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Encounters in John's Gospel

Ansord Hewitt

The Meeting with Nicodemus

The third chapter of the Gospel of John provides us with the well-known account of the encounter between Nicodemus and the Lord Jesus. The passage opens with an indication of the pedigree of Nicodemus. Firstly, he is presented as a man of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a strict religious sect, which represented the elite of Judaism. Schooled in the teachings of Moses and all the traditions of the Fathers, they insisted on rigid adherence to the law. But elsewhere in the gospels, the Lord Jesus characterised them as hypocrites who strained at a gnat and swallowed a camel.

Secondly, Nicodemus is presented as a ruler. This means he was clearly a man of some status, exercising authority over his peers and no doubt enjoying their respect and adulation. Thirdly, from what is known elsewhere about the Pharisees, we can conclude that Nicodemus was well educated. Leaders among this group were exposed to the best teachers of the day as is evident from the example of Saul of Tarsus who was brought up at the feet of Gamaliel.

Nicodemus was a man who had a lot going for him. He enjoyed a high station in life, he was well respected by his peers, was a man of undoubted means and, in his own eyes lived a moral life. What then, we may ask was such a man doing seeking out the Lord Jesus surreptitiously at night? His opening comments to the Lord give a clear answer. As we have it in the second verse of the chapter, he addressed the Lord as a great teacher and as one who had God with him. In Nicodemus' greeting the Lord, we have the picture of one teacher simply seeking out another who he perceives to be greater than himself in order to learn more. As a Pharisee who had diligently sought to follow the letter of the law, Nicodemus perhaps still found there was something lacking in his life compared with the Lord Jesus. He probably concluded that all he needed to do was to learn more about the teachings of the master. It is likely at best then that he expected to receive a theological discourse on the finer points of the law or in explanation of some obscure traditions of the Fathers.

Whatever the answer Nicodemus anticipated, he was obviously ill prepared for the Lord's response. He emphatically declared that, 'unless a man is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.' Nicodemus' response to this was understandable. His mind immediately turned to natural birth and he asked with incredulity, how a man can enter his mother's womb a second time to be born? His response was a confirmation of exactly what the Lord was saying to him. Spiritual things cannot be understood or enjoyed by natural means. As the Lord made clear, 'that which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.' There is a chasm between the natural and the spiritual man and one cannot evolve into the other. natural birth:

  • places each individual in the line of sinful Adam, a tainted line; spiritual birth places him in the generation of Jesus Christ, a righteous line.
  • makes a man captive to his sinful desires; spiritual birth liberates him to follow those things that are pleasing to God.
  • destines man for eternal damnation; spiritual birth gives him eternal life.
  • fits a man for hell; spiritual birth fits him for heaven.

The essence of the Lord's words to Nicodemus is that man born in sin and shaped in iniquity is unfit for the kingdom of God. In that state he can neither perceive nor enter into that which is spiritual. To make this possible, he must undergo new birth; he must become part of a new generation, the generation of Jesus Christ. To Nicodemus who had lived all his life as a pious Pharisee, the Lord's words must have been quite a shock. They meant that contrary to what he had always believed, the pious life he had lived up to that point could not save him. Instead, the Lord told him he needed a new origin. Thus, even this man who represented the highest moral and religious order of the Jews found that he was unfit to inherit the kingdom of God. To his puzzled question the Lord goes on to explain that new birth is a sovereign work of Divine Persons. It is the Spirit of God who takes the word of God, brings conviction to the heart of the sinner, and thereby brings about new birth. And yet, as the Lord's words to Nicodemus indicate, he as a teacher in Israel should not have been ignorant of the concept of new birth. A careful reading of such Old Testament scriptures as Ezekiel 36 would have indicated that Israel as a nation is expected to experience new birth in a coming day.

The Lord then establishes the basis for new birth. In verse 14 we are told, 'As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up'. This analogy goes back to the experience of the children of Israel when they murmured against the Lord in the wilderness and as a result were bitten by fiery serpents. After the people cried to the Lord, Moses was instructed to make a serpent of brass and place it on a pole in the midst of the camp. An Israelite bitten by a serpent could look upon the serpent on the pole and would live. By using this analogy, the Lord points to the fact that he would be lifted up on the cross and that those who trust in his work would find eternal life. It is striking to note in passing, an expression the Lord employs in this verse. It is the second of four 'musts' we find in this chapter. The first relates to man's requirement for new birth, the second to the Son of man being lifted up. The second 'must', is the basis for the first. Later in the chapter, the Baptist proclaims 'he must increase and I must decrease'.

