John 3:1-21 – Nick at Night

Under cover of darkness, surrounded by the mysteries of the heavens, under ten thousand pinpricks of light that peer through the celestial ink to hint at something more, Nicodemus secretly comes to Jesus.

He has to come at night because it is unsafe to be seen with Jesus. After all, Nicodemus is a respectable member of the Pharisees party, known enemies of the rabbi from Galilee. Yet there seem to be others. Nicodemus declares “WE know you are from God,” revealing that he is not alone in his suspicion that there could be something more to Jesus

Jesus rebuffs the indirect question Nicodemus is asking – which is the same question we will all eventually ask Jesus – “Who are you?”

Instead of giving a direct answer, Jesus stirs a deeper pot with Nicodemus by speaking what sounds like a riddle to the old man’s ears:  

“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (v3)

Curious, Nicodemus takes the bait. 

“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!” (v4)

Jesus goes on to explain that he is talking about spiritual birth, not physical birth. More importantly, Jesus makes it clear that no one enters the kingdom of God – not the highest Pharisee or the lowest sinner – unless they are “born of water and the spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked (v9). 

We’re right there with Nicodemus in his confusion. What does Jesus mean when he says we must be “born of water and the spirit”?

Some think water refers to physical birth when a mother’s water breaks. That’s possible, but “water” is an odd choice of words if that’s all John means to convey. Why not just say “flesh and the spirit”? No, I have a hunch the word “water” definitely signifies something more to John than just physical birth.

Others think the two words, “water and spirit” are lumped together as one idea, meant to convey the same concept. We do this today sometimes by doubling up on words for emphasis. “Nice and warm.” “Safe and sound.”  Those ideas fit together. But “water and spirit”? I don’t think that fits very well.

Still others think John, writing to encourage Christians in the early church, is referring to the ritual of Christian baptism when he chooses the word “water”, and the infilling of the Holy Spirit when he says “spirit”. Again, while it could be possible, that seems like a stretch given that it wouldn’t have meant a thing to Nicodemus at this time, which was well before Christian baptism was established.

I believe that when Jesus talks of being born of water and the spirit, he is referring to both cleansing from sin and being filled with God’s spirit. Water and spirit here are not meant to contrast one another, but to complement each other. Water represents cleansing in many places throughout John’s gospel. And in John’s view, the spirit is the comforter, the one who fills us with truth and empowers us to walk in God’s ways. 

If that’s the case, then Jesus is saying we need to be both forgiven and filled; washed and dressed, saved and sanctified; if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven. To me, that is the most consistent reading with the rest of John’s gospel, but I invite you to prayerfully come to your own conclusion. 

Moving on …

Either way, after Nicodemus asks “How can this be?” Jesus launches into one of the most beautiful articulations of the Chrsitian faith in all of Scripture. Many children memorize a small portion of it, John 3.16: 

“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.” (v16)

It’s a beautiful passage. Wonderfully stated. Profound in its simplicity, and abounding in lifegiving power. If you had to memorize only one verse in the entire Bible, this would be an excellent choice.

Teaching the Teacher

Nicodemus addressed Jesus with a term of respect, “rabbi”, which means teacher. Jesus doesn’t miss a chance to turn the tables on Nicodemus now when he repays the compliment:

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?” (v10)

Jesus then rolls up his rabbi sleeves to show Nicodemus that he really is a rabbi sent from God – and much more than that!

He draws three vivid images from the Old Testament that explain who he is: the Solitary Stairway, the Substitute Snake, and the Sacrificial Son.

The Solitary Stairway

In verse 13 Jesus says, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.” (NIV) The New International Version english translation loses some punch here, because the more literal translation for the words Jesus uses are “ascend” and “descend” – as in “No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven.”   This would have rung in Nicodemus’ ears as an obvious reference to the story of Jacob’s ladder, where Jacob saw heaven a open and angels ascending and descending on a stairway

To Nathaniel, one of the disciples who almost certainly was sitting around the fire with Jesus and Nicodemus for this conversation, that reference would have had a special meaning. Recall the words Jesus spoke when he first called Nathaniel just a chapter ago:

​​“Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.” (John 1.51)

In other words, Jesus tells Nicodemus, as he revealed to Nathaniel, that He is the stairway Jacob saw in that dream. Jesus is the stairway heaven. Not only that but he is the one and only, the single, solitary, stairway to heaven, because he is the one and only begotten son. 

