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Laodicea: The Nauseating Church of the Revelation

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(To listen to or download the audio message, click Audio.)

Study #8: ‘’Laodicea—The Nauseating Church”

Some time ago, Newsweek magazine printed an article called “The Super-Churches of Houston.” It was an analysis of a trend that is becoming more and more common among the mega-churches. The direction is towards ecclesiastical entertainment centers that not only offer Broadway quality musical productions as worship services, but also multi-million dollar sports complexes and huge professional staffs who provide everything from exercise classes to meal services.

One church boasted 17,000 members and a budget of over $10 million. At the time of the article, they were nearing completion of a facility featuring two full-size basketball courts, a roller rink, six bowling lanes, four glassed-in racquetball courts, a suspended jogging track, saunas, whirlpools, and a restaurant called “The Garden of Eatin.” Their pastor explained: “There’s a phenomenal amount of money here, and that makes for a catalyst to do great things for the kingdom of God.” His associate added, “America does things in a big way, and the Lord is not going to be left in the backseat.” Of course, their crosstown rival wasn’t either. Their plans? A $34 million facility with two more bowling lanes than the first church and a state-of-the-art sports complex out-rivaling all their competitors.

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What do you think of this trend? More importantly, what does Jesus think about it? Is He cheering them on to ever greater levels of bigness?   Or is He about to judge them for their pride? The late Ken Chafin, pastor of Houston’s second biggest church, gave his opinion. Refusing to be caught up in the competition, he said: The super-church cult is tied to something larger. It’s tied to the success syndrome of American business. Its pastor is like the chief executive of a large corporation, growth is the bottom line, and that puts extreme pressure on the church to measure itself with a different measuring stick than God.”

Why mention this trend? Because most churches want to grow. The question is: What kind of growth do we want, and what methods will we use to accomplish it? When we started our fellowship, we could have tried to attract people from other churches. But we didn’t because that’s sheep-stealing and superficial growth. Instead, the people we’ve added have come the old-fashioned way—by one sinner telling another sinner where he found spiritual food.

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There are two extremes to avoid when it comes to growth. One we discovered in our study of the church at Sardis—no growth. Why didn’t they grow? They were dead, and dead· things do not grow. But the other extreme is just as bad, and that’s the problem exemplified in this study—superficial growth. The church of Laodicea was the super-church of its day. They were big, active, and wealthy. But in the things that mattered, Jesus called them “poor, blind, and naked.” Let’s find out why by looking at the problem of this church.

  1. THE PROBLEM

The most striking thing about this letter is its lack of commendation. In each of the other letters, Jesus found something to praise. But not in this one! For there was nothing good to say about this church.

A.  Hinted at in the Description of Christ

You can see a hint of their problem in verse 14. Jesus begins with a description of Himself intended to challenge their behavior. He begins, “These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God.”

“Amen” is a very significant word in the Bible. Jesus used it in the Gospels whenever He introduce a key thought or emphasize His point. “Verily, verily I say to you.” That’s the word “Amen.” “God said it. That settles it. The matter is beyond dispute!” Yet I want you to notice, this is more than a loud “Amen!” tacked onto the end of a sentence. This says that Jesus is the “Amen.” What does that mean? It means, as 1 Corinthians 1:20 says, that all the promises of God are “yes” and “amen” in Jesus Christ. Or to say it another way, not one word of this Book will ever fail. Why not? Because Jesus Christ is the guarantee and fulfillment of it all. Why was that important for the Laodiceans to remember? Because lukewarm Christians do not take the Word of God seriously. They may give mental assent to the major teachings and warnings of the Bible, but they compromise in those “gray areas” which they consider nice but not necessary. After all, a little bit of carelessness and neglect never hurts anyone. Or does it?

The story is told of an ocean liner that sank off the coast of Ireland. Divers were sent down to investigate how the tragedy happened. One item recovered was the ship’s compass, inside of which they found the tip of a knife. Apparently, while cleaning it, one of the sailors had broken off the point, which then lodged inside. It was just a little thing, but sometimes that’s all it takes to throw a life off course—just a little bit of spiritual unfaithfulness and neglect.

