Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Salvation of Nicodemus

In the Gospel According to John, chapter three, beginning in verse one and continuing through verse 21, is recorded a discourse between Christ and a man called Nicodemus.  This discourse condenses the gospel, giving the most striking exhibition and illustration of truth, and representing especially the fundamental doctrine of regeneration and the evidence of the change that takes place in the “new birth.” From the beginning to the closing verses in this short discourse, it is clear that our Savior regarded regeneration as of central importance to the building of His Church (Matthew 16:18). And those who desire to be members of His Church must follow Him in this regeneration (Matthew 19:28). Without regeneration man cannot possibly be saved. No other religion, doctrine or “Jesus” other than He that is taught here can rid a man of sin and save his soul.

Now let us begin our journey through these wonderful Scriptures that reveals God’s plan of salvation of man through love, truth, mercy and the grace that was brought down from heaven to the cross of Calvary (Ephesians 2:4-9).

“Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with Him.’”

(John 3:1-2 NASU)

It has been surmised by some that this meeting took place in the house of John, and Nicodemus coming to him was a result of Our Lord’s ministry at Jerusalem during the first Passover of His ministry. As indicated in his opening statement, by the use of the word “we,” apparently not only Nicodemus, but some of his colleagues also had seemingly come to have a limited belief in the divine nature of Christ’s mission (John 2:23). His faint-hearted belief corresponded to his timidity of action, which displayed itself in his coming “by night,” lest he should offend some of the other more hostile Jews who did not share in his beliefs.

Now let us consider Nicodemus, a wealthy man of high social standing, a man who had attained to the status of a leader and a teacher of the Law and the Prophets. He was a very religious man who considered himself “on the right track.” But he is a classic case of the “blind leading the blind.” He was a false prophet among a multitude of false prophets who had seated themselves in the “chair of Moses” and held the people of Israel captive to a false sense of security.

By contrast Jesus was a man of low esteem among the religious socialites of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Isaiah prophesied of Him with these words:

“For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.”  

(Isaiah 53:2-3 NAS)

Jesus Himself said,

--“The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”

(Matthew 8:20f NAS)

He went about wearing sandals and a robe, carrying no books and phylacteries, yet teaching with authority and performing miracles of healing with demonstration of great power. His congregation was a people of low social status, such as the poor, the weak, the lame, the blind and the sick.

Nicodemus, being a scholar and teacher of the Law and the writings of the Prophets, should have known Jesus as the Messiah. The Holy Spirit indicates here in this passage that Nicodemus did not have a clue that Jesus was the One spoken of in the Law and the Prophets; he only had a knowledge that came from his intellectual reasoning derived from observing Christ teachings and miracles. The only thing that Nicodemus seem to have going for him was a desire to know more of Jesus. He must have felt that this man Jesus had something more than what he and the others of his class had.

Love is the supreme attribute of God and is the very core and nucleus of His glory. Love is also a state of being, a living life form---or as the Bible declares, “God is love” (1st John 4:8, 16). Thus God is the fountain of love-from this fountain of love flows truth and mercy, and from truth and mercy, grace.

His Son, the living Word of God, is the expression or out-flowing of love, truth, mercy and grace (John 1:14).

Love speaks truth with mercy and gives grace that results in faith, trust and hope. Often we consider it hard to speak the truth to someone. Consider the position that Jesus was in when Nicodemus, a “ruler of the Jews,” came to Him. Jesus could have taken the human approach and hugged this man of high position and respect; kissed him on the cheek; patted him on the back and said to him, you are doing great; just keep up the good works. But would this have saved his soul? Of course not!!

Only truth spoken from a heart of love leads to life for the soul.

In answer to the veiled question that the words of Nicodemus implied, and to convince him of the inadequacy of mere intellectual belief, Christ proclaimed to him the necessity for a spiritual regeneration:

“Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

(John 3:3 NASU)

Note: The Greek adverb translated “again” can also mean “from the beginning”---suggesting a new creation ---and “from above,” that is, from the Holy Spirit of God.

