Your heart of darkness

Text John 3:1, 2a Time 02/09/12 Place Childs Hill Baptist Church
John Chapter 3 must be one of the most famous chapters in the Bible. It the famous story of Nicodemus and how he came to Jesus at night and was told that he and everyone else needed to be born again. It contains what is probably the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
This morning I want us to look at the very opening of the chapter and at verse 1 and the first words of verse 2. These words set up the whole scene that unfolds. It says Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night … Nicodemus is only mentioned in John's Gospel and there is not very much even there. Besides what we have here, there are only two other references.
1. At the end of John 7 where, having failed to have Jesus arrested the Jewish ruling council asks a question and gives its own answer. Has any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law - there is a curse on them. At this point Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing? They replied, Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee. They had obviously forgotten about Jonah from Gath-Hepher.
2. Then we catch a glimpse of him in John 19:39, 40 where we are told that Joseph of Arimathea who requested the body of Christ for burial was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. This suggests that although at this point (John 3) Nicodemus was certainly not born again he subsequently was and became a true follower of Christ, first secretly and then openly.
I want us to think about this man this morning in his unconverted state and I want us to see where we can identify with him and where that teaches us certain things about human nature and about ourselves. I basically want to say two things. The first is this
1. Recognise the many things that, of themselves, will not lead you to eternal life
John 3:16, which we have quoted, speaks about not perishing but having eternal life – not simply life that goes on forever but life in the presence of God receiving his blessings unhindered. How can you have eternal life? There are a lot of wrong ideas about on that question and it is very important that we are not confused on the point. From this chapter we can identify a number of things that characterised Nicodemus that, of themselves, cannot lead to eternal life.
1. Simply being a human being will not lead you to eternal life
John introduces Nicodemus by saying in a very Old Testament way Now there was a man …. There are people about who simply assume that everyone is going to heaven. They are men, human beings and so if it is human to err then it is equally human to go to heaven. It is the attitude typified by a saying attributed to Catherine the Great of Russia. On her death bed she is reported to have said “I shall be an autocrat: that's my trade. And the good Lord will forgive me: that's his trade.” I think Heinrich Heine the German poet said something similar when he was dying. I'm sure it is a common attitude. “Of course, God will save me. Why wouldn't he?” Nicodemus was a human being, quite a nice one perhaps and a determined man but at this point he isn't born again and he's not going to heaven. None of us are by nature. We must do all we can to dissuade people from thinking that there is some automatic ticket to heaven, that everyone is going to the same place. The Bible is very clear that's not the case. God owes us nothing. Do you see that?
2. Your ethnic make up is not the key to eternal life
Many people, of course, know that not everyone goes to heaven but they think that they will be saved because they have a certain background. I was reading recently about an American preacher (John Hagee) so in love with the modern state of Israel that he once said “... we strongly reject any missionary work in Israel itself, since it is our belief that Israel is God’s chosen people, and therefore in the hands of God. Our rejection of missionary work in Israel stems also from our belief that Israel is a nation which has had to endure so much, and should be shown love and understanding.” That is na├»ve and foolish and wrong. Equally foolish is the idea that God will save you because you are British or Nigerian or Korean or whatever. Nicodemus was also a Jew and no doubt he thought it a great advantage, as it certainly was in some ways. However, at this point he isn't born again and he's not going to heaven. No-one is by nature, whatever his race or background. Do you think that your race or background somehow qualifies you or even gives us a head start when it comes to eternal life? It's true that God works through nations and he has shown extraordinary favour to some nations, including this one, and that should be acknowledged. As for guaranteeing salvation to any individual, however. That is not the case.
3. Your religion, however pure it may be, will not lead you to eternal life
Nicodemus was not only a Jew but he belonged to the strictest sect in Judaism – the Pharisees. When we see that word we tend to think “ah the hypocrites” and certainly a lot of Pharisees were hypocrites but we are better to think when we see that word of the orthodox, the puritans, the ones who were really serious about religion. It is good to be serious about religion but the moment we start thinking our religion can save us we are in big trouble. This was the mistake Paul made. He could boast of his religion. He says (Philippians 3) If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel,of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But he says whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him …. Nicodemus would eventually say the same but at this point he's still full of his religion, his Pharisaism and its supposed power to bring him to heaven. There have been many others since who have had to come to see this the hard way.
