Professionally religious people are not known for getting great press. They’re hard to market. I guess it’s because they make the rest of us feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s bothersome to be around somebody who’s always doing everything by the book and wants you to know it too.
However, I want to invite you to take a few moments and get inside the skin of just such a person. I think that when you do, you may actually end up liking him. He is someone who tries to live a clean life, but he is not one who feels compelled to advertise.
The man I’m talking about is not one to make prejudgments about other people. He likes to check out the facts first. He is highly intelligent, yet at the same time he’s never satisfied with his knowledge. You will usually find him asking questions—good ones—and he’s always willing to learn.
He is a successful leader and teacher of his people. I would guess he’s middle-aged. He is wealthy and has well-to-do friends, but he is not possessed by a love of money himself. He cares more about truth than cash. Above all, he is a disciplined man—one who enjoys being self-controlled. He’s a man in command.
His name is Nicodemus.
The story I want to tell you also involves another person. This man has just recently experienced a mid-life career change. For a number of years he was a carpenter, but now at the ripe old age of 30 he has laid down his woodworking tools to become a travelling teacher. He is a man who speaks with a peculiar authority. He is not afraid to stand against corruption in high places. Many people are starting to follow him because he performs miraculous deeds. Among other things, he is able to change water into wine. He commands the impossible of many whom he meets. He tells an invalid to get up and walk, a dead man to come forth from a tomb. He himself does the impossible—feeding over five thousand people with a few crusts of bread and a couple of fish, walking on a lake in the midst of a raging storm. However, more startling than all of this is the claim he makes concerning his own identity. His own person is the content of his message: “I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except by means of me.”
Of course, you know the second person I’m talking about is Jesus—in particular, it is the Jesus presented to us in the Gospel of John.
There are certain events that take place in our lives that, if we knew they were going to happen ahead of time, we probably would do everything in our power to avoid. For example, there is Nicodemus’ meeting with Jesus.
Why do I say that Nicodemus might have wished to avoid that meeting if he knew what was going to happen as a result? I say that because the Nicodemus who existed before meeting with Jesus liked to be in control of his life, and because of his meeting with Jesus, he was going to lose all control.
However, Nicodemus was drawn to Jesus, like the bear that used to live behind our mountain home was drawn to our compost bin; he just couldn’t resist. Nicodemus’ curiosity is peaked by this Jesus fellow. He has to admit that Jesus has some sort of hotline to the Almighty. How else could he perform so many miracles? Thus, Nicodemus wants to find out more and so he arranges an evening appointment with the Teacher—nothing formal—keep the conversation low-key, distant, and especially—safe. Nicodemus never could have foreseen the change that would take place in his life, and the price of that transformation, all because of one little meeting, under the cover of darkness, on a starless night in Palestine.
Can you picture the scene at the home near Jerusalem where Jesus is staying? He and his disciples have finished eating about an hour ago. They’re just sitting around, chatting about one thing and another. Then there’s a knock at the door. One of the disciples goes to the window to see who’s there and he relays the message to Jesus. Nicodemus is ushered in. He’s wearing fancier robes than anyone else in the room, certainly more expensive than Jesus’ attire. Yet, he immediately approaches Jesus with all courtesy and respect. He calls him “Rabbi”, recognizing Jesus’ status as a teacher. However, he goes even farther when he says that Jesus must be sent from God because he performs miraculous signs.
Nicodemus is feeling somewhat uneasy in this situation. He’s wondering what this Jesus is really going to be like. How is the Teacher going to respond to him? What, after all, is he, Nicodemus, doing here, when his own religious party is dead-set against this “Teacher”? “At least,” he thinks to himself: “I came at night. That’s safer than the daytime when someone might see me.”
Jesus doesn’t do a whole lot to put Nicodemus at his ease. The religious leader no sooner gets through saying “hello” when Jesus says to him: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
“Wait a minute Jesus. What are you talking about? I just got here. I’m trying to be polite. I know you’re a good teacher. I like and respect you, but what is this stuff about being born again.” Thoughts like these must have floated through Nicodemus’ mind. However, he keeps his cool and responds to Jesus’ statement in appropriate Middle Eastern fashion; he asks a sharp question. He takes Jesus’ metaphor and works it out to its concrete conclusion.