A truth preached without remedy leaves the hearer bewildered, condemned and hopeless. But here Christ teaches truth with remedy. Jesus presents Nicodemus with a shocking truth, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” In this statement Christ informs Nicodemus that regardless of his moral goodness, his social standing, his wealth, his positions as a teacher of Israel, and being of the linage of his “father Abraham,” he was lost and without hope, excluded or shut out from the kingdom of God “unless he be born from the beginning.”

This statement by Christ caused Nicodemus confusion and overwhelmed his intellect because he interpreted the statement in a materialistic sense. This was evidenced by his follow up question.

“Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he’?”

(John 3:4 NASU)

Our Lord, in love and mercy, began to answer his perplexity:

“Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

(John 3:5 NASU)

Nicodemus should have been able to understand this statement, for in the Israelite tradition when a man became a proselyte to their religion he was baptized with water; and, in this baptism, the candidate promised in the most solemn manner to renounce idolatry, to take the God of Israel for his God, and to have his life conformed to the precepts of the divine law. But the water that was used in the baptism was only an emblem of the Holy Spirit. The soul was considered as in a state of defilement, because of past sin: now, just as by that water the body was washed, cleansed, and refreshed, like so, by the influences of the Holy Spirit, the soul was to be purified from its defilement, and strengthened to walk in the way of truth and holiness. Thus the cleansing was not outward but inward; it was not of the body but of the soul and was the work of the Spirit.

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

(John 3:6 NASU)

Here Jesus continues to answer the question ask by Nicodemus: “Can a man enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

By “flesh” is meant, not merely the flesh and blood body, but all that comes into the world by birth -- the entire man, including the soul: yet since “flesh” is here opposed to “spirit,” it plainly denotes humanity in its corrupted, depraved condition-humanity in entire subjection to the law, referred to by the Apostle Paul as “the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2).” Thus our Lord here implies that, were it possible that the flesh be re-born, it would not suffice, for the tree will always be of the nature of the seed that produces it; and “a corrupt tree cannot produce good fruit”  (Matthew 7:18).

“That which is born of Spirit is spirit.” The result of the operation of the Holy Spirit upon the soul of man is an impartation of a divine nature, of the same moral attributes as His own (Galatians 5:22-23).

Just as God is the real agent in the birth of the body, so also is He the Creator of the new spirit of man. The kingdom of God is spiritual and holy; and that which is born of the Spirit resembles the Spirit or he who is begotten of the word (seed) of God is in the image of God. Therefore this spiritual regeneration is essentially necessary, to prepare the soul for a holy and spiritual kingdom.

Christ continues,

“Do not be amazed that I said to you, ’You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit’.”

(John 3:7-8 NASU)

The manner in which the Holy Spirit effects this new birth, though it is incomprehensible to man, men should not suppose it, on these grounds, to be impossible. Like the wind, the Spirit moves in many directions, we hear its sound, perceive its works in the motion of the trees, the drying of the earth, the waves on the water, etc., and feel it’s breeze in our face, but we cannot discern its cause, we can only discern its effects; we only know that it exists by the effects which it produces: like so is everyone who is born of the Spirit: the effects are as discernible and as sensible as those of the wind; but men cannot see the Spirit. But he who is born of God knows that he is thus born: the Spirit Himself, bears witness with his spirit, that he is born of God (Rom 8:16); for, he that believes has the witness in himself, (1st John 4:13; 5:10; Galatians 4:6). And so does this Spirit work in and by him that others, though they do not see the principle, can easily appraise the change produced; for whatsoever is born of God over comes the world, (1st John 5:4).

“Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?  Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things’?”

(John 3:9-10 NASU)

Since such experience had not yet been his, Nicodemus still remained unenlightened (verse 9). Christ therefore condemned such blindness in one who professed to be a teacher of spiritual things.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.”  

(John 3:11-13 NASU)

As He continues our Lord uses the plural, “we speak” and “our testimony,” as no doubt Himself only is intended-probably in emphatic contrast with the opening words of Nicodemus---“Rabbi, we know.” Christ speaks of His absolute knowledge and relationship to God the Father, which “the only begotten Son in the bosom of the Father” claims as exclusively His own (John 1:18). He emphasized the reality in His own life of those truths that He had been expounding (verse 11).

