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March 9, 2023

Nicodemus: You Can Be Born Again And Again

Nicodemus: You Can be Born Again and Again | Casey Cole

Casey Cole

Hello, Grace. Thank you so much for having me. I wish I could take credit for all of Chris’ formation. You're so blessed to have him here, and I'm so thankful to be here with you. This is my first time in Sarasota. I was convinced that God was calling me to move here after visiting for about five minutes, but then I did see the dead fish on the beach. So, now I'm praying about it. It is my honor to open the scriptures with you tonight. I grew up as a church kid, and I love the Bible. I love going to church. In fact, I went to a Christian high school, growing up, and there was a superlative section. The most athletic, the most likely to be successful, the best dressed, and then there was something like “most Jesus nerd,” and it was me. So, this is the kind of thing that really gets me excited. I grew up knowing a lot about the Bible, and I just want to tell you that it just never gets old. It just never gets old to me.

So, tonight, in preparation, thinking what I wanted to bring to you, for you, from our scriptures, I thought about a lesser-known character in the text. A guy named Nicodemus. Have you heard about him? Do you know about him? Anyone? Oh, he got more of — you like him? Do you want to preach this sermon, because I will let you.

Nicodemus is a guy in the scripture that doesn't get much page time. He shows up exactly three times in the Gospel of John. Now, sometimes he gets a bad rap, so here's what we're going to do tonight. We're going to take a look at those three times in the book of John that Nicodemus has a speaking part, if you will, and here's what I hope we can see. I'll just give it all away, right up front. What I hope we can see, in the three instances of Nicodemus with Jesus, is some growth. That's what I think we find in his story that stretches the Gospel of John. So, let's talk about Nicodemus first, before we do open the scriptures. His name actually comes from the same Greek word that we get the brand name “Nike.” That means “victory.” So, Nicodemus means “conqueror, overcomer, victorious one.”

Nicodemus is a smart guy. He is what's called, in the scripture, a Pharisee, and he's a member of what's called the Sanhedrin. So, he is a guy in ancient Israel who has a lot of authority, and who has a lot of knowledge. He's considered one of the rulers of the Jewish people. Now, you have to remember about the time of Christ. The Jewish people, at the time of Christ, are not really their own nation anymore. They've had a nation, they've had a king, and they've been conquered time and time again. So, at the time of Christ, Rome is occupying Israel. So, you have the leadership or the government, the authority of Rome, but under that, then, they're allowed to have religious leadership and counsel.

So, Nicodemus is one of those guys. He’s important. Let's turn, first, to the first passage of scripture we're going to look at. We’ll break it into a couple parts in John 3. Nicodemus is actually the guy that gets Jesus to say John 3:16, the most popular Bible verse, I'm sure, in the whole world. It's that conversation that we're headed to, in this passage. So, let's take a look at the scripture.

John 3:1: “Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night…” — that's going to be important — “…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.’

“Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’

“‘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!’”

I love that. We know that Nicodemus was a smart man, so I always wonder, in that last line in the previous passage, is he kind of sassing Jesus? Is he asking if Jesus is literal? I like that. You know, what Nicodemus is probably most known for is that he comes to Jesus at night. It's like he sets up a secret meeting. I was teaching, one time, in a college class, and mentioned how he came to Jesus at night, and a student asked me, “Well, is that because he had to meet with Him after he got off work?”

Which I thought was a very good question. As a person who has worked lots of nine-to-fives, I get that. I appreciate Jesus making time for me after the day shift. So, he probably has some other reason to come at night. Sometimes it's odd to talk about this, but we have to recognize that the gospels give us a pretty clear picture that Jesus didn't just get famous. He kind of became infamous. Not everybody was a big fan of Jesus, specifically within that ruling council that Nicodemus was a part of. So, I could just imagine that Nicodemus is like, “I want to meet with this guy, but maybe I don't want anybody to know.”

I wonder if, maybe, that bears some type of resonance with more of us than we would like to admit. There are some of us, I would be willing to admit, that sometimes to be seen publicly with Jesus is worrisome. There are probably others of us, at certain times, where we didn't want to be so public with Jesus, or our relationship with Him, not because we were ashamed of Him and what He stood for, but maybe because we were worried about ourselves. There's something about ourselves that we want to keep in the dark, so we hide when we meet with Jesus. But this is so fascinating that he comes at night, and Jesus meets with him there. Jesus doesn't make this demand.

“No, my office hours are in the morning now. Call the secretary, make an appointment, and get it right.”

Jesus does meet with him at night. I think that's important to see that Jesus meets him in the darkness where he is, but then the conversation is going to pull Nicodemus into the light. Jesus can be kind of blunt like that, sometimes. It's interesting, also, in our passage, what Nicodemus says first about Jesus. He says “we,” so he is not just speaking for himself. We. The group I'm a part of. That’s how he knows Jesus. It’s what his group says.

