Of the Pharisees and Nicodemus
The Pharisees were a group of people who studied the Law, not only the Ten Commandments but all the laws in the first five books of the Bible and the oral laws, the explanations of those laws that had been handed down over time. For a long time, prophets and priests had discussed how the Law applied to them in their day. Their conclusions became the “oral law” the Pharisees studied along with Mosaic Law.
However, over time there was a change. For a long time, the Law had been seen as significant in Israel’s security. Follow the Law and there will be peace in the land. Disregard the Law and there will be a period of exile. They had understood prophecies to describe a coming time of national independence. When this didn’t happen, they stopped focusing on prophecy much, even though prophecy had helped define the oral laws. They no longer discussed how to apply the Law to their lives as much as they discussed it’s ceremonial and ritualistic application. Basically, they didn’t see that God made them righteous, set apart, and that as righteous people who loved their God they would follow certain laws, but rather saw the laws as what made them righteous. If they followed all the laws, they would be righteous, they thought.
Since no one can truly be righteous by their own power, and no one could follow all of the Mosaic Laws and oral laws perfectly (except Jesus, and they would have argued that point!), their discussions changed. If someone shouldn’t work on the Sabbath, what constituted work? Picking up sticks was work, so was starting a fire work, too? Traveling? If traveling on the Sabbath was work, how far could a person walk without the walk being considered a journey? This many miles? From home or from start to end? They determined they could travel only a certain distance from home. So where was home? They determined home was anywhere a person had established personal property (or something like that) so they sent servants ahead with some property when they wanted to make a further journey over the Sabbath. That way, they had established “home” points all along the road and could travel farther than what they’d proscribed in their own definitions of their laws. No wonder Jesus called them hypocrites.
Nicodemus was one of these Pharisees. He came to Jesus by night (John 3) and told him that the Pharisees (or at least some, he said “we”) knew He was a teacher sent from God because of all the miracles Jesus did. I’ve read several commentaries that indicate Nicodemus asked a question, but I don’t see that in the Bible. Jesus did make an odd answer to Nicodemus’s statement that he knew He was a teacher sent from God, though. Jesus said, “Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus’s answer was much like ours would have been. “Huh? That’s impossible! A person can only be born once. How can a man enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time?” Note he didn’t ask what the kingdom of God was. Scholars today might debate that, but Nicodemus must have thought he knew the answer to that part.
Jesus explained, “unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of spirit is Spirit. Don’t be surprised that I say ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it will. People here the sound of it, but they don’t know where it’s from or where it’s going. That’s how it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus didn’t understand. Jesus said, “You’re a teacher of Israel, and you don’t understand this? If I tell you of earthly things and you don’t understand, how will you understand if I tell you of heavenly things?” Then He went on to explain that only one person had ever gone into Heaven, the “Son of Man” (himself) who came from heaven. And just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness, so that all who’d been bitten by the snakes and looked to the bronze serpent would live, so He would be lifted up so that everyone who believes in Him (turns to Him–belief was more than just acknowledging He was a good man or a teacher) would not perish, but have eternal life. He also told Nicodemus that God hadn’t sent Him to condemn/judge the world (Israel or everyone?) but that the world could be saved, that those who believe in Him are not condemned, but that those who don’t believe are already condemned because they don’t believe in God’s only Son, and that judgment had been passed: light came into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. Evil-doers hate the light because their deeds are evil and they don’t want to be found out. But those who live by truth come into the light so that others will see clearly what they’ve done.
Jesus didn’t change topics in John 3:1-21. He stayed on topic. He answered Nicodemus’s questions about being born again, leading in with something that would get Nicodemus’s attention and then teaching him what He meant. Jesus reminded Nicodemus of something he would be very familiar with in the Old Testament, the bronze serpent lifted up in the wilderness. Nicodemus would have remembered well that the bronze serpent was made to take away a curse–the people had complained and snakes came out and bit them. They were dying as a result. (Sin also brought a curse of death every person’s life, and Nicodemus knew that well. Interestingly, there was a snake in the story of original sin too.) God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a staff, that whoever looked on the bronze serpent would be healed. Jesus compared His death on the cross to the bronze serpent–the people only looked to the serpent to be healed. They didn’t have to touch it or do anything else–just look to it. In the same way, we only have to look to Jesus to be saved.
These words had a strong impact on Nicodemus. He came by night, but both other times he’s mentioned in scripture, he stands for Jesus no matter who’s watching. He stood against the angry Pharisees in John 9, and he helped bury Jesus. Perhaps he remembered Ezekiel’s words, too: “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.” (Ez 11:16) and “ “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” (Ez 26:24-28).