Sunday School Readings
John 3 is one of the most beloved chapters in the Bible. In verses 1-12 Jesus has been telling Nicodemus repeatedly,”You must be born again”. But Nicodemus is baffled by this statement. “How can this be?” he replies (verse 9). Then Jesus rebukes Nicodemus, pointing out that “you people do not accept our testimony” and “you do not believe” (v. 11-12).
Then comes verse 13, and Jesus shifts gears and starts talking about himself. He identifies himself as “the Son of Man”, a title that the Old Testament used in reference to the Messiah (see Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus also says that he “came from heaven.” Are these not incredible statements? To say “I’m from heaven” and “I’m the long awaited Messiah, the King of Israel” – I think it is difficult for us to understand just how monumental it was for Jesus to say these things. And he said them over and over during his three-year ministry.
Jesus then makes another mind-boggling statement. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (verse 14).
Jesus is referring to an incident in the Old Testament recorded in Numbers 21:4-9. Under the leadership of Moses, the children of Israel were on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. But the Jews become impatient and rebellious, so God punishes them by sending snakes to bite and kill them. But then God provides a way for the people to be saved from the snakes. Moses makes a bronze snake and lifts it up in the air, and anyone who looks at this snake is saved from the deadly snakebites.
In John 3:14-15 Jesus compares himself to this bronze snake. He, too, must be lifted up — on the cross — so that everyone who looks at Jesus with the eyes of faith will be saved from eternal damnation and receive eternal life.
Like the Jews in the wilderness, we have sinned against a holy God and deserve the death penalty. We have broken God’s law and his justice demands punishment in hell. Romans 6:23 says it so well – “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”.
The key question is: How do we receive this eternal life? It is a gift, which means we cannot earn it through our good works. So attending church, giving money to good causes, doing nice things for my elderly neighbor (like mowing her grass or shoveling her driveway), etc. – none of those things will get you to heaven. If eternal life is a gift, there is nothing I can do to earn it or work for it. If eternal life could be earned, it would no longer be a gift.
If someone wants to give you a gift, what must you do to take possession of it? You must hold out your hands and receive it. So it is with God’s gift of eternal life. You must receive it by faith, by believing that Jesus is the Son of God and the only One who can save you from hell because of his death on the cross.
In verses 1-12, the focus is on being born again, which is something that we really have nothing to do with. God does it.
In verses 13-21, the focus is on believing, which is something we have much to do with! We must believe in Jesus in order for God to grant us the gift of eternal life. Notice that the word “believe” appears 5 times in verses 15-21.
Do you see the paradox here between being born again (which only God can do) and believing (which we must do)? The Bible teaches that salvation is entirely the work of God. And the Bible also teaches that I must believe in Jesus in order to receive salvation, and if I don’t believe, I am doomed to spend forever in hell (that is what the word “perish” means in John 3:16).
Perhaps you are wondering, “Well, which is it? How do I get saved? If being born again is entirely the work of God, what does my faith have to do with it?”
There is an element of mystery here which the Bible does not fully explain. I can only tell you that Scripture is quite clear that there are two aspects to salvation that may appear contradictory to our feeble human minds: God causes us to be born again, while at the same time, our believing is required.
The question you should be asking yourself at this point is this: If I must believe in Jesus to be saved from hell and to receive the gift of eternal life, what does it mean to “believe in Him”? (verses 15, 16, 18, 36).
The Meaning of Faith
There are at least two kinds of faith described in the Bible: non-saving faith and saving faith. Let’s examine both.
We just saw an example of non-saving faith in John 2:23-24 – “Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.” So there were people who saw Jesus do miracles and believed in him, but this was not saving faith. How do we know that? Because “Jesus did not entrust himself to them”. The word “entrust” can be translated “believe”. These people were believing in Jesus, but Jesus was not believing in them; he did not believe in their belief! He knew their hearts and that this faith was superficial and shallow.
Nicodemus is Exhibit A for this non-saving faith. He believed that Jesus was a teacher “who has come from God” (v. 2). But then Jesus said “you people do not accept our testimony… and you do not believe” (v. 11-12). Hmmm. Well, which is it? Did Nicodemus believe or not believe? Answer: Both. He did believe (with non-saving faith), and so he also did not believe (he had no saving faith.)
Another example of non-saving faith is found in James 2:19 – “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that-and shudder.” Demons believe in the existence of God, but they obviously do not have saving faith. Likewise, a human being can believe that God exists but end up in hell. There will be plenty of people who spend eternity in the lake of fire who believe in the existence of God.
The point here is that non-saving faith is the acceptance of certain facts as true. ” I believe that God exists. I believe that Jesus came to earth and performed many miracles. I believe that He died on the cross and was raised from the dead three days later. Just like I believe that George Washington was the first president of the United States and that he was born in 1732 and died in 1799.”
1. Saving faith is an act of the mind. Saving faith includes acceptance of the Bible’s teachings about the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Non-saving faith is only the mere mental assent to the facts about Jesus. Saving faith certainly starts with that and must include acceptance of what the Bible says about Jesus. You must believe as true many facts about Jesus with regard to both His person and work.
You must believe that Jesus is God and that he became a man and lived on earth as a human being. You must believe that he proved His deity by performing countless miracles. And you must believe that he died on the cross to pay the penalty for your sins, and then rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, where he now sits at the right hand of God the Father, reigning over the universe while building His church. And you must believe that one day this Jesus will return to earth a second time to judge all people and to grant everlasting life to believers and everlasting punishment to non-believers.
If you believe all that, that’s a good start! Believing the facts about the person and work of Jesus are foundational to saving faith.
But there’s more. The devil Himself “believes” all those facts – he knows them to be true – but the devil is not going to heaven some day, is he?
2. Saving faith is an act of the will. Saving faith is more than intellectual acceptance of the facts about Jesus. Much more. It also involves making a commitment to Jesus Himself. In Matthew 5:6 Jesus said “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This hungering and thirsting for righteousness is an excellent description of saving faith. We reach out to God, knowing that only he can save us and depending only on him to do just that.
3. Saving faith is an act of the emotions. When we exercise saving faith, there will be a conscious awareness of our sin and its consequences in the sight of God. This will cause great sorrow. The extent to which we experience this sadness will vary from person to person, but there should be remorse and regret for breaking God’s law. In 2 Corinthians 7:10, Paul refers to this as “godly sorrow”, which is sorrow over the fact that we have disappointed God, not sorrow because we got caught. Such godly sorrow “brings repentance that leads to salvation”.
After experiencing this godly sorrow, the realization that God has provided a solution to our sin problem will then lead to incredible joy. Oh, the wonder of God’s love, that he sent Jesus to die in our place, thereby satisfying God’s wrath against us! Once we understand the significance of God’s salvation of a guilty sinner like me, we will rejoice and begin a life of praise and thanksgiving for the miracle of the new birth.
We will say with the psalmist, “I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation” (Psalm 13:5).
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