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8. Jesus talks to Nicodemus

| Martin Charlesworth
Series 2: Episode 8
John 3:1-21

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, seeks out Jesus. Jesus explains salvation as being born again. True Christianity is not about keeping rules but a change within.  Belief in Jesus involves trusting him. God gives eternal life through his mercy.

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, seeks out Jesus. Jesus explains salvation as being born again. True Christianity is not about keeping rules but a change within.  Belief in Jesus involves trusting him. God gives eternal life through his mercy.

Transcript

Hello and welcome to Series 2 and Episode 8 and the title is ‘Jesus talks to Nicodemus.’ We're in John's Gospel and we'll be looking at a moment at the John 3: 1 - 21.

Introduction and Recap

John is taking the story forward and we've been spending quite a lot of time in recent episodes looking at the things that John says. Remember that John was the last Gospel to be written; he had access to Matthew, Mark and Luke and he deliberately added in bits of the story that the others had not either emphasised or mentioned. In particular, he emphasises things that happened in and around Jerusalem and this is an example of that. Let's remind ourselves of what happened prior to this particular encounter. We'll remember that Jesus went from Galilee down to the River Jordan to meet John the Baptist, who'd just started baptising there. Jesus was baptised which publicly announced his ministry and his identity as the Messiah, the Son of God and as John said, ‘The Lamb of God’ - one who was going to bring a sacrificial atonement and forgiveness of sins. He went into the wilderness to be tempted, went to Jerusalem, and back to Bethany. He met some of John's disciples who became his disciples (a group of five men) and they returned to Galilee where we had the record of the wedding at Cana and the miraculous turning of water into wine. Jesus returned again to Jerusalem and this is the context we're dealing with now. The first thing he did in Jerusalem as we saw in our last episode, coming at the time of the Passover feast, he went up to the Temple and very surprisingly - very suddenly - challenged and attacked the market traders who were entrenched in the Temple selling animals, like sheep, goats, and birds like doves, for sacrifices and others who were exchanging money between the Temple coinage and the Roman coinage in order for people to buy the sacrificial animals and use them in the sacrificial system. We called that the Cleansing of the Temple, or the First Cleansing of the Temple, and that's the rather shocking event that has happened just prior to this particular moment and meeting that we're going to discuss now. It's worth remembering that Jesus' public ministry in Galilee - his preaching tours, his healing miracles, his travelling around from place to place and synagogue to synagogue - had not yet started. This is very early days and this is the first time Jesus visits Jerusalem in a public way. That's the context in which Jesus has a remarkable meeting with a religious leader by the name of Nicodemus.

Before he met Nicodemus, he had already caused three sensations for people living in Jerusalem. There are three things that they might be aware of. Firstly, many of them would have been aware that, just down the road in Bethany by the River Jordan, he'd been baptised because huge crowds of people came from Jerusalem to see and meet John the Baptist and even to be baptised by him. Some people in Jerusalem would already have heard of Jesus as a result of the baptism that took place by the River Jordan. The second thing that would be fresh in their minds was the Cleansing of the Temple; this would have taken place just in that same time frame, maybe a day or two beforehand, and people all over the city would be aware that some Galilean prophet, called Jesus, had come in and challenged the market traders in the Temple. That was quite a sensational event. It all happened in a short period of time and it was over quickly - no doubt the traders got back into their trading very quickly - but that was the second sensational event. The third one is recorded in John 2: 23, at the end of the last passage. It says: ‘many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name.’ John uses the word ‘sign’ to describe a miracle (and we've already stated in a previous episode that he highlights seven major miracles in Jesus' life but he also points out that other miracles were taking place). Not only did Jesus cleanse the Temple, confront the market traders, but also he started performing healing miracles and other types of miracles in Jerusalem. They're not named or identified but Nicodemus has them in mind during the discussion that is taking place in this episode. Let's turn now to the text, it's John 3: 1 - 21:

‘Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 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.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “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!” Jesus answered, “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. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’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.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel's teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 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? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 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.” 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. 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. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people 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 their deeds will be exposed. 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.’

John 3:1-21,NIV
Nicodemus - the Pharisee

Let's think for a moment as we reflect on this passage about Nicodemus - who is this man? He's described as a religious leader; he is a member of the Jewish ruling council, known as the Sanhedrin. This is a group of 70 men, plus the High Priest who chaired this group, who had the authority to organise the Jewish religion, set its rules and regulations, organise the Temple procedures and the sacrifice procedures, and make decisions about interpreting the Law of Moses for that particular period. The Sanhedrin, or the ruling council, had great power in Judaism and it was a great honour to be elected onto that body of 70 men. Nicodemus was one of the most senior religious leaders in the Jewish faith at the time of Jesus. He would have been very knowledgeable in the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament. He would have been a very devout and very religious man. He came from a particular group known as the Pharisees we've mentioned before. We'll come up against them and talk about them on many occasions during our studies. The Pharisees were a religious sect. There were several thousand of them and they were very strict in their exact obedience to religious laws - both the ones found in the Old Testament and also ones formed by Jewish tradition. They were seen as moral, religious and ethical examples to the whole of Israel; they were held in high esteem, but often quite critical of others who didn't live up to their standards. Nicodemus is an earnest and intense religious person who has associated himself with the Pharisee sect, which was very serious in seeking to obey all the right rules, and he was also a member of the ruling council with a lot of power.

