A brief overview for Sunday School teachers and Bible study leaders of Lifeway’s “Explore the Bible” lesson of John 3:4-18 for Sunday, January 1, 2023, with the title, “Everyone Who Believes.” (A video version of this overview is available on YouTube at:
INTRO: ??? Many of us are familiar with Charles Dickens classic story: A Christmas Carol — maybe some of you saw it this Christmas season. The store opens with Ebenezer Scrooge being mean to his clerk Bob Cratchit; he turns down an opportunity to give to charity, and yells “Humbug” at his nephew who invites him over for Christmas. But as many of us know, by the end of the story: he really CHANGED: he sends a huge turkey over to the Cratchits, gives to charity, and goes to see his nephew for Christmas. Scrooge had a big change.
??? You might follow that up then with the question (or not tell the Scrooge story and just open with the question) “Have you ever known someone who really changed?”
(For EX I had a friend in High School who had been very overweight as many years as we knew her, but one year she showed up at school after summer break and no one even knew who she was. She had lost so much weight, and everyone’s mouth just dropped when she walked into the student lounge. I’ve never seen someone change so much.)
You and your group can talk about people whom you have seen change — and then say: “The same thing can happen spiritually. God can change people through the power of His Holy Spirit. In today’s lesson, Jesus talks about that kind of change, with the famous phrase “born again” — and He talks about how that can happen through faith in Him.
The CONTEXT of this passage, of course, is we are continuing our study in the Book of John. We saw in Chapter 1 how Jesus is the God/Man who came to be “the lamb of God” who would die for our sins, and then He called His first disciples to follow Him. In Chapter 2 He turns the water into wine, the first of SEVEN MIRACLES that form the backbone of John 1-11, and Jesus cleanses the Temple from the people who were taking advantage of others. This brings us to our present chapter, John 3.
Verses 1-3 tell us that a Pharisee, Nicodemus came to Jesus by night.
A couple of things here:
— First the background: “Who are the Pharisees?”
The word “Pharisee” is from Aramaic (language the Jews spoke in Jesus’ time, similar to Hebrew) and comes from a word that means “to separate” — literally these men were “separatists,” separating from others so that they might remain holy. You can see how this group could easily become self-righteous, and that IS what happened. Luke 18 tells the story of how the Pharisee prayed thus to himself” in the temple, and thanked God that he was not like this other man; HE fasted twice a week; HE paid tithes of all he got. VERY self-righteous – and Jesus went on to say that this man did NOT go back to his house justified. In fact Jesus’ strongest words in all the New Testament were for the self-righteous Pharisees. He called them “sons of hell”!
Do we need to guard against that same spirit today? Absolutely! Nothing turns people off more than a “holier than thou” spirit.
And nothing will shut us off from God quicker than spiritual pride. It is the HUMBLE to whom God gives grace, and the Kingdom.
— Now on the other hand, because of that we tend to think of the Pharisees as being “bad,” and many of them were. But Nicodemus could see that Jesus was from God, and so he came to Him to talk. This was good!
We need to be careful about “lumping people together” in groups and condemning them all. NOT all Pharisees were bad. Nicodemus came to Jesus.
??? You might ask your class??? “What other groups might we be tempted to ‘lump together’ and think they’re all bad? (People of certain races or ethnic groups; people of other political parties; maybe young people who dress differently or have tattoos; people of other DENOMINATIONS — there’s a good application! Some might think all Methodists are bad; or all Presbyterians are bad; or all Catholics are bad, etc. But are there some people in these groups who are really seeking God? Undoubtedly! Let’s be careful not to “lump them all together.” Nicodemus was a Pharisee, but he was truly seeking Jesus. Just remember there may be others in groups you are tempted to “write off” in whom God is really working.
??? AND you could ask your group: “Have you ever been surprised by someone from one of these groups, who turned out to be better than you expected them to be; or a Christian?”
You/your class have examples of this: it’s a good reminder to us that we need to be careful about pre-judging people, or “lumping them together” as part of a “bad” group.
SO: this Pharisee Nicodemus came to Jesus, and began to tell Him that he knew He had come from God as a teacher.
But Jesus seemed to interrupt him with those famous words in :3, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
The phrase “born again” is literally “born from above.”
Basically Jesus is saying: Nicodemus, you need what only GOD can do for you!
This is the problem with many, many people. They are seeking the best that man can do, with reason, with finances, with programs and methods — but we really need more than that. We need what only GOD can do!
+x the Rich Young Ruler: he wanted to do the best he could, by keeping the Commandments. Jesus tried to expose that: what you have to offer isn’t good enough. He needed to be born again.
ILLUSTR: Charles Wesley, author of the famous Christmas Carol “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” that many of us just sang this Christmas. When Charles was a young college student at Oxford, England, he and a number of friends formed a “Holy Club.” They covenanted with each other to live disciplined Christian lives given to serious study of the Bible, prayer, fasting, and charitable works. Charles was the first of the group to be derisively labeled “Methodist” by fellow students. He was very “religious.”
