Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.
See, I have made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander of the peoples. Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations that do not know you will hasten to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for He has endowed you with splendour.
Seek the LORD while He may be found; call on Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him, and to our God, for He will freely pardon.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 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."
In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
"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!"
Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, `You must be born again.' 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."
"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. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.
"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.”
Like most people, I enjoy a good mystery. Whether it’s a novel, a TV documentary, or stargazing through a telescope, there is something fulfilling when we use the enquiring minds which God has given us.
As technology enables us to look deeper, closer and further, particularly as we try to unlock the mysteries of the universe, we find that we remain surrounded by one mystery after another. And what we often find is that no sooner do we solve one mystery, than we find the existence of countless others.
Our finite minds become so bewildered at times that when we’re faced with some unknown we come up with a theory or hypothesis that allegedly explains it. But there is no theory or hypothesis that can adequately explain the mystery of salvation. Something mysterious happens in the spiritual realm which changes a depraved, sinful human being into a sanctified child of God. How does that happen?
We have no hope this side of heaven of ever fully understanding this mystery, but what we can do is to learn enough about it to experience it and share it with others.
The first point which we need to understand is our need, but that’s much harder than we might think. We’re told that Nicodemus is a Pharisee. In those days you could not be more fundamental and orthodox than a Pharisee. In Acts 26:5 Paul describes them as ‘the strictest sect of our religion.’ And not only that - Nicodemus is also a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. This means that he was at the absolute pinnacle of the ruling religious class of his day. It would have been extremely difficult to find a more senior man in the Jewish community than Nicodemus.
Now we can understand why the lame, the lepers and other outcasts of society might have come to Jesus, but why would a man of Nicodemus’ high moral stature need to come to Christ? This is the mystery of human need. The need for salvation is universal, and it breaks through all man-made barriers and structures.
Because all have sinned, the need for salvation is universal. Romans 3:23 says ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. We’re not told how, but Nicodemus, somehow, came to realise this truth, so he went to Jesus. There has been much speculation as to why he went to Jesus at night – under the cover of darkness. Some have suggested that he was a busy man, as was Jesus, so it made sense to approach Him ‘after hours’. Others have said that Nicodemus was afraid of what the Jews might do if they saw this fine upstanding citizen rubbing shoulders with Jesus.
But there may be another reason – urgency. Something had clearly happened to Nicodemus. He had no other reason to approach Jesus, so the mere fact that he did so at an unusual hour suggests that he suddenly realised this deep need he had.
Some say that he came to Christ at night because he was deeply convicted of his need and felt the urgency to take that need to Jesus, regardless of the time of day or night. He could not wait until the next day, because he didn’t know when his next opportunity would come along. Isaiah 55:6 says ‘Seek the LORD while He may be found; call on Him while He is near.’ Paul quotes from Isaiah 49 in 2 Corinthians 6:2 when he writes, ‘In the time of my favour I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you. I tell you, now is the time of God's favour, now is the day of salvation.’
Because of the seriousness of our sin, our need is urgent. I don’t think we realise sometimes just how depraved we are, and just what our sin has done to us. It has separated us from the God who created us in His image. Generally speaking, we don’t take anywhere near seriously enough the damage that sin has done to us, and subsequently we miss the implications of ignoring our deepest need.
Psalm 9:16-17 pulls no punches: “The wicked are trapped by their own deeds. The wicked will go down to the grave. This is the fate of all the nations who ignore God.”
This need that we have is met only in God. Now Nicodemus was aware of this because we’re told that he came to Jesus acknowledging that Jesus was “a teacher come from God.” He had come to the point where he finally understood that his need for true peace and the certainty of forgiveness of his sins could not be met in himself, in biblical knowledge, or in faithful obedience to lofty religious ideals. The mystery he discovered was that only in God alone can a person’s real needs be met. And we need to come to that same realisation.
Because of our inability to meet our own need, it can be met only in God, even though we’ve been trying to do it our own way for centuries. In Nicodemus’ time there were three great cultures: Roman, Greek, and Hebrew. The Roman world tried to meet human needs by developing a strong and powerful state. The Greek world tried it through philosophy, art and culture, while the Hebrews tried to meet human needs by changing people through rituals, rules, and regulations.
