Most of the people I know want to feel good about themselves. There’s not a consensus on how to obtain that sense of goodness, or the feeling of contentment about ourselves we long for, but the vast majority of people I know want to experience it. There are countless ways we try to obtain the elusive sense of contentment or goodness. Some try to find it in a great education. They believe that the more degrees they earn the better they’ll feel about themselves. Others believe that if they commit their lives to serving others that they’ll feel better about themselves. The mantra of these folks is: “The more I give the better I’ll feel.” Still others set their sights on working as hard as they can to get promotion after promotion and finally achieve the corner office. Satisfaction and contentment may not be part of their daily journey, but they are convinced that once they move into the corner office that they will have made it, and then they’ll feel good about themselves. I could go on and on listing the endless number of ways that we seek contentment, the things we do to feel “good” about ourselves.
I’ve noticed something else as I’ve observed our pursuit of wanting to feel good about ourselves. That which we place as the highest priority can easily become our badge of self-righteousness. Let me explain. If gaining all of the education I can is my highest aim in life, my vehicle to carry me to contentment, then, if I’m not careful, I can end up looking down upon others who don’t have what I’ve achieved. If serving others is my highest aim in life, I can easily conclude that those who don’t share my commitment are selfish and self-centered. If amassing wealth is my top priority then I run the risk of looking down upon those who don’t have as much money as me. We run this risk of making our pursuit the “best” pursuit and becoming self-righteous. This is not only a potential problem for those who aren’t Christians, it’s our potential pitfall as well. Our relationship with Jesus can easily become nothing more than religious ritual that leads us down the road of self-righteousness.
There’s one final observation I’ve made which has been such a blessing to me in trying to navigate the perils and pitfalls of trying to follow Jesus in a dark and deceived culture: None of these pursuits will satisfy over the long haul. They may enable you and me to feel good about ourselves at the end of the day, but they will fail to enable you and me to feel good about ourselves at the end of our lives.
The reason I’ve brought this up for us to think about this morning is because if ever there was a person who could feel genuinely content with their place in life it would have to have been Nicodemus—he had it made! Let’s read our Scripture for today and then we’ll talk more about him.
23 Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. 24 But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. 25 He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person. 3:1 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 2:23-3:15 NIV)
We read John 2:23-25 last week, but I’ve waited until today to highlight these verses for us because they really belong with our section of Scripture for today and not with the section about the wedding in Cana. John tells us, “…Many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name.” At the beginning of John 3, we read about Nicodemus, in verse 2,
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.” (John 3:2 NIV)
Nicodemus was one of those impressed with the “signs” that Jesus was performing. Then we read, in John 2:24-25, that Jesus wouldn’t “entrust” himself to those who believed in Him because they saw Him do miracles. We are told that Jesus knew what was in each and every person. Immediately following this statement comes the story of Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus. It’s important for us keep this in mind as we learn about the conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus.
Who was Nicodemus? Well, we learn from our Scripture this morning that he was a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. That doesn’t mean much to us today so let me kind of fill in the gaps so that we can have a better understanding about this man who came to Jesus at night.
The word, “Pharisee,” comes from a Hebrew verb that means, “to separate.” They were a separate group from the general population of Jews because they were zealous about keeping the Law of Moses. The Pharisees came about during the intertestamental period, the time between Malachi and Matthew. Most believe that the Pharisees originated before the Maccabean wars, about 100 years before the birth of Jesus, because they were concerned about the secularization of the culture. Today you might hear preachers and others talk about their concern for how the practices of our culture are infiltrating the Church and how it is becoming increasing difficult to distinguish between the followers of Jesus and non-believers. Well, that’s not a new concern. It was this problem that sparked the beginning of the Pharisees.
There was another influential religious movement that was also present in Israel at this time and they were called the Sadducees. The Sadducees were made up largely of wealthy priests and Levites while the members of the Pharisees were largely made up of middle class men. The Sadducees were a larger group, but the Pharisees had greater influence in their society and with the Sanhedrin because of their popularity with the general public.
