Have you ever seen something that was out of focus, only to eventually have clarity on what it looks like? Continuing in our Loaded Questions series, David Marvin challenges us to see the gospel through the eyes of Nicodemus, a prominent Jewish leader who had to reframe his expectations of a Savior.
Do You Not Understand? | John 3
Why Do You Call Me Lord? | Luke 6
Have You Not Read? | Matthew 21:12-16
Do You Love Me? | John 21:15-19
Why Are You So Afraid? | Mark 4:35-41
Do You Want To Go Away As Well? | John 6:60-71
Who Do You Say I Am? | Matthew 16:13-28
Do You Want to Be Healed? | John 5:1-18
Have you ever seen something that was out of focus, only to eventually have clarity on what it looks like? Continuing in our Loaded Questions series, David Marvin challenges us to see the gospel through the eyes of Nicodemus, a prominent Jewish leader who had to reframe his expectations of a Savior.
What's up, Watermark family? My name is David Marvin. I direct The Porch here on Tuesday nights. We are continuing this series Loaded Questions. I'm going to read the passage, which is going to be in John, chapter 3. We will dive in at verse 1.
"Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, '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.' Jesus replied, 'Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.' '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!'
Jesus answered, 'Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water [physical birth] 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." 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 with everyone born of the Spirit.' 'How can this be?' Nicodemus asked.
'You are Israel's teacher,' said Jesus, 'and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.
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. 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.'"
As I said, we are continuing the series Loaded Questions, looking at questions Jesus asked that were loaded, and the question today is a question he frames toward this religious leader…Do you not understand these things? The way God works, the way eternal life is something you can know you have… Do you not understand?
In 1990, there was a project that was completed, and it was called the Hubble Telescope. The Hubble Telescope is something that probably a lot of us heard about in school or you have some vague memory of. It's a telescope that's up there. Here are some interesting facts about it. It's about the size of a school bus. It's by far the most famous telescope that has ever been created.
When it was launched, it cost about $1.5 billion in order to create and go up into space and give man the ability to see our world accurately from space on demand and to see the universe around us in images to be captured and sent back to earth. Now, there was a problem. When it was launched, it went up into space, and they received the very first images from the Hubble Telescope, which had to be an exciting thing. "We're finally going to see…"
The images they looked at were all blurry. Someone had wrongly calibrated the lenses. Now that's a bad day if you're that guy who was responsible, whoever it was. "Carl!" They sent back to earth, and this $1.5 billion project seemed like it was a total bust. The Hubble Telescope needed glasses. The people behind it came up with an idea. They knew they couldn't bring it back down to earth. It would cost too much and cause damage to the telescope, and to create another one would be an enormous expense.
So they decided, "We will create corrective lenses, giant contacts. We will send an astronaut into space, and they will attach them on the outside of the Hubble Telescope." It worked. They sent back the images after doing so, and they were crystal clear. I mean, 20/20 vision on steroids that the earth could be seen at. Breathtaking.
What does that have to do with this conversation Jesus has with this religious person? Well, Jesus is attempting in this conversation to put corrective lenses on a man who had a flawed vision of what God was like, of who he was, of how eternal life could be experienced, and even this life. Jesus was trying to give him a clear perspective on what is true, on reality. Throughout the conversation, he's correcting and saying, "Do you not understand these things? That's not how it works at all" to a man who devoted his life to religion and God, as we're going to see.
I think, for some of us listening in the room or online or even at a future time, God wants to put those same corrective lenses on your eyes, because there may be some flawed perspectives, beliefs, things you think about when it comes to God, eternal life, this life, you, and use the story of Nicodemus and this incredible exchange in order to do so.
So, I'm going to walk through, and I'm going to pull out two things from the text. We're going to be here for 30 minutes. It's going to be short and sweet. It's going to be great. We're going to pull out two things from the text, which has so many different implications we could pull out, in an attempt to highlight what Jesus is trying to highlight with this man.
So, John, chapter 3. A little background on John. John is the most unique of all of the Gospels. All of the other gospels are the synoptic ones, which basically means they kind of trace the same path. John spends half of the book on the last week of Jesus' life, and in chapters 1-12, he goes through different stories that make up his ministry, and he records the only place that we have this story of this exchange with Nicodemus.
I'm going to read it back again, because we learn a lot about our character Nicodemus even in the first verse we have. It says, "Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council." We're told he's a Pharisee. What's a Pharisee? We think of them in a way that is not how the first century would have thought of them. If you've been in church any amount of time, you think of them as the archnemesis, the people in Star Wars that are the enemy of God, but that's not how they were seen in the first century.