“And you do not accept our testimony” – Again we point to Nicodemus’ opening statement, “Rabbi, we know,” the word “we” no doubt referring to himself and the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin to which he belonged and here Christ, in using the word “you,” is addressing Nicodemus and his religious class.

With this, He returned to the problem underlying the first statement of Nicodemus. If, after Christ had illustrated this new birth by a most expressive metaphor taken from earthly things, and Nicodemus still does not understand and believe; how can he believe, should Christ tell him of heavenly things, where earthly images and illustrations cannot be used. Or, if he, a teacher of Israel, does not understand the nature of such an earthly thing, as the symbolism of water baptism, practiced every day in the initiation of proselytes, how will he understand heavenly things? If he cannot understand these things how can he believe in the “new birth,” which, though coming from above, is yet realized in this world, how can he hope to understand “heavenly things,” i.e. the deeper mysteries of God’s purpose in sending Christ into the world (verse 12).

No man is qualified to speak of heavenly things. To speak of those things requires intimate acquaintance with them and demands that he has seen them; and as no one has ascended into heaven and returned, so no one is qualified to speak of them but He who came down from heaven; Christ himself and He alone (verse 13).

With this He turns to yet another metaphor,

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up;

(John 3:14 NASU).”

This is another event that Nicodemus should be familiar with for it is recorded in the Scriptures as follows:

“Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. And the people spoke against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.’ And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us.’ And Moses interceded for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live

(Numbers 21:4-8 NAS).’”

There is something very unique in the metaphor that our Lord is using here. The crafted “fiery serpent” mounted on the end of a standard would be symbolic of the thing that had caused their impending death now being dead. Thus it is written that among the Israelites, the brazen serpent was considered a type of the resurrection, as though through looking upon it, by the command of God, the dying lived; therefore he is effectively raised from the dead.

Now Jesus makes the comparison,

“that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.”

(John 3:14-15 NAS)

In the Garden of Eden the serpent brought the sting of death upon man through sin (Genesis 3).

On the cross of Calvary Jesus would die in man’s stead, thereby removing the condemnation of the Law (Romans 8:1-2; 1st Corinthians 15:56-57) and defeating the serpent.

Thus, by the command of God, all who believe in “the Son of Man” and His work on the cross would be effectively raised from the dead.

This is the message to Nicodemus and to those who would read this account: Men are dying because of sin, as the serpent was raised up, so shall the Christ be lifted up: as they who were stung by the fiery serpents were restored by looking up to the brazen serpent, in the same manner men who are sin sick and dying are healed and effectively raised from the dead, by looking up to and believing in Christ crucified; thus His death becomes, to such men, resurrection life.

Christ has so graciously told Nicodemus truth concerning the condition of his soul and has given him the remedy in the new birth. Now He tells him from whence flows this wonderful grace.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

(John 3:16 NASU)

Here Jesus utters the words that are the heart and soul of the gospel. All that is written from Genesis to the book of Revelations is centered on this one verse revealing the heart of a loving Father; and Nicodemus was privileged to hear it from the lips of the One who was to express that love in the ultimate sacrifice on the cross. What a blessing it must be to sit and look into the soft, gentle eyes of the Christ and hear the words of the love, mercy and grace that brought such a great salvation to a undeserving, lost and dying world. And all he has to do is believe!! How could he turn away without falling at His feet to worship Him?

But to believe and worship Christ would mean he would have to give up Judaism, admit his error, give up his position as a teacher: And what about the Sanhedrin and his honor among men; and the possibility of losing his life at the hands of the hostile Jews? Could all these become invisible to Nicodemus in the brightness of this Sun of righteousness seen rising on “the world” with healing in His wings!

Christ reveals some more startling news to Nicodemus,

“For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”

(John 3:17 NASU)

It was the doctrine of the Jewish leaders, and most likely Nicodemus held to it, that the Gentiles, whom they often term the world, or the nations of the world, were to be destroyed in the days of the Messiah. Christ corrects this false notion; and teaches here a contrary doctrine. God, by giving His Son, and announcing His purpose in giving Him, shows that He purposes the salvation, not the destruction, of the world-the Gentile people: nevertheless, those who will not receive the salvation He had provided for them, whether Jews or Gentiles, will perish; for this plain reason, there is but one remedy, and they refuse to apply it (John 14:6).

