The Masks of Nicodemus
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For God did not send his Son into the world to
condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and Jewish religious leader. He was also just a man. Intrigued by the authority of Jesus and the many miracles He was doing, Nicodemus went to see Jesus secretly, at night, in an attempt to discover who He really was. Nicodemus may have had another motive as well; to talk about the kingdom of God. He came as a Pharisee, highly respected and polished, thinking he might teach Jesus a thing or two.
MASK #1--NICODEMUS, THE PHARISEE
The Pharisees wanted to establish the kingdom and get out from under Rome's rule. But they had no way of doing it. Remember this is early in Jesus' ministry, and the religious leaders didn't quite know what to make of this man, Jesus. Maybe they could use him to their advantage. Possibly He would join forces with them to accomplish their goal. So, whether Nicodemus was sent as a representative or he went on his own, he approached Jesus with a compliment: "Rabbi, we all know God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you."
Nicodemus came to Jesus as a Pharisee. But we find out something about Jesus before his interaction with Nicodemus. In John 2:23-25, we are told that because of the miraculous signs Jesus did in Jerusalem at the Passover celebration, many put their trust in Him. But Jesus didn't trust them, because he knew human nature. No one needed to tell Him what humanity was like, so, when Nicodemus compliments Jesus, Jesus goes a different direction.
Jesus doesn't take the bait or even acknowledge Nicodemus' compliment. It's like He knows why Nicodemus is there, and Jesus begins to talk about the kingdom. He tells Nicodemus, "The truth is you can't see the kingdom of God, Nic, unless you are born again." Nicodemus was not expecting Jesus to say that and he drops the first mask, becoming a bit more vulnerable and curious.
MASK #2--NICODEMUS, THE RELIGIOUS LEADER
"What do you mean?" Nicodemus wants to know, "A person can't go back inside the womb and be born again." That's the only thing Nicodemus can come up with. He is thoroughly confused as to what Jesus is talking about. After all, he, Nicodemus, is a teacher of the law and he knows what it says, but as far as he can see, it says nothing about what Jesus is saying. That's just it. An unbeliever can't understand spiritual things. So Jesus begins to explain, "I assure you, Nic, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. Humans can only reproduce human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life." In other words, Nicodemus can't see the kingdom of God because he isn't spiritually alive.
There are several interpretations of what it means to be born of both water and the Spirit. The debate is mainly about what the water represents. I always thought it was connected to John the Baptist's baptizing for repentance of sins because repentance is part of being born again. I agree that one must acknowledge they are a sinner to be saved, but I don't know if that is what Jesus was saying in his conversation with Nicodemus. Another interpretation might be water is symbolic of the word of God. There is a sanctifying, cleansing power in the word of God: "Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth" (Jn 17:17). And John 15:3 says, "You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you." Jesus is saying a person is born again by the word of God being applied by the Spirit of God. Receiving spiritual life through Christ is God's only plan to redeem people.
Jesus finishes His explanation by talking about what the Spirit is like: "The wind blows wherever it pleases. Just as you can hear the wind but can't tell where it comes from or where it's going, you can't explain how people are born-again" (Jn 3:8). No one can explain or control the wind. We don't know when it will start or stop, but we sure feel it when it's blowing. That's what the Spirit is like. He is sent from heaven and can't be contained or controlled. Nicodemus is still confused by what he is hearing and finally drops the second mask and is just plain Nic, a man wanting to understand.
NO MASK--NIC, THE MAN
Nicodemus says, "How can this be?" It's like he is saying, "How do I not know this? I am a Pharisee and a religious leader, and none of my learning has taught me this." Jesus knows what Nicodemus is thinking and asks him why he doesn't understand these things. He knows Nicodemus doesn't yet believe but is interested. Jesus tells him He came from heaven and that makes Him qualified to talk of heavenly things. "You want to talk about the kingdom of God, Nic? Well, here it is: God loved the world so much that He sent Me, His only Son, to earth to redeem people. Whoever believes in Me will receive eternal life. I came to save the world, not condemn it. The one who doesn't believe is condemned already. And the reason someone will reject Me is that they love the darkness more than the light. I am the Light. I expose the evil that is done in the darkness, and many don't want their sin exposed. But those who come into the light will see plainly that what has been done is from God."
The conversation ends. We don't know how Nicodemus responds at this point, but there is evidence later that he believed in Jesus. First, he opposed his colleagues on the Jewish high council by arguing that Jesus deserved a fair trial (Jn 7:50-51), and after Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus brought seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloe for His burial, took it to the tomb and assisted Joseph of Arimathea in burying Him (Jn 19:39-42). By all appearances, Nicodemus is an example of a Pharisee who was born-again and willing to express his commitment publicly.
We all wear masks. We may act one way at work, and another way at church. It's not always a bad thing unless we are pretending to be someone we aren't. When we are with friends, we may wear a different mask than when we are at home. At home, we may take off the mask and let our family see who we really are, good and bad. The bad we may try to hide from others...our anger, selfishness, pride, critical spirit, or other sin. Living with secret sin is a bad idea. God tells us to confess our sin to one another and pray for each other so that we may be healed (Jms 5:16). How much of our sickness and bondage is because we will not confess our sin to anyone? And there is one place we need never wear a mask, and that is when we come into the presence of God. When you come just as you are, that is the way God will deal with you. He does not condemn you. As a believer, you can know there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Rom 8:1). As an unbeliever, you already stand condemned (Jn 3:18). Jesus came to save you and remove the condemnation. You need only believe in Him.
The Holy Bible (NIV, NASB, NLT)
J. Vernon McGee: Thru the Bible (Matthew-Romans), 382-386.