Meeting Jesus at Night

On the face of it, it's very surprising that he came to Jesus to talk because Jesus already looked like a little bit of a threat to the system and certainly it wouldn't have been popular with the Sanhedrin that Jesus had just cleansed the Temple and caused a bit of a sensation with the market traders. Why did Nicodemus come? It appears he was a seeker - a religious seeker - who was dissatisfied with a religion of rules and regulations only. This is an important point which we'll come back to. Some of you reading will immediately understand what I mean by that sense of dissatisfaction. He was looking for something more ‘real’. So when he heard about Jesus, when he heard about his baptism in the Jordan river nearby, about the cleansing of the Temple, and particularly that Jesus performed miracles (which he mentions in the story here), he was intrigued and he wanted to meet Jesus. It says he met him at night which is a suggestion that he was being very discreet. He didn't want other people to know that he was investigating who Jesus was because Jesus was already viewed with some suspicion - a suspicion which would grow through time. Nicodemus entered into dialogue with Jesus and, in the background, we need to remember that Nicodemus must have believed that his own ultimate salvation and forgiveness by God, his own destiny in eternal life, would be determined primarily by his observance of religious rules and regulations. This is the whole ethos of the Pharisees and so they viewed the relationship with God as being defined primarily by rules and it required a lot of effort to obey as many of those rules as possible. With that in mind, we can see how revolutionary and how surprising Jesus' discussion about salvation really is because he approaches it from a completely different angle.

Salvation - Born Again

I want to focus on the key explanation that Jesus gives about salvation and the way he describes it with a new kind of metaphor. In John 3: 3 - 8, I'm just going to read that section again:

‘Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “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!” Jesus answered, “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. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 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.’

John 3:3-8, NIV

He introduces this expression of ‘being born again’ - a definition of true faith, true entry into God's Kingdom and, in fact, a definition of true Christian faith and a definition that is really helpful. Nicodemus, as an old man, finds the concept, initially, really strange and difficult to comprehend: how can somebody be born-again when they're old? He's thinking of natural birth. Jesus goes on to explain, very clearly, that someone who is a true believer is born of both ‘water and the Spirit.’ Here's a very profound definition of what true faith is. What does he mean by ‘water and the Spirit’? Some people have associated being born of water with baptism, this is a mistake because the context indicates something completely different. Verse 6, ‘flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.’ Being born of water, in this concept, is a reference to physical birth - our human birth - the waters of childbirth, which are part of the process as the woman's waters break prior to the delivery of the baby. Jesus is making a comparison here between being born of water, being born naturally, and being born of the Spirit, born by the operation of the Holy Spirit. He's basically saying that the miracle of childbirth (which is perhaps the greatest miracle you and I will ever encounter, or hear about, or perhaps see with our own eyes, or experience in our own bodies if we are mothers) - that incredible miracle, where a new person is born into this world - is compared to the miracle of spiritual rebirth where a new person is created, a new spiritual life is created, as we come to Christ. These are the two wonderful things that are brought together in this analogy and in this metaphor.

To become a Christian is an event as dramatic as to be born physically - ‘flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.’ It appears from this that true religion, true Christianity, is not primarily about obedience to rules and regulations of a religious nature. It's about an experience of regeneration and change within us which Jesus described as being ‘born again’ (or born anew or born from above) and he describes it as happening through the operation and the activity of the Holy Spirit that, as it were, makes us alive within. This was something tremendously hard for Nicodemus to understand but Jesus is quite clear there's an absolute necessity for new birth. When I was about 14 or 15 years old, I first heard the Christian Gospel and I first heard the expression being ‘born again’ - I'd not heard of it before. It was explained to me that, if I became a Christian, it was like a new life starting within me and at the age of 15 I committed my life to Jesus Christ while I was at school. I can honestly say that I had an experience then of feeling as though a new life had started within me - I was in a different dimension. I had experienced being born again through the activity of the Holy Spirit. Through faith in Christ's death on the cross, his resurrection, through repentance from sin, suddenly life came within me. Previously, I'd thought of religion as about rules and regulations and Christianity in particular, what little I knew of it, suggested it was about morals and religious rules but now I understood that it was primarily about relationship with God and a miracle that happens inside which we call being ‘born again.’

Jesus goes on in the next verses, verses 14 to 15, and then verses 16 to 18 are John's explanation of the Gospel based on what Jesus actually said. He said in verse 14, Jesus,

‘“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.”’