“He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”

(John 3:18 NASU)

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us (Ephesians 2:4 NASU),” provides a way to be delivered from death to eternal life in His Son Jesus. He accepts the death of His Son in man’s stead as a satisfaction for man’s sin debt, and “he who believes,” he who places his trust in that offering for salvation, “is not judged;” for the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” sets the believer free, through regeneration, from the judgment of the “law of sin and death (Romans 8:1-8 w/emphasis on v. 4).” But if he does not believe he rejects God’s offer and “insults the Spirit of grace” and remains under the judgment of “the law of sin and death.”

“This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”

(John 3:19-20 NASU)

Light often denotes instruction, teaching, and doctrines of God’s truth that those who receive it may be properly instructed in the ways of holiness. All the instruction that God gives us by way of revelation may thus be called light; but this word here is used especially to denote the Christ, who is often spoken of as “the Light” (See Isaiah 60:1; 9:2; Matthew 4:16; John 1:4). It is no doubt that it is to Himself as the light to which Jesus refers to here.

Darkness is the emblem of ignorance, iniquity, error, superstition, myths, fables and lies-whatever opposes truth. By the sin nature of Adam men are born sinners and desire the fleshly pleasures of darkness more than they do light; because of the depravity of their mind they are better pleased with error than truth, with sin than holiness, with ways of Satan than Christ. They reject truth because it exposes the ugliness of their sin, reveals to them their ultimate punishment, and destroys their comfort zone.

Our Lord closes His discourse with Nicodemus with these words,

But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”

(John 3:21 NASU)

He who practices truth practices righteousness and “the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous;” (1st John 3:7 NASU). And the one who is righteous comes to the Light that his deeds may be clearly seen as being the work of God. For it is written, “--- we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10 NASU).

With the words of Jesus weighing heavy on his mind and His love tugging at his heart Nicodemus apparently leaves the presents of the Christ to return home and to Judaism. Even though the discourse did not show any evidence of a change of heart at the time, Christ words were not without their effect upon Nicodemus. The effects of the Gospel began to surface ever so slightly at the Feast of Tabernacles. While the Sanhedrin was enraged at Christ’s proclamation of Himself as the “living water” (John 7:37-38), Nicodemus was emboldened to stand up in His defense. Yet here also he showed his timidity and reluctance. He made no personal testimony of his faith in Christ, but choose rather to defend Him on a point of Jewish law (John 7:50-52).

At Christ burial, about three years after their first meeting, Nicodemus made a public profession of his being of the following of Christ. His faith in Christ strengthened him to make an open act of reverence; from his wealth he provided the “mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundreds pounds,” with which the body of Jesus was wrapped (John 19:39).

“The Gospel of Nicodemus and other apocryphal works record that Nicodemus gave evidence in favor of Christ at the trial before Pilate, that he was later deprived of office and banished from Jerusalem by the hostile Jews, and that he was baptized by Peter and John. It has been written that his remains were found in a common grave along with those of Gamaliel and Stephen (ISBE).”

Even without the evidence of the “Gospel of Nicodemus” and the other “questionable” works that are recorded, the account of the Holy Scriptures stands along as a great testimony to the power of the Gospel (Romans 1:16). Nicodemus came to Jesus walking in darkness and left with words of life. The manner, in which the Gospel narrative traces the overcoming of his fear of the Jews and his willingness to risk all, that he might reverence Christ, is in itself, a beautiful illustration of the working of the Holy Spirit, and of how belief in the Son of Man is truly a new birth, and the entrance into eternal life.

And now we exhort every reader, as in the presence of God, and in view of the judgment-seat of Christ, solemnly to ask whether they have experienced this change? Whether they know by experience what it is to be born of “water and the Spirit?’ If they do they will be saved. If not, they remain condemned and will not find rest for their soul.


James C Sanford

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