A Fumbling Pharisee


John 3:1-17

One of the characteristic flaws of the human species is our inability to communicate with one another. The art of communication is something that very few of us have mastered. Too often we think that we have heard something, and we respond to it without actually having listened to it. This happens even in normal conversation, but it is very prevalent in situations where we find ourselves in disagreement with one another. And I think that anyone who has ever been involved in an argument knows exactly what I’m talking about. In an argument, talking far overshadows listening. Some people who are having an argument don’t even wait for the other person to make their point. Some people will even talk or shout right over the other person while they are still speaking. Now, of course, none of us has ever been guilty of having done this.

Now things aren’t quite this bad between Jesus and Nicodemus, because both of them are gentlemen. But what we do have, here, in spite of that, is a failure to communicate. Jesus is saying one thing, and Nicodemus is hearing something else entirely. And what Nicodemus hears sends him into a bit of a tail-spin, and for a while, he is absolutely convinced that Jesus has gone right off his rocker.

John’s Gospel introduces Nicodemus to us by telling us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and that he came to Jesus by night. Much has been made over the years about this business of the night-time visit. And some of it has to do with our our desire to dislike all of the religious leaders who make an appearance in the New Testament. We tend to say the words, Scribes and chief priests, and elders, and sadducees and pharisees with a pronounced sneer. And so we’ve learned to imagine a furtive Nicodemus, skulking around in the darkness, arranging a secret meeting with Jesus. The assumption is that Nicodemus was ashamed to be seen with Jesus, and feared that he would receive the condemnation of his fellow pharisees if they found out that he had been spending time with Jesus. And maybe, just maybe, at some point in our lives we have heard a sermon about how we ought not to be like Nicodemus at all, and how we ought to be proud to be seen with Jesus, and how we ought not to be ashamed of Jesus, and how we ought to live out our faith in Jesus in a very public way, and all of that stuff is very good, but none of it should ever come from this passage.

John, the evangelist passes no judgment on Nicodemus for his night-time visit, and neither should we. In fact, it’s a very good thing that Nicodemus came visiting at night. Both Jesus and Nicodemus were busy during the day. They were both teachers. They had lots of work to do. In Jesus’ case, there were crowds pressing in at every step. Nicodemus had something very important that he needed to discuss with Jesus and he wanted to have the time and the attention that he needed to discuss it. And Jesus, very obligingly gives it to him. If there’s any point at all to the nighttime visit, it is get yourselves to Jesus, and get yourselves to him now, make a reservation. There’s important stuff to discuss, and life itself is the topic.

So Nicodemus arrives, and in typical, conventional, politeness, Nicodemus lays a huge compliment on Jesus. It was standard procedure for two rabbis to greet one another with a polite compliment, even if the purpose of their meeting was to rip one another apart theologically.

I believe though, that Nicodemus’ compliment is genuine and sincere. It is also the truth. Nicodemus has been doing some thinking and some watching. He sees Jesus accomplishing some things that no ordinary man could be accomplishing, and he’s determined that Jesus is someone who is actively in the presence of God, and Nicodemus wants to know more about it. Nicodemus is genuinely intrigued by Jesus. Nicodemus doesn’t have just a passing curiosity about Jesus, he wants to get to know Jesus.

And Jesus, knows that, and so Jesus cuts right to the chase. Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Now that’s what Jesus said. “You must be born from above.” But what Nicodemus heard, was something else. Nicodemus heard, “You must be born again.” And that was confusing, because in his wildest dreams, Nicodemus could not imagine being born again. The idea was utterly ridiculous, and he told Jesus so. No grown adult was ever going to be able to get back into the womb in order to be born again. It made no sense at all, it was physically impossible.

And so Jesus patiently explains that this is not a physical rebirth about which he speaks, but rather a spiritual rebirth, and that this spiritual rebirth is a birth that comes from above.

Now this was particularly instructive for Nicodemus, and it is for us, too.

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was well rehearsed in the concept of earning one’s salvation. Nicodemus believed with all of his heart that favor with God could be earned through obedience. In Nicodemus’ mind, the law, and obedience to it, was how one connected oneself with God. If one was obedient, one was shown favor by God. Salvation came from the ground up. It was accomplished by good works. Good people, doing good things resulted in God’s favor, in God’s consideration, and ultimately in salvation.

But Nicodemus has got it all backwards. Salvation isn’t earned on earth through good works and maturity, salvation comes down from heaven in the form of a new birth. Salvation is a new beginning, it is a new life, it is a new relationship, and its source is not us or our good works, but rather, its source is the limitless grace of God. Salvation is birth from above.

This was a totally new concept for Nicodemus, and he had a terrible time accepting it. And so do we, sometimes. For some reason, we’re much more comfortable relying on our own strengths and accomplishments, our own good works, if we want to put it that way; we still believe that we can curry favor from God. We still think that salvation comes from the ground up. We still think that it is all up to us. We resist throwing ourselves on the everlasting mercy of God. But that’s exactly what we must do. We must be born from above.

Verse 16, of course, says it all. If we ever went to Sunday School, we had to learn this verse. We had to shout it out in memory drills. When I was a kid, I could say this verse so fast that the angels in heaven had to listen twice just to see if I was getting it right. I can do the same thing with the wedding ceremony.

But when I rattled off John 3:16, I was only saying words. But those words are words of life. Those words describe how it is that we are born from above. Those words give us a hint of how deep and how wide and how awesome and how amazing God’s love is for all of humanity.

Nicodemus had it right. Jesus was a teacher who had come from God. And Jesus came from God to show us the way to salvation. Will we believe? Will we throw ourselves upon the mercy of God? Will we receive the new birth that can only come from above?

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