He says, “We know that you're a good teacher who does good signs.”

Now, the signs are very important. That's the Bible word for “miracles,” right? So, Jesus gets famous because He can do really cool things. My favorite of all is multiply food. So, if anybody's multiplying food, you know that the masses are showing up. Actually, in John 6, tons and tons of people will be fed by Jesus, and when He starts talking to them, they hit the road. They were just there for the signs. So, we can tell a difference when Nicodemus says, “Hey, we know that You do these cool signs, Jesus,” but then Jesus, when He replies to Nicodemus, is not going to talk about those miracles. He's going to get at something a little different.

So, if we keep reading in John 3, we have, here, “Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear it sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’

“‘How can this be?’ Nicodemus asked.”

Which I feel like is a fair question, but Jesus is kind of blunt here.

He says, “‘You are Israel's teacher, and do you not understand these things?’”

That one hurts me. I've been a theologian for a long time, I make my living studying the scriptures, and I think that Jesus response is kind of hard to understand. So, this is where we get that phrase that to believe in Jesus is to be born again. Now, the fun thing about this phrase, “Born again,” is it literally means, in Greek, “From above.” To be born from above. So, some Bibles translate it that way. So, Jesus has this idea that must be born from above. You must be born again. I think Nicodemus is fair to ask, “What in the world does that mean?”

I like to think about it in terms of that “from above, from the start, something new.” Jesus is saying, “You’ve got to take it from the top. You’ve got to start again. It's not enough just to add something on. Yeah, I'm a good teacher. I have cool signs. No, we're going all the way back to everything where it starts.“

I think Nicodemus has a hard time with this because it's hard to begin again. I don't know if you've ever had that life experience where you have to start over. That can be kind of rough. I think Nicodemus senses that tension. If we keep going, he'll say this.

Jesus, after the John 3:16 quote, says, “‘Whoever believes in him [the Son of God] is not condemned,’”

We could just go home, right now, because that's good enough church for one night. Whoever believes in the Son of God is not condemned. Have a good evening.

“…but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.’”

That's rough. That's really rough. That's the not pretty part.

Jesus will go on to say, “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear….”

That’s probably what Nicodemus was struggling with.

“…that their deeds will be exposed. 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.”

I think Jesus is being blunt here, again, to Nicodemus, poking at him for coming at night, although not in such a specific way. So, this is the first conversation that we see Jesus and Nicodemus have, and you just have to wonder — I wish the Bible would tell us some more — after this conversation, then what? Does Nicodemus go home and tell his wife, “You’re not going to believe this conversation I just had?”

Does he mull this over in his head? Does he ponder it in his heart like the scripture says about Mary? Does he kind of follow Jesus around, look for these signs, and try to understand as he searches scriptures? I would love to know what he goes home and thinks about this night.

Now, we won't hear again from Nicodemus in the Gospel of John until Jesus has ruffled enough feathers that they're thinking about arresting Him. He has gotten under the skin of enough people, turned up enough stones, and caused enough problems for people who like things to stay the way they are that now there's talk.

“Okay, what are we going to do about this guy?”

So, that council that Nicodemus is a part of, they start talking about this, and they're like, “We have to do something,” and that's the next time we're going to see Nicodemus in the scripture.

But I think we have to raise this big question about his first conversation, and think about the circumstances that Nicodemus met Jesus under. We might ask ourselves this question: What are the circumstances by which we want to meet Jesus? It's worth analyzing in your life. Are there places that are off limits to your spirituality? Is church the only place we want to meet with Jesus? What does it look like to meet with Jesus in our homes and in our workplaces? Are there any places that we make dark in our lives? So, Jesus has talked to him about stepping into the light, and then in the next passage, that's what he's going to do. He's going to become more public with this. So, if we look at John 7, we're going to see Nicodemus have a little bit of growth.

“So the crowd was divided about him [Jesus]. Some even wanted him arrested, but no one laid a hand on him. When the temple guards returned without having arrested Jesus, the leading priests and Pharisees demanded, ‘Why didn't you bring him in?’

“‘We have never heard anyone speak like this,’ the guards responded.

“‘Have you been led astray too?’ the Pharisees mocked. ‘Is there a single one of us rulers or Pharisees who believes in him?’ This foolish crowd follows him, but they are ignorant of the law. God's curse is upon them.’”

That's some strong language. But here's Nicodemus, the leader who had met with Jesus earlier. He speaks up.

“‘Is it legal to convict a man before he is given a hearing?’ He asks. They replied, ‘Are you from Galilee, too? Search the scriptures and see for yourself. No prophet ever comes from Galilee.’”

