Growing in Christ - Meditation
John 3: A Chat with Nicodemus
April 22, 2018
The third chapter of John talks about some rather significant things. In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus brings up the idea of being "born again." He also talks about eternal life and the power of the Holy Spirit. These are powerful ideas, at the heart of the Christian faith. They were not easy ideas for Nicodemus to understand and they are not necessarily easy for modern-day seekers of the truth to understand. And if we think that Jesus was just another man, or teacher, or philosopher, these things do not make any sense at all. They make sense only if we understand Jesus as the Son of God, indeed God Incarnate.
There was a philosopher, once, by the name of Socrates. He lived about 400 years before the time of Christ. He loved to talk and reason about things with his students, his friends. Here is a sample of discussion about whether a person has an immortal soul:
Socrates: Then tell me, what must be present in a body to make it alive?
Socrates: Is this always so?
Cebes: Of course.
Socrates: So whenever soul takes possession of a body, it always brings life with it?
Cebes: Yes, it does.
Socrates: Is there an opposite to life or not?
Cebes: Yes, there is.
Socrates: And what do we call that which does not admit death?
Socrates: And soul does not admit death?
Socrates: So soul is immortal?
Cebes: Yes, it is immortal.
Socrates: Well, can we say that has been proved? What do you think?
It is fun to read a little Socrates. Being pre-Christian, he is not a source of authority for us, but we discover two things in reading him: firstly, that the ancient Greeks were capable of sophisticated language and reasoning; and secondly, that they were interested in what eternal life might mean. Just as the Jewish people yearned for a Messiah, so the ancient Greeks craved fuller knowledge about the meaning and destiny of their lives.
We are blessed. We have more to work with than Socrates. We have full biblical revelation, including the New Testament, telling us about Jesus: the way the truth and the life.
John 3, as we have said, deals with important topics. Let's look carefully at the text. It starts as follows: "Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night. . ." (John 3: 1-2, NIV). At night? Why would it be necessary to arrange to see Jesus at night? Was Jesus so radical, so dangerous that Nicodemus was afraid to be seen with him? So it seems. But Nicodemus apparently has nothing but kind words for Jesus: "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. (John 3:2)." What greater words of respect could Jesus ask for? But then Jesus answers him in a rather shocking way - "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. (John 3:3)." Scholar Bruce Milne describes what Nicodemus must have felt as follows: "Nicodemus is immediately rocked back on his heels by Jesus' rejoinder which unceremoniously exposes his spiritual need."
It seems that Jesus has bumped up the requirements to be a follower by an exponential degree: it is not enough to be good, to be obedient, or to be respectful to Jesus - one has to be "born again" - a phrase which makes no sense to Nicodemus and perhaps not to some of us either.
That phrase should at least have rung a bell of familiarity with Nicodemus. After all, he would have been familiar with the words of the prophet Ezekiel where there are images and promises from God having to do with personal renewal: "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)." This language is not so different from the language used by Jesus when he says: ". . . I tell you the truth, no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. (John 3:5)." There are great implications in all of this.
Jesus makes it clear he is no mere rabbi, or teacher. He states in verse 12: "I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven-the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (3:12-14)." The reference to Moses is of course from the book of Numbers (21:6-9) where Moses saved people from being bitten by snakes by lifting a bronze snake up on a pole. Anyone looking at the bronze snake would be saved from physical death. That would not be the first time or the last time that hardships led to a closer walk with God. We remember our reading of the first chapter of John, verses 12-14, where the promise of eternal life was described as follows: "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God." The right of salvation has a way of putting all else into perspective. Everything else-our nationality, our religious grouping, our socio-economic status-all this is secondary to the right of salvation. It was a radical idea two thousand years ago and it remains radical today.
Milne explains: "Jesus is therefore informing Nicodemus that this new day of cleansing and power anticipated by the prophet is now to hand, the long awaited messianic age is now present. . . . What is needed is the receiving of a new spiritual life from God (1:12-14) through personal faith in Jesus himself as the one who had come from God, (3:14) and was to be lifted up as the object of faith."
Nicodemus, like all those seeking to understand Jesus, has a lot of information to process. Out with old ideas, in with new ones. New they are, but nevertheless strongly suggested in prophesy and amazingly consistent with what was previously known about God the Father.
What further complicates things is the element of mystery. The Holy Spirit is compared to the wind: "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. (John 3:8)." So it seems that the matter of being born again is not simply a matter of our own will, but of the unpredictable nature of the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus must have been feeling even more confused-by taking an interest in Jesus, was he trying to enter some sort of exclusive club, a club with the Holy Spirit acting as a forbidding guardian?
Of course the answer to that is no-while the role of the Holy Spirit is essential, He is no forbidding guard, He is trying to welcome us-if only our hearts and minds will be open. Later on in the chapter, John the Baptist speaks: "for the One whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit (John 3:34)." We are led, finally, to some of the most astonishing, the most succinct and the most meaningful words ever uttered in any earthly language-I mean, of course, John 3:16: "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." Just imagine-God loves the world! Just imagine-Greek philosophers, Jewish rabbis, Roman soldiers, women, slaves-anyone in the whole world can be saved and enjoy the promise of eternal life! Just imagine-all we need to do is have faith in Jesus! Jesus-the man who provided us with so much miraculous evidence as he walked this earth; the man who died so that our sins might be forgiven. The words of John 3:16 are about the One who shaped and molded human history and will continue to do so.
R.V.G. Tasker states: "the revelation about the new birth as the gateway to the Kingdom of God inevitably becomes, as the discourse develops, a revelation about Jesus himself. He can and does inaugurate the Kingdom of heaven, because in him one who belongs to heaven has come down to earth."
