SESSION FIVE: JESUS AND NICODEMUS (JOHN 3:1-21)
INTRO: What were you first told about where babies come from? How old were you when you learned the real story?
- What can you find out about Nicodemus in verses 1-2? What is significant about his coming to Jesus? Why at night (see vv. 19-20)? Why was Jesus so direct with Nicodemus?
- What two ideas about birth are Jesus and Nicodemus thinking of? What point is Jesus making by comparing spiritual birth to the wind? How does Jesus account for Nicodemus' lack of understanding?
- What does Jesus claim about himself in verses 13-15?
- From verses 16-18, what stand out to you about God? About what He wants to do? About how a person is condemned? How will belief show itself (vv. 15-21)?
- How is Jesus use of the words "born again" similar to and different from the way it is used today? How would you define "born again" in your own words?
- What first around your interest in Jesus? Why?
- When did you begin to see God as saving you rather than condemning you?
TAKEAWAY: What is your greatest takeaway from this passage? What specific life changes do you need to make? How will you hold yourself accountable?
COMMENTARY: JESUS MEETS WITH NICODEMUS (JOHN 3:1-21)
WHO WAS NICODEMUS?
In John 3, Jesus has traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover (see 2:23). While he's there a Pharisee named Nicodemus met with Jesus in the evening. It's dark (not unlike Nicodemus' soul). But what do we know about this religious seeker?
First, we know Nicodemus is wealthy. Later in John's gospel, we'll learn Nicodemus brought a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ dead body (John 19:39). Only a wealthy man could do that.
Second, we know he's a Pharisee. Pharisees were part of an elite ultra-conservative religious sect. There were never more than 6000 Pharisees and they were known as the chaburah or “brotherhood.” Pharisees entered the Pharisee “brotherhood” through an oath to observe every detail of the scribal law. They wanted to be "perfect" and for everyone else to be "perfect" too. It's why they turned the Sabbath into a legalistic day. These codified laws became known as the Mishnah. The Mishnah had 24 chapters on the the Sabbath alone! For example, it was illegal to tie (or untie) a knot on the Sabbath. Exodus 16:29 commanded Israelites to remain in place on the Sabbath. No travel at all. But that wasn’t always possible so codified law eventually allowed travel as far as 1000 yards. However, IF a rope was tied across the end of the street (even if that street was 1000 yards long), it only counted as ONE HOUSE...and the traveler could go another 1000 yards.According to Jeremiah 17:21-24, it was biblically wrong to carry a burden on the Sabbath. Consequently, a person couldn't carry food that weighed no more than a dried fig, or hold more milk than one swallow, or possess more water than moistens the eyes. It was the scribes who worked out these regulations but the Pharisees dedicated their lives to keeping them. And that was impressive to their community. A Pharisee (which literally meant “the Separated One”) was a special class of Jewish citizen. It was a privilege to be IN the “brotherhood” and very important to show the people that you rightfully belonged. William Barclay noted that “it’s a bit astonishing that a man who regarded goodness in that light and who had given himself to that kind of life in the conviction that he was pleasing God should wish to talk to Jesus.”
Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews. The Greek word is archon. It’s another word for the Sanhedrin. This body of Pharisees was like the Supreme Court of the United States. It was a court of seventy men. Under the Romans their power was certainly limited but they still had extensive sway. In particularly, they had religious jurisdiction over every Jew in the world. One of the duties of the Sanhedrin was to investigate false prophets. It’s likely this is the reason that Nicodemus visits Jesus.
Nicodemus was likely the member of a distinguished family. He carries an interesting name after all. In 63 BC, when the Romans and Jews were at war, a Jewish leader named Aristobulus commissioned a certain Nicodemus to be an ambassador to Pompey, the Roman emperor at the time. Ironically, over a century later, it was another man named Gorian who negotiated the surrender of the city to Rome (AD 70). That man was son of Nicomedes (or Nicodemus). Its speculative, but entirely possible that Nicodemus was a distinguished family dynasty in Jerusalem, like a Kennedy or Bush family today.
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN RABBIS...
Nicodemus comes to Jesus "by night." Why? Possibly because Nicodemus was exercising caution. He didn’t want to be seen approaching Jesus by day (as a Pharisee meeting with a reputed false prophet was not good optics). But there’s likely another reason at play. The rabbis declared the best time to study the Law was at night when a man was undisturbed. Jesus was pretty busy during the day. Nicodemus wanted to talk with Jesus about theology. He needed a private moment. It wasn't about confrontation as much as inquiry.
There is some irony in this meeting. Nicodemus is one of Israel’s most learned men. He is enlightened in the Law and walked in the Light of the Lord (he thought). He believed he’s a “light” to his students but in reality Nicodemus would learn that it’s not only dark outside but also dark inside. Jesus is going to shine a beam of spiritual light into Nicodemus’ soul.
There's an interesting pattern in John's gospel for how Jesus deals with inquiring minds. It goes like this:
1. The inquirer says something.
2. Jesus answers in a way that’s hard to understand.
3. The inquirer misunderstands.
4. Jesus answers with an even more difficult statement.
5. A conversation breaks out and an explanation is given.
It’s actually a brilliant technique, used by all master teachers, to invoke creative and critical thinking. It still works! Let's examine this conversation through this conversational pattern:
NICODEMUS SAYS SOMETHING: “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 (John 3:2).”
