On a dark, Jerusalem evening, a shadowy figure moves at a determined pace past the shops that have closed hours ago. Every few steps he glances over his shoulder half expecting to see someone following him. He picks up the pace toward his undisclosed destination.
The smell of an evening meal grows stronger as he draws closer to a boisterous tavern. The lights of the tavern now expose our nightwalker to be a well-dressed noble man. Strange that he should be lurking about the city at this time of day all alone.
As he approaches the tavern, he turns his head away from the windows and then ducks down a lonely alley. He makes his way to a rather undistinguished residence near the end. Now he has stopped in front of this home and he glances left and right to make sure that no one has followed him. He knocks urgently on the door.
The door opens to reveal a young servant boy who looks at this night visitor with a puzzled expression. He knows this man It’s Nicodemus – Sanhedrin Member Why is he here? And why tonight?
In the next room is the Master with his disciples The servant is leery of Nicodemus. He knows that his master created a little dust-up at the Temple Mount earlier that day. And now comes this Sanhedrin member. There could be trouble ahead.
But then Nicodemus did come alone. So the servant boy ushers him in. Nicodemus enters the room and conversation stops. All eyes are fixed on the Sanhedrin member. This visitor needs no introduction.
So he breaks the silence and addresses the rabbi. “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” Nicodemus is respectful, but can you also hear the authoritarian in his voice?
Jesus is not intimidated. After all, Jesus knew he was looking at a man And he knew what was in a man. Nicodemus might have had all the appearances of a successful man He was wealthy. He was also powerful.
Seventy members sat on Sanhedrin – the Supreme Court of Jews. These 70 members had jurisdiction over Jews worldwide and they dealt with false prophets
No one could question his devotion. He was a Pharisee after all. He followed all the rules. So why would such a man sneak around at night? And why seek out this rabble-rouser, Jesus of Nazareth?
Nicodemus did it because he was a man. As a man, he faced the human condition that all men face. He had done everything right, yet he knew in his heart his life wasn’t right. He wasn’t connected to God
It’s a condition we all share. You try to do right by God. You follow the rules – most of the time. You give what you can. And yet, each of us knows it’s not enough, each of us knows our own besetting sins, the demons we wrestle with, each of us can present a noble outward appearance. But we know where we fall short and, most of all, God knows our hearts.
Jesus knew Nicodemus’ heart. He was a man seeking God by keeping the rules and, oddly enough, by sneaking around in the dark of night. So Jesus answers him: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Or did Jesus say: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” You see, there’s a little ambiguity here in the Greek. Because the word Jesus uses can be translated: born again or born from above.
Nicodemus didn’t risk this night visit just to go away confused. He presses for specifics and deliberately chooses the first option – “born again”. How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?
Nicodemus is up against the eternal problem He wants to change. Despite all that he has, despite all that he has achieved, – he’s not satisfied with himself, his life, or his future. But can’t go back and do life all over again. Yet, this rabbi says that’s the only way to eternal life.
We’ve all heard the expression: Born-Again Christian. It entered into common parlance when Jimmy Carter ran for President and said that he was “born again.” What does that mean? What do you have to do to be a “born again Christian”?
Does it mean you have to speak in tongues? Do you have to step forward in an altar call and make a profession of your faith? Do you have to have a priest lay hands on you and pray very hard for a life-changing, emotion-packed experience.
How can a man be born when he is old? I’m glad Nicodemus asked the question. Because Jesus answered him.
Jesus said: Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. Think back when you were born: Remember what you had to do to be born? You can’t remember because when you were being born, you weren’t capable of doing a thing. And that’s just what you did to be born. You did NOTHING.
Mom did all the work. Dad and the doctor might have offered encouragement But if there’s any doubt about their contribution, just ask any Mom what part they played. Nothing. NADA, zippo
And you? You just went along for the ride. Born Again! It’s not something YOU do. Someone else does the heavy lifting for you to be born.
We know what it is to be born. But being “born from above.” That’s a little different. Jesus says: Just as flesh gives birth to flesh, the Spirit gives birth to spirit. What’s your part in being born from above? Again, I ask: What was your part when you were born from the flesh? What did you do?
Here’s what you did: You opened your mouth and received a big gulp of air. You might have had a little inducement, but you took in the air that was all around you. And that first breath changed the life you knew for the last 9 months. It enabled you to live as a new living creature in a whole new way.
When it come to being “born from above,” How do you open your mouth and breath in that new spiritual life? The bible tells us: “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children not born of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” It was those who RECEIVED and BELIEVED that were born of God.
Just as you opened your mouth and received a life-giving breath, your part in spiritual birth is to open your heart and receive the life giving breath of Jesus.. Have you received Jesus? Can you point to a time when you consciously prayed to the Father and said: Thank you for sending your son to die on the cross for me. Now I receive Him. Now I receive the one who saves me from eternal death Now I receive Him as the Lord of my life.
Have you believed in His Name? Have you believed in the authority of Jesus? Believing has two parts: Believing is first of all: Assent – I choose to accept, to assent. But just to assent is not complete. Believing requires that you act on that assent.
I think Peter offers the best picture of believing in Jesus. You remember when Jesus stood on the Sea of Galilee in the night. He called Peter to come to him,
Peter believed it was Jesus who called him. But then he took the important step to act upon that belief. He trusted Jesus, even though Jesus’ command went against everything he knew. Jesus told him, “Come.” So Peter stepped out of the safety of that boat and started walking on water. God did the heavy lifting. God supported him on the water. Peter’s part was to believe.
