Every Saturday, I will send out a personal Bible study for you to use to dig into something that we read that week in the Bible reading plan. Some will be short and to the point, and others will be longer, giving you a chance to really dig in and study and grow. Understand, this is not meant to be a quick read on the way through the Starbucks drive thru. It is meant to be a tool to help you sit with God’s word and truly dig in and grow and mature in your understanding of the things of God. I pray you will take the time each week to make it a priority to study with us and be stretched unto a more mature walk with God. Know that I am praying for you as you study this year--that God’s word would come alive to you in greater ways and cause you to grow in repentance and belief.
Turn with me to the Gospel of John and specifically John 2:23-3:8, as we dig into this special passage today.
As we look to verse 23 of chapter 2, we are given a reminder that Jesus was in “Jerusalem at the Passover Feast.” We just finished a few weeks of looking at how and why Jesus cleared the temple, and then we looked at His exchange with the Jews about His right to do these things. Today, we are going to hear our author, John the beloved, give us a very sobering insight into the state of many of the people who followed Jesus during these days and witnessed the things he did. Let’s look.
The Problem: Superficial Belief
John 2:23-25 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man
What we discover here is the sobering reality that there is a kind of belief that looks like saving faith and makes one look like a follower of Jesus Christ, but in the end, it is not a saving faith. Jesus doesn’t entrust Himself to them. Instead, they remain in their sin. This is a very sobering testimony by John that builds an important understanding that sets the table for the upcoming chapters and Jesus’ conversations with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the gentile official, and others.
What we must see is there is a kind of belief about Jesus that is superficial and not saving.
We have seen already that some see the glory of Jesus in His signs and believe, like the disciples did in John 2:11, and there are others who see His signs and do not believe, like the Jewish leaders in John 2:18. But there are also some who say they believe, but their belief is superficial and not saving, as Jesus does not entrust Himself to them, because He knows their hearts and not just their confession of words or outward actions.
What John is pointing out here is very serious and often overlooked, but it is so critical.
We must do serious business with this text today, because superficial faith equals death. It does not equal saving faith. You can look like you believe, you can do the right things, you can say the right words; but in the end, you don’t truly trust Jesus with your life! You are not dead to sin and self and alive in Christ!
This was not just a problem in Jesus’ day, but it continues to be one today. I can’t tell you how many people I have ministered to over the years who believed they were saved because they repeated words that someone else told them to say only to find out at a later time in life what true, saving repentance and faith really was.
The Bible says salvation is only found in the hearts of men and women who God has awakened from death to life with the gift of saving repentance and belief in Him alone!
See, what’s amazing about God is He works in people’s lives despite the work of the deceivers and despite the lack of understanding we might have had when we were saved by God.
Mark 1:15 says, “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” We are called to repent and believe in Jesus alone!
That is not a one-time, say-these-words-and-you-are-good thing. For those whom God gives saving faith, your life is repentance and belief, both at the moment you are saved and every minute you live after that!
Repentance is essential because it is the “dying to self to live for Christ.” It is taking up a new path in light of the gospel. It is living out the transformation that Christ is doing within. It is not just a one-time thing.
As Martin Luther said so famously in his 95 theses, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Belief is not just, “Believe Jesus is who he says he is,” but it’s a belief that is a TRUST in Him for everything.
Before we move on, we have to see that superficial belief can play out into practical Christian activities and even devotion.
One of the most startling things you’ll ever read in the Bible is this very situation illuminated by Jesus in Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 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 in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
The first shocking thing we read here is that Jesus says “MANY” will fit this description of superficial belief.
Second, their deception was made worse by their busy religious activity.
Matthew 7:22 “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 in your name perform many miracles?’”
They’re impacting people’s lives. They’re ministering, and yet Jesus says, “I don’t know them.”
Jesus’ point here is that you can say you love God and do many things for Him but have no spiritual reality and true connection with God.
So, what do I mean by “spiritual reality” or you could say “spiritual life”?
We must understand what John is revealing here in our text so that we rightly understand the absolute need for spiritual new birth if we are going to truly believe and be saved.
Dead in Sin: He Knew What Was in Them
Back to John 2:23. These people are saying they believe, but Jesus did not entrust Himself to them therefore declaring their belief was superficial and not saving. Why did He not entrust Himself to them? Because He knew what was in them.
