Why Its Hard To Understand - John 3:16

Dr. Steve Viars July 24, 1990 John 3:16


- we've been looking at favorite Bible passages

- so far we've talked about Zech. 4:6 - "Not by might, nor by

  power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord"

- and Gal. 2:20 - "I am crucified with Christ, and I no

  longer live, but Christ lives in me, and the life that I

  now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who

  loves me and gave Himself for me"


- tonight, we're going to look at what would probably be

  considered the most famous of the favorite Bible verses

- in other words, if we polled everybody and asked us just to

  give us their one favorite verse, this one would probably

  come out on top


- INPUT - what verse do you think I'm talking about? (John



- INPUT - why is that such a favorite verse for so many of

  us?  (its easy to understand)


- you might think (based on the answers to the question) that

  studying this verse is going to be easy. Actually, just the

  opposite is true.  I'll aggree that the main thrust of the

  verse is easy to understand and has been a blessing for

  many because its answered the central question of how can a

  person know they have eternal life.

- But, while it answers that question, it also raises quite a

  few questions:

    - some of them have to do with the verse itself.  For



      1) What world is it that God loved?  Why were we told

         in I John 2 to "love not the world" if God so loved

         the world?


      2) What does the phrase "only begotten Son" mean?  Does

         it mean, as some say, that there was a time when

         Jesus didn't exist, but then was born, or begotten?

         If thats not what it means, what does it mean?


      3) What did Jesus mean when He said "believeth in Him".

         How come these people who "believe" in Him don't

         perish but James tells us that the demons believe

         and tremble.  How does that fit in with what John

         has just said in John 2:23 - "...Many believed in

         his name when they saw the miracles which he did,

         but Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He

         knew all men"?


- obviously, those are some questions that we are going to

  have to wrestle with.  But, at least in my mind, there's

  one question about this verse that is harder to answer than

  any of the ones we've mentioned...that is...Why did Jesus

  speak these words?

    - in other words, how do these verses fit into the

      context?  You know that Jesus didn't just speak things

      out of the blue.

        - its not like He was walking down the road and

          suddenly said, For God so loved..."

        - John 3:16 was spoken to Nicodemus, but we need to

          discover what was happening in the conversation

          with Nicodemus that caused Jesus to speak these



- INPUT - why is it important to learn the answer to this



    1)  It will help us in our understanding/interpretation

         of the verse.


    2)  It will help us know how we should apply it.  Its

        critical to try to learn the author's original

        purpose.  By finding out his purpose, we then have a

        much better idea of what purpose God might have for

        that verse in our lives today.


- so, we have alot of digging to do:


- read John 2:23-3:16


Introduction - The context of John 3:16


1.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night.


    - what do we need to notice about Nicodemus?


    - Pharisee, ruler of the Jews


    - Pharisees taught the people the law of God.  (that’s why

      Jesus said - art thou a teacher of law, and you don't

      know these things?)

    - what was supposed to have happened - the law was

      supposed to teach people about the character of God,

      and also show them that they couldn't measure up to

      that character, and therefore they had to put their

      faith and trust in the promises God had made up to that


    - "Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto Him for


    - thats why Paul called the law a schoolmaster, pointing

      men and women to God's provision of salvation

    - the problem was that the Pharsisees had put their faith

      not in God and his promises, but in their own ability

      to keep the law - thats why Jesus called them "Self-


    - you know that the Pharisees had come up with all kinds

      of additions to the law - like you couldn't wear false

      teeth on the sabbath because if they feel out, it would

      be work to pick them up


2.  Nicodemus addresses Jesus as "Rabbi"


    - that was a respectful title.  Nicodemus was coming as a




3.  Jesus tells him that he must be "born again."


    - we discussed the meaning of this phrase in our John

      study earlier this year.


    - did Nicodemus understand?


4.  Nicodemus didn't understand, and Jesus mildly rebuked

    him with "Art thou a teacher of Israel, and knowest not

    these things."