“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asks. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
Nicodemus is holding Jesus at bay. He has really been cut to the heart by Jesus’ statement: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” This is precisely what Nicodemus has wanted for most of his life—to see the kingdom of God. He’s worked his tail off to see the kingdom realized. He’s always been able to master things with his mind. He’s got his theology worked out. He even thinks he has Jesus figured out. Nicodemus has come to a humble Palestinian house just to make sure he is right.
Now, he’s undone. Jesus has presented him with an unexpected challenge. He knows Jesus is talking about transformation. It’s not enough just to know the truth with your mind—your life must be changed by it—your life must start over again. This means a traumatic experience: rebirth. Furthermore, starting life over again is going to require massive re-learning.
Therefore, Nicodemus tries to hold off the impact of what Jesus is saying by asking for clarification, but Jesus is relentless. He restates things even more emphatically: “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is 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 where 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.”
“OK Jesus. Are you saying I have to be born again spiritually into the kingdom of God, and physical birth doesn’t guarantee a ticket of admission? It sounds like something out of my control. I mean, being born physically is not something we have a choice about, but it seems like you are telling me this so I can be a conscious participant.”
Nicodemus may have been thinking something along these lines. The only thing he really didn’t understand was: how? So he asked Jesus: “How can this be?” I think he really wanted to understand how this rebirth stuff works.
However, Jesus upbraided Nicodemus for not knowing. “You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things?”
Then Jesus went on to contrast the kind of knowledge he and his disciples had received with the sort of book-knowledge Nicodemus and the Pharisees had.
“I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.”
Jesus’ knowledge of how things work, both on earth and in heaven, is like no other knowledge. Therefore we, no less than Nicodemus, had better listen to his testimony.
Thankfully, Jesus goes on to explain just how a person can be born again, born from above….
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
Jesus took a story that Nicodemus was familiar with and he used it to help him understand how people can be “born again”.
Nicodemus, and every Jew in the first century, knew the story of how the Lord sent venomous snakes upon the people of Israel as they travelled through the desert out of Egypt because they had spoken against God and Moses. Nicodemus also knew how Moses had been instructed by the Lord to fashion a bronze snake and put it on a pole so that all who looked upon it would be saved from the deadly snakebites.
Now Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Son of Man (one of Jesus’ favorite names for himself) must be lifted up so that anyone who looks to him and throws their whole life trust on to him will receive eternal life.
I’m sure Nicodemus did not understand at the time exactly how the “Son of Man” was going to be “lifted up”. However, later on in John’s Gospel we see that this is one of John’s ways of referring to Jesus’ death on the cross. Curiously, Jesus’ death, the greatest humiliation of his life, also becomes his exaltation, his “lifting up”. Perhaps the full meaning of this conversation “dawned” on Nicodemus sometime after the first "Easter" morning when he saw Jesus “raised up” from the very grave in which he, Nicodemus, had placed him (John 19:38-42).
However, we are not there yet. We haven’t reached the cross, let alone, the resurrection. Nicodemus is meeting Jesus for the first time. There may have been many more meetings after this one.
In John 7 Nicodemus takes a tentative stand for Jesus before the Jewish ruling council because they want to condemn the Teacher. Nicodemus asks them, “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?” (John 7:51)
Even this half-hearted commitment to Jesus earns Nicodemus a rebuke from his fellow Pharisees and rulers: “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” (John 7:52)
What made Nicodemus want to risk his life, however tentatively, before the angry faces of his fellow Jewish religious leaders? Could it have been these words from the mouth of the Master? ...
“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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
These had to be the most hopeful words Nicodemus had ever heard in his entire life. Before hearing these words, Nicodemus knew a lot about God’s Law, but little, if anything, about God’s Love.
