Reading: John 3:1-17

by Ian Leitch

Nicodemus, the Pharisee in this morning’s reading, doesn’t conform to the stereotypical image of a Pharisee presented in the Gospels. Although some Pharisees were like the Gospel picture of them, the majority of Pharisees were humble, modest and compassionate people, who keenly studied the teachings and opinions of others, as well as their own. When Nicodemus came to Jesus, he was in the dark – both literally in the dark, because he came at night, but also metaphorically in the dark – he had heard Jesus’ teach and had seen him perform miracles, but he had not understood their significance. He recognised that God was at work – he said so – and so he wanted to probe further. But Jesus could see straight through people, and He went straight to the heart of things, using three strands of Pharisaic teaching in order to show Nicodemus the truth.

First, Jesus was proclaiming the Kingdom of God; a kingdom entered by submitting one’s life completely and willingly to the will of God – the commitment to a life of faith by placing one’s complete trust in Jesus as Lord.

For the Pharisees, the Kingdom of God on earth was the nation of Israel – or at least that righteous part of it. Nicodemus had the mistaken belief that, by his own efforts in careful observation of the hundreds of rules in the Pharisaic code, he was assuring both his place in God’s Kingdom on earth and resurrection to God’s universal kingdom in the age to come.

We, too, need to understand what, in reality, the Kingdom of God means to us, and what effect it has in our lives? It is all too easy for us to be snooty about the Pharisees and describe them as obsessed with the letter of the Law; but we need to ask ourselves whether our behaviour is motivated by faith, or whether we have just created a set of good habits – in effect, our own set of rules? Are our lives truly governed by a complete trust in our Lord and our love for Him? Or are we seeking salvation through our own efforts?

Secondly, Jesus tells Nicodemus that {“No-one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above”}. Nicodemus is completely familiar with the idea of re-birth. The Pharisees were the evangelists of Judaism, and some went outside Israel to convert Gentiles to the faith. They taught that members of other countries, non-Jews, could convert to Judaism, but that any person who wished to convert – a Gentile who wished to become a member of God’s kingdom on earth, that is, Israel – must become like a newly-born baby. They had to separate themselves from previous family and friends and lifestyle and become a new person; they had to be re-born.

Nicodemus was bewildered precisely because he understood Jesus’ metaphor! When Jesus told him that he must be re-born – Jesus seemed to be telling him that he was not even as near to the Kingdom of God as the newest convert. Yet Nicodemus had tried to live his life as a model for others – he followed the rigorous code of a Pharisee with its detailed religious observance and substantial charitable giving; he was a leading religious teacher of the time; he was a member of the ruling Council of the Jews – in short, he was a pillar of the religious establishment. No wonder he was astonished.

He asks, {“How can a man be re-born when he has grown old?” (John 3:4)}. It is a very practical question. Nicodemus has been shaped by years of adherence to the Pharisaic code. Is he, perhaps, simply just too old to change – too set in his ways. Nicodemus understands very well the massive change involved in re-birth. Whatever the necessity, is it possible?

It is a natural human reaction – one to which we are all prone. It is all too easy to think that we know how to run our lives, and that we’ve got everything under control. But Jesus looks for total trust in Him, trust to follow where He leads, and trust when that takes us into places that we might have preferred not to go. This Lent we must ask ourselves whether we have become so set in our ways that we have become scared of trusting Jesus.

But Nicodemus had a second question: How could one be re-born as a Jew a second time? He knew about re-birth of a Gentile as a Jew; that he could understand – it was like starting life all over again. But he had been born a Jew, so what did it mean for a Jew to be re-born as a Jew. He had always sought the highest ideals of his faith, he had studied the Scriptures, taken his Pharisaic vow, and the lived a devout life. What would be different a second time around? What was the point?

It is all too easy for us to slip into a similar attitude on our journey of faith. We are baptised, confirmed members of the church who are regular worshippers. We get involved in church activities and accept our obligations of church membership. So what does re-birth mean for us? It starts with a total personal commitment to Jesus Christ – to have faith and trust in him in a way that permeates every bit of our lives. That’s not something that just happens. We must make the decision to respond to Christ; we must make the commitment – a total commitment. But making that commitment is not something for anyone to rush into without proper consideration. It’s fine to feel one’s way towards a decision gradually. Jesus didn’t put pressure on Nicodemus to become a disciple immediately. But Nicodemus did make a commitment and re-appears later to serve his Lord.

And thirdly, Jesus takes the Pharisaic teaching about baptism to show Nicodemus what is really required. Gentile converts to Judaism underwent a simple baptism with water to symbolise the washing away of their former self as they became incorporated into Israel.

Jesus explains that entry into the Kingdom of God requires baptism by both water and the Spirit – a re-birth from above. {“The wind blows wherever it chooses” (John 3:8)} says Jesus; you can see and feel its effects, but you can’t box it in or control it. Like the wind, the Holy Spirit has a visible effect. But no-one can package up the Holy Spirit by rigid adherence to a set of the rules or good practices. No-one should even try such a thing.

If we really want to build a relationship with God, we need daily to ask the Holy Spirit to come into our lives, to open ourselves all the possibilities He offers, to allow the Holy Spirit to take root in us and be fruitful, to accept whatever gifts the Holy Spirit gives us and use them to build up his church. This Lent is an excellent time to start – a time to spend five minutes each morning and evening quietening our mind of all that internal noise that rushes around our heads and to listen in silence for the voice of God in prayer.

That is the way of faith. It is an unpredictable journey and sometimes an uncomfortable one – because we need the Holy Spirit to blow through us as a wind of change. We need to place our confidence in Jesus; to let trust in Him replace our fear of the unknown, or fear of change, or fear of going outside the unspoken rules that we have created for ourselves. Each person who does that discovers what being “born of the Spirit” really means, and then we understand the truth of that most marvellous promise given to us that {“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)}