John 1:9-10, 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He (Jesus) was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.
“Advent” is a Latin word which speaks to Christ’s coming into the world. For the believer, it is a time of preparation for Christmas. During this Advent season, many of us travel to places where we can see the lights of the season. Perhaps it is the cold and the dark that give us the desire to search out the lights. We look for light in the midst of winter’s pervasive darkness. There is a certain invitation that is issued with the appearing of light.
The early believers spent more time reflecting on the death and resurrection of Jesus than they did His birth. People could put a date on those events because they were tied to the Passover and the Passover dates could be easily calculated using a lunar calendar. As time passed, believers desired to not only remember and reflect on Jesus’ death and resurrection, but they wanted to observe His entrance into the world as well. We all love a good birthday party, right? Remembering Jesus’ Birthday is a way to remember that God became flesh and lived an earthly life, just as we do. We call this reality the Incarnation. Jesus became flesh. Jesus, the Light of the World, the true light, as John called Him, came into the world to dispel the darkness.
The date that was chosen to observe Jesus’ birthday was tied to the winter solstice which occurred on December 25th in the northern hemisphere (according to the Julian calendar). We now use the Gregorian calendar, and the winter solstice usually happens on December 21, but the date for Jesus’ birthday celebration was chosen to coincide with the winter solstice. Why? Some say that doing say was a way to replace pagan festivals that were happening during the winter solstice. As the Roman Empire was Christianized, pagan events that had previously become widely accepted needed to be replaced. Probably, however, the most logical reason is that the winter solstice becomes a turning point regarding the amount of daylight present. Light recedes leading up to the winter solstice, but from the winter solstice on, daylight increases. There is a sense that light conquers darkness, that light pushes back the long night. What a fitting time to observe the birthday of the Light of the World, the True Light that gives life to all people.
In Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 we have a description of how things were at the beginning of time. Verse one tells us about an action from God. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Verse 2 continues, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
Formless. Empty. Dark. Those don’t sound like positive or preferred descriptors to me. Those aren’t favorable conditions. God had created and heavens and the earth, but He wasn’t finished. Darkness wasn’t meant to set the stage for God’s creation. We move from the action of God, when He created the heavens and earth, to the first recorded words of God in verse 3. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. The earth would not remain formless and empty. Light had come. Even those first recorded words of God signal a turning point in Creation.
Jesus’ entrance into the world also signaled a turning point, a shift in the way people related to God. John tells us, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1:5 The light of Jesus is a victorious light in any situation. It is greater than the darkness. John 1:4, In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. Life with Jesus, the Light the World, becomes a life that overcomes any darkness. What a turning point in history!
John 1 begins much like Genesis 1, with an emphasis on the light. John called Jesus the “True Light,” in John 1:9. As the “true light” Jesus stands in contrast to the false lights could never illuminate a soul, could never transform a heart, could never change a life. Sadly, we read that the world did not recognize Him. There were spiritual blinders on people’s hearts, religious and social barriers that kept people from accepting Jesus’ work in their lives. The desire for earthly power or pleasure kept many from even considering that Heaven had come to earth. Oh, many did follow Jesus and received His light, but many remained in darkness. Probably most shocking to me is that the religious leaders, the ones educated in the Scriptures, those who knew the prophecies about the Messiah’s coming, many of them failed to recognize Jesus as the Messiah was when He came. There was one, however, one who saw the light in Jesus and wanted to know more.
Even though it was early in Jesus’ ministry, Nicodemus had heard and seen enough from Jesus to know He was no ordinary teacher. Nicodemus was at the top of his game. He was the most respected Bible teacher of his day. He had heard Jesus say things that caused him to question things he thought he knew for sure, things he would have staked his life on, things he had taught to other people with great conviction.
Going to Jesus to investigate His teachings required great humility and vulnerability from this renowned teacher. It was risky for Nicodemus, a Pharisee, to be seen with Jesus, as Jesus had begun to teach in ways that challenged the authority of the religious leaders of the day. They had already been talking together about Jesus and their conversation wasn’t favorable. The Pharisees were suspicious. They were threatened by Him. He wasn’t someone they welcomed into their conversations and company. He was “a problem.” They wanted Him gone. Yet Nicodemus couldn’t let his curiosity go unexplored, and so, to avoid controversy, he went to see Jesus under the cover of night.
3 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
“WE know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” At this point, it is still an “us versus Him” scenario. Nicodemus clearly identified with the teachings of the Pharisees, yet instead of throwing darts at anything Jesus had taught, he started with the obvious. Jesus could do things he and his religious colleagues could not do. Nicodemus couldn’t work that out logically. If Jesus’ teaching was false, how were people getting healed? People’s lives changed as they encountered Jesus. That never happened when the Pharisees held a religious meeting. There was also a change in the status quo. That’s what light does; it creates a turning, a change in whatever darkness has taken hold of someone.
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
Jesus’ explanation for His miraculous power was sort of veiled in a response that was meant to take the conversation where Jesus wanted it to go. Jesus knew Nicodemus was seeking truth, and He wasn’t going to waste any time. He illuminated the reason for the miracles. The reason was that the Kingdom of God, the rule and reign of God, was present in Jesus Himself. He basically pointed out Nicodemus spiritual blindness. He was saying, “Nicodemus, you won’t understand what you need to understand about Me and your spiritual questions won’t be settled until you are born again.”
Being born again was a brand-new concept. Nicodemus’s birth as a Jew and his pursuit of the knowledge of the Jewish Law, gave him the religious pedigree he believed would get him into Heaven. The righteousness he had been striving for all his life was now in question. There was an experience, Jesus said, that Nicodemus needed to have in order to SEE the Kingdom of God. It made no sense, but light was about to dawn on Nicodemus.
