Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness,so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God."
- John 3:1-21
What do you believe in?
I know that is not a grammatically correct question, and somewhere my seventh grade English teacher Mrs. Bowen is frowning at me, but … what do you believe in? What do you trust your life to? Where is your faith?
This past week has been one for me to celebrate the memory of Mimi on her birthday. Mimi was my paternal grandmother. We lost Mimi almost a quarter-century ago, but had she lived, she would have turned 99 on Friday.
There are lots of Mimi stories I can tell you, and perhaps I will one day. Many of them revolve around cooking, or taking me to the Dairy Castle, or playing cards, or a weeklong camping trip with my cousin Crystal. Most of the stories involve laughter, and they all involve love.
But I want to tell one particular Mimi story today. Mimi lived in Covington, Tennessee, 38 miles north of Memphis. Its geography is important to this story, because in between Covington and Memphis is a town called Millington. And that is important because in Millington was N.A.S. Memphis, now known as Naval Support Activity Mid-South. But Naval Air Station Memphis, as it was known until 1993, was the largest inland naval base in the world.
Now, the reason all that is important is that aviation activity at the Naval Air Station in Millington dates back to World War I, before Mimi was born. In other words, from her earliest memories, Mimi saw airplanes flying around her home town. Every day. She saw them. She knew flyers. She knew folks who flew with the flyers. For more than seventy years, she saw naval aviators flying without leaving her front yard.
When her sons got older and moved further away, they would from time to time fly on airplanes. Uncle Jerry flew all the way to the Philippines. My dad lived in a number of states, and while we often drove to Covington, Mimi knew that Dad would fly home on occasion.
Mimi saw airplanes every day. She knew people who flew in airplanes. Her sons flew on air planes.
Mimi knew that airplanes can fly. She had no doubt of that.
Mimi would not set foot on an airplane.
This phenomenon was not limited to Tennessee farm wives with 9th grade educations. On the other side of my family, my maternal grandfather, a high school principal with a master’s degree who read law at night and became the Gladewater, Texas city attorney, also knew all about airplanes.
He would not get on an airplane, either.
Mimi and Granddaddy knew that airplanes can fly. They both believed airplanes were safe and could carry human beings much more efficiently than any other transportation they knew. Other people told them how great flying was, and they believed it.
But Mimi and Granddaddy did not believe in airplanes.
John 3:16 is almost certainly the most widely known and loved verse in scripture. Even if you did not learn it in Vacation Bible School or Sunday School or at your parents’ knee, you cannot escape reference to it. We all remember the funny guy with the rainbow Afro wig holding up the John 3:16 sign at football games. When former New England Patriot and convicted murdered Aaron Hernandez committed suicide, he was found with John 3:16 written on his forehead in red marker. Tim Tebow had it printed on his eye black under his helmet.
Like me, you probably learned it in the King James language. Those of you who remember, say it with me: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Whosoever believeth in him.
In the new International Version that I read a moment ago, the words are almost identical: “whoever believes in him.” Virtually every English translation uses some form of the word “believe.”
Last week, I talked about what it means to believe in God, and I emphasized the importance of the acceptance of certain facts, of recognizing the reality of the truth of God.
If you were here, or if you read that sermon online, I hope you stayed with it to the end, where I said that simply understanding the facts was only an intellectual exercise unless we were willing to submit to the sovereignty of God. So too, this week, we must recognize that believing in Jesus is not simply acknowledgement, not even simply reciting a certain prayer the right way; believing in Jesus is an act of submission to the leadership of the Master.
When we talk about Jesus and John 3:16, it is really important to read every word. The verse does not say “whoever believes that Jesus meant what He said” or “whoever believes that Jesus is real” or even “whoever believes that Jesus saves.”
No, it says “whoever believes in Jesus.”
Mimi believed a lot of facts about airplanes, but she did not believe in airplanes. She would not set foot in one, would not leave the safety of the ground to give herself to (as she called it) a “giant flying tube with wings.” You could have taught Granddaddy a seminar’s worth of aerodynamics, and he would never have committed himself to an airplane.
Believing facts is important. Most everyone accepts that Jesus died on the cross. Historians agree that Jesus was a real, important figure in the Holy Land in the early first century.