Take Luther as an example. One writer says “Luther put his all into following the holy path. He was resolved to put into practice everything with which man could save himself. For three days he did not eat even a crumb of bread and fasted often. Fasting consoled him more than festivities. He felt fuller from Lent than Easter. He devoted himself and did penance and prayed all night beyond the set rules. He threw aside his blanket and almost froze to death. “From time to time, he would boast of his purity and say, “I did not do anything bad today.” That was not enough and felt anxious saying, “Did I fast correctly? Did I live poorly?” Later on, he thought his digestive function received chronic injury because of this strict lifestyle.” He himself wrote “I was a devoted monk. I meticulously followed the regulations of my religious order. If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would indeed have been among them. The brothers that were with me in the monastery at that time would say that it would be true. If I continued that work, I would have died by doing the all-night vigil, praying, reading, and so forth.” Thankfully Luther eventually saw this was not the answer. We need to see it too. Nicodemus was a very religious man but he wasn't born again and he wasn't going to heaven. None of us is by nature, whatever our religion. Are you thinking that you can get to heaven by praying or coming to church or something of that sort? It will not work, however pure your religion is, however orthodox, however hard you work at it. Do you see that?
4. Your personality cannot lead you to eternal life
I'm not sure why Nicodemus was called Nicodemus. It is really a Greek name (it means the people's victory) but it was popular among the Jews. I asked my mother once why she called me Gary. She said that she looked at me and thought I looked like a Gary, which sounds daft but I think it's another way of saying it just seemed the right name. She once told me she considered calling me Andre. Now if I told you my name was Andre you might think of me rather differently. In fact a lot of things in my life might have been different if I'd been called Andre. A name doesn't confer personality but we all have a personality and Nicodemus was no different in that. They might not have said it then but when Nicodemus did certain things, said certain things then it was often typical of the man, “vintage Nicodemus” as we might say. Now there is an idea about that being a Christian is just something that appeals to certain personality types. You talk to people about trust in Christ and they say “I'm not the religious type”. But this is a myth. I've met thousands of Christians over the years and the truth is that there is as much variety among believers as unbelievers. Despite persistent rumours there is no typical type. Think of church history Luther was clearly a jolly fellow but one who knew dark periods when he would be prone to depression. Calvin, on the other hand, was hardly a joker, a very serious man he nevertheless managed always to keep on an even keel emotionally. Another idea is that to qualify for eternal life you need to have your personality changed. This is equally erroneous. There is no evidence that a personality change was what gave Nicodemus eternal life. No, when a person becomes a Christian his personality is developed but it doesn't change – the change is within. We don't really know what sort of personality Nicodemus had but we know it wasn't his personality or a change of that personality that gave him eternal life. No, personality is not the key to finding eternal life nor is changing it somehow either. Do you see that?
5. Your successes of various sorts will not bring eternal life
If it was not his humanity, his Jewishness, his Pharisaism or his personality that led to eternal life it was certainly not his high standing in Jewish society either. We're told that Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish ruling council as well as being, we learn later, a Rabbi. He was clearly a well to do man, highly respected in his community. There were various Jewish ruling councils that the Romans allowed to exist but this refers, no doubt, to the leading one in Jerusalem. There were about 70 on the council and although they didn't have the power the Romans had they were a significant body and they are the ones who eventually (without the consent of Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea) had Jesus arrested and tried, leading to his death. Of course, there are other kinds of success, especially today. We've been thinking recently of what it takes to win a gold medal in the Olympics and now with the Paralympics, how to win a gold medal despite a great setback. There is also academic success, political success, success in business, in art or entertainment. Sometimes people are tempted to think that such success gives them a right to eternal life. Multiple gold medal winning swimmer Michael Phelps has said “I wouldn’t say anything is impossible. I think that everything is possible as long as you put your mind to it and put the work and time into it.” Perhaps that's okay if it's confined to Olympic sports or something of that order but some people think that it can be extended to eternal life. It can't.
Nicodemus was a successful man, a respected member of society, on the Jewish Ruling Council and Israel's Teacher. However, at this point he didn't have eternal life. He wasn't born again. And you may be very successful in life indeed but it doesn't guarantee anything for the life to come. In 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 Paul says Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things - and the things that are not - to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It isn't that you can't be successful in this world and in the next but it's a rare thing. Few find it possible and success here certainly doesn't guarantee anything for the future.