Cathy Layman | Times Photo xxxxxx: William Stender III will be featured in some upcoming episodes of Salvage Code Red, a series of 6 shows which will be shown on National Geographic channel soon. He's holding a ship's compass, one of the latest trinkets he's pulled off the bottom of the sea at the Straits of Gibraltar. Date taken Thursday, February 4, 2009

Cathy Layman | Times Photo
Date taken Thursday, February 4, 2009

Verse 14 adds, “These things says the Faithful and True Witness.” Why emphasize that? Because this was a church full of hypocrites. You hear that sometimes, that the church is full of hypocrites, but in this case it was true. The members claimed to be Christians, but their lives said something different. Jesus talked about this in Matthew 7:21. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

And He continues, “These things says the Beginning of the creation of God.” Jehovah’s Witnesses love this verse. In fact, I’ve found it’s one of the first things they point to in denying the deity of Christ. “See,” they say. “Jesus is not Jehovah God. He’s only a created being!” But that’s not what the verse means. It means just the opposite. The word “Beginning” is the Greek word arche and  should be translated “the Originator or Beginner of the creation of God.” It’s emphasizing that Jesus is the Creator of the universe, that “all things were   made by Him and without Him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:3)

Why was that important for the Laodiceans to hear? Because they thought they had it all together, and they prided themselves on it. They prided themselves on their wealth. They prided themselves on their success. They prided themselves on their intelligence. So Jesus reminds them, “The only reason you enjoy any of these things is because I, your Maker, gave them to you. And I can take it away in a moment. Because I’m the Origin of it all!

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We need to remember that too! Think of how much we enjoy. Certainly far more than the Laodiceans ever dreamed of having – cell phones, hot and cold running water, televisions, fast food, automobiles, word processors, hot tubs, RVs. Every creature comfort we could want and more! And that’s dangerous. Because when you have so much, why do you need God?

Some of you may have read about the eagle that attacks seals. The bird swoops down and fixes its claws in the creature’s back, pulling it to shore and killing it. But sometimes the seal proves too strong for the bird, and with a mighty lunge heads for deep water. The eagle shrieks and struggles to release its grip, but the helpless bird is slowly pulled beneath the waves to its death. That’s the way it is with the things of this world if we become attached to them. They drag us away from Christ towards spiritual and sometimes eternal disaster.

B.  Stated Plainly in the Correction of Christ

You say, “l am not sure I see all of that in these few phrases. Then read on in verse 15 where Jesus corrects them, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot.  So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.”

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Christ found two major faults in this church. The first was lukewarmness. That was a concept the Laodiceans could immediately understand. The neighboring cities in the Lycus River Valley were Hierapolis, known for its hot spring with its reputed healing qualities. Colossae, on the other hand, was located at the foot of the mountains, enjoying cool and refreshing water. But Laodicea had no water supply of its own. They had to pipe in mineral water through two underground aqueducts from miles away, which made it almost undrinkable by the time it reached them.  In fact, those who visit the spring today say it tastes so bad that their immediate reaction is to spit it out.

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What does that supposed to represent? Some say “cold” refers to unbelievers, “hot” to Spirit-filled believers, and “lukewarm” to carnal Christians who are no longer living for Christ. But there’s a problem with that interpretation. It is this. Jesus said He was about to vomit these people out of His mouth. But that is inconsistent with other things Jesus said to His followers. Listen, for example to John 6:37. “All the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means (That is the strongest negative statement available in the Greek language, meaning “I will never, no never”) cast out.”

Then you ask, “who is He talking to?” The unbelievers in the church, which was the majority of the congregation. They professed to be Christians, but had never committed their lives to Christ. You say, “Is that possible? Can a person faithfully attend church and still not be a Christian?” Of course, the devil himself often visits churches, and we know that he is not a true worshiper of God.

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In fact, I grew up in a church like this—with a membership of over a thousand very nice people who believed in God, but never was there any emphasis on the Gospel. Rarely did anyone mention sin or that Jesus had died on the cross to pay for them. Nor do I recall even one time hearing someone say with conviction, “I believe Jesus rose from the dead!” The only time I heard the gospel was during a confirmation class I was taking. One of my friends asked the minister, “But how can I be sure that I’m going to heaven?” His answer was John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Other than that, I never heard God’s plan of salvation. Nor did the other members of the church. And how can anyone be saved without hearing the Word of God? We believed in God and professed to be Christians, but how many had faith in Jesus Christ? I didn’t. And that’s scary! Attending church for years and still not being right with God because you have never invited His Son into your life and yielded your heart to His Holy Spirit.

Earlier I quoted Matthew 7:21. Now let me quote the next verse, Matthew 7:22. Jesus added, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.’”

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Their first fault was that they were spiritually lukewarm. Their second fault was that they were spiritually proud. In 60 AD, just 30 years before this letter was written, the province of Phrygia was struck by a devastating earthquake. But guess what! Of all the cities in the region, only Laodicea was able to rebuild itself without the help of Rome. How? Because of their money. Laodicea was a major banking center, bringing the city enormous wealth. And they took pride in that fact. But, unfortunately, so did the church. They looked at their resources and said to themselves, “We are rich and have need of nothing! Not even Christ.”

