Summary: How do we enter the Kingdom? Many who think they know, do not know.
The story of Nicodemus is one of the best known stories of the Bible, and it comes to a close with one of the most often quoted passages in the Bible, John 3:16: “For 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” (John 3:16). It is so popular that people often wave posters with “John 3:16” written on them at major sporting events.
What we have in this story is a major religious leader of Israel coming to Jesus under cover of darkness. He cannot afford to have his colleagues know that he is making contact with Jesus or he will lose his place as a religious leader of Israel. We know that many other religious leaders secretly believed in Jesus as well, for John tells us: “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God” (John 12:42). They did not have the freedom to speak their minds about what they really believed for fear of being condemned by their self-righteous cohorts who thought they knew exactly what everyone should believe.
Nicodemus begins by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, 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). You have the feeling that he is about to ask Jesus a question, or several questions. But Jesus cuts to the chase and gives him a central truth that he seems to have missed, by saying, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). We know from the conversation that this thought has never entered Nicodemus’ mind. “How can this be?” he wants to know. He asks how you can go back in your mother’s womb. He interpreted Jesus’ words the way he interpreted Scripture: literally. Literalism usually turns Scripture into nonsense. The statement makes no sense to him. Nicodemus, like so many of the other religious leaders, had a template that he placed on the Scriptures, and anything that did not fit that template was disregarded. Thus, they missed much of what the Old Testament was really saying, in spite of all their study. And here I could go into great detail about the many ways that Jesus unpacked the Old Testament in ways that confounded the Pharisees and contradicted their many traditions — but that would take much more time than we have.
Nicodemus came to Jesus confused. Jesus did not fit the mold. He was not your typical rabbi. And he certainly was not what they thought the Messiah would be like, but for Nicodemus, the miracles that Jesus performed were undeniable. Pharisees like Nicodemus thought of the faith as a list doctrines to be believed and rules that must be meticulously followed. These rules were exhaustively studied, added to and redefined so that no one could actually keep them all. In order to pretend to keep them, there was an elaborate system of bypassing the laws that the Pharisees had developed. This is always the problem with legalism. It always results in hypocrisy which applies the biblical laws with special strictness to others and excuses oneself. It strains at a gnat and swallows a camel. It is critical, judgmental and narrow-minded. It picks at the speck in other’s eyes, and misses the timber in its own. It condemns breaking the Sabbath while it plots murder. It has a twisted way of missing the real point while feeling quite superior. At the same time, it elevates oneself while condemning others.
Jesus goes right to the real point so that Nicodemus cannot avoid it. Nicodemus thought he had everything figured out, so when Jesus introduced a new idea at him, it threw him. Jesus talked of being born again — a spiritual rebirth which results in a radical redirection of a person’s life and perspective. This rebirth results in a reorientation of a person’s life that produces a new relationship with God. Someone has called it “The explosive power of a new affection.” It places the center piece of religion on how one relates to God and presents a righteousness that comes from God, rather than the result of one’s personal effort and achievement. It is a righteousness that comes by faith, not legalistic obedience.
When another religious leader came to Jesus, he asked Jesus what the most important law in Scripture was. Quoting the Old Testament, Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39; Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus was trying to explain to him that faith was not about believing the right things or obeying religious rules, as much as it was about a right relationship with God and others. He was explaining that genuine faith is about living a life of love for God and people. And this can only happen when a spiritual birth takes place that redirects our love and commitment away from ourselves and toward God and others. This is true holiness.