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Part 7: Jesus Teaches Nicodemus (3:1-21)
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The very outset of this chapter we receive an introduction that is quite different from the others we have seen in John’s Gospel, so far. He introduces a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a teacher of the nation of Israel, and a member of the Sanhedrin. (The Sanhedrin was the ruling council of the Jews, who were in charge of everything from politics to religion.) In other words we could say that this was a man who knew a lot and was in charge with that knowledge.
His interview with Jesus shakes him so radically that he later defends Jesus (John 7:50) and finally helps prepare Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39). Tradition holds that he became a believer. He starts this conversation with an interesting confession, not just for himself but for all the Pharisees. “We know that You are sent by God.” This deconstructs the Pharisees’ whole stance against Him! The fun thing for me to look at is Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush but jumps right into the heart of His message, almost ignoring Nicodemus’ statement and answering the question that he is asking in his heart. This occurs in verse 3.
Nicodemus was understandably confused. I can almost see him taking a step back. The information Jesus just thrust his way is so vastly different from the rest of his knowledge as well as physically impossible. Nicodemus naturally points that out to us in verse 4. Jesus tries to move Nicodemus’ eyes from physical birth to spiritual birth showing that He is talking about spiritual rebirth rather than anything physical. Nicodemus, however, will have nothing to do with it.
With Nicodemus’ inability to understand comes a radical insight to Judaism and the belief of the Jews. The Jews did not see thing spiritually but rather physically. This comes directly out of their Holy Scriptures (the Old Testament). You can see in the way that blessings and curses are written: “Do this and you will be blessed with that; don’t do it and you will be cursed instead.” The blessing always being something physical (i.e. a long life, much wealth, much land etc.) the curses are also just as physical. It can be easy to see – at least in some cases – then why the Jews (even in many cases Jesus’ own disciples) did not understand Jesus. We automatically think of spiritual things, but the Jews? Religion was always physical to the Jews. One other place this can be seen is in their reverence for a specific location as where God is: the Temple.
In response to Nicodemus Jesus gives quite a strong rebuke: “You’re supposed to be the teacher of Israel and you don’t even understand the simple things?” This direct response is so poignant not only to this Pharisee, but any religious leaders. If Jesus were here teaching us would He say the same to us? “You’re supposed to be the teacher of My people” [the Christians] “and yet you don’t understand the simple things?” Could you answer Him?
This rebuke brings us to one of the most quoted and beautiful monologues that Jesus delivered. In my opinion it rivals the Sermon on the Mount in its content and beauty. He starts off with His iconic statement: “I tell you the truth” in other translations it is translated differently. In the WEB it is “Most certainly I tell you”; in the King James Version it is translated “Verily, Verily I say unto thee”; in both the New American Standard Bible and the ESV it is translated “Truly, Truly, I say to you”. This, in the Greek, is “Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι” which is literally “Amen, amen, I say to you”. This phrase is almost used as a punctuation to point out the reader needs to pay attention to what is about to be said.
Jesus moves onto expressing His deity (Godhood) here. How could He not be God if He is not only speaking from his own knowledge but from his own experience? He is speaking only from His own knowledge and His own experience as God the Son. Still Nicodemus (and many others) refuse to believe His words. His follow up question is blatantly challenging to the way that Jews think and their religious point of view.
From here Jesus moves into yet another expression of His deity: “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven”. He is simply telling Nicodemus that no one has gone up to heaven except for a certain person who was there already. This person is? Jesus doesn’t say “Me, you ninny,” instead He gives a term that He has used to refer to himself throughout His ministry: “the Son of Man”. For Jesus this is as clear a statement of who He is as you are likely to receive. You cannot skirt around this to try and say “Jesus never said He was God” because clearly here, He is saying He comes from heaven and is the only one who can do so.
In the next two verses Jesus moves into a beautiful metaphor. Nicodemus, being a Pharisee, had the entire Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) memorized by heart. Jesus points Nicodemus’ attention back to the Torah by bringing up Moses. Moses was told by God to raise up a serpent on a pole in order to heal the Israelites after they had spoken against God and Moses. Jesus points to this as the same thing that must happen to Him (the Son of Man). This is for us to look to the cross and be saved not just from physical ailments but from eternal, spiritual death.
Jesus now says the most famous verse in the Bible. Many people, Christian or not, can recite this verse from memory. In the King James Version (KJV) it was translated this way: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The meaning of this verse, and the ones following it, resonates deeply in the hearts and minds of not only Christians but people around the world.
These verses, here, point out the eloquence of this particular response and in Jesus’ speaking in general. The next two verses I really like and they have really resonated with me. In the ESV they are translated: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:17-18 ESV). These verses point out not just the purpose of Jesus’ Ministry but also point to the freedom from accusation of the believer.
He starts out in verse 17 pointing Nicodemus’ focus back to the Torah, again, in equating His Ministry to the blessing of Abraham in Genesis. In Genesis God tells Abraham (still Abram at this point) that through him all nations (or families) will be blessed. Jesus uses similar verbiage here to explain His own ministry. This is not just His earthly ministry, but the spiritual ministry after His death, resurrection and ascension. He moves from there to explaining the spiritual state of the believer. This is a great statement. We’re not under condemnation! The WEB translates that word (which is κρίνεται – krinetai) as judged and one thing that is just awesome is there is a period after it.
We are not condemned, Period!
Here, in the end of this section, Jesus explains what the judgment is. This judgment shows what exactly the human heart is like. “The Light came into the world, but the people wanted the darkness more than the light because the things they did were evil.” This is exactly the way that the human heart works. We’re given the most amazing opportunity and we turn it down in order to be able to just keep doing what we’re doing. We don’t want to be exposed for how bad we actually are.
For anyone who actually does come to the light. They won’t be scared because their work will clearly be seen for the work of God. That is who we want to be: Those whose work is clearly seen. That is the only place that as a believer we will feel comfortable. God knows that we will mess up, but because of His grace He loves us anyway and there is no condemnation.
That is my hope for my life. What is your?