Its Manifestations and Its Cure
John 2:23-John 3:3
By Greg Wright
Preached at Grace Baptist Church, Hartsville, Tennessee on August 3, 2008
Good morning, and welcome to Grace Baptist Church. We are continuing our study of the Gospel of John. Today we will be looking primarily at the first three verses of the third chapter. The topic will be spiritual blindness: its manifestations and its cure.
The first three verse in this chapter talk about seeing and not seeing – seeing and not seeing the Kingdom of God. But to be honest with you, I find the subject of seeing and not seeing to be very intimidating. My reaction probably dates back to the first time I heard the term male-pattern-blindness. Now, you may not be familiar with the term, but you all know what this is. For example, a young married couple sits down to dinner and the wife very sweetly says to her husband, “Honey, I’m sorry I forgot the ketchup. It’s in the bottom of the refrigerator. Would you mind getting it for us?”
“No problem,” says the young husband, so happy to be able to perform such a simple task. He smiles as he walks to the refrigerator, opens the door, and looks at the bottom shelf. Suddenly he looks confused. “Honey, I see mustard, salad dressing, steak sauce, and three kinds of jelly, but I do not see ketchup anywhere.”
She responds, “It is right there in front of you; just look.”
By now, the husband is getting frustrated. He says to himself, “I am not blind. I can find the bug in a 6,000 line COBOL program. If ketchup were in this refrigerator, I would be able to see it.” But he doesn’t say all that – he knows better – he just goes and sits back down at the table. Finally, the wife gets out of her chair, walks to the refrigerator, picks up the bottle of ketchup, and with more of a thud than usual, puts it on the table in front of the embarrassed husband. There, he silently covers his french fries with ketchup as he ponders the mystery of how one can both see and not see at the same time. And there you have it – male-pattern-blindness. By the time this young couple has been married for a few years, they will have learned to laugh at this kind of situation. But for the moment, an uncomfortable silence has settled over their evening meal.
What happened here? The ketchup was right in front of the husband. Why didn’t he see it? Why was he able to see the mustard but unable to see the ketchup?
This problem that occurs so often in the physical world also occurs in the spiritual world. The hand of God in creation, the work of God in history – all of these things are plain to anyone who is willing to carefully examine the evidence. But not everyone is able to see, and not everyone is willing to see.
In the passage we are about to read, there is both seeing and not seeing. There is both sight and blindness. Please turn to John 2:23. We will read from John 2:23 through John 3:3:
Now when He [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man. 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 have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."
From John 2:23 we note that many observed the signs that Jesus did in Jerusalem. The word translated as observed means to look at or gaze at. Jesus had performed miracles before their very eyes, and these people were able to draw conclusions from what they had seen. In some limited sense, they were able to understand that these miracles supported the claims that Jesus was making for Himself, and they responded by believing in His name, although not with saving faith, as we noted last time.
While they were able to see things about Jesus, Jesus was also able to see things about them. He was able to see into their hearts and detect that whatever belief they had at the present time was going to be short-lived. For this reason, Jesus did not entrust Himself to them.
Now, in chapter three, from among those people in Jerusalem emerged Nicodemus. If anyone should have been able to see clearly regarding spiritual matters it was Him. First of all He was a Pharisee. The Pharisees were zealous students of scripture. The very word Pharisee means separated ones, and they separated themselves from the masses for the purpose of studying, interpreting, and applying the law.
But Nicodemus was more than a Pharisee – he was also a ruler. This probably meant that he sat on Israel’s highest court, which was called the Sanhedrin. Consequently, he did not just theorize about the law like a professor in an academic ivory tower. He had to apply the law on a daily basis. This made him very familiar with the requirements, nuances, and mysteries of scripture.
What was Nicodemus able to see so far? He was able to see certain things about the Kingdom of God, and he was able to see certain things about Jesus.
