The Confused Pharisee

The third chapter of John contains one of my favorite tales in the Bible. Nicodemus was a man who had no clue, but yet desired clarity and eventually found it. Though this is not how my Jesus story goes, I feel a sort of sympathy for Nicodemus’ plight. He was old school; he did not understand that even the oldest of dogs can learn new tricks with the help of God.

I can relate to Nicodemus’ desire to understand, though. I too clamor for clarity. Thankfully, I am a little more open to whatever truth is presented than Nicodemus was.

In Jesus’ day, religious Jews were divided into a few different sects. The Pharisees were the “separatist” sect that wanted Jews to return to a stricter reading of the Law. The best lesson we can learn from the Pharisees, I think, is that loyalty to the truth sometimes produces pride and hypocrisy, which of course has the tendency to separate. There are ways for God’s laws to be enforced while still upholding the number one law to love.

Chapter 3 begins under the cloak of darkness. A wealthy Pharisee, Nicodemus, comes to visit Jesus. Why at night? Possibly because he did not want to catch heat from the other Jews, or maybe because Jesus was always surrounded by people during the day and Nicodemus knew his questions required Jesus’ full attention.

Immediately, Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus comes from God (verse 2) by calling Him “Rabbi.” Jesus was not a rabbi, because He did not go through the schooling, but Nicodemus respectfully gives him this title, because he can see that Jesus‘ teachings and miracles are real.

And immediately, Jesus lets Nicodemus know that acknowledging Jesus’ divine power is not enough to become a part of God’s Kingdom (verse 3). According to Jesus, one must be born again - reformed and renewed in mind and spirit by the one and only true God.

“The Message” states this so beautifully:

“When you look at a baby, it is just that; a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you cannot see and touch - the Spirit.”

Do you acknowledge Jesus’ divine power? If so, have you been reborn? I do not mean have you made changes within yourself to stop sinning. I mean, have you allowed God to transform and renew your mind, body and spirit?

I must admit, as I typed the words “acknowledging Jesus’ divine power is not enough,” I felt a tinge of guilt. Over the last six years, I have always acknowledged Jesus’ divine power, but only intermittently have I allowed God to reform and renew my mind.

The concept of a rebirth had never been introduced to Nicodemus. As a prominent Jewish religious leader, it never occurred to him that he was not already a shoe-in for Heaven. He was religious, wealthy, had the “right” ethnicity, and was powerful, but Jesus says to him, “None of that matters. All you need is to be born again.”

Jesus, thankfully, goes straight to our hearts, directly to our innermost thoughts (see Matthew 9:4 and John 1:47-51). He brings to the surface our confusion and gives us the sober truth, the knowledge necessary to make informed decisions.

If you are not getting the answer to prayer that you are looking for, it is possible that Jesus is reading your thoughts, not listening to your words.
In verse 5, Jesus catches our attention with the phrase “Truly, truly” (or “Verily, verily” or “I tell you the truth” depending on your translation). This phrase always means that the hearer of Jesus’ words has misunderstood and it is imperative that they overcome that before the next step of faith is introduced.

In Nicodemus’ case, he wanted Jesus to simply lead him further along the good path he was already on. Jesus, however, bluntly told Nicodemus that he actually wasn’t even on the right path.

“Water” in verse 5 refers to the Word of God. Thus, a man is “born again” when God gives new birth through the Bible’s Words and the mysterious working of His Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 1:21 and Titus 3:5)

“Flesh is flesh” in verse 6 refers to the fallen human nature that is passed on from generation to generation. This sinful nature can be conquered with a spiritual rebirth that creates within us a new self. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

The phrase “born again” is a metaphor that shows the individual has changed so much it is as if he were created all over again. It is not a human achievement. How often have we set a New Year’s resolution only to fail? True change comes from God above.

2 Corinthians 5:17, Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10 are some verses that talk about the “new self.” We are a new person when we receive Christ through the Holy Spirit into the innermost part of our being. He makes us alive (Ephesians 2:1-5). There are new emotions, new attitudes, new opinions, and new willpowers - even new days. Biblical truths previously foreign become clear and we realize we belong to God. He is for us and we are for Him. This new creation takes place when the Holy Spirit (who might have previously been with us, influencing us from the outside) now enters our body and permanently indwells our being. The experience of new birth is often described as “receiving the Holy Spirit into your heart,” but truly, the source and fulfillment cannot be explained. Verse 8 tells us that this new birth is a beautiful divine mystery that is a gift to each of God’s children, “…like the wind, you do not know where it comes from or where it is going…”

Just like Nicodemus in verse 9, we respond negatively to far-fetched ideas. We are not amazed by simple truths, but instead refuse to lovingly embrace the wonderful, mysterious ways of the Trinity. We resort to science to disprove the logistical impossibility of a loving Creator.