So we see that our Christian faith is no mere philosophy but a very personal thing: a multi-faceted new life, informed by scripture, motivated by the Holy Spirit, all in the context of the love of God for us through Jesus.
While the concept of being born again is finally understandable, it tends to be controversial even today in terms of church doctrine and practice. Everyone's conversion story is a little different-we all have different early influences, different kinds of exposure to the gospel, and different triggering events. Some denominations in the Christian family will emphasize the importance of revival and commitment; others emphasize the importance of foundational learning and baptism as the actual rebirth. Sometimes people who are raised in the church have the hardest time understanding why a rebirth is necessary-they already feel their faith is complete. Some theologians really dig into this topic-there is a whole branch of study called soteriology which examines salvation in great detail. Most of us, however, don't want to get lost in theory; we just love stories of rebirth, or conversion-- stories of real people seeing the light and changing their lives.
Speaking of conversion, what about our friend Nicodemus? We hear about him again later on in the story. In John 7:45-52 the Pharisees are discussing Jesus and his supporters and saying there is a curse on them. Nicodemus stands up for legal rights for Jesus: "Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing? (John 7:51)." This is pretty bold for a man who previously went to Jesus under cover of darkness. Later on, after the crucifixion, we hear about Joseph of Arimathea taking care of the body of Jesus, and getting a little help: "He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who had earlier visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus' body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. (John 19: 39, 40)." Some actions speak louder than words, and we can safely assume, from the tender care indicated, that Nicodemus had taken all of the words of Jesus to heart. This understated rebirth of Nicodemus-a Jewish religious leader-foreshadows another great conversion; that of the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus.
For a modern-day exciting conversion story look no farther than the biography of Louis Zamperini. Entitled Unbroken, it tells the story of a man who endures terrible hardships in W.W. II, and has trouble adjusting to civilian life after the war. Then he attends a revival meeting where he listens to a man called Billy Graham. Inspiring events follow.
My own story about finding a new life in Jesus has a lot to do with this congregation back in 1992. I was an unhappy man, in my mid-thirties, and I had had difficulties in career and relationships. To make a long story short, I walked into this church one day, not knowing a soul, and something happened to me. I don't remember the words of the sermon that day, but I do remember the music. It seemed that this congregation was singing songs of praise like they really meant it. "These people really believe in God" I remember thinking, in amazement. I remember a tear or two being shed, just why I didn't understand at the time. It felt like the Lord was re-arranging the furniture in my heart. I kept coming back and before long I was enrolled in the Bethel Bible Study course taught by Carol Moerman. Some of you remember being in that course with me. It was an eye-opening course; it made me realize how little I knew about the Bible. Then somehow I was persuaded to help teach the kids in Sunday school. That too was a learning experience. After a couple of years, Murray and Carol recommended I go to Regent College, which I did and found myself enriched even further. One aspect of that was meeting my wife, Elizabeth. After that there was involvement with Outreach Canada, and I still enjoy some volunteer work with them once in a while. I have enjoyed many joys and benefits throughout my Christian walk.
But I would never suggest to anyone that life as a Christian is a piece of cake. We Christians continue to wrestle with all of life's problems, and with all human emotions. But what resources we have! We have all the wisdom of Holy Scripture; we have the vibrant fellowship of our Christian friends; and most of all we have relationship with God through Christ and that special line of communication called prayer which is always open to us. You can pray all you want; there are no "overage" charges. Underlying everything we have that most precious gift of all, the promise of eternal life.
Do we feel motivated to share our faith? Why on earth wouldn't we? Milne summarizes as follows: "The truth of new birth has far-reaching implications for those engaged in evangelism, for it teaches us that becoming a Christian is always a miracle. The Christian witness therefore will inevitably be a person of prayer, and churches which engage in evangelism with integrity will inevitably be prayerful churches, beseeching God for his intervention to enable dead people to be reborn." Today, as ever, the role of the Holy Spirit is essential.
The best prayers are in our own words; our own heartfelt words. Sometimes it is comforting to say the Lord's prayer, the familiar words wrapped around us like a security blanket. Sometimes it is nice to repeat the Apostles' Creed, a very good summation of Christian faith. The Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1563, is another resource: this is a question-and-answer summary of faith, approved by numerous Protestant churches, including the Reform Church denomination we belong to. The first question and answer goes like this: "Q: What is your only comfort in life and death? (Think about that for a minute). A: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my Heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head, indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him."
This question and answer amounts to a very powerful statement of faith, dealing with those vital topics of salvation and eternal life. Said prayerfully, it might be appropriate for any Christian, at any stage of their life-long learning process. This is no philosophy-this is faith in the living God.
In conclusion, we can see that our brief reading of Chapter 3 of the book of John has given us much to think about. The Lord loves us and he does not want us to be casual acquaintances. It is my hope that anyone contemplating making a commitment to God and opening up their heart to be receptive to the Holy Spirit will carefully review, re-read and ponder the beautiful words of this part of the Bible. For others who are familiar with the ideas of rebirth and renewal, please join me in remembering and rejoicing in the day we first believed. Finally let me recite the words of Psalm 51:10-12 as an earnest prayer to the Lord:
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
Or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
And grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Praise the Father, praise the Son, praise the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In faith and fellowship,
Outreach Canada Ministries
 Plato, The Last Days of Socrates, trans. Hugh Tredennick (Baltimore: Penguin) 1969, p.167.
 Bruce Milne, The Message of John (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press) 1993, p.74.
 Milne, p.76.
 R.V.G. Tasker, The Gospel According to St. John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 2000, p.68.
 Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken (New York: Random House) 2014.
 Milne, p.79.