Read John 3:1–21.
In a former day job, I helped produce an online interview show for pastors and church leaders. On one episode I’ll never forget, a communications strategist and branding expert talked about his church’s online presence. He was well-known for creating amazing video content for his clients, and the host of our show was interested in finding out how this expert made his own church’s livestream experience truly unique for his viewers. The answer he gave was shocking.
“We don’t,” said the church communications guru. I could see the host’s mouth drop. The expert went on to share how he used a single camera, no special lighting, and no graphics. His goal was to make his church’s online messages watchable but nothing more. He wanted the Sunday services available for the truly homebound, but he didn’t want them to replace the real thing—gathering together as the local church.
I bring this up because we live in a culture that is quick to provide an easy way out. We offer free returns, no-commitment trial periods, and satisfaction guaranteed or your money back. When it comes to the Christian life, we certainly shouldn’t make it difficult for people to embrace the gift of salvation, but I wonder if we may have inadvertently created a low-commitment version of discipleship that won’t prove real in the end. Have we offered people an easy faith they can watch from the comfort of their couch rather than a robust adventure walking in the footsteps of King Jesus?
There have always been those who have wanted to sample Jesus before making a long-term commitment. Take, for example, Nicodemus. John tells us that the celebrated Pharisee comes to Jesus at night. Why at night? Because being spotted with Jesus in broad daylight might cost him. Nicodemus is a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, and the movement swelling and swirling around Jesus is a threat to the Sanhedrin’s power and influence.
It’s not by coincidence (or likely even true chronology) that John places Nicodemus’ meeting with Jesus immediately after the temple-table-turning episode. Jesus has challenged the authority of the ruling class. He’s shaking things up, and those with money and power are scared of all they can lose. They wouldn’t look too kindly on Nicodemus—one of their own—fraternizing with the enemy.
I don’t want to be too hard on Nicodemus. After all, he does come to see Jesus, and he does so with questions rather than accusations. It seems something about Jesus has captured his heart’s attention. He cannot look away, so he steps closer to get a better look.
Upon meeting Jesus, Nicodemus says, “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” (John 3:2). Jesus sees through to what Nicodemus’ heart is really asking. He wants to know if Jesus has come to bring the kingdom of God. This is the hope of faithful Jews living under Rome’s thumb. They are waiting for the Messiah to come and usher in the rule of God on earth, which, of course, would be centralized in Jerusalem. That’s why Jesus answers Nicodemus’ non-question so strangely: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (v. 3).
There is no risk-free way to see the kingdom of God, let alone enter it. It requires nothing short of being born a second time. Nicodemus and his Pharisee friends believe they are entitled to the kingdom by virtue of their birth into Abraham’s family and their adherence to the Old Testament law. Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born into God’s family—and that will require a spiritual birth: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (v. 6).
Just as a baby cannot take credit for being born, neither can those born of the Spirit. It is a work of God through and through. All we can do is come to Him humbly and receive it. To make this point, Jesus uses an episode from the Old Testament.
During their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness, the Israelites grumbled against God—a lot. After one particularly grievous round of grumbling, the Lord sent venomous snakes among the people, and many Israelites died. But God also provided a way of healing. He instructed Moses to craft a bronze serpent and place it high up on a pole. When the suffering sick looked upon the metal snake, they would recover. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believers may have eternal life in him” (John 3:15). God doesn’t require grand feats to be saved—only the faith to turn our eyes upon Jesus.
In the opening verses of his Gospel, John writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5). That light is the light of new creation and the light of life. That light is Jesus, “the true light that gives light to everyone” (v. 9). The light exposes our sin, but it also saves us from it. It reveals our need but also provides for it.
Nicodemus had come at night. He wanted to be shrouded by physical darkness, as his soul wasn’t quite ready to leave its spiritual darkness. Just as those suffering Israelites had to crawl from their tents into the light to gaze upon the bronze serpent, so too must Nicodemus—and you and I and all who wish to be saved—venture out from the shadows and into the light of Jesus.
The light splinters the darkness. We have nothing to fear but the loss of the shadows in which we hide.