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How could that be? How could a Christian be so influenced by the world that he finds his value and significance in something other than Christ? Friends, it happens all the time, and not only in Houston. Rightly understood, this is the challenge of the ages. To find our security and significance in Christ alone. But how many of us truly do that? Not many. Most of us spend most of our time in a mad pursuit of recognition and image thinking, “This is what makes me matter! This is what makes me valuable!” When, in fact, Christ may be saying to us, “You are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.” Jeremiah put it in poetic terms. Speaking for the Lord, he wrote: “For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn for themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water.”

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The superficial nature of our growth came to mind when reading about the Queen Mary, once the largest oceangoing vessel on earth, now a floating museum in Long Beach, California. Those who’ve seen it know how impressive it is! But before her conversion, something interesting happened to her. They removed her smoke stacks for painting, and when they set them down on the dock, what happened? They crumbled. Why? Because there was nothing left of the ¾ inch steel from which they were made.  All that remained were thirty coats of paint that had collected over the years. That’s the danger we face if what we’re concerned about is what others think of us. The danger is that we can have an impressive outer image, but empty be on the inside. Because we’ve never allowed Jesus to remake us from within. But He has a remedy.

  1. THE REMEDY

And here I want to keep it simple and straightforward, because it is easy to make the solution more complicated than it is. The Savior says in essence, “You need to be real. You need to exchange your hypocrisy for three genuine articles.” First, you need to replace it with—

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A.  Genuine Faith

Verse 18 continues, “I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich.” What’s Jesus talking about? Here is a case when it’s helpful to compare Scripture with Scripture, for 1 Peter 1:7 explains it like this. He says, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Instead of working like crazy to solve all your problems and merely confessing Jesus as your Savior, you need to accept your hardships as opportunities to trust Christ as your problem-solver and thereby grow strong in your faith in Him. Proverbs 3:5-6 say, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths.”

B.  Genuine Righteousness

Verse 18 continues, “And white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed.” This was something else the church would have immediately understood, because one of the major industries in Laodicea was garment-making. The sheep raised in the area produced a high quality wool that was raven black and glossy. But Jesus corrects them, “What you need are new garments made not from black wool, but of pure white linen.” What does that represent? The righteousness of Christ. Revelation 19:8 says of the church, “To her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white, for the fine linen is the righteousness of the saints.” Of course, our righteousness is a derived righteousness, in that it doesn’t come from us. It is given as a gift to those who put their faith in Christ. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Rom. 4:5)

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Colossians refers to the same thing. Paul urges us, “Put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.” We are to put on the character of Christ like a beautiful new garment. You say, “I’ve been trying to do that. I’ve been trying to be like Christ for years.” I know. That’s the problem. You’ve been trying. The good news is you don’t have to try anymore. What you need to do is accept the righteousness of Christ by faith. How?

The Bible says there are two steps. First, you need to take off the old. What many believers try to do is wear two coats at the same time. They try to put on the new coat of Christ’s righteousness over the filthy coat of their self-righteousness. But you cannot wear both. To wear the coat of Christ’s righteousness, you have to quit trying to patch up that smelly coat of self-effort, because that will never be accepted in God’s presence. You have to recognize your ragged garments, ask Christ to remove them, and then trust Him to give you the coat of His righteousness as a gift.

C.  Genuine Insight

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Verse 18 adds, “And eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.” That was the third industry for which Laodicea was famous. It was the site of a medical school that boasted an eye powder which could heal all sorts of visual problems. And Jesus agrees. You need an anointing, but not of eye powder. You need the anointing of My Holy Spirit, so that the eyes of your understanding may be opened and you can understand the things of God.

Let me liken it to a visual problem I have. Doctors call it color deficiency. It used to be called color blindness. But that’s no longer considered polite. So now I’m color deficient, which means there are some colors in the spectrum I cannot see. The primary colors I recognize—red, blue, yellow, orange. But many of the shades—pinks, purples, greens, browns—are hard for me to distinguish. Why? Because there is something lacking in my rods and cones. And something similar can be said of the unbeliever. You can talk to him day and night about spiritual things, and he just doesn’t get it. Why not? Because he does not have the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

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  1. THE PROMISES

You might assume from all the harsh things said to this church that Jesus doesn’t like them. But nothing could be farther from the truth! He assures them in verse 19, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore, be zealous and repent.” Why? Because of two wonderful promises He makes to them in verses 20 to 21. The first is directed to unbelievers in the church.

