Ok, so I don’t know if it was at midnight but it was a super secret meeting; A night time theological rendezvous of sorts between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Let’s look at the text from John 3:1-21:
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 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.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“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!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 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.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 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. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believesmay have eternal life in him.”
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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 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. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 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.
You may have already guessed it but this is where we get the term “born again Christian.” But what does that mean exactly? What is a Pharisee? Why did Nicodemus come by cover of night? We will explore these questions and possibly some more as we dive into the Word.
Let’s talk about Nicodemus for a minute. John says that Nicodemus was “a Pharisee… a member of the Jewish ruling council,” (v.1). The Jewish ruling council was called the Sanhedrin. It was kinda like our Congress or Senate in that it was made up of a bunch of people, then men, that made laws. They also were in charge of enforcing laws and had their own police force. The Pharisees were kinda like a political party, like our Democrats and Republicans. The Pharisees were one of three or four (depending on how you qualify major) major parties of the day. The Pharisees were known for strictly keeping the laws of Moses and other oral traditions that were supposedly passed down from Moses. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. God, himself, demands that we adhere to the law but the Pharisees took it too far. They made ridiculous rules that made it almost impossible for the common person to follow. In fact the name Pharisee means “set apart” and that is what the Pharisees did. They set themselves apart from the common people by making it difficult for them to be “ceremonially clean” or righteous in God’s eyes. The put a “fence around the Torah” in that they set up laws meant to keep you from breaking God’s laws. For example, God’s word says not to work on the Sabbath. They Pharisees made a law that stated you couldn’t even touch something that could be used for work on the Sabbath. God’s law doesn’t say that and Jesus took issue with them because of it. Pharisees also had a problem with Jesus because he was showing them up with his knowledge of the Scripture and with his miracles. Instead of seeing him as the Son of God and embracing him as such, they viewed him as a threat.
Let’s get back to Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee but this passage suggests that he was genuinely curious about Jesus. Now if you notice Nicodemus came at night. Night time back then is different than the night time of today in that night time back then was pitch black- it was great for sneaking around in. There was no light pollution from the next street over that would have given a little light. The fact that Nicodemus comes at night brings up two points. 1- he was probably not willing to be publicly associated with Jesus and 2- his desire to know more about Jesus was greater than his fear of the dark. Remember, we are talking about pitch black conditions, there could have been wild animals out there or any kind of bad guy out there. Once the sun went down back then, most people stayed indoors because it was dangerous to venture out.
There are a couple things I find interesting about this story. First of these is that Nicodemus calls Jesus “Rabbi”, or teacher. This is a sign of respect and obviously Nicodemus sees Jesus a little differently then your run of the mill Pharisee. Second, Nicodemus acknowledges that the Pharisees recognize that Jesus is from God, even if they don’t believe that he is God yet they still conspire against him! What is that all about?!? In a way I can sympathize with the Pharisees in that they were dealing with something brand new in Jesus. Never before had they experienced the Son of God. We often take for granted concepts that were new and innovative back then. On the other hand they had him in the flesh; they saw his life and his miracles and his teachings, they were eye witnesses and still didn’t get it. And yet that happens all the time these days. I would be willing to bet that many people are willing to agree that Jesus probably came from God but still don’t care about what he says.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that, “no one can see the kingdom of god unless they are born again,” (v. 3). Nicodemus is clearly confused, his mind is only focusing on what he knows, which is physical birth. He’s not thinking about a spiritual rebirth because, remember, this is a new concept to him. He doesn’t even know what spiritual rebirth is… yet. Jesus goes on to explain yes, there is only one physical birth. This is probably what he means when he says, “born of water,” referring to a woman’s water breaking before giving birth although it could mean baptism. I think it means the former though and he is showing a contrast between the two kinds of births. But there is also another kind of birth that happens when the Holy Spirit is born in your soul. This is what he is talking about when he says “born again.” We all have experienced the physical birth, but not everyone will experience the birth of the Holy Spirit. Only those who experience this second birth, “can enter the kingdom of God.”