Regarding the Kingdom of God, he knew about the physical kingdom, but it is unlikely that he understood very much about the spiritual kingdom. Even for us, it can be very confusing. When John the Baptist preached he said the Kingdom of God is at hand, but when we pray the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Thy Kingdom come.” Then, there’s Matthew who says Kingdom of Heaven instead of Kingdom of God. What’s that about? Let me respond under the headings:
· Kingdom of Heaven.
· Spiritual Kingdom.
· Present Kingdom.
· Future Kingdom.
Regarding Kingdom of Heaven, it means the same thing as Kingdom of God. It is only used in the Gospel of Matthew.
Regarding the spiritual kingdom, we enter it now through faith in Jesus Christ, even as Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus reigns in this kingdom by ruling in our hearts and empowering our actions through the Holy Spirit.
Regarding the present kingdom, the world in which we live, Satan is often referred to as the god of this world. However, this is not to deny that the authority and power of God extends beyond the hearts of believers, even as it is written in Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the LORD'S, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it.” Although God is never the causal agent in sin, there is a sense in which God ordains all that comes to pass, causing the good things and permitting, at least for a time, the bad things.
But a future kingdom is coming in which God will no longer permit anything that is bad. We see this in 1 Corinthians 15:24, “Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power.”
But what kind of kingdom did Nicodemus expect. His kingdom expectations probably would have gone back to Daniel 2:44 where we read:
In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever.
Nicodemus, along with the rest of Israel, was looking forward to a kingdom that would liberate the Jews and subdue the Gentiles.
That is as much as Nicodemus was able to see regarding the Kingdom of God. Now, what was Nicodemus able to see regarding Jesus?
Notice what Nicodemus said, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
When Nicodemus said “we know,” he used a word which means to know as a result of having seen or perceived. This same basic word is used in Mark 1:34, where Jesus does not allow the demons to speak, because they know who Jesus is.
So there was a sense in which Nicodemus was able to see and know certain things about Jesus. He was able to see that God was with Him. Yet, the way Nicodemus saw Jesus and the way the first disciples saw Jesus was very different. For instance, in John 1:41 when Andrew found Simon Peter he said, “We have found the Messiah.” But in John 3, when Nicodemus found Jesus he referred to Him not as the Messiah but as a great teacher.
So how does Jesus respond to Nicodemus? He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."
Now, many see Jesus’ response to Nicodemus as one in which He totally ignored Nicodemus’ initial comments. However, remember, Jesus was able to know the thoughts of people. I believe that His response was not to what Nicodemus was saying; it was to what Nicodemus was thinking. Nicodemus was wondering whether the actions of Jesus were a sign that the Messiah was on His way. I believe Nicodemus was hoping that the Messianic Kingdom was at hand. And from His perspective, Nicodemus had every reason to look forward to this. The Messiah would establish his kingdom and Nicodemus, as a Jew in Israel, would enjoy the blessings of that kingdom.
It is regrettable that many had set aside the warnings from John the Baptist, for it was John who had told the people that the kingdom was nothing to look forward to unless they were ready for it. Unrepentant people were not ready for the arrival of Messiah. That is why John cried out in Matthew 3:2, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Then, later in Matthew 3:12 he warned, “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Nicodemus was one of those who were not ready, and because of this, Jesus now had to give Nicodemus some ominous news. He said, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Now for Nicodemus, to see the kingdom of God was to participate in it. That is probably how he understood Jesus’ comment. But there is a deeper meaning to this particular word for see that warrants our attention. It can also mean to perceive so as to understand. The word is used in that sense in Romans 15:21 where we read, “but as it is written, ‘They who had no news of Him shall see, and they who have not heard shall understand.’"
Here, Paul is quoting a section of Isaiah 52:13-15 where we read:
Behold, My servant [speaking of Christ] will prosper, He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted. Just as many were astonished at you, My people, so His appearance was marred more than any man and His form more than the sons of men. Thus He will sprinkle many nations, kings will shut their mouths on account of Him; [here is the section Paul quoted] for what had not been told them they will see, and what they had not heard they will understand.
