International Sunday School Lesson Study Notes
Lesson Text: John 3:11-21 Lesson Title: God’s Word Saves
John’s purpose for writing this gospel is to present Jesus Christ as God. Every page is a different story, different person, but the same theme. Jesus is God. From the first miracle at Cana of Galilee people responded to Jesus in one of two ways. They either believed or they don’t. Christ was never looking for a crowed to follow Him. He was and still is looking for people to believe Him and be saved.
Man, as clever and educated as he might be, has never outsmarted or fooled Jesus. He knows human nature and the sinfulness of man’s heart (John 2:24-25). That truth is clearly illustrated in the story of Nicodemus and his conversation with Jesus in John 3:1-21. Nicodemus was “a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1). Being “a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1) indicated that he had achieved a position of leadership in his nation. He was also a Pharisee. Pharisee’s were legalist in the strictest sense of the word. They were people who had a form of godliness based on the most ridiculous laws imaginable. They were the perfect examples of external religion without any true salvation.
Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night” (John 3:2) which might be attributed to a number of reasons. He might have feared criticism from his religious counterparts, or he might have simply wanted a private conversation with Jesus. It is also possible that he wanted to see for himself before committing himself publicly either for or against Jesus. Either way, Nicodemus was very polite, complementary, and straightforward with Jesus. He treated Christ as a gentleman. But Jesus is more interested in Nicodemus’ heart than his manners. And as the conversation developed, Jesus reveals He is more interested in Nicodemus’ heart than his head. Head knowledge will not save you.
Nicodemus was like many people today who are lost. He was so consumed with his own religious and personal life that he wasn’t even aware he needed a “new birth.” So many people have been raised in church they believe in God and are committed to a denomination or traditional belief system which leads them to assume everything is right between them and the Lord. Salvation is a new birth and it doesn’t happen at your first birth, your confirmation, your infant baptism, your church membership, or when some religious figure tells you. It occurs when the sinner through the convicting work of the Word of God and the Holy Spirit recognizes he / she is a sinner by nature and by choice and repents of unbelief and trusts the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross for saving grace (Ephesians 2:5, 8). Salvation is a new birth! Have you been born again?
God’s Word Saves in Spite of Unbelief (John 3:11-12)
The key word in these verses is “believe or believeth.” It is recorded seven times in verses 11-21. Believing is how you are saved (Mark 5:36; Romans 10:9-10). Believing can only occur when you respond to God’s Word and God’s working in your life.
“Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.” When Nicodemus asked, “How can a man be born when he is old…” (John 3:4), he was really saying, “I don’t believe.” John 3:4 gives insight into the fact that some things are real though you may not understand them. Nicodemus thinks he is too old to start over. He thinks this new birth is impossible.
“Verily, verily” means “truly, truly, or this is true.” Jesus used this expression to emphasize the truth and importance of what he was about to say. It is the third time he has used “verily, verily” in his conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:3, 5, 11). The pronoun “we” is used three times in verse 11 and refers to Jesus, his disciples and God. It is used to convict Nicodemus because he used the same pronoun in John 3:2 when he said, “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God.” The “we” in John 3:2 referred to Nicodemus as a representative of the religious community. Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, “We (meaning, Jesus, his disciples and God) know what we are talking about!” “Know” means Jesus has said nothing but that of which he has knowledge. Jesus isn’t dealing with speculations and suppositions in his conversation with Nicodemus. He is speaking truth about salvation. Isn’t it a blessing to have Jesus speak for us who believe? If you want to be saved you better listen to the word of God, not man or religion. If you want to be saved, listen to Jesus (Hebrews 1:1-2).
“Testify” and “witness” does not point to that which may be debated, but to objective facts. The word “seen” is horao, meaning “to perceive with the eyes.” The Lord was not setting before Nicodemus some religious rhetoric or spiritual-sounding speculation about how to get to heaven. He was setting before him truth, facts, the kind of facts an eyewitness could present in a court of law. The problem of unbelief is rooted in the fact that men will not believe the truth about Jesus Christ and salvation by grace.
