Topical Scripture: John 3:1-2, 16
I spent the summer before my senior year of college serving as a missionary in East Malaysia, on the southeast Asian island of Borneo. This was my first personal contact with other religions, and I was astonished by the sacrifices I saw.
I watched Muslims walk out of their mosques with their foreheads bleeding, after they had rubbed them fervently on their prayer rugs during prayer. I watched Buddhist families convert a great sum of money to paper, which they constructed into a tiny temple on the grave of an ancestor, and then burned, believing the ancestor would receive the gift in the afterlife. I watched Buddhists pray fervently at their home altars, hoping to speed their dead ancestors toward Nirvana.
The other world religions are similar: Hindus spend their entire lives in a low caste, believing that they must pay for sins committed in a previous lifetime; Mormons give two years to personal missionary work; Jehovah’s Witnesses spend a minimum of twenty hours each week in door to door witnessing.
When we see the sincerity and sacrifice of these religions, we are forced to ask, “Is Christianity right and these other faiths wrong?” Is there any difference between our faith and their religions? Anything which makes the Christian faith unique?
Yes, there is. It is the difference between “do” and “done.”
The difference between do and done
The religions are all about what we must do to get to god or heaven, as they understand it. The four noble truths and the eight-fold noble path; lifelong obedience to the Koran, or the Torah; meditation and ascetic living; manifold reincarnations. Every religion centers on what we must do.
Christianity uniquely stands on what God has done for us, in his Son, Jesus Christ.
How can we explain this difference to people who don’t understand it, who think Christianity is just another religion? Rules and regulations, do’s and don’ts, an institution to join, dues to pay, rights and wrongs?
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a clear, simple way to present what God has done in the gospel? Actually, there was, and there is. A way which is so simple that anyone can understand it, if only we want to. So simple that anyone can use it to explain the gospel to someone we care about, if only we will.
Can I show you the gospel, the entire Bible, in one conversation? Even better, in one verse? On one card?
In John 3 we meet Nicodemus, “a man of the Pharisees” and “a member of the Jewish ruling council” (v. 1). This is one of the most impressive resumes in the Bible, a succinct summary of all that a man could do to find God. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, as passionate a religion as man has ever invented.
There were never more than 6,000 Pharisees in ancient Israel. Their name means “separated ones,” and that’s what they were—separated from all ordinary life in order to keep every detail of the Jewish law–the dietary codes, Sabbath regulations, everything.
And Nicodemus wasn’t just any Pharisee. He was the “teacher of Israel” (v. 10), a special kind of religious scholar, a man who taught even the Pharisees their theology. The point is, no more religious a man can be found in all the Bible. If religion can do enough to find God, he should have found God.
He was powerful as well, a “member of the Jewish ruling council” (v. 1). This group was called the Sanhedrin—seventy men who constituted the Supreme Court of the Jews. They had power over every Jew in all the world. And he was also wealthy. In John 19:38 he helped Joseph of Arimathea bury the body of Jesus, supplying seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloe. This was the kind and amount of burial material normally used only for a king, and a very expensive gift. Nicodemus was part of the Jewish aristocracy, a very wealthy man.
He’s done everything a man could do. He had religion, power and wealth. But he cannot find God. His problem then is still our problem, today.
We matter to God. He made us, and he wants to have a relationship with us and with the world he created. However, our world is not the way God wanted it to be, is it? Don’t we all fail and make mistakes? The Bible calls these wrong things “sin.” And these mistakes separate us from a holy God in his holy heaven.
I cannot visit a patient in an isolation room at a hospital without washing my hands and face and putting on sterile garments, or I will contaminate the room and the patient may die. In the same way, I cannot get into God’s perfect heaven unless I’m perfect. And I’m not. Are you?
Most of us are aware of this distance from God, so we start doing all kinds of things to get back to him. We try going to church, helping our neighbor, giving money to charities, being good people. Many people try the various religions. We do these things because we want to be right with God, to have eternal life with him.
However, none of these things can earn us God’s forgiveness or reestablish our relationship with him. The Bible says that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) This is the penalty I owe for the wrong things I’ve done: physical and eternal death, separated from God for eternity in a place called “hell.” Instead of finding life, I perish.
