Summary: Nicodemus - religion vs relationship
Nick at Night
This passage is one of the most familiar in scripture. You see John 3:16 advertised on road signs and sporting events. Luther called John 3:16, “the gospel in microcosm” It is one of the first passages that we memorize, usually in a Sunday School class.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love Sunday School and what it does for us, but from time to time the kids in Sunday School come up with some stuff that seems just a touch off the mark.
A teacher, before dismissing the class, was reminding the kids to behave during the service. She asked why it was important for them to be quiet during church. The answer, “Because some people are sleeping.” I guess that is why we have “hushers.”
A class of four year olds was taught a prayer to use when saying grace before meals. The next week one of the mothers commented, “That was a lovely prayer that you taught Emily, but I must admit that my husband is growing tired of her saying grace every time he opens the door of the refrigerator to get a beer.”
A Sunday School teacher was teaching the importance of love in the home. She illustrated her point by referring to the commandment, "Honor thy father and thy mother." She then asked if there was a commandment which taught how to treat sisters and brothers.
One little boy from a large family raised his hand quickly. Innocently he asked, "Thou shalt not kill?"
A Sunday School teacher challenged the children to take some time on Sunday afternoon to write a letter to God. They were to bring their letter back the following Sunday. One little boy wrote, "Dear God, We had a good time at church today. Wish you could have been there."
A wise Sunday school teacher had the habit of sending home a note each year that said, “If you promise not to believe everything that your child says happened in Sunday School, I promise not to believe everything that your child says happens at home.”
We all need to grow in maturity and deepen our understanding of the great passages of scripture. This is one of the greatest.
First we have to understand who this Nicodemus was.
He was a Pharisee. These were the great lawyers of Judaism. They knew and followed all of the rules to the letter. The name “Pharisee” literally means “separated one.” They were so concerned about their possible contamination by associating with those who did not follow the law strictly that they isolated themselves from those in need in the world around them. They used their religion, not as a source for caring and ministry, but as an excuse for not getting involved in the problems of others.
When we say that there are certain people with who we can not associate people who we can not love or serve, because they are too sinful and we are too pure, we fall into the same trap. When we fail to show compassion, we too are far from the heart of God.
He was a member of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish Supreme Court. These were the judges of religious orthodoxy. These were the ones who governed the Temple. One can imagine Nicodemus putting faith in his position.
Don’t we do the same? Don’t we automatically give credence to people who happen to hold positions of influence in our society. Think about how we treat the opinions of sports heroes, music stars, and movie entertainer. While they may have no more experience or understanding than any average Joe, the very fact that they are famous makes their views worthy of attention. Given a humble carpenter and a religious judge, whose views do we assume will have more insight?
He was a Teacher. Many translation of the passage use the words, “a teacher of Israel” but that misses the meaning. The translation I read has Jesus saying “You are Israel’s teacher” which is much closer. A word for word translation would say, “the teacher of Israel.” The notion conveyed in the Greek is that Nicodemus is the preeminent, the most knowledgeable and respected teacher in all of Israel. If there was anybody who should have understood, who should have gotten the message, it was Nicodemus. It is ironic that it was his own religious misconceptions that prevented him from understanding who Jesus was.
His situation is a warning to us. Often, it is exactly those times when we are certain that we have everything figured out that we are furthest from God’s truth. It is often when we are most confused and broken, that we gain an appreciation for God’s unfailing love. We have to realize that God is so far above our understanding that our most cherished doctrines are only shallow caricatures of God’s truth. Like children, our understanding of the facts can be a bit distorted. But just as children are protected from their immature understandings by their overriding surety in their relationships with those who love them, we must put our faith, not in our understanding of doctrine, but in our relationship with Christ.