Last week we started looking at the story of Nicodemus and Jesus. I mentioned last week that there is more than meets the eye in this amazing story. Nicodemus says that he can “see” that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God and Jesus responds by saying that he can’t “see” anything pertaining to the kingdom of God until he is born again. That had to have rocked Nicodemus back on his heels since he was a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, and “the” teacher of the people of Israel. I didn’t even mention this last title of Nicodemus last week. If you will remember, when Jesus for the second time told Nicodemus that he must be born again, Nicodemus asked a question and Jesus responded.
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. 10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? (John 3:9-10 NIV)
The word that Jesus used to describe Nicodemus is the Greek word for “teacher,” the Greek word, “??????????” (didaskalos). Jesus didn’t call Nicodemus “a teacher of Israel,” He used the “definite article” before “teacher” and called him “? ??????????,” “the teacher.” All of these particulars about Nicodemus’ life set him up as the big man on campus, but Jesus didn’t stutter and stammer in the presence of Nicodemus’ lofty position in society, He told him the truth.
There are at least a couple of ways to share the truth with folks. You and I both know people, and possibly have been the kind of people, who have been brutally honest in sharing the truth with folks. Sometimes being brutally honest is called for, is necessary. There were times in Jesus’ life when He was brutally honest with folks. Turn to Matthew 23 and let me share with you an example of Jesus being brutally honest with the Pharisees, Nicodemus’ buddies. Let’s begin in verse 27.
27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:27-28 NIV)
That, my friend, is brutal honesty. Now, we might read these verses and come to the conclusion that brutal honesty is the way to go. Just hammer them with the truth. There are folks, Christians and non-Christians alike, who have adopted this approach, but I want you to know that this was not the only approach that Jesus took with the people He met during His ministry. There is another approach, an approach that Jesus used more than any other, and I call it “ministry in context.” Let me give you an example. In John 6, Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two small fish. Later in the chapter Jesus told the people that they were looking for Him because they ate the bread and got full. The people continued their back and forth with Jesus until finally Jesus said,
35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35 NIV)
That, my friend, is ministry is context. Jesus met the people where they were; He ministered to their need, and used their experience as an opportunity to tell them the truth about spiritual matters. Jesus did this over and over again and I believe that the story of Jesus and Nicodemus is one of the examples of ministry in context. Let’s read the Scripture from John 3 once again and then we’ll see what we can learn.
1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” 3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” 4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” 9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. 10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:1-15 NIV)
I want us to focus on verses 5-7 for a minute. In these verses Jesus told Nicodemus that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” He also told him, “flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” Then Jesus said, “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’” In verse 10, Jesus was baffled that Nicodemus, the teacher of God’s people, didn’t understand what He was talking about. One more thing, in verse 14, Jesus told Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.” I want to point these out for us because everything Jesus shared with Nicodemus is rooted in the Hebrew Bible.
I’ve been studying this section of Scripture during the past two weeks and I have learned so much. One of the biggest questions concerning this section of Scripture is, What did Jesus mean when He said, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.’ (John 3:5 NIV) It is crucial that we understand what Jesus was talking about because it still holds true for us today. In verse 3, Jesus said, “…no one can “see” the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Here, in verse 5, He says, “no one can ‘enter’ the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” This is a crucial lesson for you and me to learn if we want to enter the kingdom of God. The question revolves around, “What does it mean to be born of water and the Spirit?” D.A. Carson, in his excellent commentary on the Gospel of John outlines five different, but popular interpretations about the phrase. I won’t share all of them with you, but let me share a few.
Natural vs. Supernatural
The first possibility is the idea that Jesus is teaching about two births, a natural birth and a supernatural birth. Those who embrace this idea believe that “water” is referring to the mother’s water breaking just before she gives birth. This is not really a possibility when you understand that in the Greek text there is no “the” before “Spirit.” It should read, “water and Spirit,” referring to one birth and not two.
Another possibility is the idea that Jesus is teaching about Christian baptism. This can’t be what Jesus meant for two reasons. First, the people knew about John’s baptism of repentance, but Christian baptism wasn’t practiced at the time Nicodemus was speaking with Jesus. Secondly, we are saved by faith and not by baptism, or works. Paul writes,
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV)
All of us who are followers of Jesus should be baptized, but it is not for our salvation, it is a symbol and a declaration to the world that God has saved us.
These are just some of the interpretations that folks have come up with in trying to understand what Jesus meant. The key for me in trying to understand this is to pay special attention to the fact that Jesus fully expected Nicodemus to understand what He was talking about because he was “the” teacher of God’s people, the Jews. Nicodemus’ area of expertise wasn’t in botany, neurology, anthropology, or philosophy, but it was in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus expected Nicodemus to draw upon his field of expertise to understand what He was talking about.
Throughout God’s Word, in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, salvation and renewal are the work of God. God accomplishes the salvation of His people by His Spirit. It’s not something people accomplish, it is God’s work. It’s not something we achieve; it’s something we receive as a free gift from God. When Jesus spoke this truth to Nicodemus he should have understood from the Scriptures he had read and learned. Let me show you what I’m talking about.
In the Hebrew Bible “water” was used to describe both cleansing and renewal. Water is also used as a metaphor to describe God when Jeremiah tells us, in Jeremiah 2, that God’s people have forsaken the “fountain of living water.” In Isaiah 55 we read that God invites all of those who are “thirsty” to come and find satisfaction. The prophet Zechariah tells us about a unique day that is coming when he writes,
7 It will be a unique day–a day known only to the LORD–with no distinction between day and night. When evening comes, there will be light. 8 On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter. 9 The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name. (Zechariah 14:7-9 NIV)
“Living water will flow out from Jerusalem…” There are many places in the Hebrew Bible where the prophets speak of God cleansing, renewing, and pouring out His Spirit upon His people, but one of the most powerful and descriptive comes from the prophet Ezekiel. Look at Ezekiel 36 with me and let’s begin in verse 24.