But believing facts is not the same thing as believing in Jesus. Muslims believe that He was born of a virgin. James tells us that even the demons believe… and shudder. [James 2:19] The man Legion, when infested by demons, recognized Jesus and called him “the Son of the Most High God.” [Luke 8:28] Knowing facts about Jesus is not a sign of belief in Him. Believing that something is true is not the same thing as believing in that something.
But we have to be even more careful with the word games. I believe in Queen Elizabeth. I have never met or seen her and have no real interest in doing so, but I believe in her existence. I can tell you that I do not believe in the Easter Bunny. I do believe in Bernie Sanders and in Ted Cruz. Presumably, at least one of those is not someone with whom I agree very often. Some people believe in ghosts. You may believe in the healing power of hot chocolate. What we really mean in all those cases is that we believe in the existence of someone or something. That does not get us very far.
John 3, like almost all of the rest of the New Testament, is written in Greek. I do not speak or read Greek, but I know how to study those who do. The word used here is pisteuó, the verb form of pistis, which means “faith.” The word means to have faith in, to trust. What Jesus is really saying is “whoever faiths me,” but we don’t have a verb form of faith in English, so our Bibles translate the word as believe. It is not “believe” as in “I believe in ghosts” or “I believe I’ll go to the movies tonight.” It is not even “I believe this network tells the truth and that one does not.” It is belief as in confidence, affirmation, persuaded commitment. I believe. It is the father bringing his mute, convulsing son to Jesus, exclaiming “I believe” and expecting healing from the master.
“Believe” is a word that Jesus uses several times in the gospels as a command, often in connection with healings. “Don’t be afraid. Just believe.” [Luke 8:50]
But Jesus uses another word even more often to make the same point when true seekers ask Him for the key. That other word is “follow.” Whether it is “come, follow me” to Andrew and Simon or “follow me and let the dead bury their dead” or “go sell everything you have and then come follow me” to the rich young ruler, Jesus tells those looking for answers to follow Him. His word is that whoever does not take up their cross and follow is not worthy of Him.
We Baptists can start getting uncomfortable at this point. We were raised on Ephesians 2, where Paul makes it clear that we are saved by faith, not by works, and that saving grace is not of ourselves, lest anyone boast. We know that Jesus never predicates salvation on what we do. He does not tell Nicodemus to go give more money. He does not tell Andrew and Simon to join a soup line or to become better fishermen. He does not tell the erstwhile disciple with the dying father to offer assistance.
What we are told to do is to have faith, to believe, to follow. Even the rich young ruler is told to give his wealth to the poor in order to get that obstacle out of the way so that he can follow Jesus.
Whoever believes in Him.
Let’s look at our passage.
In verse 2, we learn that Nicodemus already knows the key facts about Jesus. He knows that Jesus is from God and is performing miracles. He calls Jesus “Rabbi,” so he already acknowledges Him as an authoritative teacher. Clearly, this knowledge of facts, even important truths, is not enough. If it were, Jesus would pat Nicodemus on the back for having his eternal destiny firmly under control, and then He would change the subject. That’s not what happens.
The first illustration, the first explanation, that Jesus uses with Nicodemus is that one must be born again. When Nicodemus does not understand what this means, Jesus shifts to belief. He tells Nicodemus the words of John 3:16. He follows that up with still a third word picture, that of light and darkness, and He uses language with which we Baptists are less comfortable, language of deeds and living in the light.
In the very next chapter, Jesus shifts metaphors again, telling a Samaritan woman of salvation in terms of drinking living water. Then, in chapter 5, Jesus returns to the language of “believing in” Him.
What do we learn from all of this? I think that the mystery of salvation is beyond our ken – it is a gift of God of eternal, supernatural quality, and we can receive it much more easily than we can understand it. We need descriptions, illustrations, metaphors to help us try to grasp what Jesus offers, what God has done for us. The intellectual Nicodemus gets three different images to try to explain it to him. Others get “drink this water” or “eat the bread of life” or “follow.” Jesus speaks in parables.
What does Jesus mean when He tells us that we must believe in Him?