    - what I'd like to present to you tonight is that verse

      10 is the hinge on which the rest of this passage


    - Nicodemus has already been identified as a ruler of the

      Pharisees, so he's supposedly an expert on the OT, and

      an expert on the things of God.  Its been his job to

      teach the people of Israel about God.

    - Jesus says - You're a ruler in Israel, and you don't

      know these things.


    - understanding that phrase is critical in understanding

      this passage.

    - Q. is - was Jesus saying that Nicodemus should have

      known about being born again from reading the Old

      Testament?  I would answer that question, "No".

    - the verse is better understood, "Are you a teacher in

      Israel, and understandest not these things"


    - difference - knowest/understandest


    - its not that Jesus was expecting Nicodemus to know all

      this before, but he was expecting Nicodemus to

      understand the things he just shared.


    - the point is this - the context of John 3:16 is a

      person who is having trouble understanding the things

      of God, Word of God, the plan of God.


    - hopefully, you'd say - "Aha, I fit into that category

      sometimes.  There are times I have great trouble

      understanding the Word of God." I think all of us would

      say that.  And we can probably think of Bible verses or

      concepts that we have really struggled with.


    - let me ask you this - what do we normally blame that

      on?  (the Bible)  With the rest of these verses, Jesus

      is going to diagnose the real problem:


- thats the only way that the next verses make sense: (read



- Jesus' point is:


I.  You Have A Wrong View of the Revealer


    - see Nicodemus, its not that the concept of the new

      birth is so hard to understand, the problem is--it

      doesn't fit your grid




    - you came to me thinking one way about salvation, namely

      the Pharisaical way, and what I'm telling you doesn't

      fit that at all.

    - so you're trying to compare this with all the other

      great rabbis have taught, what your parents taught you,

      what you've been teaching Jews all your professional


          - you're struggling, not because what I'm saying is

            hard - but because it contradicts what you've

            always thought


     - And Nicodemus, you'll always have trouble

       understanding God's word as long as you think I'm:


    A.  Just another "teacher"


        - there's the problem


        - Jesus is saying, Nicodemus, you don't know who

          you're dealing with

        - I'm the Son of Man

        - I didn't just ascend up to heaven to get this

        - I was in heaven  - I and the Father are one


        - you have a wrong view of the revealer

        - if you understood who I was, you be listening more,

          and mentally arguing less


    - thats the same approach Jesus took in Mark 10:17


    B.  Same problem in Mark 10:17


       - remember that passage - thats where the rich young

         ruler came to him and said, "Good master, what must

         I do to inherit eternal life?"

       - do you remember what Jesus said back to him?

          "Why do you call me good.  There is none good but


       - why would Jesus say that?


       - the reason is that the rich young ruler had the same

         problem Nicodemus did

            - see, only God is good, and you don't believe

              I'm God, so don't call me good


       - that was Nicodemus' problem

       - its not that the idea of being born again was so

         hard ( a small child can understand it), its that it

         was hard for him to understand with everything else

         he thought was right.


       - that was happening because he had a wrong view of

         the revealer


        - Bottom line is - had he believed that he was

          talking to the Son of God, he would have chucked

          his preconceived grid to the wind

        - he would have spent a lot more time listening, and

          a lot less time mentally arguing




    - that has some real implication to you and me

       - you know we're not talking about checking your brain

         at the door

    - but we need to ask a question:

       - is it possible that some of the things we say we

         don't understand about God's Word is really because

         they don't fit with what we previously thought is


       - by saying we don't understand--its an excuse not to



    - you probably wouldn't ever say it this blatantly,


        (Pastor Kilpatrick)


    - what was that fellow's problem?  He had a wrong view of

      the revealer.

       - If he had a higher view of the revealer, he'd have a

         much lower view of whether it mattered that he



     - see, I wonder if we'd have individuals who would say,

       generally I believe the Bible and try to apply what it

       says, but when it comes to this particular biblical

       issue, I'm pretty dense

           - I don't want to do what the Bible says in that


           - I don't want to bless those who despitefully use


           - I don't want to count it all joy when I fall

             into various trials

           - I don't want to change


           - I think Jesus would say - you've got a wrong

             view of the revealer.  This isn't just some

             teacher saying this.  This is the word of God.


