Summary: A right standing with God does not come through 1. correct beliefs, or 2. correct moral conduct, but 3. through an ongoing relationship with God.

A national magazine recently ran a contest to see who could come up with the best real-life quotes resembling the cartoon “Dilbert.” If you are not familiar with Dilbert, he is a character caught in a bizarre office situation where bureaucracy rules and common sense is uncommon — a workplace not too unlike yours, perhaps. The winning quote came from an employee at Sun Microsystems who shared this memo which had come down from the top: “As of tomorrow, employees will be able to access the building only by using individual security cards. Pictures will be taken next Wednesday, and employees will receive their cards in two weeks.” Another one, which almost won, stated: “We know that communication is a problem, but the company is not going to discuss it with the employees.” But the one I liked was the memorandum which said, “This project is so important, we can’t let things that are more important interfere with it.”

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were stuck in a bureaucratic religious system that made the system more important than the cause for which it was founded — not too unlike many religious denominations in our country today. The institution became so important that they refused to let more important things interfere with it. But in the mind and heart of one of these religious leaders, named Nicodemus, there were gnawing questions about this peculiar man who performed miracles and claimed to be the Son of God. He knew that the religious scholars believed that Jesus’ claims were a sham. Some of them even believed he was a threat to their religious institution. (How right they were!) Others saw him as dangerous, because they believed that the Romans, who occupied Israel, would see him as a leader of a new revolution and destroy the nation. But Nicodemus began to question how they could not see the possibility that he was from God. After all, how else could they account for the miracles? How could they account for his staggering insight into the Scriptures and his understanding of the things of God? So Nicodemus decided to find out more, but he was ashamed to be seen talking to Jesus, so he came at night. I wonder if he was stung by Jesus’ words when he said, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

The whole story of Nicodemus is about how a person becomes right with God. Nicodemus had his ideas, but, as we will see, they were only the traditions which had been handed down to him. Jesus was about to bring his understanding to a whole new level. However, it was not without difficulty, for Nicodemus had been fully indoctrinated in the thinking of his day. What does the story of Nicodemus say to us? First of all, the story of Nicodemus tells us: A right standing with God does not come through correct beliefs. Now this is a shock to some people who have been led to believe that if you just believe in God everything will be all right in the end. Other people think that it takes more than this — you have to believe in the Bible; you have to believe in Jesus Christ, or the creeds of the church. Doctrine becomes all important. Correct thinking on specific issues in the Christian faith become the benchmark of whether a person is truly a Christian or not.

But what about Nicodemus? Did he believe in these things? Oh yes! Nicodemus absolutely believed in the Scriptures. He believed every word and had even memorized most of the books of Scripture. Nicodemus believed in God. God was on his mind a lot. Nicodemus was what we would call a “conservative” believer. He was a part of a group known as the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the spiritual descendants of the Hasidean movement. The group’s name came from the Old Testament concept of the Hasidim, meaning “the faithful,” or “the saints.” They were the ones who revolted before the time of Christ when the Greeks tried to destroy the Jews and force them to deny their faith. By the time of Christ, the Pharisees, whose name meant “to separate,” was an established religious movement within Israel. They were pious people with strong beliefs. They believed in angels, the immortality of the soul, a coming day of judgment, and the resurrection of the dead. You could not get any more orthodox than the Pharisees, and Nicodemus was one of their leaders. There is no question about the fact that he believed the right things. In fact, he even believed in Jesus — as much as he understood about him. He believed that Jesus came from God. Hear him say again, “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). It is interesting that the last verses of the previous chapter say, “Now while [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man” (John 2:23-25). Nicodemus had seen the miraculous signs and believed in Jesus, but something was wrong on the inside of him.

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