What’s the Gospel? What does it mean to be reconciled to God, to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit and be the recipient of eternal life? In John chapter three, one of the most important conversations in the New Testament takes place between a Pharisee called Nicodemus and Jesus.
Nicodemus was professor of theology at the University of Jerusalem. His training had been of the highest calibre and he was an outstanding man. He meticulously observed all the rules of his religion – and they were many and tough. He carefully checked on the food he ate, the company he kept, the places he went and the clothes he wore. His religion ruled all those things, and much more. The name Pharisee is an Aramaic word which means “…the separated ones”, which is the meaning of the word ‘holy’. They were a holiness movement, separating themselves from sin and the world, to be separated to God and His purposes.
Paul, who had been himself a Pharisee, says of them in Romans 10:2, “…they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” (NIV). Did you catch that? Their zeal was based on ignorance! They had laws, but not the life those laws needed, and principles, but not the power those principles needed. Nicodemus, in his smarter moment, recognised this. He was tired and weary. But what was missing?
Nicodemus joined a lot of Pharisees in being puzzled by the new street preacher, Jesus of Nazareth, who was stirring up the people. Most saw Him as a threat that needed silencing. Nicodemus saw something in Him he had never seen in anyone else – and he was intrigued. So, one night he came to visit Him, with one perceptive observation: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with Him.” – John 3:2 (NIV). Essentially, “…there’s something about you that we can’t explain… unless the explanation is God with you.”
Nicodemus wasn’t saying Jesus was God – a Pharisee wouldn’t think that in a thousand years, but he is making a very important observation. Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is to say, in effect, “…it is true that what you see in Me can only be explained by the presence of God. But that is not to be uniquely true of Me, it may also be true of you. For, it was intended that all humanity should live in a dependent relationship with God. You too, Nicodemus, may be born again and become a recipient of the life of God.”
He explains, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” – John 3:3 (NIV). There is a new life Nicodemus needs to receive, without which nothing will make sense about the kingdom of God – for no one will either “…see the kingdom of God unless he is born again…” (verse three) or “…enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born of the Spirit…” (verse five). The literal translation of ‘born again’ is to be “born from above”.
At this point Nicodemus is very confused! “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!” – John 3:4 (NIV). Now they are talking at cross purposes. Jesus is talking in spiritual terms, Nicodemus only understands in physical terms. “Jesus answered, “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 the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at My saying, ‘You must be born again.’” – John 3:5-7 (NIV).
Flesh giving birth to flesh is about physical birth. Just as you were born physically, you mustvalso be born spiritually. In similar language elsewhere, the Bible says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you…” – Ezekiel 36:26 (NIV), and “…I will put my Spirit in you…” (verse 27). Romans 6:13 speaks of being ‘brought from death to life’. In 2 Corinthians 5, it speaks of being ‘a new creation’.
Ephesians 2:5 speaks of being ‘made alive in Christ’. All of these speak of receiving the life of God. In his honest moment, Nicodemus knew the deadness of his own heart – laws but no life, principles but no power. He was tired of a religion which offered much but delivered so little. Jesus’ invitation is to step into a whole new relationship with God in which he would be born again and receive a new life.
Nicodemus’ response is – “How can this be?” Jesus takes him back to familiar territory for someone schooled in the Old Testament. “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 3:14-15 (NIV). Nicodemus knew this story well – and likely taught it many times.
In Numbers 21, the Israelites are on their journey from Egypt to Canaan in the wilderness. They’ve become disobedient, disgruntled and are complaining about everything. A plague of venomous snakes infested them and many died. God tells Moses to, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live… 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 21:8-9 (NIV).
Nicodemus knew this story well, but this is a brand-new application of it. Jesus must have explained the full implications of His being ‘lifted up, like the serpent’, how He would be, ‘made sin for us’, and what it means to ‘believe’. Nicodemus likely knew that in the original story there would’ve been lots of people who were extremely cynical about the snake on a pole – those who refused to believe – and because they wouldn’t look at the snake, they died.
Others couldn’t understand how a piece of twisted metal on a stick could get poison out of their veins. They died. Some felt if they couldn’t be healed by their own doctors, then they weren’t going to some quack holding a pole in the air. They died. Now the stakes for Nicodemus are high. He too must make a response. The passage goes on, “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.” – John 3:16 (NIV).
The word ‘eternal’ means “…to have no beginning and no end…” – so it’s not about mere length of life. There is only one eternal life – the life of God. He alone has no beginning and no end. Paul writes in Romans 6:23 that the gift ‘of’ God is eternal life. Not the gift ‘from’ God, but ‘of’ God, for God Himself is the gift, for His life is the only eternal life there is. It is God Himself
who comes to live His eternal life in us. Jesus said in John 17:3, “Now this is eternal life: that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” (NIV).
‘Knowing’ is not about accumulating information, but about a relationship. In scripture, eternal life is not spoken of in the future tense, but the present, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life…” – John 3:36 (NIV), and “I tell you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” – John 5:24 (NIV).
What Nicodemus saw in Jesus as a man, was the presence of God making His life what it was. Now, he is being told this life could also indwell him and make his life what it was designed to be. What a radical discovery! So, what happens next? After this encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus drops out of the story until he appears briefly in John 7 – he’s defending Jesus against the criticisms of fellow Pharisees. Then, he’s present again after the crucifixion of Jesus. He joined Joseph of Arimathea in taking Jesus’ body down from the cross.
What a powerful moment in which Nicodemus would recall the conversation he’d had with Jesus about Him being ‘lifted up’. The truths and all their implications have come home to him now, and he evidently believes, has come into new life and is shedding his old legalism. We know because every Pharisee was strictly forbidden to touch a dead body. Yet there he is helping take the body of Jesus down from the cross. This new birth has brought new life and, with it, new liberty from the old law.
Where are you in this? You too may be born again and receive the life of God to indwell, equip, liberate, strengthen and lead you – through this life and on into eternity. To ‘believe’ is to acknowledge its truth, say to the Lord Jesus, ‘Thank you’ and invite Him to live His life within you.
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About the author
Charles Price serves as the ‘Minister at large’ at the People’s Church in Toronto, Canada.
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