Conversations: Jesus and Nicodemus
Text: John 3:1-17
Speaker: Pastor Paul McPheeters
Title: “Conversations: Jesus and Nicodemus”
Text: John 3:1-17; Romans 10:1-11
We are continuing in a series of sermons for this new year called, “Conversations With Jesus.” We are looking together at a whole variety of conversations Jesus had with different individuals all through the gospels; seeing how Jesus spoke to them, and the way he imparted truth and grace to them. But we’re also inviting Jesus to speak to us. We want to learn to hear his voice, and to receive the grace and truth He wants to impart to us.
Today I’d like you to turn with me to the Gospel of John, chapter 3:1-16, and look with me at the story of Jesus conversation with a man named Nicodemus. In our earlier reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Paul wrote that he longed for his fellow Jews, who were zealous for God like he was, to come to know Jesus as their Messiah like he had. He wrote that they had zeal, but lacked knowledge and didn’t understand the righteousness that comes freely from God through Jesus. Well, Nicodemus was one of those Jews who had zeal for God, but lacked the kind of knowledge really needed to know God.
Let’s look together at how Jesus seeks to draw Nicodemus into a deeper knowledge and understanding of God’s will and God’s ways in this conversation.
So John writes, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, and he came to Jesus at night.”
John’s implication here is that Nicodemus didn’t want to be seen having a conversation with Jesus. As a member of the strict Jewish sect of Pharisees, and as member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council in Jerusalem, Nicodemus needed to be careful about being seen talking with this Jesus. Because among the ruling powers of Jerusalem, Jesus was not a popular figure. He was controversial to say the least. He had no real credentials to be a Rabbi, but he was acting like a Rabbi. He had no real credentials to make a claim to be the coming Messiah, but that’s who his followers were claiming him to be.
And then when Jesus came to Jerusalem, the first thing he did was to go to the Temple and kick out the money lenders and merchants from the Court of the Gentiles. He was acting like he owned the place. And everywhere he went, he was healing people and doing miraculous signs.
This behavior had all of Israel and all of Jerusalem in a tizzy. The High Priest and ruling council were not happy, and were afraid that the Roman over-rulers were not going to be happy with how Jesus was stirring up the crowds. But Nicodemus seems to have found Jesus intriguing. He seems to have been actually impressed by Jesus. Afterall, he comes to Jesus here and initiates this conversation. He wants to meet him and find out more about him. But he needs to be careful here. So he comes to Jesus under cover of darkness.
And when he meets Jesus, he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him.” And there is the evidence that he has been genuinely impressed by Jesus. By the signs and wonders Jesus has done, and by what Nicodemus has heard of Jesus’ teaching.
But in Nicodemus’ words to Jesus we can also hear the questions that are underneath. You are a teacher and God is doing amazing things through you, but just who are you? Where do you get this power by which you heal, and this authority with which you teach? Even our most esteemed Rabbis don’t do these things.
And what I want you to notice today, is how Jesus responds to Nicodemus, because this is so typical of Jesus’ in his conversations with people. Jesus doesn’t actually answer the question that Nicodemus is asking. He does not want to talk about who He is and how He comes to be doing all that he is doing. What Jesus wants to do is turn the conversation around so that the spotlight is on Nicodemus.
So Jesus hears Nicodemus out, and then he says, “You want to know how it is that I teach and heal and perform signs of the Kingdom of God right here among you? Well, to understand it a person must be born again.”
“What?” You see, Nicodemus is taken back by this response. He doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about, but I think Nicodemus knows the question is now about him. If a person needs to be born again to understand what Jesus is doing, then the question is whether he himself has been born again. He says, “But how can a guy at my age be born again. A person can’t squeeze back into their mother’s womb and come out a second time.”
“True,” says Jesus, “but entering the Kingdom of God is still a lot like being born a second time. You can’t enter the Kingdom of God unless you’ve been born of water and the spirit. Because like flesh gives birth to flesh, so in the spiritual realm, the Spirit must give birth to your spirit.”
“But how can this be?” asks Nicodemus.
“Well, it’s a mystery, isn’t it?” Jesus says. “It’s like the wind. It blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but where it comes from or where it is going you just can’t tell. That’s how it is with being born of the Spirit.”
“I don’t understand this at all,” says Nicodemus.
“Exactly right,” says Jesus. “Here you are, one of Israel’s teachers and leaders, and you don’t understand it at all. That’s because to understand heavenly things, you must be born from above. And to be born from above is a mystery. Entering the kingdom is a mystery,” Jesus says.
And the question, Jesus implies, is: who are you, Nicodemus? And has God blown you like the wind here to my door? And are you ready to enter in? Are you open to being born again? Will you trust me and walk with me and learn of me?
That’s the question that Jesus is constantly posing in his conversations. And my friends, that’s the question you and I can expect Jesus to be asking in the conversations we have with Him. You see, it seems that no matter what the presenting issue is in a person’s life when they come to Jesus to talk, Jesus wants to redirect the conversation to talk about whether we will trust him, and walk with him, and learn of him in all of these situations. Will we trust Him to guide us as we enter into the mystery of what a relationship with God entails, and learn to live a new kind of life as a citizen of God’s Kingdom by the power of the Spirit which we can’t actually see or touch?
And you and I can expect in our conversations with Jesus, that just like he does with Nicodemus here, He is going to confront us, and convert us, and then console us.
Look again at how Jesus does this with Nicodemus in the conversation. As I said a minute ago, Jesus first hears Nicodemus out, but then confronts him with a simple truth about the Kingdom of God, the purpose of which is to turn the spotlight on Nicodemus’s life. “Nicodemus, you must be born again. You can’t even see the Kingdom of God if you are not.”
