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Oct 09, 2022

Jesus & the Partially Convinced

Passage: John 3:1-21

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Christ Connections

Keywords: gospel, salvation, born again, opinion, convinced


Many people we know and meet have already formed an opinion about Jesus. In this encounter with Jesus in John 3, we see how Jesus himself moved a partially-convinced man from unconvinced to eventually all-in.


Jesus & the Partially Convinced—John 3:1-21

Series:  Christ-Encounters

October 9, 2022


INTRO:  Ever been partially convinced about someone of something?

  • A car you’d like to buy but it’s got a few problems?
  • Voter season—a candidate you’ve heard good things about but aren’t quite sure how they’re really going to be if they get in office?

The bigger the decision, the longer it may take.

ILL:  at the risk of completely undercutting your confidence in me, I have to confess that in my younger years, it took me 4 years to move from “partially convinced” to “mostly-convinced” and finally to “totally convinced” that Sandy was the woman I wanted (and needed) to spend the rest of my life with.  (Yes, how daft could I have been?)

            Little wonder that, when people are asked to consider surrendering their life to Jesus Christ, many people find themselves somewhat convinced…but not totally convinced.  According to today’s passage, Jesus understands that.  But he’s not content to just let people sit in that space of “partially” or even “mostly convinced.”  One of his most famous encounters with just such a person is where we find ourselves today in John 3. 

Review:  we’re taking a few Sundays to look at various encounters Jesus had with people that challenged them to put their faith and lives completely under His leadership.  I’m hoping that we’ll all be able to pick up something every week that will help us turn the encounters we have with other people in the course of a week into God-encounters for other people.  So let’s see what John 3 has to teach us about doing that with “partially convinced” people. 

            If you know anything about the Gospels and the life of Jesus, you probably know that there was a particular group of people in Jesus’ day that were his most fierce opponents—the Pharisees.  Pharisees were the religious professionals of Jesus’ day.  They had devoted their lives to studying the Scriptures, to following them as closely as possible and to teaching others how to do the same.  But sadly, most of them became THE most fierce opponents of Jesus. 

            Two of the most famous Pharisees in history were Nicodemus and Saul of Tarsus.  Both of them eventually became world-class followers of Jesus but not until they had failed rather miserably to understand who Jesus really was.  That’s good to remember when we think someone is hopelessly lost.

            This chap Nicodemus is only talked about by the Apostle John.  We’re introduced to him first in John 3 but, as we will see, he pops up later a couple of important times in the Gospel of John.  When we encounter him in John 3, he’s what we would call only partially convinced about Jesus.  As such, his relationship with Jesus is where many people’s relationship today is with Jesus—partially formed but without any real life. 

So how does Jesus handle people like that? Let’s take a look.

John 3—Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

I think there are a lot of people in our culture who are like Nicodemus.  They may be well-educated.  They may have graduate degrees.  They’ve already formed some sort of opinion about Jesus and God. They aren’t opposed to Him but they’re not ready to come right out and ask questions about him or ‘go public’ with their spiritual search.  But they’ve got spiritual questions they’d like to get some answers about.  So they go poking around in the shadows so as not to draw a lot of attention to themselves. 

  • Maybe they Google a spiritual question they have on the internet.
  • Maybe they raise some question or an objection they’ve had rolling around in their brains when they encounter a Christian.
  • Maybe they go to church every now and then because they like what they hear, they enjoy the people or have some sort of spiritual itch that ‘going to church’ scratches every now and then.

Nicodemus was that kind of guy in relationship to Jesus.  And, like most people, he had already formed some opinions. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

He’s telling Jesus what he thinks of him.  And he’s acknowledging truth, incomplete though it may be.  Yes, Jesus was a teacher sent from God. But to say that God was “with him” rather missed the mark.  He IS God! 

But here’s a good place to start with people—finding out what they actually think of Jesus.  That’s probably not the first question you open a conversation with. But it doesn’t require that you know someone for very long to be able to get there.  Everyone has opinions about virtually anything, Jesus included.  So whether you’re having a conversation with someone you’ve known for years who knows that you are a Christian OR whether it’s someone you just met a few minutes ago, even in our culture, it’s not that hard to turn the discussion to what they think of Jesus.

