Jesus Schools Nicodemus
Daniel Mosforth told me last week he was sat with a lovely old lady at a charity dinner and they got chatting – and it came out that this lady liked to go to the football – to both Newcastle and to Sunderland matches. Daniel thought it was a little unusual to hear how keen and knowledgeable she was on the topic, until it came out that this lovely old lady was Bobby Robson's widow. MIke Peterson was there and he said the same thing happened to him not too long ago! Can you imagine there you are sat with this lady and thinking she was venturing into a topic where you have a good deal of knowledge, perhaps you might be tempted to be a bit condescending – how nice she takes a bit of an interest in the football, of course she's not really in the know like me… and yet it turns out the shoe is on the other foot – she's the expert, she's lived the football life, knows all the backroom players, the power brokers, knows the pressures of the football life, knows the stadiums, sits in the private boxes, goes back what, 50 years in the game?
Have you ever been in a situation like that – where you think you have the upper hand, you're the expert, you're in the driving seat… and then it comes out that actually you are a complete amateur compared to the person you're talking to. You thought you held all the cards, but it turns out you have completely misread the situation and the person you are talking too far outranks you in whatever counts in this conversation. Have you ever been there? Do you know what it feels like to discover that you're not the expert you thought you were, you just want to shut your mouth and pretend like you'd never said anything on the topic…
If you do know what that's like you can sympathise with the man in our passage this morning – Nicodemus; Nicodemus was an expert in the Jewish law, in the Old Testament. He went to Jesus full of confidence in his expertise to speak on the things of God – he was after all among the foremost experts in the one place in the world where God had revealed himself. Among men on earth he might just have been the greatest expert on God. So he went to Jesus thinking he had all the cards, he was the expert and he went to meet with a young upstart… but what he found was a man who so far exceeded his knowledge as to leave him in utter confusion, utter humiliation! He met the man who wrote the book he thought he had mastered. In this passage Jesus schools the teacher.
And what do we see as Jesus schools the teacher? It seems to me that the big idea in the passage this morning is very simple, and it's this:
We can't come to God as we are, but God will bring us close if we trust in Jesus.
That sentence falls pretty naturally into two parts, much as the passage does
– first we can't come to God as we are – unless a man is born again, or born from above, he cannot see or enter the Kingdom of God
– and second but God will bring us close if we trust in Jesus – the son of man must be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life
so those will be our two points today – we can't come to God as we are; but God will bring us close if we trust in Jesus.
So the first point is we can't come to God as we are.
We see this pretty clearly as Nicodemus starts talking to Jesus, so have a look with me at verse 1
'Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. '
– i.e. he's someone important, both a religious expert and a political power broker – He came to Jesus at night – i.e. he's a bit standoffish, he's come to weight Jesus up in private before he makes any public comment –'
So Nicodemus is an important man. He's come to weight Jesus up. But we've already had a subtle warning in the passage that he might not be quite all he's cracked up to be. Look back at 2:23. John says that many believed in Jesus because of his miracles, but Jesus didn't entrust himself to them because he knew all men, he didn't need man's testimony about a man for he knew what was in a man. Next verse now there was a man who came and said we know because of your miracles… do you see what John's done here – Nicodemus is one of the men Jesus is not going to entrust himself to, because Jesus knows what is in a man.
So now we're expecting Nicodemus to be exposed by Jesus, and indeed he is; back to verse 2:
'Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no-one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.'
that's interesting isn't it – the Pharisees know Jesus has come from God, they recognise the authority of God with him - but that's not what they said in the temple when they demanded a sign from him to show his authority!
'In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."'
that is Jesus says 'I'm going to cut you off right there Nicodemus, because you don't know what you are talking about, you need to be born again to see anything about me!
Nicodemus has no idea what's going on:
"How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!"
there's the Pharisee, missing the point by looking only on the surface of things again –
'Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying,'You must be born again.' 8 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."' (John 3:1-8)
What is going on? Nicodemus comes with all the authority of study and political position seemingly looking to broker an endorsement, if Jesus passes his private examination. But Jesus isn't looking for Nicodemus' endorsement; instead Nicodemus is finding out that he's not the expert he thought he was. Even the things he thinks he knows Jesus shoots down.
"How can this be?" Nicodemus asked. "You are Israel's teacher," said Jesus, "and do you not understand these things? I tell you the truth, 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.
Nicodemus has spent his life learning the Old Testament scriptures. He is acknowledged as an expert – Jesus literally calls him 'the teacher of Israel' suggesting he is in the first rank of religious experts. But Nicodemus' learning is helpless to get him into the Kingdom of God – in fact, on his own, Nicodemus has no power to comprehend anything about Jesus at all!
Remember chapter 1 Jesus is the word of God become flesh to make God known to us. Nicodemus has read the book, but Jesus wrote it. Nicodemus talks about the things of God from a distance, but Jesus has come from God, he speaks about the things of God, the things of heaven, as a heaven born native.
But it's more than that, Jesus knows what is in a man, what is in all of us – we're limited by nature - flesh gives birth to flesh - and we're twisted by sin, turned in on ourselves, blinded and enslaved, even our rational judgement is affected. You need to understand this - we're not neutral observers when it comes to God, we're compromised before we ever look at the evidence because we don't want to recognise God as our ruler – we're rebels after all. It's not possible for us to see the things of God clearly because we refuse to acknowledge them, we're hiding from the truth.
