Why Believe? Which religion is true?(John 3)

MOTIVATE

Some have told a story about an elephant that relates to viewing religion. In the story, an elephant walked into a village where everyone was blind. The villagers were fascinated by the strange creature. Each villager felt a different part of the elephant’s body and began to describe it to the others.

  • One touched the elephant’s tusk and said it was like a spear.
  • Another touched the elephant’s body and said it was like a wall.
  • Another felt its ear and said it was like a fan.
  • Another its trunk and said it was like a rope or snake.
  • One touched the elephant’s leg and said the elephant was like a tree.
  • Soon arguments began to break out as villagers had felt different parts of this amazing animal, but they could not see the whole elephant. They could not discern how each truth fit together with the others.
  • In similar way, people claim diff religions hold pieces of truth about God, but no one religion holds it all.
  • For this reason, we should not argue about which religion is right, because all are true and no one religion has the full picture. “Speak your truth” and we all live happily, right?!?

Yet, there are several problems with this parable and its philosophy.[1]

  • The villagers are blind, but the narrator of the story has sight. It might sound respectful to the various religions to say each holds a piece of truth, but what you are really saying is that these religions are blind, and you alone can see. Isn’t that similarly arrogant and intolerant to say the narrator’s view is the only correct way?!?
  • The story offers no narrative for those who change religious beliefs. What if a blind villager was able to have a surgery to correct eyesight and then change their view of the elephant? Then they could instruct others about their newly found insight and how their past views were insufficient. Likewise, there are Christians who were once atheist/agnostic and are able to communicate their perspectives in unique ways. See C.S. Lewis and wife Joy Davidman; Simon Greenleaf (Harvard Law founder), Nicky Gumbel (founder of Alpha); Peter Hitchens (brother of Christopher Hitchens); Lee Strobel, Francis Collins, etc.
  • The villagers are complex individuals that we know little about beyond their handicap of blindness. What if some individual beliefs have certain ethics that contrast secular worldview? For example, what happens when religious beliefs of minorities clash with core secular ethics? The promotion of all truths are equal becomes questioned in the courts of public opinion. Popular examples today include topics of gender, sexuality, marriage, cultural traditions, and much more.
    • “The 20th Century gave rise to one of the greatest and most distressing paradoxes of human history: that the greatest intolerance and violence of that century were practiced by those who believed that religion caused intolerance and violence.”[2]
    • Secularists have believed religion will die out as evolution and technology advances the human race. Yet, Christianity has seen explosive growth, even as persecuted minorities in every age.[3]
  • The ultimate problem with this parable is the elephant in the room of Christianity is a talking elephant! While it is possible to learn from other religions and there are some positive aspects of alternate philosophies, Jesus claims He is superior to other gods and the only way to salvation. His famous claims, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6) – and His actions with followers claiming Him to be 1) God in the flesh (Jn 1:14), 2) sole author of forgiveness (Mk 2:7), and 3) final resurrector of souls (Jn 11:25-26); stand in the way of all other religions being comparable to Christianity.
    • Greek & Roman Empires celebrated diverse deities. Roman Emperor Severus (193-211) attempted to appease Christians with adding statue of Jesus to Caesar’s Pantheon. Yet, Christian’s didn’t celebrate, “Now we are equal represented in national politics and power!” While Rome promoted tolerance, Christians protested because Jesus can never just be another god; He’s Lord & King, which is its own political statement. Regardless the winner of any campaign contest or legislative battle, Jesus is on the throne of an unshaken and unconquerable kingdom.  

This intro relates to previous message and certainly could be its own sermon… but let’s look at a Scripture passage that points us to the aim and authority of why believe in Christianity.

EXAMINE           Why Believe? Which religion is true? (John 3)

The passage introduces us to a curiously religious man named Nicodemus. He’s identified as a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews.

Pharisees were a religious sect of Judaism that interpreted the Law with extreme careful exactitude (Josephus).

