Some of the best conversations happen at night. When the noise has been put to bed and the distractions are low, the mind is free to contemplate deep things. Take away the chaos of the day and you are left to focus on things that matter.
But no matter how much clarity you have, sometimes it still seems that the conversation is a dead end. We can be direct and to the point and people still misinterpret what we have said. We can say one thing and they hear something else.
My wife and I are not always on the same page. Sometimes I feel that my children are speaking an alien language. My friends at times speak a code language. Carrying on a conversation with some of my co-workers is like two ships passing one another in the dead of darkness.
In John 3 we have two religious professionals attempting to carry on a conversation. One hears “born again,” and what the other means is “born from above.” They speak the same language. They have the same cultural perspective. Their frame of reference is religion and God. But the one totally does not get what the other is saying.
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 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 signsyou are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“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!”
Jesus answered, “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.’ 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.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 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. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 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.”
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.Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 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. 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. (John 3:1-21)
Our first clue that this conversation will be in trouble is when John tells us, “He came to Jesus by night” (3:1). Rabbi’s studied at night because that is when the distractions are at a minimum. But I believe the author with his use of light and darkness metaphors, wants us to see that more is going on. Earlier, Jesus is said to be “the true light which enlightens everyone” (1:9) who believes in Him. Nicodemus is not at a place of believing, yet. He is still in darkness.
Jesus is in Jerusalem when Nicodemus comes to see him. We are told, “Many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing” (2:23). Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus based on the signs. He says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (3:2). For those who believe based on signs, it is said that Jesus “would not entrust himself to them” (2:24). Following Jesus based only on what we can get out of it isn’t being genuinely committed. Is your faith a circumstantial faith or a surrender all to Jesus kind of faith? Do you follow only because of the signs or the relationship He offers?
The religion that Nicodemus and Jesus both grew up in had a good deal to do with being born into the right family. For the people like Nicodemus, what mattered was being born a child of Abraham. Jesus comes along and implies that this natural birth selection is not enough. It is going to take more than just being a part of the right family. Jesus says, “You got to be born from above” (3:3).
Nicodemus understands the kingdom of God in relation to being in the right bloodline. So, he hears, “born again.” And the confusion ensues. The Greek word for “born again” and born from above” is “anothen.” It carries both meanings. Nicodemus wants to know how an old man can go back into his mother’s womb. Jesus is saying in and through me God is doing something new and in order to understand it you must be born from above. Nicodemus hears physical and Jesus speaks spiritual. Two ships passing in the dark.
Judaism as interpreted by the Pharisees like Nicodemus was an orderly religion. It had structure. It was stable. The laws were laid out and God had people like Nicodemus around to interpret them for you. Jesus comes along and it all gets carried off by the wind. For those who want their religion to be ordered, labelled, and sorted into neat categories, following Jesus will be a challenge. When you think you have him figured out, he throws things into sorts by talking about loving enemies, praying for our persecutors, and turning the other cheek. When you think you got him pinned down in a corner, his resurrection presence shows up in another room. Religion as followed by the Pharisees and those who think they can manage God is born of the flesh. But those truly born of God are those who have been caught up in the windstorm of the Spirit. The Greek word for “spirit” and “wind” is the same. It is “pnuema.” God’s kingdom is opened up to anyone. No religion, family, tribe, or country can keep up with it. The Spirit of God blows where it will.
Nicodemus, the good and orderly religious expert, asks, “How can these things be” (3:9)? This is the last time that Nicodemus will speak in this episode. Jesus responds by saying, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things” (3:10)? From this point on Jesus will refer back to Nicodemus with a plural “you.” Jesus speaks to the whole religious system.
In Numbers 21 the wandering Israelites became rebellious against God and starting to be critical of God’s leading. As a result, poisonous snakes begin to bite the people and many died. They repented. The Lord instructs Moses to make an image of a snake and elevate it on a pole, so that the rebellious Israelites might look on it and live. What was a sign of judgment on a rebellious people became a sign of healing and restoration.
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3:14, 15). There is an evil that is deep rooted in all of us. We have all been bitten by the snake. We have become poisoned with the deadly disease of sin. Our only cure is to believe in the one who has taken upon himself all our sins and been lifted up on the cross. When we see Jesus on the cross, we are seeing the result of God’s very best taking upon himself all the evil of the world. On the cross, God’s only Son has taken the poison of our sin. On the cross, Jesus has been lifted up for our healing.
As a response to what God has done in and through Jesus, we are told, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). On the cross we see what love looks like. On the cross we are seeing what God has done about sin and evil in our world. For those who believe in him, there is eternal life.
If Nicodemus still doesn’t get the way God loves, Jesus has more. Or the author of John, depending on where you put the quotations. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (3:17). When you spend your days teaching who is out instead of who is in, this is hard to swallow. Because God loves the world, not a specific group of people, and the Spirit blows where it will, your neat and tidy who is in and who is out religion just got a big blow.
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. Will he stay there? If so, he condemns himself. He doesn’t need a religious expert or religious system to condemn him. If he chooses to stay in the darkness and ignore the light that is before him, then he has chosen the path of disbelief. The light reveals what is already inside of people.
I wonder what Nicodemus was thinking when he walked away that night after having this conversation with Jesus. For some reason, he was drawn to Jesus. When others among his sect where trying to find reasons to dismiss Jesus, he found him intriguing. His whole religious world was rocked after this conversation with Jesus. His worldview was shaken. He approached Jesus with the confidence of a teacher of the law who had spent his entire life studying the ways of God. Now, in one conversation with this travelling rabbi, he begins to ask questions, “How can these things be?”
For many of us, we self-identify as a Christian. Just as Nicodemus self-identified as a Jew. You believe certain things about God and you hold those beliefs with a level of certainty. Here is what I want you to consider: instead of orienting your faith around a religion or a system of belief, re-orient yourself around the person of Jesus. Consider what it means to follow Jesus, not a religion. It is a radical way to live. It comes with a risk because Jesus cannot be tamed or controlled. But it is a risk worth taking because it is the only way to discover a life worth living.
I am convinced on this night in John 3 that the Spirit begin to stir the heart of Nicodemus. He shows up only two more times in the gospel. When the chief priests and Pharisees wanted Jesus arrested, Nicodemus comes to his defense in John 7. When Jesus’ body is taken off the cross, Nicodemus is there (John 19:38-42). We don’t know if Nicodemus ever became a follower of Jesus but he continues to show up in crucial times in the life of Jesus. Something happened on that fateful night in Jerusalem in John 3 that would forever change the trajectory of Nicodemus’ life. Will you let the Spirit blow where it will and reveal to you the depth of God’s love for the world and for you?
The depth of God’s love for us is demonstrated on the cross. It is a love that knows no boundaries. A love where God gave of God’s very best. If we will believe in the depth of this love, a love demonstrated on the cross, then we will discover new life; a life that steps into the light of grace and forgiveness and leaves behind the darkness of hate. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (3:16, 17).