In this passage we see a use of parallelism with respect to the words see and understand. To see in this context is to perceive with understanding. I think the meaning of the word see is similar in John 3:3. Many would disagree, saying that it means the same thing as the word enter in verse five. It could certainly include that idea, but I do not think that is all it means. When I consider the emphasis that is placed on the difficulty Nicodemus had with understanding spiritual things, I think it is reasonable to interpret the word see, in this passage, as meaning to perceive with understanding. The way the word is used elsewhere certainly allows for this interpretation, and the context suggests it.
One of the effects of the fall was the loss of some of our ability to perceive and understand spiritual things. People demonstrate spiritual blindness in two ways:
· By being unable to see.
· By being unwilling to see.
When someone is born again, the ability to perceive spiritual things with understanding is restored to the point where the person can repent and believe the gospel, and the resistance to spiritual things is overcome to the point where a person can say no to sin and follow Christ with right motives. Nevertheless, that some measure of spiritual blindness continues, even after conversion, is clearly seen in the verses that support progressive sanctification, for example, Romans 12:2 where we read, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” In regeneration spiritual blindness is subdued to the point where we can repent and believe the gospel. After we become believers and for the rest of our lives, spiritual blindness is further overcome as the Holy Spirit causes us to grow in holiness.
My purpose this morning is to address the spiritual blindness that people experience before the new birth. We will proceed to address this topic of spiritual blindness under four headings:
· The inability to see.
· The refusal to see.
· The danger of remaining unwilling to see.
· The grace of sight restored.
As we address these topics, I will probably use the words see, hear, and understand interchangeably. They all have to do with being able to grasp spiritual truth.
II. The inability to see.
We will start with inability. There is a sense in which prior to the new birth people are unable to understand spiritual things. This is true in some more than others. Several verses discuss spiritual blindness. Consider 2 Corinthians 4:3-4: “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
The gospel is veiled. It has been covered over so that people cannot see its glory. And the minds of unbelievers – their ability to see and understand – have been blinded by Satan.
We see this inability to understand again in Paul’s Damascus road experience, where Jesus sent him to preach to the Gentiles. In Acts 26:18, Paul was sent to “open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.”
III. The refusal to see.
The verses we just discussed deal with cases where people were unable to understand spiritual things. Another effect of the fall is we sometimes have cases where people are, to a point, able to understand spiritual things but unwilling to understand them. Here it is not as much a question of ability but a question of will.
An incident at my old job in Tallahassee serves to illustrate this. Several managers were having a discussion in the hallway. One was very angry, and the others were trying to reason with him. In his anger he said something very interesting. He said, “I cannot hear what you are saying.” He was so angry that nothing the others said was going to satisfy him, no matter what they said or how reasonable it was. The other managers were willing to persuade him, but he was not willing to be persuaded. He could comprehend what they were saying, but he was not willing to consider what they were saying.
A lot of people are like that when it comes to spiritual things. They can perceive spiritual truth at an intellectual level, but they are hostile towards it. Consider John 3:19, “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” This verse says that men loved darkness rather than light. Now people have to be able to distinguish darkness from light if they are going to choose one over the other. They see the light, but they are unwilling to come to the light.
Another verse that illustrates this point is 1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Now, in order for those who are perishing to judge the word of the cross as foolishness, they have to know something about that word. They know something of what it says, but they are unwilling to be persuaded and convicted by it.
Also consider 2 Corinthians 2:14-16:
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things?
Figuratively speaking, the unregenerate have smelled the fragrance of the gospel, and to them it stinks.
So sometimes spiritual blindness springs from being unable to understand the gospel. Other times spiritual blindness springs from being unwilling to understand the gospel. One verse reflects both problems. We find this in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”
Because he is unwilling to see, the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, and because he is unable to see, he does not understand them.