A.  To Unbelievers

He says in verse 20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” This is one of the most beautiful yet controversial verses in all of Scripture. Millions of soul-winners have used it over the years to invite their friends to accept Jesus as their Savior, while other Bible “experts” smile knowingly and say to themselves, “That’s fine, if you want to use it that way. But that’s not the right interpretation. For this wasn’t written to unbelievers; it was written to a church.” And in so doing, they rob the soul-winner of one of the most powerful tools in his spiritual arsenal. I myself have had people tell me I can’t use this verse like that.

So who is right? The soul-winners! Two facts make this clear. First, the context. Our study has shown that though this was a promise to the church of Laodicea, most of its members were unbelievers who professed to be Christians, but had never opened their hearts to Christ. Furthermore, where is Jesus in this verse? He’s standing outside the door, clearly indicating that He is neither in their lives or inside their church. However, His gracious promise is if just one person in the church opens her heart to Him, He will come and have fellowship with them.

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So let me encourage you, my dear evangelistic friend, use this verse as freely and as often as you like. For it was written with your ministry in mind. In fact, the word “dine” in this passage is the Greek word for the last meal of the day, implying what? That the time is short for receiving Christ. So feel free to use every chance He gives you to tell others about Him. Of if you yourself have never received Christ as your Savior, please open your heart to Him today!

Perhaps you’ve seen the painting by Holman Hunt with Christ standing outside a home, gently rapping on the door. But there’s something unusual about the door. The handle is on the inside, reminding us that Christ will not force His way into our lives. If you want Jesus in your life, you must invite Him to come in. How can you do that? In prayer. Say something like this—

Lord Jesus, I need You in my life. Thank you for dying on the cross for my sins and rising again to give me new life. I open the door of my life and invite You to come in. Please forgive me and make me the kind of person You want me to be. I turn from my sins and trust You as my Savior. I pray in Your name. Amen.

B.  To Believers

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Finally, Jesus promises us that if we make room for Him in our hearts, He’ll make room for us in heaven. Verse 21, “He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” You may feel small and insignificant right now, but you won’t for long. For the Bible promises, “If we endure, we shall also reign with Him.”

Some time ago, I read an article about the residents of a Florida apartment building who awoke one more morning to a terrifying sight just outside their windows. The ground beneath the street in front of their building had literally collapsed, creating a massive depression called a sinkhole. Tumbling into the ever-deepening pit were automobiles, sidewalks, and all manner of goods from nearby businesses. The building itself would obviously be next to go.

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Scientists say that sinkholes occur when underground streams drain away in times of drought, causing the ground at the surface to lose its underlying support. Suddenly everything caves in, leaving people with the terrifying feeling that nothing—not even the earth beneath their feet—is trustworthy. Sadly, there are many people whose lives are like that sinkhole. They have accumulated a plethora of possessions as well as important assets like academic degrees, work experiences, influential friendships, and physical beauty or strength. But they discover too late that their inner world is on the verge of collapse.

That was the case in Laodicea. On the surface, they looked substantial. But underneath, where only Jesus can see, they were “miserable, wretched, poor, blind, and naked.” Don’t make that mistake! Ask Christ to give you “gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover the shame of your nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.”

(To download the written form of this lesson, click Written. To download the Powerpoint slides for teaching this lesson, click Slides.)

Does the Virgin Birth matter to you?

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Several years ago, a survey was taken among seminary students preparing for the ministry.  They were asked, “Do you believe in the Virgin Birth of Christ?” This was a cross-denominational survey taken of students from a variety of church traditions.  The sad fact is that the majority agreed.  53% said, “No, I do not believe in the Virgin Birth as described in the Bible.”  One beloved television pastor actually admitted, “When I come across a topic like the Virgin Birth that I’m unsure about, I just don’t deal with it.”

Yet this is and has always been one of the fundamentals of the Christian faith!  (Other fundamentals include the inerrancy of the Bible, belief in one God who eternally exists as three Persons, salvation by grace through faith alone, and the second coming of Jesus Christ.)  Furthermore, the danger when pastors fail to preach the truths of Scripture is that it undermines the faith of their members leaving them wondering what to believe.

FakeSo in this and my next two posts, I want to leave no doubt about what I believe and what the Bible teaches.  I believe in the Virgin Birth of Christ just as I believe in the sinless life He lived, His death for our sins on the cross, His resurrection from the dead three days later, His exaltation to the throne of Heaven, and His soon return to reward the righteous and punish evildoers.  But I want to do even more in this short series than tell you what I believe and what the Bible teaches. I want to explain why the Virgin Birth is important and why it ought to be fully embraced by everyone who loves Jesus.

