to faith in Jesus looks like. You recognize what you need to receive from Jesus. You openly take your stand with Jesus. This is how a person come to faith. This is what it looks like.
Jesus Christ called Nicodemus to believe, and he calls all of us to believe in him today. What are you going to do? If you are a lover of darkness, you will stay in the shadows, and if you remain in the darkness, God will give you the darkness that you choose forever.
But if you are true, you will come into the light. You will recognize what you need to receive from Jesus and you will gladly and openly take your stand with Jesus. May God bring all of us to that place today.
© Colin S. Smith
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