5th January 2020 – Russell Baker – John 3:1-21 – Nicodemus
If the Gospel of John was a TV series, Nicodemus would be one of those occasional, minor characters. He turns up a few times and we don’t really get to know him – yet his appearances provide opportunities for significant developments or turning points in the plot for others.
Today I’d like to get to know this minor character, and try to understand what we learn when we meet him. You might keep these four questions in mind. Hopefully we’ll have some answers by the time I’m finished.
- What do we know of Nicodemus?
- What did Jesus teach and show to Nicodemus?
- How did Nicodemus respond?
- How will we respond?
Who was Nicodemus?
We meet him only in John’s gospel – and we meet him three times.
Only three appearances – but ones that suggest that:
a) he was significant enough to be named three times – so perhaps John’s readers recognised the name or knew of him – or even knew him personally.
b) the incidents in which he is recorded had no consistent witnesses, apart from Nicodemus himself – a meeting with Jesus at night; a debate among those who were Jesus’ enemies; the preparation of Jesus for burial when most of his disciples had fled. Who gave the account of these events? Perhaps it was Nicodemus himself.
He is both a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council. He is an important and influential man in Jerusalem.
Now Christians today often think of Pharisees in a negative way. But if we had lived in Jesus’ time, we probably would have thought of them quite differently. They were a devout and earnest group of people committed to God’s law and to godliness, as they understood it.
In the book “Eyewitnesses – Dramatic Voices from The Gospels” Don Richardson has imagined how several New Testament characters would tell their own stories. I really like his Nicodemus monologue. I would have liked to read it in full – but I timed it and it took me 17 minutes so I’ll spare you that. Here’s how Nicodemus, in Richardson’s imagination, describes himself:
Hours after I finished a hard day’s work, hours that other young men my age were spending with their families or using for recreation: these were the hours I faithfully studied the Law, the Prophets, the Mishnah and the Talmud.
These were the hours I sought to learn from men like Annas, Caiaphas and Gamaliel.
I took every pain, not only to live by the letter of the Law, but also to observe the rigid tradition of the elders.
It was a strict and exacting life I had taken upon myself, but because of it I had risen above the common herd.
I was no ordinary person.
I was a Pharisee.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, one of the best of people, from a human perspective – and this Pharisee wanted to talk with Jesus.
Nicodemus Meets Jesus
John tells us that Nicodemus met with Jesus at night, and this could well be because he wanted to meet secretly – or perhaps it was just a time that suited them both.
He expresses the views of at least some among the leaders of Israel when he says – “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.”
This is good, yes? You would think that Jesus would be pleased about this, right? Surely these are the people that Jesus would want on his team!
When you’ve got religious leaders among the people of God who believe that Jesus is a teacher from God and that God is with Him, you would think that Jesus would be affirming them as being “close to the kingdom” – something He does do elsewhere, in one other encounter with a scribe. (Mark 12:28-34).
I mean, these religious leaders in Jerusalem were the very embodiment of the kingdom of God – they are the faithful remnant of God’s people, in God’s place, striving to live under God’s rule. They might need more teaching – but they’re on the right track, right?
Instead, Jesus responds in a way that might surprise us, and certainly seems to have surprised Nicodemus.
What does Jesus do? He discounts all the knowledge, all the wisdom, all the efforts at pleasing God and living in righteousness – these are not relevant – there is something else, something unrelated to all the efforts to which the Pharisees, the scribes, the priests and the leaders have committed their lives.
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again”.
Entering the kingdom was not about continuing on the path that Nicodemus knew. It is a matter of beginning all over again – of being born again.
To be born again – to be born from above – to forget everything you’ve depended on, everything you’ve worked on for your whole life – to be made new by God: This is not what Nicodemus expected. When you’re born into the right nation, the right family, the right opportunities, why would you want to be “born again”?
Nicodemus responds with an odd question. “How can someone be born when they are old?”… “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
I’m sure Nicodemus had the capacity to understand symbolic language. He was well-educated man. I think he asks the question in this way because Jesus’ words seem like nonsense to him. Perhaps Nicodemus is trying to point out this foolishness, but Jesus doesn’t let up on him.
5 … “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 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.”
The access to God’s Kingdom, only possible through this new birth, is a work of God’s Spirit – it is God’s work. There is an element of mystery to it. It is not something that anyone can coerce, control or achieve for themselves. It’s something that the Spirit of God does.
But what does this mean for Nicodemus – and for us? How could Nicodemus be born again? If Jesus’ words are true, then Nicodemus has achieved nothing with all his efforts. He thought he’d been born into God’s kingdom, but now he’s left wondering about a new sort of birth.
I have sympathy for Nicodemus in this. I find it easy to also wonder: what does this new birth mean? Am I born again? Are you born again? What might it look like? How can we understand it?
In John chapter one, we read also read about this new birth:
John 1:12-13 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
So those who believe in Jesus are those who are born of God – are born again. John expands this further in verse 16 to 21, which we’ll look at in a moment.
Nicodemus continues to express his confusion – or perhaps his doubt. In response, Jesus challenges his lack of faith, and urges him to trust – not in a set of arguments and rationales based on traditions – but to trust in the only one who really knows, the Son of Man who has come from heaven.
