I’ve come to realize that I have a lot in common with Nicodemus. Both of us were raised into our respective faiths. He probably couldn’t remember a time when He wasn’t a believer in Judaism. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a believer in Christianity. He was educated about all aspects of his faith, as I have been … we both know a lot. But both of us also have questions that are not easily answered.
My last church taught me that no detail in the Bible is unimportant. So when I look at John 3, I try to picture Nicodemus and Jesus having this conversation at night. Night-time is pretty useful. In the clear light of day, somebody might see you having this conversation from far off – word would get around, you could lose your status. But at night you can more easily have that sort of conversation in complete secrecy.
It must be difficult to have a carefully crafted conversation with Jesus – Jesus inexplicably knew things, he knew thoughts. So at first glance, Jesus reply to Nicodemus doesn’t match up what’s said … I must conclude that he’s replying to what Nicodemus was thinking. From there, Nicodemus doesn’t try to change the conversation, but he tries very hard to understand the conversation. I have copied their conversation here so that it’s easier to follow along, Nicodemus’ words are in bold, and Jesus’ words in italics.
“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.”
“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?” “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its 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?”
“You are Israel’s teacher,” “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.[e] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,[f] 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”[g]
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 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 keep on asking myself, what is it about Christianity that can make so many believers into modern Pharisees? How in the world did I almost turn into one? I’m thinking it was more of a gradual evolution from faith-filled fun childhood all the way up to high school. I was schooled in how to defend Christianity against the Theory of Evolution, passed the course on Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life with flying colors, and aced all the teachings of the Bible from sanctification to justification to millennialism (pre and post) and pretty much everything else. Morally – I was up there with the best of the best, always well-behaved, never broke any rules, and always a good kid. I could compare myself with those around me … I usually knew more, was better behaved, and I never missed a Sunday School or Wednesday evening gathering. To everybody I was a perfect Christian kid … but I was well on my way to being a modern pharisee, complete with perfectionist tendencies.
But like Nicodemus, I realized that for all my outward prestige and perfection, there was something inside that wasn’t quite right. FCCC, HBC, LC, HCC, RPC, LBC, and MFUMC – these are the initials of the churches that have contributed to my spiritual self, each teaching me something different about Christianity. Some of them were worse than others, some of them had potential and wasted it, some were o.k. in their own way. They – me – couldn’t see the Pharisee that I had become … that they helped make. But fortunately for me, God intervened on my behalf.
He showed me the imperfection of the Church in general and my imperfections too. He showed me how tradition for the sake of tradition was meaningless. He showed me that he cared to much to leave me a Pharisee … so He began to destroy what the Church had created. I haven’t figured out how to undo all of their teachings yet – I probably can’t if I try on my own. I may not be the world’s most sinful sinner, but the truth is that I need Jesus just as much as if I were … and I need to learn to rely on Him alone.