In the devotional 21 Days of Flesh by Hugh Halter that we are reading together as a church, Halter writes on Day 3:
Jesus lived 33 years but only “worked” for God the Father three years. In that short time, he was able to pour enough into a few men and women, that they were able to carry out a global movement that reached us. This only happened because Jesus wasted no time. He didn’t try to change the whole universe. He poured his life into just a few, and for a few, 3 years was plenty of time.
It was Jesus’ best use of time to pour his life – his eternal life - into just a few followers. I find that so encouraging! At the same time when I read things like that I really question whether we’ve got our priorities straight. One person Jesus poured his life into was a man named Nicodemus. In fact, he spent just one evening with him and it changed his life. Jesus had been in Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. We are told in John 2 that Jesus had been spending his days teaching and doing miracles and that “many believed in his name.” Because of the placement of the story of Nicodemus just after that statement we can assume that this is the story of how one of those people came to believe in his name.
There is so much to take-away from this encounter. We have the foundational teaching of Jesus on what it means to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit or "Born Again." We have Jesus' use of the Numbers 21:4-9 passage about Moses' raising up the bronze image of a snake - looking to which in faith would bring healing from poisonous snake-bites as a foreshadowing of how Jesus would be 1) raised up on the cross, 2) raised up from the grave, and 3) raised up to take his place at the right hand of the Father. If we look to the "raised up" Jesus in faith, like the ancient Israelites looked to that bronze snake, we will be healed of the power of sin over us and be delivered from the destruction of the second death.
But here is another take-away from the Nic @ Night account. We don’t hear a whole lot about Nicodemus after his encounter on that dark night alone with Jesus. But what we do see is that he couldn’t go it alone. Even though as a religious leader he probably had to keep a low profile for fear of persecution from the other religious leaders who would later want so desperately to put Jesus to death. Once later (in John 7) when the Pharisees and chief priests were condemning Jesus and discussing what they should do about Jesus, Nicodemus stood up for Jesus asking them “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (John 7:50). This public comment must have caught the attention of Joseph of Arimathea another prominent man who was on one of the leadership councils (Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50-51) and is called by John a secret disciple of Jesus (John 19:38). By the time of the crucifixion of Jesus Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had connected up as brothers in the Family of God and were there together taking care of Jesus’ body and burying him in the tomb from which he would rise three days later (John 19:38-40). The heart that is truly born again seeks out community – companionship – Kingdom family. The great command Jesus left his disciples with was that they would love one another.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34)
It is the primary mark of the kingdom of God and you can’t carry out the command to “love another” when you’re going it alone.
Also it is the resurrection that makes such family-fellowship possible. Jesus said that he needed to rise and ascend to the Father so that they would send the Holy Spirit. And it is the Holy Spirit who binds us together as a family. That’s what the blessing at the end of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians points to when he says:
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:14)
The Holy Spirit brings fellowship! Jesus described being born again as being “born of the Spirit.” When you believe in Christ and put your trust in Jesus the Holy Spirit makes his home within you. When someone puts trust in the sacrifice of Jesus as sufficient for the cleansing of sins then that person becomes resurrected inwardly – born again of the Spirit and it becomes possible to be inhabited by the Holy Spirit - people who were otherwise sinful and uninhabitable now have the Holy Spirit alive within. Now the Holy Spirit in me recognizes the same Holy Spirit in you and we are bound together in true fellowship.
This key characteristic of the Kingdom – loving one another – also shapes how the kingdom expands. Loving one another grows the church. When it comes to sharing the good news of this re-birth with others it best reflects the Kingdom of God when we do it in community. The next thing Jesus said after he commanded his disciples to “love one another” was:
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:35)
The very love we show for one another in this family we call the church has a testimonial element to it. Our love for one another is the way by which we will be identified with Christ – it’s how people know we are indeed Jesus’ disciples. This is likely how Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea found each other. They each saw the love of Christ in the other.
So, we must be careful to maintain a balance in our lives and in our church. When we share the good news of all Jesus has done for us on the cross and all he promises to do for us in the future. When we seek to introduce people to Jesus that they too might be “born again” we need to maintain a clear understanding of what our “job description” is and what God’s work is. We don’t need to coerce anyone into the Kingdom. That’s not what Jesus was doing with Nicodemus. Rather we show love toward one another and share the good news about Jesus with others and it is God who transforms hearts and lives.
But we do need to fuel in ourselves a passion to see people and ourselves transformed by the gospel – not simply to get people “converted.” That’s a rather short-sited goal. Jesus told his disciples to make more disciples not just convert people. But when people are born again we must understand that they are no longer simply individuals but individuals who are now adopted members of the family of God. So we need to see both conversion and community. In the church there is indeed individual transformation but it always takes place in the context of God’s Kingdom – the family of God - that is the church.
This will require us to invest in the people around us. This will be costly. It will demand that you turn on your radar for caring, listening, and responding to real people all around you with real wounds, people who are hurting, who are lonely, who are angry, who are rejoicing in things that don’t last and ultimately destroy them, people who are lost and afraid. It has been difficult for me for much of my life to stay put long enough to really make long-term investments in the people around me for the Kingdom. For more than half of my life I have had my eyes so far on the horizon that I have missed many opportunities to share the love of God with the people living closest to us. Again from Day 4 of Hugh Halter's 21 Days of Flesh:
One of the greatest myths of life is that ‘its better over there, having what they have or doing what that person does.’ Our world is a transitional space and we move at a pace that pulls us away from being settled in the place God wants us to be. Most people move at least every three years. We get on planes to get away. We struggle to commit to people or to processes because we don’t want to lose our freedom, and at the end of our lives, we have very little legacy with people and often find a gaping hole in our own sense of faithfulness to God. Christ was from Nazareth… he had a home town. Yes, he did walk around quite a bit. But before his ministry was visibly in full bloom, he lived 30 years in one area and learned both the discipline and benefit of staying put. A great question for any leader or any serious follower is, “Lord, where have you called me to invest and live my life?” “What is my home town?” “Lord, why am I afraid of committing to this area or these people?” These are the questions that lead to not only the right answers but real kingdom legacy. When you find what keeps you on the move, and the underlying insecurities and self-oriented concerns that wage war against ‘the simple life’, AND you let God speak into these issues, you will not only find rest for your soul, but you’ll see fruit begin to bloom all around you.
Let me end on this note: Doesn’t it strike you as absolutely fascinating that the Incarnation of Jesus means that the Almighty God, the Creator, Ruler, and Sustainer of the entire Universe – Lord of both the universe "out there" in the endless expanse of Space and the Lord of the inner universe of the microscopic and atomic and all the immeasurable space between space – that God – the Word that was with God and was God of very God became man of very man and slowed down and walked the dusty roads to Jerusalem from his earthly hometown in Nazareth, and had time to entertain the questions and curiosities of a single man, Nicodemus - on a night that Jesus could have been resting, vegging, recuperating from busy days of healing and teaching in the crowds of stinky pushy people. The Incarnate word of God had time for Nicodemus and it transformed Nicodemus into the man he was created to be – a man who is twice-born, born of the Spirit, complete, forgiven of sin, enjoying eternal life. That Jesus is the Jesus we call “Lord and Master” and it is sufficient that we should become like our “Master.”