They were men…6,000, very exclusive…who had devoted their entire lives to God. They followed the Law, and they thought, "Following the Law is a good thing, so let's take that and make it a great thing by following and adding additional laws." They had memorized the first five books of the Bible. Now, that may be something that most of you have done, but my guess is, for most of us, let alone reading through the first five books of the Bible…Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus… For some of us, our Bible reading plan has gone out the window when we hit that book, and these men memorized it.
So, he was incredibly religious. He was a member of the Jewish ruling council. What is that? Well, when Rome took over Judea, they didn't quite know what to do with the Jewish people. They were unique. They believed in one God, which was unique at that time. So they decided, "We're going to let you guys kind of rule yourselves, as long as you stay in line and have a Jewish ruling council." So, 71 men made up the Jewish ruling council.
So, he's one of the 6,000. He's one of the 71 who ruled at that time. He is incredibly religious and incredibly respected. The Talmud, which is an extrabiblical work or Jewish writing tells us that Nicodemus was one of the three wealthiest men in Jerusalem. So, he has respect, he's religious, and he has riches, yet it wasn't satisfying. So he comes to Jesus, and he says, "We know you are someone who has come from God." Jesus had been performing miracles. "Clearly, God is at work through you."
We're told that he comes at night. Why would he come at night? Well, perhaps it was the only time in his schedule he could make work, or perhaps, as a person who was called the teacher of Israel, he didn't want to bring a lot of attention to the fact that, as an older man, he was showing up to a 30-year-old and saying, "I have some questions." He comes, and before he can even ask his questions, Jesus answers and says (verse 3): "…I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again."
He responds in a way that is kind of comical. "How can someone be born again when they're old? Surely you're not saying I need to get back into my mother's womb," which is not an image any of us want to embrace. Jesus says, "Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit." Physical birth and spiritual birth. "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit." He's saying, "Just like cats give birth to cats, humans give birth to humans, dogs give birth to dogs, only the Spirit can give birth to the spirit."
What is required in order to see the kingdom of God is a supernatural work of God. The first thing from the text we see is you see the kingdom of God or you have eternal life by birth, not work. You see the kingdom of God, Nicodemus, by a new birth, not another work. The only way any person can have a relationship with God, will spend eternity with God, will go to heaven someday is not by following some additional laws or performing some behavior but by a supernatural birth of the Spirit.
Nicodemus is having an eye-opening conversation. This man who fasted, who prayed, who gave and tithed, who was fanatical about keeping the Sabbath and doing all of the things God had said, had missed it. He says what he would say to you. All of those things don't earn you a right to have a relationship with God. Church attendance, reading your Bible… Those are great things, but none of those make an impact on whether or not you're going to spend eternity with God, because you see the kingdom of God, which is heaven, by a new birth, not a new work.
He's trying to have a clarifying "define the relationship," if you will, with Nicodemus. Do you guys remember what "defining the relationship" is? For those of you who haven't dated in more than 10 years, there's a new term on the block called define the relationship. What is that? It's that moment in the dating relationship when the guy and the girl have that conversation. It's a little awkward. They've gone on a few dates. It typically always goes down the same way.
They have not established they're in an exclusive dating relationship, but they've gone on some dates. After one date… Usually it's in the car in somebody's driveway, where they pull up and begin to talk. "Man, I had such a great time with you." "Yeah, I had such a great time too. Oh man. Ashley is texting me and asking me how it went. She's always like, 'What's going on with you guys?' and I'm like, 'We're just hanging.'" He's like, "Oh yeah. All my guys ask the same thing too. They're like, 'Are y'all a thing?'"
One of them will say, "So, what do you say?" Based on how they answer that question is a defining moment in where that relationship is going. It can feel awkward and clunky, but it brings clarity to their relationship. Jesus, in a loving way, is trying to bring clarity. "Nicodemus, all of the things you've devoted your life to… You've missed it. You see the kingdom of heaven by a new birth, not a new work."
The brilliance of the analogy he uses of birth… It's brilliant because he's trying to articulate "This is something only God can accomplish," just like in a physical birth it is entirely dependent on the parents. The disproportionate load a mother has in bringing a child into the world compared to the father is astonishing to me. My wife just gave birth three weeks ago. This is our son Bear, who is such a cute nugget. He's keeping us up, but it is what it is. He's great. This is our third son.
In reflecting, it is shocking the role a mother plays in terms of… They carry the child. They go through the morning sickness. They sustain the child after he's brought into the world. They have to recover. You compare that to the father's contribution. It's almost laughable, yet there's someone who contributes even less than the father. It's the child. The child plays zero role in him being brought into the world.
