Two religious leaders met on a breezy night long ago in the city of Jerusalem.
One of these men, a trained theologian and an official of the civil court for his faith group, initiated the meeting. He was very likely one of the most respected men in that part of the world, known for his holy life, his piety, and his dedication to the Jewish law. There was no person of his faith who could better represent the religion of the Jews than this man.
The other man was a commoner. He likely had little formal education and could not claim much accomplishment in life by usual standards, except he was good at wood working. He had gained quite a reputation as a spiritual leader himself in spite of His lowly station in life. It was said of him that the blinded eyes were opened, the lame walked, lepers were cleansed, and even the dead were raised to life at His command. Some said he was a great prophet, others that he was King of the Jews.
It was his notoriety of doing mighty works (miracles) that drew this educated man to a street preacher under cover of darkness. He could not understand how this plain man, in appearance not unlike other thousands in the area, could do the wondrous things he did. He concluded that only a man sent from God could possibly do such things.
The event and the conversation is recorded in John’s gospel chapter 3 verses 1thru 21.
1 “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.16“For) God so loved) the world,) that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not) perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not) believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment the light has come into the world, and) people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
This is the story of law meeting grace, of religion meeting Truth. And it contrasts, not only Nicodemus and Jesus, but Jesus and us.
Had I been in Jesus’ place in the story, and just had such a sincere compliment, by response might well have been “Thank you very much”, said as humbly as I could muster. And then after some small talk about what we had in common I might have invited him to church or even asked if we could study the Bible together. But Jesus after hearing the compliment replied “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” There was no explanation, no quoting of Scripture, just this odd statement. And as Nicodemus understandably asked questions Jesus only repeated the same in different terms. And He added this rebuke “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” He said to Nicodemus in so many words, “Your problem is unbelief”.
This ruler of the Jews, undoubtedly a good man by the measure of a man by men, did not need to “do” more good things. He did not need more religious activity. He did not need to be more “sound” in doctrine or to follow the correct pattern of worship. His only need was Life. He was dead in his sins. He and every other man and woman needed to be born again.
After dropping a bomb on this leader of the Jews Jesus explained.
“ 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.16“For) God so loved) the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not) perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not) believed in the name of the only Son of God”.
Not one thing has changed in the last 2000 years. The only way men are made fit for the kingdom of God is by being born again by doing what Jesus told this man to do.
The scandal of modern churches is that instead of telling people about the one who was lifted up as the serpent in the wilderness so those who look can live, is that we have told them to follow Nicodemus rather than Jesus.
We invite them to church, ask them to say a prayer, or repeat some words and be baptized, and then we begin the process of teaching them to behave like our model of a Christian. We tell them to pray, read your Bible every day, don’t cuss, drink, steal, or cheat on your wife, tithe your gross income, and attend church regularly, and “if” you do these things well, and in this church or another just like it, you will go to heaven when you die. This is the modern version of becoming a Christian.
Paul was not ashamed of the gospel, even at the cost of life or limb, because “It IS the power of God for salvation” and “In it THE righteousness of God is revealed”. (Romans 1:16, 17) Only by telling folks the good news about what Jesus has already done is the “power of God” (creative power) released to impart faith and repentance and to give everlasting life to a dead man. In the story of Jesus, and there alone, is the sinner introduced to the Righteousness of God whose name is Jesus. Those who believe the message and trust His claims are “made” righteous and condemnation flees forever.
Law (good deeds, rule keeping, religious activity, etc.) kills, but the breath of God (Spirit) gives Life.
May all of us who claim to be gospel preachers and teachers be what we profess in 2009. It is a matter of life and death.
For telling the story of Jesus,