The Teacher Got Schooled

JC and Nick

Please read John 3:1-21.

          CONTEXT = As this is only the third chapter of John’s gospel, this encounter obviously happened early in Jesus’ ministry.  That is important, however, because Jesus’ teachings in John 3+4 set forth facts that are foundational to our faith.

Faith requires a willingness to learn.

  1. The bell rings: school is in session. (1-2)

What we know about Nicodemus the “teacher/student.”

– He was a Pharisee. (1)

– The name “Nicodemus” meant “victory of the people.”

– He was on the JEWISH RULING COUNCIL; aka the Sanhedrin, aka the Seventy (it had 70 members).

– John 7:50 tells us he was ONE OF THEIR OWN NUMBER; a follower of Jesus.  This proves the teaching Jesus gave Nicodemus here in chapter three took root and bore fruit.

– John 19:39 informs us that, along with Joseph of Arimathea, he buried Jesus.  As Jesus’ burial is one of the chief proofs of His Resurrection, this means the conversion of Nicodemus has great historical significance.

This passage gives evidence of Nicodemus’ belief in Jesus at that moment. (2)  HE CAME TO JESUS AT NIGHT.  We suppose this is due to fear of being seen.  This may imply anything from a case of curiosity to a tentative faith (I do not believe John would include this detail in his narrative if there were not some significance to it), but it clearly shows Nicodemus’ initiative.

“YOU ARE A TEACHER,” Nicodemus said to Jesus.  Jesus was not part of the religious establishment.  His status as a rabbi was not recognized by the established authorities, so this statement implies anything from simple respect to a decision that Jesus held authority regardless of the recognition Nicodemus’ own party (Pharisees) extended or withheld.

“WHO HAS COME FROM GOD.”  Nicodemus is volunteering his opinion here.  As we unfurl his statement, he is making a greater and more accurate assessment of Jesus.

On the basis of the miracles Jesus had wrought, Nicodemus was convinced God had sent Jesus. “FOR NO ONE COULD PERFORM THE MIRACULOUS SIGNS YOU ARE DOING IF GOD WERE NOT WITH HIM.”  Nicodemus is not expressing a belief that Jesus is God, but is, with his words, confessing there was a great deal more to Jesus than any of his colleagues were willing to allow.

  1. Nicodemus’ first lesson: you must be born again. (3-8).

Jesus taught Nicodemus something brand new: “Be BORN AGAIN.” (3)  This teaching had no connection to Nicodemus’ opening statement; it is unrelated to the MIRACULOUS SIGNS he’d mentioned or Jesus’ role as a TEACHER.  This teaching had nothing to do with any previous Jewish teaching.  For these reasons, Nicodemus’ surprise (as Jesus recognized it in verse six) is understandable.

Nicodemus surprise is also implied in his first reaction: he took Jesus too literally (4).  Obviously, it is not physically possible to re-enter the womb and be born a second time.  People tend to say things like this in moments of surprise.  They are thinking out loud, checking their perceptions to see if they misheard or misinterpreted the speaker.

Jesus explained the teaching as a figure of speech in verses five to eight.  Being BORN AGAIN is figurative; not a physical repetition of childbirth, it is a spiritual event.  It is the formational spiritual event, required to enter the KINGDOM OF GOD (5).  Jesus developed the difference between physical birth and spiritual birth by making a distinction is between WATER birth and SPIRIT birth.  Being born of WATER refers to physical birth, what Nicodemus assumed Jesus was talking about.  Being born of the SPIRIT is the spiritual act of faith.

In nature, each species reproduces in kind.   Similarly, in matters of faith, FLESH reproduces FLESH and SPIRIT, SPIRIT (6).

Though Nicodemus was surprised, Jesus informed him this call to be saved is like the wind, coming unseen and unanticipated (7-8).  This is another description Jesus used to make a distinction between being born and being BORN AGAIN.  Like the WIND, the Holy Spirit comes to whomever He wills.  As the WIND is invisible to our eyes, the Holy Spirit is invisible to physical senses.  His coming and going, His actions, can only be perceived in the effects the Spirit has on people.

Jesus’ explanation of the second birth puts the initiative for salvation where it belongs; on God.  The Holy Spirit acts; we observe the effects of His ministrations and react by faith in order to be saved.

