You might be wondering why I’ve titled these posts, “The Gospel of Nicodemus”. I gave a hint in the last post when I said, “Do we consider often enough how worthy Jesus Christ is of our stillness, meditation and consideration? I think not. I think instead we are prone to Nicodemus’ mistake and simply ask how Jesus can better my own situation – but more on that later.”
This post is later. I’ve mentioned before that my favorite kind of preaching is the kind that forces me to consider and answer three questions,
“Who is God?”
“Who am I (in light of what I now know of God)?”
“How should I respond (in light of what I now know of God and myself)?”
Today I want to consider Nicodemus and ask ourselves if we’re at all like him (and if this is a good thing or not).
Who is Nicodemus? We are told explicitly that Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews (John 3:1). Jesus also calls him a “teacher of Israel” in v. 10. So, Nicodemus is a religious man (understatement) but is there anything else the text can tell us? I think there is, though it’s more subtle.
Look at John 2:23-25,
“23 Now when [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”
I think John, among several other reasons, uses these verses to introduce us to Nicodemus. We read that the people who see the signs (miracles) that Jesus is doing “believed in his name” but that Jesus did not “entrust himself to them” and that this was because he “knew what was in man.”
This is interesting. It’s interesting for several reasons. First, John uses the same root word when describing the “belief” of the people as he does when he explains that Jesus did not “entrust” himself to those people. So, what John is essentially trying to say is that the people “believe” Jesus but that it is not the sort of “belief” that Jesus “believes” or “trusts.“
One of the reasons that Jesus probably didn’t trust their enthusiasm is because of the common Jewish understanding of what their Messiah was going to do. In Jesus’ day it was commonly expected that the Messiah would come to Israel, overthrow foreign military oppression, and rule the world from David’s throne as their King. Israel was quick in these times to become very enthused about anybody that seemed to be a valid candidate for this task and many zealous candidates arose and quickly fell before Jesus came along.
What many failed to notice (Simeon in Luke 2 seems to be an exception) was that the Messiah came to suffer and die (Matthew 16:21), not for a political change, but for a spiritual change – a new birth for those who really “believe” and treasure Jesus Christ more than political, social, or personal affluence.
Secondly, this is interesting because John, in describing and hinting at what these “men” really wanted and how Jesus did not “entrust” himself to them because he knew what was in man then says in 3:1, “Now there was a man…”
And so we meet Nicodemus – a man that had seen the signs just as the crowd in chapter 2 had seen the signs (3:2) but is not truly genuine in his affection for Jesus. He’s been impressed by the show and thinks that Jesus has come to finally make his life more comfortable by lifting Rome’s boot heel off his chest.
Notice how Nicodemus has the same level of belief as the crowd.
3:2, “This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.'”
Jesus knows what he’s getting at…he wants Jesus to come out of the Messianic closet and just tell him that he’s come to do what Nicodemus wants him to do. This is why Jesus answers the way he does,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
That’s the sound of Nicodemus getting the wind knocked out of him.
Nicodemus: “You mean to tell me that, my religious expertise, my desire for Messiah, and my confession that you’re from God earn me nothing?!”
The only sort of belief that Jesus is interested in is expressed in vv. 14-15,
“And 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.”
If you don’t know the story to which Jesus is referring here I encourage you to check it out. What Jesus is saying is that the sort of belief that pleases him is one that is not seeking it’s own self interest but rather the glory of Christ as the only one who is able to stand in our place before God and declare us righteous by the merit of his own work on the cross. In other words, I believe Jesus and treasure Jesus because he’s the only one who is able to save me and he’s the treasure of my life because he’s taken my punishment by being “lifted up” on the cross to die for my sins.
Take from me my political influence, my earthly comforts and treasures, and I’ll still have Jesus. This is the sort of belief that the Holy Spirit accomplishes when he grants “new birth” and it’s the only kind that pleases him.
Let us not be like Nicodemus and seek Jesus for our own personal gain, unless that gain is the glory of God in the exaltation of Christ as our sinless Savior.