Today, as we continue on in our series Beyond Belief, we will be looking at one of the most familiar and important passages in all of the New Testament, the passage you just heard read: John 3:1-18. This passage contains one of the ‘best known’ verses in all of the New Testament: John 3:16. I have a long-time friend, someone that wanted nothing to do with Jesus by the way, who ‘knew’ John 3:16, but he thought, and I think I’ve mentioned him before, that John 3:16 has something to do with winning or cheering on your team because it seemed like every time he watched sports on TV he’d see someone holding up a sign that said John 3:16. He never thought to look it up but he sure ‘knew’ about it. And John 3:16 is found in the same passage that gives us the concept of being ‘born again.’ I remember when Jimmy Carter was running for president and he was asked about his faith. Well, he said that he’d been ‘born again’ and, boy, did the press grab that phrase and it suddenly took on a life of its own. People started describing themselves as ‘born again’ in all sorts of whacky ways: born again conservatives; born again feminists; born again vegetarians, born again baseball fans. If you’d changed your mind about anything then you’d been ‘born again.’ But John 3:1-18 is far more important than just being the source of a couple of popular cultural references. It is important because it gets to the core of what belief really is… in fact, today’s passage tells us exactly what it means to move beyond some intellectual belief about Jesus and into what we are calling a ‘beyond belief’ relationship with Jesus. So, let’s all turn to page ???
Now, what these verses actually recount is simply a conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. There isn’t any great action in this passage… just a conversation. But this conversation is anything but simple nor does it take place in a vacuum… this conversation happened right after a really big event! Nicodemus came to talk to Jesus right after Jesus had physically driven out the many people who were engaged in what I would call ‘inappropriate, tourist-related buying and selling’ inside the temple in Jerusalem. This ‘clearing of the Temple’ as it is called, was a really bold, gutsy move on Jesus’ part and John, one of Jesus’ disciples and is the author of this book, the Gospel of John, tells us that there were two reactions to Jesus throwing the money changers and salesmen out of the temple. Some people were really angered… ‘Who does this guy think he is?’ Others, John tells us, were endeared to him. Look at verse 23 of Chapter 2. ‘Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs (miracles) he was performing and believed in his name.’ And yet verse 24 of chapter 2, the last words right before we get to today’s passage says this, ‘But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need human testimony about them for he know what was in them.’ John tells us that Jesus was holding back because he knew exactly what was in people’s hearts and he didn’t trust their belief in him.
And then today’s passage begins. Now, just as a reminder, the chapter and verse divisions were not a part of the original writings of the Bible. The chapter divisions were added in the 13th Century and the verse divisions were added in the 16th Century and so there isn’t necessarily a break between the last sentence in chapter 2 and the first words of chapter 3. But since we do have a chapter break there now, the first words of Chapter 3 are always translated as if we are starting a whole new story that is unconnected to what we’ve just read. Every version of the Bible I have ever seen begins Chapter 3 something like this, ‘Now, there was a Pharisee.’ But, the first word in Chapter 3 in the Greek is the word ‘But.’ I think that John meant to connect these two sentences. I think he was saying something more like this. ‘Jesus didn’t entrust himself to all of these people who said they were believing in his name because he knew what was in their hearts. But there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the ruling counsel. He came to Jesus’… I believe that John wanted us to know that there was something different about Nicodemus. Jesus knew what was in Nicodemus’ heart and, as we will soon see, Jesus was willing to entrust himself to him. I think that this changes a lot about the tone in this passage… this is a passage about someone that Jesus trusted. But, before we get to what is said between Jesus and Nicodemus let’s take a second and think about who these two men are. Verse one tells us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the ruling counsel. Pharisees, contrary to what many tend to think today, were well-respected, seriously-religious men… the common people of the day thought of Israel’s 3,000 or so Pharisees as down-to-earth men who were trying their best to practice what they preached. But Nicodemus wasn’t just a Pharisee; John also tell us he was a member of the ruling counsel. That means he was one of the just 71 members of the Sanhedrin, the most important group of leaders in all of Judaism. Sanhedrin members were usually older men, they were always rich men and they were the experts when it came to knowing the ins-and-outs of the very complicated system of Jewish law. Some were also given the added honor of being called Israel’s Teachers and Nicodemus, Jesus tells us later, was one of these teachers. Nicodemus was apparently an elite among the elites. Verse 2 also tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. There could have been 2 reasons for this. One that we often hear is that Nicodemus was nervous about being seen talking to Jesus so he came under the cover of darkness. That could be. But, there is also the possibility that Nicodemus didn’t want to put Jesus in an unnecessary spotlight. We have to keep in mind that Jesus was a young man, probably just 30 years old; he was from a back-water, unsophisticated village and he was also a man with a very mixed reputation; yes, he’d performed some miraculous signs but while some believed he was a prophet sent from God, others were convinced that his power was from the devil. Add to this Jesus had just created a big, public controversial scene in the temple. Nicodemus, was a well-known and highly-respected man; he couldn’t have had a public conversation with Jesus during the daytime without drawing a crowd. Nicodemus knew that if he’d approached Jesus in a public place in broad daylight it would have turned into an event. It is very possible that Nicodemus wanted to spare Jesus this added trouble at such a tentative moment in Jesus’ ministry … so he came to Jesus at night. Oddly though, we never really get to hear why Nicodemus came to Jesus in the first place. Nicodemus did greet Jesus with unusual honor, saying, ‘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.’ Nicodemus had clearly taken sides in the argument over whether Jesus had come from God or the devil. But Jesus didn’t even respond to this. He just went right after it. Now, your Bible may say that Jesus’ first words to Nicodemus were, ‘Verily, Verily’ or ‘Truly I tell you’ or something like that. What Jesus actually said was, ‘Amen, Amen.’ ‘Amen’ was a word that meant something like, ‘So it is!’ or ‘That’s right!’ People said this after they heard something they agreed with; just like some people often do today, they’d call out, ‘Amen!” And in Jesus’ world, just as in our world, people only said, ‘Amen,’ after someone else had said something they felt was really important. Jesus is the only person I know of who is recorded to have said ‘Amen’ about something before he said it! And he didn’t just ‘Amen’ once, but twice! This made it unmistakable that Jesus felt that what he was about to say to Nicodemus was really important and true! And what he says to Nicodemus is ‘Amen, Amen, No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.’ Notice how Nicodemus responds like he doesn’t know what Jesus is talking about. ‘How can anyone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’ But, I believe the truth is that Nicodemus knew exactly what Jesus was talking about. you see, this phrase, ‘born again’ or more literally, ‘born from above’ was the way that Jews described the baptism that Gentiles went through to become followers of Judaism. Being ‘born again’ was the public display of a 180 degree turn from being a pagan Gentile into living as a member of the Jewish community. It represented the beginning of an entirely new and different life. Nicodemus knew this, but he couldn’t imagine that he, a respected Jewish Pharisee, a well-known teacher and a member of the Sanhedrin, needed to be ‘born again.’ Why would he need to be baptized into a new life like a Gentile? But Jesus was telling this highly-respected, Jewish elder exactly this… if he really wanted to see the Kingdom of God, if he really wanted to be a part of the Kingdom of God, then he needed to start everything over… just like a Gentile. In fact, what Jesus says next in verses 5-8 is a very complicated and yet very Jewish statement about the need for Nicodemus to set aside everything that he thought was important, everything that he thought would give him entrance into the Kingdom of God, and to do what seemed like the last thing a Jewish religious teacher and leader should do: be ‘born again’ through a spiritual rebirth… a rebirth that could only happen by believing in the name of Jesus.
Nicodemus claims to be confused by this in verse 9, ‘How can this be?’ But, Jesus doesn’t back down. He says, ‘You are Israel’s teacher and you don’t understand these things?’ Jesus’ tone here implies that he believed that Nicodemus knew exactly what he was talking about. And from this point on in the passage everything else that Jesus says to Nicodemus points back to Nicodemus’ first greeting to Jesus when he said that he believed that Jesus had come from God. Jesus’ point was this. “Nicodemus, if you really believe that I came from God then you should also believe that I know what I am talking about. And what I am talking about is that even though you may seem like one of the last people in all of Israel that needs a wholesale spiritual change, I’m telling you that you need to leave behind all that you think is important and move into a deep belief in me.
And it’s at this point in the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus that John, the author and narrator of this gospel, felt it was necessary to break in and make certain that we know how important what Jesus said in this conversation is for everyone. John says this 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. 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. Some of you may have what is called a red letter Bible and these words I just read may be in red as if Jesus said them. Most scholars today, for a whole slew of reasons, feel that Jesus’ words stop at verse 15 and these verses are John’s further explanation of what Jesus was telling Nicodemus. And this is also where Dave’s sermon last week connects with our passage this week. Dave talked about the life or death nature of choosing to follow Jesus; how what we are talking about is the difference between being saved and lost. This is exactly what John is talking about in these three verses… not perishing… having eternal life… being saved. And just as Dave talked about last week everything hinges on believing in Jesus… or as, we also talked about last week, here again, every time you see an ‘in’ throughout these verses, the Greek is actually the preposition ‘into.’ Once again, we are talking about something that is far more relational than it is intellectual… believing into Jesus, not simply believing about Jesus but surrendering your life to him in a way that his life becomes interwoven with your life and your life becomes interwoven with his. Believing ‘into’ Jesus is a 180 degree turn into following Jesus as the one and only one who can save you and give you eternal life.
