Read John 3:1-21
One of the classic questions, when buying presents, is: What do you get for the person who has everything?
I think Christians face a similar question when it comes to evangelism: How do you share the good news with someone who has life together? Where there is no apparent need – no apparent bad news – how can we share the good news of Jesus?
Nicodemus was that man. He was the man who had everything; who had life together. He had social standing – a member of the Jewish ruling council – almost certainly the Sanhedrin. He was probably wealthy. Intellectually, he was, according to Jesus, the teacher of Israel. Spiritually, he was right up there. He was a Pharisee. He knew the law; he kept the law; he was one of God’s favourite people. He was probably morally upright, generous and compassionate – a good man.
It seems to me that the church is pretty confused about evangelism and so we have largely abandoned it. I suspect we have an understanding of evangelism that we don’t like. We think that evangelism has to be confrontational, abrasive. It is about accosting strangers and convincing them that that are sinners and need Jesus. And actually, we don’t feel comfortable doing that. So by-and-large we don’t. Maybe we also think that there is a message we are meant to know; there is a way of presenting the good news but we aren’t quite sure what it is.
Maybe we need to re-learn evangelism from the Master – from Jesus. How did Jesus evangelise.
It seems that Nicodemus had a certain amount of belief in Jesus – or, at least, considerable respect for Him. He is very flattering in his greeting. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Nicodemus acknowledges the power and authority that Jesus has. He says “we know”. Seemingly there was a group of the Pharisees who believed that Jesus had God-given authority. The Pharisees would be amongst the most hostile of Jesus’ opponents so this confession from Nicodemus is quite remarkable.
But look at what Jesus does! He cuts him off. He is not going to have a bar of it. He is not listening to this. He simply says, “Very truly I tell you…” which gives great solemnity to what He is about to say. Jesus says, “Nicodemus, listen up. No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.”
I thought we would find that Jesus modelled a much more respectful style of evangelism – a non-confrontational, compassionate style. I thought we would see Jesus listening before speaking.
Not on this occasion! And it is important to say that because each occasion for Jesus was different. Jesus didn’t have a formula that He just trotted out. Every time He responded differently because every time He responded in a way that was appropriate for that particular situation. Certainly there will be some times when it is right to simply listen – maybe for a long time – before speaking. Maybe with Zacchaeus Jesus took a long time over the meal building a relationship before He spoke.
But, on this occasion, Jesus didn’t respond to Nicodemus’ flattering greeting. There was no listening to find out why Nicodemus had come. (Why had Nicodemus come?) There was no small talk, just, “Nicodemus, no one can see (let alone enter) the Kingdom of God without being born again.”
Is Jesus simply rude and abrupt?
Nicodemus was probably a bit taken aback. But remember that Jesus already knew some things about Nicodemus. He knew he was a Pharisee. He knew that the Pharisees understood the way of salvation to be through a strict keeping of God’s law. So Jesus cuts right to the chase. “Nicodemus, I know your good works; I know your righteousness according to the law; I know that you are a person of great honour in this city; I know how much you have studied and how strenuously you have sought to please God. But entry to the Kingdom of God is not gained through these things. To enter the Kingdom you must be born again.” Must is a strong word; there is no alternative. You must be born again.
Nicodemus said, “What? How can a man do that? Can a man once more enter his mother’s womb?”
Nicodemus was bemused, maybe even a bit dismissive. “What are you talking about? Born again! Silly.”
Nicodemus seemed to think that Jesus meant a second physical birth. But if Jesus was talking about a person needing to make a complete new start, even that seems impossible to Nicodemus – as impossible as climbing back into his mother’s womb. But actually, the phrase Jesus used means “born again”, but it also means “must be born from above.” In other words, it is not only a complete new start; it is a birth that comes from God.
One commentator says, “In one sentence He sweeps away all that Nicodemus stood for, and demands that he be re-made by the power of God.” Nicodemus believed that he would earn salvation. Jesus says that salvation depends on a rebirth that is a supernatural work of God. It doesn’t matter how good a person has been. To enter God’s Kingdom, you must be re-born from above.
There are two spheres in which people can live: we can live in the physical world or we can be part of God’s Kingdom living in the spiritual sphere. Flesh gives birth to flesh. Flesh can never give birth to spirit. The only way a person can pass from the lower order to the higher order is by being born again by the power of God. There is no human way to move from the earthly sphere to the spiritual. To enter the spiritual sphere requires a spiritual birth.
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. He had come as the teacher of Israel. His first words had been, “Rabbi, we know.” Now he was completely out of his depth. Jesus had demonstrated how little he knows and Jesus marvelled that Nicodemus didn’t understand these things. Jesus claimed authority to talk of heavenly things. He had come from heaven. But He accused Nicodemus of not receiving His testimony. If people won’t believe when Jesus talks of earthly things – and being born again is in one sense earthly. It happens on earth. If Nicodemus won’t believe even these things, how will he ever understand heavenly things? The reality is that people who haven’t been born again cannot understand spiritual things.