  1. Nicodemus’ second lesson: you must believe. (9-18)

Nicodemus questions this.  He doesn’t yet understand but deserves credit for hanging in there.  Because he’s asking questions, we see he’s trying to get it (9).  The idea of being born again boggled him (4) and Jesus’ explanation involving the Holy Spirit (5-8) didn’t clear it up as much as Jesus hoped.  As a Pharisee, Nicodemus’ theology must have included belief in the Spirit, but the part about the Spirit’s role in spiritual rebirth was news to him.  So he asked, “HOW CAN THIS BE?”

Jesus’ response starts with a mild rebuke, “YOU ARE ISRAEL’S TEACHER AND DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND THESE THINGS?” (10-12) Jesus is effectively saying, “You’re the authority on all matters of faith and you don’t get this?”

His remarks assess the reaction of the Seventy to His teaching.  Jesus’ teachings are THE TRUTH.  They are all things He has learned and have been confirmed by His experience.  Even though His teaching is with divine authority, Nicodemus’ party (the Pharisees) had rejected His teaching.  Since they had rejected His teaching on EARTHLY THINGS, they could not hope to understand His teaching on more advanced subjects: HEAVENLY THINGS.  To paraphrase Jesus, He said to

Nicodemus, “Your people have rejected my message so it’s plain you don’t understand it.”

Jesus concludes His second lesson by clarifying His authority and mission in verses thirteen to fifteen.  In verse eleven Jesus taught His teaching carried divine authority because it was testimony of the things He had seen.  His teaching was authoritative because His experience had been in HEAVEN.

He taught them the TRUTH because He had personally experienced the TRUTH; He’d seen it for Himself in HEAVEN.  Referring to Himself as the SON OF MAN, Jesus related that His life did not begin at birth, but He existed in heaven before then.  This is a proof of Jesus’ divine nature.  The SON OF MAN exercised divine authority and told the truth because He was in HEAVEN was sent to Earth to do that very thing.

There is another aspect to Jesus’ mission.  He didn’t come just to tell us the truth, but to save us from the penalty of sin (14-15).  Verse fourteen refers to an incident that happened as the Hebrews moved from Egypt to the Promised Land.  It is recorded in Numbers 21.  Some of God’s people complained and rebelled against God.  As a disciplinary measure, God sent poisonous snakes into the camp.  Only the bellyachers were bitten.  All of those bitten got sick.  In mercy, God instructed Moses to fashion a bronze snake.  It was held aloft on a pole and everyone who saw it was spared death.

Jesus used this historical account as a symbol of His own mission.  He came from heaven to earth to be lifted up on a cross to impart life.  One difference being, with Jesus being lifted up, belief – not sight – is what is required to be saved.

Another difference is that the Hebrews were only restored to earthly life; they still died later (hopefully older and wiser).  Jesus’ being lifted up achieved ETERNAL LIFE for all who believe in Him.

In verse sixteen to eighteen, Jesus explained the promise of ETERNAL LIFE.  Verse sixteen is the familiar one-sentence explanation of the Good News; ETERNAL LIFE is available to all people because God’s Son perished on the cross.  Those who believe in Him receive the life God the Father offers.

Verse seventeen explains that saving people is what God intended in sending His son from heaven to Earth.  As 2 Peter 3:9 states, God’s will is that all people be saved.  Unfortunately, most people will exercise their will negatively to reject Him, and are self-condemned to hell.

Verse eighteen promises that the invitation to be saved is universal: WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM IS NOT CONDEMNED.   Free will is not really “free” if there is no actual choice involved.  Refusal to believe must logically be an option, but that option has the most negative consequence possible: the unbeliever is CONDEMNED.  The consequence is eternal death instead of ETERNAL LIFE.

  1. Nicodemus’ third lesson: you must step into the light. (19-21)

THIS IS THE VERDICT (19) means, “This is the decision of God the Righteous Judge.”  God sent His Son to be the “Light of the World (John 1:1-9).  LIGHT is a biblical symbol of purity, knowledge, and understanding (“enlightenment”).

Because Jesus has revealed all this truth about God and His salvation (v. 11), people are without excuse.  Instead, when they have seen the LIGHT and been told the TRUTH and they still reject God, they are utterly self-condemned.

Why would anybody see the LIGHT and still make the choice to reject God?  Why would they do the foolish thing and turn down His offer of ETERNAL LIFE?  Jesus explains in vs. 19-20.  They reject the LIGHT because they love the DARKNESS; they mistakenly think it hides the fact that their DEEDS WERE EVIL.  The LIGHT exposes their true nature.  They FEAR being seen for who they truly are, their deeds being accurately seen as evil.