Nicodemus, as a Pharisee would have been devoted beyond anything we know to obeying God’s Law. Each of the Pharisees took a vow before three witnesses that he would devote every minute of his life to obeying God. There was a group within the Pharisees, called Scribes, who studied God’s Word for the purpose of giving guidance to people in how to apply God’s Word to every aspect of life. Their work, called the Mishnah, was given more consideration than Scripture because it told the Jews how to live out God’s Law. If the information provided by the Mishnah wasn’t explanation enough, they also created a commentary on the Mishnah called the Talmud.
I hope you are getting a clearer picture of the detail Nicodemus and his fellow Pharisees paid to making sure they were keeping every aspect of God’s Law. What I’ve shared with you should be enough to convince us that Nicodemus was a very religious man, but I’m not done. We are also told that Nicodemus was a “member of the Jewish ruling council.” This is John’s way of telling us that Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, the governing body of Israel. The Jews traced the beginnings of the Sanhedrin to the 70 elders that Moses brought to the tent to meet with the Lord. Turn with me to Numbers 11:16-17 and let’s read about it.
16 The LORD said to Moses: “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with you. 17 I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take some of the power of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them. They will share the burden of the people with you so that you will not have to carry it alone. (Numbers 11:16-17 NIV)
The Sanhedrin vanished, was reorganized by Ezra during his day, and by the day that Jesus came to Jerusalem there were 71 members and were led by the High Priest. The Sanhedrin answered to no one except the Romans and they were given power in Jerusalem society to make arrests, hold trials, and serve as decision makers in civil and criminal issues as well as religious matters.
Nicodemus was a very religious man, he was a highly influential man with great power and prestige, and he was a highly educated man. If all of this were not enough, it is almost certain that Nicodemus and his family were people of affluence. Nicodemus was Jewish, but his name is Greek. “Nicodemus,” in Greek, means, “one who conquers the people.” James Montgomery Boice writes,
For the most part those who lived in Judea had Hebrew or Aramaic names. However, those in the upper classes, who were exposed to Greek as well as Jewish culture, often gave their children two names, a Greek name as well as a Hebrew one. (Boice, James Montgomery, The Gospel of John, Vol. 1. pg. 187.)
Nicodemus is the man that most men would give anything to be. Prominence? Check! Pedigree? Check! Power? Check! Prestige? Check! Position? Check! This is the man who came to meet Jesus in the night. There’s lots of thoughts on why Nicodemus chose to find Jesus at night. Some say it’s because he didn’t want his fellow Pharisees to know he was seeking Jesus out. Others say that it was because there were always crowds around Jesus during the day and it would have been hard to have a conversation with Him. Both of those sound like possibilities to me, but I’m more concerned with why he went to Jesus at all. When he found Jesus he said,
2 …”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.” (John 3:2-3 NIV)
Nicodemus called Jesus, “Rabbi.” That’s something worth noting when you realize Nicodemus’ position and the fact that Jesus had never once attended one of the approved schools of learning for those who aspired to be a rabbi one day. Nicodemus not only showed respect to Jesus by calling Him, “Rabbi,” but he acknowledged that Jesus was a teacher who had come from God. What did Nicodemus base his assessment of Jesus on? He said, “For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Like many people in Jerusalem, Nicodemus was impressed with the “signs” of Jesus.
I’m sure that Jesus’ response to Nicodemus must have caught him off guard. Jesus didn’t ask Nicodemus which of the signs He had performed were his favorite. Jesus didn’t make small talk about the Sanhedrin or the Pharisees. Jesus didn’t thank Nicodemus for his kind words either. Nicodemus had said that he could “see” that Jesus was from God because of His miracles, but Jesus answers by telling Nicodemus that he can’t see anything pertaining to God unless he is first born again. Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:3 NIV)
The first words out of Jesus’ mouth are “????, ????” (amen amen). We are familiar with this word as people use it to agree with what has just been said. If I say something during our study time this morning that resonates with some of you then I can hear folks say, “Amen!” Jesus is using the word at the beginning of what He is about to say. In Jesus’ day, when “Amen” was used at the beginning of a sentence, it was used to stress the importance of what was to come. It’s like Jesus said, “Nicodemus, listen up! I’ve got something really important to tell you.” Jesus then told Nicodemus that no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again. The word, “again,” in most of our English Bibles is translated from the Greek word, “??????” (anothen) and it can either be translated as “again” or “above.” The difference in the two uses are this: When it is translated as “again” it is done so to emphasize the nature of the experience. When it is translated as “above” it is used to emphasize the origin of the experience. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the second birth is a supernatural experience whose origin is from above, or from God. The same word is used in John 3:31 where Jesus says,
31 The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. (John 3:31 NIV)
It’s the first occurrence of “above” that is the word that we are looking at in John 3:3. Jesus uses the word twice in His conversation with Nicodemus. He uses it in verse 3 and then again in verse 7 when He says, “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.” (John 3:7 NIV) What did Jesus mean when He told Nicodemus that he would never see the Kingdom of God unless he was born again? Well, Nicodemus didn’t have a clue. Nicodemus responded to Jesus’ statement by asking a question. Look at John 3:4 with me.
