Nicodemus’ head must have been ready to explode. In just a few short minutes, Jesus has delivered some of the most shocking and paradigm-shifting news this Pharisee has ever heard. Nicodemus’ entire belief system has been shaken to its core. For starters, Jesus has informed him that unless he is born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That was news to Nicodemus. As a Jew and a well-respected member of the Pharisees, he believed himself to already have full rights and privileges to a place in God’s coming kingdom. When the Messiah finally came and restored the Jews to power and prominence, Nicodemus believed he would be among those who enjoyed the joys and delights of a reinvigorated kingdom.
But Jesus had put a strange and unexpected condition on anyone who hoped to be a part of the coming kingdom of God: “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV). Then Jesus upped the ante by adding a further requirement: “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5 ESV).
Nicodemus was having a difficult time understanding what Jesus was saying. He was mind was focused on earthly, temporal concepts of the kingdom, while Jesus was speaking of spiritual matters. His concept of the coming Messiah was centered around a human deliverer who would lead Israel in an overthrow of the Roman occupying forces and reestablish the Davidic dynasty and Israel’s dominance in the region. But all that Jesus has shared with this highly esteemed religious leader has been spiritual in nature. It is not that Jesus is eliminating the idea of an actual physical kingdom of God, but He is letting Nicodemus know that something new is happening. The kingdom was coming, but not in the form Nicodemus expected. And entrance into that kingdom was going to require far more than Nicodemus could ever imagine.
While Nicodemus was secretly longing that Jesus was the Messiah and had come to set up the kingdom of God on earth, Jesus let him know that the real reason for His coming was to offer eternal life.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 ESV
In all his study of the Hebrew scriptures, what Nicodemus had failed to understand was that when the Messiah came, His mission would be to suffer and die, not rule and reign. He would come to wear a crown of thorns, not a crown of gold. He would be lifted up and nailed to a Roman cross rather than placed on a royal throne in David’s palace.
Jesus, the Son of God, had come to earth in order to provide sinful mankind with a means to escape the coming condemnation of God. He was going to become “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). He would sacrifice His life in the place of humanity, taking on the sins of the world in order to satisfy the just and righteous judgment of God. The apostle Peter would later describe the full impact of Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf.
He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed. – 1 Peter 2:24 NLT
And Peter was presenting the atoning death of Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecy that Isaiah had penned centuries earlier.
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5 ESV
But Jesus reveals a sad truth to his mystified and mind-muddled guest.
“…the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” – John 3:19 ESV
Jesus’ reference to Himself as the light ties directly back to the opening lines of John’s gospel.
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:4-5 ESV
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:9-11 ESV
Now we can see where John got the idea of Jesus being the light of men and the true light that shines in the darkness. He had heard it directly from the lips of Jesus Himself. And Jesus reveals that his entrance into the darkness of this world would be met with disbelief and indifference. His life, death, and resurrection would fail to convince many that He truly was the Son of God and the Savior of the world.
Everyone, including Nicodemus, recognized that there was something remarkable about this itinerant Rabbi from Nazareth. His message and miracles were like nothing they had ever heard or seen before. Some were impressed. Others were intrigued. A few were even convinced. But the majority continued to reject the light because they preferred to continue living in the darkness of sin.
But Jesus had come to illuminate the darkness of sin and to eliminate the penalty that accompanied it. And throughout the years of His earthly ministry, He continued to declare His divine mission to bring light to a sin-darkened world and life to a spiritually dead people.
Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – John 8:12 ESV
“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” – John 9:5 ESV
“I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” – John 12:46 ESV
And Jesus makes it clear that the peoples’ refusal to believe in Him would be based on their love affair with sin.
“…people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” – John 3:19 ESV
No one likes having their sins exposed. So, they try to keep them concealed. They attempt to hide them from others. Darkness serves as a metaphor for the secrecy that accompanies a life of sinfulness. But that darkness takes a variety of forms. Too often, we can try to veil our sinfulness with acts of self-righteousness. That is exactly what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 25-28 NLT
So, we can attempt to cover our sins with a thin veneer of righteous-looking deeds or we can simply commit our sins in secrecy, hidden away from the sight of others. As long as no one sees what we are doing, our reputations remain intact. The apostle Paul warns that even believers can find themselves attempting to harbor secret sins, hidden away from the eyes of others. But light has a way of exposing what is hidden.
Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible. – Ephesians 5:11-14 NLT
Jesus made it painfully clear that “everyone who does wicked things hates the light” (John 3:20 ESV). Their sinful natures crave hiddenness and despise exposure. Like a roach that scatters when a light is turned on, a sinner will tend to run from the illuminating light of the gospel “lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20 ESV).
One of the most indicting statements Jesus ever made was directed at the sect to which Nicodemus was a member. Luke records a scene in which Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees for having eaten with tax collectors and sinners. They were appalled by His actions and arrogantly asked, “Why do you eat and drink with such scum?” (Luke 5:30 NLT). And Jesus simply responded:
“Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” – Luke 5:31-32 NLT
The Pharisees were living in darkness, convinced that their outward displays of righteousness were enough to cover up their inward need for repentance and restoration. They were diseased, dying, and in need of a doctor, but refused to admit it. Because they loved the darkness rather than the light.
Even Nicodemus would refuse to have his deeds exposed by the light. He had come under the cover of darkness, attempting to find out if Jesus was the Messiah. But he would walk away, still in the dark, both physically and spiritually. He had come into the presence of the light but would walk away just as he had come.
Jesus leaves Nicodemus with a final word that re-emphasizes the spiritual nature of all that He has said.
“…whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” – John 3:21 ESV
Salvation is a work of God. And this would have been a foreign concept to Nicodemus. He had been raised to believe that human effort was the essential ingredient for finding acceptance with God. Good works were the criteria by which men were judged by God and deemed worthy of His love. But Jesus was letting Nicodemus know that no man could earn a right standing with God through self-effort. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee himself, put it this way:
Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:9 NLT
For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:20 NLT
For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law. – Galatians 2:16 NLT
This would have been shocking news to Nicodemus. And he would walk away that night with his head spinning from all that he had heard. Jesus had just enlightened him as to the true means by which sinful men can be made right with a holy God. Now, Nicodemus had a decision to make.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.