I think this is so interesting. I wonder what was going on in Nicodemus’ mind. I don't know if you've ever been in a conversation and atmosphere where the crowd's kind of getting out of hand, and you're like, “I don't know if I'm on board with what's about to be decided.”

That's a moment where you have to make a decision. Am I going to act? Am I going to stay silent? Nicodemus speaks up. He's courageous. He says, “Hey, hang on. Wait just one second.”

But it is interesting, as brave as he is in this moment, that he doesn't say something like, “No. Wait. Hold on. I know Him. We're not giving Him a fair chance.”

He doesn't appeal to his relationship with Jesus. He doesn't appeal to his knowledge of Jesus. He doesn't appeal to anything about Jesus at all. He falls back on what he's an expert at, which is the law.

“Hey, is what we're doing due process?”

That's a good question to ask. In fact, Nicodemus had a good point because it wasn't lawful. In fact, what they say here, “No prophet ever comes from Galilee,” — that wasn't actually true. The smart people in the room had it wrong. That's scary to me. So, Nicodemus says, “Hey, wait. I don't know,” and the crowd does to him what they often do to us when they don't like what we have to say. Instead of correcting him, arguing him, or debating him, they just slam him.

“Oh, must be from Galilee, too.”

They just criticize when they can't argue. I think it's interesting that they say this about Galilee.

“Are you from Galilee, too?”

That would've been a way of putting Nicodemus down. Now, what's interesting that we know from Church history — this is so fun. This is why studying Church history is so cool. After Jesus is raised from the dead, He has what's called the Great Commission, and He sends the disciples to spread the Gospel over the world, when that happens, they are in Galilee when He gives them the call. So, after the ascension of Christ, when He leaves and the disciples head out for their mission of God in the world, they used the city of Galilee as a place to remember their calling, their Great Commission. So, here, what was a slam on Nicodemus — “Weren't you from Galilee?” — actually becomes a saying for the disciples to encourage each other to remember the call.

“Hey, aren't you from Galilee?”

Which was their way of reminding each other, “Weren't you there when He called us? Weren't you one who was commissioned?”

I love to see how that gets flipped. Instead of being a slam, it actually reminds them of the love of God that called them and gave them purpose to their life. So, I think this instance when he speaks up and wants a fair trial for Jesus, that makes us ask two big questions of ourselves. Number one would be this: Are we giving Jesus a fair shot? Are we rushing to conclude? It is so easy to do, especially when we live in a world where there's a lot of pop culture about Jesus, there are a lot of different opinions about Jesus, there are a lot of things that get said about Jesus, the Church, and what God is like. So, what I have come to find through all of my study, through all of every group I've ever worked with, all the theology that can be done, all the opening of the scriptures, I know one thing more than anything, and it's this: What you think about God is the most important thing about you. What you think God is like is the most important thing about you. Not necessarily what you think about church, not what you think about the way you were raised, not what you think about your politics, not what you think about economics. What you think about God, even if we don't recognize it at first, is going to bleed into every other decision in our lives, even if unconsciously. So, it's worth asking ourselves, “Are we giving Jesus a fair shot?”

It might also be worth asking ourselves, if we put ourselves in a different position of the story, another question: “Are we giving Jesus-followers a fair shot?”

I don't know if you know this, I don't know if you're experiencing this — I hope not, but I'm in some circles in the world where it has become very cool to slam the Church. It is without doubt that institutions have hurt people, and that people get hurt by pastors sometimes. It is without doubt, and we don't want to make light of that. But there's something in this, I think, that calls us to listen to each other. Are we giving Jesus-followers a fair shot? The ones that don't believe we do, the ones that have something different than we do, are we giving them a fair shot? I think Nicodemus makes us ask that.

Alright. So, we just have one more instance of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John. This will be the last one, and it'll be after the crucifixion. I think it's interesting that we kind of know Nicodemus as the one who came by night. It's kind of like a bad thing.

“Oh, he wasn't brave at first.”

But then we saw that he just spoke up a little. Now, after the crucifixion, I think we're going to see something that is a really big change, something I would hope we would remember Nicodemus by instead of his covering for night. Let's look at John 19.

“After the death of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a secret disciple of Jesus because he feared the Jewish leaders, asked Pilate for permission to take down Jesus' body. When Pilate gave permission, Joseph came and took the body away. With him came Nicodemus, the man who had come to Jesus at night. He brought about seventy-five pounds of perfumed ointment made from myrrh and aloes. Following Jewish burial custom, they wrapped Jesus body with the spices and long sheets of linen cloth.”

