Authority, Witnessing, Limits of Human Systems of Knowledge
John Lesson #026
November 1, 1998
Jesus says something we can't do. Jesus says: "I am speaking with my own authority." It is not just one rabbi talking to another rabbi here. In rabbinical theology at this time that is all they had. They had the Old testament Law and every rabbi interpreted it in a different way. If we read the Mishnah it will ask the question, What do we do in this situation? So one rabbi says this and another rabbi says that. All there is is one opinion versus another opinion, then when you come to it you just choose which famous rabbi you are going to align yourself with. We see this same kind of thing going on in Christianity today. The issue is not to find somebody who supports your opinion, the issue is to find a pastor who will get into the Word of God and teach it for what it says regardless of how it makes us feel. These things aren't our opinions. The Word of God is not designed to stroke us and make us feel good, it is designed to give us absolute truth so that we can understand reality and conform our thinking to reality.
Jesus is challenging the whole system of rabbinical authority by the way He addresses this. That is what Nicodemus says in John 3:9: "How can these things be?" He is completely confused. His entire mode of thinking, his entire authority system for arriving at truth has been destroyed by Jesus. Old Testament theology was based clearly on divine viewpoint and revelation from God but it had been reshaped by the traditions of rabbinical theology. They were looking at human tradition and human thought. Systems of rationalism, empiricism and tradition were the final court of appeal, not God. Things are the way they are because God said they are the way they are. They are not the way they are because they have some autonomous right to that. Genesis chapter one: God separates the darkness and the light, and he calls the darkness night. Why is the darkness night? Not because it has autonomous existence as night but because God said this is what night is. Unbelievers can arrive at a certain level of truth, and believers can make the same observation and there can be a certain amount of understanding there from an unbeliever, but unless you understand the facts of God's creation as God has said that they are you don't understand the facts of God's creation. To the degree that you reject the authority of Scripture as defining things to be what they are, to that degree you are divorced from reality. Things are what they are because God says that.
John 3:10 NASB "Jesus answered and said to him, 'Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?'" In other words, Nicodemus these things that I am telling you about, regeneration and being born again, should have been obvious to you from your study of the Old Testament. It is not that they are hidden in the Old Testament, it is that they are there but you are coming to the Scriptures and interpreting them with your rationalistic rabbinical glasses instead of letting the Scripture define itself for you. In other words, you are basing everything on these human viewpoint systems of empiricism, rationalism or mysticism, and you are not coming with faith in the Word of God. So Jesus addresses this and says: John 3:11 NASB "Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony." He says what we can't say: "Verily, verily, a)mhn, a)mhn, I say to you; I am speaking with direct authority from heaven." We can't do that because we are not Jesus. But in witnessing we have the self-authenticating Word of God, and we know from Scripture that an unbelieving is rejecting what he already knows. We don't have to convince him that God exists—that is what Romans 1:18, 19 says. They know these things and it is evident to them; they are suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. But Jesus appeals to the self-authenticating Word of God. He is speaking the truth; He appeals to its own authority. Amen, Amen, is an idiomatic statement in Greek for emphasis. Jesus says: "Truly I say to you [singular]," second person singular use, "we [all believers who are witnessing]," and the "you" plural is broadened now to all the unbelievers in Israel who are rejecting the truth, "speak that which we know, and we bear witness of that which we have seen, and you do not receive our witness."
What is Jesus saying here? Jesus is saying (to Nicodemus) that if I talk to you about the things that are empirically verifiable by you, because they are inside of the box, things which we have seen and which we know and the things which are clearly available to you from your study of the Old Testament, and you don't receive my witness, how will you believe me when I am out here outside the box and I am giving you information about spiritual things? Then He goes on. John 3:12 NASB "If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?"
What does He means by heavenly and earthly? We must always let the Bible define the terms. That is a very important principle of interpretation. Earthly relates to the finite limitations of human language and knowledge. Human knowledge is limited. Proverbs 30:3 NASB "Neither have I learned wisdom, Nor do I have the knowledge of the Holy One." In other words, this is a clear statement that man is limited in his knowledge. I am inside the box, I do not have direct knowledge of God outside the box.  "Who has ascended into heaven and descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has wrapped the waters in His garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name or His son's name? Surely you know!" Proverbs uses the same physical imagery that Jesus uses, wind and water. In other words, what the writer of Proverbs is emphasizing here is that as man's knowledge about even certain things in the physical universe is limited, as Jesus points out with wind, the only way you know about these things is if you go to heaven and bring back information. Heavenly and earthly in this passage relates to revelatory knowledge. If it is heavenly it hasn't been revealed yet, but if it is earthly it has been revealed.
We see similar terminology in Deuteronomy 30:11 NASB "For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach." Moses is summarizing the entire Mosaic Law when he says "this commandment."  "It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?'" In other words, in heaven would be information that hasn't been revealed yet—unrevealed information. Heavenly knowledge is that which has not been revealed to man, it is not accessible yet.  "Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?'  But the word is very near you [it has been revealed, I just spoke it to you], in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it."
So heavenly knowledge unrevealed truth; earthly knowledge is doctrine that has been revealed. What are we talking about? We are talking about regeneration. It is a doctrine; it is in the Old Testament Nicodemus, you ought to know about it. If I am talking to you about earthly things, i.e. revelation that has been communicated to you, written down in the Old Testament, and you don't understand doctrine that has already been revealed, then why should I tell you anything more, why should I give you more revelation? And that is a principle throughout Scripture. If God gives you a little bit and you don't do anything with it, God is not going to give you any more. If God is going to give revelation to Israel and they reject that, God is not going to give more information to Israel. Nicodemus, if I have told you this much about the gospel and you have rejected that, you are not going to get anymore from God, you have enough and you are negative. You have rejected it up to this point, you are not positive.
