Listen: Click to listen
(to save a file simply right click the link and select 'Save Target As...' or 'Save Link As...')
The story of Nicodemus, gives us an example of what it means to encounter Jesus. Throughout the gospel of John, we have several encounters with Jesus including those of John the Baptist and the woman at the well. If I’m being honest, I really wanted to preach about the woman at the well today, but I felt the Spirit nudging me in the direction of Nicodemus. The story of Nicodemus is related to that of the woman at the well. In fact, they present parallel ways of responding to Jesus. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, while the woman at the well comes to him in the middle of the day. Nicodemus is a religious teacher and leader, while the woman at the well represents ‘the other’ for Jesus. Nicodemus can’t grasp that which Jesus is trying to tell him, while the woman at the well, goes away preaching the gospel and having become a disciple of Christ. Two stories, two encounters, two different endings. Today I’m going to focus on the story that doesn’t have a happy ending. Not that it ends here, because Nicodemus will reappear later in John, but here in chapter 3, Nicodemus leaves his conversation with Jesus as someone who is confused and still in the dark.
John is very symbolic in his writing and the fact that Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark is telling us about his spiritual state as much as it is telling us about the time of day. Nicodemus was Jewish and became a teacher and leader in the community. He knew the law and the prophets but he did not recognize Jesus for who he was – God in the flesh. You’ll notice that in verse 2 he says that “no one could perform these signs you are doing unless God were with him”. He’s so close to the truth. He recognizes that Jesus is from God but that’s where his knowledge ends. Still, his opening comments are genuine and coming from a place of awe. But Jesus, in true Jesus fashion, changes the subject and brings up the real issue. He tells Nicodemus that no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. We might be used to this phrase, but Nicodemus wasn’t. It seems he was kind of laughing at this idea and rightly so. I’m sure we can all think of events in our lives that we would love to live again and I’m sure that being born isn’t one of them.
Jesus answers Nicodemus: Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Jesus isn’t talking about physical birth, but spiritual birth. An event where God breathes his spirit into a human being giving them everlasting life. We see here that there are two states of being for humans. Those who are spiritually alive and those who are spiritually dead. Jesus tells Nicodemus that this is something that is hard to understand. It’s not a spectrum of spiritual aliveness, you either have the spirit of God in you, or you don’t. Remember that Nicodemus is an upstanding citizen. He approaches Jesus with respect. He has all the religious knowledge anyone could have. But all those things in themselves are not enough to get him into the kingdom of God. His heart needs to be transformed and that can only happen if he is born again.
There are some hard truths to grapple with in this text. Not everyone believes and of those that do believe, not everyone believes rightly. There is one way to eternal life and that way is Jesus. Here we see mention of the kingdom and this is the only place in the book of John that we read about the kingdom. Jesus is referencing the inbreaking and saving activity of God throughout his ministry. But even when presented with the truth, there are people who will walk away. And walking away from the truth means life without God. It means working in opposition to the kingdom, in opposition to that saving and inbreaking activity of God. Jesus is telling Nicodemus how he can be a part of the kingdom.
Nicodemus’s response to Jesus is interesting. He doesn’t ask how anyone can born again but he asks how this can be for someone who is old. Today we tend to association ‘old’ with negative aspects of growing old, but in this context, ‘old’ means mature, learned, respected. Nicodemus is asking Jesus how and maybe even why, he would want to start over. And there is no reason he should start over, except that God is inviting him into a relationship that will give him life like he has never known before. A relationship where he is fully known and fully loved. But first he must be born again.
Born of the Spirit
Jesus goes on to describe what it means to be born again. He references the wind blowing here and there and how we don’t know where it comes from. And we must acknowledge that when it comes to new life in Christ, there is a certain amount of mystery that we have to embrace. But Jesus gives a little history lesson here. Jesus compares himself to the snake that Moses lifted up in the desert. The Israelites were wandering in the desert and they became discouraged. They started to complain against Moses and against God and so God sent fiery serpents among the people that bit them and many of them died. This caused the Israelites to think about their actions and they repented. So, God told Moses to build a bronze serpent on a pole and to hold it up for the people to see. When the people were bitten, they could look up to this serpent and be healed.
It’s interesting that when we think of a serpent in the Bible, we think of the Garden of Eden and associate it with evil. But in John, Jesus is telling us that he is that serpent. He is the one to look to for healing. And only once he is lifted up on a cross, like Moses’ serpent was lifted up on a pole, only then is the power of God revealed. Perhaps this is a clue to us that we shouldn’t think of things as evil or good. For just as God used serpents in Numbers to bring death, he also used a serpent to be the instrument by which he gives life. Without new life, we are in a position of being against God. Like the Israelites, we are wandering, and focused on what we don’t have, rather than what is readily available to us. We are wandering in sin.
