First Mennonite Church
March 13, 2022
“Jesus and Nicodemus”
Text: John 3:1-21
In the days of slavery here in the U.S., slaves were allowed to participate in formal Christian services on Sundays, only at the discretion of their masters. Slaves were not allowed to celebrate services of their own. The slaves saw Nicodemus as their model because he 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.
According to John, Nicodemus is a learned man with impressive credentials. He is not only a Pharisee, but also a member of the Jewish ruling council. Jesus calls to him “a teacher of Israel.” But some traits of Nicodemus can be like a mirror set before us in order to not be like him. Nicodemus has some knowledge about Jesus, but his knowledge is insufficient. Nicodemus has a religion, but he is lacking the kind of faith necessary to see and enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus is curious to know more about Jesus, but he does not want to be seriously committed to what he might find. But as we will see, the good news is that Jesus has the right answer Nicodemus needs: to be born anothen, again or anew or from above.
Nicodemus has knowledge. Nicodemus opens his conversation with Jesus by telling him, “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.” And even when Nicodemus ascertains correctly Jesus’ identity as someone who has come from God, he fails to see him beyond that. To Nicodemus, Jesus is one like Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, people with whom God had been too. He fails to see that God is not only with Jesus, but that God is being revealed in Jesus because Jesus is the Word that was with God and that was God. The verse which is known to be the heart of the gospel: 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, reflects Jesus’ superior status than any of the prophets with whom God had also been present. It is clear that Nicodemus fails to see Jesus for who he really is.
Jesus’ abrupt response to Nicodemus affirms what John had said earlier about Jesus–that he does not depend on others to know who people are, nor does he entrust himself to others, because “he knows all people” (2:24, 25). Jesus readily knows what is in the heart of Nicodemus. So when Jesus responds, he begins with the solemn warning words. “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus tells Nicodemus. What Jesus literally says, is “Amen, Amen,” which indicate the seriousness of his statement. The knowledge Nicodemus has of Jesus is likely based on what Nicodemus has heard being said about Jesus and not from a firsthand experience of hearing his teachings.
If anyone takes Jesus only as a miracle worker, a great and inspiring teacher, or anything other than Lord and Savior, such a person will not see and much less enter the kingdom of God. That is the situation of Nicodemus and for which, Jesus does not hesitate to tell him right away: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” We will come back to these words further ahead.
Nicodemus is a religious man. He is a leader and a teacher of the Jews, but it seems he does not have the faith required to see or enter the kingdom of God. For many Jews, to be born a Jew was to be born into the kingdom of God. We know the Jews also believed that Gentiles are born “lost.” So, imagine the shocked look on the face of Nicodemus when Jesus tells him that his natural birth (as a Jew) does not guarantees his seeing or entering into the kingdom of God. The implication is clear: Unless Nicodemus is reborn from above, he will not see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus must be born “anothen,” again, anew, or from above. Nicodemus takes Jesus’ word not only literally, but only in its basic meaning. He wonders how can someone be born again and he asks Jesus, “How can this be?” Nicodemus can only think according to the natural process of life. He could not understand what being born of water and spirit mean. And that is the challenge we all have. But Jesus is simply telling Nicodemus that in order to enter into the kingdom of God one must have a new beginning, a beginning that does not depend our knowledge, religion, or anything. It is a beginning that only God, through his Spirit can give us if and when we believe in Jesus. This new birth is from above. This new beginning from above invited Nicodemus to give away everything he was clinging to.
Nicodemus is curios, as well, but he does not want to commit himself openly and fully, at least at that first encounter. We can only guess why Nicodemus chose to come to Jesus at night. Does he come at night to avoid being seen by others that he is coming to see Jesus, the new and radical Rabbi? Could it be that he comes to Jesus at night on behalf of his colleagues –the other Pharisees? Could it be that Nicodemus is desperate to find out who Jesus is that he rushes to Jesus even at night? Later in his conversation, Jesus attempts to pull Nicodemus out of his darkness when Jesus said to him, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” It seems that even at the end this encounter Jesus is reaching out and inviting Nicodemus to come to the light. John leaves us wondering what happened to Nicodemus. Along his gospel, John mentions Nicodemus two more times. At the end of chapter seven, Nicodemus makes an appeal on behalf of Jesus. Although Nicodemus’ appeal appears hesitant, yet the very fact of his doing it reflects a certain affinity or consideration to the cause or person of Jesus. And the other appearance of Nicodemus in the gospel of John is when Jesus is being prepared for burial. And here it seems as if Nicodemus is thoroughly convinced Jesus was gone forever as anyone else who dies. In John 19, Nicodemus brings about seventy-five pounds of embalming ointments and spices to prepare Jesus’ body for his eternal resting place.
Nicodemus is the perfect example that one can be religious, but not necessarily have the faith to enter the kingdom of God. One can have knowledge, but not the knowledge to understand what Jesus calls, “the heavenly matters.” One can be curios and attracted to religion or Christianity, but not necessarily have a personal relationship with the Christ.
We need to be born of water and the spirit, Jesus says. We tend to talk about “our faith” or “having faith,” assuming that it is a done deal, that believing is simply the acknowledgement of something and in this case God. But the Gospel of John never refers to faith as a noun. Faith is not a possession, not something that one gets, not something one has–it is something that one does, it is how one lives. Jesus gives this explanation: “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.” To believe, means to allow the Spirit of God to take full control of your life. To believe means to allow the Spirit of God to breathe into your soul the new and abundant life of the Spirit in you. To believe, then, is to be born again in our spirit by the Spirit of God. It is to be born from above, because we cannot bring about this kind transformation through self-improvement or personal refinement. It can only come from God.
Consequently, our lives as believers in Christ becomes evident. Our speech, our values, habits, and our whole life is transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, to be born in the spirit becomes the ongoing process of being transformed by the Spirit of God. Just like babies who grow while still being the same person, everyone who is born from above change as they grow into the likeness of Christ.
We need to be born again, which means we need to allow God to continually transform us into the new man, using Paul’s imagery. Let us therefore remember that to be born again is not a one-time event in our lives. God’s Spirit continues transforming us each and every day.
After Jesus tells Nicodemus what is necessary to see and enter the kingdom of God, he declares: 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. The new birth and the birth from above begin 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 no longer 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).
If you have not received the gift of God’s love, which is Jesus Christ, I want to invite you to receive him today. God will give you the right to be called his child. You will be given the privilege of seeing the kingdom of God and the right to enter into it. To you will be given the gift of eternal life.
May the Lord open our eyes to see his kingdom. May the Lord give us the gift of faith to believe in Jesus and to receive the 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.