10 Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
11 “The multitude of your sacrifices - what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations - I cannot bear your evil assemblies. 14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; 16 wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, 17 learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. 18 Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. 19 If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; 20 but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “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.”
3 In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
4 “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!”
5 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.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 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. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven - the Son of Man. 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. 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. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. 18 Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
I love the story of Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus in John 3. During this conversation we have the most famous verse in the entire Bible, but maybe even more importantly, as Jesus and Nicodemus talk to each other we find Jesus challenging human wisdom and understanding, as well as religion and ritual. It’s a common mistake that human beings make, and we’ve been doing it for a very long time – we approach God our way, and on our terms, and in John 3 Jesus shakes human traditions and religiousness to its very core. Nicodemus was the teacher, but now he meets the real Master.
We’re told that Nicodemus was ‘a man of the Pharisees.’ In those days the Pharisees were the religious leaders and the most prominent and influential men in Jewish society. They were the separatists, puritans and fundamentalists of their day. They believed in predestination, immortality, and in reward for their good works. They accepted the Old Testament Scriptures and believed in the Jewish messianic hope. Throughout the Old Testament they are promised that the Messiah would come. Of course, they refused to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but they did hold onto the promise that one day the Messiah would come. The word legalist best describes the Pharisees and how they lived and expected others to live. Nicodemus held a senior position, and was also a member of the Sanhedrin, which meant he held both religious and administrative authority. Apart from King Herod and Caiaphas the high priest, there were very few people who outranked Nicodemus. He was a ruler, a teacher and a theologian.
Interestingly enough, he is only mentioned on three different occasions in the Bible, and all of them in John’s gospel – in chapters 3, 7 and 19. And yet, we're able to learn a lot about his character and the kind of man he was, which is important, because we need to know about this very senior man in Jewish society that approached Jesus.
There are many things we learn about him. Firstly, he was a man of discernment and caution. John 3:2 tells us that he went to Jesus at night, under cover of darkness. The Pharisees despised Jesus, and had Nicodemus approached Him publicly it would have caused a huge scandal. Nicodemus though was driven to find out more about Jesus, so he did it discreetly. He was also eager to learn the truth. He was highly educated, yet when Jesus (who as far as the Pharisees were concerned was nothing more than a street preacher and a trouble maker), began talking about being born again, Nicodemus didn’t just dismiss Him and walk away, but kept asking questions. Nicodemus knew there was something different and something special about this man. He said so himself in 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.” He was not too proud to listen and learn the truth. Nicodemus, despite his lofty position of power, also had a sense of justice. In chapter 7 Jesus was being accused once more by the Pharisees of being an imposter and a false prophet, but Nicodemus in verse 51 says, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?” And then we learn that Nicodemus was a man who learned to love Jesus. After Jesus’ death Joseph of Arimathea was given permission by Pilate take His body off of the cross and arrange a proper burial. The man who helped him and supplied the traditional spices for embalming was Nicodemus. A man as important as Nicodemus would never have lowered himself to do such a menial task unless if his heart was changed first.
So what was it that night we read about in chapter 3 that changed Nicodemus’ life so radically, and how can our lives be changed by an encounter with the Master?
Even though Nicodemus was highly educated, theologically trained, and a religious teacher, he simply could not grasp that a man must be born from above. Three times Jesus told him this, in verses 3, 5 and 7. Nicodemus was a theologian, and even recognised that Jesus (in his own words) was a teacher who has come from God. Yet this concept of second birth from above was beyond him. Why? Because he was trying to understand God his way. Natural man, regardless of how intelligent and educated we are will never understand the teachings of Jesus until we are born from above. Until the Spirit opens our eyes, the teachings of Jesus will never make sense. Go out into the secular world and tell people to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them and see how far you get. I’m the first to admit that it is hard to love my enemies, and trust me, I find it extremely challenging to pray for anyone who persecutes me, but I know that it is the right thing to do. And the reason I know it is the right thing to do is not because I’m educated or theologically trained. It is because by God’s grace and mercy, and because of what Jesus has done for me, I have been born from above. This is how Jesus puts it in verse 3: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
We can have all the intellect and all the knowledge we can possibly cram into our minds, but it takes the death of Jesus to bring us eternal life, and the only way we can have some kind of understanding of that deep mystery is when we are born from above. The non-believing world scoffs at the idea of the death of someone two thousand years ago on the other side of the world having any relevance to our lives here and now. It is illogical, it is ridiculous and just plain foolishness, but if you’re not born from above, why should the death of Jesus have any relevance? But when you’re born from above, the atoning death of Jesus Christ makes perfect sense. We certainly don’t understand everything about how His death pays the price of our sin, but because we’ve been born from above, God has given us enough spiritual insight to know firstly that it was necessary, and secondly that Jesus’ death secures our salvation. Believing that truth does not come from human wisdom and understanding. It only comes by the Spirit - from above.
