Tuesday, January 31, 2012

John 3:1-9

Today we meet the religious ruler, Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a group of 6,000 Jewish religious leaders devoted to keeping the Law down to the tiniest detail. As a member of the Sanhedrin, he would have been part of the elite group of rulers (70 in all), so he was surely a highly respected member of the community. We know he was wealthy because in John 19 he gave expensive burial spices to help with the burial of Jesus.

I have always loved this man, because I feel I can identify with him. He seems to have been someone whose head got in the way of his heart, someone who was more interested in the debate than the answers. I have to guard myself sometimes, when approaching the Scriptures, that it doesn’t become just a brain exercise. When I originally read this part of John’s gospel over thirty years ago, I saw a picture of someone wanting to come to Jesus for an intellectual discussion, to investigate this man who had been performing miracles and overturning tables. And I felt he was probably uncomfortable with the answers Jesus gave him, and maybe went away a bit more puzzled than when he came. We certainly don’t see the deal sealed. Nicodemus apparently did not fall at Jesus’ feet and become a disciple at this point. But surely seeds were planted.

When I was first truly confronted with the need to make a decision for Christ in college, I was made extremely uncomfortable by the experience, and I found it like hearing nails on a chalkboard to even say the name Jesus. I would have had no problem discussing Buddha or Mohammed or Confucius, because I could keep them at a distance. But something about the name of Jesus made me squirm. It was personal - too close for comfort - to have to think about Him and the demands He would make on my life. He’d actually want to change me! So I can feel the churning of thoughts in Nicodemus head and the conflict in his heart as he meets with this Rabbi:

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “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.”
In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (John 3:1-3)

Note that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. I had always figured this was kind of a stealthy way to talk to Jesus without Nicodemus’s buddies knowing what he was doing. But Jon Courson speculates that maybe he came at night just because it was Passover and both Nicodemus and Jesus would have ben busier during the day. And he says that the cool of the evening was the time for personal conversation among men. We don’t know for sure why he came at night.

Now, right off the bat, Jesus goes completely beyond the niceties of pleasant conversation to the core of Nicodemus’s problem. Nicodemus does the friendly dance with some flattery, starting with some affirmation of the miracles Jesus had been performing. Obviously God was with this Carpenter-Rabbi, so He was worth checking out. However, Jesus instantly points Nicodemus to the need for a complete makeover: Nicodemus needed to be born again!

Since Jimmy Carter called himself a “born again Christian” over thirty years ago, that term has offended many people. And I wonder if it didn’t maybe offend Nicodemus a little, too. His response to Jesus can possibly be seen as almost dismissive:

“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” (vs. 4)

What Jesus was suggesting was preposterous! Not possible! And isn’t it interesting that Nicodemus keeps the discussion at arm’s length: he doesn’t ask, “How can I be born again, “ but “How can a man be born again?” I remember using this tactic when the Campus Crusade for Christ people approached me at UCLA. I did everything to keep the discussion from getting personal.

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is 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.” (vs. 5-8)

Jesus brings it home here. He takes it from no one, in verse 5, immediately to the pronoun you. “I’m talking to YOU, Nicodemus!” “I’m talking to YOU, Sally!” YOU must be born again! Now He’s got Nicodemus’s full attention:

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. (vs. 9)

We’ll find out tomorrow!


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