The Teacher of Israel Gets Schooled in Heavenly Things

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[Jesus said:] “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).   
We live in a day in which rote memorization is generally seen as unnecessary for academic pursuits. It is considered dry and stale, a time filler (or killer) that distracts from more valuable learning activities. But I thank God for a pastor who insisted that his catechumens memorize all six chief parts of Luther’s Small Catechism, because if I was pressed to point to the specific time and place I first had the peace of knowing I am saved by grace alone through faith alone, I would have to say that it was in the basement of Grace Lutheran Church, in Nunda, South Dakota, the day I memorized the explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith...”
It was with these words that it all clicked. I had a better appreciation of my Baptism as an infant, some 14 years earlier in Oslo Lutheran Church, rural Volga, South Dakota. Years of Sunday school lessons at Midway and Bethel Lutheran churches suddenly made sense. Those stories of the Old Testament were not just histories of heroes of long ago to teach lessons about making the right choices and the consequences of choosing the wrong—they pointed to the Savior. The New Testament accounts of Jesus’ person and work were given for more than a moral example. Jesus’ death and resurrection did not just make my salvation possible, it fully achieved it. And best of all, I realized I did not even have to somehow muster the faith in order to make this my own, the Holy Spirit does it all for me—from beginning to end! What a burden was lifted from my heart and soul! And I am very much indebted for Pastor Olson’s insistence on memorizing the catechism!
Not that memorization for its own sake saves you. I suspect Nicodemus had all of Scripture memorized. He is a leader of the Pharisees, a branch of Judaism that take Scriptures seriously. In fact, Jesus calls him “the teacher of Israel,” suggesting he is a leading authority among his contemporaries. He’s well-trained in the ways of his religion—the religion of the Pharisees—which, in a nutshell is this: if you keep the commands of God well enough, the kingdom of God is yours.
We’re usually tempted to think of the Pharisees as evil, malicious plotters, but that really isn’t fair. They sincerely want to please God, and they’re generally respected by the people. The Pharisees are the ones who have been holding things together in Israel since the day of the Maccabees. It’s because of their teaching, example, and enforcement that people seek to honor God by keeping His laws, by doing the right thing. They’ve also been waiting for the Messiah to come and set up a kingdom right here on earth. And since Jesus has been working some extraordinary signs, they feel it is their responsibility to check this new rabbi out.
So Nicodemus drops by one night for a little impromptu theological interview. “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these things that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2).
As is often the case, Jesus cuts right to the real issue at hand. Nicodemus, you want to talk about heavenly things? Let’s skip the pleasantries and put all our theological cards on the table. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
“Born again”? What does that mean? How do you go about being born again—how do you accomplish that? After all, what did you do to be born the first time? Nothing! You were there, of course. But you didn’t do anything to be born—being born was something done to you. I don’t think there is anyone here who would have the nerve to walk up to your mother, remind her of the 15 hours of labor and then say, “Didn’t I do a great job being born, Mom?”
And now this Jesus says that you can only see the kingdom of God if you’re born again. This is confusing for Nicodemus—the teacher of the Law. It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “What do you do to get into the kingdom of God? Nothing.” But that can’t be right. How do you become righteous by doing nothing? So Nicodemus probes: “How can a man be born again when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4). That doesn’t make sense, Jesus. It’s biologically and physically impossible.
But Jesus doesn’t backpedal. In fact, He doubles down: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). To enter the kingdom of God you must be born of water and the Spirit. And what do you do to be born, Nicodemus? Nothing. It’s done to you. And it’s the same with this spiritual birth. It’s the Holy Spirit who does this rebirth to you, and He does it with water and Word—He does it by means of Holy Baptism.
So what about this whole notion of working your way into the kingdom? That’s the sort of teaching that men come up with, but it’s not God’s plan. Thus Jesus continues, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). The works of man don’t save man, Nicodemus: you have to be born of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God.
All of us alike come into this world outside of God’s kingdom. Contrary to what some teach, infants begin their lives under sin’s condemnation. As Job once said of our physical birth: “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one.” (14:4). And Paul said, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:18). We can only conclude with David, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5).
A thousand physical rebirths cannot change the deep depravity of original sin. But there is a water that purifies, that brings with it God’s Spirit. As Ezekiel prophesied of the Lord: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean… I will give you a new heart… And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes and be careful to obey My rules” (36:25-27). The Spirit works that new birth through the water of Holy Baptism.
I suspect that by this point Nicodemus is somewhere between “puzzled,” “astounded,” and “scandalized,” for Jesus has just told him that the Pharisees’ entire plan of salvation is just plain wrong. They say, “You’ll be saved if you do,” but this Teacher come from God is telling him, “You can’t be saved by doing, but only by being done to. You can only be saved by the work of God.”
So Jesus nudges “the teacher of Israel” at little bit more: “Do not marvel what 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” (John 3:8).