     - TV program - Sometimes you got to stray from what the

        good book says.  (Bethany's response)


- now, you might say, PV, we haven't talked about John 3:16 yet


- I know, but now I think we're in a better position to

  understand why Jesus spoke John 3:16


- see, whats about to happen is, Jesus is about to make a

  series of statements that all disagree not with the OT, but

  with Nicodemus' misinterpretation of the OT


- Essentially, Jesus is saying - Now, Nicodemus, let me give

  you an understanding test.  These things are as simple as

  can be.  (In fact, this verse is going to be a favorite

  Bible verse some day because its so easy to understand.)

- but every phrase in this statement is going to go against

  what your Pharisaism believes - let's see what you do

- Quote John 3:16



II.  Wrong View of the Revealed


    A.  Understand God's Love


        - the verse says, God so loved the world


        - we said earlier that thats obviously different than

          what John said in I John 2, "love not the world"


        - that can be understood when we understand the word

          "world" is used three different ways in Scripture


          1. 3 different uses of "world"


             a) "the planets" (cosmos) the world God created


             b) the "world system" or "Philosophy"


             c) the "world of people"


        - now, obviously, I John 2 is talking about not

          loving the world system or philosophy, but John

          3:16 is talking about God loving the world of



          - we need to understand that that would have had:


          2.  impact on Nicodemus


              - the Pharisees believed that God loved the

                Jews, but this idea was completely foreign to


              - God loving the heathen, the Romans?

              - that cut against all he had been taught


              - God so love the world


    B.  Understand God's Gift


        1.  meaning


            - some folks have wrestled with the phrase "only

              begotten Son" because it sounds like Jesus at

              some point in time didn't exist, and then He

              was born


            - part of the problem is - this is an

              anthro-pomorphism (attributing human forms or

              activities to God)

            - any time we speak of the hand of God or the

              face, or the eye of God - we are speaking



            - you might ask - then why doesn't the Bible just

              stop using these figures of speech - then

              things would be easier

            - these figures of speech are in the Bible to

              communicate important truth - but they are like

              parables-they contain important truth but you

              can't press every detail



            - so the question becomes - what was God trying

              to communicate with the phrase "only begotten



            - the phrase, "only begotten" is one greek word,


                compound - mono - one or first

                         - genes - born or generated

              literally means "unique" or first in pre-



            - another usage of this word will help us

              understand it - Heb. 11:17

                - "By faith, Abraham, when he was tested,

                   offered up Isaac; and he that had received

                   the promises offered up his only begotten


                - so Isaac was Abraham's "only begotten son"


                - now wait a minute - Issac was not Abraham's

                  only son

                - Isaac was not even the first son Abraham



                - but what was he?  He was his his unique

                  son, he was his speacial son, he was his

                  favored son


                - now what does that have to do with this


                    - this has nothing to do with Jesus being

                      born or not born

                         - it has to do with his position in

                           the trinity

                         - He was unique

                         - He was the second person of the


                         - the unique son of God


    - of course we know that John's been communicating this

      all along in his book and in chapter 10 he is going

      clearly record Jesus' words where he says "I and the

      Father are one"


        2.  impact on Nicodemus


            INPUT - now why would Nicodemus have struggled

                    with that?  (monotheism)


        - so here's another example of - truth that is easy

          to understand if I'm willing to put my pre-

          conceived notions aside


    C.  Understand God's requirement


        - of course the verse says - the only thing the

          person has to do is "believe"






        - not that thats simple - but its radically different

          than what Nicodemus has been teaching



        - salvation is by grace through faith, not of works,

          lest any man should boast


        - you can almost picture what must be going on in

          Nicodemus' mind


        - Lord, are you sure you don't want to add some

          dietary requirements?

        - are you sure you don't want to add circumcision?

