Summary: The story of Nicodemus helps us see that until the truth of Jesus dawns on us, we remain in the dark.
Because of Daylight Savings Time, some of you probably feel like you got up an hour early today. Some of you may be here and not even know it because you are not awake yet!
I’ve told this little story before, but I’m going to tell it again because it helps to make a point I want to make later.
A scientifically-minded kid one time tried to figure out what happened when the sun went down in the evening. Day after day he asked himself, “Now, where does the sun go? It comes up in the east, goes down in the west, and comes up again in the east. Something strange is going on.” He became so curious, he decided to watch the sun go down to see what happened.
So he did. It was a nice warm evening and he sat outside watching the sun go down in the western sky. It got dark. The stars came out. He waited all night. And finally, it dawned on him!
Most of you know that I take humor seriously. I enjoy funny stories, jokes, and words with double meanings. In fact, for a while when I was teaching in college, I taught a whole course on humor. It was the funniest thing I ever did.
In order to appreciate words with double meanings, you need to be able to hold two different ideas in your mind at the same time. Words with double meanings can be funny, of course, but they don’t have to be. Sometimes they carry a serious message, as they often do in the book of John. That is especially true in the story of Nicodemus.
Today, I want to focus on three of those words because they are so important to our understanding of the gospel. But keep in mind that, in spite of the double meanings and ambiguities in John 3, there is nothing uncertain about the message of this chapter. As we study the story of Nicodemus and his encounter with Jesus, one thing remains crystal clear: until the truth of Jesus dawns on us, we remain in the dark.
So who was Nicodemus? Verse 1 says that he was a Pharisee. Regardless of what you have heard about the Pharisees, they were some of the best people who ever lived. They had high moral and religious standards, and they tried to live by them. These were men who took a vow to obey every law of God as perfectly as they could. To them, God’s law was the most sacred thing in the world and the first five books of the OT contained it. (William Barclay)
According to Wm. Barclay, their reasoning went something like this: “God’s law tells us everything we need to know about how to live the way God wants us to live, so in the law we should be able to find a regulation for every possible situation.” So they set about trying to obey God’s law down to the very last detail, resulting in some ridiculous behaviors. For example, the fourth commandment (Ex. 20:8) says to keep the Sabbath holy and to do no work on that day.
How do you define work? They had lots of rules. For example, tying a knot in a rope was work, especially if it required two hands. But, if you could tie the knot with one hand, it was not work. And that is just the beginning. For the Pharisees, real religion meant following all the rules. They thought following strict rules like that was pleasing to God.
So here was Nicodemus, one of these upright men, trying to obey every sentence of the law. He thought he understood what God expected. But then he started to watch the Son of God rise into prominence because of his teachings and his miracles. Nicodemus had probably heard about the wedding in Cana we examined last week, in which Jesus transformed something common into something wonderful. He may have seen with his own eyes the passion with which Jesus chased those dishonest money changers out of the temple. God seemed to be doing something and he couldn’t understand it.
I don’t know if any of you have tried to live like Nicodemus, carefully following all the rules, doing this and not doing that, thinking that was the way to please God. There was a time when I came close. But when you hear Jesus say that you can’t enter the kingdom of God unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees (Mt. 5:20), you realize you are doomed. How could you do better than these people who spent their entire lives trying to obey every detail of God’s law? The fact is, until the truth of Jesus dawns on us, we remain in the dark.