Summary: Nicodemus was confused because his thinking was earth-bound but Jesus offered him eternal life through a spiritual rebirth if he would believe in Christ’s self-offering on the Cross.
A LIFE CHANGING INTERVIEW
The text, John 3:16 is a biblical classic: "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." It’s probably the most loved and quoted verse in Scripture. Rev Sandy Millar, Rector of Holy Trinity, Brompton, tells of how he visited a young woman in Holloway Prison. There was only one card pinned up in her cell. He noticed the words: "Happy Birthday" was the printed message and underneath was written, "We wish things could have worked out differently but all our love. Mum and Dad." Sandy Millar comments, "God could have written that about our world" and in Jesus He did.
"God so loved the world …" This contains the essence of the Bible’s message to a sick world. But to understand it, to take in its life-giving power, we have to see it in the context of the setting in which Jesus spoke those wonderful and powerful words. It came about in an interview one night that a man called Nicodemus had with Jesus. Nicodemus was somebody rather special in society - he was a Pharisee. He belonged to a group who was the aristocracy of Jerusalem. The name Pharisee means "the Separated One"; and the Pharisees were those who had separated themselves from all ordinary life in order to keep every detail of the law of Moses as worked out by the scribes. Some of them were very good men but they made one basic and very tragic error - their goal in life was the formal observance of religion, not its spirit. This often led to a proud exhibitionism and holier-than-thou attitude that God found totally repulsive.
Paul, the apostle, was once like this, but the further he progressed in the Christian pilgrimage, the more unworthy he knew himself to be, calling himself "the chief of sinners" (1 Tim 1:15). It reminds me of a dream a vicar once had. He was on his way to heaven. Before him there stretched a long flight of stairs. As he started to go up, he was given a piece of chalk and told that he must put a chalk mark on each of the steps for each sin he had committed. When he was about halfway up he met the bishop coming down. He enquired why his Lordship was returning, and the bishop answered, "I’m just going back to get some more chalk!" Perhaps we feel like that too!
Nicodemus belonged to the salvation-by-works party. He was also a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. He obviously had an inquiring mind and wanted to clear up some matters with Jesus that had puzzled him, and so he came to Jesus one night for an interview. I wonder, why at night? Was it because he was afraid that he might be criticized by other Sanhedrin members if he’d been discovered in conversation with this up-start, unconventional and unlicensed teacher? Or was it just because Jesus was too busy during the day?
We just don’t know, but it’s worth mentioning because it’s so easy to jump to wrong conclusions about somebody else’s motives. The point to take is that he knew he had something lacking in his life; he recognized it and came to the One who had the words of life. Coming to Jesus is the best thing we can ever do. He is the fount of all truth and life. Nicodemus acknowledged this when he addressed Jesus, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God." Whatever our problems, we must bring them to Jesus. Like with Nicodemus, a talk with Jesus in the darkness of the night of our confusion will result in light.
Jesus knew what was Nicodemus’ question without being told in so many words - it was the eternal problem - that of a person who wants to be changed and who cannot change himself. That’s why Jesus immediately introduces the subject of how can a person enter the kingdom of God. He goes straight to the heart of the matter - in order to see the kingdom of God a person must be born from above, that is, that the Spirit must implant in his or her heart the life that has its origin, not on earth but in heaven. Nicodemus is told quite clearly that no earthly distinctions will qualify him for entrance to heaven. It wasn’t a matter of improvement in outward behaviour: he already lived a good life. It wasn’t a matter of the meticulous keeping of the law: he did that to the best of his ability. No, there must be a radical change.
"I tell you the truth," said Jesus, "unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." In other words, in his present state, he can’t experience and partake of the Kingdom; he can’t possess and enjoy it. This concept of being "born again" is something that Nicodemus can’t get his mind around. The whole dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus is not on the desirability of this change. He knew it was necessary, but it was the seeming impossibility of it that Nicodemus questioned.