Nicodemus is the guy who got Jesus ready for the grave, and Nicodemus probably didn't know that, in doing that, He was getting Jesus ready for the resurrection. If you're real spiritual, that'll speak to you. Sometimes we are preparing for deaths in our lives, that something is coming to an end, and we're not expecting that new life is just around the corner. You’ve got to think what kind of lavishness this must have taken from Nicodemus. It’s so interesting that he who was told in darkness, “You must be born from above,” is now in darkness again, taking death down. So, people have often wondered, “Well, do you think Nicodemus did this out of regret? He wasn't so brave as he should have been, so he feels like now he has to.”

I don't think that's it, and here’s why. Some translations will say that he had seventy-five pounds of oil. Some will say he had a hundred. Okay? Look, that's a lot of pounds of anything. I mean, think about a five-pound bag of sugar. Multiply that. He comes toting all of this ointment, and that's not what was required for Jewish burial. When they would prepare a body for burial, what was standard was five pounds of ointment. But if they buried a king, then it would be seventy-five to a hundred pounds. So, I think Nicodemus is making a statement with what he brings to Jesus. He has figured it out. It might have taken him this long, we don't know, but he has figured out, “Okay, this is not just some teacher, this is not just some cool guy who can do all the cool miracles, but this is who we were expecting. This is the Messiah we were waiting for. This is the long-expected King.”

I think how interesting it is that he who wasn't sure about Jesus in the beginning, and had to come in darkness, finds himself in the darkness of Christ, in the death of Christ, in the grave of Christ. I think, maybe, that should give us hope, us people who, maybe, have some experience in the darkness. There's something about when we let Jesus meet us in our darkness, whatever that might be, it might make us those type of people who are willing to help when someone else's darkness comes along. He had already been in the darkness with Jesus, so he's able to go into the grave with Him, as well.

So, let's ask some questions. What does this mean for us? I think seeing this progress, this process that Nicodemus goes through, might be worth us asking, “What type of changes happen, or what changes when we see Jesus for who He really is? What happens when we make that transition in our life, going from ‘Jesus says cool things, Jesus is nice,’ and we make that move from teacher and miracle worker to King? When we see that Jesus is not just someone who says nice, cool things, but Jesus is someone to be followed. Jesus is someone who gets to be the rule-maker. Jesus is who's in charge.”

That kind of thing isn't just found by the study of the law, but that comes through relationship with Christ.

It might also be worth wondering something that I think is fun, and I want you to just take a minute to imagine this. The scripture doesn't tell us what it was like, but we see him go through these hard things, we see him get the body of Christ ready for burial, and don’t you wish us scripture would've told us what Nicodemus experienced at the resurrection? Just take a moment and imagine. I don't know. What would that have been like? What would he have experienced? I wonder how he found out. I wonder if there was something in him — all that born-again language that Jesus said to him, I wonder if that gave him some kind of hope of resurrection that the disciples just couldn't seem to get.

It might, also, be worth us asking this final question. This is what I want to leave you tonight. We have looked back over the life of one man, as best as we can, from the Gospel of John, and we've seen him progress. It might be good for you to be the type of person who takes a minute to look back over your own life, how you have changed, how your spirituality has progressed, how you've gotten to know Jesus, and how getting to know Jesus has changed you. That would be a worthy thing for us to spend time doing. But I want to flip it, just for a second, and do something I'm not very good at, and that I don't see done a lot in church. Maybe you guys are already good at it here, but what if, instead of thinking about our past, we try to think about the future? Sometimes it's hard to predict, make desires, or set goals in relationships for the future, but I wonder if the story of Nicodemus, the guy who finally figured out what it meant to be born again, can give us some kind of hope. Not just that people can change, not just that we can change, but some type of holy curiosity of what it is going to look like for us, spiritually. I know that I'm the type of person that gets so wrapped up in just trying to handle things that are going on right now, and I am also the type of person that can sometimes get sucked into the past. But what does it look like for us to have this holy curiosity?

“Where is this going? What am I going to learn next? What am I going to be able to do for the Kingdom next?”

I think that Nicodemus would be proud of us for being born, not just again, but again and again and again. Let's pray tonight.

King Jesus, we thank You that You did not stay buried in the grave. As Easter is quickly approaching, we pray, God, that You would renew in us some type of sense of expectation, some type of curiosity, some desire to know You more and more and more, and to know what it means for You to be King. God, we thank You that You met Nicodemus in his darkness. We thank You that you meet us in our darkness. But we thank You that You always call us into the light, that You always call us into what is true, and You’re always seeing us anyway. So, I pray that, tonight, we might take a step not just to look at the past, but to glance towards the future, and to wonder what's next with You. Would You help us, God, to have a holy curiosity of what it means to get to know what You’re like, who You are, and how You can change us? Amen.

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