Summary: This sermon looks at Nicodemus’ ignorance as a religious leader as a springboard for teaching the necessity of the new birth.
Introduction: One of my favourite stories is of a new pastor was asked to teach a boys class in the absence of their regular Sunday School teacher. He decided at the outset to see what the boys knew and so he asked little Johnny during Bible class who broke down the walls of Jericho. Little Johnny said, "I don’t know, but I’ll tell you this, it wasn’t me!" The pastor, taken aback by this lack of basic Bible knowledge, went to the Sunday School superintendent and related the whole incident. The superintendent said, "Look, I know little Johnny and his entire family very well and can vouch for them. If he said that he didn’t do it, then I believe that it is the truth." Even more appalled with the superintendent’s lack of Bible knowledge, the pastor went to the Board of Deacons and related the whole story. After listening to the his story, one of the deacons stood up and said, "I can see this is greatly bothering you pastor, but to be honest I can’t see why you are making such a big deal out of it; let’s just get three quotations and we’ll get the wall fixed."
Have you ever had a moment like that; a moment of embarrassing ignorance? That’s what we discover in this evening’s text. Here Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, and in the throes of this conversation there appears a yawning gap in Nicodemus’ knowledge on spiritual matters. This would not have been so bad, was it not for the fact that Nicodemus was a Bible teacher by profession! How difficult it must have been for him, when Jesus, having taught on the new birth, looked him in the eye and said, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?”
When I was ministering in Dublin, I remember very well, a public debate between an evangelical minister and a prominent priest who was the Roman Catholic Church’s ‘cult slayer” and would often say outrageous things about born again believers. The subject matter of the debate was “Are born again Christians a cult?” I will never forget when the priest came to the platform to make his opening address. Virtually the first words out of his mouth were, “I have not come here to debate the Bible, for I am quite sure that many of you sitting before me know a lot more about the Bible than I do.” And so it proved, for the people on the floor, mostly ordinary Christians, not pastors or preachers, were appalled at his lack of basic Bible knowledge. “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?”
Well let’s take a look at this man Nicodemus and his difficulty, and the first thing I want you to see is;
I. His Great Privilege
A. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and the Pharisees were mainly members of ancient Israel’s middle class.
1. They were the businessmen, merchants and the tradesmen of their day.
2. That said, the average Pharisee had no formal education in the interpretation of the law and accordingly resorted to the professional scholar, the scribe, thus we often read of these two together, the scribes and Pharisees.
3. The scribes had a great deal to do with Jewish education.
4. The scribes were scholars and teachers who had the responsibility of copying and interpreting the Law.
5. It is quite possible Nicodemus was a scribe, seeing Jesus described him as a master (teacher) of Israel.
6. The Pharisees, with the special help of those who were scribes, were the chief scholars of the first century and were in charge of the houses of study and Jewish education in general.
a. From the time of Christ, they were the leaders of education and study.
b. Some of them such as Hillel achieved great status as teachers, as did also Gamaliel who had eighty students, one of whom was the Apostle Paul (Acts 22:3).
7. Now Nicodemus benefited from such an education.
8. As we look at the key stages of Jewish education we find that;
a. The study of Scripture began at the age of five when children were taught first from the Book of Leviticus how to approach God by sacrifice and then from the Book of Psalms concerning the nature of God, before they went on to other things.
b. At the age of ten one was fit for the study of the words of the Oral Law,
c. By thirteen one was considered old enough and informed enough to be responsible to fulfill the commandments.
d. At the age of fifteen one was ready to study under the great teachers.
e. By the age of twenty, a student was deemed ready to pursue a vocation, and could train for the priesthood.