  • “You know, Clay, we’ve been friends for a while. You know I’m a follower of Jesus.  But I’ve never asked you what you think of him.  So, what’s your opinion of Jesus?” 
  • Somebody asks you, “So, what do you do for a living?” “Well, I’m an electrical engineer.  That’s my career.  But I’m most passionate about my calling. I’m a follower of Jesus.  So, what’s your opinion of Jesus Christ?”
  • “To you, who is Jesus?”

Since the Gospel is really all about a person’s relationship to Jesus, at some point we need to get around to talking about Him with everyone we know.  For us to understand where someone is in relationship to God, we really need to find out where they stand in relationship to Jesus.  And when we do, we’ll probably hear some pretty standard, usually incomplete answers about who people think Jesus is. 

Q:  What are the most frequent answers you’ll hear to the question, “So, in your opinion, who is Jesus?”

  • A great man
  • A good moral teacher
  • The Son of God
  • A religious figure
  • A folk-tale/fiction

To any response that denies Jesus’ existence as a genuine historical person, what would be a good follow-up question?

  • How did you develop that opinion of Him?
  • What’s convinced you that he never existed?

To all the other options, a great next step is to ask people what they mean by their answer.  I find C.S. Lewis’s “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” option helpful here.

  • If they say, “He’s the Son of God,” which of those three options is that answer? (Lord) Then we get to ask, “So is he Lord of your life then?”  “How did that happen for you?”
  • If they say any of the “great teacher” or “solid example” answers, you get to follow up with the other two.
    • “Would you say someone who claimed to be something he wasn’t is a good person?” “Since Jesus claimed to be God in human flesh, if he actually wasn’t, that would make him a liar, wouldn’t it?”
    • If he genuinely thought he was God (like some mental patients sometimes do) but wasn’t, then isn’t he more of a lunatic than someone you should admire?

The interesting thing about how Jesus deals with Nicodemus is that he goes straight for the jugular by telling him nobody is going to experience or know God without being “born again,” One of the things that amazes me about Jesus’ encounters with so many people is how he never worried about making the Gospel or conversation about himself simple. He’s always throwing in concepts and images that seem to trip people up. Many of us have been in the church so long that this statement, “You must be born again,” doesn’t sound odd to us.  It’s lost its shock value.  The more I consider Jesus’ conversations with other people, the more I see a little shock value in most of them. 

  • “You must be born again.”
  • “You must eat my flesh and drink my blood.”
  • “Do you really want to be healed?”
  • “Go, sell everything you have. Then come follow me.” 

APP: I think we worry too much about not saying just the right words to people about Jesus when Jesus didn’t seem to worry too much about making sure it was super-easy to understand him in person.  If the Spirit of God is calling to someone, they are going to follow up any confusion with more searching, not less. 

Back to “You must be born again.”  I find it interesting that some of the most notable evangelists of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries said that their favorite text for presenting the Gospel was this phrase, “You must be born again,” (3:8).

  • George Whitfield: came to Christ in the early 1730s in college at Oxford.  He ended up being one of the most important evangelists and teachers in America’s 1st Great Awakening in the 18th  He preached over 18,000 messages in both England and the American colonies, sometimes to crowds of 20,000 people (without any kind of sound system!). 

In one of his final sermons, he said (In A Frank Boreham Treasury, p. 70), “I am now fifty-five years of age and I tell you that I am more than ever convinced that the truth of the new birth is a revelation from God Himself, and that without it you can never be saved by Jesus Christ.”

A friend asked him one day, “Why do you so often preach on Ye must be born again?” “Because,” replied Whitefield solemnly, looking full into the face of the questioner, “because ye must be born again!