John gives a way of looking at sin as a lack of relationship with Jesus. Sin isn’t about the specific things we do, but about remaining in a state of spiritual darkness. And while being born again isn’t a spectrum, there is a journey to faith in Christ and that’s what John is writing about. When Jesus meets Nicodemus, he’s not ready to be born again. The Spirit hasn’t opened his eyes to who Jesus is. Contrast this with the woman at the well who leaves her encounter with Jesus understanding that he is Lord. She leaves Jesus having entered into the dominion of God and having that life from above he offers.
Life from Above
Eternal life is mentioned for the first time in verse 15. The literal translation is life of the age to come. This refers to both the quantity of life and divine quality of life. This is the life of God, manifest in every believer and yet not fully realized. And we get glimpse of this life as we read the gospel of John. Life with Jesus is a life of abundance. There is an abundance of wine, there is an abundance of water and there is an abundance of food. There is healing and forgiveness and freedom. And there is life, even, as we see with Lazarus, life after death. Which brings us to verse 16.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
The narrative here changes from a conversation to a commentary on what Jesus has been saying. God so loved the world. And those who believe in Him are not condemned. And the author describes the struggle that we live in between light and darkness. Those who live in the darkness love it, because they can hide. Again, we are presented with two ways of being – either in an intimate relationship with God, or hiding from him. Intimacy can be scary because it requires something of us. It requires mutuality, equality and regard. And hearing that, we should be afraid and ask, like Nicodemus, how this be? How can we ever have mutuality with God? How can there be a sense of equality where we speak to him and he speaks back? How can we look closely at God? The answer of course is that we can’t, except in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can’t be in a relationship with God unless we are born of his Spirit. This doesn’t happen for Nicodemus at this time in the story. But he’ll be back. For now, he leaves us with some questions.
Jesus as the Centre
What does it mean to be born again? What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? The songs we sang today give us an indication – Lord Most High and Lord, I Need You. To be a disciple means to have Jesus as Lord of my life. This means that everything I do flows from the relationship I have with Jesus. It’s not about asking what Jesus would do in this situation, but rather, as a follower of Jesus, what am I going to do? How am I going to live so that my life is different from those around me? Or how in my family, will we do things differently from the way the culture tells us to live? I think this plays out in a big way in how we spend our time. Particularly in how we practice Sabbath. It also plays out in how we respond in the face of a crisis. We’ve been seeing over the past week that when a crisis comes, people operate out of a mentality of scarcity. And this mindset leads to hoarding. It leads to self-preservation before caring for others. The phrase ‘not enough’ is constantly running through this person’s head. What I have is not enough or I am not enough. But for one who has life from above, that life in the Spirit, we don’t operate from scarcity. We operate from abundance. This is abundance, not from our own resources, but from Jesus, the source of all that we need and want and hope for.
A New Beginning
I believe that scripture is alive and powerful and that there is a lot we can take from this passage today. What’s standing out to me is the question that Nicodemus puts to Jesus. How can anyone be born again after having grown old? This can be a question for institutions. Is there new life for places that have been around for a long time? Can there be a new beginning? Perhaps the question of the Samaritan woman can come in here, the question of where should we worship? And Jesus answers her that those who worship must worship in spirit and in truth. For Jesus, the question of where isn’t important. It’s the how that really matters.
Jesus is offering a new beginning. And more than that, he is offering life abundant. He gives an invitation to get to know God in a life-giving way. And we can easily see that the Samaritan woman needs Jesus. She’s the wrong culture, the wrong gender, she has a past, although it’s not clear what that past is. And we all rejoice with her when her need is met by Jesus. But with Nicodemus, his need is less obvious. He’s doing pretty well by anyone’s standard. He has knowledge, he has influence, he has the audacity to approach Jesus. What he lacks is an awareness of his need for new life. The story of the serpents killing the Israelites seems harsh. But to live in opposition to God is to walk around like zombies; empty shells that don’t have life. God’s light, merely shines the truth onto the way we are. It is only once that light begins to break into our darkness, that we see just how dark it really is and how much we need the light of Jesus.
As we continue our journey to the cross, may it be a time that we examine ourselves and ask God what new beginning he has in store for us. May it be a time where we set aside our doubts and our fears and accept the invitation that Christ puts forward. And may we step into this life from above, this abundant life that is waiting for us. The life of one who has been born again and born into the family of God.