        - at least tell the ladies they can't look in the

          mirror on Sundays


        - no Nicodemus, this is easy to understand, but its

          different, much different than what you have been

          taught or what you've been teaching


    D.  Understand God's Provision


        - whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but

          have everlasting life


        - see Nicodumus - anyone can go there


        - non-Jews

        - people who had formally lived wicked lives

        - people who had ham and eggs for breakfast


        - anyone could go there


    - I'm sure by now you're getting the point.  When we

      think of John 3:16, we think, thats one of my favorite

      verses because its so easy to understand.


    - but we need to remember that this verse was given in a

      context where the individual was having great trouble

      understanding it, not because it was difficult, but

      because it went against what he had always thought,

      what he had always believed, and what he had always


    - It was only when Nicodemus got the right view of the

      revealer, and the right view of the revealed, that he

      was able to understand, and believe, and obey.


    - I wonder how many of us here tonight would have to say,

      There's a certain part of the Bible, a certain teaching

      of the Bible, that I have wrestled with, argued

      against, failed to put into practice.

    - At times I've blamed it on my inability to understand


    - But I can see that my lack of understanding wasn't so

      much because the teaching was difficult, but because it

      didn't fit with what I had previously, thought, was

      taught at home, or had said/taught to others


    - we're not saying check your brain at the door, but

      getting the right picture of the revealer and the

      revealed can put our ability to reason and figure

      things out in its proper place

    - you might say, PV, why did God make Nicodemus go

      through this great exercise of faith


    - he had to put so much of his former beliefs aside, and

      you and I had to put so much of our former beliefs

      aside...why did God design salvation that way


    - of course I couldn't answer that question fully, but I

      think we can say this

         - Nicodemus needed to go through that process then -

           because thats what the rest of his life as a

           believer was going to be like

         - living by faith - at times doing things, thinking

           things, saying things, that completely cut accross

           his grain


    - Nicodemus passed those tests


    - we see him two other times in the NT


    - once in John 7:50, where he's arguing with the other

      Pharisees that they aren't treating Christ fairly

    - see what he did - by faith he went against the other

       Jewish leaders - he risked his reputation and his

       stand in the Jewish community

    - in fact if you look at that passage you'll find that he

      was greatly ridiculed for that


    - see, he had a lot more understanding by then

    - because the person of Christ and the value of his

      revelation had risen greatly in Nicodemus' mind


    - second place is John 19 where we see Nicodemus come

      with Joseph of Arimathaea and openly request the body

      of Jesus

    - and Nicodemus annoints Jesus' body with the equivilent

      of 75 pounds of myrr and aloe


    - while the amount indicates his devotion to Christ, what

      is particularly amazing is that Nicodemus did this at

      the Passover

    - you realize what that meant

    - he was a Jew, and he had just touched a dead body,

      which made him unclean, which meant he could not

      celebrate the cherished passover with his Jewish



    - but those things just didn't carry the weight they once

      did with Nicodemus...he finally understood


Dr. Steve Viars


Senior Pastor - Faith Church

Director - Faith Legacy Foundation


B.S.: Pre-Seminary & Bible, Baptist Bible College (Now Clarks Summit University)
M.Div.: Grace Theological Seminary
D.Min.: Biblical Counseling, Westminster Theological Seminary

Dr. Steve Viars has served at Faith Church in Lafayette, IN since 1987. Pastor Viars leads and equips Faith Church as Senior Pastor with a focus on preaching and teaching God’s Word and using his organizational skills in guiding the implementation of the Faith Church mission and vision. He oversees the staff, deacons, and all Faith Church ministries. Dr. Viars serves on the boards of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, Biblical Counseling Coalition, Vision of Hope, and the Faith Community Development Corporation. Steve is the author, co-author, or contributor to six books and numerous booklets. He and his wife, Kris, were married in 1982 and have two married daughters, a son, and three grandchildren.

Read Steve Viars’ Journey to Faith for the full account of how the Lord led Pastor Viars to Faith Church.

View Pastor Viars' Salvation Testimony Video