  • They sought strict adherence to the words of Scripture. They even went so far as to add traditions 613 extra laws (# bc that’s how many letters were in text of 10 commandments) to the Law to assist in obedience to God.
  • Good Pharisees kept company with positive role models with good values (Matt 9:11),
  • practiced spiritual disciplines of prayer & fasting (Matt 9:14),
  • attended religious functions (Matt 12:2),
  • memorized Scripture (Matt 23:5),
  • influential among people; generally working class unlike Sadducees upper class (Matt 23:7),
  • adventurous missionaries (Matt 23:15),
  • gave tithes (Matt 23:23),
  • morally pure (Matt 23:24-28),
  • knew only God forgave sin (Mark 2:7),
  • protected God’s name (Mark 2:7-8),
  • practiced religious traditions (Mark 7:5),
  • prayed for signs and miracles from heaven (Mark 8:11),
  • sought God’s wisdom on divorce and marriage (Mark 10:2),
  • paid government taxes (Mark 12:13-15),
  • practiced hospitality (Luke 11:37),
  • separated from evil influencers (Luke 18:11),
  • discerned true or false prophets (John 1:24)
  • condemned adultery (John 8:3),
  • investigated the legitimacy of healings and prophets (John 9:13),
  • and on top of all that had doctrinal truth believing the resurrection (Acts 23:8).

Nicodemus was not only a Pharisee, but a ruler of the Jews. He was a member of the Sanhedrin (Jn 7:50), and all in all was a successful and influential member of society. Nicodemus would be the type of neighbor you would want to have. Yet, the problem with Nicodemus types is not their moral virtue but their religious vices.[4] While religion has the potential to make you look good on the outside, it lacks the power to change the inside. Religion makes you drained and disillusioned keeping up with the rituals and practices. That’s why Jesus is unique: He takes all the 613 laws and summarizes them into two: Love God & Love people; and He says, all who are weary and burdened, come find rest by allowing undeserved grace to change you from the inside out (Mt 11:28-30).

As we examine the encounter Jesus has with Nicodemus, we learn 3 truths for why Christianity is different from other religions.

  1. Jesus has ultimate authority (Jn 3:1-3).

Nicodemus approaches Jesus as night. Perhaps Nic at night was hesitant from being identified with Jesus – the one who had just cleansed the temple and upset religious leaders (Jn 2). Yet, we also have a literary clue in John’s Gospel, where night/dark is used for moral or spiritual darkness (cf Jn 1:5; 3:2; 3:19; 9:4; 11:10; 13:30).[5] The only other figure who approaches Jesus at night is Judas. So, Nicodemus is a man in the dark seeking the true light.

Nic affirms Jesus as a “Rabbi” and teacher from God because He was performing unique signs (miracles have a message). But, can we affirm Jesus as a good teacher and not believe He has ultimate authority? C.S. Lewis (among others) argue that Jesus is either a liar, lunatic, or Lord.[6] He says, “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to… Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

Nicodemus is speaking on behalf of the other Pharisees, “we know…” Interestingly, Jesus speaks on behalf of a plurality too, “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. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (Jn 3:10-12)

The words and works of Jesus claim ultimate authority. He speaks, “Truly, truly” or “Amen, Amen, I say to you…” Jesus didn’t operate based on opinion polls, but with a deep sense of conviction and confidence in His identity as the Son of the Father. The Father authenticates the Son with miraculous signs and marvelous speech (cf Jn 5:19-47; 7:40-51; etc.). His teaching was unlike any other authority

  • People say all should be Nic at night; keep religion as a private matter; exclude religion from public discourse and policy. Yet, such “oughts” and “ought nots” are just another worldview and thus religion. Who’s to say the religion of humanism is better than others?[7]
  • People say if Jesus is only authority, then that’s exclusive. Further, how can a good God send people to hell?[8]
  • God of forgiving love can be offensive to some cultures. Turning other cheek makes no sense, but instead to repay with swift and substantial justice. Even in secular and evolutionary mind, it’s might that is right – the survival of the fittest, and thus lack of belief in God “secretly nourishes violence.” (quote in Keller, p.76-77)
  • God of perfect love cannot violate his character to accept wrong, evil, injustice. The moral standard inside each person knows love demands justice.
  • Human default is not heaven but hell. Even our goodness still falls short bc of heart desires/motivations.
  • Some of us are like Nicodemus coming to Jesus only at night. We love and listen to Jesus on certain days (Sunday / Holidays… etc) but deep down, we limit the Lordship of Jesus. Jesus shines light on every dark corner. What dark area of your life needs to come under the light of God’s authority?
    > Repentance of a sin
    > Rededication of spiritual walk.
    > Baptism and church membership
    > Salvation from the Lord Jesus.


    2. Jesus has transforming ability.

Formally, Nicodemus did not initially ask Jesus any question. Yet, the implication is Nic wants to know the identity of Jesus. The communication from Jesus was that Nic must be born from above (born anew/again) to see the kingdom of God. While Nicodemus thought merely physical; thinking this meant he had to exit his mother’s womb a second time (1. Physically impossible, 2. Psychological problems!); Jesus gave further explanation saying that this new birth would not be physical but spiritual; “of water and the Spirit.” (Jn 3:5). In other words, being born again is being transformed by Spirit of God. John’s phrasing is deeply theological to imply the new birth is like a new creation (Gen 1:1) and a new heart (Isa 44:3; Ezekiel 36:24-27; 37:9-10).

