By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
March 8, 2020
John 3:1–17 (ESV)
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.” 3 Jesus answered 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? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 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. 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.” 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? 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. 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. 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.
Have you ever had a conversation that changed the direction of your life? You may or may not fully remember it, but there was probably one conversation that set things in motion. What caused you to decide that your spouse was the one you wanted to spend life with? What prompted you to stay in a career that you were ready to leave? Why did you decide to give that church another chance, and then another for the past twenty years? We often do not think about these things too much. Sometimes they fade back into the distant memory that we rarely consider, but conversations and relationships are at the root of many of our decisions.
This conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is probably the most important conversation in human history. I say this because this conversation contains the first verse that you probably memorized. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” How often to we recognize that this recognizable verse came not from a sermon, but a conversation.
Nicodemus was a pharisee, and one of importance. He was considered a ruler of the Jews, which means that he had a seat on the counsel that governed the religious and civil relationships within Israel. This group had power, because it was the body of representatives that met with the Roman officials to transmit the edicts to the populous as well as taking the concerns of the people to the governor’s court. They also were the arbiters of the understanding of the Torah. This counsel of various traditions would define what was acceptable practice within the teachings of the faith. Nicodemus was an important figure in the Jewish community.
I have often heard, and probably said myself, that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because he wanted to be secret. I have thought about this more as I reflected on this passage this week. I have considered more deeply because I am on a board that speaks to the practice of our faith, so I have a perspective that I did not have before. I love the church, I love meetings for worship, I love meetings for business, I love area meetings, and I love yearly meetings. I love everything about how the Friends Church does things. I am weird, and that’s ok. There are very few things that you can get me engaged in long conversations, if you do not know what those are you probably have not engaged me in a conversation about church. The thing about being on the elder’s board, is everyone wants to talk to you. When I go to an area meeting, I am usually the last to leave because someone needed to talk. When I am at Yearly Meeting, I rarely get to bed before midnight because someone or several people had stopped me to discuss something. When these conversations occur, I lose all track of time because in that moment that conversation is the most important thing. Nicodemus is a ruler of the Jewish people; he is one of those people that holds a position on a counsel that is recognized as being a father of the faith. His entire life is devoted to interpretation of the laws of Moses and how to practice that lifestyle in your daily life. I imagine he loves his position and his job. I imagine that Nicodemus would probably turn a simple question around to take you deeper in your spiritual understanding of life.
I imagine that Nicodemus was the type of person that would encourage you to love your faith. He had heard about the teachings of Jesus, and the signs that he had performed, and Nicodemus wanted to talk to Jesus. There is a problem though. Nicodemus is a public figure. He is walking out to Jesus and along the way people are meeting him, and suddenly the simple task of walking out to speak to this wondering teacher named Jesus has taken the entire day. Now the sun has set, and Nicodemus has finally come into Jesus’s presence.
This is not the traditional understanding of this conversation, but I want us to consider it in this manner. Nicodemus did not approach Jesus in a way that other religious leaders did later in Jesus’s ministry. Nicodemus approaches Jesus not to test him, but to listen. When he approaches Jesus, he treats him with respect. He says, “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.” He calls him Rabbi. We might not think of this as being a big deal, but you do not call just anyone Rabbi.
Nicodemus and those that are within his community, had heard the teachings of Jesus up to this point, and they had been impressed. They had heard or may have witnessed some of the miraculous signs that Jesus had performed, and we greatly impressed. They had decided in their minds, that Jesus deserved the title of Rabbi, even though the fully knew that he had not had the traditional training that was required for that title. Nicodemus and those he represented were open to the possibility that God could do things in untraditional ways.
Nicodemus had spent the entire day, talking to the people. He had spent the day listening and teaching. He had encouraged and blessed. He was a man that many looked to for the answers of life, the universe, and everything. He was that guy. And he recognized that he just might not have all the answers. He left room in his interactions with those around him, for a possibility that he might be wrong. And when Jesus came onto the religious scene expressing a form of religious teaching that took a different approach, he did not immediately oppose it. Instead he took the time, he took his personal time, to learn. And he did not just take the interpretation of someone else, he went right to the source, he went to Jesus.
“We know that you are a teacher come from God.” He says to Jesus. Think about this for a moment. Nicodemus speaks to Jesus in an inclusive manner. The word, we, is first person plural. I’m not a grammar expert but to say we means something important. It identifies yourself as part of a group for one thing. And in this case, it is accepting Jesus into that group. “We know that you are a teacher come from God.” This goes with his address of Jesus using the term Rabbi. He is acknowledging that God has anointed the teaching in some way, and that the authority of Jesus does not come by human tradition but comes from a tradition that supersedes their tradition. He is recognizing that Jesus is speaking from a position of a prophet.
Nicodemus knows that the teachings Jesus encourages are not traditional, but he also knows that they could still be within the veil of orthodoxy. So, as a ruler of the Jews he wants to know more. And Jesus welcomes the conversation.
Nicodemus starts by saying, “We know that you are a teacher come from God…,” And Jesus responds, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This response is very strange. First off Jesus is saying things like being born, and Nicodemus was talking about Jesus being a teacher and signs. What could be born have to do with anything?