William Barclay explains, “To the Jew the Law was the most sacred thing in all the world. The Law was the first five books of the Old Testament. They believed it to be the perfect word of God. To add one word to it or to take one word away from it was a deadly sin. Now if the Law is the perfect and complete word of God, that must mean that it contained everything a man need know for the living of a good life, if not explicitly, then implicitly. If it was not there in so many words, it must be possible to deduce it. The Law as it stood consisted of great, wide, noble principles which a man had to work out for himself. But for the later Jews that was not enough. They said: ‘The Law is complete; it contains everything necessary for the living of a good life; therefore in the Law there must be a regulation to govern every possible incident in every possible moment for every possible man.’ So they set out to extract from the great principles of the law an infinite number of rules and regulations to govern every conceivable situation in life. In other words they changed the law of the great principles into the legalism of by-laws and regulations.”
Barclay continues, “It was the scribes who worked out these regulations; it was the Pharisees who dedicated their lives to keeping them. Obviously, however misguided a man might be, he must be desperately in earnest if he proposed to undertake obedience to every one of the thousands of rules. That is precisely what the Pharisees did. The name Pharisee means the Separated One; and the Pharisees were those who had separated themselves from all ordinary life in order to keep every detail of the law of the scribes.”
Do you see why I say Nicodemus, a Pharisee, knew much about God’s Law but little if anything about God’s love?
It’s not as though the Hebrew Scriptures didn’t talk about God’s love for human beings, and especially for Israel. The Hebrew Scriptures do speak of God’s love. However, the characteristic message, that Nicodemus would have picked up from the Torah, is expressed in Deuteronomy 7:9—“Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.”
The question that must have lingered in Nicodemus’ mind at the end of every day was, “How can I know if I have kept God’s commands thoroughly enough so that he will love me?” There was no way that Nicodemus could come up with a satisfactory answer to that haunting question.
However, here was a Teacher of Israel who was telling him that God loved the world, not just Israel but the world, so much that he gave his one and only Son so that whosoever would believe in him would not die but have eternal life, the life of the ages. Jesus said nothing about the works of the law. The total emphasis was on faith in him, trusting him. The love of God that Jesus proclaimed was unfathomably deep, all-inclusive in its scope, and most important—unconditional in its offer. Nicodemus wanted “in” on such a love.
Have you ever talked to a Nicodemus? I know I have. I have talked with people, not exactly like Nicodemus, but close enough—people on the verge of conversion. There are many Nicodemuses in the world today, people who have grown up religious, perhaps even believed intellectually that Jesus is the Messiah, but their lives have not been changed. When such people encounter this story in John 3, they know they are missing something. However, as one man said to me, “It’s hard to start life over again when you are my age. I’m not sure if it is even possible.”
That’s the bottom line question isn’t it? We all have some vague idea that we need something more, spiritually speaking—but is it possible?
It’s hard to be born when you’re old. Most of us would rather stay in the womb. Jesus is waiting to deliver us. He’s saying, “You’ve got to be born again. There are no two ways about it.” However, we hang tight in that womb saying, “I like it in here. I don’t want my life to change.”
I find the words of Wilbur Rees very much to the point:
“I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of Him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God please.”
We all try to strike some sort of bargain like that, don’t we? We want only so much of God as we can control—only so much as is safe.
However, eventually, for many of us, life in the womb becomes rather cramped, boring, predictable, and we decide we want that something more. Call it the Holy Spirit, or whatever you want, but we want Him enough to come out of the womb, out of our comfort zone. We may come out kicking and screaming into the kingdom of God, but it’s not truly important how we come, even if it’s under the cover of darkness. What is important is that we come at all.
So, what’s it going to be for you—the darkness of the womb—or the light of life in a new world?
Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Whoever believes in him (that is—the Son of God) is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
Nicodemus eventually came out of the darkness of the womb into the light of a saving relationship with God’s Son—Jesus Christ. Nicodemus experienced the power of the new birth through faith—simply trusting in Jesus to give him eternal life, rather than trusting in his own works.
What about you? What about me?