He knew their words of belief were just words. He knew the state of their hearts. And their hearts had no spiritual life!
They were dead. Look with me again:
John 2:23-25 … many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
As a consequence of the fall of the first man, Adam, every person born into the world is morally corrupt and spiritually dead. This doctrine is called “total depravity.” A concise way to think of total depravity is the state of being spiritually dead. It is not just that some parts of us are sinful and others are pure; rather, every part of our being is affected by sin: our intellects, our emotions and desires, our hearts (the center of our desires and decision-making processes), our goals and motives, and even our physical bodies.
Paul says, "I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh" (Romans 7:18), and "to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted" (Titus 1:15).
Jeremiah tells us that "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). Genesis 6:5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
In these passages, Scripture is not denying that unbelievers can do good in human society in some senses. But it is denying that they can do any spiritual good or be good in terms of a relationship with God.
Apart from the work of Christ in our lives, all unregenerate people are "darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart" (Ephesians 4:18).
God will not have fellowship with an unregenerate person, because He knows what is in man’s heart, which is the sin that rightly separates us from a holy God.
Hear it again: John 2:24-25 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
Jesus will not entrust Himself to anyone simply because they proclaim superficial belief in Him. We are desperate for NEW birth!
A. W. Pink says it well: “The new birth is an imperative necessity because the natural man is altogether devoid of spiritual life. It is not that he is ignorant and needs instruction: it is not that he is feeble and needs invigorating: it is not that he is sickly and needs doctoring. His case is far, far worse. He is dead in trespasses and sins. This is no poetical figure of speech; it is a solemn reality, little as it is perceived by the majority of people. The sinner is spiritually lifeless and needs quickening. He is a spiritual corpse, and needs bringing from death unto life. He is a member of the old creation, which is under the curse of God, and unless he is made a new creation in Christ, he will lie under that curse to all eternity. What the natural man needs above everything else is life, Divine life; and as birth is the gateway to life, he must be born again, and except he be born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. This is final.”
We need new birth! Paul explains that those whom the Spirit has not set free are in sin and death. Without the Spirit’s reviving work in a person, he/she is “unable” to know God, seek God, or please God.
Romans 8:7-8 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Jesus also teaches that it is impossible for man to turn to God without God’s gracious intervention.
John 6:44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.”
Matthew 11:27 “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
John 6:63 “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all …”
Many people, myself included, were taught growing up that man is free enough to choose God and believe in His gospel. But as we have just seen, the Bible speaks often and clearly that man's will is not free, as many commonly think of “free will.” Instead, man is the opposite of free in our nature and will. We are “enslaved” to sin.
John 8:34 “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”
The reality we must understand is man cannot please God or choose Jesus in our sin.
This is so big! We have to hear the global and ongoing revelation of God’s word on this matter. When we think we can just believe anytime we want to, we endorse and employ superficial belief. A belief like this is in no way saving or sanctifying!
If you can read these words, you must understand the threat of superficial belief is very real, and we must see today the need to be born again, made alive by God, given new birth, and regenerated.
To understand this, all we have to do is turn the page to John chapter 3.
Belief About Jesus
John 3:1-2 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.”
First, Who Is Nicodemus?
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews, which means he was likely a member of the Jewish ruling council (aka the Sanhedrin). These were the most highly ranked and authoritative Jewish leaders and overseers. They were the most trained and the most invested into the Jewish faith and Jewish matters of the day. This is the group that was the driver for the eventual plot against Jesus.
While most of the Pharisees were very opposed to and contentious with Jesus from the get go, Nicodemus seems to show some unique interest and inquiry in Jesus. He stands apart from the others, in that he has a certain level of liking or respect or superficial belief in Jesus. The fact that he is even willing to seek Him out in this way is not normal for a Pharisee, nor would it be looked on favorably by the other Pharisees, which is likely why Nicodemus seeks Jesus out “at night.”
What is also remarkable is that Nicodemus calls Jesus rabbi! It is very out of place that a high ranking and respected Jewish teacher would refer to the younger Jesus as a fellow “rabbi” especially because it was known Jesus lacked formal rabbinic training, as we read in John 7:15.
