We enter into one of the most intriguing and unique sections of John’s Gospel. The manner of salvation. We start with Nicodemus.
John chooses to relate a number of encounters between Jesus and various men and women who he is going to portray in the course of the Gospel.
A blind man…among others
Each person John highlights along this path, each one of them is touched by Christ’s
words, by His miracles, and at the end of it, they all come to faith in Christ. That’s one of the unifying qualities of all these people. They are all individuals who come to faith in Christ. They begin each encounter in ignorance, they leave each encounter transformed by Christ. Therefore, each of these interactions serves to highlight a dimension of the salvation found in Christ. Between these encounters, along the way, we are going to see moments where John records various miracles and moments of dialogue between Jesus and three different groups who are following Jesus. These are different than the vignettes I just described. These three groups are: manner of salvation
- First, Jewish leaders and the crowds of people who come to see the miracles, the people who follow Him around.
- Secondly, John records private conversations between Jesus and the disciples.
- Thirdly, John invites us into these very private moments that Christ has with the Father in discussions and prayer.
John is selecting all of these moments, the vignettes of these characters, these moments of dialogues, he has carefully selected all them to accomplish one purpose, to illustrate the nature of saving faith. John’s Gospel is all about explaining what salvation truly means. Each of these unique characters will show some aspect of what faith requires or how faith moves. In the case of the vignettes, you’re looking at what faith looks like in an open ready heart. How faith takes hold in the life of someone who is in the Light. While the Jewish leaders and crowds generally are the example of the response of darkness to the message of salvation. How does the unbeliever respond to the enlightenment of the Gospel? And then, thirdly you have Jesus’ disciples and you watch their struggle to understand the nature of Christ’s ministry and their own salvation. Which reflects upon the fact spiritual immaturity is a common feature of all new believers. That it takes a while for us to understand what’s actually happened to us already by the power of the Spirit.
Finally, when you look at Jesus’ conversations with the Father, you are going to see the magnitude of the love the Father has for those He saves. And the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice, what was required to deliver that salvation to us. That’s four broad areas we are going to watch John lay out over and over. He just doesn’t do them all at once. He keeps coming back to these things repeatedly. We will look at them all as we go through. But now we are going to look at the first of those vignettes. John’s focus in writing his gospel is all about explaining the nature of the underlining importance of salvation we all have now through His work. He’s explaining it through the eyes of those who encountered Jesus. Both those who believed and those who rejected Him. John isn’t simply retelling events; he’s teaching us about the nature of the Gospel.
So we begin this section in chapter 3 with an encounter that illustrates one aspect of salvation. That is perhaps the most important aspect and this would explain why John starts here. It is the aspect of how we receive salvation. How it arrives. And what better figure to feature in a discussion of how one is saved than a Pharisee, who in their day was the self-appointed religious leaders and teachers of Israel. This scene takes place in Jerusalem. Remember Jesus has come down to Jerusalem for the Passover in chapter 2. And He has stayed there for a week to be a part of that celebration. This scene happens before Jesus leaves Jerusalem to return to The Galilee where His home is. manner of salvation
John 3:1 (NKJV)
The New Birth
3 There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
We were told at the end of chapter 2 that Jesus was performing many miracles in the city during the Passover week. If you notice right at the end of chapter 2 you will see the last verse… He did many miracles and if you notice it said also many believed in Him. Without a doubt, some of those who would have witnessed these miracles and heard His teaching would have been the religious leaders of Israel who would have been present certainly in the city of Jerusalem for the week of Passover. With all that Jesus was doing, the miracles and the like, you would be certain that is going to catch peoples attention, including the leaders. Those leaders would be principally Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Levites (members of the priesthood). They would have seen not only what Jesus said and did but they would have watched the crowds. They would have seen what the crowds did in response. The crowds, we’re told, were believing, many of them anyway. As the leaders heard Jesus’ teaching and saw His miracles, the question comes, what did they think of what they saw? It’s probably a safe assumption many of these leaders were scoffing and even angry by what they saw, threatened by the prospect of someone new coming on the scene with such power. But not all of them reacted in that way, as we are going to discover from Nicodemus.
First, we hear he is a Pharisee. A Pharisee is one of the religious leaders of Israel, specifically, Pharisee means rabbi (or teacher). The one who had the responsibility to teach the scriptures in Israel. Secondly, at the end of chapter 3 verse 1, we’re told he is a ruler of the Jews. That is not a synonym for Pharisee. This would indicate that he was not only a Pharisee but also a member of the Sanhedrin, ruling council over Israel. The Sanhedrin was made up of 70 Jewish men. In fact, in later chapters of John’s Gospel, he gets mentioned twice more using his position on the council to come to Jesus’ defense as a member of the Sanhedrin. manner of salvation
Knowing a little about Pharisaical teaching and what they did and thought is very helpful in understanding what takes place in the rest of this chapter. First, Pharisees taught that every Jew was assured a place in the coming Kingdom merely on the basis of their Jewishness. When I say kingdom you have to hear that as a synonym for what we today, say as heaven. Entering the kingdom was their way of understanding the afterlife of being saved. So the Pharisee taught you will be saved because you are a Jew. For no other reason or no other requirement. Simply by virtual of being an obedient child of Abraham, a Jew could be sure they would be included in the Kingdom. In fact, the Pharisees taught this very interesting perspective that Abraham himself sits guarding the gates of Hell to intercept and save any Jew consigned to that place. He turns them around at the gate and sends them back to heaven.
