If we’d been present the night these two spoke, if we were first century Jews, we might have seen this moment quite differently than we do now. In some ways it’s like watching two actors in a movie. On this side of the screen we see Nicodemus playing the part of the scholar and powerful politician from Jerusalem. On the other side we see Jesus playing the workingman and evangelist from Nazareth. You know, actors often play roles that are quite different from what they really are. Take Charlie Chaplin, for instance. Chaplin became famous for his role as “the little tramp” dressed in his derby hat, ragged jacket and pants, springy bamboo cane, and oversized clown shoes. In the world of the film, Chaplin’s a homeless tramp. But that’s the world of the film. In the real world, Chaplin was far wealthier than actors who played the rich folk in his films. When Chaplin finished a day’s work, he took off those ragged clothes, put on the best clothes money could buy, settled into his chauffeur-driven car, and rode to his Beverly Hills’ mansion. You see, in real life, the man who played the little tramp was one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood.
Would we have recognized who Jesus really was if we lived in the days of Nicodemus? Could we have seen past his peasant clothes, his country accent, and his fisherman friends? The social chasm between Nicodemus and Jesus must have appeared enormous to Jews of that day. Over here was Nicodemus who had long worn the mantle of power and influence. Jesus, on the other hand, never held political office . . . and yet he was all-powerful. Nicodemus was a wealthy man who enjoyed the privileges that money brings. Jesus was a man of modest means . . . but the cattle on a thousand hills were his. Nicodemus was a scholar who studied scripture with the finest teachers in Jerusalem. Jesus hewed timber, built the framework for houses, and made tables and chairs as well as any man. He was a craftsman . . . who just happened to know everything. Nicodemus examined Jesus’ ministry to protect his people from false teaching. But though Jesus was in Nicodemus’ country, Nicodemus was in Jesus’ world. We see that now, but we couldn’t have seen that then.
John tells us that Nicodemus, this distinguished scholar and ruler, came to see Jesus at night. Why did he come at night and why does John think it’s important enough to mention? Was Nicodemus avoiding the crowds that surrounded Jesus during the day and made access to him almost impossible? Was he timid, fearful that his fellow Pharisees would see him speaking with Jesus?
We don’t know. What we do know is that he came that night, whether to avoid the crowds or the prying eyes of others or because it was the only hour free in his Day-Timer. What’s special about Nicodemus is that he came to Jesus in a different way than other Pharisees. Other Pharisees thought Jesus knew little about the Bible, and what little he knew he didn’t understand. They feared his teaching might mislead the uneducated, so they asked him difficult questions in public to discredit him. They noticed Jesus hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors and miscellaneous sinners, so some doubted his judgment, some doubted his concern for ritual purity, and others doubted his morality. They saw Jesus’ miracles. They couldn’t deny they were real, so they questioned the power behind them. “He performs miracles through the power of the Devil!” they said.
Nicodemus saw the same miracles and believed they must come from God. In
Nicodemus still hadn’t come to any conclusions, so he came that night to find out who Jesus was and what he intended to do. If Jesus was the Messiah, then God would fight for Israel and bring them victory. The Messiah would defeat all his enemies and sit once again on the throne of his father David. If Jesus wasn’t the Messiah . . . well, the results would be catastrophic. If he started a revolution, many, many Jews would needlessly die. Was Jesus the Messiah? Everything depended, not on Jesus’ answer, but on whether or not Nicodemus could understand it, on whether or not he would believe it.
Nicodemus and Jesus asked and said many things that night. These twenty-one verses are just a snippet of their conversation, but they show that it veered off in a direction Nicodemus had not intended. Apparently Jesus didn’t say anything about being the Messiah or not being the Messiah. He kept talking about being born again, the movement of the Spirit, and other theological ideas which seemed unfamiliar even to a learned man like Nicodemus. Tonight, I want to focus on one small part of their theological discussion,
The verse itself divides neatly into two parts. In the first part, Jesus talks about God’s attitude toward the world and his action to save it. In the second part, Jesus talks about our response to God’s action and the result. Let’s take a look at the first part, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” For Nicodemus and Jesus, the existence of God was basic and unquestioned. At that time almost everyone believed in the existence of divine beings, but many Gentiles believed the gods were either indifferent to humans or antagonistic toward them. Something must be done to please them, to win favors from them, or at least keep the gods from harming them. But Jesus reveals something extraordinary about the living God. He reveals that God is passionate about us, that he has the deepest feelings for us that any person can have for another, feelings of love.
