The Danger of Confident Presumption

February 4, 2018

You enter the room and there is your grandfather and an attorney. Your grandfather says, “In five years I am giving you my entire estate. My attorney will explain the details. Now you are all ears. The attorney explains that the entire estate is worth over 300 million dollars, comprised of cash, investments and property. Your grandfather has already set aside sufficient funds to care for his needs for the remainder of his life. Next month you will be given the mansion and 75 million dollars. The stipulation is that you must live in the mansion and assume your grandfather’s work. Then he asks, “Will you receive the gift and its terms? Wow! What will you do?

In some ways this scenario is not unlike the situation of entering into a relationship with Jesus Christ. The gift of life that Jesus offers is not a life that begins when we die. It is a life that we are given immediately. The assumption is that all who receive this life will actually live into it. My question this morning from Jn.3 is, have you received eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ?


If anyone was a candidate for being in the Kingdom of God it was Nicodemus. Notice how Nicodemus is identified in this passage. In v.1 He is called a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, and in v.10 Jesus calls him a teacher of Israel. Let’s take a few moments to think about each of these titles.

The Pharisees were a Jewish religious party that preserved and promoted a strict adherence to the Old Testament laws. They were scrupulous in regard to tithing, keeping the Sabbath, keeping the food laws, and ritual cleanliness laws. At one point it is said that there were as many as 6,000 Pharisees in Israel. As far as I can tell, Pharisees were not priests, but the Pharisees were very well versed in the Law and Jewish traditions, and many Pharisees were also scribes. The scribes were those who could read and write, and made copies of the Scriptures.

The Pharisees often came into conflict with Jesus because they felt that Jesus was not as strict as he should be in keeping the Law. They opposed Jesus’ teachings concerning the Sabbath and purity laws, and they opposed the claims that Jesus made for himself. These were not all bad people. They were very religious and highly respected by the Jewish people. And yet Jesus often pointed out their hypocrisy. A number of Pharisees, like Nicodemus, eventually became followers of Jesus.

We also learn that Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews. He served on the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. The Sanhedrin was controlled by the priests, who were known as Sadducees. There were also a number of scribes on the council, many of which were Pharisees. Along with this a number of prominent people in Jerusalem served on the Sanhedrin. So Nicodemus had privilege and recognition.

And then in v.10 we learn that he was a respected teacher. He knew the law and traditions backwards and forwards. He knew how to interpret the law for his day. He was confident and wielded authority.

When he came to Jesus we see something of his confidence and presumption. He was respectful of Jesus, but perhaps also a bit condescending. He comes to Jesus by night and says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” In saying, “We know,” Nicodemus presumes to be in a position to evaluate Jesus. “We’ve been talking and we have a handle on who you are.” Also note the word, “night.” When John uses the word, “night,” it carries a metaphorical-spiritual meaning. If you look this word up in John’s gospel you will see that it refers to spiritual darkness. Nicodemus came to Jesus with a sense of confident presumption, but he was spiritually blind. Yet another clue to his presumption is found in Jesus’ response in v.3. Jesus doesn’t say, “Thank you. You are one of the few Pharisees who gets it, who understands who I am.” Instead, Jesus pointedly says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

This is important. It seems that Nicodemus presumed that he and Jesus had the same understanding of the kingdom of God. It’s not that there was only one understanding of the kingdom of God at that time, but it was generally believed that at the end of the age there would be a resurrection to eternal life. The enemies of God would be defeated and a son of David would reestablish the throne. It was believed that all Jews, except for those who were apostate or especially wicked would be in the eternal kingdom of God. Nicodemus had no doubt about his place in the future kingdom of God. I have mentioned before how my previous neighbor held this same view. He’s Jewish. Of course he will be in heaven. Jesus did not share that viewpoint. Jesus said, “Unless you are born again you cannot see the kingdom of God.” This threw Nicodemus for a loop.

I point this out because the way of the world is to believe that we are just fine the way we are. In fact most of us think we are better than we are. Here’s this from “Are you a better driver than most people? What about a better friend? What if we told you that the majority of people think the exact same thing about themselves? It doesn't make mathematical sense (by definition, half of all people must be below average) but it's true. The idea that most people rate themselves more positively than they rate others is a cornerstone of psychology research. It's known as ‘the better-than-average effect.”

The same is true when it comes to religion and the afterlife. Generally people think they will fare okay because compared to everyone else they see themselves as being better, more moral, more honest. It is pretty much religion based upon merit and self-comparison. A religion based on merit is rooted in pride.

