John 3: 1-16 (Lent Two – 2017)
“God’s Gift is Eternal Life”
According to John in the previous verses, many had begun to take notice of miracles and sermons of Jesus. Many were asking questions and debating. Jesus did not put a lot of weight on their curious nature, however. “He knew himself what was in a man.” (2:24). Nicodemus was a bit different. He had genuine spiritual questions that required truthful answers. He arranged a secret meeting with the one man who had all the answers. He just had to meet with this Jesus of Nazareth. This secret night visit with Jesus was the beginning of his life of saving faith in the one who brings life.
Nicodemus was not only a Pharisee, but a member of the ruling council, known as the Sanhedrin. He was familiar with the Old Testament. He knew enough to be dangerous. He did not, however, know enough to be comforted. Was this Pharisee having a change of heart? Was he dealing with a burdened conscience? Was he thinking about death; his own or someone close to him? Was he tired of the pressure from his peers to dismiss everything about Jesus?
The Spirit Gives Life Through Water and the Word
Jesus’ first response to his comments seems a bit out of left field. Nicodemus had asked him about being from God because of the miraculous signs. Jesus says: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of heaven … unless a man is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God ... flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” You and I can readily see that Jesus was speaking about the Holy Spirit and of Baptism. His cousin John had already begun a ministry in public that included repentance, the Words of the Spirit, Jesus, and Baptism.Jesus himself was baptized by John.
But Nicodemus did not so readily grasp that concept. As Jesus, explained, the man who was “Israel’s teacher” was not grasping the Spiritual things of the kingdom of God. Nicodemus betrayed his own ignorance by talking about the ridiculous. He wondered how a grown man might climb back into his mother’s womb in order to experience a second birth. Even when pressed a little further he is forced to simply say: “How can these things be?”
Nicodemus, along with all mankind, needed a lesson on the nature mankind and sin. Sinful human beings give birth to more sinful human beings. The ultimate result is that human beings are born with the certainty of mortality. “The wages of sin is death.” Job observed this so well: “Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one. If a man dies shall he live again?” (Job 14: 1, 3, 14). Job was clear. Nicodemus remained confused.
Jesus was not talking about a second physical birth. He was speaking about the Spirit’s gift of spiritual life; faith in Jesus. John, who continued to witness to Jesus as Savior, made this point: “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given to him from heaven” (John 3: 27). This world of souls is completely dependent on the Giver of all things. Breathe, heartbeats, food, drink, health, possessions; none of these we receive with the Lord giving them. But the best things the Spirit gives are spiritual: faith, forgiveness, real truth, and eternal life. These are life eternal things that the Spirit gives through Baptism.
Paul wrote to Pastor Titus: “When the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs of having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3: 4-6).
Flesh gives birth to flesh and the result is sin and death. The Spirit gives birth to a spirit of faith and the result is new life in Christ and eternal life with Christ. That is true because the Baptism that the Spirit gives, also gives us the work that Jesus did for us.
The Father Gives Life Through His Son
Jesus taught Nicodemus by sharing a familiar Old Testament story. He would have likely known about the deadly snakes that the LORD sent on rebellious Israel in the wilderness. The point of the story clearly points to the cross of Christ. In order to call his people to repentance the LORD caused these snakes which brought death. But Moses was instructed to lift up a bronze snake on a pole. The LORD promised that all who looked in faith would live. Jesus explained to Nicodemus that this lesson was meant to teach about the Son of man who would be lifted up on Good Friday.
He was lifted up by men who hated him, hated his truths, and feared his light. Jesus reminded Nicodemus later in this conversation that the world that God’s Son entered was a world filled with darkness “Because their deeds were evil.” As the Psalms remind us “They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt. There is no one who does good, not even one!” (Psalm 14: 3). That world, and many in Nicodemus’s life, rejected Jesus as Lord.
You and I are included in this dark picture of wickedness. Our deeds were evil. We are not infected by the venom of deadly snakes. We are infected by the deadly pestilence of sin.
All mankind fell in Adam’s fall One common sin infects us all …
In guilt we draw our infant breath and reap its fruits of woe and death (CW 378: 1a, 2b).
And the other fruit we reap is the guilt over our own daily sins against God and each other. In guilt we draw our morning breath too! We wake to face the barrage of temptations that will surround us. We wake to the reality of yesterday’s failures to avoid anger, jealousy; injuries to the lives of other people. In ignorance we willingly join Nicodemus in the ridiculous. We may not suggest the foolishness of going back to our mother’s womb, but we do embrace the ridiculous, the dangerous, foolishness of going back to sins we have committed before.
God so loved THIS world!? This is a love that only God is capable of. It is his agape love. It is a love that has affection for the unlovable. It is a love that has no preconceived conditions and contracts. It is a love that gives to those who have nothing and can obtain nothing that they need. It is a love that gives the Holy Spirit. It is a love that gives faith in his Word. It is a love that gives …
“His one and only Son.” This is a Son that is unique (monogenes). It is not just his only Son; there is only one like Him. He is the only one who came from heaven, from the Father, full of grace and truth. He is the only one begotten of the Father from all eternity. He is the one who has all the perfect answers for Nicodemus. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. No other man is pure from sin and free from guilt. No other man can truly bear the sins of the entire world on his bloody shoulders. No other Son could give his life as a ransom for many; for all! Jesus did that. God gives eternal life through his Son. No one who believes in HIM will perish by have eternal life!
We hear of Nicodemus again at the end of Good Friday. Nicodemus and Joseph gave Jesus a private burial after his crucifixion on Good Friday. That night was another night of secrecy, but an act of faith in the Son of God. The Son who gave up his life was placed in a tomb carved out for someone else; for you. Easter Day he escapes that tomb for you. The Spirit gave you life through Baptism. The Father gives you life through his Son. The Son gave his life for you only to rise again. His resurrection means life for you. Amen.