Jesus and Nicodemus: In a private conversation with a powerful religious leader named Nicodemus, Jesus reveals the heart of the gospel and God’s great love for a world in need of a savior. If you want to know what makes Christianity different than every other religion, this is it. But if Nicodemus needed to be born again, there’s hope for anyone. Recorded on Aug 20, 2023, on John 3:1-21 by Pastor David Parks.
Finding Life in Jesus’ Name is a sermon series on the gospel according to John in the Bible. Have you ever felt unsatisfied with your life? Or, even when things were going well, something was still missing? Many people sense there must be something more. But what?? John, one of the closest friends of Jesus, believed that Jesus came into the world so that we may have life and have it to the full. Jesus turned John’s life upside down, and John claims this new life — marked by God’s power, presence, and purpose — is available for all who believe.
So, all year, we’re working our way chapter by chapter and verse by verse through the gospel according to John. We’re calling this series Finding Life in Jesus’ Name, and if you missed any of the messages so far, you can always go back and watch or listen online. I’m back today after a couple weeks off, and I just really appreciate Casey Johnson from the EFCA and Ted Selker preaching for us. But I’m so glad to be back, too. This morning, we’re jumping back into chapter 3. John 1 provided a great intro to the ministry of Jesus and his practice of calling men and women everywhere to become his disciples and learn to follow him. Chapter 2 introduced the first of seven miraculous signs in changing water into wine and the teaching that Jesus was to replace the temple. Starting here in chapter 3, John starts a longer section of conversations that individual people had with Jesus. And this is a really fascinating section of John’s gospel to me for several reasons. First, though Jesus had crowds of thousands of people following him during certain points of his ministry, he didn’t just want the fame/glory of the crowds; he ministered to individual people, too, which speaks to his humility. But second, this collection of interactions/conversations with Jesus are all different. No two are alike. Jesus doesn’t have this canned speech that he gives everyone; he meets everyone where they are at and helps them move forward in the truth, in healing, and in redemption. And that speaks to his heart for people. Each interaction teaches us something new about the person and work of Jesus. Today, in the conversation between Jesus and a powerful religious leader named Nicodemus, John reveals the core of what is fundamentally different about Christianity than every other religion or philosophy in the world. We say it all the time, but the way of Jesus is different; it’s unique. But it’s this very unique-ness of Jesus that makes the Christian gospel such good news and shapes how we receive and apply this to our lives today. If you have a Bible/app, please take it and open it to John 3:1. Let’s jump right in.
John 3:1-8 (NIV), “Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 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.” 3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” 4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, 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.”” Ok! Let’s pause here. So, as we said, we have a powerful religious leader named Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night. Why at night? We’re not exactly sure. Perhaps Nicodemus wanted to come in secret, not being sure if he wanted to associate with Jesus. Or perhaps because he wanted to have a longer discussion with Jesus and not interrupt his public teaching. Or maybe it was just a detail that John remembers from being there. But Nicodemus starts this conversation in a very respectful way. He calls Jesus Rabbi and a teacher who has come from God and asserts that no one could be doing what he was doing if God were not with him. Now this isn’t bad, but this reveals that Nicodemus doesn’t really know or believe in the fullness of who Jesus was. Now, there’s a little play on words here that John uses that is hard to see in English. He says, “Rabbi, we know [see] that you are a teacher who has come from God.” In John, physical sight/blindness is almost always used as a metaphor for spiritual sight or the ability to see and believe the truth. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark of night, claiming he can see. But can he see? Jesus responds using this formula that we’ve already seen which highlights the importance of what he’s about to say. “Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, [lit. amen, amen, I tell you, meaning sit up and pay attention to this:] no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”” This seems to throw Nicodemus a bit because he responds, “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Nicodemus clearly doesn’t get it. He’s taking the need to be born again literally, but in the next exchange, Jesus makes it clear that he’s talking about a spiritual birth. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” A new birth into a new life and, as we’ll see, into a new family, brought about by an act of God the Holy Spirit, the personal presence of God. Jesus states that without this new spiritual life, no one can see/enter the kingdom of God. And what exactly is the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is the place where the reign and rule of God are experienced; it’s the place where God is king. This, of course, should include the whole universe that God has made. But the teaching of the Bible is that the human creatures of our world led a rebellion against the reign and rule of God. We rejected God’s word and his way and followed our own word/way. As a result, our world is a kingdom of darkness. But God initiated a rescue plan. He would invade this kingdom of darkness, going behind enemy lines, as it were, to liberate the captives living in this land of darkness. With the coming of Jesus, the kingdom of God was breaking into and overcoming this kingdom of darkness. Of course, this had been a promise of God for centuries in the OT Scriptures. One well-known passage would be Ezekiel 36:25–27 (NIV), “25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” This is what God said he would do, so Nicodemus — as a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, or the Jewish ruling council, highly educated in the Scriptures — Nicodemus shouldn’t be surprised by this, but this is exactly the problem that Jesus is dealing with. Jesus always cuts to the heart of the issue.
