The biggest jump you’ll ever make

Pastor Jeff Struecker

I have been looking forward to this sermon for a long time! And I have some good news for you. For those of you who call God, Father, I’ve got some news for you that’s going to warm your heart. And for those of you who don’t really call God your Father, you actually view him as kind of this harsh judge from a distance, maybe this news today is not just going to warm your heart; maybe today is going to jumpstart your heart. 

You see, what we’re going to talk about is grace. We’re going to talk about being born again, and most of what you’re going to hear from me has to do with the heart.

Now, let me make sure that when you hear the word heart, you’re not mistaken. I’m not talking about the thing in your chest that’s pumping blood around your body right now. That’s not what I’m discussing. When I use the word heart (and I’m going to use it a lot) this means who you are as a person. This is talking about your emotions. This is talking about what makes your personality. There’s really no place that you could point your finger in the human body and really talk about the heart that I’m describing for you. It’s what the pastor and theologian Paul Tripp calls the center of worship in your life. 

Your heart is who you are as an individual. And what I want to do is make a stark contrast between your head and your heart. In fact, perhaps the largest jump a human being will ever make is this distance, the leap, between your head and your heart.

The biggest jump you’ll ever make, is the leap between your head and heart!

Today, the Bible is going to show us a guy who is being asked to make a jump between the head and the heart, a very religious man by the name of Nicodemus. This is one of the most famous verses (it probably is the THE most famous verse) in the Bible, because this is the verse that you see the guy at the basketball game or at the football game hold up for everybody in the world to see. Today, we’re going to see how John describes Jesus’s conversation with this man who knew the answers in his head, but he didn’t really have it in his heart, Jesus’s conversation with a guy by the name of Nicodemus.

Now, spoiler alert: All of the language here is going to talk about jumping over a big gap, like on a motorcycle or on a mountain bike. I was going to show up today (no kidding) in a sling with my arm all bandaged up, because I was supposed to be in surgery, and that didn’t happen. And I was going to use all of that as a funny joke, but since the surgery didn’t happen, the whole thing just fell apart on me… but we’re going to go with it anyway. 

In fact, I’m going to tell you about a guy by the name of Alex, who just two days tried to set the Guinness World Record for making the longest jump on a motorcycle. But when you hear the word “jump”, I want you to think not about jumping over a big hole in the ground; I want you to think about the jump from right here [head] to right here [heart].

Setting up the jump

That’s the jump that Jesus is going to describe for a very intelligent, very well-educated religious man who, when this conversation starts, is not at all a Christian. And here’s how the jump begins. It starts like this. We have to set up the whole conversation (or I’m calling it “setting up the jump”), and it begins with a conversation when this religious leader by the name of Nicodemus shows up and has a couple of questions for Jesus. John chapter 3, starting in verse 1. Here’s the question that he asks.

There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to him at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him.”

Nicodemus was from the Pharisees, incredibly educated, probably the most religious or spiritual man in all of the land. He was a ruler, a theologian, and kind of a judge for the Jews. And this man came to him (Jesus) at night. And look at how he addresses Jesus: Rabbi. Nicodemus is pointing to Jesus’s miracles and saying, “Okay, word’s getting around, Jesus, and nobody can do the kind of stuff that you can do, unless there’s something different about him.” This is kind of Jesus’s way of setting up the jump. 

Now, I want to teach you about Nicodemus, so look at this video and hear who Nicodemus is :

“Nicodemus was an influential Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. He showed interest in Jesus’s teaching and may have become a believer. Some scholars see Nicodemus as a secret disciple. Others have tried to identify the Nicodemus of the Bible with a man named Nicodemus ben Gorion of the Talmud. Nicodemus ben Gorion was a wealthy first-century member of the Sanhedrin who lost his status and fortune later in life. Some believe his losses were tied to his possible conversion to Christianity. 

