Our reading this evening is taken from the book of Numbers; the book of Numbers and chapter 21 and verse 4. Numbers, near the start of the Old Testament - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers - chapter 21 and verse 4.
Speaking of the Israelites, Moses says: "And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived".
I want you to turn with me in your Bibles to John chapter 3. Perhaps you're here tonight and you've been to Sunday school, or you've grown up in a Christian home, or went to children's meetings, and you may have learnt some of these verses off by heart. I want you tonight to forget about the fact that you've learnt them off by heart, and try to look at these verses as if it's the first time you've ever seen them. We're going to take time, not to just read the most famous verse in this passage, but read the whole passage, the whole story from verse 1.
John 3 and verse 1: "There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of 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. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil".
I turned the television on a few weeks ago just before the World Cup and I was astonished to see on the TV, on BBC 1, a program that was totally dedicated to horoscopes; totally dedicated to reading palms, looking into crystal balls, following your star sign - everything was going across this. I was even more astonished to see a mock 'weatherman' almost, but this time he wasn't telling the weather. He was showing, from a board, your horoscope. He was telling you the day that you were in for - not the weather, now, but the day that you were going to have because of what your star sign said for that day. I turned over to the other station and I was listening to someone criticising the England football team. This time their manager, because he had hired a faith healer who actually believed that she could not only heal the injuries that the team had, but she actually claimed that, from the sidelines, with her powers she had actually stopped goals going into the net.
Many people would tell us today that our nation is a nation of atheists. That may have been the case a few years ago, but that has drastically changed now. We have a nation and a generation of young people that, in fact, believe in the paranormal. They believe in the supernatural. Some of them even believe in UFOs. We have, in our little planet, on our world, we have more religious people today probably than we have ever had. There are very few atheists on the earth. Most people believe in a god. Most people believe in someone or something that created everything that we have around us. But I want to say to you this evening, from this passage that we read, that religion is a terrible thing. Now, you heard me right! I'm standing in a pulpit, I'm in a Baptist church, but you heard me right: I'm telling you that religion is a terrible thing.
We read about a man in this passage and he had many problems. His name was Nicodemus. I want you to see, this evening, Nicodemus' problems. It says in verse 1 that "there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus." You see, the Pharisees were a sect. They were a group, if you like, a certain denomination within Judaism. They were legalistic; they were extremely strict. They had 613 rules added to the word of God, which they had to obey. They wore scarves around their neck. They had little beads around those scarves - 613 - and every day they would go through them all and they would count those commands that they were given. They had strict commands, and if you broke those commands you were ostracised from society. But you see, when the Lord Jesus Christ came to the earth - you see, He was sent from God, and when He came to the earth it was actually the religious people - it was the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the religious people of His day - were actually the people who opposed Him.
You know, we have with us today modern Pharisees. We have in some churches, in some religions, people who are going about every day of their life, trying to follow a standard, trying to follow rules. Maybe it's the ten commandments; maybe it's another set of rules or a basis of doctrine or belief. They believe that by keeping to this law they will get into heaven. Jesus, when He came to the earth, condemned such living. I wonder, are you here tonight and you're like that? You go to your church, you try perhaps to keep the ten commandments, you give to the church. Perhaps you read the word of God, perhaps you pray to God every day without fail. But listen this evening - I want to tell you from this passage, that you, this evening, are no different than these Pharisees. Because these Pharisees thought of themselves that they could get to heaven, that they could climb a ladder, that they could work their way, that they could make themselves good enough to get into heaven.
Maybe you're like Nicodemus in another way. It says there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night. Why did he come to Jesus by night? Well, it was very simple. He's maybe like you this evening - he was embarrassed. You see, he was a leader in the Pharisees, and the Pharisees shunned the Lord Jesus - the Pharisees didn't want anything to do with Him. He was an impostor, He was a hypocrite, He was a traitor as far as they could see - and if Nicodemus, as a leader of the Pharisees, was seen going to talk to this man it would be the end of him! Are you here tonight and perhaps you're embarrassed? Perhaps you came through that front door and you were wondering, 'I hope there's nobody driving past in the car to see me coming in here tonight. I hope my friends don't hear about where I was on Sunday evening'. Perhaps you're embarrassed, perhaps you just slip in at the back. You want no one to see you, you don't even want to be here. Are you like Nicodemus? I believe, you know, that Nicodemus wasn't just there of his own will. I believe this evening if you're here, and perhaps you're embarrassed, I believe that you're not just here of your own will. I believe that God has actually brought you into this place, God has led you here this evening!