Do you remember the idea of Jesus calling the disciples to be Fishers of men meaning something to the effect of like a fish out of water? Nicodemus is coming to Jesus for one reason, and Jesus knows this. Nicodemus knows this as well. They both are very aware that the reason Nicodemus is coming to visit with Jesus is because Nicodemus is a ruler of the Jews and he wants to know if Jesus’s teaching will fall within the acceptable traditions of their faith. As far as Nicodemus can tell there is nothing wrong with the teachings of Jesus, but there are a few things that kind of seem out of place.
If we were to review the first few chapters of John, we would see a couple of things happen to this point. John the Baptist testified that Jesus was the one that he was saying would be even greater than himself, Jesus called the disciples, and they went to a wedding. At that wedding the wine ran out and Jesus’s mom decided that Jesus needed to do something about that oversight, so Jesus turned some water into wine so that the celebration could continue. After this wedding, according to John’s Gospel account, Jesus made his way to the temple during the Passover Feast, and he became upset with the religious industrial complex that was found in the temple courts. He was irate about the livestock being sold, and the money changing that was occurring. And he began to turn tables over, and he drove people out of this sacred space using a whip made from cord. Jesus had challenged the entire expression of Jewish faith.
This is the rabbi that Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, came to see. Jesus had challenged the very foundation and authority of the priests. He did this during the festival that the greatest amount of people could see, during Passover. Josephus, the Jewish historian, estimated that during the feast of Passover there could be as many as 2.7 million people passing through the temple complex. Meaning there would have been livestock available for 2.7 million people. And the money being changed was enough for those 2.7 million people to have temple currency enough to purchase a perfect sacrificial lamb for their Passover celebrations. We are talking a disruption of the equivalent of a multi-million-dollar conference of trade. Some of Jesus’s teachings were a bit out of place with the traditional teachings of the religious leaders.
Yet, Nicodemus recognized that there was authority in Jesus’s teaching. And Jesus responds, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This throws Nicodemus for a loop because Jesus uses words that can mean multiple things. This statement can mean two things. Born again or born from above. Nicodemus takes the born-again train of thought. How can a man be born when he is old?
“Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” This second statement of Jesus during this conversation where it becomes a bit clearer. To be born of water is an expression of physical birth. When the water breaks the baby will so emerge. That is the first birth, the physical or natural birth. The birth that Jesus is speaking of is the birth of the Spirit.
To Nicodemus and to everyone in Israel to be born into their nation was the only birth required. They were children of Abraham, they were the hires of the promise, God’s chosen people. Jesus is telling them unless you are born of the water and the spirit you have nothing. It is not difficult to understand that Nicodemus struggled with this. We all struggle with this.
I am a good person. Surely that is enough right? I do not steal; I have not murdered anyone doesn’t that mean that I am good enough? These are the things we say today. In Nicodemus’s era they would say something similar, well actually they would have more to do with I remembered the Passover, I offered the sacrifices, I gave a tithe on everything I owned even the mint that grows wild in my yard. I have done everything right. Yet, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that it is not enough. Just being born is not enough to get one into the kingdom of God.
Jesus then mentions the serpent that Moses lifted in the wilderness. I have mentioned this serpent before. It was the salvation of rebellious people. They grumbled against God, and God allowed them to face the world without his protection and their camp was infested with venomous snakes. When they were bitten by these snakes, there was no remedy and death would soon meet them. But God provided a way. He instructed Moses to form an image of their curse and to hold it up on a pole for all of them to see. And when they were bitten, they could turn and be saved. They could turn back to God, return from their rebellion and the venom of rebellion would not cause their ruin. But if they relied on their own merit, death awaited them.
Jesus uses this image to illustrate the concept of being born from above. It is a turning from our worldly understanding and returning from our own rebellious ambitions. It is a return to the things that matter in God’s economy. What exactly does God value?
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 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.” God values the world. He values the world to such a great extent that he came to live among us. He lived a complete life, from being formed within a womb, being born, he grew from an infant and experienced childhood. He went to work with the family and worked at that business for seventeen years. He was known as a carpenter. For thirty years he lived life as a common man, and then he entered ministry. He was tempted just as we are tempted. And he showed us how to live life with God. He did all of this because he wanted the world to turn.
But the venom of rebellion still courses through our veins. We like to be in control. We like to pull the strings and to make the decisions. We like people to acknowledge our greatness, and we want the respect that we feel we deserve. We like ourselves, and if we are honest, we do not like when someone suggests that we might not be enough. But there is not a single person here today that is enough in themselves. Yet God loves you. Even though you rebel and reject him. He loves you enough to live for you. He loves you enough to die for you, and he loves you enough to raise from the dead to give you hope.
Nicodemus looked at Jesus with questions in his eyes, and Jesus said that he needed to be born again. Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jewish people; he was the most religious as you could be. Yet even he was not where he needed to be. He had the venom of rebellion in his veins. The venom coursed because he like so many failed to realize that God loves the world, not just us. And if we cannot look at the person across from us, the person across the ocean, or south of the boarder as a person loved by God and worth living and dying for, we are not able to see the kingdom before us.
Nicodemus spent his entire day teaching and investing in the lives of Israel. He spent the entire day encouraging them in their faith and at night he finally was able to speak with Jesus. Nicodemus is a man we should want to emulate in many ways. We should invest our lives in those around us, just as Jesus did. But we need to always remember that we can invest all we want. We can serve all day, for our entire life, but if we do not turn to God, and love the world as he does, the venom of our own rebellion will take our lives and condemn us.
As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends, let us consider the conversations we have had. Are we encouraging the world to turn to Christ?