John is the only Gospel that mentions Nicodemus, whose name means “victor among the people.” His relationship with Jesus develops over three episodes. Nicodemus comes to Jesus, who explains that no one can enter the kingdom of God without experiencing a second birth, a birth of the Spirit. He honors Jesus by calling him Rabbi and acknowledges that Jesus comes from God.

Although some scholars suggest that Nicodemus visits Jesus at night to avoid being seen with him, others say that the imagery of darkness represents his unbelief or doubt. Nicodemus struggles to understand Jesus’s explanation that he must be born again and asks, “How can these things be?” Jesus explains further and then offers a most succinct outline of the gospel message: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Nicodemus somewhat defends Jesus before the Pharisees at the Festival of Booths. When other Pharisees speak against Jesus and seek his arrest, Nicodemus argues that Jesus should receive a fair trial according to Jewish law. Some suggest that, as a fair-minded member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus is urging just treatment for the accused. Others allow more room for the possibility that Nicodemus sympathizes with Jesus, even if he’s not yet a believer. He likely knew that he could not win an argument with the Jewish leaders if he championed Jesus’s cause outright, but he might be able to prevent them from taking drastic action by raising a legitimate legal question.

Nicodemus brings about 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’s body for burial. The account identifies Joseph of Arimathea as a disciple of Jesus, but it offers no clear statement of Nicodemus’s faith. However, the surprising amount of spice indicates both Nicodemus’s great wealth and his ultimate recognition of Jesus as King. Scholars note that this quantity of spice would be used for a royal burial, pointing to John’s depiction of Jesus as King.”

There’s lots of controversy, a little bit of question about who this guy, Nicodemus, is. And as you just read, it’s only in the Bible book of John that we even find out about this guy. But, he shows up at the beginning of the book of John, and a couple of times before the book is over with. What you’re reading today is this incredible conversation between a member of the Jewish Supreme Court and somebody whom he calls Teacher, between Nicodemus and Jesus.

And if you just look at the beginning of this conversation today, there are a couple of fascinating things that happen. One, Nicodemus says, “We know something about you. People are making claims about you, Jesus, and they’re kind of trying to figure this one out. But Jesus, I’ve read the Bible enough to know nobody can do what you’re doing unless God is with you.” 

And the “unless” statement here, some scholars believe is a statement like, “Hey, I really believe God is with you.” I tend to believe, other Bible scholars believe it’s actually a question. What Nicodemus is really asking is, “Jesus, I’ve heard the reports of the miracles, and I’m listening to your message as you talk to other people. And now I got a question, and here’s the question, Jesus: Who are you?”

You see, what Nicodemus is struggling with is, “Are you the one that all of Israel has been waiting for, for thousands of years? Are you that guy?” And I’m convinced Nicodemus is asking the question that everybody who’s reading this right now has to answer. You have to personally answer the question, “Who is this guy Jesus?” As a church, we like to call him King Jesus around here, because we declare he is the King of the universe. He is also the King of my soul, which means he has absolute power and absolute control over every area of my life.

But the truth is, many people would say, “Jesus, I think you’re a good man, maybe even a prophet, but I’m not sure I would call you my King. I’m not sure I would call you God.” This is the classic discussion from one of the most brilliant Christian minds of the last century, a English professor from Oxford University named C.S. Lewis, who said there’s really only one of three answers to this question, “Who are you, Jesus?” 

You can either say he’s a liar, and the claims that he’s making are not true. You can call him a lunatic and say he really believes the claim that he’s making, but only a crazy man would make those kinds of claims. Or, C.S. Lewis says, there’s a third option, and it’s the option that those who call God Father would choose: He’s either a liar, he’s a lunatic… or he’s your Lord.

