Even in the dark of night, Jesus could still see. The Master of ministry saw beyond the fluff and flattery, beyond the posturing and pleasantries. And when He looked beyond the outward appearances of this Pharisee and his innocuous introductory remarks, Jesus discerned Nicodemus’s heart need. Beyond all this religious leader’s attempts to appear as though he had life altogether, Jesus understood his spiritual need for conversion and was moved with compassionate urgency to fulfill it.
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” John 3:1-3, NIV
Over the last few posts, we’ve been considering the gospel of John’s portrayal of Jesus as One who takes interest in others’ interests and uses their present-tense needs as a starting point for His ministry efforts. Here in chapter 3, we see an example of someone who was well-off in many ways and came to Jesus not because of a dire emergency or personal struggle. Nicodemus came to Jesus personally, privately, and respectfully.
There are times in our lives when we, like the respected teacher of Israel, approach Jesus more out of politeness and respect rather than desperation and need.
And in those moments, Jesus sees something we don’t: we must be born again. No matter how tidy our life record, we all need to be born again, and this shouldn’t surprise us (John 3:7). The brokenness of our human sinfulness may not always be something we’re fully aware of, but Jesus is. Furthermore, Jesus is not only aware of our need, He’s willing to address it.
We’ve all had that awkward moment when we enthusiastically connect with a friend after lunch and we notice that little bit of broccoli still lingering in their toothy smile. We’re faced with a decision: do I risk embarrassing my friend and point out their blemish, or do I preserve their dignity (at least in the short-term) and just let it slide? I know, it’s a cosmetic need and not a critical, life-or-death scenario, but it illustrates something that moved Jesus in John 3. He was more concerned about presenting Nicodemus with eternal life than He was about preserving his personal dignity. Jesus was willing and loving enough to actually say something about the need for conversion that Nicodemus couldn’t see.
The Savior’s direct diagnosis of Nicodemus’s and every one of our heart’s need is not intended to be a putdown. It’s an invitation to look up. He’s not trying to shame us; He’s trying to save us. “How can this be?” (John 3:9) was the million dollar question that Jesus hopes each and everyone of us will honestly seek an answer to because inquiry usually flows out of interest. Nicodemus didn’t start with an inquiry at the beginning of this interview, but Jesus moved this spiritual instructor to become interested in his own need for rebirth. How can we be born again? How can we be born of both water and the Spirit in order to see the kingdom of God? Jesus’ answer is an invitation:
“No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.” John 3:13-15, NIV
Nicodemus sought a nice interview with “a teacher who has come from God,” but Jesus invited him to seek salvation from the Son of Man. As Israel in the wilderness looked to an uplifted snake and lived (Num. 21:8), anyone of us who has been brought to self-awareness of our need to be born again can look to Jesus in faith and live. When we see the Savior lifted up on Calvary’s cross, when we see the love of God that gave His only begotten Son and trust our lives to Him, we can be certain of eternal life (John 3:16), new life in Christ, and the rebirth that we so desperately need.
How can Jesus’ approach to Nicodemus’ spiritual need shape our ministry efforts today? First, be aware of spiritual needs beneath the surface. I would submit that as God looks on the heart, we ought to be sensitive to the heart need’s of our friends and family for spiritual re-birth. This is a given for all we come in contact with even if their seem to have all they outwardly need. Admittedly, some are more conscious of their need for conversion than others. Even those who are already “in” the church may still very well be in need of the converting power of the Spirit. Being aware of someone’s need for conversion doesn’t make us better than them, but it makes us indebted to them (cf. Rom. 1:14-17).
Second, address the spiritual need with compassionate urgency. As Jesus was willing to address Nicodemus’ need for rebirth, so do we need to be willing to get to the heart of things. Yes, let’s program for social connection and fulfilling people’s need for belonging. But let’s also invest personal effort in getting to those real conversations that expose a need for personal conversion. Jesus didn’t expose Nicodemus’ brokenness in public. He did it one-on-one, in an environment where Nicodemus could feel safe and ask questions. These safe environments don’t happen because a church plans for it in their calendar. It happens as we individually and intentionally are safe people who are compassionate enough to bring it up.
Third, when we do have the relational and conversational momentum to address someone’s spiritual need, let’s lead people to Jesus. We need to uplift the cross, the story of Calvary, and the character of a God who loves us more than His own existence. To lead people to conversion is to lead people to the cross. To lead people to experience new life in Christ is to lead people to encounter the infinite love of Christ. If there was ever a time to become gospel-fluent, it is now. More than ever, the world needs a revelation of Jesus Christ through our lives and also our stories. Let’s make the story of Calvary the story of our lives so that all that Jesus has made available through His life, death, and resurrection doesn’t flow from our mouths like a memorized script but from our hearts as our life song.
Finally, let God’s Spirit bear fruit through our gospel invitations in His time and way. The reality is that Jesus didn’t have Nicodemus fill out a baptism card that night. The Master of ministry was willing to let him respond to the Spirit’s appeal when he was fully ready…which, by all appearances, happened to be a direct result of literally seeing Jesus on Calvary (Jn. 19:39-40). When ministering to the spiritual needs of others around us, we too can be patient with people’s response to the Spirit’s promptings. We may even have to be willing to wait to see the fruit of our labors in the world to come.