So while meditating on the Gospel of John, I’ve run into chapter 3. There is some weighty, powerful stuff in John 3. “God so loved the world…” Go think about that one for a few years. No, I’m serious.
However, as cool and significant as John 3 is, it has also been a bit intimidating to me for a long time. I would read it, scratch my head a little, feel a bit excited in my spirit, but not having a very clear idea of what was happening. One of the things that has perplexed me for awhile was Jesus’ seeming ADD throughout the conversation. Depending on how you read it, it can seem like He disregards Nicodemus’ questions entirely to preach about whatever happened to be in His head at the moment. I mean, right off the bat, Nicodemus gives Him a compliment, and Jesus returns the favor by stating that he can’t enter the kingdom of God yet.
However, a little adjustment in how I think of Nicodemus has changed all of that for me.
A lot of people aren’t quite sure what to do with this Pharisaical Rabbi. He comes to Jesus by night in a secretive, private meeting. Jesus tells him about being born again, and at the end of John, Nicodemus seems to be on Jesus’ side (John 19:39). So most people interpret Nicodemus’ actions as honest inquiries as to how he can be saved.
However, I do not think this is the most likely interpretation at all. When the Jews thought of a Messiah, they were not thinking in terms of salvation from sin. They were thinking in terms of deliverance from their physical, political oppressors. They weren’t looking for someone who would make atonement by His death; they were looking fo someone who would destroy Rome and reestablish Israel to her former glory, as in the days of Solomon.
In truth, they were not too far off with their expectation. We know for sure that Jesus is coming one day to establish His kingdom on the earth, and He will rule from Jerusalem. He will wage war against His enemies. But that wasn’t His goal at His first coming. The reason? …Well, His people were at enmity with Him at the time. It is His utter mercy that He did not set up the throne right then and there, or else He would have ended up with the most sparsely populated kingdom of all time.
Nearly all of the Jewish people in that day had no concept of their condition at all. If one was a born and bred Jew who made the right sacrifices and kept the right laws, then all was good. Right? Wrong.
Which brings us back to Nicodemus. Whether he was honestly searching, or perhaps trying to play a political game, he wasn’t expecting a message of salvation. He was expecting an action plan for world domination. His assertion that Jesus must be a man from God spoke of an underlying hope that this leader wouldn’t fail His mission like the previous so-called messiahs before Him. If He were sent from God — if He were truly the prophesied One — then this was it. This was the time the kingdom would be restored to Israel.
This explains Jesus’ immediate deviation from the topic. Nicodemus was asking about the physical kingdom, but Jesus knew the man would never see it in his current spiritual condition. Basically, Jesus’ response says, “No, you’re not going after the right question. This is not about whether or not I can score you a corner office in the Jewish capitol. This is about you getting right with God at the fundamental level. This is about you escaping eternal torment. This is about you doing what it takes to enter the kingdom.”
The idea of a new birth would have likely been much more feasible to Nicodemus, had Jesus been talking about salvation for the Gentiles. There was provision for foreigners to join themselves to Israel by undergoing circumcision and cleansing (an ancient form of baptism, actually). As the non-chosen people, Gentiles were expected to need a serious transformation in order to be accepted in the kingdom of God. Jews, on the other hand, were supposedly a shoo-in. After all, it was their kingdom.
And so Jesus continued to press the point of being born in the Spirit. Nicodemus needed a whole lot more than to simply be at the right place at the right time. He needed an inner transformation to make him right with the God whose kingdom was coming.
Reading the passage through this lens opens it up so much for me. There are two verses still tripping me up a bit, on which I would especially like to hear comments from you all:
3:8 “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (I have a couple of vague concepts for this one, but nothing very substantial.)
3:12 “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (What “earthly things” came up in this passage??)