And this Son of Man is going to bring about this new birth by being lifted up – just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, and those who looked to the snake were saved from death – so Jesus, lifted up, will be the source and the focus of faith for those who believe in Him – who receive Him – who are born again. I think we are right to see Jesus’ crucifixion being predicted in these words.
Let’s look at verses 16-21, familiar and wonderful words. I admit a question comes to mind as I read them: Are these the words of Jesus, spoken to Nicodemus or is this John’s commentary, expounding on the meeting he has described?
We can’t know for sure. The original conversation would have been in Aramaic, the ancient records we have of it are in Greek, and we are reading it in English. English has a lot of helpful features such as paragraphs, full stops and speech marks. The ancient documents don’t have these – and they certainly don’t have “red letters” for the words of Jesus. As a result, we don’t know whether these are Jesus’ words.
- The translators of the NIV do not use speech marks (or red letters) for verse 16-21.
- The translators of the ESV do use speech marks (or red letters) for verses 16-21.
It’s one of the reasons that I don’t like red letters in my Bible. Sometimes it’s not clear who is speaking.
Whether these are Jesus’ words or John’s commentary, they are rich, weighty words – words that help us to see what this new birth, this work of God’s Spirit, will look like for those who are born again. We see that faith in Jesus is the way that the Spirit leads people into the new birth. Believing in Jesus, trusting in His work of salvation, is the foundation of the new life.
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. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
I don’t have time to dig further into these words today, so let’s allow them to stand in their own right. I encourage you to go back to them – to read over these words this week, thoughtfully and prayerfully. Take time to think about how these words help us to understand what it means to be “born again”. They are words of light and words of life.
The meeting with Jesus seemed to lead to more questions than answers for Nicodemus, and at the end we don’t really know what Nicodemus was thinking or believing. Nicodemus did not join the disciples that are following Jesus, but we will meet him again before John’s gospel is complete.
Nicodemus Speaks Up
We next see Nicodemus in chapter 7 of John.
It was the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the celebrations for God’s people that were established in Deuteronomy:
Deuteronomy 16:16 Three times a year all your men must appears before the Lord your God at the place he will choose: at the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Weeks and the Festival of Tabernacles. No one should appear before the Lord empty-handed
This was both a harvest festival, giving thanks for God’s provision, and also a time to remember and celebrate God’s provision during 40 years of wandering in the desert.
Jesus did not go to this festival at first, but when he did go, he went with a message for the people, and He was happy to be controversial:
- He spoke about His authority
- He accused His enemies of trying to kill Him
- He criticised the religious leaders
- He spoke of His death
- He spoke, significantly in our context today, of new life in God’s Spirit:
37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.
Some people were impressed – some people were confused – some people were angered – the leaders sent guards to arrest Jesus and these guards came back without arresting Jesus, saying “no-one ever spoke the way this man does”.
This angered most of the chief priests and Pharisees even more. Finally, Nicodemus, who was among them, tried to speak up for Jesus – without any success:
50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51 “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”
52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”
I wonder what Nicodemus was thinking at this point. What had he understood about belief in Jesus, about being born again, about the work of God’s Spirit, that Jesus has called “rivers of living water”? We don’t know.
The third time we meet Nicodemus is in chapter 19 of John’s gospel…
This time we have no words from Nicodemus, just actions. Jesus had been crucified and he had died. It was the end of the day and the Sabbath started at sunset. Two men were engaged in burying Jesus – there was Joseph of Arimathea – a secret disciple, a seeker for the Kingdom of God, and member of the ruling council, like Nicodemus, who had not consented to the execution of Jesus – and there was Nicodemus, with spices for embalming.
These two members of the ruling council were not concerned about defiling themselves before the Sabbath. Touching a dead body would make them ceremonially unclean but this was not important to them anymore.
40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. 41 At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
At this point, the small but significant part that Nicodemus had played in recorded history came to an end.
How did Nicodemus respond to Jesus?
I wonder what Nicodemus was thinking as he helped to bury Jesus. Did he think of those words: you must be born again? Did he think of Jesus saying, “the Son of Man must be lifted up”, and see how this had just happened in His awful death? Did he wonder, again, about the work of the Spirit, bringing new life to those who believe in Jesus and receive Him in faith? Did he feel, again, the worthlessness of all his efforts to make himself good enough for the Kingdom?
I think Nicodemus became a follower of Jesus. We know that there were Pharisees among the early believers – they were involved in debates in Acts 15, and Paul himself had been a Pharisee.
A Pharisee and ruling council member engaging in the unclean act of embalming a dead body is an act of commitment, of loyalty and love for Jesus.
As I suggested earlier, Nicodemus is a likely source for these accounts. I think he was among the believers and is known by them, which is why he is named.
That’s what I think – but it’s not for us to know. So rather than speculate further, we should turn our minds in another direction.
How will we respond to Jesus?
Nicodemus’ minor part in history has brought so many huge messages to us:
- No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.
- Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
- Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
- Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.
- To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
- 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.
Whatever your life has been so far – a life of great achievements or a life of disappointments – do you hear the call of Jesus to start again – to be born again?
Do you see how there’s nothing you can do to win your way into God’s Kingdom? Trust and believe in what God has done for you in Jesus. Believe in Him and receive the Spirit of God, receive the new birth, receive eternal life.
If you’ve been following, and believing, and you’ve become tired or disheartened – please, look again at the words of life that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, and take hope.