John 3:16 is probably the single most well-known verse in the Bible. We memorize it in Sunday school…the Gideons traditionally have placed this verse on the front page of their Bibles (usually in dozens of languages)…missionaries often use it as the starting point for evangelism. Martin Luther called this verse "The Gospel in Brief," and many others agree that in this one sentence, a good deal of what Christianity is all about receives a swift, concise, and lyric summary.
So a lot of people are familiar with this verse, but I’m guessing that very few recall its original context: namely, Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus. In fact, virtually none of the John 3:16 websites I looked at this past week contained any reference to Nicodemus. It seems most people assume John 3:16 doesn't need a context--it's so beautifully concise that it stands alone just fine. Even our appointed reading for the day sheers off all reference to Nicodemus by starting at verse 14.
And that’s unfortunate. Because the verse is so delightful and lovely, we assume that the story in which it was first spoken must be equally delightful, bright, airy, lovely, and full of light. But the opposite seems much closer to the truth, because the story in John 3 contains a fair share of darkness, skepticism, and death. Nicodemus emerges from the shadows of the night and eventually all-but disappears back into those shadows, too. We know only a little about Nicodemus: he is mentioned five times in John's gospel but nowhere else. He was a Pharisee and a pretty powerful one at that since he sat on the Jewish ruling council known as the Sanhedrin.
Which means that Nicodemus was a religious VIP with a list of credentials as long as your arm…advanced theological degrees, honorary doctorates, half-a-column in the Jerusalem edition of Who's Who. If you were a Jew living in or near Jerusalem in those days, you likely knew who Nicodemus was…maybe even recognize his face when passing him on the sidewalk. But of course, fame cuts two ways. It was nice to be recognized and warmly received everywhere he went. But it wasn’t so convenient when Nicodemus wanted to get someplace and remain anonymous in doing so.
And in the case of John 3, the place to which Nicodemus wanted to go was the house where the new rabbi in town was staying. An upstanding Pharisee such as himself generally avoided the company of lesser religious figures. This Jesus fellow was clearly a messianic wannabe who had recently messed up the whole Passover festival by whipping the Temple into a frenzy as he drove out the moneychangers. But for some reason Nicodemus felt the need to see this man anyway and so he waits until the public eye shuts for the night…until most windows in Jerusalem were dark. Then he pays Jesus a visit…and the two while away the wee hours of the night chatting by a fire.
Nicodemus begins the conversation in a rather officious, pretentious way. "Rabbi, we know you have come from God because of the wondrous signs you've been doing." Contained in that plural pronoun "we" is a hint of arrogance: we, the folks who are the religious experts in these parts, the folks in charge of deciding who is on God's side and who isn't: we have looked you over and judged there may be something interesting to you after all.
Nicodemus is not initially in the interrogative mood. He doesn't ask a question so much as he delivers a verdict. As such Jesus' reply to this opening salvo is rather surprising: "You'll never see God's kingdom unless you are born again." Make no mistake: Jesus is taking a theological pin and pricking Nicodemus' over-inflated balloon of an ego. Nicodemus swung in to deliver the considered opinion of the really smart guys who know all about God and where God works and how God works…only to be rocked by Jesus' reply, which was the equivalent of saying, "My friend, what you don't know about God is a lot! You need to start all over again, get re-born, start from scratch and only then will you be in a position to tell me or anybody else about who God is and what God is up to."
Probably Nicodemus picked up on this, which is maybe why he replies to Jesus in a rather dismissive way. It is doubtful that Nicodemus actually took Jesus literally, so the fact that he pretends to think Jesus is referring to an actual, physical birth seems to indicate he's poking a little fun of this quirky rabbi's rhetoric. If Jesus detected the snideness of Nicodemus' words, he lets it slide and so repeats what he had just said, but this time he expands on it to make clear he's talking about a spiritual re-birth--a second birth that only God's Spirit can accomplish. And as he was talking, imagine a gust of wind whistles down the chimney. "Did you hear that? Jesus says. “The wind blows here and there but you never really know where it comes from, when it's going to come, or where it may go next. God's Spirit is like that, Nicodemus. It comes to who it will, when it will, unexpectedly but with gale-force strength. When the Spirit blows into your heart, you are made new from the inside out--fresh and young like a newborn baby."