IV. The danger of remaining unwilling to see.
It is a dangerous thing to hear the gospel and, yet, remain unwilling to try to understand it. We see this in Isaiah 6:9-10:
He said, "Go, and tell this people: 'Keep on listening, but do not perceive; keep on looking, but do not understand. Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.’”
This is the scene of Isaiah’s vision where he receives his prophetic commission. Because Israel has continued to reject the warnings of the prophets, God is going to harden their hearts and bring them into judgment. This is called judicial hardening.
We see a New Testament example of judicial hardening in Romans 1:18-32 where we read:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.
How did God respond to their continued rejection? In verse eighteen the wrath of God is revealed. How is it revealed? In verse 24 God gives them over to impurity. In verse 26 God gives them over to degrading passions. And in verse 28 God gives them over to a depraved mind. God judges them by no longer restraining their passions.
This is just a taste of what is going to happen in Hell. Have you ever wondered what Hell is going to be like? Most of the emphasis is placed on the physical discomfort of hell: its thirst, its pain, and its deprivation. Yet, I would suggest that one of the hardest things to bear in Hell will be unrestrained passions.
For example, even in this life, you know the Hell of wanting to get even with someone and being unable to do it. You wish you could get the offense out of your mind, but you can’t. Nevertheless, some distractions are available. There is business; just stay busy and you won’t have to think about it. Or there is music; let its words and melodies carry you away.
But in Hell the distractions are removed. You will still lust; you just won’t have anything to distract you from it. You will still hate; you just won’t have any diversion from that hatred. The instruments of torture will not be a bunch of demons with pitchforks. At least in part it will be your own unrestrained passions.
Yet, as bad as Hell is, many get an early taste of Hell through judicial hardening. As the restraining hand of God is lifted, people lose what little remains in them of the image of God, and they become more and more like savage beasts.
But the worst thing about judicial hardening is not the suffering it brings in this life; it is the difficulty it brings to conversion.
Consider again the passage from Isaiah 6. This passage is quoted five times in the New Testament. Three of those have to do with the Parable of the Sower. Let’s look at Matthew 13:3-9:
And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, "Behold, the sower went out to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear."
“He who has ears, let him hear.” Well, everyone has ears – what does that mean? And why confuse the people by speaking to them in parables. In Matthew 13:11-17 Jesus explains:
Jesus answered them, "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says,
YOU WILL KEEP ON HEARING, BUT WILL NOT UNDERSTAND; YOU WILL KEEP ON SEEING, BUT WILL NOT PERCEIVE; FOR THE HEART OF THIS PEOPLE HAS BECOME DULL, WITH THEIR EARS THEY SCARCELY HEAR, AND THEY HAVE CLOSED THEIR EYES, OTHERWISE THEY WOULD SEE WITH THEIR EYES, HEAR WITH THEIR EARS,
AND UNDERSTAND WITH THEIR HEART AND RETURN,
AND I WOULD HEAL THEM.
But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
The disciples hear and understand. The other Jews hear and leave confused. The disciples are softened; the others are hardened. How does that happen? Why does that happen?
We don’t know why. In Romans 9:18 we read, “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.”
Nevertheless, it is not hard to explain why God hardens people. Even in ordinary life, when people insist on ignoring our advice and continue to mess up in spite of our best efforts to restrain them, we eventually turn them loose and let them experience the consequences of their actions.
The harder question is why doesn’t God harden everyone? For example, why did God reach down and soften Paul’s heart at the very time when he was on his way to persecute the Christians in Damascus?
Pause and wonder at the grace of God. All have rebelled. All have slighted heavens warnings. All have loved the gifts of this world more than the giver. And, yet, God has chosen to soften some hearts.
And if you happen to be an unbeliever, wonder also over God’s patience with you. God has let you live another day. God has given you another chance to fall upon your knees, to confess your sins, and to cry out for mercy.
Maybe you are unable to see the glory of the gospel. But are you able to see that you will go to Hell if you reject it? If you can see at least that much, cry out to God.