But none of these man-made solutions could meet the real need of the people. In those days people everywhere were depraved, and concepts of morality and honesty were almost non-existent. Fast forward 2000 or so years, and people everywhere are still depraved, and concepts of morality and honesty are almost non-existent. The deepest need of humanity has never changed, and - praise be to God - neither has the solution.
Because of God’s unique provision for people’s needs, they can be met only in Him. And it was into this disillusioned world that Jesus came proclaiming God’s unique provision for humankind’s eternal need – what He called a ‘new birth.’
That’s the next mystery of salvation: Just what is this new birth?
Nicodemus’s question to Jesus is both honest and profound. He asks, “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born?”
If this is a physical impossibility, how then can rebirth happen with the part of us that is even more difficult to change – our spiritual nature?
The mystery of new life is experienced through a new birth. Jesus said, “If you want new life, Nicodemus, you must experience a new birth.”
This new birth brings us into the kingdom of God. It is something which comes after our physical birth. One of our ministers on his Facebook profile puts it so well. He says “I was born in 1969 and born again in 1987.”
Jesus draws a clear distinction between these two births by saying that the first birth is when we are born “of water”, while second birth requires that we be born “of the spirit.” Now exactly how this happens is of course a mystery, but we can grasp enough of it to make some sense of it. Jesus then uses the wind as a simple illustration. He often used nature to illustrate profound spiritual truths. He spoke of the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, the grass of the field, the fields ready for harvest, and the soil. He says that you can’t see the wind or take a handful of it and study it, but we can’t deny its existence. We all know what the wind is, but we’d struggle to accurately describe it. You can feel the wind, you can see its effects, but you cannot see the wind itself. And in much the same way we can’t see the work of salvation, because it is a spiritual thing.
But we can feel the Holy Spirit’s presence. We can see the results of His work. We can see the effect of salvation in people. When God truly changes people, we can see it.
The Spirit of God makes such radical changes in so many people, so I suppose we need to ask the question, why aren’t more changed? The reason is that this new birth is incomprehensible to human reason. Nicodemus was a religious boffin, but he couldn’t see it at first. New birth is something which needs to be experienced before we are able to understand the new life that Jesus expects us to live.
One of the greatest frustrations for Christians is seeing their loved ones ‘not getting it’. But we shouldn’t be surprised. 2 Corinthians 4:4 says “The god of this age (satan) has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
If you think about it, it’s actually a mistake for Christians to say to non-believers ‘but the Bible says…’ You might have noticed that by starting a sentence with those words has the opposite effect of what we’re trying to achieve. The reason is simple. We can’t teach the world the ethics of Jesus when the world lacks the ability to understand it. This new life which Jesus promises is not rational from a human perspective, and this is why they ‘don’t get it.’
When the human race fell, when we first sinned, everything changed. Every part of us was affected, including our intellect. The human mind has never fully recovered. Our minds are depraved and therefore limited in what they can comprehend. A depraved mind can never fully comprehend the truths of God.
Which makes the mystery of God’s love the greatest mystery of all time. We know John 3:16 so well, but have you ever stopped and looked at it properly?
Because of our sin, we are so depraved, so far away from the original plan which He had for us, yet He loves us. The Israelites were undeserving of God’s love. They rebelled against Him and consistently broke His laws. Yet God loved them and provided a way out for them, and He still does the same for us today.
The mystery of God’s love is that it moved Him to do something so unbelievable that we simply cannot understand it. His love moved Him to sacrifice His only Son for our sins. John 3:16 has been called the centre of the entire gospel. God’s love is not a sentimental love.
It was a demanding, sacrificial, and costly love. It prompted Him to offer Himself in Christ on the cross. The mystery of God’s love is that it offers us unending life. Do you want to live forever? Then you simply have to turn to Jesus.
The mystery of our need is that it is universal and urgent and is met only in God. The mystery of new life is experienced through new birth, is illustrated by the wind, and is incomprehensible to human reason. And the greatest mystery of all is the mystery of God’s love. It is offered to undeserving people like you and I. His love for us made the death of Jesus possible, and it is the blood of Christ which brings eternal life.
What are you going to do with this mysterious gift? If you are going to try and make sense of it all through your own intellect, you will never grasp it. But, if like Nicodemus, you are prepared to swallow your pride and allow God to provide for your greatest ever need, you will find a peace which the world can never give you.