Well, first, He clearly includes intellectual knowledge of basic facts. Nicodemus was already there – you come from God, you do great miracles, you are a teacher. The thief on the cross knows that Jesus is sinless and is king. While Jesus never tells anyone to go do a research paper, He repeatedly demonstrates evidence of the truth of who He is and why He has come to those who seek Him. So too, if we are to believe in Him, we need to understand who He is. We believe in Him as we understand that the sinless holy one, who has done nothing wrong, invites us into His kingdom.
Second, belief in Jesus involves experience. We are reborn. We walk in the light. We drink living water. This is more than only an intellectual exercise. We don’t just look at the airplane and watch it fly and admire its beauty. We don’t even just study the principles of flight and the history of the Wright brothers. No, to believe in airplanes, we have to get on board.
Third, belief in Jesus involves relationship. The people tell the woman at the well that they don’t believe because of the facts and stories she has told them; they believe because they have seen Jesus for themselves. When we follow this leader, He welcomes and loves us, and we are His. For He is like no other leader. He is God. He is more powerful than death. He goes to prepare a place for us and comes again to us so that where He is we may be also.
That sounds like a great place to end this sermon.
But if you have not been raised in church… if the language of scripture is not second nature to you … if the words of this sermon compete with the cacophony that the world spits out … if every logical bone in your body says that all this Jesus-talk is so much superstition… then everything I have said thus far just sounds like the same old religious chitchat.
Just like last week, you can hear the language and smile and nod, quietly certain that I am pushing something that we all know is not so, just a comfortable story to tell our children and to make us feel better when tragedy strikes.
That is why Jesus uses the word “believe” or “faith.” We are not talking about accepting a rationalization that helps us sleep at night. We are talking about what we incorporate into our being as truth. We are discussing the thing in which we place our very lives. I can say I have faith in the Cowboys, but that is not faith – that is just a wish. I have faith that that chair will hold me, but that is easy to say as I stand here. When I go place my full weight on it, that is faith. I commit myself to the chair – I cannot hold back.
Mimi did not have any faith at all in airplanes.
Billy Graham routinely explains John 3:16 “belief” this way: “The word “believe” in the Bible means more than simply agreeing in our minds that something might be true. It means “trust”—that we believe so strongly in God that we are willing to commit our lives to Him and live the way we know He wants us to live.” [https://billygraham.org/answer/what-does-it-mean-to-believe-in-christ/] When we use the word commit in this context, we can be easily misunderstood, because being committed in other contexts often means that we just really, really intend to work hard to achieve a result. And of course belief in Christ has nothing to do with our working really hard to achieve a result.
Instead, think of commitment in the sense of committing someone to an institution. When y’all come and get me and commit me the funny farm, you will be placing me in their hands with the expectation that I will stay there. When I committed myself to my marriage, I was saying that I believed in this person and this relationship to the point that there is no turning back. It is giving one’s whole self.
You all know the joke that in a ham and eggs breakfast, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.
Jesus of course gives us the best example of commitment as He dies, trusting His Father fully when he says “into thy hands I commit my spirit.” This kind of commitment is a complete giving over in faith.
So if you are smiling and nodding at all the religious talk, hear me when I tell you that this is neither an intellectual exercise nor a bedtime story for dullards; this is how we Christians live our lives. This is a total commitment. This is everything we have, everything we are. When Jesus tells Nicodemus he must “believe in” Him, He is calling Nicodemus to leave the old and become new. When He tells the woman at the well to drink the living water, He is inviting her to leave her old life behind. When He assures the thief on the cross that his newborn faith is sufficient, He is making a promise of complete transformation, utter salvation, total provision. Forever.
There is nothing more important than this, nothing more long-lasting, nothing more complete. “Believing in Jesus” has very little to do with how you answer a question on a piece of paper and everything to do with where you place your trust, how you live your life, what lodestar you follow.
You have all, somewhere along the way, played “follow the leader.” Come on, think way back there. You remember. Someone is the leader, and everyone else, if they want to stay in the game, has to follow. That does not mean just trail along behind – it means do what the leader does. It is not enough to end up at the same place – the game focuses on how you get there. If you are playing follow the leader, and the leader takes giant steps while singing the national anthem, you also take giant steps while belting out “Oh say can you see.” You turn when the leader turns. You don’t make your own path. You don’t sit down and watch and study. You do what the leader does.