But when he went to Georgia on a mission trip, he got sick, and a Moravian missionary asked him if he knew for sure that Jesus was his Savior. He said “I hope so!” But he didn’t really know. This troubled him.
Then back in England on Whitsunday, May 21, 1738, he had a personal experience with God. He wrote in his journal that the Spirit of God “chased away the darkness of my unbelief.” And he wrote the classic hymn: “And Can It Be/Amazing Love How Can It Be” in response to his salvation. Verse 3 of the song tells his testimony:
“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.
Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou my God shouldst die for me.”
Charles Wesley’s story is that of a man who tried “his best,” “holy club” and all, but it wasn’t enough. Like Nicodemus, he needed to be “born from ABOVE,” “born again.” And he finally was, and his life was changed.
You can share that testimony — or perhaps another testimony you know like that — maybe your own! And say, this is what must happen to each of us. “You must be born again.”
Maybe some of the people in YOUR CLASS are right in this same spot as Nicodemus, and the Rich Young Ruler, and Charles Wesley. They are “trying their best” but it’s not enough. They need what only GOD can do for them. They need to be born again!
So this is a great opportunity to share the gospel in your class this Sunday — you may have someone in your group THIS WEEK who needs to be “born again.” Pray for God to do what only HE can do, in touching their hearts.
AND as another application, you might ask your group: “Do you know someone: a family member, friend, or other loved one, who needs the change that only GOD can bring in their life?” Let your group share some of those, and then you might have a prayer time, and ask God to do what only HE can do in them, and touch them with HIS power from above. They need what only GOD can do. They need to be “born again.”
Then in :9 Nicodemus is amazed at all this, and asks Jesus how this can be, and Jesus is amazed that Nicodemus can be the teacher of Israel and not know this! And Jesus goes on to say a couple of VERY important things that I would focus on this week; one is found in :14, and the other of course in :16.
— In :14 He mentions “the serpent in the wilderness.” “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.”
That sounds like an odd things doesn’t it: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness”? What IS that referring to? It’s in the Old Testament in Numbers 21. The people of Israel were complaining against God and Moses (again) and :6 says the LORD sent fiery serpents that bit the people, and they died. So the people came to Moses and repented and said, we’ve sinned; intercede with God that He may take away these serpents. So Moses did pray to God for them. And God told him to do the oddest thing: He said, make a bronze replica of one of those serpents, and put it up on a wooden pole, and whoever is bitten by one of those poisonous snakes, if they LOOK at the serpent on the pole, they will live. So the Bible says Moses made a bronze replica of a serpent, and put it up on a pole, “and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.” End of story. OK! Well, that’s not something you come across every day. Bronze serpent, put it on a pole, it’ll save you? Well, that’s the Old Testament for ya, right?!
That story sounds so odd — UNTIL you come here to John 3, where Nicodemus comes to Jesus and wants to have eternal life, and Jesus says you must be born again, Nicodemus. And He said, here’s how it happens, and He quotes Numbers 21: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)
Now all the sudden that “crazy story” in Numbers makes sense, doesn’t it? God in the Old Testament was giving us the “ABC’s” to help us understand salvation when it came. This is one of those places. God was showing us in that story in Numbers 21 that we’ve all been “bitten” by the biggest problem we have — our sin — and there is no cure we can come up with for ourselves. We have to look to GOD’S answer, by faith, at the salvation that HE raised up in the air for us to see. What is that salvation: it’s Jesus on wooden “pole” — Jesus on the cross!
And what did the Israelites have to “do” to get cured from those serpents? They didn’t really “do” anything, did they? They didn’t have to offer any sacrifices, or bring any money, or do any good deeds — all they had to do was believe enough to LOOK at what God raised up on the pole. Whoever believed enough to look, and trust that it would save them, was cured.
So Jesus told Nicodemus: that’s how you are saved today, too. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.”
In other words, What do you have to do to be saved? Get baptized? No. Give money? No? Do some great deed? No. “Whoever believes.” Just like the serpent was lifted up, so JESUS was lifted up on the cross, and whoever looks to HIM, believing He will save them, will be saved. No works, no deeds, no NOTHING on your part. JESUS saves, and Jesus alone.
As an illustration, many know the name of Charles Spurgeon, perhaps the greatest preacher who ever lived. Spurgeon was saved when, as a young man out looking for a church service in a snowstorm, he stumbled into a Primitive Methodist Church where an untrained layman preach on the Book of Isaiah, “Look to me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” He told Spurgeon, You look miserable! And he exhorted him: “Look to Jesus.” Just LOOK! “Look to Jesus”! Put your trust in Him, and look to Him. And by God’s grace, it all made sense to Spurgeon, and he was saved that day, when he just looked to Jesus!
That is what that great :14 is all about!
— Then we come to :16, perhaps THE greatest verse in all the Bible, John 3:16. One option would be just to teach the whole lesson on this verse — it wouldn’t be too much to give it!
