Read: John 3:1-15
The reading today takes us up to the infamous verse, John 3:16. It’s important to remember the context, so the title I chose for this post is intentionally focused on Nicodemus. He’s the Pharisee that heard about Jesus and sought Him after hours, under cover of darkness. Jesus has a lot to say to Nicodemus (and us) before John summarized the lesson in a statement that almost everyone has heard. This section paints the picture in dark or light, black or white. There is no gray mentioned here. It’s a tough lesson for a religious zealot from a few thousand years ago and it’s hard for many to accept in this present time. Let’s dive in and take a look!
Visitation at Night
Imagine you were part of a minority group that is trying to get a nation back on track with God. The Pharisees had a strong voice and were convinced their way was right. Their main rival was the Sadducees, the group that held a majority of positions in the Sanhedrin. The Sadducees were bound to the Torah, the first five books of what we call the Bible. They denied the resurrection, afterlife, and even the spiritual realm. Their beliefs seemed out of step with reality from our perspective and definitely something the Pharisees were trying to overshadow. (See GotQuestions.org for more.)
The picture I’m trying to paint is one of political maneuvering among the religious elite. This background is essential to understanding why Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, had to show up at night — this was significant and unusual.
In addition, recall the events covered in John’s first few chapters: John the Baptist, calling of the disciples, miraculous water into wine, and clearing of the temple. There were probably other events that prompted Nicodemus to seek out Jesus, but John wants us to consider these before reading this chapter.
He came to Jesus at night and said, “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.” John 3:2
Teaching the Teacher
As we begin to dive deep into this lesson, I have one last observation to set the stage. The Pharisees are notoriously at odds with Jesus. We know they were the group in particular that wanted to have Jesus killed. Yet Jesus accepted the opportunity to meet with Nicodemus. I would suggest His words are meant to encourage Nicodemus, not speak down to him. I read the interaction with great kindness, with care and love.
I hope this is an example for us to speak to others who are truly seeking to understand the essence of our faith. It’s impossible to show anyone what the heavenly realms look like, there has to be a leap of faith. That leap must be from a sure foundation to a certain destination. The foundation is Christ. The destination is eternal life with the Father.
Nicodemus is a teacher of teachers who came to learn from the greatest teacher of all. Perhaps he set out to test Jesus, to see where He stood on the Torah. He doesn’t even ask a question before Jesus jumps into an intense thought.
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” John 3:3
Nicodemus is a learned man. I’m convinced he knew that Jesus had more to say on this subject, but he’s trying to understand how to teach this to someone else.
“Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” John 3:4
Jesus now explains that which is difficult to understand. His explanation he gently rebukes Nicodemus,
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? John 3:10
Even so, He provides details to challenge and stretch the imagination of many.
“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” John 3:5-6
We Speak and You People Don’t Believe
These few verses jump out at me this morning. Here Jesus’ words are “we speak” versus “you people.” Something is going on here. Pay particular attention to this passage in that light.
Very truly I tell you, 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? John 3:11-12
Let the thought sink in. Jesus goes on to provide an example of Moses lifting up the snake in the wilderness, just as He will be lifted up on a cross. His testimony is compelling. I think they talked until dawn. In my imagination, I see Nicodemus with tears as he hears the words of the Messiah. I think he’s convinced and stuck at the same time.
We’ll see Nicodemus a few more times in this gospel account. My prayer that I would learn from his humility and great desire to learn from the Master.
I intended to include the next few verses, but as I got to this point, I wanted to pause and reflect on how much I am like Nicodemus. Raised in the church, steeped in religion, blessed beyond measure, yet lost in the world. I need to hear and appreciate the ensuing verses, but I need to wait a moment.
Lord, fill this place right now. Cast a light into the darkness that surrounds us. Show us that if we hold tightly to that which the world honors we will miss the blessing You have for each of us. This is a hard lesson to understand, but essential to our growth.
Breathe into us, Holy Spirit, fill our lungs with Your breath so we may be a blessing to everyone we meet today. Everyone.