Now let’s be clear: Nicodemus was no lightweight. First of all, John tells us that he was a Pharisee. Because of the conflicts that Jesus has with the Pharisees in the Gospels, we tend to have a very negative view of this group within Judaism. But we also need to recognize that these were people who were very serious about faith in the God of Israel. They were committed to living in ways that kept the Torah. They were all about knowing the Torah – how to interpret it and live it.
Beyond this, John describes Nicodemus as “a ruler of the Jews.” He was someone of importance and influence among the Jewish people. This description of a Pharisee leads us to expect that he was someone who had advanced training in the interpretation of Scriptures and the Torah. As I have mentioned before, the Pharisees were as a group largely composed of what we would call “laypeople.” But there were also Pharisees who had advanced training. The apostle Paul, in his days as the Pharisee Saul, is a good example of this.
This expectation is confirmed by our text when Jesus describes Nicodemus as “the teacher of Israel.” So Nicodemus was certainly well versed in God’s Word of the Old Testament. He was an impressive figure whose authority was recognized by those around him.
Nicodemus had seen the miracles that Jesus was performing, and clearly they had caught his attention. There was no snap judgment of rejection in Nicodemus. Instead, he sought Jesus out. Now he did it at night, so obviously there was caution on his part about appearances. But he came to Jesus and addressed him in a very respectful manner as he said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
But poor Nicodemus had no idea what he was getting into. His was a correct, but inadequate understanding of Jesus. Our Lord proceeded to reveal how inadequate it was in a way that left Nicodemus’ head spinning. He ignored Nicodemus’ statement and replied, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus was completely puzzled as he contemplated how an adult could be born of his mother again.
But Jesus didn’t stop there. He added, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Our Lord spoke about the need for spiritual rebirth – to be born again – in order to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus says that the flesh – the sinful, fallen nature – can only give birth to more flesh. It is the Spirit of God who gives birth to spiritual people – to the children of God. And of course “water and Spirit” is the means of baptism that Jesus instituted after his resurrection.
At that moment there was no way for Nicodemus to understand this. He was still boggled by the idea of being “born again.” So Jesus said, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Jesus told Nicodemus that the fact he didn’t understand how the Spirit works, does not change the fact that the Spirit does indeed work in giving rebirth.
The last thing we hear from Nicodemus is the helpless question: “How can these things be?” He doesn’t utter another word in the rest of the chapter. He was out of his depth and completely confused.
If I can pause here, I think it is safe to say that we often feel that way too on this particular Sunday. Today is the Feast of the Holy Trinity. Today we focus on the nature and character of God – on the knowledge that he has revealed about himself. He had revealed to Israel in the Old Testament that he is the only true God. There is only one God – Yahweh, the creator of heaven and earth. But God has also revealed in the New Testament that he is one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As we will confess with great clarity in the Athanasian Creed this morning, each person is truly God, and yet there is only one God. God is three-in-one – the triune God.
That leaves us in the same position as Nicodemus, asking: “How can these things be?” However, Trinity Sunday is only once a year, and so our thoughts probably don’t remain on that topic all that long. That’s not to say, however, that we stop asking the question, “How can these things be?” Instead our attention soon leaves the sublime things of God and returns to our lives. There we find hardships and struggles. We find suffering and pain. We find the threat of death. We are left wondering, “How can these things be?” And then wondering passes over into doubt and fear.
In our text Jesus says to Nicodemus, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” Then our Lord declared why he had knowledge of heavenly things. He said, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
We now fully understand that Jesus is the glorious Son of Man of Daniel chapter 7. He is divine – he is the Son of God, who was with God in the beginning and through whom all things were made. He is God the Son.
But then Jesus adds, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Our Lord refers to the event in the book of Numbers when the people spoke against God and complained about the food. God sent fiery serpents among the people who bit them and caused death. When the people repented and asked for help, God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. All who were bitten and looked at the bronze serpent lived.
Jesus describes how he will be lifted up on the cross. He will die as the One who takes away the sin of the world – who takes away your sin. Our Lord did this on Good Friday, and he promises in our text that whoever believes in him will have eternal life.
And then immediately after our text he adds, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” We often assume that the “so” is this verse means “so much” – as if the verse meant, “God loved the world so much that He gave his only Son.” However, the Greek word translated here as “so” means “in this way.” God loved the world in this way - that he gave his only Son.
God loved you in this way, that he gave his only Son for you. God the Father gave his Son as the sacrifice on the cross for you. And then, on the third day he raised him from the dead. He took away your sin and defeated death. The risen Lord invited Thomas to touch the marks in his body that were left by the crucifixion. And Thomas confessed, “My Lord and my God!”
And it is here that we learn our very knowledge of the Trinity provides the answer to the “How can these things be?” questions that we have in life. The only reason that we know about the Trinity is because the Father sent forth the Son, as he became flesh through the work of the Spirit. The only reason we know about the Trinity is because God loved us in this way – by giving his Son for us.
Stop and think about that. Your knowledge of the Trinity has been caused by the fact that the Father gave the Son for you. God the Father loved you so much that he loved you in this way. He sent his only beloved Son with whom, and with the Spirit, he has lived in communion for all eternity. He sent him to become man, without ceasing to be God. He sent the Son in order to condemn him – in order to pour out his holy wrath against the sin of the whole world. Christ bore the sin of everything you have done against God’s will. He bore the sin of every atrocity that has ever occurred. Christ carried them all and became the focus of God’s eternal judgment as he was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That is how much God loves you.
And we have learned that we believe now because the Spirit has acted upon us. We have been born again in the water of Holy Baptism. The Spirit has created faith in Jesus. Though we came into the world as flesh – as fallen sinners – the Son became flesh in order to give us the Spirit. He died to forgive our sins and then as the ascended Lord he poured forth the Spirit. Through the Spirit, God has worked faith, for Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. I will raise him up on the last day.”
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so Jesus Christ was lifted up on the cross for you. Because he was, you have life with God. Dead and buried in a tomb, on the third day Jesus rose from the dead. He defeated death, and so you have not only life with God. You have eternal life. You have life with God that not even death can stop. And if you die, you will have bodily, resurrection life when our Lord returns in glory. That is why Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
Jesus never promised that his earthly ministry would bring an end to the circumstances that cause us to ask, “How can these things be?” In fact, he said quite the opposite. We hear about the mystery of the Holy Trinity – that God is three and one at the same time – and wonder, “How can these things be?” But we know about the Trinity because our God has acted in love in the Son of God, Jesus Christ. In him we have forgiveness and eternal life that overcomes all the circumstances we encounter. That is why Jesus declared, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world."