Jesus and Nicodemus
Isaiah 1:16-17 (Opeining) 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. Introduction John 3:16. It’s the best-known scripture reference in the world, and probably the best-known scripture in the Bible. But do you know the context of that verse and the ones following it? Do you know what is actually being said? The verse starts with the word “For” in English, a conjunction. I remember Grammar Rock. A conjunction hooks up words and phrases and clauses. What is this one hooked up to? Without the first part, the second part doesn’t tell the whole story. So today I want to look at the first part of that story. The part that’s connected to that verse that everyone knows with the conjunction “For”. But to do that, we’ll need to have some background. The Meeting Jesus had gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. This was right after he had changed water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana. Jesus went into the Temple in Jerusalem, saw the money-changers and the people selling animals for sacrifice and drove them out of the temple. I’m sure this made a few folks upset. During His time in Jerusalem He did what John calls “signs”, things that were to point people toward God and the Kingdom of Heaven. Many people believed in Him because of His signs, but John tells us that Jesus didn’t entrust Himself to them because He knew their hearts. While He was in Jerusalem, He had a visitor. John 3:1-2 1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a Jew who was very careful to follow the Law of Moses precisely, exactly as it was written, and carefully avoiding anything that would look like he was even getting close to breaking one of the Laws. Nicodemus was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the 70 elders of Israel, who together were the equivalent to our Supreme Court. He was well respected by the Jews; more like revered, actually. He was one of the people who would be expected to be able to explain and interpret Scripture for the less educated Jews. John tells us Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. I’ve heard lots of speculation why he came at night. Maybe he always burned the midnight oil studying Scripture, so meeting with Jesus at night fell into his normal pattern. Maybe he came to Jesus at night, so he wouldn’t be seen talking to this radical who had just caused to much trouble in the Temple. Some have suggested that the word “night” is metaphorical for Nicodemus’ spiritual state; that he was living in darkness spiritually. Born Again Nicodemus was on the right track, whatever his reasons for meeting with Jesus at night. He realized that Jesus was from God, because He was able to perform signs and miracles. John 3:3 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Jesus’ response to Nicodemus doesn’t really make sense, at first glance. What does that have to do with what Nicodemus just said? Nicodemus said God was obviously with Jesus because of the signs He was performing. Those signs were pointing to the Kingdom of God, but Nicodemus was missing the point. Jesus was telling him how he could see what the signs were pointing to. Almost every translation of this verse says, “born again”, and that makes sense with Nicodemus’ response to Jesus in the next verse. But nowhere else in John’s writings is this Greek word translated as “again”. In fact, here in John 3 is the only place this word is translated as “again”. It can mean “top to bottom”, or “past”, but most often when John uses it, it means “from above”. Either translation, “again” or “from above” works in what Jesus is saying, but Nicodemus’ response only makes sense if it means “again”. It’s likely Jesus and Nicodemus are having this discussion in Aramaic, not Greek, so John’s choice of Greek word to translate what Jesus was saying may have been to reinforce that truly being born again is only possible when it’s from above. John 3:4 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” In Nicodemus’ defense, there’s no way he can be that dense and actually think this is what Jesus is talking about here. But he could be talking metaphorically. He could be implying that the older we get, the more we are set in our ways. You can’t just wipe that away, it takes time to change habits. Nicodemus may be taking being born as a metaphor for starting over with a clean slate. In extrabiblical Jewish writings, a new proselyte is compared to a new baby, legally, with no legal connection to any of his past life in any way. John 3:5-6 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. The physical rebirth impossibility that Nicodemus mentioned, Jesus is saying wouldn’t be what He was talking about. To be born again, or from above, requires that one is born of water and spirit. Jesus isn’t talking about two different births here, one of water and one of spirit. This is a twofer, if you will. In order to enter the kingdom of God, you need to be born of water and spirit. Nicodemus thought he was set, being a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. He must have felt he already had his ticket punched to get to heaven. He was righteous, and he obeyed the Law of Moses. What more is there? Nicodemus should have understood Jesus’ comment. He knew the scriptures, he should have known Ezekiel 36:25-27. Ezekiel 36:25-27 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. This is one of the places in the Old Testament where washing with water and a new spirit are put together, and Nicodemus should have known this. It amazes me how many scholars perform such mental and logical gymnastics around John 3:5. Every commentary I read agreed that Jesus is probably talking about baptism, or immersion, here. But then, the scholars do everything they can to explain how it’s not necessary for salvation. The way I read verse 5, Jesus says, “Unless one is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven.” I don’t really see any wiggle room there. If the scholars agree that being born of water and spirit is the same thing as being immersed in water to receive the Holy Spirit, as Peter explained it on the day of Pentecost, then there’s no other option. It’s either yes or no. Either you’ve entered the kingdom, or you haven’t. Either you’ve been immersed, or you haven’t. Jesus continues in verse 6 to explain that being born of flesh, the human birth that we experience, causes us to be human or flesh. But the birth “from above”, involves the Spirit, so it’s a spiritual event, not an earthly or fleshly event. Jesus continues. John 3:7-8 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Now it’s Jesus’ turn to use a play on words, and this one works in both Aramaic and Greek. The words for wind and for spirit are both the same in Greek, and they’re both the same in Aramaic. Jesus is comparing the work of the Holy Spirit to the wind. We can’t see the wind, and unless you’ve studied meteorology, you don’t know where the wind comes from and where it goes. Wind just happens. It comes up out of nowhere, and goes back to where it came from, without any interaction from us. Jesus says that’s what it’s like with those who are born of the Spirit. The way I understand this comment is that we don’t understand how the Spirit interacts with us when we’re immersed. We understand the “born of water” part, because that’s a physical thing, and we can see and touch