Nicodemus went on to confess something. He told Him in the quiet, he told Him in the darkness. Perhaps you, deep down in your heart - you wouldn't go round telling people this, you wouldn't testify to this, you wouldn't write it down anywhere and put your name to it - but perhaps, like Nicodemus, deep down you know that the gospel is true. You know that it's all correct. You know that Jesus is the Son of God and that's what Nicodemus says. He says: 'We know, Rabbi, that You have come from God: for no man could do the things that You do except he was from God'. He knew! But you see, do you know what the Bible says? It says that even the demons know, even the followers of Satan know who Jesus Christ is yet it doesn't save them. Don't think tonight because you know the gospel, or because you believe in your head the gospel, or you follow, or you try to live a life that is pleasing to the Lord Jesus you think - don't think, this evening, that that's enough! Nicodemus knew who Jesus was, but yet Nicodemus was not saved. In fact, Nicodemus was worldly minded. Perhaps you're here tonight and you're worldly-minded. In verse 4 the Lord Jesus, you see, said to him: 'Nicodemus, you know who I am, you know I've come from God'. But He said to him: 'You must be born again, Nicodemus. It's not enough that you know these things. It's not enough that you're religious. It's not enough that you follow the one true and living God, but you must be born again'.
But you see, Nicodemus was worldly-minded, even though he was religious. When the Lord Jesus was speaking to him about spiritual things he confused those things with worldly things. He said: 'Jesus, do You mean that you have to go into your mother's womb again and be born physically again?'. Are you like that? Perhaps you have friends, perhaps they're in your family, and maybe they talk to you about the Lord Jesus, maybe they witness to you and you seem not to be able to understand these things. Or perhaps you just pretend not to understand them and you begin to talk about worldly things. You bring everything down to a worldly level. You don't want to talk about these things because you know, like Nicodemus, deep down in your heart, that these things are true but you just don't want to face up to them. You'll go home - won't you - perhaps tonight, and you'll drive home with your friend or whoever brought you and you'll talk about everything under the sun, about the lovely houses, about the lovely day it is - everything - the good weather that we're having. But when they speak about Christ to you, do you change the subject?
Nicodemus knew deep down what it was. But you see, Nicodemus' problem was: he thought he had a birthright. He thought because he was a good Jew, because he followed the one true God - and he did follow Him - because he obeyed these 613 commands every day of his life; he thought because he was a leader in Israel, in politics and in religion that he had a birthright to heaven. He thought that when he got to Glory all that he had to do was present his birth certificate: 'I'm a Jew. I'm one of the chosen of God. Let me in!'. Are you like that tonight? 'I'm a good Protestant. I'm a good Roman Catholic. I'm a good Baptist, good Presbyterian'. But listen this evening: there's nothing wrong with being a good member of a church but what is wrong is if you think that you have a birthright, because of something you're doing, or because of an organisation you're in like Nicodemus. It's like saying that if you drive into a garage, that makes you a car! It doesn't! Going into a church, going into a sacred building, doing the things that those people do doesn't make you a child of God. You can walk down the road if you like in an RUC uniform. You can carry a truncheon, you can even have a gun, but unless you are an RUC man you're not a policeman. You might look like it tonight, you might act like it, but deep down you know that you aren't really saved.
You see, what Nicodemus missed, and perhaps what you're missing tonight, is found in verse 8. Jesus said: 'Marvel not that I said to you, 'You must be born again'. The wind blows where it will. You hear the sound thereof but you can't tell where it comes or where it goes'. What does that mean? Well, the wind when it's blowing, you can't see it - it's invisible. You know where it's blowing because you can see the effects of it. You can feel it blowing against you, but you can't actually see it, and you don't know where it's coming from or where it's going. Jesus was saying: 'Well, that's like the Spirit of God'. He says: 'You don't get saved because of things you do. You get saved because of something that's been done to you'.