Jesus says that's exactly how the spiritual birth is. God performs the theological term of the miracle of regeneration. Unless God accomplishes it, someone will not see the kingdom of God. He's going to tell us how you can know or the evidence of somebody being reborn. He's articulating it is a miracle of God, and it is mysterious, which is why he goes to where he does next.
"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 with everyone born of the Spirit." There are things, Nicodemus, that you can't fully explain, you can't even fully see, but you also can't deny. You can't see the wind, but you can feel its effects. When it comes to the kingdom of God, you can't always see the regeneration happen in a moment, but it's clear its effects on someone's life, because they have been reborn. You see the kingdom of God by a new birth, not a new work.
Then he gives us our question, the loaded question. Nicodemus says, "How can this be?" and he says, "You are Israel's teacher, and you do not understand these things?" Which is like, "Do you even lift, bro? You are the guy that everyone listens to the podcast. All of the TED Talks, everybody is lining up to come see you. You're not a teacher. You are Israel's teacher, and you don't understand how the kingdom of God works." He had missed it.
A lot of people in church, maybe here today, who grow up and spend years in church, don't understand these things. They have bought the idea that "Good people can have a relationship with God. Bad people are those God doesn't want a relationship with, and that's how God works." That is a lie. The Bible has never taught good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. It says forgiven people go to heaven, and there's only one way to get forgiveness. Jesus is about to tell us.
Like Nicodemus, there are people who say they're Christians, and they don't understand these things. Meaning, they have not been reborn. He says, "Very truly I tell you, we speak of earthly things. How would you understand if I speak of heavenly things? No one understands except for the Son of Man," claiming to be the Son of Man, the Messiah. "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness…"
Jesus is now going to use an illustration that Nicodemus would have been really familiar with. This may not be an illustration or story you're totally familiar with, so here's a little bit of recap on what he's addressing. Jesus said, "Just as Moses lifted up that serpent in the wilderness…" What happened there? Well, in Numbers 21, there was an outbreak among the people of God. Israel had basically been attacked. There were these serpents that were biting the people of God.
They cry out to Moses, and God says to Moses, "I want you to fashion a bronze serpent and put it on top of a pole with a crossbeam and raise it up, and everyone who has been bitten who looks at that serpent will live." It was a picture of sin and the infection sin does through that venom, and everyone who looks at God's provision will live. In fact, here's a picture of it. This is actual footage from that day when that happened (I love that there's the source at the bottom on there; that's amazing), where Moses erected up and everyone lived. It's kind of a random story.
Jesus says, "Just as those who looked at the serpent that was lifted up were saved, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him." So, the Son of Man must be lifted up. Now, if I'm Nicodemus, I am confused. We read that, and we see some parallels, and we understand it, because we are this side of the cross, but Nicodemus is going, "Like a serpent lifted up… Did you just say everyone who believes?"
There are two things that jump out of that. "Everyone?" There was a perspective in that day that God's heart was primarily for the Jewish people. He had some love for the world, but it was really the Jews God was all about. When it came to God's perspective on the world, he was like, "Give me a J, give me an E, give me a W. Let's go, Jews." Nicodemus is hearing, "Everyone who believes, not everyone who behaves, will have eternal life."
The apostle John, who's writing the gospel of John… It's as though he steps out of the story to emphasize to his audience what Jesus is saying. He's telling the story and the dialogue, and it's as though he goes, "Let me punctuate what Jesus just said." He writes a verse that he had no idea would reverberate through the halls of history since it was penned, 26 words that would make up the most famous sentence in existence, a sentence that would be placed on the bottom of In-N-Out cups, on the eye black of football players, on the bottom of Forever 21 bags (That is quite a shocker. Who knew that?) and all over the place.
He would pen and emphasize, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes [or trusts] in him shall not perish but have eternal life." John is saying, "Let me tell you exactly what God is doing. He so loved the world…" In other words, what motivated God to lay down his life, to give his life on behalf of humanity, to provide a Savior for humanity, was not "Oh, there are a bunch of people who really love me."
It was that God really loved people…people who loved him, people who didn't love him. That moved him to give his life to be lifted up so that any person who puts their trust in him will have eternal life. In other words, he gives us the evidence of what it looks like to be reborn. It involves a new belief of trusting in Jesus as the payment for their sin or as their Savior.