Nicodemus may have been a wonderful person, but he was blinded by his confident presumption about his ability to discern the truth concerning himself and Jesus. And that reality is always in play for each one of us. Confident presumption in the area of religion is dangerous. Left to ourselves we do not get it right, ever. And to be wrong on this is to lose one’s life. Suddenly Nicodemus was on shaky ground.


Nicodemus was incredulous at what Jesus was saying. He responded with a sarcastic question, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus was not dense. I think he was saying, “Are you kidding me? What does that even mean? What does being born again have to do with the kingdom of God?”

Clearly Jesus is saying that in order to enter into the kingdom of God some kind of new birth must take place. A person must be born again or born from above. Both translations are appropriate. In other words a person must be made new, transformed in order to qualify for entrance into the kingdom of God. And Jesus goes on to explain that this is not something a person can do for themselves. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Well, what does that mean, “born of water and spirit?”

In the Old Testament there are many allusions to water. Water is often a symbol for cleansing and renewal. One of the clearest examples is found in Ez.36:25-26. God says, “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.” Jesus is speaking about a new, regenerated life. It is a total reboot of one’s life brought about by the master IT specialist. Only God through his Holy Spirit can make it possible for us to enter into the kingdom of God by transforming our lives, giving us a brand new life to live. In v.6 Jesus likens this new birth to physical birth. He says, “Look, just as flesh gives birth to flesh, that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” We are not talking about a physical birth here. We are talking about a spiritual birth. And let me make it clear that Jesus is referring to a spiritual rebirth that takes place in our lives on earth. This is what we need now.

Maybe you are thinking to yourself, “Pastor Dave, this is not so easy to understand.” Well I get that. But of course, Jesus was speaking to one of Israel’s teachers, someone who should have understood. Jesus was explaining the necessity of the new birth by using Old Testament pictures and allusions. Nicodemus was well-versed in the Old Testament. The take away for you and me is that unless we are born again, born from above, unless we receive new life from God, there is no entrance into the kingdom of God.

If Nicodemus needed to be born again, I can assure you that you and I also need to be born again. This was a completely new idea for Nicodemus. Jesus came to transform and renew our lives. We must understand that in and of ourselves we do not qualify to be in the kingdom of God. We must be born again.


In v.9 Nicodemus asks, “How can this be?” or, How can this happen?” At this point I would like to make a few comments about the Kingdom of God in order to give us a larger context. In the other gospels we learn that Jesus brought the reality of the kingdom of God within his person. He is the King and through his teachings and miracles he revealed the presence of God’s kingdom. And he called people to believe in him and follow him and by doing this they would enter into the kingdom of God, receiving his life and coming under his rule. It is often said that the Kingdom is now and not yet. The future kingdom has been brought into the present by Jesus Christ, but not in all its fullness. The fullness of the kingdom will not become a reality until Jesus brings the new heaven and earth about. Believers presently live both in the kingdom of this world (old creation) and also in the kingdom of God (new creation) at the same time.

When Nicodemus asks how this can happen, Jesus begins to focus the conversation on himself. He points out that he has come from heaven and is fully qualified to speak about these things. And then he makes reference to an event that took place in the book of Numbers. In Num.21 we read that the people of Israel, because of their impatience and unbelief, began to grumble and complain against Moses and God. God sent fiery serpents who bit the people and many were dying. The people came to Moses in repentance and the Lord told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. Anyone who had been bitten and infected with the venom could look at that serpent and they would be healed. Nicodemus would have been very familiar with this story. But then Jesus says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

In the gospel of John the phrase “lifted up” is connected with the crucifixion. For example in Jn.12:32-33 it says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.” Now Nicodemus may not have fully understood what Jesus was saying to him until later. But John wants his readers to make the connection between the bronze serpent and Jesus.

Just as the Israelites in Num.21 were infected with deadly venom, so all people are infected with sin and selfish pride that leads to death. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so Jesus would be lifted up on the cross in order to bear our sin upon himself and die in our place. Just as the Israel of old had to look to that bronze serpent, so all must look to Jesus through faith in order to receive eternal life or eternal living in the kingdom of God. Look and live!

Nicodemus was being invited into a life with Jesus in which he would receive the eternal life of Jesus in the kingdom of God. This is what Jesus has made possible for each one of us if we will have him. Receiving Jesus means that we enter into his life, living according to his way. Have you received eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ? That is what this table is all about. This table speaks of life in Christ. The Lord’s Table is for those who have received Jesus Christ. At this table we refocus and refresh our faith in Jesus and we are strengthened and encouraged by Jesus who meets us here. And if you have not received Christ and his life I encourage you to repent of your sin and call upon the name of the Lord to save you. Amen.