Thursday, 30 January 2014

Encounters - Nicodemus

At the beginning of John’s gospel is a series of several descriptions of encounters. Jesus preached to the multitudes that flocked to Him and to the regular worshippers in the temple, but He was and is the God who reveals Himself on a personal basis to those individuals seeking Him.

Chapter 3 of John’s gospel describes the first of these encounters, when Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest judicial court in Jerusalem, seeks out Jesus to learn more of Jesus’ identity. In the previous chapter, Jesus has cleared the temple of its corruption, which did not make Him popular with the authorities. Nicodemus, therefore contacts Jesus at night to question Jesus further about His miracle-working power.

It’s not only a physical time of darkness being referred to here. Darkness described in the Bible symbolises sin and despair and a sense of being lost. Jesus is often referred to as the Light. In John’s first chapter he writes “In Him was life and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” (John 1:4, 5). Jesus Himself in chapter 3 tells us that some people will hate the light because their deeds are evil, whilst others will live by the light and it will be their source of guidance.

Nicodemus was a man of intelligence, high social standing and learning. Yet Jesus is unafraid to challenge him with a completely radical way of practicing religion. Jesus talks about spiritual rebirth. Religion is not about ceremony and ritual. It's about a personal relationship. It's not achieved by man's efforts, but, as Christ foretells in verse 14, by the Son of Man being lifted up i.e. crucified.

This chapter details some of the pivotal features of Christianity which separate it from all other world religions. Christianity is a faith of relationship, and we come to God not through our own efforts, but through a person, Jesus. We do not earn salvation through anything that we have done. We receive it through God's gift of His Son.

Jesus speaks of two births and two baptisms. We humans experience a natural, fleshly birth. When one becomes a Christian, through repentance and faith in Jesus, we experience a spiritual rebirth- we are born into a new life, new behaviours, new values. It's from this chapter that we gain the concept of being “born again”, a much trivialised term which is really a promise of great hope- a redeemed life and fresh start in Christ. The connection with God broken by sin can now be restored through repentance and faith in Jesus.

 Similarly we may be baptised in a physical sense- traditionally many infants have been physically baptised by sprinkling or immersion in symbolic water. As believers we are baptised physically as an outward sign of our conversion. Jesus tells of another baptism, that of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. His description in verse 8 of the wind, uncontrollable, mysterious and powerful,  is perhaps a portent of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the crowds at Pentecost, described in Acts 2:1.  When we receive Christ, we also receive His indwelling Holy Spirit, a constant source of His strength, power, comfort, guidance, counsel and so much more. The Holy Spirit is an amazing study area of itself.

Nicodemus risked censure and retribution for seeking out Jesus, but as a man of knowledge and leader of the people, he demonstrated the courage of his convictions by doing so. We do not know if Nicodemus became a follower of Christ, but it seems likely. Later in chapter 7 of John’s gospel, Nicodemus stands up for Jesus when the authorities are agitating for His arrest; and following the crucifixion, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea to place Jesus’ body in His tomb, and purchases anointing spices.

In this encounter with Nicodemus Christ spoke words which have resounded down the centuries, some of the most well-known and beloved words in the entire Bible:

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

In a world of personal and external darkness, Jesus shines rays of love and hope. As He said to Nicodemus “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.” John 3:18

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)

If you are walking in darkness, may Jesus become your light of hope.
If you know Jesus, may the light of His love continue to illuminate your life eternally.
And may we walk into and through the darkness, carrying His light.

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