This post was first published in December, 2018. —ed.
The gospel of John doesn’t attract much attention during the Christmas season. Instead, we are usually drawn to the birth narratives found in the accounts of Luke and Matthew. However, John captures the essence of Christmas beautifully in the opening prologue to his gospel account: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John did not feel the need to elaborate further on the incarnation. Instead, his gospel moves rapidly to the launch of Christ’s ministry at His baptism (John 1:29). John’s focus is the relentless march to Calvary and the fulfillment of the promise delivered in His birth, that “in Him was life, and the life was the Light of men” (John 1:4).
And while it’s appropriate to celebrate the grace and mercy on display as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe took on flesh to become the sacrifice for His people, we must not make the mistake of isolating our view of Christ to His infancy. The glory and power of Christ’s incarnation isn’t captured in the nativity scene alone. To fully appreciate the baby in the manger, we need to look ahead to His finished work at the cross.
With that in mind, we want to spend the next few days considering a pivotal episode from early in John’s gospel. In a clandestine conversation with a powerful Pharisee, Christ Himself explains why He was born and why He had to die—in essence, He gives the gospel to Nicodemus before the promise of the incarnation was even fulfilled.
And for those of us living on this side of the cross, there is perhaps no fuller way to celebrate the baby in the manger than to consider what His life was meant to accomplish.
An Unusually Friendly Pharisee
The account of Nicodemus in John 3 stands out as the only significant example of an extended friendly dialogue between Jesus and a Pharisee. In fact, it stands out as the longest personal conversation Jesus had with any religious leader in all the gospel accounts.
What makes this meeting so unusual is Nicodemus’s response to Jesus. Jesus was no less blunt with him than He was with any Pharisee. But Nicodemus evidently came to Jesus truly wishing to learn, rather than with the typical pharisaical agenda of self-aggrandizement at Jesus’ expense. And the result was a markedly different sort of exchange.
While the conversation with Nicodemus begins in John 3, we find the context for their discussion in the closing verses of chapter 2. John writes:
Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man. (John 2:23–25)
It had been a busy week of public ministry for Jesus. It is the first time on record that He performed numerous miracles, and He did them publicly. Interestingly, John’s account of that week doesn’t focus on the miracles at all. In fact, John mentions them only once in passing, without even saying what kind of miracles they were: “Many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing” (John 2:23). Presumably the signs John speaks of were healings and demonic deliverances, because such miracles became a staple of Jesus’ public ministry (Mark 1:34). But John does not pause to describe them here.
His main point in mentioning these initial miracles was to record that Jesus gained both fame and followers that week, and yet Jesus remained somewhat reserved—even aloof—toward His many would-be disciples.
John is saying that many people responded to Jesus with a kind of enthusiasm that fell short of wholehearted faith, so He didn’t completely trust them, either. In other words, they said they believed Him, but He didn’t believe them. He had no faith in their faith.
Nicodemus seems to have approached Jesus shortly after the first temple cleansing (John 2:13-22)—perhaps later that same week, during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. It is clear from the gospel narrative that Nicodemus’s interest in Christ was genuine. Still, it fell short of authentic saving faith—and Jesus made that clear in his first words to Nicodemus.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”
We’ll dig into that powerful passage next time. But here is a practical lesson from this account: a positive response to Jesus should never be taken as proof of authentic trust in Him. There is a shallow, fickle brand of “belief” that is not saving faith at all. From the first public miracle He performed until this very day, there have always been people who “accept Christ” without truly loving Him, without submitting to His authority, and without abandoning their self-confidence and trust in their own good works. That is precisely what John describes at the end of John 2, and that becomes his transition into the Nicodemus narrative. Nicodemus was (at this point) one of those almost-believers to whom Jesus did not automatically commit Himself.
(Adapted from The Jesus You Can’t Ignore)