Then, in v.14, Jesus referred back to the incident in the Old Testament book of Numbers 21 when the people of Israel in the desert were overwhelmed by a plague of snakes. Many were being bitten and dying. They implored Moses to pray for them. God told Moses to make a brass snake and to lift it up on a pole. The promise was that those who looked to the snake would be healed. In the same way, Jesus said, the Son of Man must be lifted up so that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.
Clearly Jesus was referring to His own death on the cross. Nicodemus had asked how it could be that people could be born again. Here is the first part of the answer. The Son of Man must die.
Again it was “must”. There is no other way. For people to enter the Kingdom of God, Jesus had to die. But there is a second part to the answer. How can this spiritual rebirth take place? Firstly, Jesus must die. Secondly, people must believe.
We come to John 3:16 which gives the background. God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. V.17: for God did not send His Son into the world to condemn it but to save it. Do you see God’s bias here? Because of His love for us, God so much wanted us to be saved that He gave the gift that would cost Him everything – His Son.
God took the initiative. It is the very nature of God to love. He loves so much He will sacrifice to save us. Jesus came not to condemn but to save. God’s whole purpose was our salvation.
However, some people will reject God’s gift. Although God’s intention was to save, some people would reject that salvation. By rejecting the Son of God, they bring condemnation on themselves – despite God’s efforts to rescue them from judgement. Jesus’ death does not automatically save everybody. People must believe – but some reject it.
In the last year or two there has been renewed talk about universalism – the belief that everybody will be saved. That isn’t supported by this passage. Even in a passage where the whole emphasis is on God’s desire for people to be saved, the inevitable consequence of some being saved is that others are condemned. If you look at vv.18-21you will see that there are people who, although God offers salvation, don’t want it. There are people who prefer the darkness rather than the light that has come into the world. They prefer the darkness either because they prefer sin and they don’t want that disturbed or because they don’t want the humiliation of their sin being exposed by the light. Either way, although God offers entry into His Kingdom, some people reject it.
There are two possible responses so, what happened in this case? Did Nicodemus receive it or reject it?
John doesn’t tell us! Isn’t that strange? However, in Chapter 7, Nicodemus did make a rather tentative appeal on Jesus’ behalf before the Pharisees and the chief priests and in Chapter 19 he came with Joseph of Arimathea to take care of Jesus’ body. There are hints that this proud Pharisee actually accepted Jesus’ message, even if he kept it secret until after Jesus’ death. Maybe Nicodemus saw Jesus hanging on the cross and remembered how He had said, “The Son of man must be lifted up.”
Can we learn anything about evangelism from this incident? Can I make some suggestions although I won’t have time to elaborate?
1) How can we share the gospel with someone who seems to have life all together? Even they must be born again. Their wealth and social status and good living have nothing to do with it. There is no other way into God’s Kingdom except by being born again – a birth that comes from God. We must be ready to share the gospel even with those who seem to have it all together. They need Jesus just as much.
2) Nicodemus’ interest had been aroused by Jesus’ miracles. Can people see evidence of God in our lives? Spiritual gifts, for example, are manifestations of God. They can often break through a person’s resistance.
3) Sometimes we should spend time developing a relationship. But sometimes the Holy Spirit might lead us to cut to the chase and simply state a truth that someone needs to hear. The truth in this instance was “You must be born again.”
4) Being born from above is not our work. It is a miracle that comes from God. Therefore we need to pray for the power of God to be at work in the lives of those we long to see saved.
5) Maybe the biggest evangelistic lessons from this incident are not so much about the encounter but about the content of the gospel; it is more about what Jesus said than how He said it. Jesus expressed some core truths: People must be born again. Jesus had to die. People must believe in Jesus, not reject Him. Those who believe will be saved. Those who don’t are already condemned by that very act of rejecting God’s Son.
To share the gospel we must understand the gospel. What we say should vary depending on the situation but in order to be flexible, we need a good understanding of what it is all about and the three truths Jesus spoke to Nicodemus are universal.
Of course, we must apply those truths to ourselves first. We must be born again by the power of God if we want to enter God’s Kingdom; Jesus died to make our salvation possible. There is no other way. We must put our faith in Jesus. If we reject God’s gift we are already condemned.
When we have been born again from above, then we can speak with authority and understanding because we will be speaking of what we know and what we have seen.
Every one of us must be born again. Do you have any doubts that that has happened in your life? Remember how God’s whole bias is that we might be saved. God does not make it difficult. Jesus said He would never turn away anyone who comes to Him. Come to Jesus. Look to the One who was lifted up on the cross for your salvation. Ask God to give you that miraculous new start. Then choose to live the new life.
Do not prefer the darkness. Come to the light and experience God’s new birth.