Nicodemus knew that God loved the Jewish people. Every child at synagogue school knew that. But notice what Jesus says. God doesn’t love just the Jewish people, he doesn’t love just Americans or Ohioans or Republicans. He loves the world. Even Jesus’ first disciples struggled to understand and believe this. Remember when Jesus told them to go into all the world and preach the gospel, to preach it in Jerusalem, Samaria and the most distant parts of the earth? Well, the early disciples of Jesus thought he meant they were to preach the gospel to Jews in Jerusalem, to Jews in Samaria, and to Jews in the diaspora, Jews scattered throughout the world. They couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea yet that God loves all the world and offers the good news of the gospel to every human. Since moving to Hawaii, I’ve met Christian brothers and sisters from places in the South Pacific I’d never heard of before, places like Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Chuuk, and Palau. Nicodemus didn’t know these people even existed much less that God had feelings for them like he did for the sons and daughters of Abraham. But Jesus knew. He knew God loved the people in Zaire, in Zimbabwe, in Argentina and Brazil, in China, in Burma, and in England and France. Intelligent as Nicodemus was, this truth was hopelessly beyond his grasp. We still struggle to understand and believe it, that God loves all men and women.
In our day, however, the word “love” is like most high-tech stocks: it’s lost its value. Love is a word that comes quickly to the lips, but how much lies behind it? Jesus says God loves the world, but how deep does God’s love for the world really run? So deep, Jesus says, he gave his one and only son to the world. There’s so much that Jesus reveals but at the same time conceals from Nicodemus. Take the word “gave,” for instance. “Gave” is a bland word, the kind of word English teachers replace with vivid verbs. But in hindsight we know the word “gave” concealed slashing whips, a crown of thorns, and crucifixion. Death and sacrifice, the bearing of all our sins were hidden in that word. The tiny word “gave” means all this and more to us as Christians, but that night it remained a riddle to Nicodemus, tantalizing but revealing nothing of its true significance.
But was Jesus aware of all this? Did he know his mission would lead him not to a crown in Jerusalem but to the crown of Golgotha? That’s what the locals in Jerusalem called the Roman site of execution – Golgotha, place of the skull. Jesus had seen Golgotha many years before and knew what part it played in his destiny. Jesus’ death wasn’t the tragic and unforeseen end of a good man, a man cut off in the prime of life, whose purpose in life went unfulfilled. He wasn’t a bewildered man, confused and uncomprehending as he stumbled up Golgotha’s slope. He knew what his cross meant long before he bore it. Look at what he said to Nicodemus in verses fourteen and fifteen of this same chapter: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Almost fifteen centuries before Jesus lived, Moses crafted a bronze snake by God’s instruction and tied it to a pole. Gripping the pole, he waded into a human mass. Most were kneeling or lying on the ground, their eyes wide with fear, their arms stretched imploringly. Venomous snakes had bitten each one, and now the poison was doing its work. Then Moses thrust up the pole and the snake, and all who looked on it lived and didn’t die. “So must I be lifted up,” Jesus said, “that all who believe in me might have eternal life.”
And that leads us to the second part of the verse, the part that talks about our response to God’s action and its result: “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” As we saw earlier, God loves the “world”. Now Jesus uses a related word, one of the most comforting words in the Bible and also one of the most disturbing. It’s the word “whosoever.” Aren’t you glad Jesus said “whosoever?” That means your spouse, your children, your friends; it means you. Believing in Jesus, however, means more than accepting the basic facts of his life, that he grew up in Nazareth, that he was a carpenter who became an evangelist, that he was rejected by the Jewish leaders and crucified by the Romans, even more than believing that he rose from the dead. It means transferring your trust for your eternal destiny from yourself to Jesus, accepting him as your Savior and Lord. It’s comforting to know that “whosoever” includes everyone, whether you’re a millionaire in Kahala or a homeless man on Hotel Street, whether you’re a white man in New Hampshire, or an African-American woman in Houston, whether you’re Chinese or Japanese or Russian, you can become a disciple of Jesus if you will believe in him.
What’s sometimes disturbing, however, is that “whosoever” includes those we might wish God didn’t love: the Cub Scout leader who molested our son, the neighbor who raped our daughter, the drunk driver who crippled our wife. This is not so comforting and more difficult for us to believe. In the early 90s, I read an article in Time magazine about a man who’d been accused of murdering three young boys. The first two were brothers he found playing in a nearby park and, like in every parent’s nightmare, he lured the boys to his home with promises of ice cream and candy. Their bodies were found later in the park; their killer was not. After a year or so, he found another little boy, only eight years old, playing by himself in the same park. After bringing the boy back to his house, the man tied him spread-eagle to his bed and tortured him over and over again. He kept photos of his gruesome work in a family photo album along with a detailed diary. Experienced detectives who later looked at the photo album and read the diary needed psychological counseling they were so disturbed by what they saw and read. After several days, the man tired of tormenting the boy and decided to finish him off. In his diary he wrote that he strangled the boy until he passed out, then gave him mouth-to-mouth to revive him. After the boy regained consciousness, the man choked him again. Over and over he squeezed the life out of that poor, poor boy, only to bring it back again until finally, finally the boy died. What if that had been your little boy? How would you have felt? What would you have done? I was so upset by the article that I took a long drive to cool down. But the next week, Time magazine ran another article that made me even more upset. The writer mentioned that before the trial began, a chaplain visited this same man in jail. The chaplain told him that God loved him, that Jesus died on the cross for him, and that if he would only believe, God would forgive every sin, every sin he had ever committed. According to the article, this child molester, this murderer, bowed his head and accepted Jesus as his personal Savior. Whosoever. I didn’t want to believe it. How could God love such a man? God only knows how much that little boy suffered, and now his tormentor was washed in the blessed blood of the Lamb, part of the family of God, on his way to Beulah Land, his mansion just over the hilltop, singing “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” It seemed wrong, terribly wrong.