So many people do not know the way of salvation. Even though Nicodemus was a rabbi and a teacher, he did not know how to be saved. Many people are offended by the harsh words spoken by God to the prophet Isaiah in our first reading this morning. The whole point though is that our rituals and religious traditions are empty when we feel we don’t need Jesus in order to gain God’s favour. You would think that Jesus would have taken sinners to task and would have spent time with the religious people. But He did the exact opposite. That’s the nature of the Kingdom of God. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record what happened when Jesus called Matthew (also known as Levi) to be one of His disciples. Matthew had been a tax collector, one of the most despised people in Jewish society, and as far as the Jews were concerned, he was everything a Pharisee was not. This is what we read in Luke 5:29-30: “Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to His disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’”
Jesus was deeply concerned for the lost. They were, after all, the reason He came, but those who thought they had it all together – the religious Pharisees – He was particularly ruthless with.
So if you think the words of Isaiah 1 were harsh, just listen to what Jesus says to the Pharisees in Matthew 23: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices - mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.” (Matthew 23:13-30)
This is how offensive the religious elite was to Jesus. He had no time for their pomp and ceremony, not while they hindered the people’s walk with God. They were supposed to make God more accessible to the people. They were meant to teach them about the ways of God - His grace, mercy and forgiveness, but instead they did the opposite. They had become a stumbling block to grace of God, and this is exactly the kind of man that Nicodemus once was, but by God’s grace, He was born from above.
Jesus opened his heart to the truth. We know the words of John 3:16 so well, but verse 18 is just as important: “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” We are condemned already without Christ. He is our only hope of salvation – not our religious rituals.
We’re told that Nicodemus went to Jesus at night. We’ve already looked at the practical reasons for doing that: He wanted to avoid a scandal, but there is a spiritual message here too: Before Nicodemus met Jesus his heart was darkened to God’s truth. Before we turn to Jesus our hearts are darkened too, whether we are religious Church-goers or not. Jesus was certainly aware of the significance of the time of day that Nicodemus spoke to Him, and the condition of his heart before being born from above. This is why He said, “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
Someone has said that the three R’s of religiousness and traditionalism are rote, rut, and rot. That’s the danger, although I do need to point out that traditions in the Church are good, so long as they remind us of Jesus and point us to Him. Next Sunday, being the first Sunday of the month is our regular Holy Communion service. So long as Christ remains at the centre of this sacrament, we are remembering Him and His promises. In fact, we’re instructed to celebrate Holy Communion by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11: “The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”
The essential difference between doing things in the Church because we’ve always done them and doing them in order to be reminded about Jesus and His grace is being born from above.
Look again at the dramatic change we see in Nicodemus. He is only mentioned three times in the Bible. The first time he is talking to Jesus, but on the next two occasions he is serving Christ, and doing something for Him. Have you allowed the Spirit of God to transform you so dramatically? Have you been born from above? Until such time as you do, all the things you do week in week out and year in year out in the name of religion will do nothing to draw you to God. Seek Jesus with all your heart, just as Nicodemus did, and allow Him to transform you.
There’s a wonderful story I found of a shy and timid little girl who went to one of the elders in her Church before a prayer meeting and said, “Will you pray for me at the meeting, please, but don’t mention my name.” When every head was bowed and there was perfect silence, he prayed for her, saying, “O Lord, there is a little girl here who does not want her name known, but You know her. Please Lord, would you open her heart to you and save her precious soul?” There was silence for a moment, but then suddenly from the back of the Church a little girl stood up and pleaded loudly, “Please, it’s me, Jesus, it’s me.” She didn’t want to have any doubt. She wanted to be saved, and she wasn’t ashamed to say, “Jesus, it’s me.” At first she was like Nicodemus – unsure and in the dark, but God touched her life and brought her into a knowledge of the truth just like He did for Nicodemus, for countless others, and He can do the same for you too.
Homegroup Study Notes
Read the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3:1-21.
Bearing in mind that Nicodemus was a highly educated man, a scholar of the Old Testament and an expert on Jewish customs and religion, why did he struggle to understand what Jesus was telling him?
Being born again is a term we are familiar with in the Church, but how do you understand this phrase?
Read Isaiah 1:10-20
There are many other passages of Scripture where God clearly condemns ritual and religious traditions, yet Jesus Himself commanded us to observe Holy Communion and also to practice Baptism.
Each year in the Church we remember (among others) Christmas, Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday.
How are we able to do these things without slipping into empty ritual?
Is it even possible?
In which ways have you been going through the motions in your walk with God?
Read John 3:21 again.
How has Jesus enlightened you recently and given you a clearer understanding of the meaning behind some of the traditions we practice in the Christian Church?
Close by praying that God’s Spirit would protect us from empty ritual, and fill us with a deeper understanding of His love and grace as we approach Easter.