John 3 is one of the most important chapters in our Bible. Almost every child and every Christian knows John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, KJV). Yet, perhaps fewer Christians have studied the chapter in detail. The famous quote concerning God’s love for the world comes in the middle of a long conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a “ruler of the Jews”—a member of the Sanhedrin, Israel’s seventy member Jewish ruling council. He was almost certainly wealthy, well-educated, respected, and powerful. Nicodemus appears in Scripture as a just, fair, open-minded, and compassionate man.
Nicodemus also appears in John 7, where he defends Jesus against an early attempt to arrest him (John 7:45-52). Finally, John tells us that Nicodemus assisted Joseph of Arimathea in paying for and assisting in the burial of Jesus (John 19:39-40). Christian tradition holds that Nicodemus became a believer in Jesus, was baptized by Peter and John, lost his position in the Sanhedrin because of his faith in Christ, and was finally forced to flee the City of Jerusalem.  If this tradition is accurate, then Nicodemus was willing to give up everything—wealth, position influence, and power—in order to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing.
I want to ponder in this blog the first seventeen verses of John. They read as follows:
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “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.” Jesus replied, “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?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 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?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 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. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” 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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:1-17).
Questions of the Night
John’s Gospel is much different than the other gospels. It is structured around certain signs and sayings. It leaves out many things the other gospels contain and contains things the other gospels do not mention. In addition, John often uses images and metaphors to convey its message. One image that constantly appears in John is a comparison of the darkness of our world and the light that is in Christ (John 1:4-5; John 3:19-21; John 812; 9:35-41).
John 3 begins with Nicodemus making a visit to Jesus by night. Rembrandt and other famous painters have tried to capture the scene. I have chosen an image that shows the light of a wall candle, perhaps symbolizing the Holy Spirit, illuminating the scene. A lot of ink is spilt trying to explain the reason Nicodemus came by night. Was Nicodemus afraid? Was he fearful of what his wealthy and powerful friends might think? Was he just too busy to make a daytime visit? We will never know the exact reason, but we do know that John uses this night visit to compare the darkness in which Nicodemus lives to the light of Christ.
Nicodemus is portrayed as a man with questions. He has heard of the powerful teacher and miracle worker, Jesus of Nazareth, and wants to believe that this Jesus is a man of God who can somehow illuminate and explain for him the way to God (John 3:2). Jesus seems to understand that Nicodemus is an earnest seeker who wants to know how to have a new kind of life and, perhaps, escape the legalism of the Pharisees. Jesus understands that Nicodemus is a true seeker after God, what Jesus elsewhere calls, a “Person of Peace” (Luke 10:6). Therefore, he says, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). This begins and exchange of questions Nicodemus asks, questions that, in a different way, people continue to ask today.
First, Nicodemus asks, “How can a person be born anew when they are already old?” (John 3:4). In other words, “How can an old guy like me find a new life?” This is a question that people ask today, though in a different way. Sometimes, we do think that we are too old for God to use us or for to find a new life. Sometimes, we think that we have made too many mistakes, done to many things wrong, spent too many years away from God to find a new and better life. Sometimes, we feel too world-weary to begin again. When we feel like this, we are asking Nicodemus’ question.
Second, Nicodemus asks, “Assuming one could be born again, how would it work?” (John 3:4). “Surely a person cannot enter into his mother’s womb a second time. It cannot possibly work that way, can it?” Once again, all over the world in different ways and with different answers, people ask that question. Religions that believe in reincarnation essentially teach that our second chance comes in another life we will have in the future. Their idea is that we simply live life over and over again until we get it right. Skeptics, frankly, answer the question with the belief that it is not possible at all. There is no new life. Materialists ask the question and come up with a formula of diet, exercise, education, self-help, counseling, meditation, and the like that will permit human beings to recover our lost youth. You see, everyone and anyone who believes that they have messed up in life have wondered, “How do I start over?” When we feel like this, we are asking Nicodemus’ question.