But first, let me clear up a common misconception.  One of the reasons that is sometimes given for the Virgin Birth is that Jesus had to be born of a virgin so He would not inherit a sinful human nature. That is what I used to believe before I studied the topic.  After all, I thought, humankind first acquired its sinful nature as a result of Adam’s sin in the Garden.  But because Jesus was born of a virgin and didn’t have a sinful human father (Remember, Joseph was His step-father, not His biological father), Jesus was born free of sin. That sounded good until someone asked me a follow-up question: What about Mary? Wasn’t she also a sinner, and if so, wouldn’t she have passed her sin on to Jesus?

The Roman Catholic Church has offered one solution to this problem. It is called the Immaculate Conception. (No, not the immaculate reception! That is a football play.) I am not a Roman Catholic theologian. But what I am told about this teaching is that when Mary was born, God protected her from inheriting a sinful nature.  This is why she was able to give birth to Jesus without passing on her sin to Him.  She too was free from sin.

Immaculate-Conception-Main-Module-Dec2014But the always-important question to ask is: Is this what the Bible teaches? Was Mary free from sin from the moment of her conception?  Apparently, Mary  did not think so. For in her Magnificat, found in Luke 1:46-55, she proclaimed, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; for behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name.”

So the Roman Catholic answer doesn’t work.  Mary herself admitted she was a sinner who needed a Savior.  Others suggest that it is only the father’s sin which is passed onto a child.  So Jesus was born sin-free because He had no biological human father.  But not only is there no Biblical support for that position; the Scriptures implies just the opposite.

For example, if you read through the books of Kings and Chronicles, you will find something quietly mentioned about both the good and bad kings (e.g., 2 Kings 12:1; 14:2; 15:2; 15:33; 21:1; 2 Chronicles 13:1; 25:1; 26:3; 27:1; 29:1) , so quietly that you could miss it if you aren’t watching for it.  The Scripture mentions their mother’s names, implying that it is not only the righteousness or wickedness of the father that influences a child; it is also the character of the mother.  Christian mothers will, of course, quickly admit this, that they have not only had to help their children overcome the evil tendencies of their husbands, but also the sinful tendencies which they themselves have passed onto their children.

 

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The Virgin Birth, then, was not God’s method of keeping His Son from inheriting a sinful human nature.  To do that, another miracle was needed – the miracle of supernaturally purifying Mary’s seed.

Having cleared up that misconception, then, we can now go on in our next study to discuss the first reason why the Virgin Birth is all-important! But before we do, may I ask you?  Do you believe in the Virgin Birth?  Is your opinion based on the teaching of Scripture? Prior to our next study, take time to prepare yourself by reading the historical accounts found in Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-56.

THE ORIGINAL “NICK AT NIGHT”

1Have you ever stopped to consider the things that God cannot do? Let me suggest a few. The first thing He can’t do is lie. Number 23:19 explains: “God is not man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that He should change His mind. Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not fulfill it?” God cannot lie, for that would be a violation of His own holy character.

That’s why many of the questions posed by skeptics are often just plain silly, like this. Have you ever come across this one? They ask, “If your God is all-powerful and able to do anything, then let’s see Him create a rock that is too big for Him to lift!” But then that’s  just double talk, for what they’re trying to do is to pit God’s creative power against His power to do miracles, asking Him to violate His own Almighty character, something He said He will not and cannot ever do. God cannot lie, nor will He ever contradict His own holy character.

One more question while I’m at it! Are there are sins God can’t forgive? Only one! Am I right? And that’s rejecting Jesus as Lord, for other than that one unpardonable sin, He died for every sin and blasphemy we have committed or ever will commit, which means if you worship Jesus as Lord, your every sin has been forgiven—past, present, and future! But “unless you believe that I AM,” Jesus warned, “you will die in your sins.” For He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, your and my Only Savior and Hope of Salvation! But except for these few things, Jesus said, “Nothing shall be impossible for God!”

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Now let’s talk about ourselves. Is there anything we can’t do if we put our minds to it? “Absolutely not!” the New Agers, the humanists, and the followers of the cults will tell you. “You can do anything if you just learn to believe in yourself!” Fools! The list of what we can’t do is absolutely endless. But the one that tops the list is the one before us tonight—the impossibility of being born again!

Let me remind you, as we get started, where we left off last week. We were in Jerusalem following the Passover where Jesus performed a countless number of miracles for over a year, proving that He’s God with hundreds of people coming up to Him and saying, “I believe in you, Jesus, I believe you’re the Messiah!” We saw that in John 2:23 – “Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many were believing (The word is pisteuo meaning to believe in someone.) in His name when they saw the signs He was doing.   But verse 24 adds, “Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them.” (That’s the same word pisteuo.) In other words, they were believing in Jesus, but He wasn’t believing in them! Why not? John says, “He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” And what He knows us isn’t good! For as the Bible says about us in many places, “In me, that is, in my flesh dwells no good thing.” The only good thing about you, if your faith is genuine, is that Jesus now lives in your heart and has changed your fundamental nature.