Ezekiel 36:24-28 “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 just decrees. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.” (Jn 3:6-7) Jesus emphasizes that entering heaven or God’s kingdom is not achieved by a superior moral lifestyle (Nic is a Pharisee) or shifted voting viewpoints, or any other substitute for bettering our human outlook. Being a Christian is not about another religious ritual to perform… but what Jesus does for and to us when we are in relationship with Him. The only transformation that will be effective in our life is trusting in Jesus as Lord and Savior; this is the “born again” experience we all need.

  • How can we describe amazing grace and unfathomable love? How can we describe the transforming ability of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit?
  • “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come.” (2 Cor 5:17)
  • Respectable, religious, and relatively rich people like Nic don’t want the old to pass. Moral, middle-class, suburbians don’t think they need to be made new. You think that whenever life ends for you, things will turn out OK but you don’t realize you are DOA. You must be born again.
  • Ezekiel 37 (chapter after previous description of God’s heart transformation) the Lord places Ezekiel in a valley of dry bones. God asks, “Can these dead bones live?” Ezekiel says “only God knows.” Lord says, “preach what I say” and after he preaches, the dry bones come together alive and as an army for the Lord.
  • Jesus has transforming ability in your life – no sin too scandalous, no struggle too complicated, no circumstance too substantial that God is not able and willing to be present.
    Isaiah 59:1 “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear.”


    3. Jesus is not satisfied with admirers but seeks apprentices.

Jesus doesn’t tell Nic, “Thanks for your support; means a lot coming from a guy like you… I’d like to have your vote during my future trial.” Instead, Jesus swiftly responds with ignoring the religious gamesmanship or political posturing and gets right to the point. He urges him to be born again.

Further, Jesus seems disappointed, or perhaps even disturbed, by the fact that Nicodemus – a teacher of Israel, does not understand these things (Jn 3:10). Nicodemus was a casual admirer of Jesus, but at this point not an apprentice; he was a fan but not a follower.

  • Jesus is the ascended King and the descended Son (Jn 3:13).
  • Jesus is the lifted up one that all can look for healing and hope (Jn 3:14-15; Num 21:9)
  • Jesus is the only Son sent by God for all to believe unto eternal life and to not perish (Jn 3:16)
  • Jesus is not just a teacher giving instructions and suggestions on best practices – instead, He is the light shining in the darkness, the Lord of all life, and the only Savior who can cleanse you from sin and complete you with His Spirit… but people loved the darkness rather than the light. (Jn 3:19)

While Jesus was disappointed in Nicodemus, He didn’t desert him. Jesus allowed Nic to explore and expand his understanding. John 7:51 shows Nic investigating truth about Jesus, and then at the end of John’s Gospel 19:39, he’s found as a steward for the body of Jesus.

  • Like Nicodemus, every Christian is a steward for the body of Jesus.

> Are you loving those whom God loves; part of the gathered fellowship; learning names and sharing life?

> Are you living for what Jesus died? Are you sharing your time, talents, and treasure for the advancement of God’s kingdom? Some churches try to guilt you into serving/giving; we try to ground you in gospel grace so that you can’t imagine not being grateful in devotion and discipleship with Jesus. 

APPLY/THINK

  • Religion is climbing the ladder with your actions. Gospel is God coming down with Jesus’s actions.
    • DO N.E. Do Nothing / Do Everything / DONE in Christ

  • Are you born again? Not an emotional experience, but nor an emotion-less experience. Being born again is an awareness of your sin separating you from God, and an awareness of Jesus as the Savior, and acting in faith on God’s promise to forgive sin and fuel you to righteousness. It’s allowing God to move from head to heart, and then to your hands.

[1] For more, see Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity, pp.48, ff.

[2] Alister McGrath, The Twilight Of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World, p.230. See also pp.187, 235.

[3] For more insight, see Tim Keller, The Reason For God, p.3, ff.

[4] https://growinggodlygenerations.com/2020/08/03/child-games-jesus-and-faithfulness-matthew-23/

[5] See Carson in Pillar NT Commentary, John 3:1; also Gary Burge NIV Application Commentary.

[6] Mere Christianity. For more, see https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/is-c-s-lewiss-liar-lord-or-lunatic-argument-unsound/

[7] Keller, Reason For God, p.14,ff.

[8] Ibid. pp. 70, ff.

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