Nicodemus comes back at Jesus with yet another question, but at this point he’s all out of sarcasm. "How can these things be true?" he pleads.
"And you call yourself a teacher of Israel?" Jesus replies (showing that even he is not above some biting irony if it helps make the point). "Well then, Mr. Ph.D., come along with me and I'll bring you back to spiritual Kindergarten. You're going to have to start all over again and be re-born by God's Spirit." And then Jesus does something quite unexpected: he reaches back to Numbers 21 from the Hebrew Scriptures and evokes the image of that bronze serpent Moses lifted over the people as a cure for snakebite. You heard the story earlier today. The Israelites had to look at an image of the very thing that was afflicting them, and…somehow…doing so helped.
So also, Jesus says, the Son of Man will be lifted up and if you dare look upon his death, your problem with death will be solved. It is a striking biblical example of the principle that “like cures like.” We already know how this works. Indeed, it’s all over the news lately and a good number of us probably have the sore arms to attest to it. One of the greatest medical innovations in recent centuries is the development of the vaccine: if a doctor injects your body with a small amount of the disease you want to avoid (or something that will fool your body into thinking it’s the disease), your cells will produce the antibodies that will ward off the disease should you later come into contact with it. And bingo: like cures like.
So in the gospel: Jesus is raised up on a cross in death. The wages of sin is death, which means that death is our problem as a sinful people. But there, in Jesus' death, we receive the vaccine. There, we are "born again," as Jesus has been describing this to Nicodemus, by being crucified with Christ. And this is the direct set-up for John 3:16. Christ suffers and dies and rises in victory, so that we, too, will suffer and die and be raised with him. And our only role in this? To believe…to trust…to accept the truth that death is not the final word and that God is moving this bloodied and broken creation and we along with it to life…real life…eternal life in Him.
Did Nicodemus believe? Well…we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that Nicodemus makes two more very brief appearances in John's gospel. The first comes in John 7 when the Sanhedrin begins plotting against Jesus. Nicodemus speaks up to ask that the group makes certain to follow the letter of the law in investigating Jesus. Nicodemus' final appearance is in John 19 when he is said to have helped Joseph of Arimathea embalm and then bury the dead body of Jesus.
We don't know, though, if either incident indicates he had become a disciple of Jesus after all. Commentators and preachers across the centuries have been divided on this matter. Some say that Nicodemus' words in John 7 and his actions in John 19 indicate only that he remained fixated, Pharisee-like, on the finer points of the law. Others are more hopeful that the first person ever to hear John 3:16 found life in those words.
And maybe it did happen that way for old Nicodemus. Maybe as Nicodemus listened to Jesus in the flicker of the firelight on that long ago night, maybe he found his pulse quickening. Hearing the words we now cherish, maybe Nicodemus felt a spasm of joy the likes of which he'd not felt since his first kiss.
If so, then some time later when he buried this quirky rabbi, maybe Nicodemus recalled that image of the snake on a pole. And if so, then maybe, two, three days later, when Nicodemus heard the report that this Jesus had risen from the dead, maybe that old senior citizen Nicodemus found himself inexplicably weeping…crying like . . . well, like a newborn baby.
Of course, the invitation which Jesus extends to Nicodemus is there for us, too…we who are busy fussing and fixing and finagling our lives to come out right…when in reality there’s only one thing to do. In the midst of our anxiety, Jesus bids us look to him and live…to discover at last the truth which we pray our brother Nicodemus finally realized and that we, too, will come to realize: that Christ alone sets us free to die so that we might finally live…that we might not be condemned, but saved…that we might not be lost, but raised with him. That, dear friends, is our destiny in Christ. And that is good news, indeed. Amen