  • I can still hear and see in my minds eye Billy Graham preaching about Nicodemus and saying, “You must be born again.”
  • L. Moody, evangelist and founder during our Am. Civil War, preached a message one night during one of his evangelistic crusades called, “Except A Man Be Born Again.” “If there are a thousand people here tonight who want to know what love God has for them, let them read the 3rd chapter of John; and they will find it there, and find eternal life. They need not go out of this hall tonight to find eternal life. They will find it here in this chapter, and find eternal life before these services close.”  [Found at https://www.moodychurch.org/d-l-moody-weekly-except-a-man-be-born-again/]

There is plenty of confusion in our culture today about what Jesus was referring to when he used this phrase “born again.”  But that is all the more reason for us to use this very question with people today.  Doing so opens up a conversation to the very heart of the Gospel.”

Q:  “Are you familiar with the term ‘born again’ that Jesus talked about when he walked this earth?”

Q:  “What do you think Jesus meant when he said we couldn’t know God unless we’re born again?” 

Q:  “Have you been ‘born again’?”

APP:  Turn to the person next to you and ask them that 2nd question, “What do you think Jesus meant when he said we couldn’t even see the kingdom of God unless we’re born again?”  If you’re concerned you might not know the answer, don’t worry, neither did this highly educated religious man Nicodemus.  Just be the first to ask the other person and then they’ll have to give it a shot first!  (BTW, Jesus answered that question in less than 15 seconds, according to this text.) 

This phrase, “born again” in English also probably means in the original “born from above.”  In other words, we have to be born spiritually.  Just as we experienced a physical birth, we need a spiritual birth. 

Jesus is saying to a very smart, religious intellectual, “Friend, you need a fresh start spiritually.  You need God to do a life-changing spiritual, Spirit-given work in your life.”

Here’s what John tells us Jesus said.  Jesus answered, 

“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

            That last phrase is crucial:  “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”  This “born again” thing, whatever it is, must be accomplished by the Holy Spirit of God.  It is what brings a person to life spiritually.  It’s not about how much you know or how religious you are.  Nicodemus was head and shoulders above everyone in that department.  But Jesus needed to make it very clear to him that there needed to be a work of God in his life that brought him to life spiritually.

ILL:  My parents 45 and 54 years of going to church almost every Sunday didn’t make them “born again.”  It was only when a Christian friend of my mother here in town, Esther Aden, and Dr. John Hunter of Torchbearers Ministries told them they needed to be ‘born again’ that they told God, “Please, come into my life and do that supernatural work of making me your child through spiritual birth.”  From that day forward, they knew that God had done a spiritual birth, a spiritual ‘start’, in their lives.  I knew it as their youngest son because I got to see the radical difference it made in their lives from that moment on.

ILL:  Contrast that with an experience they had just a few years later right here in Spokane.  They were door-to-door witnessing on the South Hill with a Campus Crusade outreach campaign in the 1970s.  Knocked on the door of what turned out to be the Dean of an Episcopal church here in town.  They identified themselves and asked if he would be interested in giving answers to a short “spiritual survey”.  He agreed…until they got to the question, “Have you been born again?”  That’s when he took such great offense that he would be asked that question that he ended the conversation and shut the door.  While I don’t know where his heart really was, would that normally be the response of someone who knew they were a sinner desperately in need of a work of the Holy Spirit to save them?    

            Whether a person is a pastor or a pot-smoker, asking, “Have you been born again?” is a great spiritual question. 

            Well, back to our story with Nicodemus. 

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven 

except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.

            What is Jesus telling Nicodemus here about himself?  Well, he’s alluding to the fact that God is “we”—one God in multiple/3 persons (vs. 11—3x—“we/our”).  Then he pretty much comes right out and says it:  “No human has taken up residence in heaven except one—the Son of Man—who has actually come from heaven.”  To a religious leader who knew that, other than angels, only God lived in heaven and could come from heaven to earth, Jesus was now going to drop a truth on him that he was probably completely unprepared for—that God had taken up residence on earth in the form of “the Son of Man”, i.e. a human being. Jesus warned him the belief that would be required would demand that Jesus reveal some “heavenly things.” 