That is why Jesus uses the word “follow.” Following Jesus involves walking like Jesus walks and walking where Jesus walks. We can never be Jesus – we don’t do miracles or walk on water – but we can follow Him. It involves reaching out the same way that Jesus reaches out. In between the many New Testament commands to follow and to believe are repeated words about giving a cup of water and loving our brothers. In this very chapter of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus that what we do must be plain to all as being done in the sight of God. That is living in the light. Paul, in the verse immediately after the Ephesians “saved by grace not works” verse, tells us that we have been created as God’s workmanship for the purpose of doing good works.
No, what we do does not save us. Jesus and Paul and Peter and John are all clear about that. But belief in Jesus nonetheless speaks to our walk, not just to our intellect. When James says that faith without works is dead, he is parroting Jesus’s words to Nicodemus and Paul’s letter to the Church at Ephesus. Belief comes first, then salvation, then actions. Don’t get the order wrong. What you do does not save you, but if you are saved, your walk is different. We can tell you are saved by what you do.
That is another good place to end the sermon, but I am not quite done. We have discussed what it means to have that initial belief in Jesus. That is the most important decision any of us will ever make. The impact of that belief, that faith, is eternal salvation, and nothing compares to that.
But it is not the only thing.
You see, when we Christians live our lives, we need to keep on believing in Jesus, following Jesus on purpose. Our salvation is assured, and our place in God’s family is set in stone. No one can snatch us from His hand.
But life happens. The devil’s darts continue to fly. We sin. We hurt one another. We are prone to wander.
Sooner or later, and usually sooner, we realize that believing in Jesus does not mean that everything goes smoothly. We get sick. We get depressed. Those who love us most disappoint us. Doors get closed on our new church, and we cannot meet when and where we would have chosen to meet. We mess up. Job interviews do not turn our right. We do what we do not want to do, and we do not do what we should. Life is not always happy.
If that is where you are now, then my suggestion to you is that you believe in Jesus. Again.
Remember those three things I said earlier that it means to believe in Jesus?
First, believing in Jesus means believing facts. When you are unhappy and sick and put upon and sinful, it helps to know for sure that the Son of God loves you, has made a way for you, and will never leave you. Remind yourself what He says, and believe it. Remind yourself who He is, and believe it. Believe in the one who will not disappoint. Believe in the one who does not abandon you when you abandon Him. Believe what He says.
Second, I said earlier that believing in Jesus means experience. Walk in the light. If you are down, if you do not hear His voice, follow where you have known before that He leads. Walk in the light, even if you don’t see it.
The anonymous poem reads this way: “I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining. I believe in love, even when I cannot feel it. I believe in God, even when He is silent.”
You are going to have times of silence. Walk in the light anyway. You know how, even if you don’t feel like it. You have a great teacher, even if you do not hear His voice right now. You are going to feel sad, depressed, ill. Thinking great intellectual religious thoughts will not do much for you, but serving will. Go help someone. Go to church. Read your Bible. Show the love of Christ that you know to be true, even when you are not feeling it. Did you pay attention to those beautiful words we sang: “I looked to Jesus, and I found in Him my star, my sun; and in that light of life I’ll walk till traveling days are done.” Get on board the airplane. Believe in Jesus.
Third, believing in Jesus means relationship. Follow the leader. Pray. Throw yourself fully into the arms of Christ. When you are at your lowest, turn to Him and know once again that He will remember you when He comes into His kingdom. Take His yoke upon you. He will give you rest.
Believe in Jesus.
Those were words for Nicodemus. They were words for Jairus as his daughter lay on her deathbed. But they were also words for the apostles themselves after the resurrection as they cowered in the upper room in a time of depression and shame. They needed to be restored, to know that all was not lost. Jesus appeared to them and told them to “believe.”
I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Come to me and rest, weary one.” I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Drink the living water I freely give.” I heard the voice of Jesus say, “I am the world’s light. Look to me and your day will be bright.”
Believe in Jesus.