That brings us to chapter 3 where we meet a man from Jerusalem who has seen the miracles of Jesus and concluded, “This is a man sent by God!” By the way, do you think that’s a coincidence, that John immediately introduces us to someone who pictures what he’s just told us at the end of chapter 2? Of course not! John is a fisherman, and if anyone knows how to tell a story, it’s a fisherman. Except in this case, it’s true and inspired by the Holy Spirit who, Jesus said, is the Spirit of truth, which means whatever you find in this Book, you can trust. Unfortunately for this man, he isn’t a true believer because, he doesn’t yet have the right kind of belief. That’s something John warns us again and again in this book, that there is a belief which is not a belief because it’s a belief that’s superficial, self-serving, and stubbornly refuses to give Jesus the glory He deserves as God the Son.

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Open your Bible with me, then, to John chapter 3 where we’re going to meet “The Original Nick at Night,” and therein discover both what it means and why it’s imperative to be “born from above.” My outline for our study has 3 parts: the Sinner’s Crisis, the Savior’s Counsel, and the Spirit’s Conversion.

(To listen to or download the audio version of this message, click on Audio Message. And if it would be helpful to a friend to hear it, please pass it on!)

1. The Sinner’s Crisis

John 3:1 says, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.’” By the way, did you know that no one ever doubted Jesus’ power to do miracles? His enemies certainly didn’t. Instead, what did they say the reason was that He could do miracles, so they wouldn’t have to bow to His Lordship? They said His power to do miracles came from the devil, thereby blaspheming the Holy Spirit and committing the one sin that can’t be forgiven – the sin of rejecting the Lordship of Jesus. In fact, it’s only twenty centuries later that skeptics and liberals are so wise in their own eyes that they set aside the testimony of eyewitnesses, comforting themselves with the thought that “those ancient people weren’t smart enough to know what I know today!”

But who was Nicodemus? He had a Greek name as many of the Jews did at that time. Nico means conquer and Demus means people. So put it together, and what do you get? Nicodemus, “victor over the people.” Now don’t read too much into that. It was just a name. Nor should you read a lot into the fact that he came to Jesus by night. I don’t think, as some preachers suggest, that “night” is a metaphor for the darkness of his soul. He just hadn’t made up his mind about Jesus yet and was being careful because he knew the Pharisees were opposed to Him. Instead, what we need to understand about him are these three facts:

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1) He himself was a Pharisee. The word means “separated one.” These were the ultra-conservative, Bible believers of Israel who interpreted the Bible literally. They believed in angels, devils, miracles, the six days of creation, heaven, hell – all of which made Nicodemus anxious because he knew he wasn’t ready to stand before God in judgment. They were also conservative in lifestyle. You know the ultra-orthodox, Hasidic branch of Judaism? These were its founders, and they were absolutely rabid about keeping the Law, not only priding themselves in the fact that they kept all 613 commandments of the Old Testament (Remember the rich young ruler? “All these things I have kept from my youth!”), but they had also come up with over a thousand laws or mitzvot of their own, just to make sure they never came close to crossing over the line.

For example, one thing a Pharisees would never do, or let his wife do, was look in a mirror on the Sabbath. Why not? Because she might find a gray hair and be tempted to pluck it, which was considered working on the Sabbath! On the other hand, a Pharisee could eat an egg laid on the Sabbath, but only if he killed the hen that laid it for working on the Sabbath. That’s how ridiculous it got. And all for nothing! Because as holy as they thought they were and seemed to be on the surface (We’re good at fooling ourselves and others, aren’t we?), Jesus called them whitewashed tombs who looked beautiful on the outside, but on the inside were full of dead men’s bones and every kind of uncleanness.

By the way, based on everything that’s said about the Pharisees in the Gospels, you might think they were a large group. Not so! There were only 6,000 of them in all Israel at the time. But then it doesn’t take a large group to change the world for good or for ill, does it, just a highly dedicated group? That’s what they were! The Pharisees believed if they could get the entire nation to keep the Law for one day, the Kingdom would come. “But now, with this carpenter from Galilee defying our laws and challenging our authority, the Kingdom will never come!” No wonder they were of all Jesus’ enemies the most rabid. They hated Him so much that only one Pharisee in the Bible, other than Nicodemus, ever came to Him. You know who that was? The Apostle Paul who would have never bowed to the Lordship of Jesus if He hadn’t been struck him blind on the Damascus road! Later he said this of his life as a Pharisee. Philippians 3:6, “I was a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless! But whatever things were gain to me…I now count as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ.”

