Reading: John 3:1-15
When I saw that the author of our Sunday School lesson decided to split John 3 into two lessons when this covers a single conversation, I wondered why he would do this. I looked close, and saw that the first section ends with John 3:15. John 3:16 is one of the often memorized verses in scripture and when something is so familiar it is overpowering; if the author did not split this into two lessons, our attention would be drawn to John 3:16, and we’d miss talking about things such as the man who visited Jesus, what it means to be born again, or even about what must happen to the Son of Man.
Who was Nicodemus?
Chapter 3 starts by telling us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and a leader of the Jews. While calling him a leader of the Jews suggests that he is a man of authority, later in John’s gospel (chapter 7) it is strongly suggested that he is a member of the Sanhedrin.
We all know that Jesus was quite harsh to the leaders; what he said about the Pharisees was harsh enough that people now use the term as an insult. The term did not have a negative connotation at the time; Pharisees were respected in the community and were the main opposition party working to reform the government.
If I were to bring the argument between the ruling party of the Sadducees and the Pharisees down to a single issue, the Sadducees wanted the priests to hold both secular and religious power, while the Pharisees wanted to re-establish David’s throne. Other issues were the concerns such as the Sadducees compromised with Rome too much, and there were some significant religious differences as well — the Sadducees only read the Torah while the Pharisees held to a significant oral tradition; the Pharisees were far more interested in the afterlife than the Sadducees; and while the Sadducees compromised to maintain power, the Pharisees wanted to live a life that was more closely connected with Torah.
Basically, when you looked at a Pharisee, you saw a respectable member of the community. They were very conscientious of the kind of Justice required by law, and were careful to give what the law required of them, even down to a tithe on their spice gardens. They wanted everything to be done the right way; and while they wanted reform, they wanted reform in a way that didn’t compromise their beliefs or identity — they wanted to remain Jewish, even while they were ruled by gentiles.
I see Nicodemus, and I see a guy who is not quite what one would expect. When you usually see Pharisees talking with Jesus, they are hoping to win an argument — Nicodemus goes alone to ask questions, listen and learn. There is nothing for him to gain — because when other members of the Sanhedrin noticed Jesus, it was not a positive thing at all.
This one encounter isn’t the only thing that catches my eyes about Nicodemus. I notice that he is a Pharisee who has a Greek name. If I were to name the most important issue about the Pharisee party, it is about preserving their people’s culture instead of becoming Greeks. While most of us don’t choose our own names — it does suggest that this man had different views than the people who named him.
And this difference is something that continues to be part of his character. When the Pharisee agree with the Sadducees that Jesus would be a good scapegoat to appease the Romans and show that the Sanhedrin wanted to keep the peace by any means necessary — Nicodemus disagreed with his colleagues and called for things to be done properly, and by the book. If any action were to be taken, it needed to be a fair and regular trial. He stood up for Justice, even against members of his own party who decided to put pragmatism above their beliefs.
He stands out even more after Jesus was taken down from the cross, because he brings 100 pounds of valuable and exotic embalming spices for use in Jesus’ burial. If one of us wanted to acquire such spices today it would cost over $150,000. He sacrificially gave to remember Jesus when he was crucified. After this the Biblical record is silent.
There has been some speculation about what Nicodemus did after Jesus was raised from the dead, but he has been recognized as a Christian saint since the time the Church was unified and he is believed to be a martyr.
What does it mean to be born again?
When Nicodemus comes to learn from Jesus, alone, at night, Jesus tells him that one must be born from above in order to enter God’s kingdom. Nicodemus responds by asking how this is possible, taking what is pretty obviously a metaphor literally, and Jesus replies that he’s talking about a “spiritual” birth, to which Nicodemus reply’s: “How?”
Somehow, I think Jesus really meant it when he asked: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet do not understand these things?” The metaphor of being born anew when entering a new, life changing, phase of life is well known to Jews. When a gentile becomes a Jew, he is reborn. When a man is married, he is reborn. The second Psalm mentions rebirth by saying: “I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, ‘you are My son; today I have become your Father.” (Psalm 2:7) This idea should not have been fully unfamiliar to Nicodemus.
Of course, one thing about metaphors is that when they sound familiar, it is easy to miss the point, or to apply them incorrectly. Nicodemus was in the highest position he was likely to hold. He was faithful, he was devoted to justice, it is unlikely that he expected any life transitions that would be like a new birth. Somebody else needed born again; not him — but, he asked anyways.
The Son of Man
While John calling people who were already Jews to repent and be baptized, and thus show that they willingly converted to something that they already nominally believed was similar to Jesus calling Nicodemus to be born again, there was one major difference. Jesus was calling people to something new. John said he was nobody but a man — Jesus said that he was the key, the one who came from heaven, the one that would be lifted up.
I don’t want to get to far into this, because anything I say will anticipate next week’s study — but, I want to say this, Nicodemus needed to be born again because Jesus was something new that changes everything. When a world that had been in darkness is suddenly enlightened, a world full of people has to adapt to the new reality. Everything was going to change. Jesus called on Nicodemus and others to believe in the Son of Man, and to be born again and live in the new reality.
The major point that I want to make is that Jesus represented something new. Nobody was good enough that he didn’t have to start a new life, because this was a disruptive time. Nicodemus represented the best that any of us could hope for. He was a person of faith, he was sacrificially generous, he cared about justice and would not do something unjust but politically convenient, he was an incorruptible politician. If such a man as Nicodemus needed to be born again, everybody needed it.
One of the hard lessons about Christianity is that we are all in the same boat. It is too easy to find somebody who I can compare myself favorably to and to comfort myself as being better than my neighbor. Granted, this is as terrible a strategy as it is a common strategy. If I were to compare myself to somebody who behaved badly, I’d be like the child who responds to being scolded for his bad behavior by tattling on another, and complaining that it is not fair that he was caught. Like that naughty child, I’d be competing for the position of second worst person in the room; this isn’t the competition that we want to have.
The point is, the natural reaction that transformation, growth and new life is for somebody else, and I am fine, because I see somebody else who is not is not what Christians believe. Jesus only has something to offer for those of us who need a new life — who need to be born again, and even the best and most respected people of Jesus time found that somehow, they needed what Jesus was offering. We are here today because we know we are not perfect — the gospel has nothing to offer perfect people, it is for those of us who need saved. The gospel is good news for the poor, for the broken, for the sinner, and for the desperate. It is good news for those who are perishing, those who need saved. Nicodemus was the rich, respectable, righteous man who came to Christ and still received good news; I don’t know what he needed saved from, but Jesus was there to offer him salvation — and this is good news for us; Christ is able to offer salvation even to a wealthy Pharisee.