There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. (John 3:1)
We have two descriptions here: ‘Pharisee’ and ‘ruler of the Jews.’ ‘Ruler of the Jews’ means that he had risen to the top in his profession. Here is a man who was highly successful in his career, and behind that success there was a special talent, a good education, and a great deal of hard work.
Then we are told that he was a Pharisee. Now to us, the word ‘Pharisee’ may have a negative sound. We tend to think of a Pharisee as someone who is arrogant, focused on making an impression, and perhaps even hypocritical.
No doubt, there were some Pharisees like this, but when Paul lists all the credentials he had before he met Christ, he says, that he was circumcised on the 8th day, a Hebrew of Hebrews, and “as to the law a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:5). The reason he says this is that in the first century world, this was about as admirable as you could get.
And on top of all that, this Pharisee was drawn to Jesus. Again we tend to think of the Pharisees as the hardliners who opposed Jesus, and from early in his ministry, some of them were (Mark 3:6). But that was not true of all of them, and especially in these early days, it seems that some of the Pharisees were open to Jesus and even affirming of his ministry.
Notice how Nicodemus says, “We know that you are a teacher come from God” (John 3:2). So he seems to be saying, “There are a number of us, even among the Pharisees, who are drawn to what you are saying and impressed with what you are doing. We are interested in opening a conversation with you and learning more.” That’s the spirit in which this successful and very admirable Pharisee was drawn to Jesus.
There is one more piece of information to complete the profile of this man. In verse 4, Nicodemus says to Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old?” He is speaking about himself, so we can safely assume that Nicodemus was a mature person with an established career.
When is a person ‘old’? Well, my grandmother used to speak about ‘old people’ when she was in her mid-eighties. And she was referring, of course, to anyone over ninety five! The word ‘old’ is always relative, and since life-spans were often shorter in the first century, I think we can rightly picture Nicodemus as a man with an established and successful career who was likely somewhere in his 40’s or 50’s.
So let me build the profile of this man Nicodemus for you. He is a man of impeccable character and a man of relentless discipline. He is hard working, fair and honest. He is highly successful and he has conservative values. He is a God-honoring, Bible-believing, law-abiding, mature, respected, well-educated and highly successful person, and he is drawn to Jesus Christ. There are hundreds of men and women who fit that description in our congregation this weekend. In very large measure, this is who we are.
If this is not a profile of who you are, then it is probably a description of what you want to be.
You would like to be highly successful. You would like to be known as a person of impeccable character—disciplined, hardworking, reliable, trusted and admired. So whatever Jesus says to this man, it is important for all of us to hear today.
Notice that Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night” (John 3:2). This made me smile. There was a certain caution about him. He has questions for Jesus, and he wants to explore them in a quiet, thoughtful and private way. So when the crowds have gone, he comes to the house where Jesus is staying and Jesus welcomes him, gives time to him. Picture these two men—a Pharisee and the Son of God—sitting at a table with an oil lamp burning late into the night.
What He Grasped
“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.” (John 3:2)
Nicodemus recognizes Jesus as a teacher from God. A teacher is someone who is able to impart truth and wisdom for life. Teaching can take place in different ways. It can be through showing, demonstrating, modelling, mentoring or instructing, but at the end of the day, a teacher is one from whom you learn. And a teacher ‘from God’ is one who has divine authority, and therefore must be obeyed.
There are many churches where the message is focused on what Nicodemus grasped: “Jesus is a teacher from God. He has come to show us how to live. We are to live and to walk in the way of Jesus. We are to love God and we are to love our neighbor. We are to go into all the world and teach other people to do the same.” All of this was within the range of what Nicodemus grasped, “We know that you are a teacher from God. We know that you have come to show us how to live God’s way.”
How did Nicodemus grasp this? Because telling us how to live is something that God had already done. God’s people already had his teaching on how to live. They had the Ten Commandments written by the finger of God and they had been blessed with this gift for 1,500 years before Jesus came into the world.
When Jesus said, “Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself,” he was only repeating what had already been revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures 1,500 years earlier. Nicodemus sees Jesus as another teacher, like Moses and the prophets, who comes from God to tell us what to do. There are many good and moral people who see Jesus in precisely this way. And there are many churches for whom this is their central message.
