Topical Scripture: John 3:1–8
Delivered February 2, 2020
Super Bowl LIV will be played this evening. To celebrate, Americans will eat 1.3 billion chicken wings and eight million pounds of guacamole. In fact, we will consume more food today than on any day of the year except Thanksgiving. But beware: antacid sales will increase by 20 percent tomorrow, and 1.5 million Americans will call in sick.
And when the game is over, the “real world” will be waiting.
President Trump’s impeachment trial will continue this week. Whatever your position on impeachment and your thoughts regarding Mr. Trump, he is our president and we are called to pray for him (1 Timothy 2:2).
The other figure dominating the news has been Kobe Bryant. Coverage has focused on his basketball brilliance and his personal failings. Few have noted his Catholic faith, a commitment that became much stronger in recent years.
Last Sunday, two hours before he boarded the helicopter on which he died, Bryant prayed before the 7 am Mass at his parish church in Newport Beach, California.
Are you concerned for someone who does not seem to be moving in the right direction personally? Someone who is making the wrong choices, someone who seems to be retreating from God rather than moving closer to him?
Are you dealing with an area in your life that is not what God wants for you? The Puritans spoke of “besetting sins,” those areas of recurring spiritual failures in our lives. Are you struggling with such a sin and wondering if you’ll ever defeat it?
As we continue watching Jesus change lives, today we’ll meet a man who was a combination of political leader and celebrity. We’ll see what happened when he first talked with our Lord. Then we’ll see what happened years later. And we’ll learn that it is always too soon to give up on God.
Our story begins: “Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who a member of the Jewish ruling council” (John 3:1). This man had done everything his society deemed necessary for success. He was everything most of us want to be.
Nicodemus was powerful—in fact, he achieved more power than it is possible to possess in our society today. His name meant “conqueror of the people.” Clearly his parents envisioned great power for their baby boy. Imagine naming your infant son Napoleon or Alexander the Great. He was born with a gavel in his hand, bred for success, raised to conquer.
And he fulfilled his parents’ wildest dreams and fondest hopes. How many of us want our son or daughter to be president of the United States? A member of the Supreme Court? A senator or representative? Nicodemus did all that and more.
He was a ruler of the Jews, otherwise translated as a “member of the Jewish ruling council” (v. 1b). This group was known as the “Sanhedrin”—seventy men who constituted the Supreme Court of their nation. They possessed ruling authority over every Jew anywhere in the world. They were the court of final appeal. Even the High Priest was subject to their rulings.
If our nation had one ruling body which combined the power of the Supreme Court and the House and Senate, and also possessed authority over the president and the military, that body would be their Sanhedrin. And Nicodemus was one of its members. There was no more powerful position in all the land.
Nicodemus was wealthy as well. After Jesus’ assassination, he donated seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes to help bury his crucified body (John 19:38–40.). This was the kind and amount of burial material normally used only for a king and a very expensive gift.
He was part of the Jewish aristocracy, a very wealthy man. If Forbes magazine had run a profile on Israel’s richest men, his picture would have been in the article. Probably on its cover.
And Nicodemus was spiritual—one of the most religious men in the nation, in fact. He was a Pharisee (John 3:1). There were never more than six thousand of them in ancient Israel. Their name meant “Separated Ones,” for that’s what they were—separated from all ordinary life to keep every detail of the Jewish law. The dietary codes, Sabbath regulations, everything. They were the Marine Corp of ancient Israel, the holiest men on earth in the eyes of their culture.
And Nicodemus wasn’t just any Pharisee. He was “Israel’s teacher” (v. 10), a special kind of religious scholar, the man who taught other Pharisees their theology. Dean of the School of Theology, we would call him. We can find no more religious man in all the Scriptures.
If believing in God and being good could lead us to eternal life, it would have worked for Nicodemus. But it didn’t, because it can’t. Good works and intellectual belief are the wrong present to unwrap if you’re looking for heaven today.
Our text continues: “This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (v. 2). This is a remarkable statement and seems to be an amazing opportunity for Jesus to recruit this man to his movement.
However, our Lord’s response to Nicodemus would have made any political strategist cringe. After this powerful, wealthy, religious leader has complimented him on his miraculous works and divine inspiration, we’d expect the Galilean carpenter to be pleased, to affirm his admirer’s faith and faithfulness. His response is just the opposite: “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God'” (v. 3).
Why did Jesus reply to Nicodemus in such blunt terms? How does his response help us find God and the eternal life he alone can give?
Admit your need of grace
The simple truth is that no one can “see the kingdom of God” in his or her own abilities. The “kingdom of God” is that place where God is king. Jesus defined the kingdom best in the Model Prayer: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). God’s kingdom comes wherever and whenever his will is done.
Our problem is simple: none of us can do the will of God in our strength. None of us is powerful, wealthy, or religious enough to be perfect. God says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Like Nicodemus, we need to be “born again.” We need a new life and a fresh start. We need to begin again, to get to that place of innocence which was ours when we were first born and had not yet sinned against God. We need to be as innocent as a baby, or we cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Ask for the new birth of God
Nicodemus was confused, asking Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4). Jesus responded: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5). Then he explained, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v. 6).
In other words, “water” refers to our physical birth, just as being born of the Spirit refers to our spiritual birth. Such a gift cannot be quantified or manufactured by human effort any more than the wind can be controlled or predicted by human wisdom.
Jesus was clear on this: “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (vv. 7–8).
Three things God cannot do
John 3:16, the most famous verse in Scripture, summarizes: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
A fellow student in my college preaching class delivered a sermon on this text under the title, “Three things God cannot do.” You thought God could do everything, correct? According to my friend, there are three things he cannot do.
One: He loves us so much that he cannot love us any more than he already does: “For God so loved the world.” Two: He has given us so much that he cannot give us any more than he already has: “that he gave his only Son.” Three: He has made salvation so simple that he cannot make it any simpler: “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
My friend was right. What was true for Nicodemus is true for any of us today.
Burying and serving his king
The encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus ends without an ending. We aren’t told how Nicodemus responded or what he did next.
But fast forward. Later in Jesus’ ministry, the religious leaders sought to arrest Jesus. Nicodemus responded to them: “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (John 7:51).
After our Lord’s death, a wealthy man named Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for his body. Then we read: “Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews” (John 19:39–40).
This was an extravagant act, one typically given to a king. Nicodemus’ sacrifice shows that he truly saw Jesus as the King of kings.
With this, Nicodemus leaves the pages of Scripture. Later tradition added that he testified on Jesus’ behalf before Pilate, that he was deprived of office and banished from Jerusalem as a result, and that he was baptized by Peter and John. Some say he was beaten to death by hostile crowds for testifying to his faith. It is also said that he was buried in the same grave as Stephen.
We cannot know any of that as historical fact. But we can know that a man who came to Jesus by night eventually testified for him by day and paid a high price to honor the one he came to serve as his king.
Nicodemus proves that Jesus can change any heart that is willing to be changed.
George Mueller was a great evangelist and orphanage director. At one point, he began to pray for the conversion of five men. He prayed for the first for eighteen months before he came to faith. He prayed another five years before the second man was converted.
Mueller prayed another six years before the third came to Christ. He prayed for the other two men for another forty years, fifty-two years in total, until both came to faith.
It is always too soon to give up on God.
How is this fact relevant to your soul today?