Rev. Mark A. Barber
Most of us have heard the story of Nicodemus before and can quote John 3:16 from memory. We have heard about being born again. So we think we already know the story. Nicodemus came to Jesus that night thinking he knew the rules of how one enters the Kingdom. After all, he was a scholar, a Pharisee, and leader of the Jews. But Jesus sure surprised Nicodemus that night. So we too need to be open to a surprise or two this morning as well.
At the end of Chapter two, it says that Jesus knew what was in any man and did not need anyone to inform him. Jesus did not need the NSA to give Him the details of Nicodemus. Jesus knew why Nicodemus had come even before a word was spoken. He knew Nicodemus better than Nicodemus knew himself. Because Jesus knew all about him, he also knew how to witness to Nicodemus.
The first thing above all else that we learn about Nicodemus is that he was a Pharisee. The Pharisees were numerically a small Jewish sect of several thousand persons. But they were influential far above their numbers because they were highly educated in the Scriptures and traditions of the Jews. They were held in high regard in Israel and were sought as teachers and interpreters of the Law. They were often asked to settle disputes among the people. The Apostle Paul belonged to them before his conversion.
The next thing we learn about him was his name, Nicodemus. This at first doesn’t spark much interest to us in the English speaking world of the 21st century, but the name Nicodemus would be a strange name for a Pharisee, a group which wanted to retain the purity of the Jewish religion and language. Nicodemus was a Greek name, not a Hebrew or Aramaic one.
This same Nicodemus was also a ruler of the Jews which indicates that he was a member of the Jewish ruling body called the Sanhedrin. This means he had a reputation to defend. Jesus had just finished cleansing the Temple, something which would not have gone over well with the power structure in Jerusalem. To openly go to Jesus to ask Him what was on his heart in broad daylight would have exposed Nicodemus to censure. So he came to Jesus at night when he thought no one else was looking. Nicodemus was not ready yet to bear the shame of the cross. That would come later when he in broad daylight requests the body of Jesus from Pilate and apparently defiles himself in personally taking down the dead body of Jesus from the cross, on Passover no less!
Nicodemus may have come with others as he addresses Jesus with the plural “We know”. Or he may have been sent by other interested seekers to find out about Jesus. The second chapter records that Jesus did many miraculous signs during the time of the Temple cleansing. Nicodemus and others has seen them and were wondering if they pointed to Jesus being the Messiah. Perhaps they had heard from John the Baptist’s testimony concerning Jesus as well. Nicodemus addresses this concern for the group when he tells Jesus: “We know that you are a God sent teacher.” Does this mean a teacher who God has sent in general or “the” teacher promised by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy? One would have to think that the idea of Messiahship was at least in the back of Nicodemus’ mind when he says this. The Messiah in the thought of most Jews of that day was to be a political figure, although some held to a political and a priestly Messiah. The Messiah would overthrow the nations that oppressed Israel and would come to reign over an eternal glorious kingdom in which the Jews would rule over the other nations. The signs which Jesus did seemed to point in that direction. Nicodemus was certainly more right in recognizing that God was doing these signs. Others said Jesus did these works by the spirit of Satan.
How shocking Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus must have been. Instead of addressing Nicodemus’ inquiry directly, he tells Nicodemus and the others who may have come with him: “Most truly, unless you are born again, you will not be able to see the Kingdom of God.” Jesus’ response shows that Nicodemus is thinking about the Kingdom and whether Jesus fits the bill to be the Messiah. But Jesus also reveals that Nicodemus does not understand what the Kingdom of God is about. It also shows that Nicodemus was unprepared for that Kingdom.
Nicodemus was startled by Jesus’ response. He was a Jew, a Pharisee at that. He was a ruler and teacher in Israel. If any man was prepared, it was Nicodemus. He and other Pharisees like Paul had spent their entire lives preparing for the Messiah. They believed that if they could teach all Israel to keep the Torah for even one single day that the Messiah would come. They had dedicated their entire lives for this. So Nicodemus answers, “You certainly cannot mean that someone could enter into his mother’s womb and be born again, do you?”
The word “again” is another one of John’s favorite double meanings, for it can mean “born again” as Nicodemus took it or “born from above”. That is “born by God”. The latter is the meaning John wants us to understand, for he uses the same word in Greek in verse 31 to indicate that Jesus came “from above”. This would fit well with the prologue of John (1:13) which states: “To those who believe on Him he gave authority to become God’s children, who were born not of blood, nor of the flesh, nor of the will of a man, but of God.” This verse, we remember from a few weeks ago is the central pivot of the entire prologue. This is why the Word became flesh. The stated purpose of the Gospel of John is that the reader would believe that Jesus is the Christ and by this have eternal life. The entire Gospel stands as a witness to bring whosoever will come to eternal life. The Gospel of John shows several personal encounters with people with great depth. Besides, Nicodemus, we have the encounter with the woman at the well, the paralytic man at the pool of Bethesda, the blind man of chapter nine, and even Pontius Pilate. Jesus shows us how to witness as well as the passion to witness.