I want you to notice that Jesus did not critique Nicodemus. When Nicodemus describes Jesus as ‘teacher,’ our Lord does not say, “Nicodemus, you got it wrong there.” Christ adds to what Nicodemus says, but he does not take away. No one can claim Christ as Savior who is not ready to submit to him as teacher. Christ is never less than teacher to his people. He is not less than the law, but thank God he is more!
What He Missed
- The infusion of life from above
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
When Jesus says ‘truly, truly,’ you know that the words he speaks next are of supreme importance. This was Jesus’ way of double-underlining what he wanted to emphasize. So whatever else you miss, don’t miss this!
To see the kingdom of God is to live in the joy and blessing of the reign or rule of God. In the teaching of Jesus, the rule of God is something that begins now in God’s people and it will reach its fullness in the everlasting blessing and joy of his reign when his kingdom comes in the new heaven and the new earth.
“Unless you are born again,” Jesus says, “you will not see this!” You won’t taste, you won’t enjoy the blessing of living in the kingdom of God. If all you have is Jesus as your teacher, and a sustained attempt to follow his way, you will not see the kingdom of God! So this new birth is really important! It is of supreme importance.
Jesus speaks about the new birth three times in these verses.
- “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
- “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
- “You must be born again” (John 3:7).
What does it mean to be ‘born again?’
Notice, first, that what Jesus said can be translated ‘born again’ or ‘born from above.’ You will find this explanation in the English Standard Version footnotes: “The Greek is purposely ambiguous and can mean both ‘again’ and ‘from above.’” To be ‘born again’ means to receive an infusion of life that comes directly from God himself.
Notice, second, that the phrase ‘born again’ in verse 3 is explained by the words ‘born of water and the Spirit’ (in verse 5). Put these two verses together and you will see the connection.
- “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
- “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God”
‘Born again’ is interchangeable with ‘born of water and the Spirit.’ In other words, the new birth is a birth that cleanses and renews. So now we can complete our definition of the new birth: ‘Born again’ (or ‘born from above’) is an infusion of life that comes from God himself that in its very nature brings cleansing and renewal.
‘Born of water and the Spirit’ is not describing two ways of being born—one natural and one spiritual. ‘Born of water and the Spirit’ is the unpacking of the phrase ‘born again.’ It explains to us that to be ‘born again’ means that your soul is washed. And when an infusion of the Holy Spirit comes, you are renewed as new convictions are rooted in your mind, new desires are planted in your heart, and new capacities are given to your life.
Do you see how far this is beyond what Nicodemus had grasped? Jesus did not come so that you would learn life; he came so that you would have life! “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (10:28).
There’s a big difference between learning life from Jesus and receiving life from Jesus. Jesus does not say, “I have come to tell you how to do life!” He says, “I have come so that you may have life.” Christ did not come to tell you how to be a better person; he came to make you a new person. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).
2. The central message of the Scripture
Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10)
Nicodemus had the Old Testament Scriptures, not the New. The words ‘born again’ do not occur in the Old Testament, but Jesus makes it quite clear that a person who had a proper understanding of the Old Testament should be able to grasp this teaching.
- “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
- “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33).
- “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean… I will give you a new heart… I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes” (Ezek. 36:25-27).
In other words, Jesus is saying, “You are the teacher of Israel, and you do not understand that people come to live under the blessing of God’s rule when he gives them an infusion of new life in which they are cleansed and renewed?”
Here is a man who knows the Bible well and yet has missed its central message. I fear that many of us may be in the same position—Bible-believing people who somehow have missed the central point.
A true description of your life today would be that you are giving yourself to a sustained attempt at living a God-honoring life, but where is the joy? Where is the love? Where is the peace that is the evidence of life in the Holy Spirit?
3. Christ came to give what he demands
“How can a man be born when he is old?” (John 3:4)
Why did Nicodemus ask this question? Because when Jesus said, “You must be born again,” Nicodemus heard these words as a demand. And because he hears what Jesus says as something he must do, he says, “How can a man be born again when he is old?” (John 3:4).
“Jesus, you can see that I am not in my 20’s. I am a mature person. I have been shaped by my experiences and by my choices. How can I cleanse myself and make myself new at this stage of life? Jesus, what you are saying sounds like it might be good for the youth group, but it doesn’t sound realistic for a mature person like me.”
How are you going to change what you desire? How will you break out of the engrained patterns of your life? How can you become a person who truly loves God from the heart? How can you become a person of clear and confident faith in all of the promises of God?
When Jesus said, “You must be born again,” Nicodemus heard this as a demand that he could not fulfill. What he missed was the gift that he could receive. Here’s the good news: Jesus came to give what he demands.