            Here’s the issue:  was Nicodemus ready and willing to accept the reality that Jesus was, in fact, God incarnate?  He had already concluded that Jesus was “a teacher who has come from God.”  But God himself…from heaven itself…that was a much bigger step.  That was the step that tripped up most of Nicodemus’s fellow Pharisees.  It was the step that they refused to take.  Instead they rejected Jesus’ claim (see Jn. 5:18—“making himself equal with God.”) and turned their energies towards killing him. 

APP:  Here is a line in the sand that we must clarify for people today.  Here we’re back to C.S. Lewis’s “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” question.  When the N.T. talks about Jesus as Lord, it isn’t some vague, nice, complementary term.  It’s a God-term.  It is calling people to recognize that if you truly believe Jesus is Lord and God, then your life is going to have to fall under submission and obedience to him.  We either must embrace Him as ruler and King of the Universe as well as our life OR we must reject Him as that and call him a liar. 

            I’m pretty sure Nicodemus got far more in this conversation than he bargained for.  He probably set out that night to just clarify a few minor questions about who Jesus was and what He was calling the nation to.  Instead he got confronted with a reality and decision far more monumental:  “What will I do with this Jesus who is either God whom I must worship or a nut-job I must run from?”

Listen to Lewis in Mere Christianity, a book every Christian should read at some point…and give to sincerely-seeking friends at many points.

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him [that is, Christ]: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse…. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

            Jesus continued his discussion of heavenly things with the man who was having a hard time digesting mere earthly realities at the moment. 

14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

If you want the full story, you’ll have to Go back to Number 21.  In brief, the Israelites had been grumbling against God and Moses for a while.  They complained about the water.  They complained about the food. They “spoke against” both God and Moses.  So God let things get worse in order to bring them to their senses.  (God still does that with his people…and is probably doing that right now in our nation.  May we pay attention!).  God sent venomous snakes into the camp that bit people and killed some.  So God told Moses to do something rather extraordinary:  make an image of a snake, put it on a pole and let the people know that if they believed/trusted God but had been bitten by the venomous snakes, they needed to look at that image on the pole and God would heal them. 

            I don’t know about you, but that sounds kind of far-fetched to me.  But faith in God means we believe Him even when we don’t understand Him.  It is always about faith in God, not faith in some symbol. 

            Nicodemus would have known this story well.  When Jesus said that “the Son of Man” (which he had just identified as himself) had to be “lifted up” or “exalted” so that people could believe in him and have eternal life “in him”, Jesus was making himself the object of faith needed to deliver from sin that was deadly.  Whether Nicodemus grasped it or not, Jesus was telling him that He, Jesus, was the remedy for sin that every human being needed. He had to be “exalted” (and, yes, lifted up on a cross that Nicodemus’ best friends would later demand) if Nicodemus…or anyone…was to experience “eternal life.” 

APP:  How can we ‘lift up’ or ‘exalt’ Jesus in our daily encounters with people? 

  • Simply speak about Him as the love of our life.
  • Remind people that there is no other Savior of their souls.
  • Love them so well that they will either be drawn to the light or driven further into darkness.
  • Tell them the truth of the most famous verse in the N.T.>>

John 3:16.  But notice what Jesus said about both the love of God and the judgment of God.

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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

            If you can only memorize one verse to have in your mind to share with someone, make it John 3:16.  Truly the entire Gospel is there. 

  • God loves the world…and that means you personally.
  • His love for you moved him to give himself in the person of Jesus Christ.
  • If you want life with God now and forever, “eternal life”, then you must believe in Jesus. (And we will probably have to talk about what ‘believing in Jesus’ means—not that He just existed and did the works he did but that he is God the Savior whom we must either totally submit to or reject.)
  • We all have a choice between eternal life and eternal condemnation. Belief in or rejection of Jesus determines which it will be for each of us. 

These truths that must be embraced in order to be reconciled to God are in increasingly challenging and difficult order.  (Review.)  But this is the “Good News” of the Gospel.  Every person—young or old, talented or plain, educated or illiterate—can have life with God through surrender to Him OR will have life apart from God on their own terms.  This is very simply the reality that life apart from Him is hell but life with Him is eternal life. 