I just preached a message on John 3:16, not long ago, which I called “The Greatest Verse?” And in it I made the following points — you might want to use them. I said it might be the greatest verse because:
1. It has the greatest MOTIVATION: “For God So Loved.” Why did God do what He did for us? It’s LOVE. He LOVED us.
In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape tells his “apprentice” demon Wormwood, “One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men … is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really DOES (love them)”! Screwtape says in another place: “He really does love the filthy creatures”! That demon had it right. God really does love us. Despite all we’ve done: “God SO LOVED”!
2. The Greatest SACRIFICE: “He GAVE His only begotten Son.”
Right after the infamous 1938 Munich agreement in which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain attempted to appease Hitler by giving him parts of Czechoslovakia (and giving in to the dictator didn’t stave off World War II; it only postponed it.) When that happened Guy Burgess of the BBC interviewed Winston Churchill, who was then a member of British Parliament. Churchill told him that the Czechoslovakian president asked him for help. But Churchill told Burgess: “What answer shall I give? — For answer I shall and must … what assistance can I proffer?” Burgess said he didn’t know how to answer. Churchill wasn’t yet Prime Minister; he was at that time just a relatively powerless member of the British Parliament. What COULD he do? Burgess could think of nothing to say. Then Churchill spoke. “You are silent, Mr. Burgess. You are rightly silent. What else can I offer …? Only one thing: my only son, Randolph, who is already training to be an officer.’” (William Manchester, The Last Lion, Volume II, pp. 365-366)
Churchill was going to send his own son into the military to fight the Nazis. And that’s what God did out of His love for us: He sent His Son to earth, to atone for our sins.
3. The Greatest Invitation: “WHOEVER” believes in Him.
This is open to everyone: “whoever.” There is no one you or your class knows, that this is not for! It’s for “whoever”! The greatest invitation!
And it’s also the greatest invitation because it asks so little: just to “believe.” Of course that doesn’t just mean “believe there was a person named Jesus.” It means more than that.
Jia Yanqin was a female Chinese student who came to the University of Oklahoma several years ago to study. While she was there she was invited by a friend to come to a Chinese Bible study at Trinity Baptist Church, where Cheryl, Michael & I attended while I was sick for a couple of years. Jia Yanqin began to study the Bible with several tutors from the church. Through the study she learned that God loved her, but that she had sinned against God, and that Jesus had died on the cross to pay for her sins. She “knew” all these “facts.” But one thing still remained. She had to do something to respond: she had to “believe” in Jesus to be saved. But what did that mean? Here’s what she later wrote in her testimony:
“I suddenly remembered Bill (the leader of Trinity’s Chinese ministry) lecturing on faith. Faith is not that I point to an airplane and (say) to the other people, ‘I think the plane is safe.’ Faith is that I have to get ON the plane and prove it is safe … I believe Jesus is that plane. I am willing to put my faith in Him and trust the fact that He died for our sin.”
What Jia Yanquin was talking about there, is real saving faith: putting your TRUST in Jesus as your Lord & Savior.
4. The Greatest Destination: “has eternal life.” Not just living forever — that wouldn’t be that good if we just got older and older! But that we are living forever with GOD in heaven, with the pleasure and joy that Psalm 16:11 says He has waiting for us there!
There’s SO much we can say about John 3:16; you can add to that. And if you’d like to read my message on that great verse, you can find it on my blog at http://www.shawnethomas.com. Type John 3:16 in the search bar and you can pull up the text and get some more explanation, illustration, and application that might be helpful for you on this verse.
OK, I’d better wrap it up for now; I hope this helps you some if you have the lesson in John 3 for New Year’s Day. We’ll move on to John 4 and “The Woman At The Well” for January 8th — another great lesson! If you write something in the Comments below, I’ll be sure to pray for your and your group by name this week.
Per my licensing agreement with Lifeway:
– These weekly lessons are based on content from Explore the Bible Adult Resources. The presentation is my own and has not been reviewed by Lifeway.
– Lifeway resources are available at: goExploretheBible.com and: goexplorethebible.com/adults-training
– If you have questions about Explore the Bible resources you may send emails to email@example.com
so helpful Thank You!
You are very welcome; thank you for taking the time to write. I’m praying for you and your group for this Sunday!
Thank you so much for all the help you give teachers each week. I teach an adult Bible study class of men and women at First Southern Baptist in Hutchinson, KS. I weave your illustrations into my teaching outline and they help to spur interest in the passages adults “think they know all about!” So, God bless you and keep up the good work in helping us be better teachers of God’s Word!
I’m so glad those illustrations are useful to you Norma; thank you for letting me know — that means a lot! I am praying for you and your class in Hutchinson this weekend!
Thank you for sharing this lesson to help teachers to prepare each Sunday. Please pray for me as I will be substituting this Sunday for our regular teacher. May the Lord bless you and give you the strength to continue this wonderful service.
Woodridge Baptist Church
Pastor, your writings are laden with so much interesting material…facts about our world that accurately reflect the eternal truths of the Bible. You are so knowledgeable! Thank you for taking time to help those of us who seek to lead Bible Study each week!
Thank you so much for your overview of these lessons. It helps me so much as I study for the lesson each week. Blessings to you and your family for the new year.