That’s a hard one for Nicodemus, too. His theology is neat and tidy: you can tell who the saved people are because they’re the upstanding citizens who are really trying to do their best over their lifetime. But Jesus says that the Spirit is going to go where He wishes and save all who believe. It might be a Pharisee or a fisherman. A prostitute or a tax collector. Or even a thief hanging on a cross.
None of this makes sense to Nicodemus, because none of it fits his religion. And as long as Nicodemus is convinced that salvation comes by the works you do, he’s not going to understand the Gospel. That’s why Jesus asks, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:10-12).
“You do not receive our testimony,” says Jesus; and He’s speaking of the testimony of God throughout Scripture. Jesus is not hijacking the Bible away from the Pharisees and starting a new religion; rather, He is proclaiming what God has declared all along. It is the Pharisees who have departed from Scripture. They’ve set aside the promises of a Savior who will deliver them from sin into eternal life, instead settling for a king who might deliver them from their earthly enemies and teach them a higher, holier way of life here and now.
Jesus gives Nicodemus two examples of how the Old Testament points to Himself—Jacob’s ladder and the bronze serpent. He says, “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven. 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” (John 3:13-15).
Jesus is not just another rabbi who happens to have power: He’s the Messiah, the Son of God, come from heaven to carry out God’s plan, to do what man can’t do for himself, to bridge the chasm between heaven and earth, to save mankind by being lifted up into death on a cross, that whoever believes in Him will have forgiveness and eternal life as a gift.
The teacher of Israel gets schooled on heavenly things. Jesus subtly, yet succinctly, lets Nicodemus know that he has been living and teaching all the wrong stuff. For all of his studying of Scripture, Nicodemus has missed the proclamation of the Gospel in the Old Testament. No wonder he cannot believe heavenly things! No wonder he cannot understand the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God, or how all of this fits with the kingdom of God and eternal life.
But the time will come when he will! The Spirit goes when and where He wishes. And though we have no indication of it in our text for today, the Holy Spirit will have His way with Nicodemus. The teacher of Israel will be brought to faith in this Teacher come from God. When the Pharisees plot Jesus’ death, it will be Nicodemus who defends the Savior, who bids his colleagues to listen to the Christ (John 7:50-51). And when Jesus has died, it will be Nicodemus who brings the myrrh and aloes to prepare His Savior’s body that it might be laid to rest.
John 3:16 is sometimes called “the Gospel in a nutshell,” for it sums up the Gospel: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” This does indeed proclaim salvation by grace: heaven is not yours because you have done enough to earn it, but because Christ has done it all for you to save you, and gives it to you freely as a gift. The kingdom of God is yours! You have eternal life! You have been born again by water and the Spirit! What Good News!
Now, of course, the devil hates this news more than anything else, and he will war against it in any way he can. Remember also that your sinful flesh still clings to you, and your Old Adam is often a willing ally of the old evil foe. So let’s address these foes who would have you dead once again with their seductions.
You will be tempted to believe that Christianity is really about being a good person, and that all this talk about doctrine is just for pastors and professors. But doctrine matters, sound teaching of Law and Gospel makes all the difference—just look at what happened to the Pharisees when they got off track! They reverted to placing the emphasis on what we must do to earn God’s love, rather than on the love God has lavished on us in His grace. Repent, do not despise preaching and God’s Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it!
You’ll be tempted to believe that God loves you more when you’re good than when you’ve sinned. It’s true that God delights in your good works rather than your sins, but that is not the same as His love. God’s love is unconditional; He gave His only Son to die for you before you were even born. Even though you have failed, God continues faithfully to offer you life and salvation by His means of grace. If you believe God’s love for you changes according to your behavior, you’re saying that you earn His love by your good works, your obedience, not Christ’s obedience and His innocent suffering and death. Repent, and rejoice that God’s love for you is in Christ, and God’s love for you in Christ will never falter.
You’ll be tempted to forget your Baptism or misunderstand its power and benefits. You’ll see it as a one-time thing in the past. But Jesus tells you in this text that being a Christian isn’t just that you were born again, but that you are born again—not just that you were baptized, but that you are baptized. If you ignore your baptism—your being born again, you’ll start to believe that your life comes from what you do, not the Spirit. Repent. In fact, repentance is the ongoing joy of living in your Baptism. It’s the constant acknowledgement that you cannot save you from your sin, but that Christ has.
All such thoughts that we save ourselves are the teachings of man found in every false religion. The Gospel is that the triune God has made you alive in Christ by His loving work of the cross. You are redeemed. Christ has died and Christ is risen for you. He does not come now to judge you, to condemn you for your sin. Rather, He comes with grace and salvation, to tell you that you are born again by the work of the Spirit, to maintain that new life by His Word and His Supper. He comes to declare that you are entered into the kingdom of God
How can these things be? Because you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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