According to my brother, who sold up all his worldly goods to sail around the world with his family, the three most important parts of a sailing vessel are the HULL to keep water out, the RUDDER to steer, and the KEEL to keep the yacht upright. Although largely invisible, without these essentials below deck, the boat is doomed to sink. He assures me that a polished deck is of no use in a storm! The trouble with humanity is that we try to satisfy our soul needs and our longing for significance with the equivalent of a shiny deck. In his frank encounter with a moral, religious man called Nicodemus, a pillar of the Jewish community, Jesus shatters any delusions of a polished deck. The Son of God candidly tells Nicodemus that his best efforts are futile without a new spiritual trajectory and orientation. Self help and external renovations are false security for this world and eternity. Jesus loves Nicodemus enough to tell him the most important truth he will ever hear– that only spiritual rebirth through the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, can breathe life into the human soul. Only a spiritual remedy can heal a fatal spiritual condition, no matter who you are. I pray that as you step into this real life encounter, you will recognise Nicodemus in yourself and will hear Jesus of Nazareth, God’s own Son, speaking directly to your heart, as He speaks to mine.
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “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.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
Unimpressed by the deck
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in secret and calls him ‘Rabbi’ and ‘teacher from God’. He is spiritually astute to recognise that no ordinary man could have performed the miracles Jesus did, but he also fears offending his peers whose hatred for the rabbi has already become evident. He is a spiritual seeker walking a dangerous political tightrope, hence his late night visit. Nicodemus was used to being treated with respect and he is obviously impressed with Jesus. Perhaps he wants to invite him into the inner circle of religion and end the animosity. Yet, Jesus is not impressed with Nicodemus or his quiet diplomacy! He does not even respond to Nicodemus’s flattering address (John 3:2). Instead, Jesus plunges straight through the veneer to the core of this man. He loves him enough to tell him the truth.
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again”(John 3:3).
In spite of his shiny appearance, Jesus knew the darkness in Nicodemus’ heart. In fact, he sees the sorry state of each of our hearts (John 2:25) to which we are often blind. Who of us obeys even the first three commandments God gave to Moses? 1. Have no other gods but the one true God. 2. Worship God alone. 3. Do not misuse God’s name. Jesus sees how we constantly look to something other than God to save us; how we put ourselves in the place of God (Rom 7:18); how we try to be our own saviour; how we deceive ourselves (Jer 17:9; Prov 4:23); how casually we treat God; how our own desires determine the way we live. Jesus knows our mixed motives and pride in its many guises (1 John 2:16). He sees the offence to God in our misplaced worship and lack of gratitude. The Son of God sees below the deck and cannot be fooled by illusions of goodness that even we sincerely believe. Jesus knew that Nicodemus could not be improved, because he understood the true nature of sin. That’s why he cut through Nicodemus’s polished deck and prescribed the spiritual cure to a fatal spiritual problem:
New birth by the Holy Spirit.
Just in case we do not recognise ourselves in Nicodemus, Jesus repeats it three times (John 3:3; 5; 7) in a tone that is urgent and unequivocal. “You must be born again!” Belonging to God’s kingdom depends on it. Being born again is not the requirement of some strange Christian cult. It comes from Jesus’ own lips. The midwife of this rebirth is the Holy Spirit.
A brand new baby
But why does Jesus prescribe a new birth? Aren’t there more dignified ways to enter God’s kingdom than as a howling newborn covered in blood and vernix? Isn’t this image a bit radical?
Imagine the life of a healthy unborn baby in the dark cave of a womb. Its experience is limited to the steady thump of mom’s heartbeat; whooshing of blood; stomach rumblings and incoherent sounds. The foetus peers through a fog of amniotic fluid for forty weeks before bursting into the world. Suddenly it is alive to vivid light, colour and distinct shapes, voices, facial expressions, adventures. Best of all, it is welcomed into the loving nurture of a family. The baby does nothing apart from accept its delivery into the world! It is naked and helpless, totally dependent on mom. This is the metaphor Jesus chooses to describe the radical transformation of every sinner who becomes a Christian and takes hold of life. The ‘labour’ belongs to the Triune God– Father, Son and Holy Spirit who play unique roles in the birth of a Christian: The Father loved us enough to send his own Son to die in our place (John 3:16). Jesus the Son willingly submits to the Father and dies in our place (John 10:18). The Holy Spirit breathes life into a dead, dark spirit, like a wind kindling a fire (John 3:8). The work has been done. The ‘family’ that receives us is God’s people (John 13:34; Eph 2:19.)
If you are ‘born of water and the Spirit’, you were like a newborn baby, delivered from a dark domain and transferred to the light, to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sin” (Col 1:13-14). Nicodemus, the concrete thinker, asks, “How can this be?” (John 3:9). He is baffled by these metaphors and still has many questions. Jesus explains that cleansing and a new spirit are an inside job.
An inside job: Water and the Spirit
Being born of “water and the Spirit” is something that happens on the INSIDE first, below the deck (John 3:5). We might be a bit confused by Jesus’ language, but he is speaking to a Pharisee who would have been able to recite this Old Testament prophecy of Ezekiel in his sleep:
25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:25-28)
It is mind blowing that 500 years before Jesus’ late night chat with Nicodemus, Ezekiel announced Yahweh’s wonderful restoration plan, which would bring great blessing to his people. It included:
A perfect cleansing of his people from all their sin and idolatry (Ezek 36:25).