Acts 4.12 reminds us of the solitary nature of the true stairway to heaven – that there is only one way to heaven, and it is through Jesus Christ: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

The Substitute Snake

The next image Jesus uses comes from the X files of the old testament - the story of the bronze snake from the book of wanderings:

4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

(Numbers 21.4-9)

Jesus was foreshadowing his crucifixion when he would be lifted up, not as a snake on a pole, but as the King of the Jews on a cross. In the crucifixion, Jesus fulfilled the prophetic image of the bronze serpent. Just as the bronze serpent was an image of Israel’s rebellion and sin, Jesus represented our sins on the cross of God’s justice. He became the substitute for our sins so that all who gaze on Him shall be healed and live.   

The Sacrificial Son

Finally, Jesus pulls out the most powerful of the three images, the story of Abraham, who was called to demonstrate his love for God by sacrificing his only begotten son. 

The story of Abraham’s call to sacrifice his son is a revelation of God’s heart for us. God could have asked Abraham to sacrifice anything: sheep, money, land – but nothing was so precious to Abraham as his son Isaac. The message was clear: God was testing Abraham’s love. And Abraham showed his love for God through his willingness to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac.

By the same token, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5.8)

What did God do to demonstrate his own love for us? 

Did he make lightning come down from heaven? Did he part the sea? No, those only demonstrate God’s power; they don’t demonstrate God’s love. To demonstrate love, one has to be willing to sacrifice themselves. And this is precisely how God proved His love for you and me.

“God demonstrated his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners...” – still unworthy, still ungrateful, still conniving, killing, and cheating our way through life, God sacrificed his one and only son – “...Christ died for us.” (Romans 5.8) 

Do you ever wonder sometimes if God loves you? I mean, if He really loves you? Do you ever wish that God would just prove it somehow?

Have you ever asked God to prove that he loves you? Maybe you've asked for some sort of sign, like a lightning bolt, or the parting of the sea. 

The problem with those kinds of signs is that they only prove power. They don't prove love. To prove love, you have to sacrifice yourself. 

A man can give money, rings, houses and land to a woman, but the doesn't prove that he loves her. Love is proved only through self-sacrifice. 

And that is precisely what God did when he sacrificed Jesus, his one and only son, on the cross for you and me. 

As Christian musician Bob Hartman wrote:

The battle is already through
It's hard to believe but it's true
On a hill long ago where the blood runs below
Died a King, two thieves, and you
(Bob Hartman, Dead Reckoning)

It’s a dead reckoning. The cross is all the proof we will ever need that God loves us.

There is nothing you and I can do to undo that demonstration, that proof, that evidence of God’s mad and reckless love for us. Next time you find yourself wondering if God really loves you, ask yourself: what more – what more could he possibly do to prove His love than to lay his own life down for you?

Of course he loves you. No one would do such a thing if they did not love you.

Out of the Shadowlands

Nicodemus is like most of us at some point in our lives. He is on the cusp of daybreak. He wants to know more, he has honest questions, but he is undeniably drawn to the light. 

Later we will see Nicodemus grow bolder as he steps into the light, believes fully and the kingdom of God dawns in his heart. In chapter 7 Nicodemus will defend Jesus privately. In chapter 19 he will lower Jesus’ body from the cross publicly. Like the break of day, faith and belief sometimes grow gradually, step by step.

At the close of today’s passage, Jesus goes on to press us to choose where we will stand. Some people love the darkness. They use it to hide their evil deeds. Those will receive what they have chosen.

But others - only a few - will have the courage to step into the light. 

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 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 3.19-21)

Everyone is a free agent in life, each of us is free to believe Jesus or utterly shut him out. But there will come a point where each of us must make a choice. We must choose either light or darkness. We cannot remain as observers on the inside of belief's womb forever. We must either plunge into the light, or forever remain unborn. 

Nicodemus eventually chose to emerge from the shadowlands. Have you made your choice? What'll it be? Shadows or sunshine? Darkness or light? Death or life?

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