What is essential to an understanding of the Gospel, the good news about Jesus? What I remember as a kid was hearing that John 3:16 was it. That’s the Gospel in one verse. That’s all you need to know. Therefore John 3:16 is the most important verse in the Bible. So put it on banners and fly those banners at football games. Put it on signs and place those signs in your yard. John 3:16 is the Gospel. But is it?
No. John 3:16 is not the Gospel. John 3:16 is not enough. In fact, by focusing on John 3:16, it is very possible that Christians who have tended to really emphasize John 3:16 have not shared the Gospel and have done a disservice to the Kingdom and mission of God. We need to stop with John 3:16. Why? This week on the blog, we’re going to find out we not only need John 3:16, but we need more than John 3:16.
Turn in your Bibles to John chapter 3 and read verse 1. There we meet Nicodemus. Who was he?
For starters, we read that Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Who were the Pharisees? We hear a lot about them in the Gospels, and usually they are not described in a good light. Why? Because one of the primary plot lines in the Gospels is the Pharisees versus Jesus. They are so often against him. Why? It goes back a couple hundred years.
The Pharisees first appear in the time between the testaments, the approximately 400 years between the events at the end of the Old Testament and the events at the beginning of the New Testament. Numerous important events happened in the life of the Jewish people during those 400 years, including the creation of this group of deeply religious men, the Pharisees. They were passionate about keeping the law of Moses. The name, Pharisee, means “separated ones” referring to their lives of being separated from the common approach to the Law. Pharisees were going to be above and beyond, radically committed to obeying God.
Their movement grew to the point where in Jesus’ days, there were approximately 6000 Pharisees located throughout the entire country of Palestine. They would serve and teach in synagogues all over the land, and of course in the temple in Jerusalem. They saw themselves as guardians of the true way of God. That meant they could be very legalistic, which often led to the conflict being them and Jesus, because Jesus was not legalistic at all. This man, Nicodemus, he’s one of those guys. A Pharisee, which means he sees himself as super committed to God.
We also learn that he is a member of the Ruling Council. That means Nicodemus is one of the top leaders in the nation. He is a bigwig. In that ancient Jewish culture, politics and religion are often mixed because they were a theocratic nation, founded by God on the Mosaic Law. There is no separation of church and state. Of course, at that time, they are controlled by Rome, and everything they do is subject to permission by Rome. But within the Jewish culture, the Ruling Council is totally fluid with religion. The Ruling Council would include priests, Pharisees, scholars of the Mosaic Law, and wealthy people. So there is Nicodemus, one of 70 or so people in the whole nation who is on this Ruling Council, and he is also a member of the ultra-serious Pharisees. It is hard to underestimate the high position Nicodemus has.
So far, Jesus has mostly interacted with peasants like himself, people on the margins of high society. Small town Nazareth. Small town Cana. Medium town Capernaum. Then he enters the temple, as we studied last week, where he creates a small riot, whipping up the large animals into a stampede, flipping over the tables of the money changers. Look at John chapter 2, verses 18-20, and we read that the Jews show up. John is referring to the temple leaders, which is a different group of leaders than the ruling council.
Jesus has, therefore, at least once interacted with some important people. They confront him, as you would expect them to confront someone who is responsible for upheaval at the temple. Their confrontation is actually a challenge to him to perform a miraculous sign to prove his authority, thus showing he was from God. But he answers them with one his typically cryptic responses, throwing the challenge back on them, that if they destroy the temple, he’ll rebuild it in three days. He sounds crazy, so it seems they respond to him as if he is crazy, “You’ll rebuild the temple in three days? It took 40 years to build it.” The incident, as John tells it, goes no further. We learn that Jesus, during his stay in Jerusalem, actually does do numerous miraculous signs, and people believe in him.
So in chapter two of John, starting with his miraculous transformation of the water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and then as he performs more miracles in Jerusalem, a theme has emerged. Jesus is a miracle worker. As you can imagine, that doesn’t go unnoticed. People are talking. Someone doing miracles is big news.
Don’t assume that this was Bible times and therefore miracles are happening all the time. While there were miracles in the historical accounts of the Old Testament, remember that 400 years had passed since the end of the Old Testament, and even then it had a been a long time before that since miracles were present in the nation. You’d have to go back all the way to the ministry of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, which was about 900 years earlier.
That means that talk of a miracle worker in town would have been big news, and probably the kind of news that many people shrug off saying, “Come on…no way.” But these reports of miracles have a credibility about them. Multiple reports, eyewitnesses. That news has made it to the desk of the authorities, including Nicodemus.
Check back in to the next post, and in that post we’ll hear how Nicodemus starts this conversation with Jesus.
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