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2) He was a ruler of the Jews, meaning he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Council made up of its 70 most powerful leaders, plus the high priest, and comprising what was in essence the Congress and Supreme Court of Israel—which means Nicodemus was a very powerful man. Church tradition says he was also one of the three wealthiest men in Jerusalem at the time.

3) He was, according to verse 10, not just a teacher, but “the teacher of Israel.” Jesus uses the definite article indicating that of all the rabbis in Israel at the time, Nicodemus was the best and brightest of them. As such, he would have been like a walking Bible dictionary, able to quote the entire Old Testament by memory. That means when talking to him, all Jesus had to do was mention a topic and every verse on that subject would have immediately come to his mind.

But above all things, he was a lost and desperate soul. After all, what do you do when you’ve spent your whole life scaling the ladder of self-righteousness and reached the pinnacle of your religion only to discover that it’s all been in vain? The only thing left to do is to turn to Jesus! So that’s what he did. He comes to Jesus lost, fearful, and wondering how to be saved. That’s the sinner’s crisis. Now look with me at the Savior’s counsel for sinners like you and me.

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2. The Savior’s Counsel

Nicodemus says to Jesus, “Rabbi” meaning “teacher.” That was something Nicodemus was called every day of his life, for of all the teachers in Israel, he was the most respected. But now his soul is in trouble and he’s desperate for help! So he turns to a Teacher who surpasses him in every way saying, “Rabbi, we know that You’re a teacher from God, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” How does Jesus answer? “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Sounds like a non sequitur, doesn’t it? In other words, how did what you said have anything to do with what I said? Ever had a conversation like that with somebody? But that isn’t how Nicodemus takes it. He realizes that what Jesus has just done is read his mind. He knows his guilt and his fears, and He knows yours too!

Nicodemus has heard Jesus preach several times by now. So he’s aware how superficial his righteousness is. That’s something every hypocrite knows in his heart. He knows he’s a hypocrite. And the Pharisees were hypocrites—every one of them! How can I say that? Because that’s what Jesus said 5 times in Matthew 23 alone: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Then He adds, “You travel over land and sea to make one convert, and when you finally win him, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves!” Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a hypocrite, and a son of hell! And he was well aware of it!

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So what does Jesus do? He ignores the compliment and goes straight to the heart of his problem. “Truly, truly, I say to you.” That means He’s about to correct a false teaching Nicodemus was guilty of. What false teaching was that? The false teaching of apostate Judaism that you can earn God’s favor by your good works and self-righteousness! Jesus corrects that saying to him not once, but 5 times in 8 verses, “You must be born again!” Jimmy Carter made that a household term when he ran for president and claimed to be a born again Christian. Since then it has been misapplied to everything from born-again athletic careers to second-hand books and used cars. So here’s a suggestion when talking to someone about your faith. Use the second, not the first meaning, of the word. What do I mean? The word anothen can actually be translated two different ways—“born again” or “born from above.” And the second meaning is what Jesus is really saying – without receiving new life from above, you’ll never see the Kingdom of God.

The analogy of birth is also the best way to explain salvation to someone like Nicodemus who is self-righteous. Because just as an unborn baby is helpless to contribute anything to his own birth, in the same way you and I are helpless to contribute anything to our salvation. Religion is useless, no matter what group you belong to or how sincere you are, because everything you do is corrupted by your sinful nature. Isaiah 64:6 says, “We are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousness is like a filthy rag.” Consequently, what you need if we want to enter God’s Kingdom is the new life which only Jesus can give you. Remember what John said in John 1:12? “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the power to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” So don’t waste your time looking for any books telling you how to be born again. Sometimes you’ll hear that. Here are four steps to being born again. But that contradicts the very thing Jesus is teaching us here. His point is that there’s absolutely nothing you can do to save yourself, except to throw yourself on His mercy and ask Him to give you new life, and He will.

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Nicodemus gets that better than most Bible-believing Christians. He knows he’s helpless to save himself. But still, like most of us, he’s thinking, “If I understood all of this just a little bit better, it’d be so much easier to believe.” You can see that in verse 9 where he wonders, “How can these things be?” But that’s not how it works. Understanding doesn’t come before believing. On the contrary, there are many things about Jesus you’ll never understand until you believe in Him. So Jesus corrects him again, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” You see in his case, his lack of understanding was due to his lack of belief, not a lack of information! After all, this was the teacher of Israel who had the entire Old Testament hidden in his heart! Read on and you’ll see that yourself. Jesus continues, “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. (Remember receiving is another word for believing!) If I have told you earthly things, and you do not believe, (Unbelief was his problem!) how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” His problem is he’s an unbeliever – his mind blinded by the devil, his will enslaved to sin, and his affections corrupted by the world. So he’s going to need help if he’s to believe.