That’s my problem: I’m separated from God, and nothing I can do is enough to bridge the gap, to save me from perishing and give me eternal life. And it’s your problem as well.
… and done
So, here’s God’s solution to our problem. Jesus gives Nicodemus the answer to his dilemma, and ours, in what has become the most famous single verse in all of Scripture–the one verse we know if we know no other. Say it with me: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (v. 16, KJV).
This one verse explained to Nicodemus the difference between do and done, the way to find God. It is still the clearest, simplest explanation today. This verse states that God “so loved the world,” and every one of us in it. In spite of our sins and failures, God still loves us unconditionally. No matter where we’ve been, what we’ve done, how we’ve failed.
Religion tries to get us to God. In Christianity, God comes to us, in love.
How do we know? Because he proved his love for us: he “gave his only begotten Son.”
What incredible love! Imagine a parent letting his child die so someone else could live—taking his heart to transplant into a dying patient, or her lungs to give to a person dying of lung disease.
We couldn’t get to God, so God came to us. He built a bridge to us by coming to earth as one of us, dying on the cross to pay the death penalty we owed.
Now we have a choice to make: “whosoever believes in him.” “Whosoever” means anyone. God loves the world so much than anyone in the world can respond to his love, today. To “believe” is to trust, personally. Not just to believe this is true, but to trust it with your life. When I needed knee surgery a few years ago, I believed Dr. Thurston Dean was a good surgeon, but I had to trust him personally, to let him operate on me, before he could help me. We are to “believe in him.” To put our faith personally in what he has done. Not in what I can do—not in my success, money, appearance, religion, or denomination. In him.
This is how we respond to his love for us. And here’s the result: we “will not perish, but have everlasting life.” I admit to God that I have rebelled against him, and that I need his forgiveness and leadership. I ask him to forgive me and guide my life. And when I do, God promises that I will not “perish,” the result of all the “do’s,” of all religion. Instead, I will be given everlasting life. My sins are pardoned and my debt paid. My relationship with God is firmly established because I am immediately adopted into his family as his child.
This is God’s simple plan, and his gift to you and me this morning.
Where are you in this plan? Is there any reason you wouldn’t want to cross over to the other side, to God and to life? You can do it, right now, here, in this sanctuary, or wherever you’re watching by television. In just a moment our staff and I will stand here at the front of the sanctuary, waiting to talk with you. We will help you cross over, and receive the eternal life God wants you to have. You can receive this gift, here and now.
If you’re watching by television, call the number on your screen. A trained deacon or pastoral staff member is ready right now to talk with you. He or she can help you trust in Jesus, answer your questions, pray with you for someone you know. You can order these gospel cards and receive them free of charge. We want to help in any way we can.
And if you’ve made this decision, you have received God’s incredible gift of eternal life. Don’t you want other people to have it, too? If you’d been cured of cancer, wouldn’t you want to share the cure with others who have the disease? You have been cured of eternal death and given eternal life. Don’t you want to share this gift?
Would you decide to share it with someone you know, this week? Would you make that commitment to God, right now? But you may be thinking to yourself, “This is too hard. I’ll have to give up too much to receive this gift, or sacrifice too much to share it.” The fact is, anyone can receive the gift of eternal life, and anyone can share it. To prove that point to you, I’d like you to meet Abraham Sarker. Abraham will tell the miraculous story of his conversion and ministry tonight, but I’d like you to hear briefly his answers to a few questions this morning.
Abraham, why did you come to the United States?
“To be a missionary for the Muslim people, seeking to convert people to Islam.”
How committed to Islam were you? What did you do as a Muslim?
“I prayed five times daily, fasted during Ramadan, gave my life to my religion.”
What about Christianity most attracted you to Jesus?
“His offer of grace by faith. I didn’t have to earn my way to God—it was done for me in him.”
How has your decision to share Christ with others affected your relationship with your family?
“I can no longer see my parents in Bangladesh, and may never see them again.”
Are you glad you accepted God’s love in Christ, and decided to share that love with other people?
“Yes, it has been worth every sacrifice to know this joy and give it to others.”
Compared to Abraham’s sacrifice, what will it cost us to receive God’s love today? Will you receive his gift, right now? Will you share it, this week?