At this point (verse 10), Jesus seems to throw his hands up. It is as if He says, “Look, Rabbi, you came up to me. Do not waste my time with your questions if you are just going to refuse to listen to my answers. I have SEEN Heaven! (verse 13) Do you think I would bother coming to Earth if Heaven was not worth it?!!”

Verse 14 and 15 refer to Numbers 21:4-9 when the people traveling with Moses were (once again) grumbling and disbelieving in their mission. To punish their disbelief God sent serpents to bite them. Once they realized their wrong-doing, God had Moses put a bronze serpent and hung it on a high pole, for all to see. Anyone who chose to look upon the serpent was healed.

Like the grumblers in the desert, we too are saved when we recognize that Jesus Christ, hung on a cross, heals our wounds. The wages of sin is death (Romans) and all fall short and sin. But God so loved the human race that He devised a solution.

He sent His perfect, beautiful only son to die an unearned death so that our sins are forever reconciled and we may spend eternity with Him. (John 3:16)

Merely gazing upon the snake with belief that the snake could heal is what saved the people in the desert. When we gaze in faith at Jesus bearing both our sin and it’s due punishment, so too, we “do not perish.”

Jesus warns people against a real hell more than He speaks of the glory of Heaven. In my opinion, there is indeed a hell - a life everlasting without the love, grace and peace of God. I do not know if there is a horned man with a pitchfork running the place. I do know that Revelation 20:14-15 calls it a second death. I do not know about you, but one death is more than enough for me.

I recently explained to my five-year-old that those who chose to not believe in Jesus will never be able to be in Heaven with Him. That like the sadness and loneliness and fear that a little boy feels when forgotten at school is how nonbelievers will feel for eternity. Regardless of what the actual place called Hell is like, I know that I chose Heaven because I never want to be without the love of my Father.

Verses 17 and 18 often get overlooked by the much more popular 3:16, but I think they deserve an in-depth look.

“The Message” reads:
“God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending His Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help.”

Men judge themselves! Those who believe in Him are never judged. Those who chose to reject Him have long-since been judged.

Ever notice how people are so quick to shout out “Don’t judge me!” That is our inherent guilt judging OURSELVES but being unable to face the shame that sin brings.

Jesus reiterates this point in verses 19-21. He says, “Light came into the world, and like cockroaches, men and women scattered for the darkness. Why? Because everyone who chooses to sin is addicted to denial and delusion, hates light and refuses to come near it in fear that their evil deeds will be exposed. But those who chose to live in truth welcome the light because then his deeds are added to God’s glory.”

Verses 18-20 force us to make a choice. To chose to deny Jesus results inevitably to live and die under condemnation. To choose condemnation shows a greater love for darkness than light. It means you prefer sin and rebellion to truth, goodness and holiness.

God’s redemption is available to all. Unfortunately, some accept and do not, but God’s purpose was to redeem. (1 Timothy 4:10)

Verse 21 implies, however, that choosing to believe in Chris also has responsibilities. It means you believe He is divine and human. You believe He died on the cross for your sins. It means you believe that only through Chris do you have access to God, to Heaven, to eternal life. It also means that you will live for God as you were created to as outlined in Scripture. It means you know and do bring your sins to light - you know that however ensnared in darkness you are, He can deliver you.

John 3:1-21 does not leave us with a positive opinion of Nicodemus’ hopes for passing through the grand pearly gates. But Jesus provides the ultimate encouragement in verse 21, “Take courage. You shall find light and life in Me.”

I once read an endearing biographical description of Nicodemus:

“Although he possessed much of the honor and wealth this world can offer, undoubtedly having lived a good morally upright life, he was unsatisfied…living in a kind of spiritual darkness, he came in the dark for Jesus to give him light. It was indeed a miracle of grace that Nicodemus, who belonged to a group so strongly prejudiced against Jesus, should come at all. A greater miracle of grace lies in the fact that ultimately this conversation resulted in the conversion of Nicodemus and an increasingly bold confession of his faith in Jesus as the Son of God.”

I, too, have been “unsatisfied” the majority of my life. Thankfully, God is gracious and good and has helped me to find a greater fulfillment than I ever thought possible. I pray today that you, too, can find fulfillment in the love and peace and joy of our Lord.

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