“If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?” Jesus’ statement concerning “heavenly things” and “earthly things” must have devastated Nicodemus. When Jesus explained the spiritual nature of the new birth to Nicodemus, he asked, “How can these things be” (John 3:9). Nicodemus had spent his entire life learning “earthly things.” “Earthly things” are things that originated on earth and operate on earth. “Heavenly things” are things thing originate in heaven and operate on earth because they come from heaven. The revelation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God is a “heavenly thing.” “Salvation” is a “heavenly thing” because it originated in heaven with God but it is an “earthly thing” only in the sense that it takes place here upon this earth.
Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, “You don’t even understand an earthly thing like a natural birth, much less other things like the new birth.” That is true of every unbeliever. Nicodemus was ignorant of salvation because he would not believe. And, anyone who is lost in unbelief is lost because they will not believe.
Note: It is dangerous to teach things about salvation that you don’t know. Jesus said, “We know” and you better know what you are teaching. It is also important to realize that some people have trouble believing. Despite Nicodemus’ intelligence and religious status as a leader, he had problem grasping truth on a spiritual level.
God’s Word Saves in Answer to Unbelief (John 3:13-17)
“And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.” Jesus makes it clear to Nicodemus that He alone can speak authoritatively about thing in heaven because “no man hath ascended up to heaven.” Jesus’ point is that sinful man cannot ascend to God (Proverbs 30:4). Jesus’ statement, “no man hath ascended up to heaven” refutes every religious system and cult in the world. All the cults and false religions are based on some man’s “religious experience” or trip to heaven or somewhere to receive extra biblical revelation. The answer to unbelief is not in religion.
Since “no man hath ascended up to heaven,” that only leaves one solution; God must come down to man. And hallelujah that is what happened when Jesus Christ was incarnated in human flesh. “…But he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.” The “Son of man” is Jesus Christ in the flesh. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. Throughout John’s Gospel he insists on Jesus’ heavenly origin. The Apostle Paul said it this way, “The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:47). Sinful man cannot raise themselves to heaven. Jesus, however, “came down from heaven” and has brought salvation to sinful man (John 1:51; 3:31).
If Nicodemus was unable to comprehend the truth Jesus had given him up until now, he would definitely be incapable of grasping further truth without a human analogy such as a natural birth and the blowing of the wind (John 3:3-8). For this reason Jesus approached the problem from an Old Testament story with which Nicodemus would be familiar. He selected the story of the brazen serpent recorded in Numbers 21 and made a direct comparison between the serpent and Himself. It was a powerful comparison, for the serpent was the emblem of sin under judgment, as Nicodemus would recognize.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:14-15 explains the details of salvation and is a prediction of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. By using the Old Testament story of the brazen serpent, Jesus symbolized God’s way of saving men who are under the condemnation of sin and who are suffering from its effects.
On the border of the Promised Land the Israelites had sinned and as a judgment because of their sin they had been bitten by “fiery serpents” (Numbers 21:5-6). They were dying without hope and came to Moses for a remedy (Numbers 21:7). In answer to Moses’ prayer to the Lord, the Lord said to Moses, “Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Numbers 21:8-9). In his commentary on John’s Gospel, Merrill C. Tenney makes the following comparison: 1) The brazen serpent was prepared by the command of God. 2) The brazen serpent made curative power available on the basis of faith rather than of works. The sufferers did nothing but “look” at the serpent. 3) The brazen serpent was “put upon a pole” or, lifted up which is a beautiful picture of Christ on the cross. 4) The brazen serpent was a representation of God’s judgment on sin. 5) The bitten individual’s response to the brazen serpent determined his / her destiny. The difference was life or death.
