Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, January 21, 2022
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John 3:1-17

Nicodemus comes to Jesus “after dark.” Is he afraid to be seen with Jesus? Is he ashamed to want to know more about him? Is he worried what the other Pharisees will think? Some people read it that way, but the answer is probably not. For one thing, the opposition to Jesus really hasn’t solidified at this point. This is still quite early in his ministry. As a member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus is really just doing his job to learn about Jesus. The Sanhedrin was primarily a religious authority. They were supposed to investigate teachers, to be sure they were teaching the right things.

Nicodemus seems to be genuinely interested in Jesus. Later in John’s Gospel, chapter 7, he will defend Jesus against outlandish charges made against him in the Sanhedrin. Later yet, he takes part in Jesus’ burial. So I think it’s fair to say he really wants to know about Jesus, and he is not embarrassed about it.

Besides, night time was the time for study and spiritual discussion. The day’s work was over. This was when people read the Scriptures and got together to talk about them. We picture Jesus teaching his disciples during the day, but I’m guessing a lot of those moments actually happened in the evening.

Who is Nicodemus? We know he’s one of the Pharisees, a group of folks who by and large didn’t care for Jesus, but some of them did become his followers, especially after the resurrection. We know he’s a member of the Sanhedrin, which means he is wealthy and respected. And Nicodemus is one of the people we meet in the New Testament who is also known from outside sources.

His take on Jesus: “You must be from God. The miracles demonstrate that.”

Jesus responds, “You must be born ANOTHEN to enter the Kingdom of God.”

First, the easier question, “What is the Kingdom of God?” One thing we learn is that the Kingdom of God is available to everyone, not just to one ethnic group, not just to the Jews. And it is not a political kingdom. It is a spiritual kingdom. Jesus tells us that it has already begun in the hearts, and minds, and lives of his followers (Luke 17:21). But we also know it will be fulfilled when Jesus returns. To be part of the Kingdom of God is to have God’s rule in one’s life, to belong to God.

Second, what is ANOTHEN? The Greek word used here can mean “from above,” a way of saying “from God.” But it can also mean again. I think Jesus means it the first way and Nicodemus hears it the second way.

The language of rebirth was already used in first-century Judaism. It was used to describe a convert. A new convert from the Gentiles was called a newborn. But that doesn’t make sense to Nicodemus. He’s already Jewish. He’s already part of the covenant people. Why would he need to convert?

He says, “How can an old man be born again?” Now, if he means that literally, it makes him sound pretty dumb. But some have wondered if maybe this is a forlorn statement: “If only a man could begin again. If only we could learn from our mistakes and get a fresh start. Do things right the second time!” I don’t think Nicodemus was a dummy.

Jesus goes on, “No one can enter the Kingdom without being born of water and Spirit.” Now there are a couple of ways this could be understood. The question is, “Is Jesus talking about one birth or two?”

On one hand, Jesus could be talking about two births, one physical, and one spiritual. Being born “of water” was used to talk about childbirth, amniotic fluid and such. Or it could be understood as one new birth. Water could refer to the water of baptism, linking conversion and the incoming of the Holy Spirit. Alternatively, it could be used to describe one new birth with water being used symbolically for the Holy Spirit. The Greek could also be read as “water, that is, the Holy Spirit.”

I’m not sure a big fight over the best interpretation is necessary because the obvious meaning is the same in every case. There must be a work of the Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God. “Flesh gives birth to flesh but Spirit gives birth to Spirit.” I think this is what the prophet Ezekiel was talking about in chapter 36 when he said, “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.”

In verse 8, Jesus is basically telling us that this is a mystery, how this happens. In Greek and Hebrew, the same word was used for wind and spirit. RUACH in Hebrew, and PNEUMA in Greek. Just as we can’t see the wind, neither can we explain the Spirit’s work in the lives of people. But God’s Spirit does work in people.

Sometimes we get cynical and say, “A leopard can’t change its spots,” as in, people don’t really change. Back in December, the NFL announced that Michael Vick would be one of the honorary captains for the Pro Bowl. A lot of people were upset, including some Christians, because, he was convicted of animal cruelty and dog fighting. People called for him to be removed. But by all accounts, Vick found Jesus in prison. He has a close association with Tony Dungy, well known for his Christian faith. And it seems he has reformed his life. I think it was upsetting that Christians would react that way to the situation. We of all people should believe in forgiveness. We of all people should believe that people can change. Most people say they believe in forgiveness, but what they really mean is that they want to be forgiven, not that they want to forgive others. Well, that’s not how it works! Can people change? We can argue about that all day. But this much I know for sure: God changes people!

Well, Nicodemus is still not quite getting it. And Jesus says, basically, “I came down from heaven and I’m going back there.” Jesus is the only reliable eyewitness about what is happening in heaven. Only he can testify faithfully about what God is doing.

Verses 14-15 are about the bronze serpent, a story from Numbers chapter 21. A plague of venomous serpents invades the Israelite camp, and everyone who is bitten dies. But Moses makes a bronze serpent, and whoever looks at is saved from death. Jesus tells us that this is what Bible scholars call a “type,” a foreshadowing of his work. The object of death, a venomous snake, a cross, becomes the means of salvation. This is God’s plan and purpose; what Jesus came from heaven to accomplish.

Verses 16-17, of course, are some of the best known words of the New Testament. Did Jesus speak those words, or are they John’s commentary on this? Personally, I think it’s more likely they are John’s words, but that doesn’t change the meaning.

We must not make the gospel something it is not. The gospel message is not, “Be a good person.” It’s not, “Jesus showed us how to live.” Those things aren’t false; they’re just not the whole story. They’re woefully incomplete versions of the gospel.

The gospel is that Jesus is the Son of God. He came down from heaven and lived among us. He died on the cross for our sins. And to enter into eternal life, we must be born from God. There must be a change in us that only God can do. And this can only happen through Jesus. We don’t just need more information. We don’t just need motivation to try harder. We need transformation. We need God’s Spirit to change us.

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