The other day, I was reading through John 3 and happened upon a story familiar to me – the one where Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night. If you’ve never read this passage before, go read it, it’s a good one. Go ahead, I’ll wait… Done? Great. Basically, Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews comes to Jesus at night and calls him a great teacher. To which Jesus gives a cryptic response: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (vs 3) Nicodemus doesn’t understand, and then Jesus goes on to elaborate for the rest of the chapter.
Growing up on this story, I always thought of Nicodemus as that one dumb guy who just couldn’t grasp what Jesus was trying to tell him about salvation – since I was raised on the concept of being “born again”. If you read the title of this post, you’re probably thinking “So why would you think he went to Cal”? Cal only accepts the best and the brightest, and Nicodemus seems pretty clueless here. Not to mention, Cal is 148 years old and Nicodemus died almost 2000 years ago. These are great arguments, but I’m still not convinced. Let me tell you why.
Nicodemus was actually one of the most well-studied and well respected teachers in all of Israel. To be a Pharisee at all, you had to have years of intense education and actually memorize the entire Torah. Yeah, the whole thing. Memorized. Pharisees were also zealous perfectionists. They valued purity before God, and took extreme measures to be sure that they never broke the commands of the Old Testament Law, even adding laws to them to be sure they wouldn’t be broken. To top it all off, Nicodemus wasn’t just any Pharisee. He was a “ruler of the Jews”, as John describes him. This implies he was a high ranking Pharisee with political power, probably a member of the Sanhedrin, the governing body of the Jews at that time. So he was also powerful and influential.
Does Nicodemus sound like a product of Cal yet? He’s intelligent, driven and dedicated to his studies, probably struggles with performance and being a perfectionist, and excels in his field even to the point of being one of the top leaders in his country. Sounds to me like someone who would have gone to the number one public school in the nation (go Bears). But now, we have to deal with these striking similarities between us and Nicodemus, or we could fall into the same spiritual confusion that he did.
Nicodemus, like every other Pharisee, prided himself on his knowledge of the Torah. Having it memorized and all, I’m sure they thought they had all the answers. They had an idea, based on their interpretation of the scriptures, of what the Messiah would be: a warrior king (Psalm 2) who came to set Israel free from the rule of the Roman empire. Jesus didn’t fit that mold in the slightest. He began to preach of the scriptures in a way that the Pharisees had never thought of before, and identified himself as the Messiah who would come to take away the sins of the world to restore his people to a right relationship with God (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Now the Pharisees were not completely wrong in their thoughts of the Messiah, but they misinterpreted what kind of a king the Messiah would be, and in their pride, they were unwilling to accept what God was telling them: that Jesus was the fulfillment of the scriptures.
This combination of religious zeal and pride is a trap that we can easily fall into. And honestly, the reason this hit me so hard when I read it recently is because I’ve been heading that direction for a while now. The past year or so, I’ve been getting really into theology and studying the Bible in ways I hadn’t done before. While in some ways, I believe I have been growing, there were areas that sin was beginning to seep into my life. I was learning more about God, but I wasn’t growing closer to Him. I would read, but I wouldn’t pray. I was learning more from C.S. Lewis and Dave Lomas than I was from Jesus. The cloud of religious activity made me think I was doing well, but I was growing prideful and independent in my personal walk with God.
Don’t hear me saying that learning, and especially about God, is a bad thing. It’s actually one of the best things we can do! But there is a right and a wrong way to go about it. Some of the Pharisees were selfishly motivated, and hated Jesus because he was a threat to their power, but Nicodemus was one of the Pharisees who committed his life to the study of the Torah because of his genuine love for God. If he didn’t care about God, he would not have sought Jesus out in the night to learn the truth. But even as Jesus was sharing the truth of God’s kingdom with him, he almost missed it! In John 3:10, Jesus calls Nicodemus out, saying “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” Educated and zealous as Nicodemus was, he had fallen into the trap of pride and religion. He was depending more on his own knowledge and understanding than on God’s. John MacArthur writes on this passage, saying that “the externals of religion may have a deadening effect on one’s spiritual perception”. That’s what happened to Nicodemus, and that’s what can happen to us.
So what can we learn from Nicodemus? With time, Nicodemus’ heart was changed, and by the end of John, he believed in Jesus. God wants to do that in us as well, but it doesn’t come from any of our external religious duties. It isn’t the things we learn, or how many Bible studies we go to, or all the sins we don’t commit that will bring us close to God. It’s Jesus. When it comes to God, you can learn all you want, but you’ll never find anything more important that grace and what Jesus did on the cross for us. If we make that truth the center of our being, it allows us to experience the fullness of what God has for us.