Gospel: John 3:1-17
Epistle: Acts 2:14a, 22-36 [Romans 8:14-17]
Lesson: Isaiah 6:1-8 [Genesis 1:1-2:3 / Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40]
Psalm: Psalm 29 [Psalm 149]
CLB Commentary – Dr. Gaylan Mathiesen
(originally published in 2012)
John referred to Nicodemus as a ruler and a teacher among the Jews. He also included the detail that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, leaving us to speculate why that detail was included. We might find a clue in the passage immediately preceding our text (2:23-25). Nicodemus had seen Jesus perform signs and now coming to Jesus, he said, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Had Nicodemus been among those “many people who saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name”? If so, he would also have been among those to whom “Jesus would not trust himself, for he knew all people.” And apparently, Nicodemus had heard enough, and likely discussed enough about Jesus with his fellow rulers and teachers, that he felt compelled to interview Jesus for himself, and perhaps did so at night to avoid detection.
I find it interesting that following Nicodemus’ words of praise for Jesus as a great sign-performing teacher, Jesus bypassed all of that and went directly to what really matters: that is, His teaching regarding the signs—what the signs were meant to point to. “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again” (3). Jesus turned the conversation quickly to what Nicodemus needed most to hear. The word anothen, can carry the meaning of “from above” or “again.” It seems clear that Nicodemus heard it with the latter meaning, especially considering his later use of deuteron (a second time): “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time [deuteron] into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus’ words left Nicodemus completely baffled. He had seen Jesus perform signs, but had no idea what they were about. Even after further explanation from Jesus, pushing Nicodemus to the spiritual content of His words, Nicodemus could only express further confusion, “How can this be?”
There’s a story told by John Claypool about a family that had been living in Richmond, Virginia, near Monument Avenue, where statues honor the Confederate generals of the Civil War, the most notable, of course, being the one of Robert E. Lee, astride his horse. The plaque on the monument had only one word, “Lee.” A young son of the family would frequently play near Lee’s statue. One day, the father got word that he was being transferred to another city, and on the day of the move the little boy asked his father if he could go and play one more time at “Lee.” His dad said sure, and decided to even accompany his son to the statue. After a while, the father told his son they needed to leave. His son said, agreed but said he had one question to ask before they left, and he asked his dad, “Who is that man sitting on Lee?” All those times playing near his favorite statue, the boy obviously had no clue as to who the statue was honoring, let alone what the statue was representing. How like Nicodemus, who saw the signs, but was unable to grasp their meaning.
At this moment in the story, even Jesus expressed bewilderment, “You are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things?” Some commentators see no hint of rebuke in Jesus’ words, since Jesus knows what is in the human heart. It’s true, of course, that Jesus knew the depth of the human problem: that which is earthly cannot comprehend that which is heavenly. And yet, if these words had been spoken to me, I’m quite sure they would have stung. And yet, just as with the little boy and his father, Jesus saw in Nicodemus’ response a desire for further explanation.
For John, however, Nicodemus appears almost incidental to the passage. More important for John is what Jesus said. If we take all the words that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus in this encounter, we have a rather complete summary of Jesus’ teachings about the gospel, including the topics of regeneration, the Kingdom of God, faith, the Son of Man, God’s love, God’s plan of salvation, judgment, and unbelief. All of these concepts refer to the need for a spiritual rebirth to enter a spiritual Kingdom—that which is earthly must be transformed.
Notice too that Jesus did not dismiss Nicodemus as hopeless; He worked with him. He started with Nicodemus where he was, and brought him into another, higher realm. The reason of course is obvious to John, and he explains—the mission of Jesus was not to judge and condemn, but to save us. So with the church today, the mission we are called to is not one of condemnation, but one of persistent witness and teaching, not from a position of superiority, but with the servant heart of our Lord who gave Himself that we all might live with Him forever.