Episode 50 - Jesus and Nicodemus - Opening Up the Gospels

In the last two episodes we’ve been looking at Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in this section of his ministry I’m calling the Early Judean period. I highlighted the importance of seeing the cleansing of the Temple as the very first public act in Jesus’ ministry, and how it was so significant that He began at the heart of Judaism in the Temple in Jerusalem and how He was confronting the leadership of Israel. I talked about how Jesus asserted His authority over the Temple, and through that He not only indicted the leadership for their lack of righteousness, but also implicitly asserted His divinity because only God is greater than the Temple. It’s critical to understand these things if we’re to rightly understand the rest of Jesus’ ministry. He didn’t begin by haphazardly walking around Galilee and doing some healings, He began in Jerusalem by confronting the Jewish leadership. Don’t forget, John the Baptist said that the One who He was preparing the way for would divide Israel. And that’s exactly what Jesus is doing from the very beginning of His public ministry in Jerusalem. Today we’re going to move on to John chapter 3 where Jesus meets with Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. Let’s read John’s account: “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 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 answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:1–5 ESV) Where and when is this happening in the Gospels? Well it seems like we’re still in Jerusalem perhaps during the Passover feast. John says it’s night, and perhaps Jesus was staying at one of the houses in Jerusalem. Some scholars have speculated that Jesus might have been at John Mark’s house, which could have been the same house as where the last supper in the upper room took place. We can’t be sure though. Now it was a common practice for guests to stay on the roofs of the houses at night, so that’s where we can probably picture this scene happening. And looking at our timeline, we were in Cana in Galilee for the wedding, the passover was at hand so Jesus heads south with his disciples and then cleanses the Temple. Then presumably only a few days later Nicodemus is coming to him by night. Before we look at the details of the scene, I want to talk about the leadership of Israel for a second, because John says that Nicodemus was a “ruler of the Jews”. The main leadership of Israel was the Sanhedrin, composed of the chief priests and the elders. And more or less, the Sanhedrin was composed of both Pharisees and Sadducees. Now the Pharisees and Sadducees were not offices or positions that someone held, but they were names of ideological affiliations. In other words, Pharisees and Sadducees are like Republicans and Democrats, or Conservative and Liberal, not like senators and representatives. Does that make sense? So the Sanhedrin was made up of chief priests, who were primarily Sadducees, generally speaking, and the elders who were primarily Pharisees, again, generally speaking. There were some exceptions. So for John to say that Nicodemus was a “ruler of the Jews”, it meant that Nicodemus was part of the Sanhedrin because there’s only a tiny percentage of people in Israel who this title would have applied to. Now a lot has been written about Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night, as if it was a covert or deceptive act. But I don’t think it has to be that complicated, because someone as important as Nicodemus would have been tied up with affairs all day. The night time was a time of fellowship, a cooler time of the day when people would sit out on their roofs. And so I think he was just coming to Jesus at night because he would have actually had the chance to talk to him in a more private way. Nicodemus probably had sincere motives, but Jesus corrects him with a pretty severe correction, but still nothing like the “woes” to the other Pharisees which we’ll see later on in the Gospels. So Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says “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.” In other words, he’s saying “Jesus, we know you actually might be the Messiah, that rightful king from David’s line that we’ve been looking for who will crush our enemies.” And Jesus comes back and says “Oh Nicodemus, unless you’re born again you can’t see the kingdom of God.” Jesus is correcting Nicodemus here, and I believe it’s because Nicodemus and all the leadership in general had a false confidence and a false hope. The false confidence was in the Law, that their strict obedience to the Law of Moses was what would guarantee them an inheritance in the promises, which included of course all the promises God made to Abraham as well as the kingdom based in Jerusalem that was promised to David’s son. And their false hope was that the kingdom would be established by an insurrection, perhaps similar to what had happened with Judas Maccabee in Israel’s recent history. We looked at the Maccabean Revolt back in Episode 35, definitely go back and check that out if you missed it. Jesus is saying “Nicodemus, the kingdom is not going to come by the strength of man, and your outward adherence to the Law isn’t going to guarantee you participation in it and all the promises that God made.” Like John the Baptist had said, it was only those who bore the fruits of repentance and turned to God from the heart that would inherit the promises. Nicodemus asks Jesus: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” I don’t think Nicodemus was dull and I absolutely don’t think Jesus was redefining anything here related to what “the kingdom” was. Jesus is just doing the same thing that John the Baptist did – saying that ethnicity and adherence to the Law were not the guarantee that someone would participate in the promises and the Messiah’s kingdom. Repentance from the heart was needed, and this is why Jesus goes on to say: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus is indicating something that Nicodemus should have been familiar as a Pharisee and is clearly alluding to Ezekiel chapter 36 and 37 where the Lord says: “I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36:24–28 ESV) And then again in Ezekiel 37: “Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”” (Ezekiel 37:11–14 ESV) So, notice the themes here – Yahweh is going to give His people a new heart and put His spirit in them, and because of that they would walk out His statutes and obey His law, which would then enable them to dwell in the land that He gave Israel’s fathers, which is of course part of the promise that God made to Abraham, that he and His seed would dwell in the land that God had allotted them. And then the Ezekiel 37 passage, in the same flow of thought, includes the resurrection of the dead – where Yahweh would raise them from their graves and plant them in the land of Israel. These passages in Ezekiel and Jesus’ words in John 3 are what Paul is echoing in 1 Corinthians 15 when he says: “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:50–52 ESV) Now with the Old Testament context in view and Paul’s understanding about the need for atonement and the coming kingdom and resurrection from 1 Corinthians, do you see what’s going on and what Jesus is really saying here? He’s not spiritualizing the kingdom, he’s not redefining it, he’s not saying that Nicodemus has to pray a prayer to accept Jesus into his heart to have a nice life. He’s correcting the Jewish hope of the day and making the point that all the promises to Abraham and the Davidic kingdom are not going to come about by the strength of man in some insurrection or because of man’s adherence to the Law on their own strength, because man is depraved and needs a new heart. The promises will be established by God’s own hand and God Himself will provide the righteousness needed to inherit the blessing. Notice how many times the passages in Ezekiel said “I will”, “I will do that”, “I’ll raise you”, “I’ll sprinkle clean water on you”. Because of Israel’s recent history, Nicodemus’ hope was that an insurrection movement like the Maccabean revolt would overthrow Rome and restore the kingdom to Israel. And this is why I think Nicodemus comes to Jesus, to size him up and maybe even to get on His good side so that He could have a greater position in the kingdom if Jesus really was the Messiah and would lead an insurrection. But Jesus goes on to say: “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.” (John 3:11 ESV) Most commentators agree here that the “we” Jesus and John the Baptist. What have they not received? The truths of the need for repentance and faith and God’s own atonement to inherit the promises. They resisted John the Baptist and now they’re resisting Jesus. They’re still trusting and boasting in the Temple and the Law, and that’s exactly what Jesus has condemned – the Temple in John 2 and the Law in John 3. Neither of those things are sufficient qualify anyone to inherit the kingdom and resurrection on the day of the Lord, or as as John would say a few verses later, eternal life. I know this understanding of John 3 may be new to you, but I hope you see now that with the historical background, the Old Testament context, and the whole story of the Gospels up to this point, it makes so much more sense. We’re so prone to reading the verses in isolation and with preconceived ideas. So I’d encourage you to go back and review a few episodes that will bring some more clarity – the supplemental episode called “Biblical Foundations of Messiah and Christ”, Episode 35 about the Maccabean Revolt, and episodes 36, 37, 38, and 39 about the message of John the Baptist.