There is a certain protection in reading the Bible as a set of maxims for all times and places. Generic stories back then, mean generic applications today and we are off the hook. It’s easy to be good in general, but the particulars are much more sticky. It is a form of ear tickling, but a more subtle form than, say, the TV evangel. There are generic characteristics to sin, but the number one such characteristic is the subtle way it twists and turns and disguises itself, virtue is just a few shades away from sin and yesterdays virtue is almost always an idol, just like the bronze serpent in the wilderness.
The story of Nicodemus in John 3 begins thus, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.” This is not just extra material put in for the fun of it, between the bumper sticker maxims. This is key information to understanding the story that is to follow. The message that Jesus gives is a specific tailored response to this man. It was included in the gospel in this context. If you don’t know who the Pharisees were and read these verses without that in mind, what you come up with is simply heresy, which is what heresy often is, an oversimplification of truth. There are a lot of misconceptions these days surrounding who the Pharisees were. We have been told they were only legalists, each trying to individually out perform the others and earn his salvation. But this is reading American individualism back into these events. They didn’t rely on their works, they relied on their identity as a Jew. This man didn’t come to Jesus with questions about his soul, he came to Jesus with questions about defeating the non-Jews of the world, questions of the Kingdom. Jesus answered him according to his soul, because that is the point of Jesus’ ministry as it was the point of the law. Jesus is in a sense talking past this man to his disciples, which is why they recorded this event for us. Jesus tells us he does this, talks in parables, for those who have ears to hear (Matthew 13:11). But he is also talking directly to this man and all Jews. If we want to understand him we need to have ears of the Spirit as well as some historical knowledge.
The Jews were to be a people set apart from other nations. But not set apart to look down on the world but to save them. This is what Jesus means when he says “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” This ruler of the Jews, and all the Jews for that matter, were looking for a conquering Messiah who would march out against the world and free the Jews from their oppression under Rome. They wanted to condemn the world. But Jesus came to save the world, as a Jew, as the Jew, he fulfilled the original purpose of the Jews. Which was as a priestly nation to sanctify all of humanity.
We easily do the same thing today. We don’t pray thanking God that we are better than the world because we are Jews in the covenant(Matthew 18:1-8), but we have our groups. Thank you I am not like the Catholics who worship Mary. Thank you I am not like the homosexuals who can’t even figure out sex. Thank you I am not like the prosperity gospel crowd. Thank you I am not like whatever group. Instead of realizing that these people are in the dark because the Church, our group, has not done it’s job. We have not shined our light into these dark places. We have not been the salt of preservation. We have not been priests on behalf of the people around us. Instead we just sit around feeling good about our church club and waiting for God to come and wipe out the unchurched, like Rambo breaking his friends out of a jungle prison. He just barely grabs onto that rope ladder dangling from the chopper before the whole thing burns up in fake, special effects napalm.
So Jesus gives the man parables, that is earthly things which express heavenly truths. Actually most earthly things speak of heavenly truths and all heavenly truths are expressed by earthly things (Psalm 19). He speaks of birth by water and wind(spirit). Nicodemus doesn’t really get it because he is still thinking of earthly things and so Jesus jabs him “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?” Interesting that Jesus speaks of himself as living by testimony, bearing witness to what he has seen, almost as if Jesus surprises himself. Nicodemus must have already believed some earthly testimony, that’s why he came to Jesus in the first place. But he is stuck on the earthly, he is stuck on earth. Jesus tells him he must descend below, he must die. There are lots of subtle hints at this, to be born again we must die. Being born again implies new life from something that was not life, that is death.
Then Jesus brings in the story of the bronze serpent raised up by Moses. And says after the Son of Man descends he will be raised up. This invokes the act of baptism as well as the reality of humility leading to exaltation. The story of the serpent is found in Numbers 21. Again the people of Israel are complaining of hardships in the wilderness, much like the hardship of being under Rome. So God sends snakes to punish them. Then the people repent and plead to God. God has compassion, and he tells Moses to make a bronze serpent. Now a bronze serpent raised up in the bright sun of the desert is hard to miss. All the people had to do was look at it and they would be cured of their snake bites, of course they would look. Jesus walking on this earth is that obvious. This is why Nicodemus came, this is why everyone came. There is something special about this Jesus person. But they recognized the image without submitting themselves to it. Like many good things, the serpent became an idol and it had to be destroyed by Hezekiah (II Kings 18:4).
Then Jesus takes the comparison further. The Jews and religious leaders are so dumb they rejected this brilliant bronze serpent shining in the desert. They didn’t want the light to shine on their little club, because they were afraid it would all be shown to be a fake. So they preferred darkness. How sad but how common. We are faced with the same choice, clinging to our safe little club doctrine, the church as it is today, or throwing it out for the brilliant truth shining in the desert. Now I am not saying we should reject the Church or the meeting together of ourselves. But we need to be aware that we are here to shine and not to exclude. We are here to come down from heaven to the world and baptize them with water and the Spirit, to testify of what we have seen and only then be raised up with Christ in heaven.
John 19:39 tells us that Nicodemus was there when Christ descended from the cross. And we can assume that he was there when he was raised to the right hand of the father in heaven.