This is something that Augustine, the great bishop of the fourth century African church, saw clearly and so he prayed, “Command what you will, only give what you command. Lord, you can ask whatever you want of me, only you must give it too. All that I have is what I have received from you.”
Heaven, How I Got Here
It’s just 9 days until Stephen Baldwin will be here at the Arlington Campus for “Heaven, How I Got Here: A Night with the Thief on the Cross.” And here’s the deal—to enjoy the blessing of this performance, you must have a ticket. Now that’s a demand. You must have a ticket!
It’s no use showing up next week on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday night, saying that you are a member of the church, or that you went to Sunday school here when you were growing up. That will not get you in. You must have a ticket!
Earlier today, I purchased some tickets. I have a pair of tickets for each performance. A pair for Tuesday and a pair for Wednesday and a pair for Thursday evening—the 8:30 performances. I will have them in my hand in the foyer after the service, and if you would like a ticket, I will gladly give one (or one pair) to you.
This is good news for all who are at the Barrington Campus today, but just to be fair to all of you at Arlington, Itasca and Marengo, your Campus Pastor also has some tickets that are freely available for you too.
Now my illustration breaks down at five points at least!
First, I only have a couple of tickets after each service, so it’s first come, first served. If I have them in my hand, ask and they are yours. If my hands are empty, sorry you are too late. There is a limited supply. But you will never find the hands of Christ empty. He has life in himself and he is able to give that life to all who come to him.
Second, my illustration breaks down, because if you don’t get your ticket from me, you can go online when you get home and buy tickets for yourself for $10. The only way you can get life from above is to receive it from Jesus. Nicodemus knew that he could not produce what Jesus spoke to him about, and neither can you. You must receive what Christ demands.
Third, Stephen’s portrayal of the thief on the cross will be powerful, moving, and a blessing to your soul, but it only lasts for one evening. The life that Jesus holds in his hand is eternal life in the joy of God’s house under the blessing of his rule.
Fourth, my illustration breaks down, because what Christ gives is not a ticket. Jesus Christ gives himself! When you have him—his life, his love, his hope, his joy and his peace—they all become yours. We are blessed with every spiritual blessing ‘in Christ’ (Eph. 1:3).
Fifth, my illustration breaks down because these tickets only cost me a few dollars, but what Christ holds in his hand and offers to you freely was purchased through the laying down of his life and the shedding of his blood.
So my illustration is flawed in multiple ways, but I use it for this reason: Jesus gives what he demands. He speaks about the life that “the Son of Man will give to you” (John 6:27). He says, “You must be born again,” but then he offers what he requires. You can’t do it yourself. That’s why John says, “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
Here’s the thing: If you are a mature, successful, respected person, something within you right now will recoil at the very thought of asking me for a ticket. You will find yourself thinking, “I don’t want the pastor to think that I can’t afford ten bucks for a ticket to see Stephen Baldwin!” Because that’s what I would be thinking too!
Mature respected, successful people do not find it easy to come to Jesus and receive the life that only he can give. That’s why mature, successful people come to church week after week, year after year, and they say, “I’ll just keep trying. I’ll do what you say, Jesus, and eventually, somehow, I’ll get there.”
Jesus left Nicodemus with these words: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). When Jesus speaks about being ‘lifted up,’ he is talking about what would happen to him when he was nailed to the cross, and then ‘lifted up’ on the wooden beam to which he had been fixed.
Jesus was lifted up “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3:15). This is why he died on that cross, so that this life that comes from above, in which a person is washed and renewed, should be yours. Christ went to the cross in order to give what God demands.
This story has a wonderful ending! Near the end of his Gospel, John tells us how Jesus was lifted up on the cross, and how he laid down his life for us. Then John says, “After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body” (John 19:38).
Then we read these wonderful words.
What He Did
Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. (John 19:39)
Nicodemus came out into the open as a committed disciple of Jesus, in the light of the cross. In the light of Jesus being lifted up and laying down his life to give what he demands—Nicodemus says, “That’s it. I can’t stay in the shadows any longer. Whatever it may cost and whatever it may mean, I’m taking my stand with Jesus Christ. I am for him, as he is for me.”
You cannot cause yourself to be born again, but you can ask Jesus to do for you what you cannot do for yourself. Because of what he holds in his hands, you can come to him and receive from him what he commands.
© Colin S. Smith
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