This scriptural story includes one of the most well-known verses in the world. John 3:16 “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.” It is a powerful verse but there is so much more to this encounter that brings us to this transformational message.
Who is Nicodemus?
First we need to know who this man Nicodemus is. The scripture tells us he is a Pharisee. Pharisees were a legalistic group who, prided themselves on abiding by the Mosaic Laws. He was a member of what was considered the elite group and certainly would have, or maybe should have, never acknowledged Jesus as anything except a law breaker and a blasphemer, BUT Nicodemus, with all his knowledge and position was intrigued by Jesus.
Do you know someone like Nicodemus?
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was a man of great knowledge and theological understanding. He was raised in the Anglican faith, with his father as a preacher and his mother who taught all of her children daily from the scriptures. John could be called a next generation Nicodemus. He was a religious man but with all the head knowledge, the heart had not yet been moved. At 35 years old, Wesley met a Moravian preacher, Peter Bohler, with whom he spent much time in discussing the Christian faith. Böhler became a spiritual mentor to both John and his brother Charles. Both the Wesley’s had hit a moment of spiritual depression and Böhler’s deep sense of Christian peace drew them to want to know more about his faith. Bohler’s inner peace and faith seemed in direct contrast to John’s academic and logical way of viewing faith. Böhler told John, ‘that philosophy of yours must be purged away.’
It was after considering all that Peter Bohler had shared, that John seemed to be primed for the work of the Spirit. One evening at a society meeting at Aldersgate, he was listening to the preface of a commentary on Romans when, as John himself said, ‘I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ and Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.’ John had a moment with Jesus, and thus, no longer relied on his head knowledge but had a heart faith.
Nicodemus was having a moment of questioning his laws, religion and head knowledge. He, like Wesley, was feeling as though there might be something more and so he decides to visit this man, Jesus, who he had heard about and seen performing miracles and teaching.
Coming to Jesus at night
Nicodemus, as a Jewish leader, would have been risking a lot – position, status, and respect – by even talking to Jesus. Thus as he decides to have a conversation with Jesus he goes to him at night, when there would be less chance of other Pharisees seeing him.
Coming to Jesus at night is as much about the time of day as it is symbolic of Nicodemus being in the dark – not understanding and not having answers. Though, without directly stating this to Nicodemus, Jesus addresses this “conversation in the dark” as he describes those who hate the light and love the darkness.
Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
Nicodemus came at night — to find the Light.
So many questions
We read that as Nicodemus comes to Jesus and begins the conversation, it is not so much with a question but with an affirmative statement,
“Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
It is Jesus response that brings the questions out.
In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
Nicodemus is baffled by this statement and asks, “How can a man be born again? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
Poor Nicodemus, he is so caught up in worldly thinking he cannot grasp the spiritual teachings of Jesus.
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
Nicodemus still doesn’t understand. “How can this be?” he asks.
Worldly minds cannot grasp Jesus’ teaching here. We, like Nicodemus, have to let go of earthly logic and literal thinking and think through our hearts and spirits. Flesh – the physical – gives birth(understanding) to flesh. BUT the Spirit – our hearts – give birth to spirit.
Nicodemus, John Wesley, and many of us, can understand the flesh, the physical and tangible stuff that makes sense but Jesus is not of this world and His teachings are not either. Jesus is a teacher of the heart, not so much the mind.
Believing in Jesus and being born again is a lesson in faith; Believing in that which you may not see or be able to explain.
“…that whoever believes…”
This is the key for Nicodemus, Wesley and all of us. John 3:16 has no meaning if we have not reached a point of believing through a spiritual faith. Think about it, does this have any impact on us if we cannot believe in something or someone we cannot explain?
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 he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
Recently I have been asked about how this can be. How can one man’s death and resurrection bring eternal life to the world?
I find myself answering with the words of scripture…why? Because there is no earthly way to explain it. It is about believing with a faith that goes beyond this world.
It is about letting go of our knowledge of the laws, the explanations of philosophy and our need for physical proof.
It is about heading into the Light and away from the dark so that the Light can lead us when darkness seems to surround us.
We don’t get a final statement from Nicodemus in this scenario and if this was the only time we hear about him we might wonder whether he ever truly understand. We do, though, hear about Nicodemus again, actually twice.
In John 7 the chief priests and pharisees are in a discussion about Jesus and Nicodemus tries to call them to hear what he has to say.
Nicodemus asked, 51 “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”
52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”
And the last time Nicodemus is referred to is after the death of Jesus on the cross, when Joseph of Arimathea ….with Pilate’s permission, came and took the body of Jesus away. 39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. 40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.
We might want to judge Nicodemus for his questions, for coming at night, for being scared but we can respect him for speaking up and for stepping forward to care for Jesus body. Nicodemus had his moment with Jesus.
Did he ever truly grasp what Jesus said? We cannot know.
Do we grasp what Jesus said?
Are we willing to believe with our hearts, even when our minds cannot?
Have you had a moment with Jesus?
Are these just familiar words or do they have true meaning….
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.