Bible readers should recognize the name of Nicodemus – he was half of the most important conversation in the Bible, along with our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. (Before I continue, let me put in the citation that the inspiration for this post comes from radio evangelist Greg Laurie, although my interest is slightly different than his.) The conversation in question, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is from the Gospel of John, chapter 3, which contains the most famous verse in all of Scripture, John 3:16 →
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
But the context of that statement is more and more amazing the longer you look at it. Consider the situation: here are the first verses of the chapter:
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 have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
Nicodemus was not only a Pharisee, which was for lack of a better term the “right wing” of the Jewish hierarchy, but also a ruler of the Jews, which meant he was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jewish government (such as it was under Roman occupation). He was a big deal, at least as far as the Hebrews went. Nicodemus was at least equivalent to a cabinet level minister in a modern government.
He was certainly well-known and easily recognized. Why do we know this? Because he had to come to Jesus by night, and I really don’t think it was because of their busy work schedules. He did not want it known that he was going to visit this controversial itinerant preacher. Even by the time of John chapter 3, Jesus was already on the Pharisees’ “naughty list”. It wasn’t cool to think well of Him, let alone speak so highly of Him (“Rabbi” is the formal, polite term for a Teacher of the Law, which while true is a remarkable thing for him to say to Christ as a Pharisee). But not only did Nicodemus acknowledge that Jesus was a teacher, he addresses Him thus:“We know that You have come from God…for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Nicodemus is almost admitting, “We” (possibly just “I”, honestly) know that you are the Son of God, even though You haven’t actually said as much yet.
Nicodemus is everything we want to be – a religious man, deeply desiring to be Godly, and knowing Jesus is truly “the way, the truth, and the life”. He is eagerly desiring to know His Truth.
This is why chapter three is in the Bible. This is us addressing God for instructions.
We are Nicodemus.
Verses one and two set up the premise: Nicodemus is the model acolyte, well-versed in the OT Scripture but ignorant as far as Christ is concerned.
Then there’s an implied skip into the depth of the conversation. I simply don’t believe that the first thing Jesus said to Nicodemus was his quote in verse three, although it’s conceivable that someone like Him, Who cuts to the chase often, actually did. Whether that’s the case or not, there begins in John 3:3 the essence of the Gospel itself, straight from the lips of Christ the Messiah to the Ideal Everyman, Nicodemus:
3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? 11 “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. 12 “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. 14 “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 “For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 “But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”
Take your time and read this set of verses carefully, especially (but not exclusively) if you can’t already recite it from memory. It is the essence of the Gospel. It is THE REASON THE SON OF GOD CAME TO EARTH at all.
All right, let’s break it all down.
We pick up the conversation at the important moment, the beginning of God’s Own Explanation of Salvation. “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” THAT statement is the Gospel, perhaps even more so than verse sixteen. You must be born again. Jesus made no bones about it – it’s the most important thing involved in following Him. Then “we” ask the logical question… “What the heck, Jesus?” The Lord tries to explain it to this intelligent, Scripturally-knowledgeable man what He meant: Be born of the Spirit, not just the flesh. You can’t see the Spirit, but that doesn’t mean He doesn’t exist. He admonishes Nicodemus for not understanding, but I believe that’s more for emphasis than anything else.
Then a verse that slides by me every time. John 3:13 is the first verse of a set of six which are the heart of His explanation. No one except Jesus Christ has ascended to Heaven. That’s critically important, because it shows that He is the only possible GUIDE to help us find Heaven. Then, in verses 14-15, Jesus makes the analogy to Numbers 21:7-9, where God sent serpents to punish the non-believers in the Exodus party of Hebrews in the Wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.→
7 So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. 8 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.”9 And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.
So, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness” means that as Moses gave salvation to the people from God by asking them to look up to God’s symbol of healing, “even so must the Son of Man be lifted up”; an analogy that Jesus Himself must be held up in the same way Moses held up that serpent, “so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” (You see the connection now, right?) Just as God gave the Hebrews a sign of salvation from the serpents rampaging around their world, God also gave US a sign of salvation from the serpents rampaging about OUR world – the devil and his demons. (Here’s another parallel – Moses put the serpent up on a pole to save his people; Jesus was nailed on a pole for our salvation. These things aren’t coincidences.)
Notice something else important and fascinating that is a recent realization of mine: Unlike everyone else in Israel, Nicodemus was told outright BY Jesus that He WAS the Son of God. He constantly told other people to be quiet, and constantly avoided telling them the Truth because it was “not yet His Time”. In fact, in John 7, there’s this huge debate over whether or not Jesus is the prophesied Messiah or not. But in this “model” conversation with “us” via Nicodemus, Jesus is as blunt as He could be. →
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
Who is it that must be held up for our Salvation? The Son Of God. And Who is that? Jesus Himself. The “looking up” translates into “believes in Him”. Whoever looks up to Him saves himself from the serpents – whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.
And it’s an exclusive either/or situation, too, because the direct converse is also stated in verse eighteen:“He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” The people who believe in Christ as Lord “shall not perish but (will) have eternal life; the person who does not believe in Christ as Lord “has been judged already”, and since all humans are sinful (as described throughout all sixty-six books of the Bible), that judgment will be fatal for that person. Verses 19 and 20 expand on that, explaining that “men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” You’re in one camp or the other. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.“
“Is there any hope, Lord?”, we can almost hear Nicodemus say, as it’s what we feel hearing those last verses. Yes, He would lovingly respond, as He does in the final verse of the recorded conversation (undoubtedly abbreviated for time and from memory, as John wrote this forty years after the fact. “Thanks for the help, Holy Spirit!”) “He who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” Practice the Truth.
So, John includes this conversation early in his gospel, the model conversation between God and man. This is God’s most important message to us. As Greg Laurie points out, the fact that man is represented by the high priest Nicodemus shows that your religious exploits, history, and devotion are meaningless, as far as your salvation is concerned. When Jesus came to Israel, who did He have the most difficulty with? The religious people. Laurie suggests that religion can actually keep us from having a relationship with Jesus Christ. “Jesus never told us to be religious. He told us to have a relationship with Him.”
Laurie also reacts to those who say “Well, I’m a Christian. I’m just not one of these ‘born agains’, you know?” His response, “News flash: then you’re not a Christian. Christ says unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Now, elsewhere in the Scriptures, Jesus strongly says that baptism is important as an outward sign of your inward transformation (from being born again!); He strongly suggests that every time we take communion, we do it to remember Him. But unless one is born again you CANNOT enter the Kingdom of God! CANNOT!
If you aren’t born again, you aren’t a Christian.
If you aren’t a Christian, you aren’t going to Heaven.
Now, here’s the expectation God puts forward for us, who are standing in Nicodemus’ shoes…er, sandals. Look at John 19:38-39, following Jesus giving up His life on the cross on Good Friday. Joseph of Arimathea (who must have somehow been related to Jesus, Mary, or Joseph) was able to claim the body to get Him off the cross before the holy day of Passover. Look who else shows up…
38 After these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. So he came and took away His body. 39 Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight.
Nicodemus was a Believer. There is a question of some importance that I wish I had time to discuss here: despite the need for subterfuge from Joseph and Nicodemus to benefit the cause, does the fact that they deny Him to man imply that they would be denied by the Lord when their judgment came? I personally don’t think so, but the argument will have to wait. The important part is this: after the conversation in John 3:1-21, we are expected to do like Nicodemus and become born-again believers in Jesus Christ.