The gift of a new, soft heart with new desires (Ezek 36:26).
God’s Spirit to move God’s people to live God’s way (Ezek 36:27).
It is a picture of homecoming and reconciliation (Ezek 36:28) between God and his rebel people. Nicodemus would have made the link as soon as Jesus spoke about being born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5-6; 7-8). Water symbolises inner renewal and cleansing. (Unbeknown to Nicodemus, he would soon witness the death of God’s own Son in full and final payment for the sins of the world.) The Spirit regenerates the heart, steering its desires away from self destructive gods, towards God and his truth (Ezek 36:25; John 3:21). This was spectacularly fulfilled at Pentecost (Acts 2:4) and in the heart of every believer. Just to be clear, Jesus goes on to tell Nicodemus about his part in being born again.
The outside story: Believe
“Whoever believes in him (Jesus) shall not die, but have eternal life.”
The outside story is that Nicodemus must give up his smug self sufficiency and surrender his veneer of virtue. He must expose himself to the light and stop hiding in the shadows (John 3:19; 20; 21). He must live by the truth by trusting in Jesus instead of his efforts. The summative verse of the gospel and the whole Bible, is John 3:16. Life is ours if we rely on the sacrifice of Jesus who absorbed the judgment of God on our behalf (John 3:17).
To help Nicodemus understand his role in the new birth, Jesus astutely reminds him of a concrete Old Testament story: The Israelites had been wandering in the desert after being rescued from Egypt. Tired, grumpy and ungrateful, they complained incessantly to God and blamed him for everything. God sent a plague of poisonous snakes which killed many of them. The people begged Moses for God’s help. God told Moses to raise a bronze serpent on a pole. Those bitten by snakes only needed to look at the serpent on the pole and God healed them of their venomous bites (Numbers 21). That is the image Jesus applies to himself, soon to be lifted up on a Roman cross (John 3:13; 14; 15). The bronze snake was just a shadow of the gospel promise, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom 10:9).”
Why is faith in Jesus crucial? Because as sinners we are incapable of being at peace with God. Jesus is the only one qualified to wash away our sin because He is the only perfect man who bore our sin on the cross. He is the only way humanity can know God (John 17:3; John 10:9). And once we become a Christian, continuing to believe the Son is how we satisfy our soul longings and need for significance (1 John 5:11; John 8:36; Rom 8:12). It is only Jesus who can give us life that is abundant and free, because He is the only one who can re-orientate us away from ourselves, —our selfish pride, greed and ambitions, our warped addictions and desires that destroy us (John 10:10). Best of all, Jesus is the only one who can give us eternal life beyond the grave.
How does a Christian know and trust Jesus today? By asking for his forgiveness and developing a relationship with him. Taking simple baby steps to get to know Him. Growing in the habits of grace he has provided, like reading God’s word, praying and meeting with God’s people.
Without spiritual rebirth and growth into mature faith in Jesus, personal or social transformation will fail in the long term. The centre cannot hold without the spiritual power of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit to change the human heart and its desires. Human effort alone is lifeless, like scrubbing the deck of a yacht without attending to what’s below.
But with the RUDDER of God’s SPIRIT steering us, our trajectory will progressively move towards light as we begin to see that God’s ways are best for us (Isa 48:17). Our HULL will keep the stormy waves outside our boat, as we learn to trust in the FATHER who loves us and gives us new life through his SON. And our KEEL will steady us through turbulent oceans, as we hope in His promises to make all things new. The Trinity continues to empower our Christian journey.
Whatever happened to Nicodemus?
For me, the most wonderful thing of all is knowing that Nicodemus didrespond to Jesus’ offer of life. We don’t know much about what happened after their clandestine meeting, but John tells us that Nicodemus tried to get a fair hearing for Jesus before the Jewish council (John 7:51). Who knows his torment at witnessing the injustice of the kangaroo court of his peers who condemned Jesus to be crucified. But later John describes Nicodemus as a ‘disciple’ of Jesus who took his body down from the cross with another rich Jew, Joseph of Arimathea. Together they lovingly prepared him for burial with 75 pounds of spices, wrapped his broken body in linen and placed our Lord in the tomb (John 19: 38; 39). How I pray that every person reading this devotion has responded to the Lord Jesus as Nicodemus did. Nicodemus stepped into the light and made his faith public at the crucifixion, despite inevitable persecution by his inner circle.
Just as Jesus frankly confronted him in the middle of the night, Nicodemus asks us the hard question, “What is it costing you to follow Jesus?”
Live it out!
- Whether or not you are born again, if the Holy Spirit is stirring you today, Jesus is calling you to himself. Don’t ignore the wind of the Spirit when he blows on your heart. Go to Jesus. Make him your only Treasure, your one true desire. If you trust in Jesus, He will always satisfy you. If you fail Jesus, He will always forgive you. No other person or thing can do that for you.
- Are you willing to love people with the truth as Jesus did with Nicodemus? Challenge yourself by listening to Love You With The Truth by Casting Crowns. (click on the link)
That I’m not a strong enough believer
To be the friend that can take your hand
And lead you straight to Jesus
I’m waiting on the preachers, singers, and the teachers
To string the perfect words together
But every single time I have to say goodbye
I wonder will this be the last time
When we speak truth, we show the world we truly love
I’m not pointing my finger, I’m holding out my hand
Let my life and my words be the proof
I’m gonna love you with the truth (Oh)