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’
Can you imagine the puzzled look on Nicodemus’ face when he begins to process that his birth as a Jew and his pursuit of Phariseeism wasn’t enough for salvation? His natural birth, his natural efforts weren’t going to get him into the Kingdom of God. He had placed every confidence in his upbringing, in his own efforts to strive for righteousness, and Jesus told him that it wasn’t enough.
Jesus continued, “8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
The saving work of God by His Spirit was compared to the wind. You can see the effects of the wind, but you can’t see the wind itself. Also, you can’t control the wind. The wind is going to do what the wind will do. While in the Dominican Republic this week, we saw some of the impact of the wind from the most recent Hurricane. When the wind blows, you don’t escape its effects. If you are outside in Hurricane winds, you get blown wherever the wind blows. You don’t control or manage its work. You don’t decide how much the wind can impact you. The same is true of the Spirit of God, but in a positive way. There is an impact on you when the Holy Spirit invades your life, and the effects will be evident. You begin to be moved by the Spirit of God and that internal “wind” will produce a change that people can see. Jesus told Nicodemus that just like the wind that could not be seen but could be experienced, being born again was just the same.
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?
Nicodemus had studied his entire life to be enlightened, to know truth and to teach it to others and yet he was still in the dark about salvation. The teacher was being schooled, but Nicodemus didn’t shut Jesus down. He didn’t walk out and slam the door. He didn’t call Jesus a heretic. He continued asking questions. He continued moving toward the light.
Skip to verse 16: 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
The Pharisees weren’t short on judgment and condemnation. Not upholding the religious law came with stiff penalties, and the Pharisees made sure to keep an eye on everyone and were ready to pounce on them when they failed to keep some part of the religious law. Jesus explained that condemnation came not through missing some part of the law but came through not believing in Jesus as God’s one and only son. Friends, if you miss Jesus, you have missed it all. There is no light and no life without Him.
19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.
Jesus spelled out to Nicodemus that people’s response to the light of His coming was an indicator of their true moral and spiritual condition.
In doing so, Jesus told Nicodemus the following:
it’s possible to be religious and not be a Christian. It’s Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and not observance to a religious Law that enables people to experience God’s love.
Nicodemus had some thinking to do. He had to process all he had just heard. Because Nicodemus hadn’t kept Jesus at arm’s length, because he wasn’t satisfied just to participate in the speculation and the scuttlebutt of the other religious leaders, because he risked investigating for himself and not just taking the “word on the street” about Jesus, he had moved toward the light and had received light personally from Jesus. You can’t unsee the light. What would he do with the light he had just experienced?
The next time Nicodemus shows up is in John 7. Not only was he a Pharisee, but he was a member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin functioned as the “lower courts.” During the Roman occupation, the Jewish nation was given the opportunity for limited self-rule, and the Sanhedrin became the final court of appeals for matters pertaining to Jewish law and religion. Ultimately, it was the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus, but they had to hand Jesus over to Pilate to gain Rome’s approval.
Some Pharisees called for Jesus’ arrest, but those tasked to make the arrest were unable to bring themselves to do it. Look at John 7:45-52. 45 Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?” 46 “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards replied. 47 “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. 48 “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49 No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51 “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” 52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”
Nicodemus had gone from questioning Jesus to speaking up on His behalf. The rest of the Pharisees weren’t interested in hearing Jesus out. They had already made their minds up about Jesus. They said there was no way Jesus could be a prophet, let alone the Son of God. In their minds, they were the authority on all things that had to do with God. They weren’t going to listen anyone who would tell them differently.
Nicodemus challenged the Pharisees to hear Jesus out because, well, he had done so. Like the guards who couldn’t bring themselves to arrest Jesus, he, too, had never heard anyone speak the way Jesus did. In that meet-up after dark, Nicodemus had gone to learn about Jesus, but he wound up learning about himself. He had a spiritual need that couldn’t be met by adhering to the religious law. Nicodemus had gone to Jesus to gain information, but Jesus offered him transformation. You always get more than you expect with Jesus.
The last we read about Nicodemus reveals not a cowardly Nicodemus, not simply a cautious Nicodemus who suggests that the Pharisees consult the Law and give Jesus a fair hearing, but a committed Nicodemus that is fully convinced by Jesus, the Light of the World. Nicodemus went from being drawn to the Light to devoted to the Light.
John 19:38-42 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. 39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.[e] 40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.
He brought a huge amount of spices. This was a costly burial. It was a burial with honors. And as Nicodemus applied the spices to Jesus body and began to wind the burial sheets around Him, what do you think was in His mind? I’m guessing it was this: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Nicodemus had received the light and the life of Jesus. There isn’t another explanation for the fact that this prominent Pharisee would willingly be seen with the crucified Jesus. He had gone from inquiring of Jesus at night, alone, to honoring Him for all to see. At a time when the 12 disciples, one of which had promised to be faithful to the end, when those disciples were nowhere to be seen, there stood Nicodemus. I’m sure, in that moment, Nicodemus had more questions than answers, but this I know, he had changed by an encounter with the Light of the World. He had experienced a turning, a moving from darkness to light.
Is there any darkness in your life today? Are you struggling to experience God? Are you unsure about how Jesus fits into your faith journey or how He impacts the facets of your earthly life? Are you willing to bring your questions to Him? Are you willing to listen to His answers? This Advent season let’s get closer to the Light. Give Jesus an opportunity to answer your questions. Give Him your attention and watch for Him to illuminate the truth in your darkness. Maybe this Advent-Christmas Season can be the turning point in your life where you truly move from darkness into His marvelous light.