A Nighttime Conversation that Changed the World

A Study of John 3:1-21 Lent 2, Mar 8, 2020

3 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.”

The Pharisees often get a “bad rap” in the Gospels, but in many ways Jesus himself adheres to their beliefs and teachings. It’s often in their actions (or lack thereof) where they “run amuck”. Often those actions are deemed to be hypocritical (speaking one way and living another, a pretender). Nicodemus is one of the few supporting characters in the Gospel of John who is actually named (along with his religious affiliation and position in the ruling council/Sanhedrin). An equivalent in our day might be something like a Cardinal in the Roman Church, or bishop in a Lutheran Church. Although we are told by John that he came to Jesus by night, we are not told why. A good guess might be that he was afraid to sully his reputation in aligning himself with Jesus. Quite possibly curiosity gets the best of him, and he comes to Jesus in spite of his status, and perhaps despite his fear, acknowledging the veracity of the signs/miracles that Jesus has been performing. It’s noteworthy that he appears to be one seeking truth and has to overcome his fear to do so. When have you risked something in search of truth? 3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.[a]” The Gk word “anothen” can mean either “again” or “from above” and is translated variously in English. Most likely Jesus has “from above” (or something like it) in mind. Nicodemus hears it as “born again” (as it has been translated here in English). Thus the word play ensues. Words and their meanings matter.

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!” An idiom that comes to mind here in slang English might be- “well, duh”. Nicodemus knows good and well that this is not a possibility, nor is Jesus inferring this meaning. We’re not sure if he is trying to be funny here or what, but it’s unlikely that he is as daft as this question belies. Perhaps another way of looking at this might be to focus on the first phrase, “How can someone be born when they are old?”? Can a person of my age and stature entertain following someone of your (Jesus) age and stature (or lack thereof?) Now that would be an honest and legitimate question? What keeps people from being born again/from above today? Is it possible to teach an old dog new tricks?

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. Another concept is introduced seemingly “out of the blue”- that of being born of water. Lutherans (along with others) tend to interpret this “water” as being the waters of baptism, while Evangelicals tend to interpret this as the water associated with physical birth. As far as I can understand, both interpretations have merit (and challenges). Spiritual regeneration in the NT often links both baptism and faith (Acts 3:38, Mk 16:6). That being said, it is somewhat unlikely that a Pharisee would have much knowledge of Christian baptism and its role in spiritual rebirth (although Jesus certainly would, and introduced the idea of holy communion in Jn 6 in much the same way).

The reference to the “wind blowing where it will” introduces yet another world play. Both the Hebrew word “ruach” (which Jesus would be speaking), and the Greek word “pneuma” (which John was writing) both carry the meaning of wind, breath, and spirit. As with the wind, the Spirit is hard to predict, and hard to control. Those who have tried to do so either have been sorely humbled and/or judged (think of the many end-times prophets, name-it-claim-it proponents of our day, or Simon the magician in Acts 8:9-25). Preachers do well to remember this, and mix their proclamation and teaching with a dose of humility.

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.[e] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,[f] 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” Many readers of the Bible use “red-letter” editions to know if Jesus is speaking, or if it’s someone else. Even with a red-letter edition, this is not an easy objective when reading John (especially chapter 3). As such, the “we” and “our” in vs 11 are not easy to discern. Even if this verse is not referring to the royal Trinitarian “we”, Jesus affirms His divinity in the next verses in referencing his eternal perspective as the one who has been in that heavenly realm and has come down to earth. For those theologians that claim that Jesus makes to claims to divinity in the NT…I’m not sure how exactly they are reading the Bible (particularly the Gospel of John).

In order to understand the reference about Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, you will need to know the OT context from Numbers 21, and the fiery serpents that God sent in response to the insurrection of the nation of Israel- “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and mount it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. If anyone who was bitten looked at the bronze serpent, he would recover. Jesus saw himself in this OT type and shadow, as he would take on this lowly form and bear the sin and punishment of all humankind in his very body/person on the cross (“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Cor 5:21)

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. John 3:16 is often called ‘the Gospel in a nutshell”, and rightfully so. If you only have the capacity to understand and perhaps memorize one verse in the Bible- this should be the one. Again, there is enough in these two verses for sermons for a month of Sundays, but I’ll just touch on a couple of points today. Here again we see the Holy Trinity; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit working out the plan of salvation. Originating from the Father’s loving heart, He sends the Eternal Son to pay the debt of human sin, as the Holy Spirit works faith in those who believe. It’s amazing to consider all the media coverage of the Coronavirus as of late (and rightfully so), and yet how little is given to the fact that unless the Lord returns prior, the fatality rate concerning the human race is actually 100%, and the only remedy for the “second death’ (eternal separation from God) is found in this/these verse(s) above. It would seem that either we aren’t convinced about our odds regarding death (somehow we’re going to get out this alive), and/or, we don’t believe Jesus words about salvation and damnation. According to

Jesus and the Christian faith/confessions throughout the ages, this is serious business (that no amount of stock-piled toilet paper can mitigate against it).

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.

Although not part of our lectionary reading today (and perhaps you can guess why), these verses very much do belong to this text. Just as salvation comes to those who believe/trust in the completed work of Jesus on the cross, so rejection of this brings about eternal separation from God to those who wish to remain “in the dark”. We may think in our modern era these words are about as politically incorrect as any words could ever be, but one can be assured that this was quite likely the case for many who heard them in Jesus’ day as well. Before this conversation with Jesus, Nicodemus wouldn’t have had the foggiest idea that his eternal destiny was in any way in question. After it, it would be hard for him to think otherwise. Had Jesus not risen from the dead, these words could be quickly forgotten, and/or dismissed with notions like; “all dogs go to heaven”, or “all roads lead to heaven”, or the very idea of heaven and hell is only for religious fanatics and simpletons. But according to the witness of the Holy Scriptures, and the testimony of the Holy Spirit through His disciples and the holy Christian Church from that day to this, He did in fact rise from the dead on the third day. To the best of my knowledge, Mohammed, Confucius, Joseph Smith, or even Richard Dawkins have ever made, or delivered on such a claim.

We meet Nicodemus once again in the Bible as he instructs the Sanhedrin about laws concerning a fair trial for Jesus (Jn 7:50-51), and a third time when he and Joseph of Arimathea take the dead body of Jesus down from the cross (Jn 19:39). This act has been dramatically illustrated in Michelangelo’s famous sculpture, Pieta. Although we don’t know all that much about him from documented Church history, he was (and is) venerated as a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

If this is the only day you entered a Christian Church, and/or the only time you read or heard this text from John 3, you can consider yourself blessed. If you believe it to be true, you are doubly blessed. This is the Gospel message that the disciples took to “Jerusalem, and then to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Act 1:8). All but one of Jesus’ disciples died as a result of this message, as have hundreds of thousands of Christian martyrs since. As I see it, there are only two courses of action one can take with this text- either to “believe it and not perish but receive eternal life”, or “not believe and stand condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” This conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus is one that has implications for us all. Let this eternal truth of God shine into our lives this very day…and on into eternity. Amen.

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