First Mennonite Church
July 9, 2017
Nicodemus and the Heart of the Gospel
Text: John 3:1-21
In the days of slavery here in the U.S., slaves were allowed to participate in formal Christian services only at the discretion of their masters, but were not allowed to celebrate services of their own. The slaves saw Nicodemus as their model who visited Jesus at night. They, therefore, clandestinely held worship services at night. The slaves saw in Nicodemus’ night visit proof that it was possible to come to Jesus at night even when those in power forbade it.
For most believers, one of the first scripture references they learned is John three, verse 16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. It is not uncommon to hear Christians say this verse is the heart of the gospel message. There are many reasons this could be true. Those words were spoken by Jesus. They reveal God’s new approach to providing salvation, not only to the Jewish people but to the whole world. These words also reveal a major shift in God’s providence for salvation. This salvation is no longer on the basis of chosenness nor for a particular bloodline, but it’s open to all peoples through faith in the Son of Man. But the most amazing aspect about this salvation is that it is an act of love for the world on the part of God. Further analysis of this verse may reveal many more reasons why it can be called the heart of the gospel message.
So often we forget that the words in John three, verse 16 came out of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. A good way to understand the great significance of those words can be by looking at the entire story within which they were pronounced. With this in mind, let us take a fresh look at Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus and see how Nicodemus handled the heart of the gospel.
Nicodemus was an outstanding member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council of experts on religious laws. Nicodemus is the one who argued that no man should be condemned unless he’s been given a chance to defend himself (John 7:50, 51). In John 19:39-42, Nicodemus openly came to assist in Jesus’ burial and to provide the customary embalming spices and aromatics.
On this first encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus came under the cover of night. He came with a preconceived notion about the identity of Jesus. The moment he opens his mouth, he declares, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. . . .” Who are the “we” in Nicodemus’ statement is a little ambiguous. Is “we” the Sanhedrin? Is ‘we” the teachers and rabbis, because Nicodemus believed Jesus was one of them? But what is more interesting is what had led Nicodemus to the conclusion that Jesus had come from God. Nicodemus said, “For no one could perform the signs that you are doing if God were not with him.” It is important for us to take note of the basis upon which Nicodemus came to the conclusion that Jesus most be from God. He believed Jesus must have come from God because of the signs Jesus was performing. Should signs be enough evidence? Was Jesus satisfied with Nicodemus’ conclusion? You see, there could be other reasons people draw that same conclusion. Some can believe Jesus is from God because he was raised from the dead, according to the gospels. Others could believe Jesus came from God because of the unsurpassed quality and authority of his teachings. So the question we must ask ourselves if we want to handle the heart of the gospel is, on what basis have we come to the conclusion that Jesus is the son of God? May I ask you, what made you believe Jesus is the Savior? His healing power? His promise of resurrection? His ascension? His promise of coming again? His claims of who he said he is: the way, the truth, and the life? Is the reason for our believing in Jesus enough?
Nicodemus was so confident about his conclusions regarding the identity of Jesus, “Rabbi, we know. . . .”
For Jesus the most important issue was not what Nicodemus knew or should know. The most important issue for Jesus was that Nicodemus could see and enter into the kingdom of God. Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. . . . Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’
To be able to see and enter the kingdom of God one must “be born ‘anothen,’” Jesus says. This Greek word is translated in the NIV as born “again,” while the NRSV has born “from above.” I should let you know that both translations are correct, because the Greek vocabulary has two meanings. “Anothen” means “again” and “from above,” therefore when one translation gives preference to either word, as is the case, the full meaning is lost. It is not one or the other but both. To see and enter the kingdom of God one must be born again and from above. To be born again signals a new beginning of life, but this new beginning must come from above—from God. The truth behind the word used by Jesus is that people can decide to renew their lives. People can aspire to make a major shift in their lives. But the new life that will empower people to see and enter the kingdom of God must be the new life that comes from God. And Nicodemus could not grasp nor imagine the full implication of Jesus’ words. Nicodemus could only understand the natural birth process, thus his protest about the impossibility of reentering his mother’s womb and being born again was true. But Jesus wanted Nicodemus to understand. Therefore, Jesus clarified it further and said, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” To be born again and from above speaks of a new birth, generated not by human will or power, but by God through the working of his Spirit.
Jesus expressed amazement when Nicodemus could not understand. Jesus said to him, “You are a teacher of Israel and you cannot understand these things?” Jesus continued his dialogue with Nicodemus giving him proof of God’s will that no one should perish but come to the saving knowledge of his grace. And after comparing God’s saving grace to the rebellious Israelites through the bronze snake with his own crucifixion, Jesus declared the precious words we find in verse 16:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. In the gospel of John this is the only place where it is said that Jesus’ coming into the world is a “gift” from God. Every other mention of Jesus’ coming into the world is said to be because God “send/sent” his son. The new birth and the birth from above begins by believing in Jesus as God’s gift to the world. Jesus is God’s gift of love to all people, but this supreme gift is real and life-changing, only to those who believe. By believing in the Son of Man, our present life is altered by this gift because we begin to participate in God’s offer of eternal life. By becoming recipients of God’s eternal life, even our physical death is not considered as perishing, but only the rightful conditioning for our possessing the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul says, “I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1Corinthians 15:50).
May the Lord open our eyes to see his kingdom. May the Lord give us the grace of faith to believe in order to enter into it. Let us all receive Jesus, God’s gift of eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Amen!
 Discussions of the importance of Nicodemus for African American religion in Henry O. Tanner’s Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, introductory essay by Dewey F. Mosby (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Art Museum 1991) 168-71.