Nicodemus had a lot to turn from. He most likely believed, like most Jews of his day, that God only cared about the Jews and this business of God loving ‘the world,’ which was expression the Jews used to talk about Gentiles, God loving ‘the world’ probably seemed ridiculous to him. And yet John tells us that it was God’s love for ‘the world,’ all of its people, Jews and Gentiles that caused him to send Jesus. Nicodemus needed to turn from that belief. Nicodemus must have thought that he would someday see God’s kingdom simply because he was Jewish. Jesus told Nicodemus straight up that being born a Jew meant nothing when it came to seeing the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus needed to turn from that. Nicodemus certainly thought that obeying the law was the highest way of serving God. But Jesus told Nicodemus that believing into him was what God really wanted from him. And everyone that knew Nicodemus had probably told him that he was on the right pathway to life forever with God. Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to turn off of that pathway and head in a completely new direction… the change that Nicodemus needed was tantamount to starting everything over; following Jesus was like being born all over again.
I know that many people are like Nicodemus today. Convinced that their religious heritage makes them special… or their religious knowledge will win God’s favor… or that God will be fine with them if they generally just try their best to be on their best behavior. This passage says if you feel this way you need to turn from it and realize that what is important is having a life-altering relationship with Jesus. There are also many people today who, if they believe in God at all, don’t think he is paying attention or think that his power is limited; and they certainly don’t believe that he has any relevance in their lives. If this is you, this passage says you might want to rethink this. In fact, this passage tells us that God is paying attention… he is all powerful, he is present and he wants to have an intimate relationship with you both now in this life and for all of eternity. And it all comes from, as Jesus told Nicodemus, being born again.
Something that is interesting about the Gospel of John is that John tends to avoid telling us people’s names. He talks about the woman at the well… the man healed after 38 years of being an invalid… the man born blind… but John names Nicodemus not once but three times. In today’s passage, Nicodemus says very little; he states a bit of truth about Jesus and from then on he is pretty much listening to Jesus. The next time we see Nicodemus he is defending Jesus at a meeting of the Sanhedrin. Other members are dismissing Jesus as a worthless pretender but Nicodemus is so strong in his defense of Jesus that other members condescendingly suggest that he, too, must be from Jesus’ worthless hometown. And then there is a third time that we see Nicodemus in the Gospel of John. This time he says absolutely nothing… he doesn’t have to because the third time we see Nicodemus he is one of the two men taking Jesus’ body off of the cross and preparing it for burial. John tells us that Nicodemus brought 75 pounds of spices to anoint Jesus body. This was an inordinate amount of very expensive spices; an amount he couldn’t have carried alone. He probably brought some servants to help him carry the spices, take Jesus off of the cross and wrap Jesus’ body. Plus, there was no way he could have done any of this without many, many people seeing what he, Nicodemus, the Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, was up to. Think about this: Nicodemus moved from listening to Jesus and realizing that Jesus’ hard talk was a sign that he loved him, to standing up for Jesus, to making one of the most public statements of his love for Jesus… a statement that not one of Jesus’ disciples was willing to make with him. It is clear that Nicodemus had moved from believing that Jesus was a prophet, a man that had been sent by God… to something infinity deeper. His life became intertwined with Jesus’ and he didn’t care who saw or knew. He had moved beyond belief to a complete surrender to Jesus. Again, Nicodemus didn’t have to say much. His actions said it all. Jesus had entrusted himself to Nicodemus and Nicodemus had entrusted his life to Jesus. A Pharisee who was Israel’s teacher had been born again… born into Jesus and everything had changed.
Earlier I mentioned that friend who thought John 3:16 was a sports slogan. Well, after decades of ridiculing those of us who were simple-minded enough to say we believed in Jesus he came to a dark point in his life where he realized that he needed to turn things around. He needed to somehow start over. Though he didn’t have the words for it he realized that he needed to be born again. And I can attest to the fact that his surrender to Jesus was a 180 degree turn. John 3:16 means something deep and important to him now. He told me that now when he sees those signs he is reminded that God’s love for ‘the world’ included God’s love for him. And now, following his surrender to Jesus his life has changed forever. He has been born again.
And Jesus will do the same for you. But remember, what he asks is that you surrender your life to him in a way that his life becomes interwoven with your life and your life becomes interwoven with his. You see, believing in Jesus demands a 180 degree turn. In fact, believing in Jesus, as odd as this sounds, is beyond simple belief. It is believing into Jesus… it is belief with action… it is surrendering to the one, the only one, who can save you, change you and give you life forever.