The second idea he emphasizes is those who see Jesus as their Savior are reborn. Those who see Jesus as their Savior, as the payment for their sins on the cross, are those who are reborn. John uses a really interesting Greek phrase. The first time in all of Greek literature that this phrase is used is here. It's the phrase believes in or trusts in. There are a lot of other places that say trusts that or believes that. John says, "No. Anyone who puts their trust in Jesus and what he did on the cross as the payment for their sin has been extended forgiveness and been reborn."
The evidence of someone having the new birth is that they have said, "Jesus, you are the payment for my sin on the cross. Everything I did was paid for. I'm not a good enough person to ever be able to earn my way to God, but you laid down your life for me, and I receive that. I accept that, which means I accept nothing I could do would get me in relationship with you, and it's only through what you've accomplished that I can have eternal life," because those who see Jesus as the Savior are reborn.
Verse 17: "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." It's interesting. At the beginning of the dialogue, Nicodemus says, "Rabbi," which is a word for teacher. "We know you are a teacher." "Teacher, we know you are a teacher." Then Nicodemus is called a teacher, and he's thinking, "This is a conversation between two teachers."
Jesus is putting on those corrective lenses and saying, "This isn't a conversation between two teachers. This is a conversation between a sinner and a Savior. The world doesn't need another teacher. Teacher implies rules. It implies religion. The world needs a Savior who can provide relationship." Nicodemus is having all of his categories blown. Those who see the kingdom are reborn, and the only way you get reborn is by believing and accepting Jesus as the payment for your sin. Following a teacher is religion. Trusting in a Savior allows for relationship.
It's funny. From time to time, I will take my older son to sporting events or go to a game, a Stars game. This next weekend, we're actually going to go to a Stars game. Do you know what I've noticed about Stars games and Mavericks games and Cowboys games? Every time you get to the door and want to go in, they ask you for something. They say, "Can I see your ticket?"
It's bizarre that every time I have attempted to say, "Well, I don't have a ticket, but I'm a really nice person. I pay my taxes. I've never cheated on my wife. I try to read my Bible and give to charity," they always say, "Okay. I need to see your ticket." And if I go, "I know. I just told you I don't have a ticket, but I read my Bible. I pay my taxes. I try to give to church…" "I need your ticket." Because they know it doesn't work like that.
In a very real sense, when it comes to seeing the kingdom of God, as foolish as it would be to give your résumé to the ticket clerk at a sports game, it is to stand before God and say, "But I'm a good person. I try to read my Bible, and I try to not cheat on my spouse, and I give out money when I see somebody homeless there." It doesn't work like that. The only way anyone sees the kingdom of God is by receiving Jesus as their Savior.
Here's where that analogy of that ticket breaks down. Once you get inside the sporting event, the ticket is worthless. It's just good for getting you in. Jesus is so much more than that. He's not just good for transportation to heaven. When you trust in him, it leads to transformation in this life. He's not a ticket; he's a king, and he begins to rule and change and save.
Jesus is telling Nicodemus, "You've spent your whole life thinking the Bible teaches 'Behave, and you'll have a relationship with God,' and you've bought a lie." The Bible teaches there is only one way to see the kingdom, and it is by receiving a Savior. You and I cannot save ourselves. "All of the stories and all of the memorized verses and everything you've done, Nicodemus… You missed it. You don't understand these things."
Last Fourth of July, my son was given the chance, for the first time in his life, "You can stay up as late as you want," intentionally. We stayed up and allowed him to stay up and just crush snow cones and candy, and all this different stuff, and watch the fireworks. Here's us watching the fireworks, Fourth of July, on the back porch. He's just on level 10 excitement right now. The fireworks end, and he's so ecstatic, as a 5-year-old is, because he's like, "I've never seen this time of the day before."
He says, "This is the second greatest holiday of my life!" I was like, "That is so precise. I'm curious. What's the greatest holiday?" He says, "Oh, Easter. Definitely Easter." At that moment I'm like, Oh man. I need to do parenting classes. That's right it is. Easter, the greatest day in human history. Jesus came back alive and changed everything. Yes! "Why?" I'm expecting him to say something about Jesus. He goes, "Oh, I just like the name Easter. East and er. It's a pretty fun name."
I was like, "Oh man. Cancel the parenting classes. You don't understand what happened." When you're 5, it's funny, but when you're 25 or 35 or maybe 55 and you don't understand the significance and the point and the meaning of what happened at Easter, which is the point of Jesus being lifted up, it's tragic. Nicodemus had spent his entire life studying the Scriptures, reading, and he had missed it.
Now, I want to show you quickly how the story of Nicodemus ends. There's some indication that maybe he didn't always miss it, but regardless, more important is that you don't have to miss it. By the progression of his life… The conversation happens, and Nicodemus goes back to living his life as a Pharisee. You fast-forward in John, chapter 7, and we're told there was this religious ruling group. Remember, Nicodemus was a part of that.
