Wednesday, June 14, 2006

John 3:1-21 (1)

I want to look at the well-known story about the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus found in John 3, because it provides both incredibly simple and extremely complex understandings of how a person is saved. Let me note that a vast majority of this material comes from Vincent Cheung's blog. A link can be found under the links category of this blog. While I have made amendments, I am indebted to his exegesis in publishing this commentary. Now, in order to better appreciate what happens in the conversation, let’s first take a look at the verses that come immediately before chapter 3, since they give us the background against which John presents us with the story.

Starting with chapter 2:23-25: “Now while [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs He was doing and believed in His name [or in Him]. But Jesus would not entrust Himself to them, for He knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for He knew what was in a man.”

Here John tells us that many people have seen the miracles that Jesus did in Jerusalem and so they believe in Him or trust His name. But Jesus does not trust them. He doesn’t entrust Himself to them. Why not? It was because “He knew all men…and He knew what was in a man.” It is with this background that John proceeds to recount several encounters that Jesus experiences with individuals and small groups, and John is showing that the Lord knew the circumstances and hearts and secrets of the people He encountered. He saw their motives and sins and, like a master physician of souls, He would deal with them in ways that precisely addressed each person’s unique condition.

In chapter 3, John gives us the first of these examples: the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. In chapter 4, John tells us about an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman, practically the opposite of Nicodemus. After that, John goes on to relate other incidences to display how Jesus dealt differently with different people, fully aware of their inner-conditions. With that as the context, let’s pray first, and then read and study John 3.

Lord, guide us as we study Your Word, Your Word which became flesh and dwelt among us and dealt with His people with surgical skill to bring them to Himself. Guide us by Your Holy Spirit as we study Jesus, and be glorified by Your work in us. This we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

“1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know You are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs You are doing if God were not with him.’ 3In reply Jesus declared, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again [or born from above].’ 4‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!’ 5Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7You should not be surprised at My saying, ‘You [plural] must be born again [or born from above].’ 8The 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? 11I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13No one has ever gone into heaven except the One who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life [or believes may have eternal life in Him].’ 16‘For God so loved the world that [or God loved the world in this way:] He gave His one and only Son, [or He sent His only begotten Son] that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. 18Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because He has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son [or God’s only begotten Son]. 19This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”

Notice first that John makes a strong connection between 2:25 and 3:1. Right after stating that Jesus “knew what was in a man,” John introduces Nicodemus, and writes, “Now there was a man,” who came to Jesus. Although there is no way for us to know everything about the motives of Nicodemus and the circumstances surrounding his visit, the first verse of this chapter offers us several light-shedding details on the significance of the subsequent verses.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and we don’t need to go spend a lot of time recalling what it meant at that time to be a Pharisee. But from what we read here, and from his later appearances in John’s Gospel, let’s point out that Nicodemus is “better” than the typical Pharisee. But he still was a Pharisee nonetheless. We can also say that Nicodemus was well-respected and highly educated. From John 19:39, we can gather than Nicodemus was wealthy. Furthermore, he was a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, which was headed by the high priest, and had pretty much total jurisdiction over the people. Interestingly, among its powers and duties, the council was responsible to investigate and deal with those whom they suspect to be false prophets and heretics.

John says that Nicodemus came to Jesus… As he is himself a prominent teacher in Israel, surrounded by other prominent teachers and religious leaders, with his distinguished background, education, wealth, and power, it is remarkable that he would come to Jesus at all. What is his reason for coming? In Nicodemus’ two additional appearances in John, he stands on the side of Jesus, so while we cannot say for certain, it does seem that he comes to Jesus without mischievous intent, indeed with genuine respect to learn more about Him and His teaching. In fact, as we’ll see, Nicodemus, unlike many of the Pharisees, does not attribute Jesus’ miracles to the power of the devil. Clearly Nicodemus does not hold the same attitude as these malicious Pharisees. So he is clearly not out to destroy Jesus.

John says that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night… Why at night? Perhaps he, as a Pharisee, is afraid of being seen by others and being associated with Jesus. Although this is possible, it is not clear from the text. John does not give us his reason for coming at night, nor is this the necessary implication derived from anything else in the passage. There is another possible explanation. Rabbis thought that the best time to study and discuss theology was at night when they could read, think, and converse for hours undisturbed. So for one rabbi to visit another at night was apparently a common practice at the time. So we can’t say for sure.

What does Nicodemus say? First, he says, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher from God.” Because he uses the word “we,” some suggest that Nicodemus comes to Jesus as a representative of the Pharisees. But we shouldn’t speculate about the thoughts of other Pharisees toward Jesus. Some suggest a tone of condescending flattery in Nicodemus’ approach to Jesus. However, this is an inference from what the commentators assume about Nicodemus; the text offers no evidence that would support such an interpretation, and thus it is nothing more than speculation. The reality is that we simply don’t know his thoughts regarding or the tone he used in saying what he said. We do know that Nicodemus perceives Jesus’ miracles and says that no one could perform them if God were not with him.

His statement implies a generally positive view about Jesus but falls short of a full appreciation for who Jesus is. Not surprisingly to us, being early in Jesus’ ministry, Nicodemus’ statement fails to reflect an understanding of the heart of Jesus’ mission. From what John says at the end of chapter 2, we can be certain that Jesus knows exactly what is in the heart of Nicodemus, his concerns and motives, what he lacks and what he needs. So the exact condition of Nicodemus remains to be seen from how Jesus interacts with him, from what is coming up in this conversation.

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