The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #34: Why did John 3:16 matter to Nicodemus?

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. John 3:16

I always feel like Nicodemus gets lost to us somewhere along the way. This iconic verse is so powerful that we tend to forget that Jesus was in a teaching mode, challenging Nicodemus’ thinking about what God was up to in sending Jesus, and also about the state of his own soul.

Nicodemus is an unusual person in the galaxy of individuals who crossed paths with Jesus. Influential, a teacher of Israel, he is mentioned in the Jewish Talmud as a wealthy and popular holy man reputed to have had miraculous powers. He had demonstrated through seeking Jesus out that he was looking for the elusive answer to his deepest question. In spite of the immense knowledge of the Scriptures he had evidently gained as a Pharisee, he was discontented. What would it take to meet God’s expectations for a holy life? How did one undo life’s mistakes already accumulated? When, so to speak, did one become all he or she was meant to be?

Nicodemus represents a lot of people in every age. They have so much going for them. They are accomplished, wealthy, smart. They sacrifice for the good of mankind. They are continually developing their minds and expanding their influence for good. A way of describing these amazing people is that they have achieved the fifth stage of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These start with the physiological needs, followed by safety, love/belonging, and esteem. Maslow believed that when a person has these unfulfilled needs met, he or she is open to growing into self-actualization. The sky is the limit to what such a person can achieve and do.

Except, of course, in satisfying the ‘Why’. Why am I here? Why, if I have done so much good, am I not whole? Why am I still seeking answers and where do I get them? No matter how good you are, you never escape these internal questions.

The impact of Jesus’ words in John 3:16 on its first audience—Nicodemus—showed him that he had come as far as he could by his own efforts and was still disquieted that it was not enough. Nicodemus simply could not make himself whole. His achievements paled in comparison to what he wanted for himself.

Jesus invites him to take a risk. He says that whoever believes in the only (one-of-a-kind) Son would have the kind of life he was looking for—and have it forever! If he did not believe, Jesus went on to say, he was already condemned. Here is a risky undertaking. Under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus had come to see this prophet, looking for answers. And what does he get? “I am the answer. Believe in me.”

Nicodemus must have been quite taken aback by the direction of this conversation. He was looking for answers, not a leader. But Jesus was laying out the heart of the gospel of the kingdom. Your options are to continue as you always have, to the admiration and adulation of the nation. Or you could humble yourself and get what you truly desire, a transforming life by faith in the Sent One.

We cannot be sure of the outcome of this encounter. Yes, Nicodemus later speaks up for Jesus and contributes the customary embalming spices while assisting Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body of Jesus for burial. But faith in Jesus against all he had achieved? We have no way to know if he ended well.

Paul’s life demonstrates a better outcome to Jesus’ gospel. Like Nicodemus, he had been a Pharisee, zealous for the law and faultless in how he lived it out. But after encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus, he came to regard that all he had achieved was a loss compared to knowing Jesus as his Lord. In fact, he saw his life attainments as equivalent to barnyard muck, “in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” (Philippians 3:8-9)

Frankly, it is when we arrive at self-actualization that God invites us to die to self; to take up a cross and follow Jesus. It is when we are on this kind of faith journey that we are transformed into what we were created to be. No achievement ever brings as much soul satisfaction as the Good News.

-Steve Smith