The old man who comes skulking to Christ is fearful. He is fearful of his colleagues, the fellow rulers of the Jewish people. The increasingly hostile Sanhedrin would soon excommunicate people if they confessed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, the promised Messiah. Already, Nicodemus knew that his visit to Christ would be frowned upon. So he came by night, not openly by day.
But behind his conscious fears, there was a more serious issue. Nicodemus did not understand the faith of which he was supposed to be a teacher for Israel. The old man in Nicodemus, which was the sinful nature, kept Nicodemus blind from the truths of God that Christ was teaching openly.
So Nicodemus comes as a man giving approval to Christ. He says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God.” Here the word “we” on his lips means he and all the other ruling Jews. These men were commonly seen as the religious authorities who judged such matters. Nicodemus might as well have said, “It’s okay, Jesus. We approve of You.”
But his statement assumes that the religious leaders actually were authorities. It assumes that they were wise in the holy Scriptures. Of course, they gave every appearance of Biblical wisdom and uprightness. Who was qualified to approve of Christ, if not them?
Of course, Christ the Son of God never needs approval from men. He knocks down any idea that any man is anything. He tells Nicodemus, “You must be born completely anew, from above, if you are to enter the kingdom at all.”
We can almost hear the thoughts in the head of Nicodemus. “Who does Christ think He is talking to? I am not one of those awful sinners, like the prostitutes and tax collectors. Why would I have to be born again?”
Of course, Nicodemus does not say these thoughts out loud. Perhaps his conscious mind cannot even grasp that Christ is saying that Nicodemus is not fit for the kingdom. He who thinks himself good and wise is actually a foolish sinner. His life so far was nothing. He had to start over from a good beginning, a new birth, or he could never be anything good and pleasing in God’s sight.
What room does Christ leave for pride? Nowhere. The esteemed opinion of the Jews for Him is nothing. The efforts of the Pharisees to keep the law are nothing. The piety of the Lawyers and Scribes is nothing. They were all a mountain of nothings who thought they were the pinnacle of something great. But Christ says it amounts to a whole bunch of men who needed to start over again with new birth, born from above.
How? Nicodemus struggles with the issue. He asks if a man can physically be born again. His blind foolishness misunderstands, or perhaps he simply sputters out a response since he cannot speak the real issue, which is the total worthlessness of the Jewish brand of righteousness.
Christ says, “Give up your old life. Become a new man.”
Nicodemus says, “Impossible!” - as if in illustration of our Lord’s point. Nicodemus, wise in his own eyes and touting the credentials of the wisdom of the Sanhedrin, completely fails to grasp what Christ says, thus showing that he is no authority of anything.
Good thing we are wise, unlike Nicodemus.
Not really. We also had to experience the new birth. Our lives up till then were just as foolish and sinful. Even now, any knowledge we have is from God, not our own understanding. We are little babes who happen to hold in our chubby fingers the mysteries of the Godhead and the Sacraments and the Incarnation and the divine plan of salvation from before the foundation of the world. We little babes do not really understand except the bare surface. These mysteries are beyond us.
The new birth all by itself is a mysterious offense! Be born by water and the Spirit. “Right,” says our old man sarcastically. Meanwhile millions stumble at the doctrine of Holy Baptism. So many Nicodemuses cannot comprehend the new birth of the Spirit.
Only by God’s grace do we confess the truth. We confess one holy Baptism for the remission of sins. Glorious wonder! But let us not pretend that we are masters of this teaching, as if we are wise teachers like Nicodemus thought he was.
See how pride has no place for Christians. We little babes should not think we are something lofty and exalted in ourselves. In Christ alone we are lifted up. But we should always lay ourselves low in humble repentance and cast out the prideful old man’s boasting.
Here is another mystery to offend the pride of the flesh: A serpent, hung up on a pole. The Old Testament story is one thing. A miracle that our proud flesh might believe that it understands. But then Christ reveals that He will be as the serpent. By looking to Christ, the new bronze serpent, we are saved from the venom of sin and death and hell.
There is offense there since we wonder why the holy Son of God would identify Himself with a snake. Since Eden, the serpent has stood for evil. How can Christ take the place occupied by wickedness? But that is what He came to do. Not that He was at all wicked or sinful – of course not! But He took all sins and all evil upon His flesh. He suffered for all men so thoroughly and comprehensively that He became sin for us. Every sin ever committed was there on Golgotha on the Man who hung dying.
What offense! What mystery! This is the salvation of men, at which many men stumble. Who would believe something so ugly as the Cross would be the purchasing of forgiveness? Who could see that the sprinkling of that blood is the propitiation to satisfy the wrath of God for men’s sins?
But that is precisely what it is. We cannot fully understand. Even now, our old man wants to reject and disbelieve. By God’s grace, He will keep us in this faith, against our fleshly thinking. For we are born of the Spirit, born of water, born again, from above.
In the Name of this wondrous Savior. Amen.
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