Alright, you receive Jesus and you believe Jesus. How do you really know if you’ve been born again? Again, Jesus answers that. He says: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So is everyone born of the Spirit.”
Imagine looking out a window and seeing a brick house with a willow tree in the front yard. You see the tree branches start wave around. You know that the tree didn’t suddenly develop self-propelled limbs. You’re seeing the effect that wind is having on the tree.
When the wind blows, the tree branches yield to it. They move with the wind, in the direction of the wind, for as long as the wind blows. But look at the brick house. It stands rigid. It shows no effect from the wind. It’s unmoved by the wind, it’s unchanged by the wind.
In both Greek and Hebrew, the word for wind is the same word that is used for spirit. You can tell Born Again people. You see the evidence of the Spirit blowing through their lives. That’s because they yield to the spirit like a willow tree yields to the wind. You don’t the Spirit, but you see his effect.
This yielding to the spirit has two parts. First, it’s HEARING the spirit’s prompting.
Have you ever been tempted to say something about someone behind their back? And then you feel a little twinge, a little check on your thought. Or suppose someone says something to challenge you and you’re tempted to respond with both barrels. And you feel that check again. There’s just a little prompting that said: you don’t need to go there.
I experienced it just yesterday. I was in a hurry and waiting in that long line backed up next to the Subway. There are two lanes heading in to town, but the sign tells you to use just the right lane. As I approach the stop sign, some guy pulls up next to me. He’s ignored the one-lane sign and jumped in front of everyone else. I’m about to roll down my window and provide a little corrective guidance for him when I feel that little check in my spirit.
Now once you heard that prompting, I had the option. Because God is a gentlemen, he doesn’t force anything on you. I could yield to that check and restrain myself. Or I could ignore that check and sound off. I could be like that willow yielding to the Spirit, or like the brick house resisting the Spirit. Well, I had been working on this sermon, so I caught myself. This time I yielded to the Spirit. I was the willow tree.
Each time you yield to the spirit prompting, you experience Kingdom living. And oddly enough, each time check your behavior, you experience greater freedom. It’s kind of paradoxical. Had I read off that driver next to me, he would have responded with a gesture or just ignored me. And I would be fuming for the rest of the day. I would be paying the price for his thoughtlessness.
John is the only one who writes about Nicodemus. Moreover, John mentions him two more times. There’s the time when the chief priests and Pharisees confer together. They’ve heard reports about the people calling Jesus, The Christ. So there is a lot of ranting and raving among the elite about this itinerant rabble rouser.
It’s at that point where Nicodemus steps forward and takes a risk. He confronts them: Our law condemns no one without a hearing. That wasn’t very comfortable for Nicodemus. He’s putting his relationship with Christ before his own standing among his peers. He was stepping out on the water. He was yielding to the Spirit.
The third time John mentions Nicodemus is when he appears at the cross after Jesus dies. As they take the corpse down, Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus. He steps forward to befriend a convicted criminal, a cursed sinner. He does it out in broad daylight, in full view of the public at large. And he defies the Sanhedrin’s verdict because he’s brought spices to give this condemned criminal a nobleman’s burial.
Now compare this Nicodemus at the cross with the Nicodemus that was skulking down the streets of Jerusalem in the dark of night. Look at the difference over the course of John’s Gospel. Nicodemus started out by trying to play it safe. He sought out Jesus at night on the sly when none of his peers at the Sanhedrin would see him.
But now he’s changed. He’s not the same person we met in the beginning of John’s Gospel. Now he comes to Jesus in broad daylight in full public view.
What accounts for this change in Nicodemus? Did he have a dramatic conversion? Was there a single moment that we can point to? If so, John doesn’t tell us, Instead, we see a gradual change coming upon Nicodemus, a yielding if you will.
You often hear about people who come to faith in a very dramatic and demonstrable way. The drug addict who hits bottom and then has a come-to-Jesus moment. The cancer victim who experiences a miraculous healing. The teenager who went forward at a Billy Graham rally. They can point to a time certain when they were born again. It’s not unlike Apostle Paul when he’s on the road to Damascus and Jesus knocks him down. Jesus appears to Paul and Paul’s life dramatically changes.
But a lot of us don’t have those kinds of experiences. A lot of us came to faith more like more like Paul’s protégé, Timothy. Paul was like a father to Timothy. He delighted in Timothy as a good and faithful follower of Jesus Christ. But you don’t see any come-to-Jesus moment for Timothy. Because Timothy came to faith growing up under a believing mother and grandmother.
Now to be sure, Timothy could not just hitchhike on their faith. At some point he too had to affirmatively receive and believe. At some point he had to be born from above – perhaps not in the dramatic way that Paul did. But we know that it happened because we see the evidence of the Holy Spirit blowing through his life.
So it was with Nicodemus and believers down through the ages. You don’t see the Spirit, but you see the effects of the Spirit in their lives. We don’t see the wind. We only see the effects of the wind.
In John’s Gospel, Nicodemus starts out as a man. He’s a man aware of his own need. He‘s a man who seeks out Jesus in the night of his own spiritual life. But at the end of John’s Gospel, at the foot of the cross, Nicodemus is not skulking around in the dark anymore And he’s not struggling to meet all the expectations of men.
Because Nicodemus has come into a relationship with God, NOW he receives and believes. Now he yields to God’s Spirit. And NOW he is born again.