On the other hand, everyone who is truly a believer comes into the LIGHT (21).  They live by the truth and want others to do the same, so they will also be saved.  The LIGHT here is not a “spotlight.”  True believers don’t want to draw attention to themselves through their deeds.  Instead, they want to draw attention to Jesus.  Just as the LIGHT exposes evil, it also verifies the TRUTH.  The LIGHT helps people to become believers by showing them the truth.

Faith requires a willingness to learn.

True disciples are revealed in a humble attitude that acknowledges their need to mature and acts upon it.  Nicodemus is an example of that attitude and the way Jesus taught him is an example of how to work on it.

The Studious Type

Please read John 5:36-40 & 2 Timothy 2:14-19 in your Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) to prepare this article.

In a Dec. 16, 2018 article in The Jerusalem Post, Yafit Ovadia reported that a digitized time capsule will be on board an unmanned spacecraft when it is launched to the Moon this spring.  The time capsule will contain Israel’s Declaration of Independence, a traveler’s prayer “Tefilat Haderech,” the Bible, the Israeli flag, maps of the State of Israel, the national anthem, a photograph of Ilan Ramon (Israel’s pioneer astronaut who died on the Space Shuttle Columbia), and pictures drawn by Israeli children. The spacecraft will be carried by into space by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, making Israel the fourth country after the US, the USSR and China to attempt a lunar landing mission.

Israel will spend $95 million to put the unmanned lander on the moon, which is a bargain compared to NASA’s Apollo 11, which cost the US close to $9.9 billion in 1969.  80% of the funding was raised from private donors.


I hope and pray the project is successful so afterwards I can say, “They can put a Bible on the moon; you can open one and read it!” There’s a great potential for sermons and exhortations to get people into t word of God!

Before we get started, let me clarify one thing.  We refer to Jesus as the Word of God (capital “W”) because He is the personal revelation of God to us.  In Jesus’ words & deeds we learn all we need to know to b saved.

We refer to the Bible as the word of God (small case “w”) to distinguish the specific revelation of God, the words on the page.   It may be a little confusing otherwise.  So I hope you can follow this: we must have the Word of God in our heart before we can truly understand and use the word of God.  A life-changing study of the Bible begins with a life that has already been changed by Jesus.


(Which of the statements below are actually found in the Bible and which originate elsewhere?)

  1. “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”
  2. “To the woman he said, ‘Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
  3. “I also gave them over to statutes that were not good and laws they could not live by.”
  4. “The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong.”
  5. “Do not do to others what you do not want others to do to you.”
  6. “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left.”
  7. “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”
  8. “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him.”
  9. “A wise king winnows out the wicked; he drives the threshing wheel over them.”

Jesus Christ is the Word of God we must know first.

  1. We don’t study the Bible to earn salvation (John 5:36-40).

CONTEXT: These verses are part of Jesus’ rebuke of JEWS who faulted Him for working a miracle on the Sabbath, as is spelled out in verse sixteen; SO, BECAUSE JESUS WAS DOING THESE THINGS ON THE SABBATH, THE JEWS PERSECUTED HIM.  In this portion of His reply Jesus revealed who He really was, attempting to persuade them that He had the authority to act in ways their version of the Law prohibited.  (Maybe you could say He pulled rank on them!)  He attempted to show them that He was their Messiah, the one whose coming had been foretold in the Scriptures they studied.  Toward the end he concluded, “YOU DON’T BELIEVE T ONE HE SENT” (v. 38).

COMMENT: Studying the Scriptures will not, by itself, make anyone right with God.

In verses 36-40 Jesus appealed to the witness of Scripture because they held the Scripture in high regard.  However, the problem was they had misused the Scriptures to justify their prejudice and excuse their sin.  They were good students in the sense that they DILIGENTLY studied God’s word.  Jesus gave them that compliment.           Unfortunately, they approached the Scriptures with a closed mind and a bad motive: “YOU THINK THAT BY THEM YOU POSSESS ETERNAL LIFE.”  In other words, they sought to master the word of God intellectually and morally and thereby earn or deserve eternal life.  They sought to provide for themselves a place in heaven.