One way or the other, all human beings ask the same questions Nicodemus asked Jesus. In moments of darkness, of despair, of failure, of longing for a new and better life, we all wish we could start over. By now, I have counseled so many people that I often cannot remember names, places, or even precise situations. Nevertheless, I do know that this question is one I’ve been asked a lot of times in different ways. There are business people who have done something foolish and asked, “How can I start over at my age?” There are husbands and wives that have failed and asked, “How can we start over given all the water under the bridge?” There are parents who have failed children and children who have failed parents who ask the question, “How can our family find renewal and new life?” Once again, Nicodemus’ questions are universal human questions we all encounter all the time when we get to know people.
Glimmers of Light
Into the spiritual darkness in which Nicodemus finds himself Jesus shines a bit of spiritual light. Of course, no one can physically start over in life. We cannot be physically born again once we have entered this world. We physically cannot start over once we have made certain decisions. We cannot avoid certain consequences of our decisions. We cannot overcome the physical limitations of our genetics and experiences. However, we can have a new life! We can be born again into God’s kingdom of Wisdom and Love. We can experience the blessedness of being a child of God. We can become a part of God’s family.
In answer to the question, “How can I be a New Person?” Jesus answers as follows:
Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” 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” (John 3:5-8).
In other words, Jesus is saying, “You can become a new person, Nicodemus. You can find a new life. You can eliminate the darkness you feel in your soul. You can have a deep, personal relationship with God. The birth will not be physical, but spiritual. You must open your heart and ask God, who is a spirit, to come into your heart.”
God can give us a new life; however, he gives us a new life that is spiritual in nature. He may not change our circumstances. He may not change our physical condition. He is surely not going to make time go backwards. Instead he gives us his own life, which is different than physical life. It is a life of self-giving love and wisdom that never ends.
In response to this answer of Jesus, Nicodemus goes on to ask, “How can this be?” (John 3:9). In other words, the conversation moves on to the second question, “How can I have this new life?” or “How can this work?” In his response, Jesus says perhaps the most important words in the entire passage, words that most of us have never considered:
You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things? 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. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him (John 3: 10-15).
In the book of Proverbs we find the following:
I am the most ignorant of men; I do not have human understanding. I have not learned wisdom, nor have I attained to the knowledge of the Holy One. Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Whose hands have gathered up the wind? Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is the name of his son? Surely you know! (Proverbs 30:1-4).
This is one of those places where it is hard to believe those who assert that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of God, could possibly be correct. Nicodemus was a wise man. He was learned in the Old Testament. He was a ruler of the Jewish people, familiar with the proverbs of Israel that were used to teach those who would one day be in a leadership position. Nicodemus knew what we know as Proverbs 30. He probably had memorized it. In these verses from John, Jesus is saying, “Nicodemus, you know that the only person who could really answer your questions, the only person who has penetrated the heart of the wisdom of God, would be the Son of God. You know that the prophets looked forward to a messiah they called the Son of Man (Daniel 8:13). I am that person, and I am going to be lifted up on a cross just like Moses lifted up the snake in wilderness, so that you and everyone else will know this.” This is where we come to the text we all know. Jesus goes on to say:
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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:16-17, NIV).
Here is the Gospel restated: The creator of the universe, the giver of the Law to Moses, the God of the Prophets, loves the world so much he is willing to give his son for its salvation. Those who believe in the Son and who receive the gift by faith will enjoy “Eternal Life,” that is the very life of God.
What is the Main Thing in Your Heart
Jesus ends this section of teaching by comparing the Light that He is with the Darkness of the world and of the human heart (John 3:19-20). It is as if he is asking, Nicodemus, and us, “What do you love?” “What do you believe in?” “Who do you really trust?” “Do you believe, really believe that God is love?” “Do you really believe that by my Spirit you can receive eternal life?” “Do you believe the life of faith by the power of the Holy Spirit is the Main Thing?” “Are you willing to trust in me and me alone as the ultimate source of your life?”
In other words, he is asking, “What is the main thing in your heart?” God loves you. God wants you to enjoy his divine life now and in the world to come. All he asks is that you believe in his promise. As I mentioned at the beginning, we think Nicodemus chose to believe in and follow the Christ. May we do the same.
Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved
 Ronald F. Youngblood, ed., “Nicodemus” in Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary Rev. Ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1986), 895.