To kick off the new year, we’re exploring one of my favorite “Christ Encounters” in the Gospels — Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Here’s how the clandestine story begins:
There was a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who was a Pharisee. After dark one evening, he came to speak with Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:1-3)
One of the most shocking aspects of this exchange is that Nicodemus is a very religious, devout man. He is called “a Pharisee”, a member of the ruling council (Sanhedrin), and “a teacher of Israel.” The Pharisees were the most remarkable, scrupulously religious adherents to the Jewish Scriptures. Pharisees were, in the words of Barclay, “those who had separated themselves from all ordinary life in order to keep every detail of the law of the scribes” (123). His entire life’s purpose revolved around honoring God, understanding the Scriptures, and observing the appropriate religious customs and rituals.
He was very religious.
But he will soon find out in his exchange with Jesus that religion isn’t enough. Nicodemus was still somehow in the dark. This is the main significance behind the author’s telling us that Nicodemus came to Jesus “at night.” The darkness of night symbolizes the darkness in Nicodemus’s unregenerate mind and soul.
It’s often been said that religion is man’s attempt to reach up to God by good deeds and religious observances; and Christianity is the story of God mercifully reaching down to us in Christ. Nicodemus is busy with many religious tasks and obligations. Had he lived today, he would have perfect church attendance, possibly be the chair of the church counsel, living a morally upright life as a responsible citizen with a good standing among his neighbors and friends.
But he is still spiritually dead — blind to the things of God (cf. 2 Cor. 4). “As Barclay puts it: “Nicodemus was a puzzled man, a man with many honors and yet still lacking in his life. He came to Jesus for a talk so that somehow in the darkness of night he might find light” (124). All of us, religious or not, must make this same passage from spiritual darkness into the light of a New Life in Christ.
Have you come into the light? Have your eyes been opened to the truth of the Gospel? Have you been born again from above?
Oh, LORD, breath your Holy Spirit upon all the religious people in our churches who have yet to be born again from above. Rescue us from our tendencies to try to be religious enough to please you, and help us to receive your gift of New Birth as we surrender our lives to you. Amen.