Even Nicodemus’ declaration that Jesus is special in that He is “a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him,” shows that he is more open than the other Pharisees who later declare that Jesus “is not from God” (John 9:16).
But we know that Nicodemus is not alone in his observations about Jesus’ ability to perform signs, in that Nicodemus says, “we know that you are a teacher come from God.”
This refers either to a small number of other Pharisees, or more likely, his observation that others are captivated by Jesus’ signs and are crediting Him with being from God. Now we understand from our time in John 1 that Jesus is not from God but is God and equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit. So even this understanding of Nicodemus is revealing his lack of true discernment for who Jesus is.
What I want to be sure you see is the placement of this interaction of Jesus with Nicodemus in John’s Gospel immediately following John’s words about superficial belief. I believe Nicodemus stands before us as a prime example, at least at this stage of his life, as one who believed in Jesus in some way but not in a saving way!
Again, I want you to consider for yourself or for others you know who profess they believe in Jesus but show no real fruit of submission to Him as Lord of their lives, no ongoing repentance for sin, or pursuit of His word, or accountability to His Church.
These are evidence that the belief that is being professed is superficial. Now, I say evidence because only God knows the heart. But we deceive ourselves and/or don’t love those we know who claim Christ but show no real evidence of repentance and submitting to Christ at Lord.
The absolute worst place someone could be is believing they are good with God based on superficial belief. Only true saving faith will equal a real submission to God and/or at least a real and lasting fight against sin and self.
The journey is hard and sometimes long to overcome certain valleys in our faith walk, but if you are making time to pursue the truths of God and the people of God who can help you grow and walk with Jesus, then keep on.
God is at work in your heart and life. Do not give up. Stop worrying about what only He knows and just keep going. The worst thing you could do is stop or quit or walk away and give up. Know that God will not miss His predetermined plan for your life. He will perfectly save and keep all of His chosen people.
If you are only leaning on your one-time profession of faith or your childhood church attendance and/or you are not really walking with God and growing in Christ, then you should become worried, because there is no fight in you, no practice, no evidence of real discipleship and repentance and growth.
If this is you, then you need to understand what John is revealing to us here today. Because superficial faith is not saving faith. What you need is to be born again!
You Must Be Born Again
Now, all Nicodemus has said is that Jesus must be from God, because of the signs He has done. What Jesus is about to say in response is going to go to the heart of Nicodemus’ statement here. He is going to do something Jesus does a lot, which is to reply to the heart and not just the words of someone’s inquiry. Jesus can do this because He knows the heart of man (John 2:25 for he himself knew what was in man).
1 Samuel 16:7 For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.
In His addressing Nicodemus’ heart, Jesus is essentially going to say that it is not enough that you believe that He is from God. He is going to call out Nicodemus’ superficial belief and declare what is necessary for saving belief! Jesus is going to say, “You don’t understand the true workings of the Kingdom of God, because you cannot yet see them, because you have not yet been spiritually born.”
John 3:3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Whenever you hear the words “truly truly” twice like this, it is a way of implying great emphasis of truth. So when Nicodemus says, “we know,” Jesus is saying in His reply, “You do not know, and here is how much you do not know.”
What Jesus is saying is that no amount of human knowledge, reasoning, or believing will bring you to spiritual understanding. Only new birth can accomplish this!
What is dead must be made alive. Later in the New Testament, other imagery is used to describe the need for new birth. The deaf cannot hear. The blind cannot see. The dead cannot believe! New birth is required! (John 9:39-41)
Now, this is a shocking indictment for Jesus to tell Nicodemus, because all faithful Jews believed they would be in God’s future Kingdom.
When Jesus says, “unless one is born again,” the word “again” here is more literally translated “from above” or “top to bottom.” Unless one is born from above.
Nicodemus shows in his response that he is hearing Jesus say a person must literally be “born again.”
John 3:4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?”
Here Nicodemus reveals Jesus’ very point. All Nicodemus can see or think of is the physical, because he has no discernment that what Jesus is referring to is a spiritual new birth. It is actually quite shocking that this is his reply. If you were talking to a five-year-old about these things, you may get this kind of outlandish answer that Jesus can’t be serious, because everyone knows a grown man is not going to crawl up into his mother’s womb to come out again. Nicodemus is a highly studied, trained, wise, grown man, and yet he is so oblivious to the fact that Jesus is talking about a spiritual new birth here that this is what he says in reply.
