John 3:1-21 9.45 & 11.30am 7/5/17
By porthkerryandrhoose, May 18 2017 08:56AM
Every so often a new piece of information is discovered which changes the way we understand things. A quick search of the internet shows new discoveries in genetics, archaeology and vulcanology which completely change the received understanding of how early humans lived, how the body works and how the earth functions. Sometimes discoveries like this are merely interesting; other times they change everything.
In our journey through John, we've already seen Jesus overturn the tables on religious practice. In today's section we see him teaching something which overturns the whole understanding of who is in God's kingdom, or in simpler language, who gets to heaven. But far from it being new teaching, we'll see that the evidence was there the whole time.
Let's look at the reading together. We're going to begin by asking the question 'what type of people get to heaven?'
If you'd have asked a Jew that question at the time of Jesus, he would have said 'a Pharisee'. They were the ones who made sure they were always at the temple or synagogue, they knew the law well and they kept it perfectly. They were the good guys. And of the good guys, you couldn't get better than Nicodemus. Not only was he a Pharisee, he was also on the ruling council. It's hard to find an equivalent in Christianity, but he'd be the one at every church event, volunteering with the refugees and representing his deanery on the Governing Body. After the events in the temple he comes to see Jesus. The upright Jew, visiting the radical, checking him out, maybe to bring him back in line. Not unexpected, you might think. But John gives us a clue that all is not as it seems. v2 "He came to Jesus at night." At the very least, making an official visit at night would be unusual. It could be an indication that Nicodemus has come for another reason, off his own bat and doesn't want to be seen. Perhaps Jesus is already toxic for the establishment. But there's also something else going on here. John, in his gospel, contrasts light and dark. Light is where Jesus is, dark is where the bad stuff is. Nicodemus is very much in the dark. His opening question, though it sounds good, seems to be heading towards a 'but': v2 "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" and Jesus responds almost before he's finished, with a quite astonishing statement v3 "Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again." It's like saying 'Nicodemus, everything you've achieved so far is nowhere near what you need for my kingdom. You need to rub it all out and start again'. There's no chance of a patch up job, work a bit harder, do a bit better. The only option is to start again. The message is: even the best of the best isn't good enough. This is staggering. It was hard to take in then and it's hard to take in now, in a world where we are taught from our earliest days that being good and working hard is the way to success. Even Nicodemus, the top religious man, had to start his life again from scratch; be born again.
Understandably he questions Jesus v4 "How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother's womb to be born?" It sounds like he's being a bit facetious. Obviously a grown man can't go back to being a baby in the womb. But if it's not a physical birth Jesus is talking about, what is it? He explains v5 "Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit." The new birth is a spiritual birth. Human parents can only give birth in a physical way, but God gives us birth in the spirit. After all, it's not our physical body which is the problem.
Nicodemus is still puzzled. 'How can this be?' v9, so Jesus gives him a gentle reprimand "You are Israel's teacher, and you do not understand these things?' Though his religion didn't teach it, Nicodemus should have known because it was there in the scriptures all along. Ezekiel 36:26-27 "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you." All those centuries ago, God had promised that he would come and change people's stony hearts into hearts of flesh. He promised his Spirit. Nicodemus should have known. He was the teacher of Israel. We should know too, even more clearly than Nicodemus, because we have had Jesus' words in our scriptures to read all of our lives. Yet don't we often see things just as Nicodemus? Be good, go to church, work hard and we'll probably be OK, we hope, fingers crossed? Yet Nicodemus, the best of the best needs to start over, so where does that leave the rest of us?
It brings us to another question: 'Who then can go to heaven?' If the Bible teacher, all round good guy can't, who can? Jesus' answer is simple: anyone can, through him. v13-15 "No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.[e] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,[f] 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” The precedent was all there in scripture, in Numbers 21:4-9
"They [the Israelites] traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea,[c] 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.
But now, rather than a snake on a pole being the focus of salvation, it will be Jesus, through the cross. Not our own goodness or hard work or piety, but Jesus. And this is wonderful news, especially for those of us who know we're not good enough and feel it deeply v15 "everyone who believes may have eternal life in him."
In case we have missed it, Jesus spells it out in one of the most famous verses in the Bible: 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." God doesn't sit in heaven weighing our good deeds against the bad like the ancient religions believed. He isn't calculating the karma of our actions. God loves us so much that he gave his son for us. The God who rightly brings the judgement also sends the saviour.
We live in a world that is very quick to condemn. Someone makes a mistake in public life and they are hounded. The internet and social media mean that nothing can ever be forgotten or wiped clean. We think that God is like this too. Yet v17 "For God did not send his son in to the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." Living a life without God at the helm sets our lives on a certain trajectory. If we are living for ourselves, whether that's a hedonistic lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock and roll or one where we've never done anyone any harm, the road leads away from God's kingdom v18 "whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God's one and only son". The salvation is there, like a rubber ring bobbing next to the arm of the drowning swimmer, and if it's not taken the consequences are severe. But the way to God's kingdom is there, it's through Jesus, and it's open to all.
Did Nicodemus respond? We’re not told, but when we see him standing up before the Jewish council and speaking in Jesus’ favour (7:50) and then when we see him helping Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus’ lifeless body (19:39), I think we know. The bigger question, though, is what will you do? You can float around the things of God, you can be interested, you can be a good person, but if you don't start your life again with Jesus and let God bring you to new birth in the Spirit, you are still on the path away from God. You are loved so much that Jesus died for you. Will you believe in him and take your place in his Kingdom?