This is a truth and a topic that wasn’t even on Nicodemus’s agenda when he came to talk to Jesus. And it challenges Nicodemus. He has to wrestle with what Jesus has just confronted him with. He doesn’t even quite understand it at first.
So then secondly, Jesus sets about converting Nicodemus to a new way of thinking about his life, about God’s ways, about God’s Kingdom. Jesus is changing his perspective, and changing his heart. This is what conversion is all about.
In this case, Jesus tells Nicodemus about the wind and the Spirit, and the mystery of the way God moves and speaks. He speaks of earthly things in ways that cause Nicodemus to see heavenly things in a different way. He takes a biblical story of Moses at the time of the Exodus with the snakes in the wilderness, and uses it to teach Nicodemus about what God is up to in the world, the kind of faith and trust God is now calling Nicodemus to engage in.
You see, all the way through the conversation, Jesus is converting Nicodemus’s way of thinking, his way of seeing things, his understanding. And it’s a bit overwhelming to Nicodemus. He is mystified by Jesus’ words, but He is also drawn into them. He is challenged by what Jesus is saying, and confused by what Jesus is saying, and convicted by what Jesus is saying. And Jesus sees the confusion and conviction on Nicodemus’s face, and tells him that as a teacher and leader in Israel, he really ought to understand these things, but that he doesn’t understand at all!
I mean, who speaks to an upstanding Pharisee and member of the Jewish ruling council like that? Nobody talks to Nicodemus like that. But Jesus does. Yet Jesus is not being rude or arrogant or combative. He is simply telling Nicodemus the truth about himself.
But Jesus doesn’t leave it there. Thirdly, comes the consoling part. Jesus goes on to tell Nicodemus that God so loved the world that He sent his only Son to bring eternal life. He assures Nicodemus that God did not send his son into the world to condemn people, but that people might have life through him.
This is the good news of the Gospel. And it’s an invitation to believe. It’s an invitation to enter into the Kingdom. It’s an invitation to follow Jesus, and grow and learn, and become a true teacher in Israel.
You see, Jesus confronts, and converts, and then consoles. That’s the way conversations with Jesus often go. And I don’t know about you, but interior conversations I’ve had with Jesus in my life have often looked just like this.
I go to Jesus in prayer with an agenda of what’s on my mind, and Jesus will hear me out, and then if I sit still and be quiet and listen for a few minutes, He will often turn the spotlight back on me. He will, in His own inimitable way, confront me with a truth about the Kingdom of God which has the power to deconstruct the little kingdom of self that I brought to him in prayer.
And that truth of the Kingdom will seep it’s way into my mind and heart and begin converting my thinking. It will change my perspective and help me to see my life, and my situations, and the people and the world around me in a different light. And then Jesus will console me with the good news of the gospel again. He doesn’t condemn me for coming to him with my “kingdom of self” concerns. He reminds me of His love, His forgiveness, His mercy, His faithfulness. He reminds me that God so loved people like you and me that He sent his only Son, not to condemn us, but that we might have life through him.
You see, somehow in these interior conversations Jesus has with us, we discover that He knows us full well. He knows us better than we know ourselves! And we discover that God wants us to know Him. He is confronting, converting, and consoling us in order for that to happen.
And the proper response to the truth that Jesus has given us, is to say, “Yes, I want this relationship with you, Lord, and I want to walk with you, and keep talking with you, and learn who I am, and how to be what you have created me to be and to do what you have called me to do.”
And how that happens in our minds and hearts by God’s Spirit is a mystery. No one knows exactly “how” these interior conversations happen. But many of you know that they do happen, and somehow it is the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit all working in tandem to bring us into relationship.
And in this case, do you think Nicodemus responded? Well, by the grace of God I believe he did. And there are two clues to this in John’s gospel. Later in chapter 7, we find in verse 50 that when the Chief Priest of Israel and many others on the ruling council want to get rid of Jesus, Nicodemus actually stands up at the meeting and speaks publicly in Jesus’ defense.
He says to the ruling council, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?” And the others replied, “Are you from Galilee, too?! Meaning: Are you now one of Jesus’ disciples, too, Nicodemus? And they sneer at him and tell him that no prophet has ever come from lowly Galilee.
But you see, Nicodemus was no longer slinking around at night. He was standing up before his brethren and sticking up for Jesus.
And again in John 19:39, after Jesus has been arrested, tried, convicted and crucified do you know who comes to the cross to take Jesus’ body down? Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Though both of them had formerly been secret disciples of Jesus, but they now publicly identify themselves with him even in his death. And by handling his dead body on that Friday evening, right before the Passover Sabbath, they were both making themselves ceremonially unclean. Not something a Pharisee would ever do if he weren’t utterly devoted to the one who had died.
So how about you? Where are you in a conversation with Jesus at this point? Are you where Nicodemus was at the beginning of the conversation? You’re curious about who this Jesus is, but you’re not sure you want to be publicly associated with Him yet? Or are you further along in the conversation, but are a little confused? Perhaps you are in the midst of the mystery of trying to figure Jesus out. Or has the Spirit blown into your life and opened your heart and mind to understand, and given you a new birth into a new kind life? If so, are you growing in that new life? Are you deepening and maturing in faith and in hope and in love for God and others?
You see, in his on-going conversations with us, Jesus continues to confront us and convert us and console us. He is always calling us to take the next step, further up and further in. That’s what conversations with Jesus are always about. Let us pray.