The short run up 

And what Nicodemus is asking in verse 1 is, “Jesus, I’ve heard the stories, and I’ve started listening to your message. And I want to know, who are you?” And that sets up the next part of the jump. Now that we’ve got the ramp built, now we can take the short run up to the edge of the ramp. I want you to notice what happens. If you look at your Bible, this ought to jump off the page at you. Jesus literally interrupts the guy and just goes straight to the heart of the point. This is what we would call in the military “the bottom line up front,” and Jesus just calls a time out and says, “Nicodemus, I’m going to give you the answer that you’re looking for. Here it is in one verse.” 

Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless someone [and I want you to substitute your name right here] is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Boom! A mind bomb just went off, because Nicodemus hadn’t heard “born-again” language, and he’s going to really struggle with this born-again language. This is a huge turn in the conversation, and Jesus just abruptly interrupts the guy and gives him born language. 

Now, I’m going to just tell you my opinion. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t there when Jesus and Nicodemus had this conversation, but I really believe Jesus is using born-again language because no human being on the planet is crazy enough to take credit for their own human birth. Would you agree? You didn’t have a whole lot to do with that. Somebody else had something to do with that. And, by the way, talk to any couple that’s ever struggled with infertility, and they would tell you it’s actually not even Mama and Daddy; it’s much more God in Heaven that chooses when and who is born, and where they’re born, and all of those things.

Jesus is going to use human birth to describe and illustrate spiritual birth. And he says, “Nicodemus, check this out. You don’t have any control over when your mama and daddy gave birth to you, and God in Heaven alone decides who and when someone can be born again.” And this is a real struggle for Nicodemus to understand.

There are basically only two kinds of Christians out there, or there are basically only two kinds of people in this world, and I just described them at the beginning. There are people that say, “God, I have been born again, and that makes you my Father,” or you’re going to look at God very differently from those of us who have been radically changed by the Lord Jesus Christ, by King Jesus. To you, he’s going to appear as some distant deity that does not care. Or worse, he’s going to be maybe a lot like your physical daddy here on earth, a harsh disciplinarian, but you didn’t get a lot of love from him.

Jesus is describing this amazing grace relationship, and I just want to ask you right now, right in the middle of this sermon, have you come to the point where you realize, “I cannot fix my life. I had no choice and no influence over when I was born, and I cannot fix my current circumstances. I need God to do a miracle of new birth in my life, because that and that alone can fix me”? Have you ever come to that point?

The ramp of faith

That’s the short run up now that we’re on the ramp. And here it is. Jesus just kind of lays out the difference between human birth and spiritual birth, and now the rabbi is going to have to teach the great teacher of Israel a few things when Jesus describes the ramp of faith. This is us standing on the edge of the ramp. This is you, this is me, this is Nicodemus standing on the edge of the ramp. It’s all right here in our head, and we have to decide, “I understand what he’s saying, but do I really believe it? I get it, but am I ready to act on what I get? I understand it [head], but do I believe it [heart]?”

Here’s what Nicodemus says next to Jesus, because his mind has just been blown. “Uh, Jesus, how does a human birth work in reverse?” is really what Nicodemus is asking. 

“How can anyone be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

You see the word “and”? We’re talking two distinctly different births, meaning just because you’re here on planet earth and your heart is beating does not mean you’re going to end up in Heaven. A separate, or a second, birth is really what Jesus is describing here. Jesus is placing him on the edge of the ramp, and he is asking Nicodemus now to understand the difference between a physical and a spiritual birth.

You can’t control the wind, and you can’t control God. You don’t decide when you were physically born, and you don’t decide, ultimately, who is born again. This water birth, of course, is a reference to being in your mother’s womb, sitting in that giant sack of water. All of you medical professionals out there, don’t give me a hard time. I’m just using Bible language right now. I know that it’s not water. The spiritual birth Jesus is describing is a work of God. And the biggest word in this passage that we’ve read up to this point is the word “and”. If you have one but not the other, you’re not really born again.