This thinking is identified in one of their own authoritative writings, “The Sayings of the Fathers.”  Here are two examples:

“He who has acquired the words of the Law has acquired for himself life in the world to come.” (2:8)

“Great is the law for it gives to those who practice it life in this world and in the world to come.” (6:7)

The end result was self-condemnation.  Jesus said, “THESE ARE THE SCRIPTURES THAT TESTIFY ABOUT ME, YET YOU REFUSE TO COME TO ME TO HAVE LIFE” (vs. 39-40).  We’d like to think this sort of thing never happens in the Church, but it does.  People can study the Book without ever knowing the Author.  Of course, they will never get it right and will not enter heaven, but they may gain enough proficiency to fool themselves and/or fool others.  People search the bible for evidence supporting their theology, when the process is supposed to work the opposite way.

William Barclay warned, “[The Jewish religious leaders] did not humbly learn a theology from scripture; they used scripture to defend a theology which they themselves had produced.  There is still a danger we should use the Bible to prove our beliefs and not to test them.”

  1. We study the Bible to show we’ve received salvation (2 Timothy 2:14-19).

CONTEXT: Because he was a pastor, Paul challenged Timothy to hold himself to a higher standard, including biblical literacy.  Timothy’s best defense against false teachers, busybodies and other trouble-makers in the church is to know God’s word and hold fast to it.

COMMENT: Every follower of Jesus needs to increase their understanding and use of the Bible.  There is no other way except to study it.

Paul wrote that Timothy was to PRESENT himself to the church as a leader who met three important qualifications.

APPROVED.  The word literally meant “has passed the test.” It was used to refer to building materials that were inspected and worthy: it was a metal object refined by fire, a stone cut to the mason’s specifications.

WHO DOES NOT NEED TO BE ASHAMED.  Like the materials he uses, the builder’s craftsmanship is also evaluated and deemed worthy.

WHO CORRECTLY HANDLES THE WORD OF TRUTH.  The phrase CORRECTLY HANDLES pictures a farmer handling a plow, making a straight furrow or a builder whose wall is plumb or road straight.  This is a WORKMAN who faithfully studies the word of God in order to understand it truthfully, apply it rightly, and teach it in a way that makes genuine disciples of Jesus.

What is the difference between Jesus’ teaching and Paul’s?  Only a difference of focus; both talk about diligent study of the word.  Jesus approved only one use of the Bible; to receive salvation, not to create it.  He condemned self-righteousness.  Paul called Pastor Timothy to handle Scripture with extra care.  Timothy would not earn salvation by taking this care, but he would show others how to be saved by teaching Scripture in this way.  Taken together, these teachings commend the diligent study of God’s word, but only if you first know who Jesus Christ are and have accepted His gracious salvation by faith.

Jesus Christ is the Word of God we must know first.

          Though many of the Jewish religious leaders were excellent students of the Bible (most of them had memorized the Old Testament in its entirety!), Jesus condemned their failure to see the truth.  In order to know the truth, we must become more familiar with what God has revealed through daily study and practice.  To illustrate that fact, I now offer you the answers to the “Bible vs. Baloney” quiz.  Number one is a quote from Benjamin Franklin and number five is a quote attributed to Buddha.  If anyone says they can be found in the Bible, they’re feeding you baloney.  How did you do?

Doubt is not the great enemy of faith; self-sufficiency or self-righteousness is.  People who have doubts are testing their faith.  They possess at least the humility to confess they don’t have all the answers and are working to try to better understand.

People who think they have it figured out are self-deceived.  They know the words and actions that give an appearance of godliness, but because they have sought to achieve it on their own, they do not have life in Christ.

Because salvation is by grace, no self-reliant person will ever have it.  Being proud of one’s big brain or big heart prohibits a person from putting their trust in Christ.  William Barclay commented on this passage, “The function of the Bible is not to give life, but to point us to the One who can.”

Our attitude needs to be the same as the Apostle Peter.  On an occasion when many of His followers left Him, Jesus asked the twelve if they’d be leaving too.  Peter’s reply is instructive; he said, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life?”

Peter’s reply shows us two things we need to practice:

One; refuse to compromise on the word of God.  One of the core doctrines of our faith is that the Bible is the revelation of God.  We don’t have to argue with people who think they know better, but we must stubbornly insist on the Bible as the authoritative rule of faith and practice.

Two; refuse to quit on the Word of God capital “W,” Jesus Christ.  He is the single source of eternal life.  That is an unpopular notion among people who have self-made religion but not Christianity.  Again, we don’t have to argue with anybody but we must not surrender this truth.

I realize not everyone is “bookish,” but there is no substitute for studying and applying God’s word to realize spiritual maturity.



Sermon #1302

The Daily Study Bible Series, William Barclay

The Zondervan Bible Commentary