John 3:14-15, NIV

In the Old Testament at one point, Moses had to lift up a snake on a pole as a sign of God's grace and healing and so Jesus makes a comparison between that and him being lifted up on the cross when he dies. His death on the cross was going to be something that would draw people to him and help them to understand what his work was all about and lead them to faith. John then goes on to comment and then comes this extremely famous verse - John 3:16. If you've been a Christian any length of time, you'll be familiar with this verse. Some of you reading today will not be familiar with Christianity and this may be the first time you've encountered this verse. This is one of the most revolutionary verses and statements in the Bible. John here summarises the message that Jesus had really brought to Nicodemus by putting an individual message on a bigger picture.

‘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.’

John 3:16, NIV

There are many truths in this verse. First of all, the amazing truth that God saw that we were lost. We were trapped in sin, separated from him, and he sent a rescue mission. He sent his Son because he loved us and because he wanted to bring reconciliation between God and man. That, in itself, is truly wonderful. At the very heart of the Gospel, is the love of God towards us - and that includes you. If you haven't found faith yet, today could be the day when you find faith, that you experience being ‘born again’, that you experience that gift of life that comes within us as you believe in Jesus and his salvation. It's ‘whoever believes in him’ that is saved - they are not going to perish but have eternal life. This belief, as I've indicated in earlier episodes and we'll come back to it again, isn't just what you think. It isn't just a mental category or some kind of definition of truth in your mind. That comes into it, but what you believe is basically what's happening right in the heart of your personality. To believe in Jesus is to trust him wholeheartedly with the whole of your life: your thinking, your life, your actions, your future and to turn away from things you've done and put your trust in him. That's really what John had in mind,

‘whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God (didn't) send his Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world.’

John 3:16-17, NIV

He wants a response from the presence of Jesus and his mission and his salvation; he wants a response from humanity. The subsequent verses point out that if we don't believe, and if we choose to say, “No,” to this salvation offer, we stand in opposition to God and risk his condemnation and his final judgement at the end of our life when he will ask us what we did with the opportunity that we had. This is a sobering reality.

Nicodemus' Response

This message requires a response from us. What kind of response did it get from Nicodemus? We can't tell entirely from this passage. He's asking questions; he's being challenged; he's a little bit uneasy in the conversation; he's trying to rethink his ideas. What we do know from John's Gospel (later on, in John 7, he's mentioned and he's mentioned right at the end of John's Gospel). We know, very remarkably, that Nicodemus becomes a follower because when Jesus dies, Nicodemus helps another rich leader in Israel, Joseph of Arimathea, to bury Jesus. He identifies with Jesus in his death which indicates very clearly that he had become a follower of Jesus.

Reflections

So as we draw these threads together and think of some conclusions and reflections, I want to just bring a few for you to think about. This passage reveals clearly that Jesus is God's Son, this is a major theme of John's Gospel. John 3:16 ‘he gave his one and only Son’ and this passage is a very important passage for sharing the faith and evangelism. If you're a Christian, I want to encourage you to use this passage in sharing your faith with your friends - to talk about being ‘born again’ and what it means. Refer back to this passage. It provides, also, a good definition of regeneration, or being ‘born again’, as opposed to outward religious conformity.

We see here, in this passage, that true Christianity is not religious legalism. It's not following a set of rules. It's not trying to achieve acceptance by God through your moral or religious actions. It's not hoping that you'll have more good things and bad things in your life at the end when you come to God's judgement - as some other religions suggest. No, Christianity is a miraculous inner change that comes about through putting your trust in Jesus' death on the cross and it's called by Jesus here being ‘born again.’

The last thing I want to say, as we come to a conclusion, is that this idea of regeneration - or new life, or being ‘born again,’ or phrases similar to that - does recur in the New Testament in other places. I want to conclude this talk by just mentioning one of those to you, that's in the writings of Paul. This is in the book of Titus 3: 4 to 6:

‘But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.’

Titus 3:4-6, NIV

Paul is extremely clear, and this is an amazing truth: ‘he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.’ If you think that the conduct of your life will be sufficient to bring you favour with God and acceptance and forgiveness from him and a place in eternal life with him, then the New Testament challenges that assumption. ‘He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.’ God loved us and he was merciful to us by giving us a different way of relating to him through the death of his Son on the cross - the substitutionary atonement that he brought about, and the forgiveness that comes when we believe in him. When we go through that process of trusting him, turning away from our sins, then what happens is described here as ‘the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.’ The Holy Spirit washes us - gives us, if you like, spiritual cleansing - but also gives us rebirth. There's an expression very similar to the one that Jesus described to Nicodemus as being ‘born again.’ Christianity is about being ‘born again’ about a rebirth into God's Kingdom. It's a miracle and you can't perform that miracle and achieve it through your own actions. You're wholly dependent on God's love and mercy. What you and I need to do, is to put our faith in Christ in a personal and a real way and then we can be ‘born again’.

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