            Does anyone like the doctrine of eternal separation from God, of hell?  I doubt it.  But billions choose it rather than accept God’s Lordship in their lives.  And God honors for eternity what we have determined in time we want.  While there is evidence in the Bible that people who find themselves in hell hate the experience (Luke 16:19-31), there is no indication that they want to change their minds about surrender to God and spending eternity worshiping Him.  Heaven will never be ‘eternal life’ for those who hate “the light” of Jesus Christ, the glory of God and all the righteousness that God is.  It will only be eternal life for people who hate their sin, repent of it, look to Jesus to save them and experience a spiritual birth that makes them children of God.  If you don’t want God in Christ NOW, you won’t want Him in eternity. 

            For the follower of Jesus, this life is the most of ‘hell’ we will ever know.  For those who reject Christ, this life is the most of “heaven” they will ever know.  And we need to remind people of this.  This reality is part of the Gospel of Christ we’ve been given and which Jesus preached. 

ILL:  Lifeguard training—learned how to wait for the drowning person to grow tired enough and to be in the right position to be able to approach them…and save them. We learned that it was better to wait for someone to go under than to approach them head on while they still were struggling to save themselves.  Doing that could end up with 2 drowning victims—you and them. 

            While that is never a danger with God, the danger for those still needing Christ is that until they know they need saving, they will not look to the “Lifeguard” Christ.  Life’s trials, troubles, sorrows, sufferings, failures and sins are meant to be God’s messages to us of how much we need saving.  And until we recognize that…and help others see that…we’ll only be people partially convinced how desperately we really need Jesus to save us. 

Did Nicodemus “get saved” that night?  I don’t know…and the text doesn’t tell us.  But we know he must have experienced being born again somewhere along the line.  Nicodemus reappears briefly in John 7:50-51.  That is where his fellow Pharisees had sent the temple guards to arrest Jesus at the Passover in Jerusalem.  But after the guards heard and saw him in person, they went back to their bosses empty-handed and said, “No one ever spoke the way this man does.”  Well, that didn’t endear them to the Pharisees, most of whom criticized them as a bunch of ignorant dopes.  But in the midst of all this hatred, Nicodemus speaks up and calls them to actually listen to what Jesus has to say.  For that simple request, Nicodemus is put down in front of all his peers as a Galilean redneck.  “Are you from Galilee, too?  Look into it [dummy], and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” 

            Well, Nicodemus had “looked into it” and he was growing in his conviction that Jesus was exactly who he was claiming he was—the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of the world. 

            The last time we see Nicodemus in the Bible is in John 19:39, at the burial of Jesus.  Jesus has now been murdered by the Jews and Romans at the instigation of the Pharisees. 

But Nicodemus has made his decision too.  He could not change the minds of his closest friends who loved the darkness of their own sin and pride more than the light of Jesus and thus murdered Jesus.  He could not change the determined will of God that, before the world and sin began, had determined that Jesus must be crucified in order to atone for the sins of the world (Acts 2:23). 

But he could change his relationship to Jesus.  He could believe in Him, align with Him, put his faith in him…even as he wrapped his body for burial that first Good Friday, expended thousands of dollars of his own wealth on the spices needed for his burial, placed Jesus in that tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and risked his life to be identified with Jesus who had just been crucified.  He had moved from “partially convinced” to “fully convinced.”  And I’m looking forward to meeting him some day in heaven. 


  • We must give people room to be somewhere along the spectrum of “questioning-to-convinced”.
  • We must be patient with people while at the same time challenging them with the life-demanding claims of Jesus.
  • We need not worry about saying just the right thing. The Holy Spirit has been and is at work whenever we talk of Jesus with someone.
  • We must learn to talk with people about being ‘born again.’
  • Most importantly, we must be a people who have experienced that work of the Spirit that has brought us to “new birth”. Have you?  Have you been “born again”?  If you’re not sure, then cry out to God for His miraculous work that give you a new heart.  Recognize your sin has forever separated you from God and embrace that only in submission to Jesus by faith will you be made right with God and experience eternal life, now and forever.