The phrase “be amazed” in the Bible is the phrase that I like to use during my sermons around here when I tell you to lean in, because literally, what Jesus is saying is, “I need you to lean in right now, Nicodemus, and don’t miss what I’m going to say next.” When he says “be amazed,” what he’s telling Nicodemus is, “Nicodemus, I don’t want you to be confused, so I need you to put the phone down, and I need you to focus. Nicodemus, I don’t want you to miss what I’m going to say next, and I know your children are crawling all over you, but I need you to set them off to the side. I need you to look at me in the eyes for just a second, Nicodemus, and I need you to hear what comes out of my mouth next. Don’t miss what I’m going to say to you next.”

Most people believe, and I tend to agree with them, this is an offer to respond to what he’s just heard. “Nicodemus, I’ve just told you in the head what you need to know, and now I need you to believe it with your heart. Nicodemus, you’re standing on the edge of the ramp, and you have a decision to make. Are you going to step back and walk away, or are you going to take that leap? And Nicodemus, I’m challenging you to take that leap. Actually Nicodemus, I am pleading with you to take that step of faith.”

And whoever you are, wherever you are right now, I’m challenging you, I’m begging you, don’t stop reading until you take that step of faith. Because God in heaven will hold you accountable for what you’ve just heard from the Bible today. -not what you’ve heard from Jeff, but what you’ve heard from Jesus. 

“Nicodemus, I need you to lean in; I need you to look me in the eyes, and I need you to hear what I’ve just said. Because Nicodemus, I’m challenging you to step off of the edge of that ramp and to take it from here [head] and make the jump to here [heart], and I want you to believe. Don’t reject. I want you to believe what you just heard, not just understand it; I need you to believe it.”

The bottomless pit of belief 

And now you, wherever you are, whoever you are, have the same choice in front of you that Nicodemus had. Now that you have been set on the ramp of faith, and now you have been looking over the other side and that big gap in the middle, you have to decide, “Am I going to jump that bottomless pit and go from head to heart, from understanding to believing what I just heard?”

And Nicodemus struggles with this, so it’s okay if you’re struggling with this. Look at what Nicodemus says to Jesus next, because he’s struggling with what he just heard. “Uh Jesus, I’ve studied the Bible my whole life [Jeff’s commentary] and you’re telling me something I’ve never heard before?” Question mark. “How can these things be?” asked Nicodemus.

“How can these things be?” asked Nicodemus. “Are you a teacher of Israel and don’t know these things?” Jesus replied. “Truly I tell you, we speak what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you do not accept our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven—the Son of Man.

If you were following our service last week, you heard Troy Singleton brilliantly talk about Jesus just declaring his authority and claiming authority over things here on earth. Well, right there, that last verse is Jesus brilliantly declaring authority over Heaven and Hell.

And here’s what he’s saying: “Nicodemus, only somebody who has been there has the authority to talk about Heaven. That’s me. Now, you guys can read about it in a book, but I’m telling you from firsthand experience, the one who came from Heaven is telling you how you, Nicodemus, can end up there. So, the stuff that you read about in a book, that’s head knowledge, and I’m glad you got the answers to the questions right, Nicodemus. That’s a great start. But it can’t stop there. I need it to go from here [head] to here [heart]. And Nicodemus, you’re on the edge of the ramp, and I’m challenging you to leave the edge of the ramp and to see that I will be with you, and I will meet you if you will just take that one step of faith, Nicodemus. But I won’t do this for you. I’m calling you to do it, I’m challenging you to do it. But Nicodemus, I won’t do this for you.” And Jesus is making the exact same challenge to you, to me, to everyone who’s reading this right now. 

Either a safe landing or a fireball on the other side

Let’s see how this thing ends up, because once you’ve made this leap of faith, there’s really only two ways that this thing is going to go down. And y’all, I usually like to have a little fun up here. I say that you’re doing church wrong if you can’t have fun in church. But there’s nothing funny about what I’m going to say next. You really either do land safely on the other side, or you’re going to land in a fireball on the other side. It’s kind of one or the other. Are you hearing what I’m saying right now? -because what I’m saying is there’s no middle ground. Jesus is saying, “I have authority over Heaven. I have authority over Hell. It’s one or the other. There’s no middle ground.”

