The world of the Jews was being shaken. In the midst of their great, national Passover celebration, the young man named Jesus was turning everything upside down. As the Jewish people poured into the city of Jerusalem for a week of remembrance and worship, they brought stories about Jesus with them. Rumors had it that He was the cousin of John the Baptist, the wild preacher in the dessert who was baptizing sinners in the Jordan River even as he denounced the religious rulers in Jerusalem. Some said that Jesus Himself had been baptized. Some even claimed that they heard the thunder of God’s voice when it happened. As the week went on, there was more rumors. Jesus had attacked the moneychangers in the Temple and gotten Himself in trouble with the religious leaders. But the most remarkable rumors were those of the miracles. Many of the people who went to see Jesus were being healed. He seemed to have power over diseases, disabilities, and demons like nobody had ever seen before…or even heard of.
And everybody wondered: Where did the power come from? If the stories were true and the power came from God, why didn’t the religious leaders raise this man up and honor Him as the new spiritual leader of the nation? Did they reject Him because He was evil or because He was good? Throughout the history of the nation of Israel in the Bible, the good rulers like Hezekiah honored the prophets of God. They listened to their message and did what they said. The bad rulers persecuted the prophets. Sometimes they even put them to death. But what if Jesus was a false prophet? What if He deserved to be silenced? And yet it was hard to argue against the power and the beauty of His miracles. People were being set free from terrible suffering and struggle. It had to be a work of God! These were the discussions that were going on all over the city during the feast that celebrated the salvation of God for the people of Israel.
One night during the Passover celebration, a Pharisee who ruled on the counsel of the Sanhedrin came to visit Jesus. His name was Nicodemus, and he had many questions for this young Jew who had caused such a stir. Yet Jesus was becoming a dangerous man to be friends with, so Nicodemus met with Him in secret. “‘Rabbi,’” Nicodemus said, “ ‘We know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.’”
The Lord gave an interesting reply:
“ ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’”
Wow. That explained a lot. If Jesus came to bring a message of the Kingdom of God and nobody could even SEE the Kingdom unless they are born again, it is no wonder that nobody understood who Jesus was. But what did it mean to be born again? Nicodemus didn’t understand. How could someone be born twice?
Jesus went on, “ ‘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 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 of everyone born of the Spirit’”
There was a reason the Jesus thought Nicodemus should understand more about what He was saying. The Old Testament prophets spoke of a time when God would do a new thing. He bring about a new time where the inner change of the heart would be so profound that it would be like a whole new birth.
The prophet Jeremiah spoke of it to bring hope at the time of the Jewish exile:
“‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord.
‘This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor or say to one another, “Know the LORD,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the LORD. ‘For I will forget their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’”
The prophet Ezekiel gave a similar message from the Lord:
“‘I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.’”
Nicodemus was still confused. Jesus said:
“‘I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?…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.’”
John 3:12, 14
Wow. Christ was explaining the very edges of the deep things of God. There is a story in the Bible that happened fifteen hundred years before Jesus walked the earth. In the story, Moses lifted up a bronze snake on a pole to heal the people of Israel from their wounds (See Numbers 21:4-9). Jesus is saying that this was a foreshadowing of what He would do on the cross. It had already been worked out that He would be crucified, and that everyone who looked upon Him for eternal salvation would receive it. But that future was still a few years off, and Christ’s words must have seemed strange and confusing. The proper task of Nicodemus and the rest of Israel was to start trusting Jesus in the moment before them. The power of His miracles and the authoritative wisdom of His teaching were evidence enough.
Then Jesus went on to tell Nicodemus some of the most wonderful words the human race would every hear:
“ ‘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…’”
Wow. Take that in for a second. If it is true, it is the Great Answer to all of our troubles. But if it isn’t, then Jesus must have been crazy. To claim to be the answer for the problems of the entire human race is insane…unless it is true. If it is, than woe to the person who rejects it. Jesus went on to say:
“ ‘…whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.’”
Jesus did not leave room for a middle ground for Nicodemus. He wasn’t going to leave one for the nation of Israel. He hasn’t left one for us. He wasn’t rude, but He was direct and clear.
Many of the people in Jesus’ time did not want to come to terms with His message, and that is still true today. But if we have any respect for Him at all, we have to honor what He said and take it seriously. Declaring faith in Jesus while rejecting His Words or deciding He didn’t mean them is a fool’s errand. It won’t work. He knows, and He said it’s not enough:
“ ‘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’”
And here is where Jesus reveals the heart of the problem. It is the love of darkness. The Jewish people had a choice…the same one posed by John the Baptist. Would they hold onto their sin and pride, or confess their bondage and rebellion and receive the bright, hopeful cleansing of His Light?
As we move through the stories of Jesus’ life, we will see many characters wrestle with that decision. And as we do, the Spirit of the Lord will be working in our hearts as well. Will we allow the Lord of All to draw us in?
The beautiful truth of this story is that Nicodemus did. He probably faced severe condemnation for it, but he joined the men and women that followed Jesus (John 19:31-42). Nicodemus started coming to the Lord in the secrecy of night, but he ended by identifying with Christ before the world at His darkest hour. He was there to take Jesus’ body down from the cross, wrap it in cloth, and lay Him in the tomb. He had the tender privilege of caring for the body of his precious Lord. He also got to see Him rise again.