If we're ever going to understand the Kingdom that Jesus brings, the Kingdom of God, we need to be born again, born from above, born of water and the spirit. That's what Jesus says, but what does he mean? Well Jesus expects Nicodemus to understand it – verse 10 – you teach and you don't understand? Why should he understand - because he's an expert in the Old Testament; so it must be something we can learn from the Old Testament. And when we look at Ezekiel 36 – the passage we heard earlier – we see the prophet promising a washing with the Spirit; and this is a common image in the Old Testament, especially in the prophets. God promised a cleansing that would penetrate right to the heart, even to changing hard hearts, replacing hearts of stone with hearts of flesh.
This is the birth of water and the spirit – the washing of new birth that makes a person a child of God, giving us new life in Jesus. This was promised in the OT, but no one made sense of it till after Jesus death and resurrection, after when Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to them. John 14-17 records that Jesus spent the night before his crucifixion explaining these things to his disciples – they wouldn't understand, but after his death and resurrection Jesus would send a helper and then they would understand; and if Jesus sent the helper to them – the Holy Spirit – then both Jesus and his Father would come and make their home in Jesus' disciples. And they would have new life in Jesus – new birth, they would be born again.
Do you see what Jesus is saying here? On our own we can't see it. It's as if Jesus is revealing things to us in a spectrum that we can't see, or at a frequency we can't hear. This is how night vision goggles work – they work on the infra-red spectrum, which our eyes can't detect. So they shine an infrared light in the darkness then use an infra-red lens to reveal what it illuminates. But if you're not wearing the goggles you don't see a thing, just darkness. If that doesn't work for you think of a dog whistle – dogs hear sound frequencies that we can't. So you blow the dog whistle and you don't hear a thing – but dogs a mile away are going insane with the noise! Jesus is revealing the truth about God on the heavenly spectrum. Unless you're wearing the Holy Spirit goggles you won't see it. He's singing in the frequencies of heaven, unless you're equipped with a special receiver you won't hear a thing.
Now there's something incredibly humbling about what Jesus is saying here. The greatest minds can't get there- the deepest wisdom of the ages won't penetrate this. Unless God makes it clear to us we can't grasp it at all. If you want to know God, well, Jesus says it's not in your power to work it out for yourself. You need God to come and change you to even receive any of this.
But don't despair, because of point two:
2. God will bring us close if we trust in Jesus
In verse 9 Nicodemus asks the all important question – how can this be? And in verse 14 Jesus finally gets to the answer – how can this be? How can we be born again? Look at verse 14:
'Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.' (John 3:9-15)
But how can a man be born again, how can we come close to God, how can we be born of the Spirit? A man can be born again only because Jesus has come to save, just as the snake saved the Israelites in the desert in Numbers 21. Just as Jesus looked forward to his death and resurrection last week when he spoke about his body being destroyed and rebuilt three days later, so here Jesus focus is already on his death and resurrection. Even in these very early days of his ministry Jesus knows what is coming. In fact, Jesus death is necessary – as he says the son of Man must be lifted up. Jesus knows that his death and resurrection are the means by which he will save, the means by which he will open a way for sinful men like Nicodemus, and like me and you, can be born again of the spirit.
Again what we're seeing is Jesus laying claim to the Old Testament as being about him – it's not that there just happens to be some similarities between this thing that happened to the Israelites back then in Numbers 21, but that those things were about him! In Jesus' understanding of history God orchestrated those things back then so as to provide a picture of what he was going to do so many years later – like the little model that an architect might put together to show what a major project is going to look like.
God did that back in the wilderness – the people sinned and came under judgment for that sin. Because they rejected God as saviour he sent snakes into the camp and many were bitten and died. But God also provided a way out of the judgment – Moses made a bronze snake and stuck it up on a pole in the middle of the camp. And anyone who just looked at the snake was healed. The snake represented the sin of the Israelites, skewered, conquered, done away with by the spear of God's salvation.
Why would God do it that way? He wanted them to see that they couldn't save themselves, they needed God's power. He wanted them to see that their actions didn't save them, but their faith in the promise of God saved them. God was painting a picture of a day yet to come when He would provide the ultimate rescue from sin. On that day the son of Man - God himself, come to earth as a man, would be lifted up – just like that snake lifted up on the pole – and anyone who looked to him, who simply trusted God's promise of salvation, could be saved. Jesus lifting up would happen on the cross, and there on that cross he would become sin for us, he would bear the weight of all our sin and shame and guilt, and he would pay the price for all of it - and he would do that so that we could look to him and be saved, we could have new birth, that deep cleansing that changes heard hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.
Do you see how vital and how wonderful this news is? If we're dangling off a mountain and about to fall it's no comfort to hear the mountain rescue team tell you that you can't get off the mountain by your own strength... unless they're there to take you off themselves – if they radio you've got no hope, you're lost; but if they call down from the helicopter with their hands out to lift you up, well that's a completely different situation isn't it? If Jesus tells us that we've got no way of getting to God on our own it's devastating to Nicodemus who's spent his whole life trying to climb that particular mountain; and it's devastating to us too, who could barely hope to climb as high as Nicodemus did! But it's only devastating until Jesus explains that you can't climb all the way to the top, it's much, much too high – and that's why he's come down to lift us up himself.
Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. He came to people who couldn't even see or understand, and he came to give us new birth so that we could not just see the Kingdom of heaven, but enter it. He came to pay the great and terrible cost for us, and so to lift us up to the place we could never reach on our own. And as he talks to Nicodemus, Nicodemus is supposed to see that his learning isn't enough, his rigorous keeping of the law isn't enough. He needs a rescue. And what Jesus says to Nicodemus he says to all of us. And if you meet an actual expert in their field you know what to do don't you? Don't try and show off how much you know, shut up and listen! Hear the gracious word that Jesus says to you this morning – he says just look to me and you'll be saved. Just look at him – there he is the great God and King, hung up on the cross for you. Listen to him – calling you to put your trust in him and be saved. Trust him, he knows what he's talking about.