Two days ago (this is a great tragedy) a man in the United States, in the state of Washington, by the name of Alex tried to jump over a canyon and set the Guinness World Record. And unfortunately, here’s what happened when Alex tried to jump that. The headline read: “Motorcyclist Alex Harvill dies while attempting a Guinness World Record to jump over Moses Lake in the state of Washington.”

Jesus is really painting this all or nothing. Either you make the leap from here to here, or you don’t. It’s kind of an all-or-nothing thing. And here’s how it wraps up. We’ll look at the rest of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, verses 14 through 21. 

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Anyone who believes in him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. This is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed. But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.”

“That “everyone”, that includes you, Nicodemus, who believes…” He’s no different to you than George Washington. There’s no difference in your mind between him and Nelson Mandela. I need you to understand not that there was a guy by the name of Jesus that lived a long time ago; I need you to understand that he is alive and wants to have a relationship with you so that everyone who believes in him may have everlasting life.

Now, Nicodemus knew exactly what Jesus was talking about when he talked about Moses’s snake. And if you’ve read Numbers chapter 21, you know exactly what he’s talking about. But maybe you haven’t read Numbers 21. Maybe you’re not familiar with this story that the people of Israel sinned, and the sin is so terrible in God’s sight that he sent snakes into the camp of Israel. They were biting people, and people were dying by the thousands. So God said, “I tell you what I want you to do, Moses. I want you to go construct a bronze pole with a snake at the top, and any time someone in the camp of Israel gets bitten by a poisonous snake, if they will look at this, just look at the pole and believe, then even though they have the poison of that snake inside of them, I will heal them.”

Moses constructs this pole, and the people of Israel look to the pole, even though they’re bitten by poisonous snakes. And God totally and completely heals them. Does that pole and snake image look similar to you, Christian? [image shown] Does it look like anything else that you recognize? Yeah, it looks a little bit like a cross, right? And if you live in the United States, you know exactly what this symbol means, because this is the symbol universally recognized in the United States for medicine, supernatural medicine, that can heal you when the snake is climbing up the pole.

This is a reference back to Numbers chapter 21. Jesus says, “I know you know this story, Nicodemus, because you are an expert in the Bible. What God did with that pole and Moses in the Old Testament, he’s going to do all over again. And this time, instead of a snake on a pole, it’s going to be the Son on a cross. And anyone who looks to him and believes, not just understands it up here [head], but in here [heart], will be totally healed from the terminal illness that every single human being on the planet has: the illness of sin. Only that man on that pole can heal you from the disease of sin.”

Look at how Jesus picks up the conversation after the snake on the pole. This is the verse that you see held up on signs at giant sporting events, because Christians want everyone in the world to hear what the Bible says next. “For God so loved you [personally] in this way: he gave his one and only Son so that you [personally] if you believe in him, will not perish [Hell], but have everlasting life [Heaven].”

And Jesus says, “Nicodemus, I want to make sure you didn’t miss what I said, so I’m just going to explain it to you in this way. For God didn’t send his Son into the world as a harsh father who’s mad at you and wants to punish you, who wants to condemn the world. No, he sent his Son to save the world through him. And anyone who believes in him (listen to me, Christian) is not condemned. Anyone who does not believe is already (notice the verb tense) already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God.”

It’s not head; it’s heart. This is the judgment. The light has come into the world. The light’s name is Jesus. He said, “I am the light.” The light has a first name, and the first name is Jesus. “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed. But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.”

The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus ends the exact same way that you need to hear it right now. There are two types of people. Jesus makes it clear, this is already the case. There are those that are already condemned because you heard the name of Jesus, and you have it up here [head], but it’s not here [heart]. And you’re already condemned because you understand, but you don’t believe. You never made the jump. And you ended up in a fiery crash on the o