The words “as…even so” indicate the powerful parallel between the brazen serpent in Numbers 21 and the salvation in Jesus Christ being offered to Nicodemus and the world. “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” is the answer to unbelief. Jesus told Nicodemus that the new birth was a direct result of faith in His death and resurrection, “as” or “even so” was the Israelites healing in the faithful look at the brazen serpent. The alternative to not looking toward the brazen serpent for the bitten Jew was physical death. The alternative for the unbeliever to not look by faith to Jesus for salvation is to “perish.” The word “perish” in John 3:15 and John 3:16 ought to make every sinner tremble and come to Christ for salvation. The word “perish” is the Greek word apoletai, meaning “to destroy.” The soul of man does not cease to exist beyond the grave. If a man dies in unbelief God will allow sin to complete its work beyond the grave. The Bible says, “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still…” (Revelation 22:11). Those who do not believe in Christ continue to be destroyed throughout eternity. Those who believe do “not perish” (John 3:16).
“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.” The purpose of God sending His Son into the world and Jesus’ death on the cross was to give eternal life to those who would believe.
“Believeth” is faith, acceptance, and trust. It is more than intellectual knowledge. What does it mean to believe in Jesus Christ? First, it means to believe that “God so loved the world” that He proved that love by sending us a sacrifice for our sin. The word “so” is amazing. God’s love is indescribable. It can’t be summarized in words. Remember, Jesus is still speaking to Nicodemus and he wants Nicodemus to think about the love of God. The word “loved” is the Greek word “agape” which is the strongest word possible. It refers to “an act of the will” rather than an emotion or whim. Its measure and worth can only be defined in terms of the results! God “so loved” that “he gave.” Salvation is a gift of God! It is also worthy to note that God “loved” us before we were ever saved. He loved us when we did not love Him (1 John 4:19). The fact that “God so loved the world” clears Almighty God of any accusations of injustice and respect of persons in either saving or judging the world.
Nicodemus, and the average Jew, would have no problem believing that God “so loved” the nation of Israel. But “the world” is a different ballgame! By loving the “world” God is saying that His love embraces all mankind. There is no race, class, or culture of people that are beyond the reach of God’s love. The fact that “God so loved the world” forever erases the idea of God desiring anything for sinners except believing and trusting Him for salvation.
Second, believing means that you trust that Jesus is God and everything He has said and done is true. Jesus Christ is God’s “only begotten Son.” Jesus Christ is the unique Son of God. No other is or can be the Son of God as He is. Jesus Christ was always the unique Son of God and the gift of God for man’s salvation. There is salvation in none other but Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12).
Third, believing means you have an unquestionable commitment to Jesus Christ. “Whosoever” in verse 15 and 16 means “whosoever.” It is one of the broadest and most inclusive words in human speech. No one is excluded if they believe. God’s salvation through Jesus Christ is a “whosoever” salvation. Again, salvation is not restricted to any race, color, or class, but is God’s gift offered to all who will believe. Have you believed? “Everlasting life” is “life with no end.” Christ came to give life. Christ came to save from eternal death and damnation. Do you have “everlasting life?” If not, ask Christ today to save your soul and give you “everlasting life.”
“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” These words word directed right at Nicodemus and the religious world he represented. The Jews had the idea that when Messiah came, his primary purpose would be to “condemn the world” or, destroy the Gentiles. “Sent” is the word for “apostle, or sent one.” Christ was God’s “sent one” but He didn’t send Him to “condemn.” “Condemn” means “to be judged or found guilty, sentenced to death.” Christ didn’t come with the purpose of sentencing anyone to eternal death. Although that happens when sinners reject Christ’s salvation, He came “…that the world through him might be saved” (Matthew 25:31-33). Whatever your color, race, ethnic background, status in life, religious upbringing or no religious upbringing at all, Christ came into this world to save you, not to condemn you.
God’s Word Saves in the Midst of Unbelief (John 3:18-21)
“He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” These are powerful words of warning for Nicodemus and anyone who chooses not to believe. Your faith or lack of faith is a self-condemning choice. “He” means anyone. Anyone who doesn’t believe on the Son of God is “condemned already.” The simple presence of unbelief is enough to separate a man from God for all eternity. It is not what we do, say, or the way we live that eternally separates us from God. It is failure to “believe.”
