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Jesus and Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-21)

New life is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Whether it’s witnessing the birth of a child, or spotting the first daffodils of Spring, the sight of new life is something that gladdens the heart. Today (at our 10.30am service) we’re baptising baby Jack Nott (Barbara Craven’s great-grandson) and giving thanks to God for his safe arrival into our world. Every new life is extremely precious, and well worth celebrating. 

New life is very much the topic of today’s passage in John’s Gospel. A passage that describes a conversation between Jesus and a curious enquirer – a conversation that took place under the cover of darkness. This conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus may have initially been in private, but it has become world-famous thanks to the author of John’s Gospel – indeed, verse 16 of today’s passage can probably lay claim to being the most famous verse in the whole Bible! 

I think Jesus’ night-time talk with Nicodemus can be summarised under three headings:

  • Firstly, new life is necessary (verses 1-3);
  • Second, new life is a gift of God’s Spirit (verses 4-8); and 
  • Thirdly, new life is received by believing in God’s Son (verse 9 to the end).

Let’s look at each in turn…

New life is necessary! (v.1-3)

Our passage begins by introducing us to a member of the social elite, a representative of the upper echelons of first-century Israelite society. Verse 1 tells us that “there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council”, who came to Jesus at night.

If anyone on Earth thought he was already well-qualified for Heaven, Nicodemus must surely have been the man: 

  • As a Jew, he was a member of God’s historic chosen people. 
  • As Pharisee, he was a zealous observer of God’s Old Testament laws. 
  • And as a member of the Jewish ruling Council (known as the Sanhedrin), Nicodemus was a well-qualified theologian and pillar of the community.

Nicodemus even thought-well of Jesus! He was happy to describe him as miracle-working “teacher who has come from God” (v.2). 

But none of this would be sufficient to get Nicodemus into Heaven. None of this was required for Nicodemus to enter the everlasting Kingdom of God. Jesus cuts to the chase in verse 3, when he says to him “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

Whatever being ‘born again’ might mean, Jesus was telling Nicodemus that it was an essential entry requirement for the world to come. According to Jesus, new birth is the passport that Nicodemus – and every one else – needs to enter into Paradise.

New life is a gift of God’s Spirit (v.4-8)

Having been told he needs to be born again, Nicodemus firmly grasps the wrong end of the stick, doesn’t he? He takes Jesus’ words literally, and thinks that Christ is asking him to re-enter his mother’s womb for a second attempt at being born:“How can someone be born again when they are old?” Nicodemus asks in exasperation.

Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus’ exasperated question makes clear that he is talking about a spiritual rebirth rather than a physical one: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” he says. But what is this spiritual rebirth and why is it needed?

The answer we find in this passage is that new spiritual life is something that only God’s Spirit can give. Its not something that can be seen from outside, but an invisible work of God within our hearts. Like the wind, says Jesus, its something we can feel but never see. And like a hurricane force wind, the work of God’s spirit within us can have dramatic, life changing effects. The work of the Spirit within gives us forgiveness from guilt, freedom from condemnation, and an eternal life that will endure beyond our body’s death. Plus a heartfelt relationship with God that no man-made religious rituals can ever hope to provide.

New life is received by believing in God’s Son (v.9-21)

Hopefully that all sounds great, but how do we get it? How does Nicodemus or anyone else  receive this spiritual regeneration? How can human beings accept this God-given gift of new life?

The unambigious answer that Jesus gives to Nicodemus is that this new life is received by believing in God’s Son. By believing in him as our Heaven-sent Saviour. This message is summarised, of course, in the world-famous words of 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.”  

They may not be as well known, but the two preceding verses are probably equally important, because they explain why believing in Jesus brings us salvation and new birth. Because Jesus explains there that “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, [so] that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

With these words, Jesus is reminding Nicodemus of an event from the Old Testament book of Numbers. The people of Israel were wandering through the wilderness and faced a plague of poisonous snakes. So God told Moses to put a bronze snake on a pole for the people of Israel to look at. Those that did as they were told were healed, and the poisonous effects of the snakes were made null and void. In fact, the logo of a snake on a pole often still appears on the side of ambulances and other medical agencies.

Jesus knew that just as the bronze snake was lifted up on a pole, he too would soon be lifted up onto a wooden cross. Onto a cross where he would shoulder the sins of the world –where he would experience God’s condemnation in our place. So if we look to him we can be forgiven, if we look to him we can experience acquittal from sin, if we look to him our hearts will be cleansed and the Holy Spirit can begin his renewing work within us.

Conclusion – curiosity or commitment?

As I finish this morning, I wonder which of two camps you are in? Are you among the curious or the committed? 

Perhaps you are a little like Nicodemus at the start of today’s passage – someone whose heard about Jesus and but doesn’t yet know the full story. Someone who is curious, but not yet a Christian believer. If that’s your camp, please don’t make Nicodemus’ mistake of thinking that your own qualifications, career successes or social status are sufficient to get you for heaven. We all need the work of God’s Spirit in our hearts to make us fit for Heaven. We all need the moral cleansing and spiritual rebirth that only the Holy Spirit can provide. And don’t make Nicodemus’ mistake in thinking that Jesus was just a great moral teacher. It is by believing that Jesus is God’s Son and our Saviour that we receive the gift of eternal life. 

But I expect most, if not all of us here today are in the second camp – the camp of committed Christians. If we are Christians here today, then the great news of today’s passage is that we have all been born again. A ‘born again Christian’ is not a description of a spiritual elite, or a term that should just be used to describe really ‘keen’ Christians (as it is sometimes misused in the media). No, the message of our passage today is that being ‘born again’ describes the new life that every Christian believer received when we first put our faith in God’s Son. Being born again is a spiritual regeneration that is given by God’s Holy Spirit. A fresh start that frees us from condemnation and the fear of death, and guarantees access to God’s everlasting kingdom. A precious new life that’s well worth celebrating!