Imagine you are witnessing to an unbeliever. This unbeliever builds his whole case on the starting point of rationalism. If you grant his starting point you have already lost the argument before you ever begin because everything he builds on that, as long as he is logically consistent, he has an airtight argument. What you have to do is wipe out his starting point. His starting point is the validity of the human mind to come to absolute truth. His starting point is his assumption that he can talk authoritatively of what is going on outside the box. You have to show him that he can't get outside the box. He has no idea what is outside the box and unless somebody comes from outside the box all he is doing is giving pure speculation and guesswork and there is nothing substantive there at all. That is what Jesus says in verse 13.
John 3:13 NASB "No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man." Notice how this terminology is reminiscent of the terminology of Proverbs 30 and Deuteronomy 30. In verse 13 Jesus is making an explicit statement of His authority to give absolute truth to Nicodemus. We can't do that because we are not Jesus. But we can appeal to Scripture, and it is the Scripture that the Holy Spirit uses.
Some people get the idea that when they are communicating the gospel to somebody that all they have to do is just say, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved; and that because God the Holy Spirit is the sovereign executor in evangelism that He will make it clear. That is true, but it is an abuse also. We are to be involved in answering questions and helping people understand the gospel. The Holy Spirit makes it clear to them but we answer questions. But we are going to have to understand some things. Peter says that we must always be ready to make a defence, to give an answer for the hope that is in us.
One of the biggest mistakes we make is that we think that if we know all of the historical evidences and all of the philosophical arguments that we can convince the unbeliever of the truth of the gospel. That is wrong! Faith is always based on historical reality and it is not anti-reason, it is based on reason. We believe with the mind; that means it is cognitive information. There are specific rational propositions you believe that are necessary for salvation. You believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins. If you believe that Jesus is a historical figure and that He died on the cross that is not enough. That is more like what Nicodemus was doing. He believed that all these things happened historically in the Old Testament but he was not interpreting them as something that was relevant to him in terms of his own spiritual life. Facts are not neutral. Facts are never independent of an interpretation. The moment you look at a fact you begin to interpret it, you assign it a meaning and significance.
The unbeliever is interpreting facts on the basis of human viewpoint; the believer is operating on divine viewpoint. You will lose the battle at an ideological, philosophical level the moment you start treating this as if you are going to appeal to these facts the same way. You have already given away the battle. You are going to give the other team the ball and are going to let them score because you think you are on equal footing. You arte not on equal footing, you are standing on the self-authenticating Word of God. The issue is not historical or intellectual, they don't have anything to do with IQ; they have to do with spiritual truth. You are talking to an unbeliever who is either positive or negative and the ultimate issue here is not historical veracity. The problem isn't that this unbelievers isn't smart enough, the problem is he has a spiritual commitment to independence and he is suppressing the truth of God in unrighteousness. The issues are spiritual, not intellectual. All you have to do is be clear on what happened, know the essential facts of the gospel, and give it to people. It starts with spiritual truth and ends with spiritual truth.
Romans 1:18 NASB "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness." What happens is, you have a new born baby, and as it goes through its development it begins to learn language, vocabulary. They learn the word 'I' and they become self-conscious. Then they become self-absorbed, and it is I, I, I. Then they realize there is also a you, and that there is also a Mom and a Dad and other people and other things. And they gradually go from being self-conscious to being world-conscious and are aware that there are other things out there besides them. Then they go through a stage of "where did that stuff come from?" and that is called God-consciousness. That is what we call the age of accountability. Once that child is old enough, has the vocabulary and the thought categories to understand the gospel and recognize that there is a God out there, they are going to make a decision, positive or negative. Yes, I want to know God; no, I don't. If they are positive at God-consciousness then God in His justice and fairness is going to get somebody to them to give them the gospel. Now they have another big decision. At the point of gospel hearing they are going to have to decided whether or not they are going to put their faith lone in Christ alone. They can be positive at God-consciousness and then negative at gospel hearing. But if they are negative at God-consciousness God is not going to give them any more revelation. They have enough already. This is Romans 1:19 NASB "because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them." They are going to start suppressing the truth. It is a volitional act to suppress the truth. There is no atheist, is what this passage is saying; they know the truth; they are suppressing it in unrighteousness. Every person is born with some inherent or innate knowledge that they are a creature and that there is a creator.  "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse." There is no single person who can stand before God and say, I didn't know you existed. God is saying there is at least enough evidence. It is not a lot, but it doesn't have to be a lot; it has to be enough, and there is enough evidence internally and externally that man knows that God exists.
Our job as believers is to make sure the gospel is clear, to be able to honestly and accurately answer whatever questions there might be. Some people are like Nicodemus. They may sound negative but they are really positive. They just have a lot of questions: How do I put all this together? We have all the information. We have to make everything clear, and then it is up to the Holy Spirit and their volition. And just because you make it clear and they reject it doesn't mean you failed, it means they rejected it. It is not up to us to convince them of the truth, that is the role of God the Holy Spirit. It is our job to present the gospel. That is the rare privilege that God has given us: to be the heralds of His kingdom, to be witnesses, to be ambassadors for Christ.