that. It’s something we can watch, and we know how it works. But the “born of spirit” is the part we don’t really completely understand. It happens, we know it happens, because Jesus says it happens at the same time. We know that because Jesus ties them together, “born of water and spirit”. But how that interaction happens, we don’t know. We just know that, like Peter said on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2:38 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. That’s how you enter the kingdom of God. That’s being born of water and spirit. The two go together. The problem with Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is that Nicodemus didn’t get it. It’s easy for us to understand, because we’ve been told it before, many times. When you hear something for the first time, like Nicodemus in this instance, it’s hard to understand it, especially since it was totally new to him. Rebuttal John 3:9-10 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? There are people today who say just about the same thing. “How can this be? I don’t get it! I thought all I had to do is believe.” But it wasn’t a totally new concept. And Jesus knew that Nicodemus should have been able to pull the pieces together from the Scripture he knew, what we call the Old Testament, and the writings and oral teachings of the scholars from the past 4 hundred years or so. That’s what we call the “intertestamental period”, the time between the Testaments. Nicodemus understood the process for a gentile to convert to Judaism. The person who converts to Judaism was called a proselyte. That’s the anglicized version of the Greek word the Jews used for it. Male proselytes, once they professed belief in the One True God, and had completed some education so they knew what they were committing to, had to be circumcised. The first step for women was easier; all they had to do is profess belief in Yahweh and be educated. After a specified number of days, the convert was required to be immersed in the mikveh, a deep pool of water. The convert, accompanied by a leader of the synagogue, would remove all his or her clothing and completely immerse themselves in the water as a ritual cleansing of all the possible unclean things they had come in contact with as a Gentile. A female proselyte would be attended by women. After being cleansed, the convert would be allowed to enter the Temple and offer a sacrifice. A new proselyte was considered a new person and was given a Hebrew name. All ties with his or her former life were cut, and unless a man’s children born prior to his conversion also became proselytes, they were not included in his inheritance. The scholars equated a new proselyte with a little child or new born baby, legally. It was like they were just born. Maybe Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus was telling him because he didn’t have the context to understand it. Maybe he didn’t have the experiences to be able to understand it. It’s like the difference between reading the driver’s education book and actually driving a car. John 3:11-13 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. Jesus was the only man who could actually tell people what it’s like to live in heaven. He had been there. He had experienced it. But He also had experienced earthly things. He could explain either, and many times during His ministry, He tried to explain heavenly things using earthly examples in parables. Not everyone understood what He was talking about. Nicodemus was stuck in his earthly understanding and couldn’t grasp the concept of being born from above or born again, like Jesus was trying to explain to him. So, He tried one more example that Nicodemus should have been able to understand, John 3:14-15 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. If you don’t know the Old Testament, and specifically the first five books, this reference Jesus is making is a confusing one. Serpent? Isn’t that the bad guy from Genesis? Well, yes, but that’s not what He’s talking about. After the God told the Israelites their current generation wouldn’t be allowed into the Promised Land, God sent them wandering around in the desert for 40 years. The people of Israel sinned by grumbling against God and against Moses, because of the wandering in the desert. So as punishment, God sent venomous snakes against the Israelites, and many were bitten and died. Numbers 21:8-9 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. When the people repented, God told Moses to have a bronze serpent made and raised up on a pole so that anyone who was bitten could look to the bronze serpent and live. The same way, as Jesus was saying, He was to be lifted up. Many scholars believe He’s talking about being put on the cross but lifted up can also mean exalted or glorified. I think it’s a combination of them both, because without being lifted up on the cross, He wouldn’t have been glorified. With Jesus sitting at the right hand of God, placed in that high position of power, having authority over heaven and earth, if we look to Jesus, we can be saved. But just looking to Jesus isn’t enough. I mean, if you listened to some inspirational speaker and you looked up to him, admired him, but you didn’t do any of the things he said that encouraged you when he was speaking, would that do you any good? No. When you “look to Jesus” you have to actually do what He says to do. When Hezekiah was king of Judah, he had to have the bronze snake that Moses made destroyed because people were worshiping it, believing it had some mystical powers. People look at Jesus on the cross the same way. All I have to do is hold this image of Jesus on the cross up and evil will run away from me. Maybe; I haven’t tried it. But I’d rather trust in what Jesus said to do, rather than what the world says we should do to be saved from sin. Conclusion Jesus told Nicodemus “You must be born again” or “from above”. Either way, it’s not something human, or earthly that is going on, it’s something spiritual, something of the Spirit. You can’t tell in English, but the “you” in that sentence is plural. Y’all, if you’re from the South. All of you who want to enter and see the kingdom of God must be born again. That’s the requirement that Jesus tells Nicodemus. But that’s not all Jesus said to him. He explained what it means to be born again: born of water and spirit. It involves being immersed in water and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, as Peter explained it. I don’t understand all the technical “how to” details of what happens, but I know what I read in the Bible, and I believe what it says. But don’t just believe me. Don’t believe me because I sound like I know what I’m talking about. Don’t believe me because I say that other people say the same thing and agree with what I’ve said. Check out what I’m talking about. Look at Scripture and see what it says. Dig into the details of what has been written down for us. Research the historical context of what’s there. If you have done some study on your own, and you do believe what I’ve been talking about this morning, and you haven’t yet been immersed, as Ananias said to Paul three days after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Acts 22:16 16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’ John 3:16-18 (Closing) 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.