The Spirit of God comes, perhaps you know this, and the Spirit of God speaks to you. Perhaps you've experienced it in your life where God the Holy Spirit points things out in your life - points sins out, shows you your need of the Lord Jesus. Maybe He's showed you in the past that it's not good enough to be the child of a Christian, it's not good enough to come regularly to church or be religious. You must be born again! Perhaps you have ignored Him in the past. But do you know something? We have no control over the wind. We can't tell where it blows, we can't stop it blowing. We can't direct it in any direction. It's the same with the Holy Spirit. You cannot tell Him when to come and when to go. Listen this evening, friend, if the Holy Spirit is speaking to you He is not obliged to speak on! Believe it or not, the Holy Spirit could be speaking to you tonight for the last time. He could move on to someone else and He could forget about you. He could say: 'I've given him a chance. His chance is up. He's squandered it'.
You must be born again. It's not an easy believe-ism. It's not putting your hand up in a meeting. It's not signing a card - that will never save you. It's not just saying a prayer, but it's something deeper than that. It's something from the heart. It's when God, by His Holy Spirit, comes into your life and God actually gives you faith. Sometimes you hear the gospel preached, and I've heard it said before, and gospel preachers sometimes use an illustration of a seat. They say you sit on a seat and you have faith. You believe that that seat is going to keep you there. But listen this evening friend: that is not God's faith. That is human faith. Divine faith is something that is given to you. The Holy Spirit comes to you. The Holy Spirit speaks to you. The Holy Spirit gives you the gift of salvation.
That's what Paul said in Romans - turn with me if you don't believe me - Romans and chapter 4 and verse 9. Speaking of Abraham, the second part of the verse says this: 'For we say that faith was reckoned' - or credited, or given - 'to Abraham for righteousness'. Abraham took a step and God reckoned faith to him. God saved him through that faith. You find it in Galatians chapter 2 and verse 16: 'Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of' - himself? Is that what it says? It says, 'but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ'. Verse 20 says: 'I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God'. Are you really saved tonight? Has there been a spiritual work that has been worked in your heart - not something that you have worked up yourself, but has God entered your heart? Listen this evening: is the Spirit of God speaking to you? God forbid it, tonight: you could be pushing Him, shunning Him away from you.
What was more astonishing about this man Nicodemus was that he was a master in Israel. In verse 10 Jesus said, 'Art thou a master in Israel and thou knowest not these things?'. He was saying to him: 'You're a Rabbi! You know the word of God, the Old Testament, inside out. All these scriptures testify of me that I would come, that I would die, that I would give my life for everyone in Israel. You're a leader and you don't even know these things?'. Many great ministers have stood in pulpits, yet they have been unsaved. Great hymnwriters, like Newton, preached for years in their own pulpit yet weren't saved. During the revivals that hit our country and hit all of Europe there were men who were standing their own pulpits preaching the gospel that they didn't even know, and they got saved in their own pulpit! You could be here tonight and you could be a good religious person, you could even be a minister, and Jesus could be saying to you: 'Are you a master in your faith, in your religion, in your heritage, in your community, yet you do not know these things: that you must be born again?'.
I know that there's some people say all this 'born again' lark is a lot of nonsense. I know of one woman, that when she got saved her minister actually came round to her and wanted to try to keep her at the church, even though the church was preaching a different gospel. She got fed up with him and she just said straight out to him - she asked him: 'If I was lying on my deathbed, what would you say to me? What would you have to give to me?'. That minister, in all honesty and sincerity, looked her in the eye and said: 'Well, I would say you've lived a good life, you've tried your best, and let's hope for the best'. Listen this evening: you don't have to live like that. You see, you can know tonight that your sins are forgiven; you can know that you're on your way to heaven; you can know for definite that God has reserved a place for you in heaven - only if you're born again.
But I want you to see quickly not only Nicodemus' problems - and he had many of them as you can see - but Moses' pole. You see, we read about a pole in verse 14. Jesus said: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life". We read about it in our earlier reading, in Numbers 21 and verses 4 to 9. What happened? The children of Israel, God's people, were murmuring against God. God - think of it - had delivered them from the land of Egypt, from slavery. When they were delivered they were walking in the wilderness as God was bringing them to the Promised Land, and all they could do was complain. They just yapped the whole time about why God wasn't bringing them there sooner - and God was providing food for them every day, but they were thinking about the food that they had in Egypt, even though they were slaves in Egypt. God lost patience with them, and God cursed them.