Then Jesus gives a little lesson on why some people are reborn and some are not:
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. (v. 8)
I think Jesus is saying that the Holy Spirit already knows who will respond to the Gospel and that is who it enters. And though you can’t physically see the Holy Spirit, you can see the effects of the Spirt. These are evidenced in what are known as the Fruits of the Spirit. A Spirit filled person will be full of, “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” (Galatians 5:22-23). You can see the effects of these things. This is how you can “see” the Spirit.
Nicodemus still doesn’t understand and asks, “How can this be?”
I used to think that Jesus was angry when he replied to Nicodemus, but now I think there is pity and disappointment in his voice when he says, “You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things?” Remember Nicodemus is a Pharisee; they were highly educated teachers of the law and yet they just don’t get it. Jesus goes on and says (in my own words), “You’ve seen and heard eye witness testimony to the miracles and teaching that my disciples and me are doing and yet you don’t believe it. If you can’t believe what you eyes have seen and your ears have heard, then how do you expect to believe the stuff you can’t see and hear with your own eyes and ears? Because you don’t believe what I have said, I will be hung up on a cross to die and everyone who believes that I died for their sins will have eternal life.” Now again, that is my own interpretation of what Jesus says to Nicodemus but I think it is pretty accurate.
Then Jesus goes into that famous verse that almost everyone knows; God loves people so much that he sent his one and only Son to earth, so that whoever believes in him won’t spend an eternity in hell, but will spend eternity in heaven with Jesus. God didn’t send Jesus to earth to send everyone to hell but to save everyone from hell. He did this because everyone who doesn’t believe in him is going to Hell without trying. This is the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus!
So what happened to Nicodemus? Well, we can assume that at some point he was reborn because after Jesus was killed, Nicodemus helped to bury the body of Jesus. This would’ve been a big deal to Nicodemus because it would have made him “ceremonially unclean” or unrighteous in the eyes of his fellow Pharisees. Remember, they prided themselves on being meticulous law keepers. We can assume then that at the very least Nicodemus was deeply moved by the teaching of Christ if not a believer at that point.
What does all this mean for us? I will admit that there have been times when I have come to Jesus undercover of night, afraid of what other people might say if they knew I was a Christian. What kind of faith is that? If I am being honest with myself it’s not a very good kind of faith. This is at best one step away from disowning Jesus of which Jesus has to say this, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” It is time to be bold for Jesus. You can do this without shoving Jesus down non-believers throats. It’s offering to pray (and then actually praying) for your friends and family. It’s being excited about the things you are doing that grow your faith and then telling people about it when they ask what you are up to. For example, when your neighbor asks how things are going, let them catch your excitement for Bible Study, participating in your church, etc. Why would they want to be involved in something that you yourself are not excited about. It’s being willing to share your faith stories when they happen. It’s being willing to say, “God healed my mom’s cancer” or “God took my mom home, and I will praise him anyway.” It’s praying for these people on a regular basis for an opportunity to share the Gospel, the Good News that Jesus loves them, that he died for them, that he rose again from the dead for them and that he want to forgive their sins and live forever with them. How will they hear if we don’t tell them? Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did for Nicodemus? All he did was tell him the truth the rest was up to Nicodemus.
Dear Jesus, Thank you for being willing to speak to us even when we come to you by cover of night. Thank you for your power to change lives. Thank you for dying for loving us even to the point of death on a cross. Help us to be brave, even when we are afraid, so that we can tell a world bound for hell about the eternal life you provide. I pray that you begin to soften the hearts of those we see everyday and start to prompt them to speak with us about their questions. Give us the answers to help them know you, Lord. In Jesus’ powerful name we pray, Amen!
P.S. Because this was a longer study today, I will give you a couple of days to digest before I post again. Look for me again on Tuesday,