In verse 16, that well known verse, we get even more clearly how salvation reaches man. 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.' Here we might say we have presented:

  • the scope;
  • the depth; and
  • the effect of divine love.

It is a love, which is universal in its reach. It encompasses man everywhere and in every sphere. To Nicodemus, who was used to thinking God dealt only with the Jews, this was a surprise but the Lord would have him to know that the love of God is all embracing. Note however, that although this love is universal it is also deeply personal and applies individually to each soul. Hence, it is 'whosoever believeth'.

The action of love is the giving of him who is the only begotten, the one near and dear to the Father's heart. There can be no greater expression of the depth of God's love for fallen humanity than the giving of Him who is most precious to His heart to die on Calvary for the remission of sins. The grand result of this exercise of love is that eternal life is secured for everyone who believes. Eternal life here is in contrast with eternal damnation, which is the destiny of man as born in the line of Adam. Then there is the emphatic and positive affirmation, 'shall not perish.' All who put their trust in the Lord Jesus as Saviour are given eternal life and can rest assured that, in keeping with the word of God, they shall not perish.

The questions for you, dear friend, are:

  • Have you believed on the Lord Jesus as your Saviour?
  • Have you become a part of the generation of Jesus Christ?
  • Do you have eternal life?

Unless you can answer 'yes' you are not part of the generation of Jesus Christ and you do not have eternal life. Verse 18 states emphatically that you stand condemned because you have not believed on the Son of God.

Ansord Hewitt

The above article is an edited transcript of a message broadcast on the Jamaican Radio programme 'Light from the Bible.'

THE Gospel of John, like the other gospels provides details of a number of remarkable encounters between the Lord Jesus as man upon the earth and various individuals. These encounters are particularly striking in the way in which they bring to the fore, the moral beauties of the man from heaven, the graciousness he displayed in dealing with the individual and the wisdom that he brought to bear on each situation.

It is perhaps fitting to begin our discussion of these encounters with that between Himself and John the Baptist as recorded in chapter 1 (vv. 26-36). Those familiar with the account of John the Baptist's life will readily recall that he was sent to be a herald of the Lord's coming. Among his most distinctive characteristics was the fact that he was fearless, showed no respect of persons and did not mince his words.

His ministry was characterised by the same blunt and direct approach that marked that of his Old Testament counterpart, Efijah. Just listen to him castigating the religious leaders of his times as a generation of vipers, and exhorting the soldiers to refrain from violence and to be content with their wages. Nor was he intimidated by the high office of King Herod. He outspokenly denounced his immorality in having his brother's wife. This was an outspokenness that was later to cost him his head.

In short, John the Baptist was a fearless servant of God who spoke the truth without fear or favour. If there was any uncertainty as to his greatness, the Lord Jesus Himself placed the matter beyond doubt when He declared that among those born of women, there was not a greater prophet than John the Baptist (Luke 7:26). This is the kind of man that we have in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, bearing witness to the Lord Jesus. We may say that in his pronouncements John emphasises three things concerning the Lord Jesus:

  • His Supremacy;
  • His Work;
  • His Person.

His Supremacy

With regard to His supremacy, John spoke of Him as the One who coming before him is preferred before him. Great servant of God though he was, John gladly took second place to the Lord Jesus. In his own words, he did not consider himself worthy to loose the shoe latch of the Lord. Indeed, at the end of the chapter John declared concerning the Him, 'He must increase but I must decrease.' This testimony reflects his keen appreciation of the greatness of the One for whom he was forerunner.

Significantly, his declaration is also very much in keeping with the theme of this Gospel, which sets the Lord Jesus forth as the Son of God. He is the One who is Supreme in the Father's affections, and the One whom He desires all men to honour. Fittingly, in responding to the question as to whether he was the Christ, John simply declared that he was but a voice. It was John's desire that the Lord Jesus would be given His rightful place, and this should be no less ours.

