Summary: Nicodemus found the answer of how to enter the kingdom of God.
About 25 years ago, a new phrase slipped into the American vocabulary. Actually, the expression is as old as the New Testament itself, but for many years the world had generally ignored the term. But then Charles Colson, who was a former aide to Richard Nixon and was involved in Watergate, wrote an autobiography. It was entitled Born Again. And then, we had a president -- Jimmy Carter -- who spoke often of the fact that he was born again, and ever since that time the expression has become quite popular. Quite a few folks in the entertainment world lay claim to having been born again -- including Jane Fonda, Charlie Sheen and Larry Flynt. Both of the men running for president this year -- George W. Bush and Al Gore -- claim to have been born again. In fact, approximately 50 percent of all Americans claim to have been born again.
But just what does it mean to be born again? It’s strange how few people can give a good definition for such a popular term. In John 3, Jesus indicated that Nicodemus didn’t understand what was meant by the term, and without any attempt at being unkind, let me say that I believe the majority of today’s religious world fits into the same category with Nicodemus.
And so, in our lesson this morning, I’d like for us to take a look at John chapter 3 and see exactly what Jesus meant when he spoke of being born again. As the chapter opens, we are introduced to the man who came to Jesus and initiated the whole discussion.
I. The Man Nicodemus
"There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night."(John 3:1)
There’s a lot we don’t know about Nicodemus, but there are a few things we do know. We know, for example, that Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Now it’s important that we understand who the Pharisees were. If ever there was a group which could be called religious fanatics, it was the Pharisees. There were never any more than 6000 of them at one time, so it was a very elite group. Each one of them took a solemn vow before three witnesses that he would devote every moment of his entire life to obeying the Ten Commandments, as a way of pleasing God. The Pharisees took that vow very seriously.
Unfortunately, at least for the Pharisees, the Ten Commandments are given in rather general terms. And so it became necessary to define God’s laws more clearly and to spell out how they applied to certain situations, so there developed among the Jews a group of people called the scribes. These men spent their lives studying the law of Moses and applying it to situations of life so that the Pharisees could carry out these commands and thus obey God.
The scribes took their work very seriously. In fact, to demonstrate just how seriously they took it, they compiled a very thick book, which the Jews still have today, called the Mishnah, which is devoted to applying the Ten Commandments to life. In the Mishnah, the section on obeying the rule of not working on the Sabbath takes up twenty-four chapters. Then, in addition to that, they have another book, the Talmud, which is made up of commentaries on the Mishnah. In the Talmud another 156 pages are devoted to how to keep the Sabbath. And so you can see just how serious the Pharisees were about keeping the Law.
In their interpretation of the law, the scribes decreed that any form of labor which a man engaged in to make his living was forbidden on the Sabbath. For example, a farmer could tether his animals with a rope during the week, but he couldn’t tie a knot on the Sabbath. And if a sailor tied knots in the course of his work during the week that was fine, but he couldn’t tie a knot on the Sabbath. Knot-tying was regarded as work -- with, of course, certain exceptions. Knots that could be tied with one hand were permitted, but not one that required two hands. A woman could tie a knot in her girdle or in a scarf that she tied around her neck. That was essential to women, therefore it was permitted.
So it didn’t take long for people to start looking for loopholes in order to get around these laws. If a man needed to draw a bucket of water out of a deep well, he wasn’t permitted to tie a rope onto the bucket because that would be violating the Sabbath; but if he tied the rope to a woman’s girdle and then tied the girdle to the bucket, he could draw up water! These meticulous, narrow, rigid interpretations constituted the whole life of the Pharisees. The Law said that mortar could not be made on the Sabbath for that would be work. The scribes said that if a man spat on the ground on the Sabbath it would be making mortar, therefore spitting was forbidden. But if you spat on a rock there was no dirt involved, so you could spit on a rock on the Sabbath day but not on the ground. You just had to be careful to take good aim!