“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.”
From the title of this post you probably already know who said this. It was not one of Jesus’ disciples (at least not yet!-19:39? ). It is not someone Jesus has just healed. John introduces us to this man by saying, “Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.” (John 3:1). The Jewish ruling council is another name for the Sanhedrin. For the text of John 3 click here.
Nicodemus surely had tension regarding what had just taken place. In the previous chapter Jesus had thrown the money changers out of the temple with a homemade whip (John 2:12-22). A few days later still in Jerusalem John says that, “many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men.” (John 2:23-24). This is the same conflict and tension that John mentioned in the prologue to the gospel, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…” (John 1:10-12).
If there was anyone who would should have recognized him it should have been a Pharisee. For as many hours as the studied the scriptures and committed so much to memory it is amazing that they did not recognize him when he showed up in the neighborhood. At the same time Jesus didn’t make it easy on them. He didn’t try to ease them into the idea that he was the Messiah, his teachings, signs, and wonders were confusing and did not fit the matrix of what a Messiah was supposed to look like and which rules he was supposed to comply with.
Then there is the issue of Jesus’ confusing speech. He replied to Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” (3:3). We toss that phrase around today but think about how confusing that would sound to the uninitiated. Nicodemus was certainly confused. His conception of the requirements of seeing the kingdom of God was that you were born into the Jewish lineage, a “child of Abraham.” Jesus said there is another birth that must take place. When a child goes from the womb into the room things will never be the same again. So it is with the kingdom of God. When you are born you go from the darkness of the womb to the light of the world. The sounds that you once heard in the womb that told you there was something more to life than being in a tightly confined womb come to reality when you meet those who had been talking to you even though you had never met them. So it is with the new birth. In it you find life and light and freedom that can only come through Christ.
Jesus clarified – this new birth comes by water and the spirit. It is not as some have suggested that water is our first birth (the water of the womb) and the spirit the second birth (receiving the Holy Spirit). Water and the Spirit both describe the new birth. The second birth comes by the waters of baptism and the gift of the Spirit (both again linked in Acts 2 and both experienced by Christians in the conversions in Acts). Jesus then uses a play on words as “wind” and “Spirit” are the same word in Greek – “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. (3:8). You cannot control the wind. It does what it is going to do. God is going to do with his kingdom what he wants to. He will eventually even include Gentiles who are not born of the correct physical lineage from the Jewish perspective. If they have faith in Christ and are “born again” by water and the Spirit they are of the correct spiritual lineage to be the people of God.
Nicodemus response to all of this…”How can this be?” Still confused 🙂
Jesus rebukes Nicodemus and launches into language that is even more confusing than the first. He references something in addition to the new birth – his being lifted up like the bronze snake Moses lifted up in the wilderness (3:14-15 – See Number 21). There were three ways Jesus was lifted up – on the cross, from the grave and from the earth. Each of these builds faith in who he is that leads to eternal life. Then come those favorite words recited by millions – “For God so loved the world that he actually gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish by have everlasting life.” (John 3:16). [See Raymond Brown, ABC, 134 for “actually gave”].
How did God give Jesus? He gave him first in the incarnation that we will be celebrating in a couple of weeks at Christmas. The second way God gave us Jesus is through his crucifixion. Jesus didn’t have to do either of these things but freely chose both. It is a little unclear if this is John speaking about Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, a teaching of Jesus at another time, or if Jesus actually said all of this to Nicodemus (the red letters aren’t inspired you know! Jesus probably spoke through 3:21). It is not unusual for Jesus to speak of himself in the third person as he did that on occasion. What is even more strange is that Nicodemus referred to him in the third person at the beginning of the chapter and to his face (3:2). Either way the message of the remaining verses are clear – Jesus came to save the world for those who understand the “light.” Those who do not are in darkness and have no fellowship with the light.
One last point that has an implication on how we deal with our sin. Jesus said those in the darkness hate the light and will not come into it for “fear that their deeds will be exposed. But those who live by the truth come into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” There is a fundamental difference between those who live in darkness and those who are in the light – trust. Those in darkness fear their secrets will be exposed. They do not trust God enough to stand exposed. Those who walk in the light are honest with their shortcomings. Christians should rather their shortcomings be exposed rather than the alternative – to walk in the darkness.
We need better outlets for this within the church without getting into a big accountability mess that some churches have experienced in the past. This can only come through offering people a safe environment to be themselves and express their honest concerns and struggles. This can only come through time where we don’t feel like we have to smile if we aren’t smiling on the inside and don’t have to say everything is fine if it really isn’t. In one word – Authentic.