Maybe you are unwilling to consider the gospel. But are you able to see where your will is taking you – to everlasting misery and destruction? If you can see at least that much, cry out to God.
Maybe your heart is totally hardened towards the gospel. You regard its message with scorn and ridicule. You regard its people either with pity or with animosity. Can you see what has happened to you? Can you remember a time when you were not like this, a time when your heart was soft and approachable? A hardened workman can see the calluses on his hands. Can you see the calluses on your heart? A person in the early stages of dementia can detect his own memory problems. Can you detect the problems with your own mind? Are you able to understand that you are not thinking clearly? If you can see at least that much, cry out to God.
You might ask me, “Why? You said, yourself, that you have to be born again. Not only that, but you said being born again comes before true repentance and faith. What good is there in crying out to God if I am not yet born again?”
“But friend,” I would respond, “The Bible never encourages people to figure out, prior to conversion, whether or not they have been born again. No, the Bible says repent and believe. Nor does the Bible encourage anyone to wait.”
It might encourage you to know that some people go through a long season of agonizing over their sins before they are regenerated. Here, we should note the difference between conviction and regeneration and conversion. In conviction a person’s heart is opened to better understand his sinfulness and his need for Jesus. He feels the weight of his sin; yet, he has no real spiritual power to resist it.
In regeneration the Holy Spirit moves the person beyond conviction, implanting a new ruling principle in his heart, and, thereby, enabling him to repent and believe the gospel.
In conversion, the person actually repents and believes.
So there is conviction, there is regeneration, and there is conversion, and they are different.
But be encouraged. God sometimes delights to save the most unsavable people. God has saved murderers, drunkards, thieves, thugs, and prostitutes. If you know that you are a big sinner who needs a big Savior, and if you are willing to cry out to God and keep on crying, there is hope for you.
Every day God rescues people from the very brink of Hell and sets their feet upon the rock.
V. The grace of sight restored.
How? God regenerates them. What a difference we have when the Holy Spirit overcomes our spiritual blindness through the New Birth. As we read in Psalm 110:3 in the King James Version, “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power.” Why are they willing? God exercises divine power and suddenly a new governing principle is implanted in the hearts of previously rebellious people.
Once people are able to see, they rejoice over the gospel, and once they are willing to see its glory, they embrace it, as we find in Acts 13:48, “When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.
Moreover, consider what the Lord did for Lydia so she could understand the gospel. We find this in Acts 16:14, “A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.” Lydia was made able and willing because God opened her heart.
This ability to understand is emphasized in Matthew’s telling of the Parable of the Sower. What distinguished the good ground from the bad ground in that story? In Matthew 13:23 we read, “And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.”
So what made the ground good, the man was able to both hear the word and understand it. And why was he able to understand it – because he had been born again.
As Newton wrote, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”
And as Charles Wesley wrote, “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke – the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”
Are you here today as a believer. Then, never forget that it is because of God’s prior work in your heart that you believe. Do you have saving faith? Then, never forget that God is the architect and engineer of that faith. Have you weathered many storms and trials? Then, never forget that the Holy Spirit dwelling in your heart is the one who keeps faith alive by keeping believers believing.
In every decision we make, in every challenge we face, let this one fact inform our decisions and animate our actions – we owe everything to God. As McCheyne wrote many years ago:
Chosen not for good in me, wakened up from wrath to flee,
Hidden in the Savior’s side, by the Spirit sanctified,
Teach me Lord on earth to show, by my love how much I owe.
Let us pray:
Lord, I pray for those who are unable to see, that You will open their eyes. I pray for those who are unwillingly to see, that You will make them willing. I pray for those whose consciences have been hardened, that you will break through the walls they have erected. Finally, I pray for those who at least understand enough to know that they are lost and on their way to hell. I pray that they will seek you with all their hearts. And help all of us to know what to do to love them and encourage them. Amen.