6. Not even your knowing about Jesus can, of itself, guarantee you eternal life
You see the point then. None of these seeming advantages were any use to Nicodemus in and of themselves – not his humanity, his being a Jew or a Pharisee or who he was in himself or what he'd done in life. But then here he was coming to Jesus, surely that counts for something? Now we need to be careful how we answer. It was Jesus, as the hymn puts it, who showed him “the way of salvation and light”. However, simply meeting with Jesus wasn't the thing that saved him. No, it's clear from the way that he speaks even then he is full of himself and his own ideas. He could have met with Jesus a thousand times and still not got it. In the same way we can come to a meeting like this a hundred times and still not find eternal life. Preaching on one occasion the great 19th century preacher Spurgeon once spoke like this
“I am very anxious to be understood, and therefore I am trying to speak very simply, and to talk right home to those whom I am driving at. My own case is to the point. I was for some few years, as a child, secretly seeking Jesus. If ever heart knew what the bitter anguish of sin was, I did. And when I came to understand the plan of salvation by the simple teaching of a plain, illiterate man, the next thought I had after joy that I was saved, was this - "What a fool I was not to trust Jesus Christ before!" I concluded that I never could have heard the gospel, but I think I was mistaken. I think I must have heard the gospel thousands of times, but did not understand it. I was like Hagar with my eyes closed. We are bound to tell you every Sunday that trusting Jesus Christ is the way of salvation, but after you have heard that 50,000 times, you really will not even understand what we mean by it till the Spirit of God reveals the secret.
“But when you do but know it and trust in Jesus, simply as a child would trust his father's word, you will say of yourself, "How could it be? I was thirsty with the water rippling at my feet! I was famishing and perishing for hunger, and the bread was on the table! I was fretting as though there were no entrance into Heaven, but there stood the door wide open right before me, if I could but have seen it!" "Trust Christ, and He must save you." I will improve upon it: "Trust Him, you are saved." The moment you begin to live by faith in His dear Son, there is not a sin left in God's book against you!”
Here was Nicodemus with Jesus right in front of him but that still doesn't save him. Here you are in the presence of the risen Lord Jesus but you may not be saved either. Even coming to church where the Word is faithfully preached won't do it. Do you see that?
2. Understand that the reason this is so is your heart of darkness within
So you hear me – being a human being won't save you, being a Baptist won't, listening to sermons won't do it. Well, why? Well, the key is in that little phrase at the beginning that tells us Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. Why does John tell us that? People have speculated that Nicodemus came at night so he wouldn't be seen by others. That certainly rings other true. Others suggest he simply couldn't get to see Jesus in the day time because so many others wanted to see him. I would guess it is most likely that as a rabbi Nicodemus liked to spend his daylight hours studying and then once it was dark he would spend time talking and discussing. Recognising Jesus as a leading rabbi he probably thought this would be an acceptable way of doing things. In the end we don't need to worry why he came at night because John has only told us this because he wants us to learn a very important lesson. Light and darkness is one of the great themes of John's Gospel. It comes out in several places. Right at the beginning (1:4-9) it is said of Christ In him was life,and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness,but the darkness has not understood it. John the Baptist is described as a man who was sent from God … He came as a witness it says to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. Of course in 8:12 Jesus says I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. He says something similar in 9:5 and Chapter 12. A very interesting verse is 13:30 As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night. In this very chapter we read (19-21) This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God. When Nicodemus met Jesus, he was in the presence of the Light of the world but he loved the dark rather than the light – spiritually speaking because his deeds were evil. Like every evil person his instinct was to hate the light and feared his deeds being exposed. Yet his greatest need, and our greatest need, was to come into the light. Here is the lesson then – nothing in us can save us – not even an encounter with Jesus himself can do it. This is because we are lost deep in the darkness of ignorance and sin. We are all like sheep, we've gone astray. We have fallen short of God's glory. There is in us not one good thing. By nature we are all, as Paul put it, dead in our transgressions and sins and we follow the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us are like that by nature. Our instinct is to gratify the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. We are all by nature deserving of wrath. Neither our humanity nor our race, our religion or our achievements can save us. Unless God shines the light into our hearts and takes us from the kingdom of darkness there is no hope for us. We need to be rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought … into the kingdom of the Son God loves, in whom there is redemption, the forgiveness of sins. And so I urge you to put no trust at all in yourself and what you might do. Yes, many things are possible if you “put your mind to it and put the work and time into it.” But not this. If God himself doesn't dispel the darkness you will remain in it and will be cast into the place of outer darkness forever. Nothing could be worse. So repent today and look to Christ and the salvation he alone can give.
In 1899 Joseph Conrad published his famous novella Heart of darkness. It's about an Englishman who takes a foreign assignment from a Belgian trading company as a river-boat captain in Africa. The darkness of the title writers suggest is three levels. 1. The literal darkness of the Congo wilderness. 2. The darkness of the Europeans' cruel treatment of the African natives. 3. Finally, the unfathomable darkness within every human being that makes them capable of committing the most wicked acts. Conrad was no Christian and his book can be understood in several ways. Let's make no mistake, however, that there is a heart of darkness in us all and if it is not removed then there is no hope for us at all. We are in the dark.