It says that He sent fiery serpents, and those fiery serpents had venom in their teeth, and it came and bit them. Think of the scene tonight as these people were lying on the ground, the dust and the sand of the wilderness, the desert. They're squirming on the ground, sweating, crying, moaning with the pain from these serpents. They cried out to Moses and said: 'We're sorry! We're sorry! We shouldn't have said it. Call to God! Ask God for help! Ask God to save us!'. God saved them. He told Moses to take a pole of brass and a serpent of brass and put it in the ground, and He said: 'Tell the people, tell them to look at this serpent. Look and they will live!'. They looked and they lived. Think of it: they're squirming on the ground in such agony and pain, and all they do is, out of the corner of their eye, they see Moses planting this in the sand and they turn and see it. And as soon as they look at it they're healed - healed of their disease, healed of everything!
Jesus, referring to this, said: 'Even as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness the Son of Man must be lifted up also'. In John 12 and verse 32 He said this: 'And if I', Jesus says, 'be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying', or demonstrating, 'what death he should die'. Now, I want you to see this tonight, I want you to picture yourself this evening as these Israelites, squirming, wrenching, squealing, straining, sweating with their sin. They don't know what to do. It seems hopeless, they're lying in the dust, they're looking up to the sky for help. At the cross, you see, it was the same. Jesus said that when they nailed Him to that cross, and when they hoisted it up and dropped it into the ground, and when He hung there in agony and blood, He said He was just like that serpent. The people around Him didn't think they had any problem. In fact, they were running around singing, they were shouting, they were clapping, they were rejoicing, they were even gambling with His very clothes, they were spitting at Him, laughing at Him, cracking jokes at Him. That's what they were doing at Calvary. It wasn't sombre, it was solemn - extremely solemn - but these men were celebrating.
But you see, they didn't realise that they were like these Israelites squirming in the dust. They didn't realise that their sin had such a grip on them. They were oblivious to it, and that's maybe you tonight: you don't realise the state that you're in, the danger that you're in. They were really squirming at the feet of Christ, and all they had to do was what the children of Israel did - and that was to look at the Saviour, to believe and put their faith in Him, and they would live. Can you see Him tonight? Are you squirming? Maybe you know you're squirming in your sin. Maybe you feel the pain and the agony and the depression of the sin that is in your life. Can you see Him tonight? Can you see Him hanging on that tree in agony and blood? 'Sorrow and love flowed mingled down'. Can you see it? Can you see His face? The Bible says His face was disfigured more than any man's face has ever been disfigured. His eyes are puffed, His cheeks are swollen, His eyes are bloodshot. They're stinging with the blood and the sweat that has mingled down His brow. He can hardly see out of them, yet He is looking at you tonight. Can you see Him? He can hardly see out of His eyes, but from those blessed eyes He is looking right down at you and He is saying: 'Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth'.
Perhaps you're squirming and you don't realise that He's there. You don't even see Him. Well, look tonight! Look and watch! See Him! He is here this evening and He is crying to you. He is pleading with you just like those Israelites, out of the corner of your eye, to turn to see Him there, and by faith put your trust in Him - and He will save you.
A minister once came into a little home where there was a little boy sitting there, and he asked him - he said: 'Do you know John 3 and 16?'. He said: 'Of course I do!', and he began to recite it. He said: 'For God so loved the world that he gave His only forgotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life'. The minister paused and he noticed, and he said: 'Say that again'. He said: 'For God so loved the world that he gave His only forgotten Son', and he stopped him. He was about to correct him and say: 'Well, it should really say only 'begotten' Son', but then he thought: 'He's right, you know!'. He told that little boy: 'You know something son', he said, 'God forgot His Son and He remembered you'.
Now, God didn't forget His Son on the cross, but He forsook His Son. Do you know why He did it? He turned His face away from Him. He left Him there to die in agony - not because He wanted to specifically, not because He wanted to put Him through that pain, but because He had to do it! He had to do it to save you, because He loved you. Do you know that tonight? Do you know that God loves you? Do you know that God has a consuming passion for you tonight? You might say: 'David, no one loves me. I'm not even sure if my wife loves me', or, 'my husband really deep down loves me'. Listen this evening! God loves you! As someone has said: 'When God loves He loves a world, and when God gives He gives a Son'. You see, this love that He has is immeasurable and it's all directed towards you. There is no one in this world that God loves more than you!
