Letters to the Prison - Week 31

Hello, everyone!  We miss our fellowship with you.  
We’re studying the Gospel of John, chapter 3.  We’ve begun to consider the conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus.  Before we go a whole lot further, we should get a clearer picture of just exactly who Nicodemus is.
•We know from John 3:1 that Nicodemus is “a man of the Pharisees” and “a ruler of the Jews.”
•In John 3:10, Jesus calls Nicodemus “the teacher of Israel.”
What we learn from these phrases is that Nicodemus is a Pharisee.  These men were known for their rigid adherence to Jewish Law and tradition.  As a “ruler of the Jews,” Nicodemus must have been a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, a group of 71 men who wielded legal and moral authority over the Jews in Israel.  You could think of this group of 71 men as a “supreme court” who had both civil and criminal jurisdiction over the people.  These were powerful and influential men.  Later in the conversation, Jesus refers to Nicodemus as “the teacher of Israel” (John 3:10).  This tells us that not only was Nicodemus a member of the Sanhedrin, he was a prominent leading member of that group.  Being “the teacher of Israel” meant that everyone in Israel looked up to him as being one of the most highly educated, wise, and influential men in that culture.  This position undoubtedly meant that Nicodemus had no shortage of wealth, power, and influence.  He was “at the top of his game,” so to speak… “the cream of the crop.”
Yet here he was visiting Jesus “by night,” calling him “Rabbi” (teacher), and clearly admitting that Jesus has “come from God” (John 3:2).  Why would the teacher of Israel want to be taught by Jesus?  Because he was worried.  What could a man like Nicodemus have to be worried about?  Eternal life and his place in the Kingdom of God, apparently.  As we saw last week, Jesus went straight past what Nicodemus said and addressed what he knew was in Nicodemus’ heart and what was on his mind.  Here’s what Jesus said:
•“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again[a] he cannot see the kingdom of God.”-John 3:3
Given his position as a well-educated, prominent, and widely respected leader of the Jews, one would think that if anyone need not be worried about the kingdom of God, it was Nicodemus.  It would be like the Pope wondering whether or not he was Catholic.  Nicodemus, of all people, should have no reason to worry about his place in the kingdom of God, right?  Right?  But yet, he was worried… wondering… and Jesus recognized it in his heart and began to explain to Nicodemus what it means to be born again.  And apparently, Nicodemus didn’t get it:
•4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?”-John 3:4
Of course, Nicodemus wasn’t taking Jesus literally here.  He understood that Jesus didn’t mean a man had to somehow experience actual birth again.  So, Nicodemus “didn’t get” Jesus’ meaning, but he wasn’t completely in the dark, either.  He was a well-educated man, after all…  “the teacher of Israel.”  Verse 4 was Nicodemus’ way of asking Jesus: “What do you mean by being born again?”  We too want to know, right?  So:
•5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. -John 3:5
There is the third time in the book of John where Jesus opens a sentence with “truly, truly.”  This is also the second time he has said it when talking about the idea of being born again.  It is clear, then, that Jesus regards this as an extremely important thing to pay attention to.  Here, he’s making another clear statement clarifying that in order to be born again, and in order to enter the kingdom of God, one must be “born of water and the Spirit.”  That seems easy enough to understand on the one hand.  But on the other hand, what does Jesus mean by this?
One way to understand this better is to see what the Greek literally says.  When we read “born again” in English, it is translating the following Greek words:
γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν
which literally mean “receive birth from above.”  So, back in verse 3 when Jesus says “truly, truly I say to you unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” he’s literally saying “truly, truly, unless one receives birth from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Being born again is not a literal physical birth like a child being born.  Nicodemus understands this and it is clear to us now, also.  It is something that comes from above…  from God.  So, when Jesus says we must be “born from above,” how does that relate to the idea of being “born of water and Spirit?”  To get a clear answer, let’s look at a prophecy from the Old Testament about the Lord and his people:
•I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
-Ezekiel 36:25-27
This is God speaking to his people through the prophet Ezekiel.  He’s telling them what he will do to restore them to himself at the end of all things.  We will discuss this passage further next week.  For now, consider what God is saying here.  You’ll notice pretty quickly that God is the one doing things.  What does that mean for us?  How are we connected to this if God is speaking to the Israelites through Ezekiel and not to Christian Americans like us?  If you want to pursue this question on your own, read Romans 11 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 to begin to see an answer.
If you’re thinking you need a fresh start and have a desire in your heart to be born from above, ask God.  Right now.  In your own words.  You don’t need a special prayer.  God wants to hear what’s in your heart and on your mind.  He is listening and he is ever merciful, and he loves you.  We love you, too!  Until next week, keep considering John 3!

Dean A.

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