You can see that thinking reflected in numerous places of the New Testament.
Matthew 3:7-9 (NKJV)
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, 9 and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
John the Baptist is criticizing the Pharisees for thinking they’re safe to get to heaven just because they have their father Abraham. And you have to love the way he opened that, who warned you about the wrath to come. In other words, he is implying they are subject to wrath and to hell. And that’s why they’ve come to him.
Romans 2:28-29 (NKJV)
28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; 29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.
Paul is attacking that same mentality. Some Jews thought they had nothing to worry about concerning their salvation because they were Jew. That all Jews get in automatically because they were Jewish. That’s not how it works.
Secondly, Pharisees were the conservative, law-abiding, political party in Israel. Their chief rivals for power were the Sadducees, which was the liberal political party of Israel. As it happened, in the time Jesus came, the Sadducees were the political party in power at the time, holding the majority of the seats on the Sanhedrin. Because they were the majority party, the Sadducees were responsible for the Temple and the operations on the temple mount. So the temple was the source of the Sadducee’s power, influence, and wealth (income) in Jewish society.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, had no ruling or financial interest in the temple, so they had to rely on a different base of power for their support. They obtain power over the people through their theology and their teaching authority. Their power over the people came from teaching a really strict form of adherence to the Law as a means of maintaining citizenship as a Jew in Israel. They were known experts in the Law. And from their teaching, they stressed that in order for a Jew to enter the Kingdom, they had to be a Jew in good standing with the Law. If a Jew didn’t keep the works of the Law according to the Pharisees’ teaching and standards, the people were at risk of
forfeiting their Jewish identity. In other words, on that day when they approached the gates of Hell, Abraham wouldn’t save them because they had lost their right to
be called a Jew, in that sense.
It was a works-based theology, and it ensured that the common Jew if they were eager to enter Heaven, would give heed to the Pharisees’ teaching and pay homage to them and be one of their disciples. To solidify their authority over the people, Pharisees made a point of modeling this super scrupulous obedience to the Law in a very public way. They went to ridiculous lengths to abide by the Law and to make that a public display to show their piety at all times to the world. You see examples of this in Scripture. Jesus comments on it at times.
Matthew 6:5-6 (NKJV)
The Model Prayer
5 “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
Their purpose in all these public displays was to create the impression among the people that satisfying God’s demands was nearly impossible for the common Jew. That the effort required to secure the Kingdom was enormous and therefore, few beyond the Pharisees themselves were going to have the capability of making the grade. As Jesus said in Matthew:
Matthew 5:20 (NKJV)
20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
That’s how Pharisees gained their power over the people: they portrayed themselves to the people as those with the keys to the kingdom, the keys to heaven, for the ordinary, hapless, helpless Jew. If you wanted to get into heaven you would have to come through them. You would have to understand what those requirements were, keep those requirements, satisfy those requirements and then maybe they would put in a good word for you also. The average Jew would have seen the difficulty of following in the Pharisees’ footsteps, and would have said themselves, ‘I can’t even compare myself to the Pharisee, how am I going to get into heaven?‘ At which point they will come to the rabbi, to the Pharisee and they would seek a solution to how am I going to enter the kingdom? And at that point the Pharisee had him. At that point, the Pharisee would offer new burdens, new rules, or new requirements for the Jew to now adopt in return for an increased potential to be judged worthy for the Kingdom. Naturally, the appreciative Jew was expected to reward the Pharisee for their counsel and spiritual wisdom. They made their money through those interactions. In fact, it got to the point that money was a way of buying access into the kingdom. For if you were donating enough money for the needs of the Pharisees, then the Pharisees could say that was a righteous work that could escort you into the kingdom. This is a scam as old as religion itself, and the Pharisee played the game as well as anyone ever has. By exhibiting themselves as guardians to the gates of Heaven, the Pharisees gained both the praises and wealth of men.
Consider some of what Jesus says about the Pharisees:
Luke 16:14-15 (NKJV)
The Law, the Prophets, and the Kingdom
14 Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided (turned up their noses at) Him. 15 And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.
Matthew 23:1-7 (NKJV)
Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees
23 Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. 4 For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. 5 But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. 6 They love the best places (place of honor) at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, 7 greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’
These are men who are all about feeding their flesh. It should be obvious they were not believers in the way we use the term. They are not ones who knew the living God by faith. They were unbelievers, they were wolves in sheep’s clothing. So with that background, let’s look at the conversation that now emerges between Christ and this Pharisee.
NEXT: Nicodemus meets with Jesus
“The author’s biblical interpretations and conclusions presented in this document rely on original teaching used by permission of Verse By Verse Ministry International (VBVMI). The author’s views may not represent the views of VBVMI, it’s Directors or staff. Original VBVMI teaching may be found at http://www.vbvmi.org.”
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