But a few days later, the Lord gave me a different perspective. I was reading
Even after becoming a Christian, do you think he could erase the memories? Every time he went to the church in Jerusalem, he faced those he had persecuted, and those he had persecuted faced him. On this side sat a young man whose fiancée fled from Israel with her family. Never, never again would he see her. His hopes for a life together with her, for the children they dreamed of bringing into the world, were gone, all gone. Over here was a woman, a widow, who watched grim-faced men grip rocks and rain them down on her man, breaking bones and ripping flesh. Could she ever forget her husband’s groans or Paul’s face glowing with righteous self-assurance? Coming in from the back was a survivor of those dark days, a middle-aged woman. Sometimes, when Paul was alone, he thought of her when she was still a young lady. Something about her had surprised him, unsettled him. He could still hear her singing, singing, singing songs about Jesus until she couldn’t sing at all, not even gasp. She could only lie taut, her mouth gaping open but not a sound, not a sound. Now her body, bent and twisted, moved like some crazy see-saw. Almost involuntarily, Paul’s eyes followed her as she walked across the floor, her body dipping and bobbing with each step. How could God love a man who committed such unspeakable crimes? But isn’t that what “whosoever” means? Paul wasn’t proud of his past. He knew better than anyone what kind of man he had been, but he also knew that, beyond all human expectations, God loved him and had forgiven him. Do you think you can’t become a Christian, that you’ve done too many things that are wrong? Do you think you’re beyond the reach of His love, that God could never love you? Look at Paul and you’ll know how very wrong you are.
Jesus continues and speaks another hard truth: “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish.” Now, here’s a word that conceals much, the word “perish.” Jesus wasn’t talking about the physical death that all of us must face. He was referring to spiritual death in a place so horrible he said I should pluck out my eye or cut off my hand if either one will lead me there. More than six billion people live in the world, all of us marching toward eternity, all six billion of us with souls that will live beyond the death of our bodies. But more than one possible destiny awaits us. Yes, there’s a heaven to gain, but there’s also a hell to shun. If the gospel is good news, hell is the bad news. God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only son that whosoever believes in him should not perish, should not perish. God created hell and the lake of fire for the devil and his angels. He never intended to send humans there, but after loving you for a lifetime, he will send you there if you refuse to believe in his son, Jesus.
But God gave Jesus to the world, not just so we could avoid hell. He gave his son to us so we could have everlasting life. If you’re like me, you’ve wondered what we’ll do with a life that lasts forever. You’ve wondered what heaven will be like. Sometimes I hear people say they’ll sing Amazing Grace the first million years they’re in heaven. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty boring. Have you noticed how our imaginations run wild when we describe hell? We conjure up images of its torments and hell leaps to life. But when we describe heaven, our imaginations limp. Hell may sound like eternal torment, but heaven sounds like eternal boredom. It’s hard for us to imagine anything about heaven beyond white robes, harps, and hymns sung for centuries. Perhaps it shows how badly sin has twisted our imaginations that we can’t envision the pleasures of perfection.
At the end of the book of Revelation,
Well, eventually Jesus’ and Nicodemus’ conversation came to an end. We don’t know how Nicodemus responded that night to all that Jesus said. We don’t know what he thought as he made his way home, picking his way through dark, narrow streets, or what he mulled over when he turned off the lamp, pressed his head to his pillow, pulled the covers up to his chin, but couldn’t sleep. We do see him, however, in two other places in John’s gospel, and we have good reason to believe that Jesus’ words deeply affected him. In fact, these two passages hint that Nicodemus had become a secret disciple of Jesus. The first passage is found in
The last time we see Nicodemus is in
What was going through Nicodemus’ mind at this moment? As he wound the linen round the battered body of Jesus, as he scooped up handfuls of myrrh and aloes and tucked them between the strips of cloth, did he think back to that night when this chairmaker from Nazareth spoke words which changed the whole course of his life? Did he understand now what Jesus meant when he said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life?”