Jesus answers Nicodemus puzzled question by telling Nicodemus that neither he, not any who came with him were ready at all to enter the Kingdom. All of the hard work, study, or birthright was of no use. The only way to enter the Kingdom of God is by “water and Spirit”. Commentators are not in agreement into what exactly what “water and Spirit” mean. Some thinks it refers to Water Baptism followed by the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. But it does not say “By water and by the Spirit”. The two terms are joined together by only one preposition. Others see this as a comparison of the water of the amniotic fluid of natural birth as compared to the new birth by the Holy Spirit. There are other ideas as well. But it is easy enough from Jesus’ explanation what is meant. The new birth is not something that can be directly seen by human eyes. It is rather something that comes from within. Like the wind, it is invisible. Yet we know the wind exist because we can feel it blow. In a like manner the effects of the new birth can be felt by others. Others can perceive the change that has been made in the believer. This is the believer’s witness to the world that he/she is a child of God. If we read from later in the Gospel: “By this shall all people know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love cannot be directly seen. But it can be perceived. Many would see the early Christians lay down their lives for the love of Jesus and for the love of their brethren. Because of this witness, many others came to believe in Jesus Christ.
This transformation into the life of the Kingdom is not something we can directly attain either. Our efforts will never get us there. Rather it is entirely the gift of God’s free grace. Nicodemus did not understand this. He asked how this could be possible. Jesus was sharply critical in His response: “You are the teacher of Israel and don’t know this!” Jesus is not singling out Nicodemus personally and emphatically. He does not just call him “a teacher of Israel” but “the teacher of Israel”. And if “the” teacher of Israel was so lacking in understanding, where did the rest of Israel stand?
Jesus tells Nicodemus that earthly wisdom and understanding is incapable of understanding spiritual realities. This is why for all his learning, Nicodemus was incapable of understanding the most basic spiritual truth. And if Nicodemus could not understand despite his in-depth study of the Scripture, where do the philosophers, politicians, pundits, and talk show hosts stand? Without God, we are all spiritually bankrupt. Without God, we are morally bankrupt. Without God, we are emotionally bankrupt. Without God, we are also ultimately intellectually bankrupt as well.
Before coming to understand what God’s grace is about, we must be made aware of our total bankruptcy before God. We are totally lose and without any human hope. This is what the Law of God reveals. This is what Jesus reveals to Nicodemus. But grace does not leave one in a lost condition. Jesus now starts to explain to Nicodemus that in spite of Nicodemus’ total depravity that there is hope, hope that comes from God. It is the free undeserved gift of God’s grace. Jesus witnesses to Nicodemus about Himself. No one could ascend up to Heaven unless one came down from heaven first. Jesus says that he is the one who came from Heaven to give undeserving sinners hope. He compares himself to the serpent lifted up in the wilderness. The children of Israel had sinned and were undergoing the terrible judgment of God, one if which if it continued would have led to the annihilation of the nation. But God showed mercy on Israel. He had Moses make a brass serpent upon a pole and to lift it up in the sight of the people. Whosoever looked upon this serpent was saved. In other words, whosoever believed what God had said and obeyed in faith by looking at the serpent was saved from death.
In the same manner, Jesus tells Nicodemus that He would be lifted up on a cross. Whosoever believed and obeyed by looking to the cross would be saved. Salvation was not deserved or earned. But to those who believe and because they believe act by faith and look to Jesus, the one who died in our place on the cross and was raised up on the third day, ascended to the right hand of God to make intercession for us, and who is coming again to receive us unto Himself will be saved.
Now we come to that verse we all, know, John 3:16. This verse shows the true character of God and His offer of grace to humankind. The very world who had and still rejects and hates God, who rejected and crucified his Only-Begotten Son, is the world that Jesus came to die for, that whosoever believes on Him would be saved. Verse seventeen elaborates on this further by saying that Jesus did not come “to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved”. God is not out to get us, but to save us, the whosoever will.
The sad news is that so many have rejected Him and still reject Him to this day. Jesus comes as the Light of the world, but the world loves darkness. It would rather eternally perish in hell rather than repent, believe, and come to Jesus. Unless their hearts are changed, then they are beyond all help. There is no other exit from eternal misery. To reject Jesus is to reject life itself.
Nicodemus seems to have left without making a decision this night. He came in the dark and left in the dark as well. But we can take hope in that he apparently was converted. Jesus did not speak with Nicodemus in vain. Nicodemus would later boldly proclaim his faith by coming to the lifeless body of Jesus on the cross. Not just looking up, but personally going up, he takes the body of Jesus hanging on the accursed cross down. He washes the dead body and helps Joseph anoint the body with expensive spices, wrap the body and lay it in the tomb. He was willing to accept the shame of Jesus’ cross as any true believer must, even if we are shamed, even if we have to carry our own cross and be crucified on His left or right. We can only be glorified with Him is we have suffered with Him. This is what Paul reminds us of. If you are truly a disciple of Jesus, you will follow.