“Already” reminds us that while the act of condemnation is future, the truth of it begins now. The Great White Throne of Judgment is the execution of the sentence, but the trial takes place here and now (Revelation 20:11).
“And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” This verse along with verses 20-21 describes the character of the condemned. “Light” is Jesus Christ and the truth of God’s Word. “Light is come into the world” is a reference to the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He is God’s Word in the flesh (John 1:3-5; 14). But “men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” When Jesus Christ the “Light” came into this world, people rejected Him then as they do today because they love their sin. People don’t believe in Christ today because they love their sin. We may not know what the particular sin is they love, but they “love” it enough that it keeps them from trusting Christ for salvation.
It is interesting that Jesus talks about “light” and “darkness” when you consider the fact that Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night” (John 3:2). Only Nicodemus and Jesus know the reason behind this interesting situation. We have no reason to believe Nicodemus had any “deeds” that were “evil” but nevertheless Jesus left no room for misunderstanding. One thing is certain. Those who reject Jesus Christ the Savior of the world are choosing unbelief and they will eternally perish in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10-20).
“For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.” Those who “doeth evil” are those who do not respond to the gospel invitation. John is not talking about just certain acts of evil. When a sinner is comes to the “light” it is a fact that “his deeds” will be revealed for what they are. People die lost because of unbelief, not just random acts of evil. The word “reproved” means “uncovered.” Nothing is hid from the all seeing eye of God and the living Word of God (Hebrews 4:12). No one should be confused on where they stand in relation to salvation and Jesus Christ. Salvation has nothing to do with lack of understanding or ignorance. “Hateth” is a strong word. Sinners and the sinful world in which we live hates the “light.” And the reason they hate it is because it reveals their sinfulness. This isn’t about making the gospel more attractive and “sinner friendly.” This isn’t about doing a demographic study of your community and finding out what type of church or message the community wants. It’s about “light” coming “into the world” and what man will do with that “light.” It is about man either coming to Christ for salvation or rejecting Jesus Christ in order to live the life he wants to live.
“But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.” “He that doeth truth” refers to those who respond to the gospel invitation and come to Christ for eternal life. John, in contrasting people that “doeth evil” (John 3:20) and “he that doeth truth” in verse 21, is not teaching salvation by works or by nature. He is not saying that some people naturally lean toward sin and rejecting Christ while others lean toward truth and accepting Christ. How someone responds to the light indicates how they relate to God’s offer of salvation.
“That his deeds may be manifest” means that when a sinner comes to the “light” and to Christ for salvation the true desire of his heart to be saved is revealed. The individual who “doeth evil” stays away from the light because it reveals he has decided to believe the father of lies, the devil (John 8:44-45). However, the one “that doeth truth” comes to the light to reveal that what is happening in his life has been “wrought in God.” Coming to the light and trusting Christ for salvation is a “work of God.” Staying in “darkness” is the result of sin and human effort while coming “to the light” is a result of God’s power.
If you are born again, rest assured that you did not come to the light on your own merits or human effort. If left alone, all of us would still be under condemnation and avoiding the light. However, the Apostle Paul said, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Romans 8:1). What a joy to know that God’s Word saves and that you are a recipient of His grace and mercy.
For Nicodemus, the time had come to accept or reject the truth that salvation means a new birth. If Nicodemus is to ever see God’s heaven he must start all over. He must be “born again” (John 3:7). Curiously enough, no statement is made concerning Nicodemus’ decision one way or another. And part of the reason we don’t know what Nicodemus did with the truth he received from Jesus Christ on that night is because Christ wants you to know about you. Nicodemus has lived, talked face to face with Jesus Christ, made his decision and died. You are alive today. God’s Word is speaking to you. And the message is the same. “…Ye must be born again” (John 3:7).
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