That’s the point of verse 4. “How can a man be born when he’s old? He can’t enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Nicodemus isn’t dumb. Nor is he challenging Jesus at this point. Then what’s he doing? He’s asking for a clue, which Jesus graciously proceeds to give him. We’ve seen the sinner’s crisis and the Savior’s counsel. Now notice the Spirit’s conversion.

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3.  The Spirit’s Conversion

The first clue Jesus gives him is in verse 5: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” Spirit, of course, refers to the Holy Spirit. But what does it mean to “born of water”? Some say it refers to baptism. But how can that be true? Baptism does not save us. Baptism is a testimony that we’ve already been born from above. Others say it refers to the waters of birth. But that can’t be right either. First century Jews weren’t yet aware of the role amniotic fluid plays in the birth of a child. Nor did Nicodemus have to be told that you have to be born the first time before he could be born the second time.

So what was Jesus referring to? Remember Nicodemus was an Old Testament scholar whose mind would have immediately tracked with Jesus, taking him to passages like Ezekiel 36 where God promised His people, “I will…sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness…and I will give you a new heart and…put my Spirit within you and make you walk in My statutes and be careful to obey My rules.” Jesus was talking about the New Covenant that was about to come true in His blood, a promise that Nicodemus had known since he was a boy. But like all the religious leaders of Israel, he was an apostate Jew who, because he hadn’t experienced the miracle of new life himself, had given up on God’s promise. And once you do that, what do you next? You reject what the Bible says about sin and that we aren’t all “good kids” with good hearts. The fact is there’s not one good person among us. Because if you admit that, that we all deserve eternal punishment in hell, how do you cope with the fear? Answer: You ask God for the gift of faith to believe His promises of new life and forgiveness!

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The second clue is in verse 8. Jesus continues, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Ever done that? Stood outside surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation and heard His wind roaring through the trees? I did that the other night. I was outside watering the flowers when I suddenly heard and felt a cool summer’s breeze blowing past me. And I thought, “What a perfect way to describe the power and refreshment of the Holy Spirit!” I didn’t know where it came from or where it was going. Nor could I control it! Ever tried to get the wind to blow when you want to fly a kite? But I felt the results of it! And you can see the results when the Holy Spirit touches someone’s life, for what happens? Just as the dead man heard Jesus shout, “Lazarus, come forth!” I heard a voice – not audibly, but just as real – saying, “Gary, believe!” And for the first time I believed in Jesus, and my spirit, which had been dead for so long, came to life, and I’ve been following Him ever since.

But what about Nicodemus? Was he ever born from above? John doesn’t say. He fades from the scene in verse 21, and we don’t hear from him again until chapter 7 where his colleagues on the Council decide that Jesus has to go. So he takes issue with them on a point of Law. John 7:50—“Nicodemus, who had gone to Him before and was one of them, said to them, ‘Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what He does?’” So he hasn’t taken a public stand for Him yet, but I’m feeling better about him. Aren’t you?

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And the last we hear of him is John 19:38 following the crucifixion. He and a rich friend by the name of Joseph of Arimathea summon up the courage to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus, so they can prepare it for burial and lay it in a new tomb that belongs to Joseph. And now I’m starting to love this guy because of his love and loyalty to Jesus! But that’s all the Bible says about him.

Thankfully, church tradition fills in the rest of the details. It reports, for example, that Nicodemus was the only person who stood up for Jesus at His trial, that he was baptized after the Resurrection by Peter and John, and that his preaching of Christ was so powerful that the Sanhedrin he served removed him from his position as teacher, confiscated his property, and banished him from Israel subjecting his wife and children to abject poverty. His daughter was so poor it’s said she had to dig through the dung piles to find a few pieces of grain to eat. A rabbi saw her doing so and took pity on her. “Who are you?” he asked. “I am the daughter of Nicodemus.” “Whatever happened to him?” he asked. “He became a follower of Jesus and was banished from Israel.” So the rabbi refused to help her. And as for Nicodemus himself, he became one of the first martyrs of the church, beaten to death by a mob for preaching in the name of Jesus.

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That’s the story of Nick at night. He had everything and then gave up everything to gain what the world can never take away. So even though John doesn’t give us the details, we have our answer: His sins were washed away and he was given new life from above. For so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

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