JESUS ANSWERS WITH A HARD SAYING: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again (John 3:3).”
Note: The confusion starts with the word “anew” or “again.” (Greek: anothen). The word literally has three different meanings in the Greek, depending on context. 1) from the beginning, completely radically; 2) again, for the second time and 3) from above or from God.
NICODEMUS MISUNDERSTANDS: “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! (John 3:4).”
From the story, it’s clear that Nicodemus took answer 2. He thought Jesus meant to be born again (from the beginning, completely and radically re-entering the mother’s womb). You could see how this would be a difficult teaching. But maybe there’s a deeper emotion in this query that we miss. Nicodemus is older, and over 50 (he had to be in order to be named to the ruling class of the Sanhedrin). Maybe it’s a wistful yearning, a true desire to do life over that’s at play too.
The problem is Nicodemus (or even you and I) can’t start over. It’s impossible to be physically born again. Deep down, Nicodemus wants to live a transformed life (perhaps the type of life he is seeing exhibited in the Jesus already). He wants more than legalism. He wants more than codified rules, Sabbath laws and performance.
JESUS MAKES AN EVEN HARDER STATEMENT: “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 (John 3:5-8).”
The idea of spiritual rebirth is all over the New Testament writings. 1 Peter 1:3 talks of being born again by God’s mercy. Later he’ll talk about being born again of the imperishable or eternal (1 Peter 1:22-23). James 1:18 says God “births” us by the word of truth. Titus 3:5 states we are washed and regenerated. Romans 6:1-11 says we die, are buried in baptism, and rise to life anew. First Corinthians 3:1-2 notes how new believers are “babes” in Christ, while 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 6:15 state if we are in Christ we are a “new creation." Ephesians 4:22-24:affirms we are “created” after God in righteousness. ANd Hebrews 5:12-14 proclaims we are like a child in our newfound Christian faith
This was not a new idea to first-century Jews. When someone wanted to convert to Judaism, he had to be prayerfully accepted, offer sacrifices and be immersed into water to show his new allegiance to Jehovah God, the God of Israel. He was then labeled “reborn.” After all, the only way to be in the Jewish lineage was either by physical birth or as a proselyte/convert. The rabbis called a proselyte “a newborn child.” He was so different, the rabbis taught, that he could technically marry his own mother or sister (because they were no longer his family).
Jesus clearly shows Nicodemus that he’s talking about a new birth from above. A new birth by God. Being born a physical Jew was not enough to enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus (as well as all who follow Jesus) must be born of water and spirit, not flesh and blood. This is a clear reference, the first actually, to what we will come to know as baptism. In our baptism we are “born again” in the water and by the Holy Spirit.
This is a difficult and often misunderstood idea today, particularly in evangelical Christianity that has made baptism into a human work (something we do). The reality is when we are immersed (baptidzo), we are engaging in a SPIRITUAL work. God is doing the heavy lifting, not us. Every New Testament baptismal promise is something that only God can provide.
A CONVERSATION BREAKS OUT AND JESUS GIVES A DEEPER EXPLANATION:
“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 3:9-21).
In this amazing story, the Rabbi Jesus teaches another rabbi using three clear metaphors:
DARKNESS: Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, but that darkness also represented his own soul. He was "perfect" in many ways, but none of those good works nor even being born a Jew made him "right" with God. He was still unenlightened. He was in spiritual darkness. Similarly, many people today think that their good works are enough. They think God will excuse their sin because they are "good people." This story clearly reveals that "good" people need Jesus too. We are all in spiritual darkness without the Holy Spirit.
WOMB: Nicodemus was familiar with the language of rebirth, and yet he still misunderstood. But Jesus was making a clear point that physical birth (as a Jew) meant nothing and held no special privilege. We didn't need to be "reborn" by our mother to, hopefully, do life better a second time. What we really needed was to be "born from above" by God to enjoy his mercy, blessings and full salvation. "Flesh and blood" (physical) isn't the solution. What we need is a "water and spirit" birth. Again this was the first picture of the immersive nature of water baptism. In the physical womb we are encased in water and then delivered. Similarly, in the spiritual realm we must be immersed in water to rise as newborn (spiritual) babes in Christ.
WIND: Finally Jesus compares the coming Holy Spirit to the wind. The wind isn't visible but we do see the effects of the wind. We see tree limbs, grass, dust and flags moving by the wind. We see birds and experience airplanes adjusting to the wind. We see how hurricanes and tornadoes can devastate, flatten and remove. Similarly, the Holy Spirit works in our lives. Sometimes the Spirit moves as a gentle wind, reminding us of its Presence and cooling us from the heat of life's stresses. Sometimes the Spirit blows hard enough to force adjustments in our lives. We have to correct, move, lean into or get inside (spiritually speaking). And sometimes the Spirit works like a destructive tornado in our lives, flattening our pride, devastating our expectations and removing our obstacles. When the dust clears, we are living a completely different life.
This conversation with Nicodemus is the first of several in the gospel of John. However, it's unique in that it involves one of Judaism's elite. A Pharisee who knew the Law and pursued perfection. In a matter of minutes Jesus shines a light into Nicodemus' darkness to reveal a whole new world...a world that God loves (John 3:16).
Discipleship. Fellowship. Prayer. WORSHIP.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer...
"A biblical community for the spiritually curious."
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.