We must understand physical birth is different than spiritual birth.
John 3:5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Jesus’ reply brings clarity that even if one could be literally (physically) born again, it would not accomplish anything, for it would again only be a physical birth. Many of us have thought before, “What if I could go back and try again? Start over? Hit the reset button and do my youth and my young adulthood differently?” But you have to see, you would be just as lost and just as spiritually dead. Sure, you might make a better go of it, but you still would be spiritually dead. No physical rebirth is worth anything.
Instead, what is needed is spiritual birth. “Born of flesh” refers to a natural or physical birth. “Born of Spirit” is Jesus’ reference to what is necessary for eternal life and reconciliation with God.
So, What Is New Birth?
What does it mean to be born from above? Or to be given eyes to see or ears to hear? We often call this regeneration!
Regeneration is a secret act of God in which He imparts new spiritual life to us. This is sometimes called "new birth” or “being born again."
We saw this, for example, in chapter one when John talks about those to whom Christ gave power to become children of God: They "were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13).
Here, John specifies that children of God are those who are "born of God." Our human will ("the will of man") does not bring about this kind of birth. In the work of regeneration, we play no active role at all. It is totally a work of God.
1 Peter 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead
We did not choose to be made physically alive, and we did not choose to be born; it is something that happened to us. Similarly, these Scriptures tell us that we are entirely passive in regeneration.
This sovereign work of God in regeneration was spoken of in the prophecy of Ezekiel. This is one of the closest parallels we see in Scripture to Jesus’ phrase, “born of water and spirit.”
Ezekiel 36:24-27 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
New birth is essential for true, saving belief because the heart must be made alive if it is going to trust in God. It must be freed from its enslaved state in sin before one will see the full state of his sin, repent, see the beauty of the gospel as the good news, and trust in Christ alone for salvation.
This is good news because it is the only lasting and true “new beginning.” Many of you want a new beginning in this life. You want a fresh start. You want to see real change in areas of your life. New birth is the true way to experience this!
All other man-made restarts will inevitably fall into the abyss in the end. Only new birth given by God is lasting and truly brings about a new nature.
The new birth is the impartation of the new nature. When I was born the first time, I received from my parents their sin nature, but when I was born again, I received from God the Holy Spirit to dwell within me.
2 Corinthians 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
The fact that this is an act of God and not seen by man is further clarified in the next verses:
John 3:7-8 “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 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.”
The sovereign work of regeneration is God’s to decide and to do. We see its effects in transformed lives and saving faith, but we do not know when or how God awakens a dead heart to life. This is His work and His alone! Just like we can see the affects and hear the movement of the wind, but we do not know its origin or know when it will move: both are sovereign in their activities, and both are mysterious in their operations. By now you might be thinking, “What does this have to do with me or my problems in life or my week this week?” Everything! If you are spiritually dead what do you have?
Mark 8:36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul.
Jesus is revealing in His presence and in His words here that there is new birth. Hear me today: What we need is possible in God. So, for you who ask, “Why does all this matter?” I say, nothing matters more!
I pray it makes you hungry to study with us the word of God, hear the testimony of the gospel, that you might be saved and set free to live--to live with God forever! I pray that the blind would see and the deaf hear and the dead in sin rise to new life in Christ! I pray that you not be like Nicodemus, full of worldly wisdom and the respect of man, but lacking discernment and understanding for that which matters most!
The good news is that God, in His amazing grace, gives new birth to those who stand as His enemies: dead in sin, worshiping false idols, and living for their own glory and by their own rules. He gives new birth, and in this, new life to those whom He chooses--those who do not deserve His grace and those who will be forever His!
This is why we celebrate and praise Him: because He has adopted many of us into His eternal family by His sovereign election and saving grace! This is why we preach the gospel to the dead in sin not knowing who will truly believe, trusting in God’s perfect plan and will. This is why those of you who are resting on superficial faith need to truly repent and turn from your sin and trust in Jesus alone for life and salvation. No more resting on what you know in your head but submitting your entire soul and life to God: dying to yourself and living for Him.