They began to go, "Jesus is healing people on the Sabbath. We have to arrest him and put a stop to this Galilean miracle man. Send the temple guards to go arrest Jesus." Jesus is at this festival. It's called the Feast of Booths. Basically, think the state fair, and everyone is around. They send the temple guards, and the temple guards come back to the Pharisees and the religious leaders, of which Nicodemus was one, and they go, "Why didn't you arrest him?"
They were basically like, "We've never heard anybody speak this way. It's so powerful." They were like, "You listened to a sermon?" They were like, "Yeah. It was amazing, actually. Gary gave his life to Jesus." That didn't happen. That's not in there. Point being, in the midst of the conversation, the rulers say, "He must be stopped," and Nicodemus stands up and says, "Does our law say we can arrest someone without reasonable cause?" He stands up for Jesus.
A few chapters later… Jesus continues to work miracles, and by John 11, he raises a man from the dead, and his popularity explodes. The religious ruling group (remember, that's 70 men) that Nicodemus was on says, "He must be stopped." They send the temple guard once again with Judas, and they find Jesus in a garden, praying, and they arrest him. They bring him back, and they hold an illegal trial with the Jewish ruling council of which Nicodemus was present and a part.
They take him and say, "He's guilty; he deserves to be killed," and they take him to Pilate, because the Jews couldn't inflict or carry out capital punishment, but Pilate could. So they take him to Pilate. Pilate is this Roman governor. He's like, "Why are you in front of me? They claim that you claim to want an insurrection or something. Are you the king of the Jews, Jesus?" Jesus says, "My kingdom is not of this world."
Pilate says, "This guy may be crazy, but he doesn't deserve to die." He tries to dismiss and let Jesus go, and the Jewish religious rulers, of which Nicodemus was associated and a part of, we're told, begin to incite a crowd. It says in John, chapter 19, "…Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, 'If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.'" And the Jewish leaders get the crowd to say, "Crucify! Crucify! Crucify him!"
If you're Nicodemus and you're watching all this happen, you have to be thinking, "There's no way this is real. Crucify him? What has he done? Raised someone to life? Given sight to people who were blind? Allowed lame people to walk?" You crucified the worst of the worst criminals. In that day, crucifixion wasn't something just handed out for somebody who robbed the local grocery store. It was handed to people who were murderers. "Crucify!"
Pilate again tries to let him go, but eventually, the crowd was overwhelming. Pilate doesn't care, so he's like, "Fine. Let him be crucified," and he's led away to be crucified. On that hill, Nicodemus, people surrounding, as this famous person who had just raised somebody from the dead is about to be killed… Maybe he's looking through the crowd, and all he sees is the backs of heads. They're at Calvary, and all he can see is a big group of people and these two criminals crucified.
Then over the crowd, the man he went at night to meet with is lifted up, beaten and bloody, hung on a cross, and maybe it began to click. "The Son of Man must be lifted up, that all who trust in him will have eternal life." The reason I say maybe is he then does something very interesting. We're told in John 19 that Nicodemus takes the body of Jesus. He goes to Pilate after he's crucified and killed and says, "I would like the body," and he and another man named Joseph of Arimathea…
Verses 38-39: "With Pilate's permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus' body, [they] wrapped it…" Covered in the blood of the Savior of the world, they buried it in Joseph's tomb in accordance with the Jewish burial customs.
The man who was afraid to be seen is now performing the funeral of the one his colleagues and the ruling council had just had killed. Do we know that Nicodemus fully understood those things? Maybe it all came into focus. Maybe it didn't. Church history says it does, and tradition says that he became a believer and eventually was killed for his faith.
Regardless, it doesn't really matter if he ever understood these things. What matters is if you understand these things.Only those who are reborn will see the kingdom of God, and the only way to experience that new birth is by trusting in what Jesus did when he was lifted up for you, for me, for everyone who has ever lived, and crucified to be the Savior of all who would trust in him. Let me pray.
Father, I thank you for the incredible story, dialogue, exchange, and ways that you work, and I thank you that whether we know if Nicodemus eventually came to that place or not, we can know that we have come to that place by trusting in what you did on that cross and understanding that you came to live the life we couldn't and die the death we should have out of your overflowing, amazing love.
I pray that anyone who has not accepted, received, and experienced that new birth, that right now, by your Spirit, you would do what only you could do and allow them to trust in Jesus as the Savior and payment for their sin who was lifted up for them and three days later rose again. We worship you now in song, amen.