Dave preached from John 3:1-16 TNIV last night, the story of a clandestine night meeting between an important leader of the Pharisees and an itinerant preacher who would change the world…
Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish ruling council (the Sanhedrin), made up of 70 members, many of whom were Pharisees. Although we may nowadays think of Pharisees in an entirely negative light, as religious fanatics who were blind hypocrites, in actual fact these people were zealous for God and longed to keep the Ten Commandments. They were so keen to made these laws specific and relevant to their everyday lives that the scribes wrote the ‘Mishnah’ to explain how the commandments looked in ordinary living and the ‘Talmud’ was also written, a commentary on these applications. There were 24 chapters on not working on the Sabbath in the Mishnah and 56 pages on the topic in the Talmud. These people took it all very seriously!
The Pharisees generally opposed Jesus’s teaching, feeling that they were superior to most teachers. But Nicodemus came humbly and peacefully to meet with Jesus, recognising him as a teacher who was successful because God’s hand was clearly on Him through the miracles He was working.
Throughout the conversation with Jesus, Jesus has important truths to expound: truths signposted (as if with a pointing finger!) by the words ‘I tell you the truth.’
The first truth was that no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. ‘Again’ can be meant literally (a second time), or it can refer to a new beginning or can also mean ‘from above’. Nicodemus is confused by these words, taking them literally. Jesus has to explain spiritual truth. We are born again not physically but by water (signifying baptism, which itself is a symbol of repentance) and by the Spirit. We cannot enter God’s kingdom by natural means, by following all the rules, no matter how much the Pharisees tried to be good! Just as the flesh gives birth to flesh, so we can only become children of God by spiritual birth. Jesus uses the comparison with the wind to make it clear that we cannot ‘work our way’ into God’s kingdom. Just as we cannot control the wind, we cannot control God.
Nicodemus is thoroughly confused and Jesus is astonished that a spiritual leader does not know these things (clearly signposted in the Old Testament, in passages such as Jeremiah 31:31-34 TNIV, for example.) The Incarnation is needed; we need a Saviour who is both divine and human. Jesus refers back to Moses and the serpent during the wilderness wanderings. To avoid destruction, the people had to look to the bronze snake on the pole. We need to look to our Saviour on the Cross, the Son of God lifted up, if we are to be saved: ‘everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.’
John 3:16 TNIV has been called ‘the greatest verse in the Bible‘. Whoever believes in Jesus will not perish but will enter into eternal life. Eternal life begins when we accept that we can do no more and that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6 TNIV). We must be born again if we are to enter into God’s kingdom.