His Work

Verse 29 brings us to the second thing John sets before us in his encounter with the Lord Jesus: His work. We are told that it was the next day and seeing the Lord Jesus as He walked, John declared to his audience, 'Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world'.[1]

Ever since the Garden of Eden, sin stood as an affront to a holy God. A righteous God could not simply gloss over its presence. Sin had to be removed and its horrible consequence met. This task could only be carried out by a clean man, a man who had not himself been touched by sin. Alas, no such man existed in the line of Adam, for all the descendants of Adam were under the same condemnation of sin. Paul declares in the Epistle to the Romans, 'All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.' Until the Lord Jesus appeared, sin remained an affront to God and a bane to the entire human race.

On this particular day, however, it came home clearly to John that here was the One who in Himself was the solution to the intractable problem of sin. For the first time there stood a man upon the earth who was untouched by sin and as a consequence[2], was suitable to remove sin. John perceived that though He seemed just one of the multitude, He was no ordinary man. 2 He was, the Word become flesh, the Man from heaven, the One who had no sin, did no sin and in whom sin was not was not only the hope of the Jewish people, but was also the hope of the whole world.

Imagine John's joy and the exultation that must have been ringing out in his voice as he confidently declared the Lord Jesus to be the Lamb of God. Here indeed was God's answer to sin; the glorious fulfilment of all the Old Testament types. Recall for a moment Abraham's assurance to his son Isaac, 'My son, God will provide for himself a lamb'. Or, consider the offering of the Passover Lamb as the Israelite anticipated the judgment that would pass over Egypt and God's promise, 'when I see the blood I will pass over you.

Would not his audience call to mind as well, the offerings of many lambs in the Old Testament, none of which could deal permanently with the sin problem. But here John spoke not just about the covering over of sin for a year but the taking away of sin. In this he was speaking of what the Lord Jesus would accomplish as He offered Himself as the sin bearer at Calvary. There He provided a righteous basis for the removal of sin, and each individual who now accepts Him as saviour can have his or her sins forgiven once and for all. Those who hear the gospel and refuse to heed its invitation are essentially rejecting God's answer to the sin question outside this, but there is no other answer, apart from judgment and eternal damnation.

His Person

Having set before his audience the supremacy of Christ and the efficacy of His work, John seeing Jesus on the third day, sought to focus their attention on His person. In verses 35 and 36 we are told that on the third day looking upon Jesus as he walked, John declared, 'Behold the Lamb of God.'

At first glance this may appear to be simply a repetition of the statement made the previous day, but note that on this occasion he does not add the part about taking away the sin of the world. The response of John's disciples is also instructive in this regard. Having heard John, they turned and followed the Lord Jesus.

Here it is not so much the Lord's work that is in view but rather His beauty and His moral perfection. In the Old Testament the lamb to be offered as a sacrifice had to be without spot and blemish. This means there was neither fault on the outside or on the inside. In this it aptly prefigured the perfection of the Lord Jesus.

The exhortation here then, is to be occupied with this beloved person. In the expression 'the Lamb of God,' we also get something of the joy and delight that God finds in the Lord Jesus as man upon the earth. So John sets before his audience for their admiration and enjoyment the joy of the Father's heart, the Son of His love, the one upon whom He is able to set His eyes on with delight in a scene where all else was so displeasing. Is it any wonder then that in the face of this glorious revelation, two of John's disciples were instantly attracted to follow the Lord Jesus?

Oh, that it may be the prayer of our hearts that like John we may have an appreciation of the supremacy of the Christ, the efficacy of His work and the moral worth of His person. If this is the case, we will wax bold to speak of Him as John did, and seek to follow Him as His disciples did.

Ansord Hewitt


The above article is a transcript of a message broadcast on the Jamaican Radio programme 'Light from the Bible.'


[1] This refers ultimately to the eternal state, not simply present forgiveness. It is a characteristic statement that includes His actions in regard to dealing with sin.


[2] 'For atonement to be accomplished, not only was a sinless man needed, but it had to be made by One who was God Himself - see Hebrews 1:3. (eds.)