24 “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:24-27 NIV)
What’s really interesting about this is that it was spoken at a time when the people of God were at their lowest. They were in exile in Babylon, their city was destroyed, and it looked as if it was all over. Following the powerful declaration by God in Ezekiel 36, God led Ezekiel to a valley full of dry bones. If there was any question about whose bones they were, God cleared it up in Ezekiel 37:11. Read along with me.
11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ (Ezekiel 37:11 NIV)
“…Our hope is gone; we are cut off.” There were bones everywhere. As Ezekiel looked over the valley and took it all in, God asked Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3a NIV) That really seems like an unnecessary question doesn’t it? These are not people who are on life-support; these are those who have been dead for so long that their bones are dry. How did Ezekiel answer the Lord? Well, we find the answer in verse 3 where Ezekiel said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.” (Ezekiel 37:3b NIV) What an incredible answer! “You alone know.” I think what Ezekiel really meant was, “I don’t know, but if it’s going to happen then You are going to have to do it Lord.” John MacArthur writes,
It was surely this passage that Jesus had in mind, showing regeneration to be an Old Testament truth with which Nicodemus would have been acquainted. Against this Old Testament backdrop, Christ’s point was unmistakable: Without the spiritual washing of the soul, a cleansing accomplished only by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God, no one can enter God’s kingdom. (MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of John. pg. 105)
Those bones that were laying all around the valley came together, God breathed upon them, and they came to life solely because of the work of Almighty God.
Nicodemus knew the story of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones. This was not the only story from the Hebrew Bible that Nicodemus knew; he also knew the story of Moses lifting up the snake from Numbers 21. Let me give you the Cliff Notes version of the story. As the story unfolds the people are being led through the wilderness by God, but they are complaining and bellyaching all along the way. “There’s no bread. There’s no water. We hate this miserable manna!” So, the Lord sent venomous snakes among His people and many of them were bitten and died. Soon thereafter the people cried out to Moses, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us!” (Numbers 21:7 NIV) Moses prayed and the Lord told him to make a snake, put it on a pole, and those who looked at the snake would live. The people did what Moses told them and they lived. End of story. But it wasn’t the end of the story. Jesus used the experience to point Nicodemus to Himself when He said,
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:14-15 NIV)
By highlighting the story from Numbers 21 for Nicodemus, Jesus was planting a seed. Jesus was letting Nicodemus know that just as the snake was lifted up, so would He be lifted up as well. When the time would come for Jesus to be crucified, lifted up on a cross, Nicodemus would remember and Jesus’ words would make sense at last. This is what I mean by “ministry in context.” Jesus met Nicodemus where he was, He used words, phrases, and experiences that should have been familiar to Nicodemus even though they weren’t at the time.
Scripture is not a sixty minute made for TV drama where all of the pieces fall into place by the last commercial. Sometimes Jesus shared truth with folks and they immediately followed Him and then there are other times, other people, people like Nicodemus who take some time to finally “see.”
John 3 is not the only time we run into Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. In John 7 we run into Nicodemus again. The Jewish leaders had decided to send out the temple guards to arrest Jesus so they might have Him killed. The temple guards heard Jesus speaking and were as amazed as the people. When they went back to the chief priests and the Pharisees they were asked, “Why didn’t you arrest him?” Then, in John 7:46-47, we read,
46 “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards replied. 47 “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. (John 7:46-47 NIV)
The chief priests and the Pharisees were livid! They wanted Jesus gone and there was nothing that was going to convince them that He was anything other than a false prophet and a pariah of society. While they were fuming Nicodemus spoke up. Look at John 7:50-51 with me.
50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51 “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” (John 7:50-51 NIV)
Nicodemus defended Jesus. In John 3, we saw Nicodemus questioning Jesus, now, in John 7, Nicodemus is defending Jesus. There’s one more place in John’s Gospel where we find Nicodemus and it is in John 19. Like the snake in the wilderness, Jesus was lifted up, He was crucified. After Jesus breathed His last breath and said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit,” He died. Many people know that it was Joseph of Arimathea who went to Pilate, the Governor of Judea, and asked for Jesus’ body, but most don’t know that Nicodemus was right there with him. Turn to John 19:38-42 with me and let’s read together.
38 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. 39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. 40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. 41 At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. (John 19:38-42 NIV)
Nicodemus questioned Jesus in John 3, he defended Jesus in John 7, and he cared for Jesus in John 19. What a powerful story! There is another Pharisee who met Jesus and the moment he met Him his life was changed forever. Do you remember Saul, who became Paul, and became the greatest missionary of all time? Paul’s story is different than Nicodemus’ story, but both are examples of the saving, redeeming work of God. How about your story? Are you like Paul who experienced a sudden, dramatic conversion and your life has been changed ever since? Are you like Nicodemus? Did you hear the Gospel long ago, but the seed that was sown had to be watered and germinate before it finally broke through the hard soil of your heart? Or maybe you’ve heard the Gospel again and again, but you are still standing at a distance from Jesus. I believe the Lord brought you here this very morning so that you might not only know about Jesus, but that you might truly come to know Him. Just like Nicodemus, He will meet you where you are. Won’t you invite Him in?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
September 1, 2013