John 3:9–15 (NIV), “9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. 10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 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. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” Let’s pause again. So here, Jesus moves from the promises of God in prophets like Ezekiel to show that this new spiritual life can be seen in the writing of Moses, too. Jesus mentions the story of Moses and the bronze snake from Numbers 21 to show that that story was only foreshadowing what God would do to provide this new birth. (The fact is everything in the OT of our Bibles points forward either to our need for Jesus or what Jesus would accomplish.) But in order for people to be able to see/enter the kingdom of God, in order that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him, what would have to happen? Jesus says the Son of Man must be lifted up. Now, this is a reference to the hour when Jesus, the Son of Man, would be first raised in death on the cross, and then raised in life on the third day in his resurrection from the dead. There’s no way Nicodemus or any disciples who heard this conversation at the time would’ve been able to fully understand this before the cross. But later on, they did see/believe what he meant. And what he’s saying is that to be born again, to fulfill the promises of God, to be made spiritually alive, to go from death into the eternal life of the kingdom of God, you need to believe in the person and work of Jesus. This is the heart of the Christian gospel: It’s not what you do that saves you. It’s about what Jesus has done in his life, death, and resurrection. It’s not about our moral performance as a good person; it’s about receiving the saving grace of God by faith in Christ. Most people, whatever they believe about Jesus, think that the purpose of life is to be a good person (or at least do more good than bad). But anyone who’s really tried to be a truly good/loving person sees very quickly that they fall short of even their own standards all the time! So we modern people have an ancient problem. If God is real, how will any of us be able to stand before him and give an account of our lives? And this is what is so totally different about the way of Jesus. Jesus says that anyone can see and enter the kingdom of God, not because of their own goodness/faithfulness, but because of the goodness and faithfulness of God. But why? Why would God offer this salvation that is free for all, although it was so costly for Jesus? What’s the motivation behind these ancient promises of God, the ancient stories that foreshadow this salvation, and the actual sending of Jesus into the world and his suffering and death?
John 3:16–21 (NIV), “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.” This is God’s word. Now, most commentators believe v. 15 is the end of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. It’s hard to tell because there are no quotation marks in Greek, but v. 16 seems to start John’s commentary on this conversation (where the red letters end in some of your Bibles). At any rate, John’s answer to the “why” behind the gospel is only one incredible thing: love. According to the Bible, love is the most important thing. The reason is rooted in who God is. God is personal and relational as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is perfectly three and perfectly one. God doesn’t just love; he is love. So in this universe that this God has made, love for God and love for our neighbor is the highest calling and the greatest commandment. People are right to think they ought to be good people because that would be the most loving thing. And this leads us to the most famous verse in all the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” John is clear, the world isn’t condemned by Jesus, it was already condemned. We were already a kingdom of darkness. But God loved us even though we failed to love him, we loved darkness instead of light. The fundamental problem solved by Jesus is a life of broken love, a self-centered, distorted/disordered love leading only to destruction/death. This is why we needed a rescue plan. This is why we needed a savior. This is why we didn’t just need a little help or a few tips on how to be better. We needed Jesus to die for our sins. We needed Jesus to rise again to break the power of death. We needed a whole new heart, a whole new spiritual life. We needed to be born again!
So, what does this mean for us today? How do we apply this teaching to our lives? Of course, the love of God mentioned here is so compelling. But we’ll encounter this theme again and again in John’s gospel. For today, I’d like to leave you with one thought related to why Christian salvation is such good news: If Nicodemus needed to be born again, there’s hope for anyone. You see, back in this time and place, Nicodemus was absolutely at the top of society in Judea. He was at the moral and political and social top. If anyone could earn their way into the kingdom of God, Nicodemus would have to have been one of the most likely candidates. But according to Jesus, none of the normal markers of status or success mattered to him one bit. It didn’t matter to Jesus that Nicodemus was a man in a society that afforded more rights to men. It didn’t matter that he had the “right” family background, that he was ethnically Jewish. It didn’t matter to Jesus that Nicodemus had a top theological education as a Pharisee and would have been widely respected as a religious leader. And it didn’t matter that he had a position of political power as a member of the Jewish ruling council. Interestingly, it didn’t even matter that Nicodemus had a healthy respect for Jesus, calling him Rabbi and teacher, or even that he recognized that Jesus had God’s power to perform miracles. Despite all these normal markers of status or success, many of which would still carry weight in our society today, despite all the social capital that would come with these aspects of his identity, Jesus was crystal clear: Nicodemus still needed to be born again. He still needed the true and everlasting life of God by the Holy Spirit. He still needed to see and enter the Kingdom of God. In a very real sense, this seemingly impressive man was still lost. When you really get the implications of this, it should make you ask, as the disciples asked themselves other times, “Who then can be saved?!?” In other words, if Nicodemus isn’t “in,” who is? The answer is if Nicodemus needed to be born again, there’s hope for anyone. Because we do not earn our own salvation, we receive it as a gift of God’s loving grace. So, everyone who believes may have eternal life in Jesus. This is the good news of the gospel. And this is just as true for you today as it was 2,000 years ago. When you become a Christian, when you truly see and believe in the person and work of Jesus, you have been born again. This new birth is initially of a spiritual nature and later will be of a physical nature in the resurrection of the dead. If Nicodemus needed to be born again, there’s hope for anyone.
Finally, as we close, John doesn’t tell us here what Nicodemus concluded about this confusing and challenging conversation with Jesus. But we have two clues later in John’s gospel that Nicodemus eventually came to truly see (in the sense John uses here), and to know Jesus as both his Lord and Savior. In John 7, Nicodemus publicly defends Jesus in a session of the Jewish Ruling Council. And then, more tellingly in John 19, when the Son of Man had indeed been lifted up, and Jesus had suffered and died on the cross, two men went to Pontius Pilate to ask for the body to give a proper burial: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. John doesn’t explicitly say that Nicodemus became a Christian, but it’s hard to explain his actions any other way. I believe Nicodemus came to see that he, too, needed to be born again and go from death to life by faith in Jesus’ name. And if there’s hope for him, there’s hope for anyone. Let us pray.