He said that He commends - or demonstrates, or paints, or portrays - His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. "While we were yet" - He doesn't want us to clean ourselves up. He doesn't want us to become religious. He doesn't want us to try our best, but He loves us as we are - the way we are. He doesn't love our sin, but He loves us! It was in that state that He sent His Son to die for us.
There was a family in America during the Vietnam War, and they received a telegraph to say that their son could not be found. But at the end of the letter it wasn't that he had died, but a few of his mates had seen him wandering over the demarcation line - he had deserted the United States Army. His family had to sit in a press conference and answer questions from the press and television and the radio. They were all pouring scorn upon this family and upon this boy: 'How could he do such a thing?'. A young man - he was just scared of what would happen and he ran away. The father, to answer these questions, said: 'Well, it has brought shame upon us. We don't agree with what he did, but we still love him. He's still our son and we still want him back!'
You know, God's not impressed tonight with your lifestyle. God doesn't like it. God doesn't smile upon it, but nevertheless, this evening, God loves you. God loves you even when others haven't. Perhaps people have left you. Perhaps your parents have been bad to you, your father hasn't shown love to you - he's shown the opposite to you - but listen this evening: Jesus loves me, this I know! You can know it too, because the Bible tells me so. You see, when you get saved like some of us, we love Him - we didn't love Him first, but He loved us and we now love Him because He loved us and gave Himself for us. You see: 'Greater love has no man than to lay down His life for His friends'.
In St. Paul's Cathedral, in London, there's a statue of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross - a marble statue. Below it you read these words: 'This is how God loved the world'. Jesus Christ stretched out His arms in love for you, and John 3 and 16 says that 'whosoever believes in Him'. You know, that doesn't limit it in any way. It means 'whosoever'. Maybe you've heard someone say: 'Well, put your name in there'. 'If David Legge believes in Him, David Legge will not perish but have everlasting life'. There was once an old Puritan, Richard Baxter, and he said this: that he would never put 'Richard Baxter' in that verse. He would've been afraid if he had seen his own name, Richard Baxter, in that verse, in case there was a Richard Baxter - another Richard Baxter - who was better than he was, 'and God would save him and not me'. But listen tonight: it doesn't say any name, it says 'whosoever', and whosoever means you - you! If you believe in Him you shall not perish. Maybe you think you're living tonight. Maybe you're in your sin. Maybe you're in religion, but you know deep down that it does not satisfy.
Another day, that minister came into that little boy's home and, again he said, 'Well, do you know John 3 and 16? Have you learnt it right?'. He went ahead and quoted it: 'For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have internal life'. A mistake, but not a mistake! See, you can live your life tonight, trying to please others, trying to please God - but do you know something? You will never do it, because the only life that God is pleased with is the life of His Son. The only way that you can have that pleasing life is if the life of His Son is living in your life.
Do you have an outward exterior of life? Do you put a smile on things but deep down you know that you need Jesus? You know, if you believe in Him, if you put your faith and trust in what He did for you at Calvary, do you know something? You will have internal life - real life! Jesus said: 'Life to the full'. The life that God intended you to live when He created man in the first place. You can realise that life. Will you not take the gift of God? Will you not get saved tonight?
Let's bow our heads. If you're not saved here tonight, why not, in this moment's silence, when everyone has their head bowed and their eyes closed and is praying, why don't you pray to God and, deep from your heart, say in faith: 'Lord, I know I'm a sinner. I know Jesus died for me. Lord, save me!'. Say it now.
Let me say that if you have trusted the Lord tonight, why not tell us at the door. If you want to trust the Lord and you don't know how, or you want to talk about something, or you want guidance, don't leave this place without getting right with God this evening.
Our Father, we thank You tonight that it's only if we look and live. We don't have to fill a list of requirements, we don't have to do as many good works as we can - but, Lord, we need to come to Christ. We need to do the work that He has laid out, and that is to believe on the One in whom He is sent. Lord, we pray that there will be those here tonight that, if they need Him this evening, if they don't have Him, that Lord they would leave this place with that internal life in their hearts. Give grace tonight we pray, our Father, to trust You, to believe in You, and then have the life of God living within us. Take us now to our homes in safety, we pray, and help us in the week that lies ahead. May those that we work with, and those who see us take note: that we indeed have been with Jesus. For we pray it in His name. Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at Portadown Baptist Church in Portadown, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the tape, titled "Look And Live!" - Transcribed by Trevor Veale, Preach The Word.
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