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!” (John 3:4 NIV)
Surely being born again in the manner that we were born the first time is not even a possibility?! Jesus comes back and uses imagery that is more familiar to Nicodemus in verse 5 when He answers Nicodemus by saying, “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) The last time Nicodemus speaks in his conversation with Jesus is found in verse 9 where Nicodemus says, “How can this be?” This most basic, fundamental spiritual truth is puzzling to Nicodemus. He knows the Law, he tithes a tenth of everything, even his spices like dill, mint, and cumin, but he is blind to the most basic spiritual truth—You must be born again, you must be born from above! In John 3:10, Jesus says,
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? (John 3:10 NIV)
Nicodemus knew that keeping the Sabbath meant that you couldn’t travel more than 1,000 yards from your home. He knew that on the Sabbath you could tie knots with one hand, but not with two. He knew that women weren’t allowed to look into a mirror on the Sabbath because they might see a grey hair and be tempted to pull it out—that would be regarded as “work.” Nicodemus knew so much. He knew minute details about keeping the Law, but he missed “Walking With God: 101—You must be born again!” Nicodemus was the big man on campus. When it came to the religious crowd in Jerusalem no one stood taller and yet Jesus reveals that Nicodemus didn’t know the first thing about the key to unlocking the glories of God’s Kingdom. R.C.H. Lenski writes
Jesus’ word regarding the new birth shatters once for all every supposed excellence of man’s attainment, all merit of human deeds, all prerogatives of natural birth of station. Spiritual birth is something one undergoes, not something he produces. As our efforts had nothing to do with our natural conception and birth, so in an analogous way but on a far higher plane, regeneration is not a work of ours. What a blow for Nicodemus! His being a Jew gave him no part in the kingdom: his being a Pharisee, esteemed holier than other people, availed him nothing; his membership in the Sanhedrin and his fame as one of its scribes went for nought. This Rabbi from Galilee calmly tells him that he is not yet in the kingdom! (The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel [Reprint; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998], 234-235)
We’ve got more to discuss about Nicodemus that we’ll get to next week, but it is a must that we stop at this point and turn the light from Nicodemus’ life onto our own. What Jesus shared with Nicodemus is no different than what He shared with every other person He ever met—“You must be born again!” Pharisee and paralytic, the rich young ruler and the religious leaders of His day, the Governor of Judea and the Gadarenes demoniac—each and every one needed the touch of God, they needed to be born again from above. And the story continues in our own day–We must be born again. What is it that you are holding onto to define you, give you a sense of well-being, success, contentment? It’s not enough my friend. You need to surrender your life to Jesus Christ and ask Him to “birth” you into the Kingdom of God, regenerate your mind and heart, and begin to transform your life.
Nicodemus is a great example for those of us who go to church, attend Bible study, and consider ourselves as Jesus’ followers. You can memorize the whole Bible, live a moral life, and totally miss Jesus. I know folks who have attended worship for years and have never worshipped. I know folks who pray, but who have never experienced the intimacy that God desires for all of His children to know. My friend this doesn’t have to be your story. The Lord has brought you here this morning for the purpose of opening your eyes to your great need to be born from above. Won’t you confess your need to Him this morning and invite Him into your heart?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
August 25, 2013